In our third installment for our build-up to the September 28, 2019 symposium Before They Were Americans, today we are highlighting Phill Greenwalt. Greenwalt is co-founder of Emerging Revolutionary War and also a full-time contributor to Emerging Civil War. He graduated from Wheeling Jesuit University with a B.A. in History and graduated from George Mason University with a M.A. in American History. For the symposium, Phill Greenwalt will be presenting his talk “I wish this cursed place was burned: Boston and the Road to Revolution.”
What do you believe was a significant event in the American Revolution era that not many Americans may know about or recognize?
Although I believe the theme of this symposium is very important, determining how thirteen colonies moved toward independence, I won’t cherry pick, so I will go with another event. The Battle of Germantown, fought on October 4, 1777 outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Overshadowed by the American victory at Saratoga, culminating three days later, Germantown was a momentous defeat that had positive reverberations across the Atlantic with the soon-to-be ally of the Americans; the French.
To put it into perspective, General George Washington and the main Continental Army had been defeated at Brandywine on September 11 and subsequently lost the capital, Philadelphia when British forces entered that city on September 26. Two huge reverses that had the potential to deflate moral and erode the capabilities of military effectiveness.
Germantown proved the exact opposite. Not only was Washington able to devise a complicated battle plan that the army almost carried out, the rank-and-file fought stubbornly for victory. Luck, which can be more important than skill on a battlefield, went against the American forces during the confusion of battle and the hold-up at Cliveden, an impressive stone structure that British soldiers used as a fortification. Yet, in the end, just being able to assume the offensive again was a credit to the management of Washington and the prowess of his forces.
That is what the French foreign ministry saw as well. That there was still fight left in the Continental army, that George Washington still had the backing of the army, and was still a threat in the field. Couple that with the victory at Saratoga and the French were persuaded that the rebellious British North American colonies had a chance to win the war. A formal treaty was the next step.
Although Germantown Battlefield has been largely swallowed up by the growth of Philadelphia and suburbs, this action, in October 1777, was one of the pivotal points that is largely overshadowed by Saratoga but is nonetheless still very significant.
What first attracted you to the study of early American history? What keeps you involved in the study of this history? Do you find these things are the same or different?
My father; when I was a young tike took me to my first battlefield and that is where the interest started. My mother also shepherded that interest with tales of our family history. When I did my graduate degree work I became interested in the question, what motivated the common soldier to fight for the Continental army? We are quick to label it as patriotism or glory, but did that keep the soldier in the field that was starving, half-naked, through the trials of combat, and facing the most powerful empire in the world at that time? I waned to dig deeper and understand their world and see if there were any parallels to today’s world in general and me specifically.
Since that first visit to a battlefield and seeing the soldiers go through different military demonstrations I have had a fascination on who they were and the world the lived in, so I guess I am still very much that kid at heart, fascinated with the soldiers that I was when I was on my father’s shoulders thirty years ago.
That’s what keeps me interested and involved in the study of history.
Do you believe the impact of the American Revolution is visible on our current society? In what ways?
Yes, I do. For starters, the United States Constitution and how that has been interpreted, amended, and debated. If one gets on social media, there is usually a mention of the Second Amendment or what does the First Amendment cover and not. I still find it amazing that a document the framers hoped would be relevant for government for 20 years, through only 27 (really 26 amendments) is still relevant today. Is it perfect? No. But, is it effective? Yes. Are there further amendments needed? Probably. That is one impact of the American Revolutionary era.
Another impact is the current debate on how to commemorate the personas from that era. In general, there is a tendency to think history can be placed in a set of parameters that has a defined beginning, middle, and conclusion. Then on to the next aspect of American history. But, like our lives and issues today, that era was messy and undefined. Were any of the Founding Fathers perfect? Not by a long stretch. What they were able to accomplish was truly remarkable and that we can debate, argue and agree is a product of the success of the American Revolution and the monumental events that era ushered; War of 1812, Civil War, Reconstruction, Civil Rights, etc.
How has your study of early Amercian history impacted how you perceive our current nation and its relations with other countries? Would you say this impact is beneficial or hindersome?
There is saying, “those who do not understand history are doomed to make the same mistakes.” The second part of that quote is “those who do, are doomed to stand by and watch the same mistakes.” Although that second part is more tongue-in-cheek. What I find through my study is that we tend to have cycles in history, where we deem something a “crisis” or a “crossroads” and then we find a way as Americans to band together and solve the “crisis” or find the right path in the “crossroads.” But, throughout American history we have had numerous “crises” and “crossroads” and what the leaders, the average person did to overcome and move the proverbial ball forward is a lesson I have learned and try to pass on whenever I have the chance to discuss history with an audience, be it online or in-person.
Furthermore, when I am giving talks or lectures on early American history, I use this line which sums up the collaborative effort that won the American Revolution. The war was one with;
“The vision of a few Massachusetts sons, the military leadership of a Virginia, the effort of American colonists, aided by Polish officers, French backing, German training, Dutch money, and volunteers from all strata of American and European society.”
So, American is connected to the world from the very beginning. Although for political reasons we follow a policy of isolationism, the various ethnic groups that claimed a spot in our country, our role (and just stating this) in the Caribbean and Latin America with the Monroe Doctrine, has further connected us, in a way, to the world.
In the end, I think the beginning of an independent United States helped usher in a wave of how people perceive they should be governed. I tend to want to be a positive person who sees the good in a situation, so I will leave it as that and let others depict whether the early American period was beneficial or hindersome.
With any violent conflict, there are opposing sides. How important do you believe the Loyalist side was to the American Revolution? Do you believe the existence of this group of colonists has been diminished through romanticization of the American Revolution?
Paraphrasing the John Adams quote, one third were in favor of the cause, one third remained loyal, and one third did not care either way. So, the Loyalist side of the American Revolution is very important to study. It was the largest migration of people in the 18th century, when thousands upon thousands left the American colonies forever when the British lost the war. Furthermore, in the southern colonies, you had the first true civil war, as neighbor fought neighbor and loyalties divided families and communities.
I do not think the romanticism has diminished the Loyalist side of the war but I think it has, until the last half-century, been less studied here in the United States. But, that is ignoring a large potion of the history of this country, as they sacrificed to stay loyal. To them what the colonists did was treasonous or dare I say was terrorism, by undermining the royal government and their ministers, secreting supplies and war material, and then terrorizing the Loyalists during the war, confiscating their properties and forcing them from their homes and homeland. To fully develop how destructive and life-altering the war was, the Loyalist prospective is indispensable to that narrative.
Do you think there are common misconceptions of the era of the American Revolution among the American people? If so, what are they and have they ever affected your work?
I think the biggest misconception that it was a foregone conclusion that the Americans would gain their independence. Or that the movement to declaring independence was straightforward. Both of these are far from the truth and mask how remarkable the final victory actually was. As this upcoming symposium will tell, the way to independence was full of fits and starts, progress and then compromise. Until the shots were fired at Lexington and Concord and to some until the Declaration of Independence, there was still a chance for a reconciliation. At least that was the wish.
Secondly, since we know how the war unfolded we sometimes minimizes the strife, hardship, and loss that the war caused. Soldiers that shivered at Valley Forge, persevered through Trenton and Princeton, fought and bled at Saratoga and Guilford, or went months without pay, scrounging for food and barely clothed, the war’s successful end was not a foregone conclusion.
The affect it has had on my work is to try and put the listener, reader, and/or student in the mindset and time frame of the period and not know what happened at the end. Understand how truly remarkable it was for thirteen different colonies to come together and form a united entity and fight for independence. Or how numerous individuals risked everything to advocate for independence when the majority were not in favor of such a radical move. Just like we don’t know how our lives or decisions we make now will turn out, neither did they. That makes sharing history so important, so we can further the discussion, understand any parallels from their timeframe and society to ours, and understand that what we take for granted, final victory in the American Revolution was not decided until Yorktown and signatures on the Treaty of Paris two years later.