BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

It really was more of a civil war than a revolution ...

As those who follow along at home appreciate, I get my books from a number of different sources, some of which throw a significant bit of serendipity in my reading stream. One of these, of course, is the “Early Reviewers” program, in which LT members get to request any number of the titles being made available to LTER (I think I average 4) each month, and a computer program, “The Almighty Algorithm”, determines who gets what, based on compatibility factors of the title info the publishers have provided, and the content of the users' libraries. Now, what's offered each month is heavily skewed to fiction, which I typically don't read, so the pool of plausible books is small to start, and it's a rare thing where I'm really interested in getting a book, so my filter is largely “I might be interested in reading that” rather that “ooh, ooh, pick ME, pick ME!”.

Holger Hoock's Scars of Independence: America's Violent Birth is an example of this dynamic. While, over the decades, I've read enough military history that my library looks like a good match, it's not a subject that I have any burning current interest in … and within that genre, the American Revolution has only been a minor player. So, I approached this fairly lengthy (at ≈ 550 pages) volume with a certain trepidation, seeing it more as a “chore” than anything else.

Fortunately, the book is quite engaging, and for the most part avoids drifting into dry “textbook” writing. It also covers in its spread a lot of information about the U.S.'s founding conflict that I had (to my present recall) never heard of. Seriously, the scope of the war was far broader and geographically more far flung than had ever crossed my mind. For somebody hailing from D.A.R. ancestors, one would think I'd have had a better grasp on at least the broad strokes, but I was constantly hitting data points here that frankly amazed me (such as elements of the war that happened in the South, while I'd always had a mental image of the whole thing being pretty much in the Boston-to-Washington zone).

The author hails from Germany, and was educated at Cambridge and Oxford, so certainly can be supposed to be bringing an “enemy” perspective to this work, and that context seems to be what gives birth to the whole project, in being a look at the conflict that's not the “standard American” take on things. I assume that there have been numerous books over the last couple of centuries that have presented the British version of the war, and 240 years down the road is a long time to wait to re-frame things, but even if that was conceptually the genesis of this, the author does not set the book up in that mode, but more takes a hard look at how ugly it all was.

As opposed to the simplified “Colonists vs. British” dynamic that got instilled in my head, what Hoock presents here is really the tale of a civil war, with there being sizable numbers of “Loyalist” Americans (half of my ancestry ended up in Canada for a while due to this) that the Crown was at least nominally devoted to protecting, obviously along with the land holdings and tax base that the colonies represented. For such a lengthy (and interesting) book, I was surprised to find that I had only stuck in two of my little bookmarks to point me to choice bits to use in the review … here's one of them:
Psychological torment and physical violence played a far greater role in suppressing dissent during America's first civil war than is commonly acknowledged. What is often celebrated as the Patriots' groundbreaking infrastructure of revolution – and community, district, and colonial-level committees do indeed represent a significant achievement of political mobilization – was, for Loyalists an apparatus of oppression and terror.
There are fairly horrific stories of violence on both sides of the conflict, from having Loyalists tarred-and-feathered to having British forces indulging in “no quarter” attacks on Patriot troops (leaving behind savagely dismembered corpses). One of the binds that the British were in was that they were unwilling to deal with the Colonists in terms of “rules of war”, as that would imply that the Americans were, in fact, a government per se, and not just traitors to the Crown. The American side is presented as being remarkably modern in how it played all the reports of excesses of the British to the press of the day … no doubt part of that “infrastructure of revolution” mentioned in the above quote … building up the moral cause.

While the book does move through the timeline of the Revolution, it's not a specifically linear look at the war, but jumps around from one type of unpleasantry to the next, and, given the length of the book, there is quite a lot of material on all of this. Given that I don't have a bunch of quotes good to go, I thought it might be most useful to highlight a lot of the factoids that I found surprising, as I'm guessing (unless one is a Revolution fanatic, one is likely to have the same “mythologized” image of the war as I did) that these will give you a sense of how disturbingly illuminating the book is.

First of all, I had no idea that for the entire duration of the war, the British held New York City, with it essentially being their capitol during the conflict. Heck, I lived in NYC when I was a kid, and this didn't register with me at all. I also sort of had the impression that the British officer corps were somewhat untested, but many were veterans of the Seven Years' War, and, institutionally, the British military had been hardened by putting down the Jacobite rebellions (especially in Scotland) earlier in the century. Another element, on both sides, was the dreadful conditions under which a lot of prisoners were held, with the Colonists using mines and the British using “prison ships” anchored in the New York harbor … both of these were really awful places, and the death rate (especially on the prison ships) was shocking.

As alluded to above, I really had very little concept that the war extended into the Southern states, but these were very important to Britain's shipping and commerce, involving both American cotton and sugar from the Caribbean colonies. The other bookmark I have in here deals with this part of the war:
… wide swaths of the American lower South presented a scary scene – a virtually permanent little war of raiding and plundering between Patriot and Loyalist militias, prisoner abuse, even outright murder. In addition, armed gangs unaffiliated with any real military units operated in the semi-lawless wasteland between the lines. To put the levels of violence in perspective, it is worth recalling that South Carolina in 1780 and 1781 saw nearly one-fifth of all battlefield deaths of the entire American war, and nearly one-third of all battlefield wounded. Strikingly, the majority of these casualties resulted from American-on-American violence.
Which sounds like it was a tune-up for the “real” Civil War in later years. In fact, slavery was a hot topic at the time, with raids happening on both sides to steal slaves, and slaves being used in the militaries of each side, sometimes as spies, sometimes as soldiers, and sometimes, with small-pox infections, as biological weapons. Of course, “not wanting a good crisis to go to waste”, a lot of slaves took the opportunity to escape from their plantations during the chaos. The British even attempted a ploy of emancipation, but this was highly unpopular with not only the Loyalist slave owners, but was seen as a dangerous precedent in many of their other colonies around the globe. And, once Benjamin Franklin managed to arrange an alliance with France, the scope of the war pretty much de facto expanded to being a global conflict, as Britain's traditional foes began to strike at other parts of the empire, requiring reassignment of troops and supplies.

Another part of the war which hadn't really gotten on my radar was the Colonial forces going up against the “Six Nations” of the Iroquois Confederation, one of which, the Oneida, sided with the Americans, but the rest, the Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora, being in alliance with the British and the Canadian provinces. There had been a good deal of conflict with the Native American tribes and the fledgling USA as the latter started to push at its western borders, and the Iroquois tribes felt they'd be better served by throwing in with the British Crown. Frankly, from the descriptions here, the level of “scorched earth” attacks that the Colonists resorted to does sound a bit like a planned destruction of the Natives, essentially clearing out an impediment to further expansion after the war.

Again, there is so much material in Scars of Independence that I'd never heard of, that it really becomes an amazing, if sobering, read. The white-washed “popular” view of the Revolution was deliberately constructed to calm the populace after the horrors of the war, but the reality of the struggle begins to sound more like the Balkans than the tidy grade-school version that at least I recall. As much as we've “kissed and made up” with the British in the past century, it's disturbing to see just how brutal things were at one point.

This isn't officially out yet (it has a May 9 release date), but you can pre-order it through the on-line big boys, who are currently offering about half off of cover (if you don't want to wait for it to show up at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor). If you're into history, global politics, military stuff, or the Revolutionary period, you'll probably really like this. All others should consider how much they want their national fairy tales disturbed … it's quite revealing, but not in a way that makes anybody look particularly noble.

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Tags: book review

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