Rethinking the Revolution

By John Ferling
October 2007 • American History Magazine

Americans remember the Civil War for its unsparing brutality. But was our fight for independence even worse?

When Confederate forces stormed the Union lines at Malvern Hill in July 1862, the carnage was so great that General Daniel H. Hill, who watched helplessly as 30 percent of his men in gray were lost, railed: “It was not war—it was murder.”

The stupendous attrition rate in that battle, and throughout the Civil War, has contributed to the never-ending fascination with that bloody conflict—the “war that never goes away,” as historian James McPherson put it. More than 620,000 soldiers perished in the Civil War, a figure that dwarfs the American death toll in any other war.

It is not surprising that popular interest in the Civil War surpasses that for any other event in American history. What is remarkable, however, is that today many see the War of Independence as a lesser war—less demanding, less painful, less costly, even less vital.

The slaughterhouse aspect is one factor that draws people to the Civil War. But such seminal issues were also at stake—slavery, self-government, the very survival of the United States—that the venerated historian Bruce Catton asserted, “The Civil War is probably the most significant single experience in our national existence.” Other factors also account for the lure of the Civil War. Both sides mobilized their resources on a scale equaled only in World War II. An incredible number of the soldiers’ letters have survived, enabling historians to capture the human drama. The camera, available by 1861, lent the war an enduringly modern air. Indeed, many historians have proclaimed it the first modern war.

Despite popular impressions, the Revolutionary War was also fierce and unsparing. Its malevolent, brutal side is one of the focal points of my recent book, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (2007). But as interesting as I find all facets of the Revolution, I find the matter of why it no longer is remembered as a harsh and bloody conflict to be just as fascinating, and worth pondering. To get at an answer, it may be useful to start by trying to understand what shapes the collective memory of the past.

In some instances, the dominant memory of an event exists because an articulate and influential element in society succeeds in having it recalled in a particular manner. Historian Alfred F. Young, in his perceptive book The Shoemaker and the Tea Party (1999), demonstrated that the emergent elite in post–Revolutionary Boston, confronted in the 1830s by a growing labor movement that could be emboldened by the example of Revolutionary patriots, wanted to “tame the memory of Boston’s Revolution.” For a time it succeeded in doing so by contriving a history of the colonial rebellion that downplayed the role of the city’s working class in pivotal crowd actions such as the protest against the Stamp Act in 1765 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

This sounds terribly conspiratorial. Yet the national identity is shaped in part by what history is remembered and how it is remembered, and that provides some with a powerful temptation to play fast and loose in their depiction of the past. Discerning Founding Fathers were among the first to recognize that history could be used to manipulate how the past would be remembered.

Before the War of Independence ended, John Adams, in a fit of jealousy, raged that the great epic in which he was an important player would have a distorted history: “The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electric rod smote the earth and out sprang George Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod, and henceforth these two conducted all the policy negotiations, legislatures, and war.”

Hyperbole to be sure, though Adams was on to something. Benjamin Franklin had already begun writing his memoirs in secret, and when his Autobiography appeared in 1818, it enhanced his already exalted reputation. Washington actively tended to his legacy as well. Following the war, he went through his early correspondence, correcting and polishing the grammar and style, not wanting to be seen by posterity as unrefined. What is more, Washington permitted his former aide-de-camp, Lt. Col. David Humphreys, to write an authorized biography. He gave Humphreys lodging at Mount Vernon for an extended time in 1786 and 1787 to facilitate his work, and further aided his biographer by writing a lengthy account of his role in the French and Indian War—one in which he revised or omitted unflattering episodes.

Washington might have saved himself the trouble. Humphreys’ efforts had little impact. However, a year after Washington’s death, Mason Locke Weems— Parson Weems—produced a biography so adulatory that even Washington might have been embarrassed by the treacle that flowed from the author’s pen. Weems’ Life of Washington (1800) portrayed its subject not only as a man of unblemished virtue, but as a veritable Moses who had led his people from captivity. It was precisely the image of a Founding Father that many active in the business of creating America were looking for, and while it left much to be desired from the standpoint of historical accuracy, the biography was an enormous success. With his worst fears confirmed about how future generations would remember the American Revolution and the nation’s Founders, John Adams, not to be outdone, began writing his own memoirs shortly after the publication of Weems’ life history of Washington.

I would like to think dispassionate historians try hard to provide a balanced and accurate record of the past, and that readers insist on evenhanded history untainted by hidden agendas. Nonetheless, I sometimes despair at the prevailing memory of the past. When speaking on the War of Independence, I have come to expect many in the audience to believe—as Adams predicted— that Washington somehow won the war single-handedly; to think that America’s victory was virtually foreordained; to have little awareness that the war was fought in the South as well as in the North; and—something that has been accentuated of late— that France was of little help to America’s victory.

But what I find most amazing is the impression that the Revolutionary War was not a particularly horrendous war—that not many men died, few civilians were touched by hostilities, suffering was not widespread and what misery did exist was confined to the American side and largely limited to the terrible winter at Valley Forge in 1777-78. Bruce Catton’s belief that the Civil War was the most important event in American history would resonate with many in my audiences, and so too would the notion that the Revolutionary War cannot hold a candle to the Civil War when it comes to danger, sacrifice and tribulations.

What accounts for this national impression? For one thing, the American Revolution has transcended popular awareness of the War of Independence. Whereas the Civil War began as a war and became a revolution, the protest waged by the Founding Fathers was a revolution that became a war. That subtle distinction makes a profound difference. Without the war, the Civil War makes no sense, for from the beginning it was a fight waged to save the Union. But to some even in the Revolutionary generation, the war seemed almost secondary to the unheard of and breathtaking notion of abandoning monarchy and erecting a republic in which all citizens were thought to be equal.

Today, only one holiday commemorates the American Revolution—July 4, Independence Day—and it celebrates the break with Great Britain and the creation of the United States, not a military engagement. It was not always true that the war was overshadowed by the Revolution. As historian Sarah Purcell demonstrated in her provocative book Sealed With Blood (2002), the Revolutionary generation saw the memory of the war as a powerful promoter of American nationalism, a crucial cement in the nation-building in which they were engaged. July 4 orations dwelled on fallen soldiers; numerous plays, poems and sermons recalled the sacrifices and suffering of the war years; and monuments were erected to heroes killed on battlefields.

But by the 1820s, colonial resistance against Parliamentary policies after 1765 took precedence over battles. Events such as the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party, and symbols including Liberty Trees, Liberty Poles and Sons of Liberty became the focal point of the remembrances.

No one factor can explain the changed emphasis. The dreadful showing by the U.S. militia in the War of 1812 may have aroused skepticism about the Revolutionary generation’s claims regarding their heroic battle performance in the War of Independence. No less pivotal was the approaching jubilee of the Declaration of Independence in 1826, which led to a subtle shift from military to political recollections. When the cornerstone was laid for a monument on the Bunker Hill battlefield in June 1825, Daniel Webster, widely regarded as the greatest orator of the day, spoke to an assemblage of thousands that included many survivors of the engagement. He mentioned the bloody battle—“smoke and flame rising from burning Charlestown” and the “ground strowed with the dead and dying”—but he accentuated what he called the “great wheel of political revolution.” And he urged his New England audience to “cultivate a true spirit of union and harmony” with others throughout the United States.

Long before 1826, every one of the original 13 Continental Army generals appointed by Congress in 1775 had died, and within a decade of the jubilee virtually every member of the Revolutionary generation was gone. Thereafter, the Revolution and the Revolutionary War were left to the memories of those who had not lived through the events. A combination of circumstances probably accounts for how subsequent generations came to see the Civil War in one light and the Revolutionary War in another.

Abraham Lincoln aside, the best remembered figures from the Civil War were military men—Generals Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and Stonewall Jackson the foremost among them. That was never true of the American Revolution, and today civilian leaders such as Franklin, John Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and Samuel Adams far outnumber the best-remembered soldiers. Other than Washington, John Paul Jones and Benedict Arnold, it is probably safe to say that few Americans could even name another Revolutionary soldier, and Arnold is remembered for having turned coat rather than for his battlefield exploits. What is more, as Evan Thomas ably demonstrated in John Paul Jones (2003),Theodore Roosevelt resurrected Jones’ memory in 1906 in the hope that the existence of a naval hero would help him realize his goal of making the United States a naval power. Jones may be worth remembering, but that he is well known is yet another example of the deliberate manipulation of collective memory.

Popular paintings of the American Revolution sometimes give a rather distorted view of events. Between 1818 and 1824, John Trumbull painted four huge canvases for the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. They depict the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the British surrenders at Saratoga and Yorktown and Washington’s resignation of his commission at the end of the war. Emanuel Leutze rendered Washington Crossing the Delaware in 1851. Archibald Willard’s The Spirit of ’76, painted for the Centennial in 1876, depicted an intrepid trio of musicians marching into battle ahead of militiamen. William Trego’s Washington Reviewing His Ragged Army at Valley Forge (1883) captured the resolve of those who soldiered, as well as the seeming hopelessness that faced the ragtag Continentals. While five of the seven paintings have wartime themes, none depicts a battle scene. The Spirit of ’76 comes closest, but no one is shown firing a shot or wielding a bayonet, and no corpses litter the field. The paintings leave a sanitized image of the Revolutionary War, a far cry from the stark scenes that leap out from Mathew Brady’s photographs of Civil War battlefields strewn with mangled bodies and careworn soldiers.

The American Revolution and the Civil War each produced enduring literature, but only that from the Civil War left the ghastly reality of war beyond question. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) was a clarion call for independence. An autonomous America would usher in the birth of a new, republican world free of monarchies. Although the war had been underway for eight months when he wrote his pamphlet, and an American army was at the time invading Canada, Paine gave only a sideways glance toward actual hostilities. His object was to prevent reconciliation with Great Britain.

Little in American literature can match the majestic phrases of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863. Four months after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln traveled to the Pennsylvania hamlet to dedicate the final resting place of “those who here gave their lives” in horrendous combat. Where for Paine, the ongoing war had been an afterthought, for Lincoln the war was front and center, and at Gettysburg he gave it new meaning as a great struggle to determine whether liberty and equality would endure.

Washington was in the best position of all the Founders to utter seminal, moving comments that might have conveyed the pitiless nature of the war. As the commander in chief, he wrote letter after letter to Congress and state governors, many of them urgent pleas for help, but not a single phrase was memorable. His best opportunity to say something unforgettable came at war’s end when he bade farewell to the Continental Army in November 1783 and 30 days later, in a formal address to Congress, resigned his commission.

But Washington not only said nothing remarkable, he also said little about the terrible nature of the Revolutionary War. A tip of his hat to the “unparalleled perseverance of the Armies of the U States, through every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years,” was as close as he came. Washington acknowledged the “peculiar Services and distinguished merits” of his officers, but, incredibly, he said nothing of the 100,000 enlisted men who had served in the Continental Army. Somewhat strangely, too, during his presidency Washington neither commemorated any epic battle of the Revolution nor asked Congress to designate a date for remembering—as Lincoln would put it—“the brave men…who fought” so that the “nation might live.”

Historians have had much to do with the War of Independence being downplayed, even trivialized. This was not deliberate, but the result of the war having fallen between two epic events in American history: the American Revolution—the struggle to declare independence and the changes wrought by the rebellion—and the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Historians may have written more about those two events than any other single happening in America’s history, but in the process they leapfrogged the war, unintentionally conveying the impression that the bloody struggle on the battlefields was somehow inconsequential. Edmund Morgan’s The Birth of the Republic, 1763- 1789 (1956) and Colin Bonwick’s The American Revolution (1991)—two excellent histories of the American Revolution that I frequently required my students to read—are relatively typical. Each author allots less than 5 percent of his book to the war.

Finally, events are sometimes subsumed by later, bigger occurrences. Some 10 million people in the generation of 1914 died in what they fittingly called the Great War. But when 60 million died in the next war a generation later, the Great War not only was eclipsed by a greater war, but many forgot how terrible World War I, as it thereafter came to be known, had truly been. Something like that happened to the Revolutionary War. Six times as many perished in the Civil War as in the War of Independence—just as six-fold more died in World War II than in its predecessor—causing many, perhaps unconsciously, to downplay the magnitude of the suffering in the Revolutionary War.

Civil War soldiers were equipped with weapons capable of producing greater casualties than those available to Washington’s soldiers. Union and Confederate soldiers carried rifles with an effective range nearly six times that of the muskets packed by the men in the Continental Army, and Civil War artillerymen operated more powerful cannons.

That does not mean fighting on Revolutionary War battlefields was a cakewalk. To maximize the effectiveness of the weaponry at their disposal, 18th-century armies fought at close range, and engagements frequently ended in terrifying bayonet charges and vicious hand-to-hand combat. Men often fought in the open at a distance no greater than that from home plate to second base on a baseball diamond, and the losses were substantial. One of the British who survived the march up Bunker Hill remarked that they nearly “picked us all off.” An American at Princeton “loaded my musket with ball and buckshot. Our fire was most destructive. Their ranks grew thin.”

The accounts of participants in Revolutionary War encounters leave no doubt that they believed the action was fierce. Veterans frequently described battles as “the hottest Fire…that ever I heard” or the “most infernal fire” ever, and some who had fought on Europe’s battlefields declared that they had never experienced “So Close & Severe a fire.”

A young American private, who had never been in battle before, left a vivid stream of consciousness account of what he remembered of the chaos of combat at Brandywine: “The Battle was…Cannons Roaring muskets Cracking Drums Beating Bumbs Flying all Round, men a dying woundeds Horred Grones which would Greave the Heardist of Hearts to See Such a manner as this.”

For terror, few battle experiences surpassed coming under artillery fire. Subjected to a shuddering bombardment at Kip’s Bay, a Connecticut private “made a frog’s leap for the ditch and lay as still as I possibly could and began to consider which part of my carcass was to go first.” An American under siege at Charleston remembered “cannon-balls whizzing” and “ammunition chests…blowing up” all about him, and “wounded men groaning all along the lines: it was…dreadful.”

The aftermath of Revolutionary War encounters bore witness to the terror of battle. The “dead bodies…lay as thick as the stones in a stony plowfield,” a soldier remarked after Germantown; bodies littered the terrain “like dead hogs,” said a soldier after a skirmish in South Carolina. Retreating Continentals at Brandywine, making their “way…over the dead and dying,” saw “many bodies crushed to pieces beneath wagons, and we were bespattered with blood.” A Hessian in the attack on Fort Washington in New York remembered seeing many of his comrades “shattered” and lying “in their own blood,” and he heard them “whimpering,” pleading that “in one way or another we could ease their suffering and unbearable pain.” A New Englander who helped remove wounded comrades from boats after Bunker Hill said that he was “obliged to bail blood out of them like water.”

The savagery of the war in the South in 1780-81 may never have been exceeded in American history. It was set in motion when Loyalist cavalrymen under Colonel Banastre Tarleton went on a rampage following the surrender of Virginia Continentals in South Carolina’s Waxhaws in May 1780. Tarleton’s dragoons, wielding their swords in a frenzy of retribution, cut down 75 percent of the rebels who had already laid down their arms. Southern revolutionaries, often fighting in guerrilla bands, exacted revenge for the Waxhaws Massacre time and again.

At King’s Mountain, the Loyalists who survived the battle, and the bloody reprisals that followed their surrender, still faced a long forced march into captivity. So many captives were murdered on the march that the Continental commander issued an order “to restrain the disorderly manner of slaughtering…the prisoners.” At the end of the ghastly trek, several Loyalists were executed following drumhead court proceedings. Three months later at Cowpens many British soldiers surrendered, crying out “dear, good Americans, have mercy on us! It is not our fault” that so many rebel captives have been “SKIVERED [skewered].” Their pleas were often unavailing. In March 1781, Continental cavalry under Colonel Henry Lee—Robert E. Lee’s father—surprised and cut to pieces Loyalist cavalry near Hillsborough, N.C., in an infamous episode with disturbing parallels to Tarleton’s massacre. Ninety Loyalists were killed and many of the remainder were wounded. Lee did not lose a single man.

Campaigning in a foreign land also took a toll on British and Hessian soldiers. Many died in the Atlantic crossing. “There was continued destruction in the foretops, the pox above-board, the plague below decks, hell in the forecastle, the devil at the helm,” one survivor wrote. For many, conditions did not improve following their arrival. Day after day “we…have to stand under arms for hours in the deepest snow,” moaned a German posted in New Jersey in the winter of 1777.

Just prior to Washington’s surprise attack at Trenton the day after Christmas 1776, the commander of the Hessian garrison there reported that his men were so worn down by “constant alarms and troubles,” not to mention the “miserable weather,” that they were “in no condition to defend” themselves. The British and Hessians in the South sometimes waded warily through tall marsh grass inhabited by “crocodiles sixteen feet long…wolves and several species of venomous snakes.”

The British, however, seldom suffered the unspeakable deprivations that afflicted America’s soldiers. The Americans who invaded Canada ran so short of food that they consumed pet dogs and concocted a soup made from boiled shoes and melted candles. Colonel John Glover noted that many men in the retreat across New Jersey in 1776 were “without Stockings Breeches or Shoes, nothing to cover their nakedness but a Blanket.” During that retreat, Charles Willson Peale, the artist, ran across a disheveled man with a long beard and face “full of sores…which…disfigured him.” Only when the stranger spoke, did Peale recognize that it was his brother.

On numerous occasions, Washington reported that “many of ’em” were “entirely naked,” and more than once he and others mentioned the bloody footprints left in the snow by men without shoes. Washington told Congress during the winter of 1780 that his men were forced to “eat every kind of horse food” to survive, and one of his soldiers said he and his comrades were driven by desperation to “roast their old shoes” and gnaw on tree bark. General Nathanael Greene said that winter that half his men were “naked and above two thirds” were hungry.

Deprivation occurred too when the victors plundered the vanquished, a Revolutionary War practice almost unknown in the Civil War. The “clothes on our backs were wrested from us,” said one of the 3,000 Continentals taken captive at Fort Washington. Hundreds of those captives died that winter. Triumphant Americans at Trenton reciprocated by seizing the warm clothing of their Hessian prisoners, and the victors at Cowpens similarly disrobed their British prisoners. “Our poor fellows who were almost naked before, now have several changes of clothes,” a jubilant American remarked, as the Redcoats were left to shiver in the January cold.

Whatever the terrors of the battlefield, Americans taken prisoner in the Revolutionary War entered a world of dark uncertainty and extreme peril. The odds of a Continental soldier dying in battle were about one in 10, but if taken prisoner, that soldier faced a 50-50 likelihood that he would not survive captivity. The percentage of Continental prisoners that perished exceeded that of Union troops who succumbed in the infamous Andersonville prison, and roughly equaled the percentage of U.S. soldiers who died in Japanese internment camps during World War II.

Forty-seven percent of Continental Army soldiers taken prisoner in the Revolutionary War perished. In the Civil War, 12 percent of Confederate prisoners and 15 percent of all Union captives died. Journalist Philip Freneau, who miraculously lived through two months captivity on a prison ship off Brooklyn in 1778, wrote rhapsodically of his comrades who, confined “in this dismal den, Starved and insulted by the worst of men,” looked “like ghosts ere death had made them so.”

Civilians also suffered heavily in the War of Independence. They perished in untold numbers from the diseases unwittingly spread by soldiers on both sides. More than 100 residents of tiny Braintree, Mass., fell ill when camp diseases from the nearby front lines spilled into the town during the first autumn of the war. Abigail Adams, a resident, wrote her husband, John, who was away in Congress: “Our House is an Hospital.” Soon, she broke the news that the wife and infant daughter of Adams’ brother were among the victims.

Legions of civilians also suffered in ruinous coastal raids carried out by the British. Five Connecticut towns were nearly obliterated, while in Virginia ships, shipyards, foundries and tobacco warehouses were destroyed and plantations plundered, including Mount Vernon, where 17 of Washington’s slaves fled to the British.

Countless civilians died in frontier Indian attacks, partisan warfare and battles for cities. On the first day of the war, Redcoats stormed into many homes along Battle Road, the highway linking Lexington-Concord to Boston, and sowed destruction. Upon subsequently entering one of the houses, a shocked minuteman found dead civilians and reported that the “Blud was half over [my] shoes.” During the siege of Savannah in 1779 a Georgia militiaman advised that many civilians had been “killed in their beds” and “mangled” as they crouched in terror where they sought shelter.

Approximately one-half of 1 percent of the civilian population died from war causes in both the Civil War and the War of Independence.

The Revolutionary War included a civil war within a civil war. Not only did Anglo-Americans fight the British, but also American Tories and Whigs fought one another. Vendettas by civilians against other civilians were commonplace. General Nathanael Greene, the last Continental commander in the South, said that Southern civilians “persecute each other, with little less than savage fury. There is nothing but murders and devastations in every quarter.” Greene’s aide-de-camp reported that rival American and British patriotism had “set the people of this country to cutting each other’s throats, and scarce a day passes but some poor [civilian] is put to death at his door.”

Loyalist civilians suffered in the War of Independence in a manner that had no parallel in the Civil War. Virtually every state confiscated and sold the property of Tories, and eight states banished specific Loyalists. Upwards of 100,000 Loyalists—5 percent of the free population—went into exile. Some 10,000 Confederates, a fraction of 1 percent of the free population, chose exile after the Civil War.

Washington hardly exaggerated when he spoke of the Revolution as having been filled with “every possible suffering and discouragement.” Nor did his soldiers embroider when they described their service as a time of dreadful “anxiety” and unsurpassed dangers, distresses, “fatigues and hardships…and…calamities.” The War of Independence was a harsh and bitter war, part of the long struggle to supplant monarchy and aristocracy with republicanism, “to begin the world over again,” as Thomas Paine famously wrote in Common Sense. To call the Civil War the most important event in the history of the United States, as did Bruce Catton, is to ignore the grim struggle that brought the nation into existence.

To be sure, those who fought in the Revolutionary War understood what was at stake. Two days after America’s decisive victory at Yorktown in October 1781, a 15-year-old Virginia private, assigned with others to guard British prisoners taken earlier near the Appomattox River, watched and listened as a dispatch rider arrived with the news that Lord Cornwallis had surrendered an entire British army. Instantly, he said, “every American present” threw “his cocked hat up in the air” and shouted: “America is ours!”


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.  

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