I am reading a book that is a collection of letters, papers, journal and diary entries written by people who lived and fought during the American Revolution. It is intriguing, since it provides conflicting points of view — both pro-American and pro-English. It is fascinating, for example, to read an account of the battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina in 1780 first from the American point of view and then from the British. They read like there were two such battles! So much for objective reporting. Several other things have already struck me about those articles.
To begin with, it is quite clear that the British simply do not understand why the colonists have rebelled. They remain bewildered throughout. They held the colonists in low regard to begin with and thought they would never be foolish enough to take on the British army; when it happened in Lexington and Concord they were dumbstruck. But through it all they simply couldn’t grasp why these “rebels” as they called them did not want the protection of the mighty British army and navy. After all, they had recently fought together to toss out the French from the colonies and why on earth would they not want to remain as loyal citizens of Great Britain?
During the war Britain made several attempts to settle the conflict peaceably, even to the point of promising no taxes whatever! But they never would accept the idea that America was an independent nation. Indeed, they scoffed at the notion. But it was American independence that was the sticking point — together with skepticism about the reliability of the word of the British parliament.
There were innumerable instances of utter brutality on both sides. The Hessians, who fought as allies with the British, along with various Indian tribes, were particularly brutal, raping, pillaging, and burning homes seemingly at will — despite orders form the British to cease and desist. But, on the other hand, there is an entry in a journal written by a colonial soldier who describes the killing of two Indians, who were scalped, and who were then stripped of their flesh from the waist down in order to provide the soldier with a pair of trousers! The entry is written in a casual matter-of-fact style that makes the reader shudder.
We read about the chronic inability of Washington to maintain a fighting force. His frustration with the unpredictable and undisciplined militia is palpable in reading his repeated requests for a standing army. And there were repeated requests for clothes and support as well. The militia was weakened by lack of discipline and short terms of enlistment; desertions were commonplace. When deserters were caught they were summarily shot (as were spies on both sides), but they were seldom caught and Washington’s forces were rarely numerous enough or well enough clothed, fed, and armed to successfully defeat the enemy. Three years into the war the army was exhausted and many, in the South especially, were unwilling to fight. Victories were rare. If the French had not decided to join the colonists the war would have been over fairly quickly and with a completely different outcome.
One entry warmed my heart since it was written by a soldier who fought in one of the rare successes Washington experienced early in the war: the battle of Princeton. The author describes the behavior of one of my ancestors — a Brigadier General who fought with Washington and who died from wounds sustained in that battle — as “courageous.” I was pleased to read that, but there were numerous examples of courage along with examples of awful brutality on both sides and the material provides us with a remarkable glimpse into the way people behave during times of great upheaval. One reflection written by Thomas Brown to his friend David Ramsay about the war in Georgia in 1781 is worth quoting:
“A civil war being one of the greatest evils incident to human society, the history of every contest presents us with instances of wanton cruelty and barbarity. Men whose passions are inflamed by mutual injuries, exasperated with personal animosity against each other, and eager to gratify revenge, often violate the laws of war and principles of humanity.”
Additionally, we are allowed to glimpse into the lives of those who refused to fight. The Quakers, of course, but also many who remained loyal to England — even to the point of writing letters to local papers satirizing the behavior of the colonists. Many of these Tories, loyal to the King, later joined on the side of the British as the war wore on. But neutrality was itself a battle. We are allowed to see the conflict, even within homes, between those who thought the colonists were warranted in rebelling against Britain and members of the same family who remained loyal to the British throughout. In fact, James Fenimore Cooper write a novel about those very conflicts between two daughters within the home of a wealthy farmer in New York whose house was large and well suited to provide shelter and food for tired and hungry soldiers (usually officers, of course) on both sides of the conflict.
In a word, we rediscover the fact that war brings out the best and the worst in folks, which is not new. But we also come to realize that the issues that brought on that war were never clear to many who participated in it, many did not want to have anything to do with the war, and it may or may not have been worth such widespread death and destruction for so many years.