War Stories: The Meaning of the American Revolution
The American Revolution was the defining moment of the American nation. It was a complicated, protracted, and divisive affair – like many other eighteenth-century conflicts. Yet our view of it is dominated by an idea of patriotic citizens rising up together against the yoke of British tyranny. The origin story of the nation is too often simplified. National myth-making has obscured our historical views, too. What would the American Revolution look like if we paid more attention to other kinds of war stories? What meaning did participants themselves give to the Revolution?
This project aims to bring to light a different set of stories than the ones with which we are most familiar. The long-neglected memoirs of ordinary participants suggest that for thousands of colonists, the Revolutionary War was just another chaotic imperial conflict that might be exploited, but most often had to endured. For many, it was a time of suffering, violence, and even trauma. It was, after all, just as much a civil war as it was a contest over liberty. Yet even while these memoirs reveal a startlingly different kind of war story than we are accustomed to hearing about the Revolution, they also point us toward a better understanding of how a nation came into being. For these memoirists, recalling the past allowed them to make their own claim on the fruits of a bitter and costly Revolution. The creation of the nation, then, was premised on conflicting stories, riven by contradictions, and shaped by clashing interests in a process that might seem familiar to those observing contemporary politics today.
Most extant sources from the time were written by elites, or at best middle class letter writers. Few of these give us much insight into what meaning ordinary Americans gave to the events that often engulfed them. Memoirs written by ordinary men and women in the early years of the Republic – sailors, shoemakers, soldiers, and slaves - hold the key to unlocking this meaning. Though there are relatively few of them, at least several dozen participants who lived through the War for Independence wrote their own retrospective personal accounts of the conflict, sometimes years after the event. Remarkably, historians have for the most part neglected these memoirs, despite the fact that many were printed throughout the nineteenth century.
The majority of these memoirs were written by men who served in some capacity in the armed forces during the Revolutionary War, on either side – and sometimes, like John Greenwood, on both sides - of the conflict. Many of the memoirs were written after the passage of pension legislation in 1818 and then again in 1832. For some, like Joseph Plumb Martin, applying for a pension application provoked an urge to talk about his experiences, but also limited the scope for him to do so. His pension application consists of six lines. His several hundred-page memoir was clearly a response to his desire to do justice to his story.
Yet not all memoirists were veterans. At least one, John P. Becker, wrote his memoir in 1831 specifically to try and represent the experiences of non-veterans. He regretted that there were not more recollections like his published about the Revolution, as there were “thousands, like my own father and his family, [who] suffered and lamented, rejoiced and exulted, unknown to any beyond their immediate neighbourhood.” Others, particularly those who found themselves on the British side during the conflict, wrote in order to bolster their claims to compensation from the British government in the aftermath of the war, or simply to pour out their frustration and sense of betrayal by both sides.
Several middling women, such as Elizabeth Lichtenstein of Little Ogeechee just outside of Savannah, Georgia, are included in this category. Lichtenstein spent much of the war as a refugee, raising a young and growing family in temporary homes and barns before spending another twenty years after the Revolution adrift across the British empire. There are also several memoirs written by ex-slaves and African Americans. These include Boston King, who made his escape from slavery in South Carolina, sojourned in Nova Scotia, and subsequently became a founding father himself, in Sierra Leone. Significantly, there is also at least one Native American memoir, that of Chainbreaker, or Governor Blacksnake, a Seneca chief who narrated his tale to a fellow Indian who translated it.
Despite their retrospective nature, the memoirs tell us much about the Revolutionary War itself – albeit from a different perspective than the one we are often accustomed to viewing it from. Recent scholarship has increasingly emphasised the divided, violent, and often traumatic nature of the war. The memoirs help undermine a seamless narrative of the Revolution that emphasises unity and downplays conflict and violence. In its place, we glimpse a more chaotic, less certain, process at work. Yet this chaotic and conflicted war contributed to the revolutionary energy of the period. In a conflict that began as a conservative defence of the rights and liberties of colonists, the memoirs help explain how the protracted and divisive War for Independence created the conditions for real Revolutionary change.
In committing their stories to paper, the memoirists also help us to understand how diverse groups navigated the turbulent and often treacherous post-war landscape. This is particularly true in the case of African Americans (those who stayed, as well as those who fled), Native Americans, and loyalists (again, those who stayed and those who left). Each faced significant challenges following the War for Independence, and had to make difficult choices about how they reconciled themselves to the new nation that emerged from the conflict and the political chaos of the 1780s. Many were barred from, unwilling, or unable to integrate or re-integrate into the body politic and faced significant repression from new democratic majorities in each state. The choices they made, or were forced to make, tell us much about the limits of the rhetoric of the American Revolution, and the contradictions inherent in the founding ideals of the new nation – as well as the limits of the alternatives outside the nation, within the British empire.
Yet even men who served in the armed forces faced significant challenges in the decades after the war. Often left destitute by the experience – most went unpaid for their services, and never received promised bounties in money, land, and sometimes slaves – many of the memoirists struggled to find a place for themselves in the new nation. Theirs is a collective tale of woe, and failure. A few managed to obtain some land and status, but most did not. They drifted around the new states in search of both. Some wrote of ongoing post-war battles with supposed “tories” who undermined their efforts. Many, like Joseph Plumb Martin and John P. Becker specifically blamed the war for their troubles. Becker claimed that his father had died a “creditor” to the government, and his family had lost everything because of the war. In contrast to the success stories that Gordon Wood and Joyce Appleby see emerging from the Revolutionary era, Becker blamed the Revolution for his own personal ruination. Even hope deserted him. He wrote his memoir, he said, with death and “consolation” only a few days away.
For many who did stay in the new nation, the Revolution inevitably loomed large in their recollections. In part, this was a function of the genre in which many of the participants wrote – veterans especially believed the public wanted, and would pay for – their tales of the Revolutionary era. There had already been a deluge of histories of the Revolution written by the early nationalists, and other memoirs of more famous personages had begun to stake a central place for the Revolution in the short history of the new nation and as a vital element, if not the element, in the emerging identity of the fledgling state. Yet despite this pre-existing framing, the memoirists studied here still struggled to create meaning from the Revolution, and create a place for themselves in the larger narrative of nation-making. Some deeply regretted the loss of life in war, others the uncivil nature of the conflict that pitted neighbour against neighbour, and sometimes fathers against sons. Still others, like young Samuel Dewees, elevated George Washington to the status of a father-figure after he lost his own parents early in the conflict, only to question whether the means Washington took to win the war – particularly the incredibly brutal punishments meted out by his officers on Dewees and his friends and comrades, were really necessary. Inevitably, then, the Revolution shaped the memoirists’ relationship to the new nation. But a close reading of the memoirs suggests that this played out in complicated ways.
Ultimately, the memoirs of ordinary participants in the American Revolution might help us to overcome the distorting effect of the triumphalist narrative of the American Revolution as a founding moment, which has obscured the social history of late eighteenth-century North America. Indeed, at times it seems the story of the American Revolution has rarely changed since the first leading participants began writing about it in terms of a just and necessary defence of colonial liberties. Many Americans today want to believe that seamless story is true. The trouble is far too many people and issues are left out of that origin story. And in a complicated, contradictory and diverse America today, a simple and idealistic story of the founding of the nation leaves too many people feeling alienated and disaffected from a past to which they feel no connection, or striving to restore some kind of mythical golden age. War Stories will help shed light on the many meanings of the American Revolution and the divisive legacy of the era that we are still grappling with today.
An essay fleshing out some of these themes is entitled: 'War Stories: Remembering and Forgetting the American Revolution' in Patrick Spero and Michael Zuckerman, eds., The American Revolution Reborn (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 9-28.