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
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 the summer of 1780, Captain Henry Bird crossed the Ohio River with some 800 Native Americans from various British-allied tribes and two companies of soldiers from Detroit (roughly 50 Canadians and Tories and a mixed group of regulars from the 8th and 47th regiments) to invade Kentucky. More importantly, he brought two pieces of artillery, a three pounder and a six pounder. It was one of the largest and most substantial attacks into Kentucky during the American Revolution.
Bird’s goal was the Falls of the Ohio (today’s Louisville), which was critical to the American war effort on the frontier due to its critical position on the Ohio River. Bird rendezvoused with the great bulk of the Native Americans at the confluence of the Great Miami and Ohio Rivers, (west of today’s Cincinnati) to discover that they had other plans. Attacking fortified areas was less appealing than raiding small settlements and isolated farms, where the Indians might secure booty and terrorize the locals into abandoning Kentucky. Constituting the vast majority of the army, the Native Americans won out.
Last week, Emerging Revolutionary War‘s Phillip S. Greenwalt wrote a review of the above mentioned book. To find that review click here. Recently, through email, Emerging Revolutionary War had a chance to interview the author. The questions and his responses are below.
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Joshua Shepherd to the blog who reviewed the book mentioned above. Short bio of Joshua is at the bottom of this post.
In recent years, there’s been a fortunate resurgence of interest in the Revolution and founding era. To meet the mounting demand for Revolutionary history, some of the nation’s most gifted popular authors have written highly successful volumes that cover the War for Independence and the Early Republic.
Some outstanding books have consequently gone to press, but, by and large, the publications have very often been biographies; occasionally, publishing houses introduce monographs that cover a single campaign. From professional circles, much of the new scholarly research focuses on the currently-vogue academic preference for social history. At least in recent decades, the relative paucity of military history has left an appreciable gap in the historiography of the Revolution. With the release of The British Are Coming, author Rick Atkinson has met a vital need for an up-to-date and comprehensive military history of the American Revolution.
Robert L. O’Connell, Revolutionary: Washington at War, e-book, (New York: Random House, 2019), $32 in hardback.
Robert L. O’Connell is best known for asking “big” questions. Armed with a PhD in history and a lengthy career in the intelligence community, his books Of Arms & Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression (1989) and Ride of the Second Horseman: The Birth and Death of War (1995) tackled the origins, nature, and future of warfare. In the last decade, however, he has turned his sights on more specific targets: Hannibal at Cannae, William Tecumseh Sherman, and, most recently, George Washington. Released earlier this year, O’Connell’s Revolutionary: George Washington at War is just the latest work to tackle the martial aspects of George Washington’s life and career.
As a young history buff, I remember well wearing out the pages of the original A Battlefield Atlas of American Revolution by Craig Symonds. Though I have no idea where that well worn out book is today, I am happy to see that Symonds has revised and re-released his encompassing atlas, published by Savas Beatie Publishing.
Symonds, using his experience as a lifelong teacher, approaches the war from the viewpoint of an educator. Breaking the war into four parts chronologically, Symonds provides a short narrative at the beginning of each section giving an overview of the action in each region and year. The battle descriptions for each map are thorough and give a great account of the action and the impact each event had on the overall campaign or war effort.
Symonds should be commended for covering lesser known campaigns and battles of the American Revolution such as Valcour Island, Fort Stanwix, Oriskany, Newport, Penobscot Bay and others. This enhances the work as it shows where these battles took place and speaks to the depth that Symonds took to comb the entire continent to include these minor yet important engagements in the atlas. For many readers, this will be the first time these actions have been visualized through maps.
As in his previous work, cartographer William Clipson provides easy to read and clear maps. The maps provide a good mix of detail and broadness to appeal to the casual history buff and dedicated researcher. As in his other atlases, the text flows well with the map as Symonds has numbers in the text that relate to specific parts of the map.
Though I enjoyed this book, there are two critiques of this volume. First, the size of the text which is very small and condensed. The font style and size selected could prove to be hard for some people to read. Secondly, a few of the maps have been cropped to the point where parts of the maps and text have been cut off, making them incomplete.
This book is a great addition to any library or better yet, in the glove box of your car as you visit these battlefields. It is a perfect companion in the field that allows one to understand the action and provides just enough of an overview to fill in for those battlefields that do not have any signage or interpretation. The information is detailed enough to give you a clear understanding of the battle and campaigns and the maps provide a great visualization of the action.
In the introduction, Andrew Shankman narrows down the one word that has driven the history career of Dr. John M. Murrin; “Anglicization.” (page 1). This process happened in a period of approximately 60 years, as the colonists along the eastern seaboard of North America became “in virtually every measurable way…more not less British in their attitudes, outlooks, and actions…” (page 1).
With that thought in mind, the collection of essays from the pen of Dr. Murrin comprise this single volume, Rethinking America, From Empire to Republic published by Oxford University Press. Understanding the history and historiography of these decades and the military, political, social, and economic sub-themes of the time period define the work. Yet, this is not history from just the top down; from the perspective of the elites nor from the bottom-up, but a melding of the various tiers of society. Continue reading “Review: Rethinking America From Empire to Republic by John M. Murrin”→
Reviewed by guest historian Robert “Bert” Dunkerly.
Lord Dunmore’s War remains one of the murkier events of the Colonial era. Historian Glenn F. Williams has produced a book that will set the standard for the study of this conflict.
Dunmore’s War, The Last Conflict of America’s Colonial Era by Williams, explains the complexity of the conflict and goes into detail analyzing the intertwined diplomatic and military events. The late 1760s and early 1770s were a fascinating and complex time on the frontier. Violence from the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s War had subsided, tribes were shifting alliances, settlers were moving into the region, and the colonies were still adjusting to the new realities following the Treaty of Paris. The British regulations that would trigger colonial resistance were already coming, and tensions were slowly building. Yet the issues which dominated the attention of most colonists were inter colonial rivalries, such as that between Virginia and Pennsylvania.