I’m currently reading Stacy Schiff’s new biography The Revolutionary Samuel Adams. It’s a snappy-to-read, deeply researched book—all the more challenging to write because Sam Adams made careful effort not to leave much of a paper trail about himself.
Schiff uses her introduction to sketch out this fundamental problem, and in doing so, she creates a compelling flash portrait of Adams that the rest of the book fleshes out. Adams the historiographical sphinx is well served by this portrait. Sam Adams simultaneously led from the front yet operated in the shadows, an apparent contradiction that Schiff nonetheless portrays fully and effectively.
As the book goes on, Schiff manages to pull from a deep well of primary sources, even if there’s not a mountain from Sam himself. She handles those sources adroitly and comfortably, plucking this bit from here and that bit from there the way a conductor works an orchestra.
The result is an admiring but not fawning portrait of Adams—a man without whom, said cousin John, “the true history of the American Revolution can never be written.”
Troubling to me in the text is that, in the late 1760s and early 1770s, the Adams-led Sons of Liberty often employed mob violence—real and threatened—to achieve their aims. Propaganda efforts were often tethered to reality by only thinnest of meager threads, if at all. Men were intimidated, bullied, tarred and feathered, humiliated, assaulted, and run out of town for opposing or even just disagreeing with them. Houses were ransacked. Livelihoods destroyed. Reputations ruined. I could not help but think of the Klan in the Reconstruction-era South—a comparison no-doubt tantamount to sacrilege when talking about a group of Bostonians popularly and fondly remembered as patriots.
Yet Schiff merrily skates over such rough terrain, sharing vivid details about incidents without exploring the moral morass this tension suggests. Her hero acts in decidedly less-than-heroic ways, arguing that the ends justify the means. We as readers are left to ponder this ambiguity ourselves. Such work on the reader’s part isn’t a bad thing, but it does strike me as somewhat of an abdication on the biographer’s part when the rest of the narrative is so cheerfully pro-Adams.
Overall, The Revolutionary Samuel Adams is an excellent work so far, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants a fuller understanding of how the wheels of Revolution started turning—and who started them.
“Many believed then and have believed since that privateering was a sideshow in the war” Furthermore, “privateering has long been given short shrift in general histories of the conflict, where privateers are treated as a minor theme if they are mentioned at all” [pg. xviii].
Best-selling maritime historian Erica Jay Dolin penned the two lines above in his introduction to his latest publication, Rebels at Sea, Privateering in the American Revolution. Building on previous works that covered specific aspects of “do succeed in showing how it [privateering] contributed to the American victory. But none of these books offers a comprehensive picture of the full extent of privateering” [xviii].
A bold statement to make, crafting a comprehensive picture “of the full extent of privateering” but that is exactly what Dolin does in his work. Starting with how individual colonies then states moved to outfitting vessels to begin preying on British maritime trade and on occasion Royal British Navy ships. The best tabulation of how much British maritime trade was affected during the American Revolution comes from John Bennett Jr. first secretary of Lloyd’s of London, the largest insurance marketplace at that time. He concluded that 3,386 British vessels were captured, only a 1,002 were recaptured or ransomed, which leaves a net gain of 2,384 that remained in enemy or American hands [pgs. 161-162].
The ensuing chapters after the introduction pivot the reader through the life of a privateersman, including the travails faced. He circles back to this in another chapter detailing the British response, including what imprisonment looked like; either in a British land jail or on the infamous Jersey prison ship in Wallabout Bay, New York. Keeping the narrative flowing, Doulin gives snippets on some of the greatest triumphs of American privateersman and some of the greatest tragedies to befall these sailors on the high seas. Tidbits of interesting information, for example, did you know that the future dentist of George Washington cut his teeth as a privateer? (Okay, pun intended).
Sandwiched in between is the role of the French, America’s steady ally, after 1777, and how that country and its ports helped American vessels. Lastly one of the other admirable additions to this text is the plethora of pictures Doulin was able to find and include. Having the visuals certainly enhances the public history side of this publication.
Overall, this is a great read on a lesser viewed subject of the American Revolution. However, what the privateers did enabled eventual American independence. As John Lehman, the secretary of the navy under President Ronald Reagan once wrote.
“From the beginning of the American Revolution until the end of the War of 1812, America’s real naval advantage lay in its privateers. It has been said that the battles of the American Revolution were fought on land, and independence was won at sea. For this we have the enormous success of American privateers to thank even more than the Continental Navy” [pg. xviii].
Individuals come to life in this narrative. The cat-and-mouse of life on the high seas comes to life in this book. Join Doulin in an adventure on the high seas and understand the role of privateers in securing American independence in the process. Enjoy!
I admit, I was skeptical when I saw the book on the bookshelf of my local bookstore and then again at the county library. Another biography on the Marquis de Lafayette? Was one truly needed? Four days later with the book finished and now laying beside me as I type this review I can emphatically say “yes” that this biography was needed about the most celebrated Frenchman in the history of the United States.
Having read previously a biography solely on Lafayette and another where a historian compared him as a revolutionary brother to Thomas Jefferson, I had a baseline knowledge of the marquis. Mike Duncan, popular history podcaster and New York Times-Bestselling Author provides a very readable, engaging biography that moves gracefully through Lafayette’s life, more graceful than supposedly the young Frenchman’s first dance at Versailles in front of Marie Antoinette.
After a brief but concise overview of the young Lafayettes’s formative years, Duncan dedicates the majority of the narrative of how the Frenchman became the “hero of two worlds.” From how he navigated his escape to America in 1777 to the ideals he brought back to France and his hopefulness for creating a better homeland. One of the values of Duncan’s work is his ability to find the inner workings of Lafayette’s demeanor and mindset. This is done by looking at his peers and their criticalness of how the Frenchman navigated the shifting sands of the turbulent French political scene from 1789 through the Napoleon era.
I greatly enjoyed the writing style and the blend of popular and academic historical scholarship that Duncan effortlessly moved between throughout the narrative. This work is definitely a must read for anyone looking for that introductory book about the Marquis de Lafayette. For those who have a little more foundational knowledge there may be limited new material but the primary sources from contemporaries adds a much-needed element of constructing the two worlds that Lafayette moved between.
To walk the footsteps of Lafayette at Valley Forge, join Emerging Revolutionary War in November for our Second Annual Emerging Revolutionary War Bus Tour. Click the “2022 Bus Tour” link on the black bar above to secure your ticket.
Compared to the rest of the literature on the American Revolution, the war at sea gets relatively little attention. Eric Jay Dolin has joined a small cadre of writers and historians trying to rectify that shortfall. In his latest book, Dolin takes on the privateering war, activities by privately financed vessels to wage war on British trade at the nominal behest of various states and the Continental Congress. Granting letters of marque, essentially a license to take foreign ships as prizes on the high seas, gave states a way of quickly tapping private capital to create sea power and attack an enemy on the ocean. It was an important innovation, one Britain and its colonies had used widely before the Revolution, and was often preferable to the expense of maintaining a large navy. The rebelling colonies first issues such letters, followed by Congress itself.
The status of privateers was controversial. Because the ships were privately financed, their owners and crews cashed in on prizes taken. Entire fortunes could be made at the same time the war impoverished others. For shipowners, the risks were manageable to secure such payoffs. Officers and crewmen could also expect a healthy payday from a successful cruise. Their risks, however, were substantial.
Britain, of course, did not recognize its colonies as independent states, which invalidated any letters of marque and made the privateersmen crewing the ships pirates subject to summary hanging. In practice, however, captured privateersmen were simply sent to prison, often the ship hulks floating in New York’s harbor. It could be the same as a death sentence. In America, some viewed them as a distraction from the main war effort created by greedy men lacking in public spirit.
Dolin thoroughly reviews all of these issues and comes to the conclusion that, on the whole, privateers and their crews materially hindered the British war effort while preventing coastal economies from collapsing in the face of Britain’s superior fleet and control of the seas. He backs the argument up by citing previous studies of economic losses. For example, the first Secretary of Lloyd’s of London, and dominant insurer, concluded that 3,386 British vessels were captured during the war, of which 1,002 were either recaptured or “ransomed.” (That figure includes captures made by naval vessels and America’s allies.) Dolin estimates the value of captures made by American vessels at between $1.4 and $1.6 billion today. In other words, the impact of privateering was substantial.
Dolin livens the story with narratives of ship encounters and individuals caught up in the war. Much like the privateering war itself, they are too episodic to hang together as an integrated narrative. But, he uses them effectively to underscore his broader points while helping the reader relate to the war at sea. Dozens of illustrations enrich the read.
Eric Jay Dolin is an excellent writer, straightforward with a style that keeps the book moving while thoroughly engaging the reader. Rebels at Sea is destined to become the starting place to understand the privateer war during the American Revolution.
Like a modern-day Nathanael Greene or Edward Carrington, Andrew Waters spends his days trekking the waterways of the Carolina high country. Just like those famous military leaders, Andrew Waters does the surveying of these waterways and their tributaries for his day job; as a land and water conservationist.
During this career, Waters first learned about the “Race to the Dan” the pivotal retrograde movement in 1780 that saved Greene’s army from the pursuing British force under Lord Charles Cornwallis. Having the unique perspective from his training and an interest in the history of the time period, he had the perfect combination to pen a complete history of the “Race to the Dan.” Published by Westholme Publishing in October 2020, the title, To The End of the World, Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan fills a much needed gap in the historiography of the the American Revolution in the southern theater.
This Sunday, at 7p.m. EDT, on Emerging Revolutionary War’s Facebook page, join us in an interview with Waters, discussing this book, Nathanael Greene’s leadership, and any questions you may have about this subject. Remember that favorite beverage and we look forward to you tuning as we welcome historian and author Andrew Waters to the next installment of the “Rev War Revelry.”
Don Hagist is one of our foremost American authorities on the common British soldier during the American Revolution. His latest book, Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution, is an institutional portrait of the British army that fought the American Revolution. Hagist has walked this ground before, most notably in British Soldiers, American War, which dedicated a chapter to a specific individual as a way of illustrating the experience of the common soldier. Noble Volunteers extrapolates on that, using soldier accounts, regimental paybooks, muster rolls, pension applications, and any other available material to give us an integrated picture of the entire army and how it functioned. It’s an extraordinarily valuable book.
Writing over thirty years after the fact, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee summed up the events of February 14, 1780 with the line, “Thus ended, on the night of the 14th of February, this long, arduous, and eventful retreat” (190). Upon hearing of General Nathanael Greene’s exploits in this movement, General George Washington wrote, “You may be assured that your Retreat before Lord Cornwallis is highly applauded by all Ranks and reflects much honor on your military Abilities.” (198).
What Lee would remember as “eventful” and Washington and fellow military ranks “highly applauded” is remembered today as the “Race to the Dan.” This retrograde movement, undertaken by Greene’s forces from South Carolina to the Dan River in southern Virginia, is sandwiched between the engagements at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781 and the British pyrrhic victory at Guilford Court House in March 1781. Yet, this retreat may be on the turning points in the southern theater that led the British, under Lord Charles Cornwallis to his eventual demise at Yorktown in October 1781.
Great historians, such as John Buchanan is his monumental work The Road to Guilford Court House have covered with broad strokes this period of time but a dedicated study was much needed in the historiography of the American Revolution. Insert Andrew Waters, writer, editor, and conservationist, whose name may be familiar from previous works such as The Quaker and the Gamecock: Nathanael Greene, Thomas Sumter, and the War for the Soul of the South. His latest book, To The End of the World, Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan, captures this important military movement while providing an expose on the leadership of Greene woven in. The title of the book is pulled from a quote by Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, Cornwallis’s second-in-command during this campaign. With a background in land conservation with a focus on river corridors and watersheds, Waters found a connection with Greene, who studied the various waterways—or ordered subordinates—to study the various rivers, to better understand the topography for military campaigns.
After a stint in Salisbury, North Carolina, Waters became fascinated with the Race to the Dan story and decided to plunge in to understanding this period of the American Revolution. He found that “the Race to the Dan is a remarkable tale, fit for cinema or an epic novel, and not only for its accounts of four narrow escapes across its four rivers” (xv). He was drawn “to its story” (xx) and any reader of the book is the beneficiary of that discovery.
Along with weaving in the innate leadership qualities of Greene, Waters brings to light the importance of military leaders not as well-known such as William Lee Davidson, William R. Davie, and Edward Carrington with more household names of Lee, Daniel Morgan, and Otho Holland Williams. Throw in the names of Cornwallis, O’Hara, and Banastre Tarleton, and the pantheon of American Revolutionary personas is complete.
In this approximate month-long retreat, Greene saved the American Revolution in the southern theater and set in motion the events that led to the climactic victory at Yorktown. Waters, with his 2020 publication, has now helped save the story of the Race to the Dan from its unintended lapse into obscurity.
Published: 2020 (Westholme Publishing)
264 pages, including index, footnotes, images, and maps
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness made their way into the American revolutionary project most explicitly in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. So, I hope you’ll forgive my taking of liberties in reviewing a book that starts in the Revolutionary War Era and peaks during the Madison administration. Peter Cozzens’ new book, Tecumseh and the Prophet (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020), is a dual biography of the legendary Shawnee leader and his younger brother, Tenskwatawa, aka “the Prophet,” whose mid-life inspiration reawakened nativist aspirations among the Native American nations living in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. Together, the two sought to build a pan-Indian movement to resist the growth of the young American nation into the Midwest in the country’s first decades.
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Gabe Neville.
In his first book, Anatomy of a Massacre: The Destruction of Gnadenhutten, 1782, Eric Sterner has taken on a difficult subject. Racial violence is something many writers would shy away from while others might delight in the chance to condemn the perpetrators. Mr. Sterner, laudably, does neither. Instead, he seeks to understand what happened.
It is worth noting that the first known massacre of Indians by white men in what is now the United States occurred long before the events in the book. It happened near Jamestown, Virginia in 1610 when Virginia’s governor, Thomas West, 3rd Baron de la Warr, ordered an attack on the Paspahegh Band of Powhatans. Seventy men attacked the village, killing between 65 and 75 Paspaheghs and kidnapping the village leader’s wife and children. Rowing away, the colonists decided to kill the children, “w[hi]ch was effected by Throweinge them overboard and shoteinge owtt their Braynes in the water.” Three centuries of violence ensued.
Lord de la Warr’s name appears frequently in Mr. Sterner’s story. His name was given to the Delaware River, which in turn lent its name to the Lenape people who have long been known to English speakers as the Delaware Tribe. Mr. Sterner has provided the definitive account of the worst atrocity of the Revolutionary War. In 1782 more than eighty white settlers clubbed, killed, and scalped ninety-six peaceful, Christian Indians as they prayed and sang hymns. The attack on the Moravian mission town of Gnadenhutten (Ohio) was intended as both a punitive and preemptive strike, conducted by settlers whose families and farms had been targeted by other Indians acting as proxies of the British. It is a horrific story that has defied understanding until now.
Histories of conflict between Native and European Americans have often served us poorly, reducing one or both sides to caricatures. Earlier histories, written by white men, put a finger on the scale of historical interpretation such that Indian atrocities were called “massacres” while white atrocities were called “battles” or “raids.” In the last half of the 20th century, the finger moved to the other side of the scale. Territorial expansion, the introduction of Old World diseases, missionary activity, the presumption of Manifest Destiny, and acts of violence large and small were braided together into a narrative of premeditated genocide.
These approaches reveal the eras and ideologies of their writers. More problematic is both schools tendency to gloss over of the complexity of frontier culture. The Gnadenhutten Massacre is not a cowboys-and-Indians story of “white” and “red” men exchanging bullets and arrows. It is far more complicated than that, with many of its actors desiring little more than their own survival. Though never stated, Mr. Sterner’s approach seems inspired by the axiom: “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” The original expression, appropriately enough, referred to walking “a mile in his moccasins.”
The people in Mr. Sterner’s story can certainly be categorized as “whites” and “Indians,” and for narrative purposes two of the book’s chapters align with these groupings. Still, though racism is an important element of the story, there is plenty to suggest that skin color was not the only matter at issue. The two most prominent white characters –John Heckewelder and David Zeisberger—were Moravian missionaries who lived for decades among the Indians and were wholly dedicated to their welfare. Other whites, British agents, were Indian allies. The killers at Gnadenhutten were white, but acted independently and in defiance of government authority. On the Native American side, the Delaware, Shawnee, Wyandot, and Iroquois tribes were distinct political entities with different alliances, histories, and leaders. Even within these tribes, individual bands (what the author calls “phratries”) disagreed with each other, sometimes sharply, on military and political questions. Some were allied with the British and some with the Americans. The victims at Gnadenhutten were—though Indians—also pious, hymn-singing Christians. The white perpetrators behaved in a decidedly un-Christian manner despite their heritage. History, it turns out, was just as full of contradictions as the present is.
European-American settlers could indeed be brutal, as the events at Gnadenhutten show. Indians could also be ruthless. The first known massacre perpetrated by North American Indians was committed long before Europeans arrived on the continent. The tactic later employed by American armies of destroying villages and burning crops was first used by Indians against the colonists around Jamestown in 1622. Further complexity is found in the fact that even the line between “whites” and “Indians” was sometimes blurred. The Indian victims of the Gnadenhutten Massacre were Christians who dressed and lived much as Europeans did. Conversely, Indian armies—notably at the 1774 Battle of Point Pleasant—sometimes had white warriors among them. These were typically men who had been kidnapped as children and adopted into Indian society.
Mr. Sterner takes a dispassionate, investigatory approach to his work. It is refreshingly free of grand economic or social theories. He seeks to comprehend the events as those involved comprehended them and shows little interest in passing judgment. Instead, he seeks to “walk” a mile in their shoes and moccasins. In doing so, he respectfully refers to Natives by the Indian names, uncynically takes the faith of the Moravians at face value, and justly illustrates the terrors experienced by settlers on the frontier. Each of these groups is examined in its own chapter. Then, in his fourth and final chapter, Mr. Sterner tells us what happened at Gnadenhutten. By then the reader is left struggling to reconcile his or her outrage with the realization that what happened was likely inevitable.
The chance to experience this tension between the world that was and the world that ought to have been is a gift to Mr. Sterner’s readers. Conceiving of a world as it ought to have been is easy. Understanding it as it actually was is much harder. Period accounts indicate that even the perpetrators of the massacre wrestled with this tension in real time. One of them, after executing a dozen Moravian Indians, “sat down and cried because he found in it no satisfaction for his murdered wife and children.” Another whose family had been killed by Indians sat down by the river bank and burst into tears, crying, “You know I couldn’t help it!”
Anatomy of a Massacre could have had an epilogue. Shortly after the events at Gnadenhutten, Col. William Crawford was captured and cruelly tortured to death by Delaware tribesmen as payback for the massacre. Crawford had played no part in the earlier atrocity, but men under his command had. Mr. Sterner has written about Crawford’s death for Emerging Revolutionary War and no doubt made a considered decision to let the Gnadenhutten story stand on its own.
The last “massacre” of American Indians occurred in 1911 in Nevada, when state police killed eight members of Mike Daggett’s Band of Shoshones, whom they were pursuing for horse theft and murder. This “Battle of Kelly Creek” occurred three hundred and one years after the massacre of the Paspahegh Band of Powhatans near Jamestown and closed the book on three centuries of racial violence between Native and European Americans. It is a cringe-inducing history, to be sure.
Mr. Sterner’s book suggests two lessons. First is that we should not blame atrocities so much on the perpetrators’ culture and demographics but rather on the killers themselves and on human nature. Culture matters, but people in every culture will do terrible things in terrible circumstances. Second is that we cannot substitute a cartoonish caricature of history for the nuanced reality of what really happened. The consequence of dumbed-down history is not a partial understanding but rather a false understanding. The Moravian Indians and missionaries lived in villages that were both physically and figuratively between two cultures. Though neutral, family and social ties to the war’s combatants remained and neither side could accept or understand them as a unique group. That led the Wyandots and British-allied Delaware to forcibly relocate them, and it motivated the settlers led by David Williamson to kill them.
An analogous refusal to understand the past for what it really was does a different kind of “violence” to history. Mr. Sterner’s book provides hope that historians can in fact focus on real history, avoiding the polemics and theorizing that characterizes so much academic writing. Like Glenn Williams, author of Dunmore’s War, Mr. Sterner seeks to trace the course of events and to understand the subjects of his work as they understood themselves. It’s good history.
 George Percy, “’A Trewe Relaycon:’ Virginia from 1609 to 1612,” Tyler’s Quarterly, 3 (1921-1922): 259-282, 272. “Weroance” was a title for a “sub-chief” or a village leader.
 Eric Sterner, Anatomy of a Massacre: The Destruction of Gnadenhutten, 1782 (Yardley, Pa: Westholme, 2020), 148.
In March 1781, General Charles Lord Cornwallis finally caught up with his antagonist, General Nathanael Greene and his joint Continental and militia forces in North Carolina. On March 15, 1781, the British scored a pyrrhic victory over the American forces, securing the field but losing approximately 25% of their field force in the process.
With the victory, Cornwallis was forced to retreat to the North Carolina coast, to Wilmington, where he could rest and refit. He then led his forces north and into Virginia, to his destiny at Yorktown.
Yet, the road to Guilford Court House, for both sides, started in South Carolina, across the entire breadth of North Carolina, and into the southern reaches of Virginia before returning to the Old North State. This road and the history of the campaign, along with the March 15th engagement, unfolds in a new history by Dr. John Maass, author and historian, currently at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington D.C.
His book, The Battle of Guilford Court House, A Most Desperate Engagement will be the focus of this week’s “Rev War Revelry.” The book is now available from book retailers and online. We hope you can join us this Sunday, at 7 p.m. EST, for our next installment of a historian happy hour.
To access, just head to Emerging Revolutionary War’s Facebook page, go to the “Events” tab and follow the prompt at 7 p.m.