2021 Symposium Highlight: Michael Harris

Over the next few months, we will be highlighting the speakers and topics for our 2021 Symposium, Hindsight is 2020: Revisiting Misconceptions of the Revolution, taking place on May 22nd. Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, the Symposium will be virtual. Today we highlight historian and author Michael Harris, who will be covering the misconceptions around the role of John Sullivan at the Battle of Brandywine.

Michael C. Harris is a graduate of the University of Mary Washington and the American Military University. He has worked for the National Park Service in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Fort Mott State Park in New Jersey, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission at Brandywine Battlefield. He has conducted tours and staff rides of many east coast battlefields. Michael is certified in secondary education and currently teaches in the Philadelphia region. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Michelle and son Nathanael.  He is the author of two books on the Philadelphia Campaign (Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777 & Germantown:  A Military History of the Battle for Philadelphia, October 4, 1777) and is currently working on a third volume to cover the final months of the campaign. He will be presenting his talk “John Sullivan and the Battle of Brandywine” at the May symposium.

Do you believe the study of Loyalists in the American Revolution has been overlooked and why?

  I think at one time that was true, but over the last couple of decades historians have been digging deeper into the role the Loyalist population played in the Revolution and I feel that pattern of neglect has been corrected.  I think Loyalists were often overlooked because historians of the “Struggling to Overcome” theme of American Revolution historiography were more focused on the patriot struggle than the complicated role the non-patriot population played.

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?

 While I always had an interest in early American history, my professional career began as a Civil War historian at Fredericksburg Battlefield.  The shift to took place when I was hired to work at Daniel Boone’s birthplace and then later the Brandywine Battlefield.  While I currently teach at the high school level, my study of history continues due to my love of wanting to tell the military story of the Revolution and striving to dispel the many myths out there about the battles of the Philadelphia region.

What is the biggest myth about the role Loyalists played in the war, and how did it come about?

While this is not my area of expertise, I would say that there is some thought that thousands of Loyalists flocked to the British standard to help put down the rebellion.  At least that is what British leadership hoped would happen.  That myth, then and now, drove British decision making.  While a limited number of Loyalists did support the British cause militarily, it was never in the numbers believed now or in the numbers the British hoped for then.

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 a lot of us were taught bad history growing up.  You know, the George Washington chopped down a cherry tree stuff.  We grew up believing those things and trusting the “traditional” histories of the Revolution.  Then, you get a job at one of these sites, and you starting digging into the primary documents yourself.  All of sudden, you realize this was a lie and that was a myth.  That is when I realized I had to write the Brandywine book and that effort continued with my Germantown book.

Why do you think it is important for us to study the Revolutionary Era? 

There was a real struggle by the patriot population during the years of the American Revolution.  There is no denying that.  But that story cannot be told in a vacuum.  That story is interwoven with the story of the British Crown to put down the rebellion and the story of the Loyalist & Neutral populations of North America.  I don’t think that interconnected story has been told well and needs to continue to be explored.

Join us for our SECOND annual Emerging Revolutionary War Symposium, co-hosted by Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, speakers and topics include:

Michael Harris on Misconceptions of Battle of Brandywine
Vanessa Smiley on Myths of the Southern Campaigns
Travis Shaw on American Loyalists
John U Rees on African American Continental Soldiers
Mark Maloy on myths of the Battle of Trenton

Our registration fee is now only $40 per person and $20 for students. This will allow us to broaden our audience with the virtual program. We hope that 2022 will allow us to come together again in Alexandria for our third annual symposium. To register, visit: https://shop.alexandriava.gov/Events.aspx

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