My heart warms whenever I see Rowan University advertise this position.
Read the ad here and try to guess why.
J.L. Bell is a historian and blogger at Boston 1775. This interview is based on his new book, The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War (Westholme Publishing, 2016).
JF: What led you to write The Road to Concord?
JLB: I grew up in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, during the Bicentennial. In fact, during the crucial 1975-76 year I was in fifth grade, when the state curriculum guidelines had students study the American Revolution. So between my surroundings, my school, and our national anniversary, I got a triple dose of the Revolution in New England. I knew that history had been told and retold for two centuries. I liked those stories, I really enjoyed David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride, but I figured there was little more of significance to discover or rediscover.
Then I saw a couple of sources talking about Patriots stealing cannon from armories in redcoat-occupied Boston and smuggling them out into the countryside. I put those together and realized I’d run across the trail of a story that was no longer part of the regional or national narrative, that never been told in full before.
I approach history primarily as a storyteller, with the hope that the storytelling will highlight important forces and illustrate interesting patterns. And this was a story I couldn’t resist telling.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Road to Concord?
JLB: We think of the British troops marching to Concord in April 1775, arousing sleepy Middlesex villages and farms, in order to destroy some minor and miscellaneous military supplies (and perhaps to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock). In fact, those Massachusetts farmers had spent months amassing a significant artillery force, finding particular cannon was at the top of the British commander’s wish list for the expedition, and both sides had reasons to keep those facts out of their official reports.
JF: Why do we need to read The Road to Concord?
JLB: The start of the Revolutionary War is, of course, a major part of the U.S. of A.’s origin story. The Road to Concord peels back a layer of that myth to expose new details. Those details undercut the traditional picture of New Englanders defending their homes only with muskets and fowlers, and of Gen. Thomas Gage trying to suppress general unrest. The book argues that the New England governments prepared for war more than they let on and that G en. Gage had a personal motive for ordering troops to Concord. It also suggests that the way those circumstances were suppressed, resurrected, and discarded in U.S. historiography illuminates how we’ve collectively remembered our Revolution.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JLB: I first started to research the American past with an eye toward writing historical fiction for kids. In 1998, around the time I was leaving a long-time job as a book editor, I stumbled over the story of Christopher Seider, a boy about eleven years old shot dead in a political riot shortly before the Boston Massacre. It’s rare to find an example of children as significant, decision-making actors in historical events—not just bystanders. So I began to research the Revolution in New England more deeply. That work led to a chapter in James Marten’s anthology Children in Colonial America (NYU Press) and other publications.
In that same shooting, another boy was wounded—a nineteen-year-old decorative painter named Samuel Gore. And he turned into quite the activist. After Gore died in 1831, he was one of the first Bostonians to be publicly identified as a participant in the Tea Party. And Gore had told this story about stealing cannon from an armory under redcoat guard…
As to why I find history so interesting, I can’t really say. I’ve always been drawn to stories from the past. But in college, my interest in writing and literature led me to a more general major. One of my greatest regrets now is having been at a university with a stellar American history faculty and not taking any classes in the subject. Not being so specialized turned out to be valuable for my work as an editor, but I had no idea what would happen past that first job.
JF: What is your next project?
JLB: Chronologically, my next history project to appear will be the second volume of Colonial Comics: New England (Fulcrum). Jason Rodriguez is the chief editor of that series, and A. Dave Lewis and I are assistant editors. We’re working with a terrific team of writers and artists interpreting episodes from the lives of a range of eighteenth-century Americans. I also wrote the scripts for a couple of comics in that book: one about printers fighting for freedom of the press, drawn by the Eisner Award–winner Braden Lamb, and one about the aftermath of the Boston Massacre, brought to life by Jesse Lonergan.
JF: Thanks, J.L. Great stuff!
Todd Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association, and on the advisory council of Crossroads of the American Revolution. This interview is based on his new book, Grand Forage 1778: The Battleground Around New York City (Westholme Publishing, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Grand Forage 1778?
TB: I was approached by the Journal of the American Revolution to know my thoughts about a possible series of books on lesser-known campaigns and events of the American Revolution, and what possible topic I thought might be of interest. That which is little written about or discussed is always of interest to me, as I enjoy learning new things, as opposed to simply a new spin on previously covered events. The operations around New York City in the second half of 1778 was perfect for that: a plethora of small events that all intertwined as a campaign, but which had never been discussed as such. I was honored when they agreed to that as one of the two lead volumes of the series.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Grand Forage 1778?
TB: While the large battles are often studied and dissected by historians, the smaller events often fall through the cracks or are ignored. Grand Forage shows how global events and logistics conspired in ways not fully realized by many of the participants then, or by students today.
JF: Why do we need to read Grand Forage 1778?
TB: At its heart, history is made up of stories. Grand Forage uses the accounts, and very often the exact words, of many of the participants of small actions and events not generally seen by the public. While a battle may mean one thing to a general, the viewpoint of a soldier in the ranks is quite often something completely different. Those sorts of accounts, culled from period letters, memorials, journals, pension applications, etc. open a window on the past that I believe brings the period to life. The Civil War has always enjoyed a greater awareness today, in part, I believe, to photographs and an abundance of written material from everyday soldiers. It makes a connection with people today. That is a harder task with the American Revolution, where the fashion and language can seem far more archaic and antiquated, making them less well understood or appreciated by a modern audience. It’s my hope Grand Forage brings this period of history to life for people today, particularly those in the geographic areas where the events took place, which too often are now the scene of urban sprawl.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
TB: I knew I loved history from the time of grade school. Growing up in Dumont, Bergen County, New Jersey history was literally everywhere you looked. Indeed, several houses in town had been plundered and burned during the American Revolution. The street I grew up on was a major thoroughfare at times for both armies during that war. In reading the popular histories of the war though, little or no mention was made of these actions and events. I wanted to dig deeper, and without the filter of modern spin or biases. I started primary research entering my sophomore year of high school, and never looked back. Loyalists in particular fascinated me, in part because the field appeared to be wide open here in the United States. I have never had the opportunity to utilize my knowledge of history as a professional career, but through writing, research, interpretation and preservation, I would like to think I have done my part, in some small way.
JF: What is your next project?
TB: That is already started! I am the project historian for the town of Fort Lee in researching the history of the 1781 battle there involving about 750 Loyalists & Rebels, an event that almost led to what perhaps would have been the bloodiest local action of the war. Again, this is one of those little known or studied actions that fascinates me. The findings will be a part of the National Park Service Battlefield Preservation Program that the town received a grant for in 2015. After that, it is back to my research roots, i.e. Loyalist studies.
JF: Thanks, Todd!
Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell reflects a bit more on Nagy’s legacy. Here is a taste:
John was an expert—really, the current expert—on Revolutionary War espionage. He had several books to his name, including Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution and Rebellion in the Ranks: Mutinies of the American Revolution.
I never met John in person, but over the last several years we had a steady correspondence by email about spying during the siege of Boston. We exchanged sources and leads. Every couple of years I would receive a barrage of messages signed just “John” asking about various individuals in colonial Boston, and I knew he was working on a new manuscript.
In Spies in the Continental Capital: Espionage Across Pennsylvania During the American Revolution, John presented contemporaneous documentation for the espionage activities of Lydia Darragh. I sent him congratulations because I’d been so skeptical about her legend, which arose in dramatic form a generation or two after the war. John vacuumed up all the stories and evidence about Revolutionary espionage he could find, and he spotted a period document pointing to Darragh’s family.
In his biography Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy: A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution, John endorsed my conclusion about the identity of the doctor’s mistress. Convincing John Nagy gave me confidence in my interpretation of the evidence.
Read the entire post here.
Here is a March 1, 1777 letter written by New Jersey’s revolutionary-era governor William Livingston (or one of his assistants) to Robert Blackwell, a patriotic Anglican minister serving New Jersey churches (in this specific case, Coles Church in Coles-Town, Gloucester County) with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel:
Thursday next being appointed to be observed as a day of fasting & Prayer the Governor & Council propose to attend Divine Service at your Church, which it is thought proper to give you this Notice…
And here is Blackwell’s March 2, 1777 response:
According to the directions of your Proclamation I have appointed to preach at Coles Church on Thursday next, at half past eleven in the morning. If your Excellency & the Council think proper to attend, we shall be glad to see you there.
I love this stuff!
Source: The Papers of William Livingston, ed. Carl Prince (Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1979), Vol. 1: 264
NOTE: Prince’s footnote on p.264 is wrong. He says that the church in question here is in Colesville, Sussex County. When I read this I found it odd that Livingston, who was living at the time in Haddonfield, would travel all the way of up to Sussex County to attend service on a day of fasting and prayer. Upon further investigation, I learned that this it is more likely that this is a reference to Coles Church (St. Mary’s) in Colestown, Gloucester County (today Camden County), New Jersey. This makes more sense. Colestown is only about four miles from Haddonfield.
Johann Heinrichs was a member of the Hessian jager corps occupying Philadelphia in January 1778. In this letter to friend in Hesse, dated January 18, 1778, he tries to make sense of the religious influences on the American Revolution.
Call this war, dearest friend, by whatsoever name you may, only call it not an American Revolution, it is nothing more nor less than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion. Those true Americans, who take the greatest part therein, are the famous Quakers. The most celebrated, the first ones in entire Pennsylvania and Philadelphia and Boston are, properly speaking, the heads of the Rebellion.
Source: Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography XXI:2 (1898)
Thanks to Chris Juergens for bringing this letter to my attention.
Is Heinrich’s confused about Quakers leading the charge or is he referring to the so-called “weighty friends” in Philadelphia who did support the Revolution?
Because history is often written by the winners, Whigs and patriots have long dominated the study of the American Revolution. Loyalists–or those men and women who supported the Crown during the Revolution–have thus received sort shrift in the narratives that historians write about this era.
Are early American historians rediscovering the Loyalists? Yes and no. While many historians in the United States are trying to bring more complexity to the story of the American Revolution by bringing Loyalists into the mix, others–particularly scholars who focus on Canada and “North America” more broadly–have been studying Loyalists for a long time.
Here is a taste:
It has been gratifying to see the number of recent Borealia blog posts on the loyalists – Sources for Loyalist Studies, Loyalists in the Classroom: Students reflect on historical sources, The Future of Loyalist Studies, and Let’s Play Again: Recovering “The Losers” of the American Revolution (Part I). However, it is sometimes a tad frustrating to hear references to the loyalists as an ‘overlooked’ people. Perhaps this is the case in the context of American historiography, but I would like to interject with the reminder that scholars of British North America/Canada have been studying the loyalists for a long time. This is articulated in Jane Errington’s 2012 review essay “Loyalists and Loyalism in the American Revolution and Beyond” as well as Ruma Chopra’s “Enduring Patterns of Loyalist Study: Definitions and Contours.” I realize that many scholars of early America are more interested in examining the loyalists in situ. Indeed, one of the most interesting directions in loyalist studies is the analysis of loyalist reintegration into the United States being pursued by historians such as Rebecca Brannon. Nonetheless, I still hold that the literature written about loyalists and loyalism in a Canadian and Atlantic World setting are useful for American researchers. Perhaps this is a transitional moment, as Chris Minty suggests in The Future of Loyalist Studies. As scholars and public historians engage with the loyalists who returned to the United States, or never left, it is hoped that they will do so in the spirit of collaboration.
Read the rest here.
I am in Mount Vernon, Virginia for a month. I am working on my next book project at the Fred W. Smith Memorial Library for the Study of George Washington. I am sure I will write more about my experience at the library (and perhaps post some pictures) as my fellowship here unfolds. Stay tuned.
But in this post I want to talk about historians as time travelers. For the past several weeks, as anyone who reads this blog knows, I have been writing a lot about religion and politics in the 2016 presidential primary season.
Yesterday I journeyed back to the eighteenth century. I spent most of the day in the library reading letters written by and to George Washington in November 1776. (More on this project later).
After spending a day with documents related to the American Revolution, I returned to my room and started blogging about election coverage again. Today I am back in the 18th-century.
These kinds of transitions–from the 21st century to the 18th century and back again–can be intellectual exhausting. Think of it in terms of the jet lag one might experience when they visit a foreign country.
If you are doing history well you should probably be experiencing such jet-lag. If you are teaching history well, your students should also feel it.
We have mentioned Borealia here before. It is relatively new blog devoted to early Canadian history. Not only is the blog attractive, but it has also been putting out some really good content. In the past couple of months Keith Grant and Denis McKim have published some thoughtful posts on the history of loyalism during the age of the American Revolution.
A case in point is Taylor Stoermer‘s recent piece, “Let’s Play Again: Recovering ‘The Losers’ of the American Revolution.”
I like how Stoermer frames his post. Here is a taste:
Much has been made lately of the rediscovery of the American Revolution by scholars as a series of questions that remain unresolved. Both veteran historians and those new to the field (although those groups aren’t mutually exclusive) are, through conferences and colloquia and online forums, exploring this ostensibly transformative event of the late eighteenth century on something close to the level of those who lived through it, now that we are in a “post-Atlantic” historiographical moment. Mostly gone are the debates that left the study of revolutionary history somewhat moribund, as neo-whigs and neo-progressives, even a neo-tory or two, marched away from the field without a decisive victor, as their concerns were abandoned like an unnecessary baggage train, in favor of shifting interests towards exploring discrete groups in provincial America, the Early Republic, and what was left of British North America. But now revolutionary history is in the midst of something of a renaissance, which as a historian of the Revolution, I can only applaud, even as I watch with no small wonder as historians largely dismiss the work of older, yet still very much relevant, scholars in favor of their new pursuits of intellectual happiness.
Nevertheless, it is an exciting moment for those of us who still find the American Revolution a puzzling and exciting field of inquiry, especially because, as one looks more closely at it, the more it resembles an exercise in fauvism, devolving into tiny points of colorful interest that reveal patterns missed by earlier observers. The danger, of course, is in remaining so focused on the small points that the larger picture is lost, as happens in so many micro-histories, as valuable as many of them are in recovering the stories of the heretofore unsung men and women who made most of the history of the period. After all, as Henry David Thoreau reminded us in his reflections on “Revolutions” that “The hero is but the crowning stone of the pyramid—the keystone of the arch…. The most important is apt to be some silent and unobtrusive fact in history” (Journal, 27 December 1837). And such an approach helps us to avoid the pitfall, into which many of us can trip, of considering whatever happened in eighteenth-century North America that divided the British world from an American one, as part of a grand, impersonal scheme of processes and mentalities, almost Calvinistically predetermined by the forces of social change that led inexorably from the colonial to the early national period of U.S. History (leaving Canada, unfortunately but conveniently, out of the picture).
But there remains that pesky question of just what was so revolutionary about the period in between the colonial era and the Early Republic, what we call the American Revolution? The fact that it now seems to be an open question for scholars, perhaps for the first time, whether sitting at a university or in an armchair, is invigorating enough. The first historians of the Revolution, such as Mercy Otis Warren and John Marshall, never doubted for a moment that there was something transformative about it. Their primary concern, however, was not whether such a transformation took place, but who was responsible for it, and therefore could define it for contemporaries and posterity. That we can freshly approach the people and events of the period, without being weighed down by the ideological baggage of centuries, but also without ignoring it, should drive an entire new era of scholarship that puts the colorful points, many of which have only dimly been perceived, back into the broader picture.
For me, the overlooked people who are most interesting are the loyalists, and properly defining them, as my work seeks to do, along with that of other historians with similar interests, can reveal a whole new revolutionary history, one that not only breaks down our understanding of the period’s freighted language, like “patriot” and “tory,” but that might make us entirely redefine what we mean when we say “the American Revolution.”
Read the rest here and stay tuned to Borealia for the second part of Stoermer’s piece.
|(Maryland State Highway Administration)|
I can’t resist these kinds of stories.
John Ferling is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of West Georgia. This interview is based on his new book, Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It (Bloomsbury Press, May 2015).
JFea: What led you to write Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It?
JFerling: I taught the American Revolution course about thirty times during my career. I always had my students read a history of the Revolution, but was never entirely satisfied with any general history that was available (mostly because all shortchanged the Revolutionary War), so for years I longed to write my own version, and with Whirlwind I have finally done just that.
JFea: In two sentences, what is the argument of Whirlwind?
JFerling: It is difficult to sum up a thesis for a general history of the American Revolution, though I argue that the primary reason the colonists eventually sought independence was due to economic motivation. Unlike many historians (and John Adams), I argue that the War of Independence was part of the American Revolution, as it radicalized people, laying the groundwork for fundamental postwar changes that otherwise might not have occurred.
JFea: Why do we need to read Whirlwind?
JFerling: Whirlwind examines the reasons for the colonial insurgency, the reasons for the eventual break with Great Britain, the reasons for the American victory in the War of Independence, the changes unleashed by the American Revolution, and it asks whether the American Revolution and the American victory were inevitable.
JFea: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JFerling: While in high school, I saw a documentary on the rise and fall of Hitler that turned me on to history, but the first several courses in history that I took in college were so boring that I was ready to jettison history as a major. As a sophomore, however, I took a course from a professor who emphasized reading books and discussing them in class, rather than using a lecture format; I found the experience so exhilarating that for the first time I wanted to teach in college and write the kind of books I was reading in that class.
JFea: What is your next project?
JFerling: I am already deep into a book on Jefferson and Thomas Paine as world revolutionaries.
Robert Middlekauff is Professor Emeritus at the University of California Berkeley. This interview is based on his new book, Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader (Knopf, February 2015).
JF: What led you to write Washington’s Revolution
RM: Interest in Washington. I wrote a book, The Glorious Cause, several years ago about the American Revolution in which he figured, and, at that time, learned much about him, but my curiosity was not fully satisfied even though I revised that book in 2005. In fact, doing the revision increased my interest. I was strongly encouraged by my old teacher, E. S. Morgan, to have another crack at Washington.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Washington’s Revolution?
RM: The argument is that Washington grew intellectually and morally as the Revolution developed. The nature of much of that growth revolved around Washington’s conception of what was at stake in the war with Britain: freedom and the union of American states, and the importance of the struggle for liberty in America to the larger world.
JF: Why do we need to read Washington’s Revolution?
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JF: What is your next project?
RM: I’m not sure, though writing a book about Mark Twain may be it. I’m lucky to be in the university that houses the largest collection of his writings in the world. In the last few years, I’ve read many of his unpublished manuscripts and almost all of his letters.
There is also the possibility that I will remain in the colonial period of American history and write about either New England Puritanism or the Revolution.
JF: What led you to write Becoming Men of Some Consequence?
JR: It began with a compelling set of sources. I was looking to explore the relationships between the War for Independence and the upheaval of the generation-long American Revolution. The perspectives of soldiers seemed a good place to start. I came across Benjamin Gilbert, a young soldier from Massachusetts, who marked his Revolutionary experiences with an extensive diary and family correspondence. Figuring out and explaining this young solider – and his comrades – proved a compelling challenge. I went looking for soldiers and found the common thread of young men’s aspirations for their own independence.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Becoming Men of Some Consequence?
JR: Soldiers’ youth fundamentally shaped their motivations, experiences, and relationships in the War for Independence. These young soldiers, as they tried to make their way towards full adult manhood through military service, in turn helped define the capacities of the army and the Revolutionary effort.
JF: Why do we need to read Becoming Men of Some Consequence?
JR: These young men of the Revolution created captivating and complicated stories. Their actions, perspectives, values, and voices jump off the pages of diaries, memoirs, pension applications, army orders, and military records. This book follows these young men as they fight and flee, go drinking, stealing, and streaking, form deep friendships and commit callous murder. Their “adventures and sufferings,” as one member of this generation described them, are powerful. It’s a book about young people trying to make their way in a world disordered by war and political upheaval.
JF: When and why did you become an American historian?
JR: I have always loved sharing stories and reading history books. In college I first encountered the challenge of finding and explaining the raw historical sources for myself. I was hooked! As a historian I get to learn new things every day. It’s a great challenge to find ways to share it all in my teaching and writing.
JF: What is your next project?
JR: I am exploring how the diverse combatants in the Revolutionary War encountered and thought about slavery and enslaved people. This war carried soldiers far from their homes and all over the Atlantic world. Americans, patriot and loyal, white and black – as well as British, French, and German participants – experienced and noted the shifting contours of this fundamental American institution. The sources raise questions about the evolution of race, national identity, and both pro- and anti-slavery sentiment in the late eighteenth-century Atlantic.
Check out this Time feature depicting Revolutionary War veterans in old age. (HT: Peter Silver via Facebook). Learn about:
Peter Mackintosh: At age 16 he witnessed the Boston Tea Party
Simeon Hicks: A Boston minuteman
Jonathan Smith: Fought in Battle of Long Island
George Fishley: Fought in the Battle of Monmouth
James Head: Joined Continental Navy at age 13
Rev. Levi Hayes: Fifer in a Connecticut regiment
Daniel Spencer: Involved in a secret mission to capture Benedict Arnold
Read the rest here and see their daguerreotypes
By Megan Piette
The Museum of the American Revolution is offering an exciting new twist on digital history. Through a free bi-weekly email, Read the Revolution sends its subscribers excerpts from highlighted books on the American Revolution. Featuring a variety of genres and levels of reading, Read the Revolution pulls thought-provoking sections from books such as George Washington’s Secret Six, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, and Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier, and discusses a range of topics from “The American Mind” to “A War of Personal Liberation” and “Taking Charge”. Here is a taste of the latest excerpt from Glatthaar and Martin’s Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution:
“Full-scale rebellion pulled the Oneidas in various directions. Most felt at least a pragmatic attachment to the position of the [British] superintendent, who distributed goods to them, advised them, and communicated for them with the powerful king of England. As a counterweight of major proportions, [missionary Samuel] Kirkland had won the hearts of many Oneidas during his nine years among them. Everyone knew he favored the patriotic cause.”
New Jersey, of course, was the so-called “Cockpit of the American Revolution.” Most of the fighting during the first year or two of the war took place in New Jersey and some of the mid-Atlantic’s most ardent patriots came from the Garden State.
Codes and ciphers have always attracted history buffs. As long as there has been valuable information out there, people have tried to hide it from unintended eyes. As some of the recent work of John Nagy has shown, codes and ciphers were used quite often during the American Revolution. A letter by Dr. Benjamin Church, who sold military secrets to the British during the war, was recovered and deciphered in 1777 by an old classmate of Church’s, Samuel West. The odd thing about Church’s letter though was that it contained an incredibly simplistic cipher, the kind of cipher you would probably not want to rely upon if you were committing treason. Tracey Kry at Past is Present examined Church’s letter and came to similar conclusions. Here is a taste:
The outcome of a war depends on far more than individual battles, but the battles are compelling to study; everyone has a favorite. The impacts of each one are numerous, and we can pontificate endless “what if” scenarios regarding the outcomes. There were, nonetheless, several battles that changed the momentum of the American Revolution – battles that stopped campaigns and caused changes in strategy. Although the outcome of every battle influenced subsequent events, only a few completely changed the momentum of a campaign or of the war itself.
1. Lexington and Concord
2. Bunker Hill
7. Rhode Island
8. Kings Mountain