The Author’s Corner with Stephen Howard Browne

IdesStephen H. Browne is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and Advisor for the Rhetoric Minor at Penn State University.  This interview is based on his forthcoming book, The Ides of War: George Washington and the Newburgh Crisis (University of South Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Ides of War?

SB: 
The Newburgh crisis had always seemed a pivotal but under-appreciated moment in the revolutionary experience. Because it was resolved through the person and the speech of George Washington, it begged for treatment by a scholar in rhetorical studies and early America. It was my great fortune to be in a position to tell a story with all the drama, poignancy, color, and historical richness one could reasonably ask for. So I did!

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Ides of War?

SB:
 My central thesis holds that the Newburgh crisis represents a classic confrontation between the rival claims of military and civil authority. Washington, I argue, was the only man living who possessed the character, power, and rhetorical resources capable of resolving that crisis to lasting effect.

JF: Why do we need to read The Ides of War?

SB: 
Well, if you will forgive the immodesty, I might suggest several reasons.  First, it provides the fullest and most detailed treatment of this crucial episode to date.  Second, it offers a multi-disciplinary examination of both its historical and rhetorical importance.  Third, it corrects conventional views of Washington as reticent, averse to speech, and uneasy with the English language. None of this is true.  Fourth, it is just a great story. Trust me on this!

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SB: 
My graduate training and work thereafter have been housed in departments other than history; early on, however, I latched onto the idea that no one discipline owns the subject, and, recklessly perhaps, invited myself to the feast. Far from feeling like a pariah, I have been blessed by a welcoming, instructive, and challenging host of historians ever since.

JF: What is your next project?

SB: 
My next book project is currently underway and is tentatively titled ‘Beloved Country’: George Washington and America’s First Inauguration. It seeks to tell the story of GW’s trip from Mount Vernon to NYC; features the parades, parties, and rituals of national affirmation that attendant to the journey; and punctuates the narrative with a full-scale treatment the inaugural address.

JF: Thanks Stephen!

The Author’s Corner With J.L. Bell

ConcordJ.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!

The Author’s Corner with Todd Braisted

GrandForageTodd 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!

Boston 1775 Remembers John Nagy

NagyThis weekend we did a post on the sudden death of John Nagy, a historian and author of books about espionage during the American Revolution.

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.

It’s Always a Good Idea to Let Them Know You are Coming

livingston_williamHere 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.

A Hessian Tries to Understand Religion in Revolutionary America

HeinrichsJohann 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.

He writes:

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?

Historians of Canada Have Been Studying Loyalists for a Long Time

loyaliststamp

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.

This is the argument of University of New Brunswick historian Bonnie Huskins in a recent piece at Borealia.

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.

Time Travel Can Get Tiring

The George Washington Presidential Library - DC

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.

Losing the Revolution

loyalistsWe 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.

The Author’s Corner with Nathan Perl-Rosenthal

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal is Assistant Professor of History and Spatial Sciences at the University of Southern California. This interview is based on his new book, Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Citizen Sailors?
NP: Unusually for a first book, Citizen Sailors did not start out as a dissertation.  I had the inklings of the idea for it while reading R.R. Palmer’s Age of the Democratic Revolution way back in college.  A footnote to a discussion about connections between the American and French Revolutions got me wondering what role sailors might have played in that story.  It took me more than ten years, dozens of visits to archives and a whole bunch of writing to eventually work out the story that I had to tell about mariners in the revolutionary era, which became Citizen Sailors.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Citizen Sailors?
NP: Citizen Sailors shows how mariners, as trans-national actors, became central to forging the idea of American citizenship during the four decades after the United States declared its independence in 1776.  It argues that sailors helped to create a precociously modern model of nationality in the early republic—nationally administered, instantiated in paper citizenship certificates, and available to men of all races—that for a time challenged the forms of local and racialized citizenship with which we are more familiar in the nineteenth century.
JF: Why do we need to read Citizen Sailors?
NP: You don’t need to, but I hope you will want to.  I wrote the book in dialogue with a number of fields: the history of the American Revolution, maritime history, the history of citizenship, and Atlantic studies.  So if you are interested in any of those areas, Citizen Sailors has something to say to you.  In its most basic sense, this book offers a new account of the long struggle for American independence with unfamiliar protagonists at its heart and an unusual trajectory.  Citizen Sailors is part of a new scholarship that sees the formation of a sovereign American state as among the most important outcomes of the American Revolution.  The book shows how mariners were at the center of the struggle over American sovereignty in the decades after 1776 and were crucial to the United States’ efforts to define individuals as American citizens—or, in other words, to define a new political community.  The United States made itself into an independent nation in good measure by making mariners into American citizens, and protecting those to whom that status had been extended.
At the same time, Citizen Sailors offers the first transnational history of early U.S. citizenship, showing how foreign notions about nationality and international pressures shaped American ideas about citizenship circa 1776 to 1815.  Early American ideas about citizenship developed as much in dialogue with the wider world, I argue, as they did within the confines of the new nation’s borders.  The book also shows, in line with a growing body of scholarship more focused on institution-building, that citizenship in the early Republic was a federal issue—indeed, that the federal government went out of its way to claim and defend seafaring U.S. citizens.  In so doing, it offers a new way of thinking about why sailors mattered in early modern history: not only as central players in protest movements and merchant capitalism but also as co-creators of the modern state.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
NP: Some very wonderful high school teachers engaged me in studying American history, but it wasn’t until my second year of college that I seriously considered it as a career.  (Until then, I thought I was going to be a biologist.)  History as a discipline promised a wonderful marriage of the creative process—forming conjectures about the past and writing about it—with the rigors of assembling documentary evidence and testing hypotheses against it.  After my first time in an archive, I was hooked on that work and the thrills of discovery that you can have in there.
JF: What is your next project?
NP: My next project will be a wide-angle cultural history of politics in the age of revolution, circa 1760 to 1815, which will be related to my dissertation but with a different conceptual framework and a good deal of new research.
JF: Thanks, Nathan!

18th-Century Shipwreck Found in a Maryland River

(Maryland State Highway Administration)

I can’t resist these kinds of stories.


Recently a Maryland road crew working to repair the bridge that crosses the Nanticoke River on Route 50 discovered the remains of an eighteenth-century ship.  It is unclear why the ship sunk to the bottom of the river.  It was either poorly constructed or shot down in a skirmish during the Revolutionary War.

Here is a taste of the report from Julie Zauzmer of The Washington Post:

The archaeologists speculate that the ship was built at a small local facility, not a major shipyard, because they can see some elementary mistakes in construction. An extra hole drilled in a log, a missing fastener that should have tightened the keel — those details are telling, centuries later.
Most evocative of all are the logs themselves. Scientists can date and locate trees with remarkable precision. The pattern in the rings of the oaks that became the ship tell archaeologists precisely when and where they were chopped down: 1743, somewhere in Maryland between the Potomac River and Annapolis.
“I was shocked that we could get that sort of detail,” Schablitsky said.
That means the ship was built sometime after 1743, probably soon after. And Schablitsky said it is clear that it went down before 1800.
It may have been purposely scuttled by because it was no longer seaworthy. But it may have met a more dramatic end.
Documents from the time tell of a Revolutionary War skirmish in the town of Vienna, Md. — where the wreck was found — in which British sympathizers shelled the town and sank several boats owned by colonists who supported the Revolution.
Intriguingly, the logs from the wreck were scorched, as if they had been burned just before sinking.

The Author’s Corner with John Ferling

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.

JFea: I’m excited to see what you come up with! Thanks John.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Robert Middlekauff

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?

RM: There are many books about Washington and the Revolution. This one covers much familiar ground, but it also takes a cut at Washington and the Revolution in a way that is not familiar to most historians and lay or non-specialist readers.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RM: I’ve been interested in the past since childhood. I’m not certain of when my interest in American history took center place, but I decided to make its study my profession while serving in the First Marine Division in Korea over sixty years ago. The Marines and the place helped focus my mind.

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: Sounds exciting, Prof. Middlekauff. Thanks!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with John A. Ruddiman

Jake Ruddiman is Assistant Professor at Wake Forest University. This interview is based on his new book, Becoming Men of Some Consequence: Youth and Military Service in the Revolutionary War (University of Virginia Press, December 2014).

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.


Young Continental soldiers carried a heavy burden in the American Revolution. Their experiences of coming of age during the upheavals of war provide a new perspective on the Revolutionary era, provoking questions about gender, family life, economic goals, and politics. “Going for a soldier” forced young men to confront profound uncertainty, and even coercion, but also offered them novel opportunities. Although the war imposed obligations on youths, military service promised young men in their teens and early twenties alternate paths forward in life. Continental soldiers’ own youthful expectations about respectable manhood and their goals of economic competence and marriage not only ordered their experience of military service; they also shaped the fighting capacities of George Washington’s army and the course of the war.

Becoming Men of Some Consequence examines how young soldiers and officers joined the army, their experiences in the ranks, their relationships with civilians, their choices about quitting long-term military service, and their attempts to rejoin the flow of civilian life after the war. Their generational struggle for their own independence was a profound force within America’s struggle for its independence.

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.

JF: Can’t wait to read about it! Thanks Jake.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Faces of the American Revolution

Peter Mackintosh  

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

Read the Revolution

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 Exhibit: New Jersey in the Revolutionary War

“The American Revolution in New Jersey: Where the Battlefront Meets the Homefront” is the name of the new exhibit at The Museum of Early Trade & Crafts in Madison, NJ.  

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.


Here is a taste of what you can expect from the exhibit:

The exhibit, which will remain open until February 2015, will explore five topics: the experience of Loyalists from New Jersey, how women contributed to the war effort, how farmers were affected by the various armies criss-crossing their lands, early mining and the black experience. 

“The objects displayed will be representational of the period,” said Siobhan Fitzpatrick, curator of collections and exhibits.

“They will include currency, muskets, powder horns and military accoutrements, farming and mining equipment and tools relating to the woman’s role,” she said.

Thanks to Megan Piette for her work on this post.

Decoding Dr. Benjamin Church

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:


I wonder why, when performing such a dangerous, treasonous act, Church didn’t take better care to disguise his secrets.  Why did he use such a simple code?  The code surely kept the message secret from casual readers or interceptors, so perhaps those were the only readers Church was worried about.  But anyone who really wanted to could easily break it.  If one is to go into the business of espionage, one best use a complex code.  As Church stated at the end of his letter – “Use every precaution or I perish –”.  He should have heeded his own advice.


Megan Piette contributed to this post

Top 10 Battles of the Revolutionary War?

Don Hagist, co-editor at “Journal of the American Revolution,” has put together a list of his top 10 Revolutionary War battles. Here is a taste of his rationale for selecting the “top ten”:

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
3. Quebec
4. Charleston
5. Trenton
6. Saratoga
7. Rhode Island
8. Kings Mountain
9. Cowpens
10. Yorktown

J.L. Bell at “Boston 1775” (who is also a contributor to The Journal of the American Revolution) is not completely satisfied with Hagist’s list.  Click here to see why.

(Most of this post was crafted by The Way of Improvement Leads Home intern, Megan Piette).