Review of “The Battle of Bunker Hill”

Cross-posted to Military History Blog

This film is the first in a planned series under the title of America: Her People, Her Stories, which is produced by Tony Malanowski, who seeks to creat positive, family friendly productions that present a more positive outlook on American history. The film features a docudrama and a section providing the historical context, presented through interviews with historians. Having had a couple of weeks to reflect on the production since viewing it, I have found both positives and negatives within it.

First, as a historian, I want to commend Mr. Malanowski for his idea, as presenting history in an interesting light for children is always good. Despite covering a violent subject, like war, he presents the battle in a way that younger children can learn without being frightened. In addition, despite limitations he was able to pull off an over two-hour production rather well.

The film consisted of two main parts, a docudrama and a historical perspective. The docudrama part consisted of a movie reenactment of the battle, focusing on two fathers and sons, living in the area. The historical perspective placed the battle and the Revolutionary War within the larger context of early American history, incorporating interviews with three, as the film puts it, “historical experts.” Gregory J. W. Urwin is a scholar of both the Revolution and Civil War at Temple University who has written many works. Richard Patterson is the director of the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, NJ, while William Chemerka has written several books on Texas history and has appeared on History Channel documentaries. My only problem is that Urwin is the only scholar working in the field covered by the film. Patterson is a good choice given his public history work at Trenton, but Chemerka seems out-of-place, as I could find no information related to any work he did on the Revolution. Though this is merely a difference of historical outlook, I had to mention it.

That said, the docudrama was an interesting work. The battle scenes were  well done, given the budgetary issues. It was portrayed well for an audience geared towards younger children and makes the colonial militia out to be heroic, which is good. My only observation was that the acting seemed a little over done at the beginning. The sons portrayed in the film present an interesting issue, as they seem to be fourteen or so. Their presence at the battle is a conundrum, as if old enough to come and help, they likely would have been allowed to stay and fight, as they would have known how to use a musket. Further, what about leaving the son home to tend the farm? Again, this is my observation and reflects training and a slightly different outlook.

The historical perspective was rather good and placed the battle in context, which is very important. Despite my concern over the experts chosen, they did well. In addition to the two main parts, a few extra features were added, including Reagan’s farewell address, which I enjoyed immensely.

Now, the only real artistic difference I would note is that I would have chosen a battle involving George Washington, likely Trenton, as while Bunker Hill was a significant engagement, the struggle of the army under Washington, especially at Trenton would have better achieved the goals of Mr. Malanowski.

Overall, the docudrama is a good program for families with young children to engage them in history. However, as I always state with any film, be sure to supplement the viewing with proper books and documents, as reading is always good. Get children reading the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and other primary documents. I look forward to seeing more from this project.

Click here to learn more about the film and to order a copy.

Review of David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing

Fischer, David Hackett.  Washington’s Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

David Hackett Fischer has written a remarkable book on one of the more important events of the American Revolution:  the Battle of Trenton, placing that battle within the larger Revolution with great detail.  The book is part of the Pivotal Moments in American History series, edited by Fischer and James McPherson.  Fischer’s work, like others in the series examines a significant moment in American history and how that event shaped the course of the development of the nation.  Washington’s Crossing explores the importance of Trenton, as it is one of the most important days for the creation of the United States, as without this event, the Revolution would have likely collapsed.(ix)

Fischer provided an enormous amount of background, starting first with the competing forces.  He discussed the American army, including a brief biography of George Washington, noting more democratic elements within it, like the Committee of Privates in one Pennsylvania unit, as well as an overall lack of discipline.(11-2, 27)  In contrast to the American army, Fischer presented the British army as a more disciplined force.(42-45)  Finally, he explored the mercenary forces from Germany, collectively known as Hessians.

In addition to looking at the forces involved, Fischer devoted space to the background of the battle.  Subjects included the Howe brothers, who commanded the British/Hessian forces during the campaign, as well as the failures at New York.  Fischer then analyzed the desperate picture of the American Revolution, discussing Thomas Paine’s pamphlet The American Crisis and how it reflected the low point of the Revolution.  Overall, the inclusion of this background is very helpful to comprehending the importance of the Trenton Campaign to the success of the Revolution.

The detail on the campaign itself is immense, with Fischer describing the conditions of New Jersey under enemy occupation.  Further, his chapters explored key aspects and persons directly surrounding the battle, including Colonel Johann Rall, commander of the Hessian force in Trenton.  Readers will come to have a strong grasp of the battle and the Revolution thanks to Fischer’s inclusion of multiple, detailed subjects on the battle.

In addition to the rich focus, there are several other aspects of this book that make it a landmark work on the Battle of Trenton and the Revolution.  First, is the relative simplicity to the organization.  Fischer structured his chapters both chronologically and by subject.  This organization allows readers to use this book as a great research tool.  Second, is the use of maps and other images that compliment the text, which makes the book accessible to those unfamiliar with the Revolution.

The area where Fischer shines is in his historiography essay.  The essay covers the wide variety of interpretations on both the battle and larger war, focusing upon early views of both the battle and larger war from those who participated in the conflict.  Fischer illustrated how, for each side, Trenton represented different ideas, including republican virtue, criticism of British policy, as exhibited by the Howe brothers, contempt for the Hessians, and religious fervor.(425-432)  He then explored the creation and rise of a romantic school, embodied by Washington Irving, which later combined with an earlier republican school to create the Whig, later called Liberal, school.  George Bancroft characterized this school, which placed the campaign within the larger struggle of democracy and freedom against more oppressive forms of government.(433-437)  This idea of a moral struggle that Fischer alludes to (435) is rather similar to the earlier view held by some participants that viewed Trenton as a righteous victory.(425)

Fischer’s exploration of the historiography included interpretations linked to later events in American history.  He noted how historians after the Civil War studied the Revolution in light of their own participation in the conflict, which renewed their faith in republicanism and a national identity.(438-9)  One of the more interesting aspects he looked at was Marxist Howard Fast’s historical fiction on the war.  Fischer appeared to mention this subject for mere curiosity and hinted at a lack of value of Fast’s work.(445-6)  While Howard Fast may be a way to attract Marxist scholars to Fischer’s book, it seems irrelevant to the overall historiography.

Overall, Fischer’s look at historiography is quite helpful to those unfamiliar with it and wishing to learn more about the war.  He covered the many versions of writing over the years, including the clash in the late twentieth century between academic and popular history, as well as the rise of multiculturalism.  The result is a full treatment of Trenton and the war, which allows the book to be both a standard monograph and reference work.

Another great feature that sets this book apart is Fischer’s inclusion of an annotated bibliography, which lists and discusses the vast amount of primary and secondary sources.  He also provided his own interpretation of the value of various secondary sources.  This section adds to the reference qualities of the work and compliments the historiography essay well, and illustrates that Fischer’s book is based on sound scholarship.

There are so many great qualities to Washington’s Crossing that it is a must read for anyone interested on both the Trenton Campaign and the larger American Revolution.  Fischer provides the necessary background on the players involved and the conflict and created a rather balanced view of the event.   He drew upon both military and social history, discussing the commanders and strategies, as well as providing room for the inclusion of African-Americans and women in the story, which reflected the goals of the series the book belongs to of including traditional interpretations with new trends in scholarship.  His use of appendices, a historiography essay, and bibliography enhance the value of the work to general readers, students, and scholars alike.  While the book appears daunting, it is well worth the effort to examine.  With all the positives to this study, it is very clear why Washington’s Crossing won the Pulitzer Prize and was an American Library Association Notable Book.  David Hackett Fischer made a significant and wonderful contribution to the scholarship of the Revolutionary War.

BATTLE OF FALLEN TIMBERS CONFIRMS AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE-PART I

Most Americans believe that the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 began American independence.  While this date announced the formal break between the American colonists and the “mother country,” it did not guarantee independence.  Not all Americans favored independence and most historical estimates place the number of Loyalist, or Tory, Americans near one-third of the population.  Winning independence required an eight-year war that began in April, 1775 and ended with a peace treaty finalized on September 3, 1783.  Unfortunately the infant nation found itself born in a world dominated by a superpower struggle between England and France.  The more powerful European nations viewed the vulnerable United States, correctly, as weak and ripe for exploitation.  Tragically, few Americans know of this period of crisis in our nation’s history because of the irresponsible neglect of the American education system.

American independence marked the end of one chapter in American history and the beginning of another.  As with all historical events this declaration continued the endless cycle of action and reaction, because nothing occurs in a vacuum.  Tragically, most Americans’ historical perspective begins with their birth, rendering everything that previously occurred irrelevant.  Furthermore, most educators conveniently “compartmentalize” their subjects and do not place them in the proper historical context.  Since most Americans only remember the United States as a superpower they do not know of our previous struggles.  Unfortunately our agenda driven education system also ignores this period and often portrays America in the most negative light.

Without delving too deeply into the deteriorating relations between the American colonists and their “mother country,” declaring independence came slowly.  None of the thirteen colonies trusted the other colonies and rarely acted in concert, even during times of crisis.  Regional and cultural differences between New England, mid-Atlantic and the Southern colonies deeply divided the colonists.  Even in these early days of America slavery proved a dividing issue, although few believed in racial equality.  The “umbilical cord” with England provided the only unifying constant that bound them together culturally and politically.

The colonies further possessed different forms of government as well, although they steadfastly expressed their liberties and “rights as Englishmen.”  Some colonies existed as royal colonies, where the English monarch selected the governor.  Proprietary colonies formed when merchant companies or individuals, called proprietors, received a royal grant and appointed the governor.  Charter colonies received their charters much as proprietary colonies with individuals or merchants receiving royal charters and shareholders selected the governor.  Each colony elected its own legislature and local communities made their laws mostly based on English common law.  Any form of national, or “continental,” unity remained an illusion largely in the minds of the delegates of the First Continental Congress.

The Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775 because England ignored the grievances submitted by the First Continental Congress.  Furthermore, open warfare erupted in Massachusetts between British troops and the colonial militia at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.  Known today as Patriot’s Day few Americans outside of Massachusetts celebrate it, or even know of it.  Setting forth their reasons for taking up arms against England, they established the Continental Army on June 14, 1775.  For attempting a united front, they appointed George Washington, a Virginian, as commander-in-chief.  On July 10, 1775, the Congress sent Parliament one last appeal for resolving their differences, which proved futile.

While Congress determined the political future of the colonies fighting continued around Boston, beginning with the bloody battle on Breed’s Hill on June 17, 1775.  Known as the Battle of Bunker Hill in our history the British victory cost over 1,000 British and over 400 American casualties.  This battle encouraged the Americans because it proved the “colonials” capable of standing against British regulars.  British forces withdrew from Boston in March, 1776 and awaited reinforcements from England as fighting erupted in other colonies.

While Washington and the Continental Army watched the British in Boston, Congress authorized an expedition against Canada.  They hoped for significant resentment of British rule by the majority of French inhabitants, something they misjudged.  In September, 1775 the fledgling Continental Army launched an ambitious, but futile, two-pronged invasion of Canada.  Launched late in the season, particularly for Canada, it nevertheless almost succeeded, capturing Montreal and moving on Quebec.  It ended in a night attack in a snowstorm on December 31, 1775 when the commander fell dead and the second-in-command fell severely wounded.  American forces did breach the city walls, however when the attack broke down these men became prisoners of war.

For disrupting the flow of British supplies into America Congress organized the Continental Navy and Continental Marines on October 13, 1775 and November 10, 1775, respectively.  Still, no demands for independence despite the creation of national armed forces, the invasion of a “foreign country” and all the trappings of a national government.

The full title of the Declaration of Independence ends with “thirteen united States of America,” with united in lower case.  I found no evidence that the Founding Fathers did this intentionally, or whether it merely reflected the writing style of the time.  Despite everything mentioned previously regarding “continental” actions, the thirteen colonies jealously guarded their sovereignty.

Although Congress declared independence England did not acknowledge the legality of this resolution and considered the colonies “in rebellion.”  England assembled land and naval forces of over 40,000, including German mercenaries, for subduing the “insurrection.”  This timeless lesson proves the uselessness of passing resolutions with no credible threat of force backing them up.  Unfortunately our academic-dominated society today believes merely the passage of laws and international resolutions forces compliance.

We hear much in the news today about “intelligence failures” regarding the war against terrorism.  England definitely experienced an “intelligence failure” as it launched an expedition for “suppressing” this “insurrection” by a “few hotheads.”  First, they under estimated the extent of dissatisfaction among the Americans, spurred into action by such “rabble rousers” as John Adams.  They further under estimated the effectiveness of Washington and the Continental Army, particularly after the American victories at Trenton and Princeton.

British officials further under estimated the number of Loyalists with the enthusiasm for taking up arms for the British.  While Loyalist units fought well, particularly in the South and the New York frontier, they depended heavily on the support of British regulars.  Once British forces withdrew, particularly in the South, the Loyalist forces either followed them or disappeared.  A perennial lesson for military planners today, do not worry about your “footprint,” decisively defeat your enemy.  This hardens the resolve of your supporters, influences the “neutrals” in your favor and reduces the favorability of your enemies.

Regarding the “national defense” the Continental Congress and “states” did not fully cooperate against the superpower, England.  The raising of the Continental Army fell on the individual colonies almost throughout the war with the Congress establishing quotas.  Unfortunately, none of the colonies ever met their quota for Continental regiments, with the soldiers negotiating one-year enlistments.

Continental Army recruiters often met with competition from the individual colonies, who preferred fielding their militias.  The Congress offered bounties in the almost worthless “Continental Currency” and service far from home in the Continental Army.  Colonial governments offered higher bounties in local currencies, or British pounds, and part-time service near home.

Congress only possessed the authority for requesting troops and supplies from the colonial governors, who often did not comply.  For most of the war the Continental Army remained under strength, poorly supplied, poorly armed and mostly unpaid.  Volumes of history describe the harsh winters endured by the Continentals at Valley Forge and Morristown, New Jersey the following year.

Colonial governments often refused supplies for troops from other colonies, even though those troops fought inside their borders.  As inflation continued devaluing “Continental Currency” farmers and merchants preferred trading with British agents, who often paid in gold.  This created strong resentment from the soldiers who suffered the hardships of war and the civilians who profited from this trade.  In fairness, the staggering cost of financing the war severely taxed the colonial governments and local economies, forcing hard choices.

Congress further declared independence as a cry for help from England’s superpower rival, France, and other nations jealous of England.  Smarting from defeat in the Seven Years War (French and Indian War in America), and a significant reduction in its colonial empire, France burned for revenge.  France’s ally, Spain, also suffered defeat and loss of territory during this war and sought advantage in the American war.  However, France and Spain both needed American victories before they risked their troops and treasures.  With vast colonial empires of their own they hesitated at supporting a colonial rebellion in America.  As monarchies, France and Spain held no love of “republican ideals” or “liberties,” and mostly pursued independent strategies against England.  Fortunately their focus at recouping their former possessions helped diminish the number of British forces facing the Americans.

On the political front the Congress knew that the new nation needed some form of national government for its survival.  Unfortunately the Congress fell short on this issue, enacting the weak Articles of Confederation on November 15, 1777.  Delegates so feared the “tyranny” of a strong central government, as well as they feared their neighbors, that they rejected national authority.  In effect, the congressional delegates created thirteen independent nations instead of one, and our nation suffered from it.  Amending this confederation required the approval of all thirteen states, virtually paralyzing any national effort.  This form of government lasted until the adoption of the US Constitution on September 17, 1787.

Despite these weaknesses the fledgling “United States” survived and even achieved some success against British forces.  Particularly early in the war, the British forces possessed several opportunities for destroying the Continental Army and ending the rebellion.  Fortunately for us British commanders proved lethargic and complacent, believing the “colonial rabble” incapable of defeating them.  Furthermore, as the Continental Army gained experience and training it grew more professional, standing toe-to-toe against the British.  Since the US achieved superpower status it fell into the same trap, continuously underestimating less powerful enemies.

The surrender of British forces at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781 changed British policy regarding its American colonies.  British forces now controlled mainly three enclaves: New York City; Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia.  Loyalist forces, discouraged by British reverses, either retreated into these enclaves, departed America or surrendered.  Waging a global war against France and Spain further reduced the number of troops available for the American theater.  This serves another modern lesson for maintaining adequate forces for meeting not only your superpower responsibilities, but executing unforeseen contingencies.

Ironically, the victory at Yorktown almost defeated the Americans as well, since the civil authorities almost stopped military recruitment.  Washington struggled at maintaining significant forces for confronting the remaining British forces in their enclaves.  An aggressive British commander may still score a strategic advantage by striking at demobilizing American forces.  Fortunately, the British government lost heart for retaining America and announced the beginning of peace negotiations in August, 1782.

The Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783 officially ended the American Revolution; however it did not end America’s struggles.  American negotiators proved somewhat naïve in these negotiations against their more experienced European counterparts.  Of importance, the British believed American independence a short-lived situation, given the disunity among Americans.  Congress began discharging the Continental Army before the formal signing of the treaty, leaving less than one hundred on duty.

Instead of a united “allied” front, America, France and Spain virtually negotiated separate treaties with England, delighting the British.  They believed that by creating dissension among the wartime allies they furthered their position with their former colonies.  If confronted with a new war with more powerful France and Spain, America might rejoin the British Empire.

When England formally established the western boundary of the US at the Mississippi River it did not consult its Indian allies.  These tribes did not see themselves as “defeated nations,” since they often defeated the Americans.  Spanish forces captured several British posts in this territory and therefore claimed a significant part of the southeastern US.

France, who practically bankrupted itself in financing the American cause and waging its own war against England, expected an American ally.  Unfortunately, the US proved a liability and incapable of repaying France for the money loaned during the war.  France soon faced domestic problems that resulted in the French Revolution in 1789.

For several reasons England believed itself the winner of these negotiations, and in a more favorable situation, globally.  England controlled Canada, from where it closely monitored the unfolding events in the US, and sowed mischief.  It illegally occupied several military forts on American territory and incited the Indian tribes against the American frontier.  By default, England controlled all of the American territory north of the Ohio River and west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Economically, England still believed that the US needed them as its primary trading partner, whether independent or not.  A strong pro-British faction in America called for closer economic ties with the former “mother country.”  As England observed the chaos that gripped the US at this time, they felt that its collapse, and reconquest by England, only a matter of time.

Most Americans today, knowing only the economic, industrial and military power of America cannot fathom the turmoil of this time.  The weak central government and all the states accumulated a huge war debt, leaving them financially unstable.  While the US possessed rich natural resources it lacked the industrial capabilities for developing them, without foreign investment.  With no military forces, the nation lacked the ability of defending its sovereignty and its citizens.  From all appearances our infant nation seemed stillborn, or as the vulnerable prey for the more powerful Europeans.

As stated previously the Articles of Confederation actually created thirteen independent nations, with no national executive for enforcing the law.  Therefore each state ignored the resolutions from Congress and served its own self-interest.  Each state established its own rules for interstate commerce, printed its own money and even established treaties with foreign nations.  No system existed for governing the interactions between the states, who often treated each other like hostile powers.

The new nation did possess one thing in abundance, land; the vast wilderness between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.  Conceded by the British in the Treaty of Paris, the Americans looked at this as their economic solution.  The nation owed the veterans of the Revolution a huge debt and paid them in the only currency available, land grants.  Unfortunately, someone must inform the Indians living on this land and make treaties regarding land distribution.

For the Americans this seemed simple, the Indians, as British allies, suffered defeat with the British and must pay the price.  After all, under the rules of European “civilized” warfare, defeated nations surrendered territory and life went on.  Unfortunately no one, neither American nor British, informed the Indians of these rules, because no one felt they deserved explanation.  Besides, the British hoped that by inciting Indian troubles they might recoup their former colonies.

With British arms and encouragement the tribes of the “Old Northwest” raided the western frontier with a vengeance.  From western New York down through modern Kentucky these Indians kept up their war with the Americans.  In Kentucky between 1783 and 1790 the various tribes killed an estimated 1,500 people, stole 20,000 horses and destroyed an unknown amount of property.

Our former ally, Spain, controlled all of the territory west of the Mississippi River before the American Revolution.  From here they launched expeditions that captured British posts at modern Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi, and the entire Gulf Coast.  However, they claimed about two-thirds of the southeastern US based on this “conquest” including land far beyond the occupation of their troops.  Like the British, they incited the Indians living in this region for keeping out American settlers.

Spain also controlled the port of New Orleans and access into the Mississippi River.  Americans living in Kentucky and other western settlements depended on the Mississippi River for their commerce.  The national government seemed unable, or unwilling, at forcing concessions from Spain, and many westerners considered seceding from the Union. Known as the “Spanish Conspiracy” this plot included many influential Americans and only disappeared after the American victory at Fallen Timbers.

While revisionist historians ignore the “Spanish Conspiracy” they illuminate land speculation by Americans in Spanish territory.  Of course they conveniently ignore the duplicity of Spanish officials in these plots, and their acceptance of American money.  In signing the Declaration of Independence the Founding Fathers pledged “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.”  Many Continental Army officers bankrupted themselves when Congress and their states proved recalcitrant at reimbursing them for incurred expenses.  These officers often personally financed their troops and their expeditions because victory required timely action.  Of importance for the western region, George Rogers Clark used his personal credit for financing his campaigns, which secured America’s claim.  It takes no “lettered” historian for determining that without Clark’s campaign that America’s western boundary ends with the Appalachian Mountains, instead of the Mississippi River.  With the bankrupt Congress and Virginia treasuries not reimbursing him he fell into the South Carolina Yazoo Company.  Clark’s brother-in-law, Dr. James O’Fallon, negotiated this deal for 3,000,000 acres of land in modern Mississippi.  This negotiation involved the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Don Estavan Miro, a somewhat corrupt official.  When the Spanish king negated the treaty, Clark, O’Fallon and the other investors lost their money and grew hateful of Spain.

Another, lesser known, negotiation involved former Continental Army Colonel George Morgan and the Spanish ambassador, Don Diego de Gardoqui.  Morgan received title for 15,000,000 acres near modern New Madrid, Missouri for establishing a colony.  Ironically, an unscrupulous American, James Wilkinson, discussed later in the document, working in conjunction with Miro, negated this deal.

Both of these land deals involved the establishment of American colonies in Spanish territory, with Americans declaring themselves Spanish subjects.  Few Spaniards lived in the area west of the Mississippi River and saw the growing number of American settlers as a threat.  However, if these Americans, already disgusted with their government, became Spanish subjects, they now became assets.  If they cleared and farmed the land, they provided revenue that Spanish Louisiana desperately needed.  Since many of these men previously served in the Revolution, they provided a ready militia for defending their property.  This included defending it against their former country, the United States, with little authority west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Internationally, the weak US became a tragic pawn in the continuing superpower struggle between England and France.  With no naval forces for protection, American merchant mariners became victims of both nations on the high seas.  British and French warships stopped American ships bound for their enemy, confiscating cargo and conscripting sailors into their navies.  In the Mediterranean Sea, our ships became the targets of the Barbary Pirates, the ancestors of our enemies today.  Helpless, our government paid ransoms for prisoners and tribute for safe passage until the Barbary Wars of the early 19th Century.

Despite all of these problems most influential Americans still “looked inward,” and feared a strong central government more than foreign domination.  When the cries of outrage came from the western frontiers regarding Indian depredations, our leaders still more feared a “standing army.”  In the world of the Founding Fathers the tyranny of King George III’s central government created their problem.  The king further used his “standing army” for oppressing the colonists and infringing on their liberties.

Congress also possessed more recent examples of the problems with a “standing army” during the American Revolution.  First came the mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line in January, 1781 for addressing their grievances.  Since the beginning of the war, in 1775, the Continental soldiers endured almost insurmountable hardships, as explained previously.  The soldiers rarely received pay, and then received the almost worthless “Continental Currency,” which inflation further devalued.  This forced severe hardships also on the soldiers’ families, and many lost their homes and farms.  The soldiers marched on the then-capital, Philadelphia, for seeking redress for these grievances.  Forced into action, Congress addressed their problems with pay and the soldiers rejoined the Army.

A second, though less well known, mutiny occurred with the New Jersey Line shortly thereafter with different results.  For “nipping” a growing problem “in the bud,” Washington ordered courts-martial and the execution of the ring leaders.  The last such trouble occurred in the final months of the war in the Continental Army camp at Newburgh, New York.  Dissatisfied with congressional inaction on their long-overdue pay, many officers urged a march on Philadelphia.  Fortunately, Washington defused this perceived threat against civil authority, and squashed the strong possibility of a military dictatorship.

However, Congress realized that it needed some military force for defending the veterans settling on their land grants.  The delegates authorized the First United States Regiment, consisting of 700 men drawn from four state militias for a one year period.  I read countless sources describing the inadequacy of this force, highlighting congressional incompetence and non-compliance by the states.  The unit never achieved its authorized strength, the primitive conditions on the frontier hindered its effectiveness and corrupt officials mismanaged supplies.  Scattered in small garrisons throughout the western territories, it never proved a deterrent against the Indians.

No incentives existed for enlisting in this regiment, and it attracted a minority of what we call today “quality people.”  Again, confirming state dominance over the central government, this “army” came from a militia levy from four states, a draft.  A tradition at the time provided for the paying of substitutes for the men conscripted during these militia levies.  Sources reflect that most of these substitutes came from the lowest levels of society, including those escaping the law.  From whatever source these men came, at least they served and mostly did their best under difficult circumstances.

Routinely, once the soldiers assembled they must learn the skills needed for performing their duties.  For defending the western settlements the small garrisons must reach their destination via river travel.  Once at their destination they must often construct their new installations using the primitive tools and resources available.  The primitive transportation system often delayed the arrival of the soldiers’ pay and supplies, forcing hardships on the troops.  Few amenities existed at these frontier installations and the few settlements provided little entertainment for the troops.  Unfortunately, once the soldiers achieved a level of professionalism, they reached the end of their enlistment.  With few incentives for reenlistment, the process must begin again, with recruiting and training a new force.

Fortunately many prominent Americans saw that the country needed a different form of government for ensuring its survival.  Despite the best intentions and established rules, few people followed these rules or respected our intentions.  The Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in May, 1787 with George Washington unanimously elected as its president.  As the delegates began the process of forming a “more perfect Union,” the old, traditional “colonial” rivalries influenced the process.

While most Americans possess at least ancillary knowledge of the heated debates among the delegates, few know the conditions.  Meeting throughout the hot summer, the delegates kept the windows of their meeting hall closed, preventing the “leaking” of information.  We must remember that this occurred before electric-powered ventilation systems or air conditioning.  They kept out the “media,” and none of the delegates spoke with “journalists,” again for maintaining secrecy.  Modern Americans, often obsessed with media access, do not understand why the delegates kept their deliberations secret.

Most of the delegates felt they possessed one chance for creating this new government and achieving the best possible needed their focus.  “Media access” jeopardized this focus and “leaked” information, with potential interruptions, jeopardized their chance for success.  We find this incomprehensible today, with politicians running toward television cameras, “leaking” information and disclosing national secrets.  Unfortunately a “journalistic elite” exists today, misusing the First Amendment, with many “media moguls” believing themselves the “kingmakers” of favorite politicians.

The delegates sought the best document for satisfying the needs of the most people, making “special interest groups” secondary.  Creating a united nation proved more important than prioritizing regional and state desires.  These delegates debated, and compromised, on various issues; many of which remain important today.  They worried over the threat of dominance by large, well-populated states over smaller, less-populated states.  Other issues concerned taxation, the issue that sparked the American Revolution, and import duties, which pitted manufacturing states against agricultural states.  Disposition of the mostly unsettled western land, claimed by many states, proved a substantial problem for the delegates.  The issue of slavery almost ended the convention and the delegates compromised, achieving the best agreement possible at the time.  On September 17, 1787 the delegates adopted the US Constitution and submitted it for approval by the individual states.

Again, merely passing laws and adopting resolutions does not immediately solve the problems, or change people’s attitudes.  Ratification of the Constitution required the approval of nine states, (three-fourths) which occurred on June 21, 1788.  However, two important large states, New York and Virginia, still debated ratification.  Several signers of the Declaration of Independence, and delegates at the Constitutional Convention, urged the defeat of the Constitution.  Fiery orator, Patrick Henry, of “Give me liberty, or give me death,” fame worked hard for defeating it in Virginia.  Even the most optimistic supporters gave the Constitution, and the nation, only a marginal chance at survival.

Continue to Part II

The Decisive Battles of the Frontier

My apologies for the long break between posts. The last post discussed a good series from the History Channel in its early days before it sold out to ratings. The series Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest examined the lives of four individuals important to the history of the Old Northwest. The History Channel produced another series a couple of years later that dealt with important battles on the frontier. Frontier: The Decisive Battles of the Old Northwest presents the story of four major battles/wars that shaped the early history of the United States well into the 19th century. Both series are well worth watching for history buffs and teachers for classroom use, as they present history well and captivate the viewer.

The first battle discussed in the series is the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780 in South Carolina. The episode discusses the background history of the American Revolution, especially the Southern Theater, as well as the important figures involved. The episode discusses the Scotch-Irish frontier dwellers that comprised the Patriot force involved. In addition, the British commander of the Loyalist militia opposing the Americans, Patrick Ferguson, was chronicled. The show treated Ferguson well, noting his genius in military matters. Ferguson commanded units of British riflemen, designed rifles, and was described as one of the best marksmen in the British army. The show notes how Ferguson at one time had George Washington in his sight and could have easily killed him, but did not (one could dream up an incredible counter-factual history from that incident). The episode describes the brutality of the battle, as each side fought bitterly for the mountain, including the death of Ferguson. King’s Mountain is a classic example of the sheer brutality of frontier warfare, especially when adding the clannish feuds of the frontier in the mix.

The second episode deals with one of the most important battles of the Old Northwest for the young United States. The Battle of Fallen Timbers was a decisive victory for the American army in the wake of stinging defeats earlier at the hands of the Miami Indian confederacy. The episode notes the background leading up to the battle, discussing the defeats of Josiah Harmar and Arthur St. Clair in 1790 and 1791. St. Clair’s Defeat is the battle that led to Fallen Timbers. On November 4, 1791, Arthur St. Clair’s force of militia and regular US troops were ambushed by the Indian force. The militia broke and ran, leaving the regular troops to hold out for several hours before being overrun and forced to retreat. The battle was a stinging defeat for the nation, as over 800 Americans were killed, which included over 600 soldiers and 200 camp followers (the wives and children of soldiers, as well as prostitutes). The United States army suffered heavily, loosing one-quarter of its standing strength, with the casualty rate amongst the soldiers involved being over 97 percent.

The episode discusses the story of William Wells, a white man who was captured by the Miami from his Kentucky home when he was twelve years old. The Miami chief Little Turtle adopted the boy as his son, and Wells married Little Turtle’s daughter. Wells fought with his adopted father at St. Clair’s Defeat, but would serve the American army after realizing that he could have killed his own kin in the battle. He rejoined his white family and offered his services to the new American commander tasked with avenging the American defeat and rebuilding the army, “Mad” Anthony Wayne.

Wayne reorganized the army, which he named “The Legion of the United States” and instilled strict discipline as he prepared his men for battle. Wayne used Wells as a scout, given Wells knowledge of the Indians. The Battle of Fallen Timbers began in August 1794 when Wayne attacked the Indian forces after waiting for a couple of days (the video noted that the Indians did not eat prior to the battle and Wayne was allowing them to starve) and caught them in a weakened state from lack of food. The Indians soon realized that they were facing a much stronger enemy and fled to a nearby British fort, only t find the gate locked, as the British did not want to involve themselves directly. The battle resulted in the United States gaining much of present-day Ohio via the Treaty of Greenville of 1795. In addition, it solidified American control of the Old Northwest given that the British had occupied forts in the area in violation of the Treaty of Paris.

The third episode discusses the major American victory in the last battle of the War of 1812, which occurred after the peace treaty was signed. The Battle of New Orleans pitted the rag-tag American force, comprising regular troops, militia, pirates, and others under Gen. Andrew Jackson against the British army (most fresh from victories against Napoleon in Continental Europe) under Gen. Edward Pakenham. The episode, like all the others, unpacks the background history of Jackson and the war, including Jackson’s campaigns against southern Indians. It also discusses the diverse makeup of his army.

The episode examines the battle very well, noting surprise attacks by the Americans against the British. It then chronicles the main battle, describing the defensive fortifications erected by the Americans, as well as the valiant assault by the British against the entrenched Americans. The episode notes the staggering losses suffered by the British, including the loss of many officers, Gen. Pakenham among them. The episode notes how the battle secured the American position in terms of the peace treaty, and propelled Jackson to national prominence, with the culmination of his election to the presidency.

The final episode examines the last major conflict between Americans and Indians in the Old Northwest, the Black Hawk War in 1832 in Illinois and Michigan Territory. The war erupted when Black Hawk violated treaties and remained in the village of Saukenuk in 1830 and 1831 following hunting. In April 1832, his band crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois, which led the governor to claim that Black Hawk was invading his state. Illinois militia soon pursued Black Hawk, but were ambushed and fled in the Battle of Stillman’s Run. Even though only a few militia were killed, exaggerated claims of thousands of warriors sweeping across northern Illinois rallied whites to fight against Black Hawk. One of those who joined the fight was Abraham Lincoln. The episode notes the destruction of Black Hawk’s band at the Battle of Bad Axe, in which most of his band was trapped on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River and killed or captured most of those trapped. Black Hawk and some of his remaining followers surrendered soon after the battle and were sent on a tour of the country. The episode mentions how the war influenced many figures eventually significant to later history, including Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Zachary Taylor, and Winfield Scott.

Overall, this series is as good as the first Frontier series and covers important battles that are significant to the history of the early American frontier. It discusses the battles, places them in historical context, and presents the backgrounds of the events and principle  characters involved. It is a great resource for history teachers for use in the classroom and is worth checking out.

TV Documentary on the Legends of the Frontier

I must state that I believe that The History Channel has declined in quality over the years. When it started, the programming was of a higher quality. Then, the channel began to over emphasize the World War II period (not that this time is not important), specifically Nazi Germany, which earned it the nickname “The Hitler Channel”. Now, the programming has gone off the deep end, with shows like Monster Quest and The Universe, which is more in the realm of The Discovery Channel. It has led me to question, whether a new channel dedicated to history is needed to bring quality programming on history back. With that said, I would like write a bit about a great miniseries that was on The History Channel a few years ago and deals with the subject area of this site and is quite good. The show is known as Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest and it is one of two series, with the other series, Frontier: The Decisive Battles dealing with four important battles in the Old Northwest.

Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest focuses on four key figures of the history of the old Northwest. The first episode focuses on Robert Rogers and his rangers that battled the French and their Indian allies for the British during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The episode discusses Rogers’ early life, his service in the British army when he formed the rangers, and his later life. One of the pivotal events discussed in this episode is the attack on the Abenaki village at St. Francis in Canada in October of 1759, in which Rogers destroyed the village, killed many of the village inhabitants (accounts vary as to how many), and then trekking through the Vermont wilderness for days, struggling for food and survival. The episode provides a great amount of information about Rogers, his rangers, and links them to today’s ranger forces. This subject is a great start for this series.

The second episode deals with one of the pivotal events in the intervening years between the close of the French and Indian War and the start of the American Revolution, Pontiac’s Rebellion. Like the episode dealing with Rogers’ Rangers, Pontiac’s Rebellion examines the life of Pontiac, the Ottawa chief and his rebellion against the British in the Old Northwest in 1763. The rebellion began at Detroit and then spread to many other outposts in Michigan, and eventually to much of the old Northwest. The episode chronicles Pontiac’s life as well, including his death at the hands of fellow Indians.

The third episode chronicles the life and events surrounding one of the most important people in the old Northwest, at least from the American standpoint, George Rogers Clark. The episode, titled The Long Knives, examines the men behind Clark’s epic foray into the Illinois Country during the American Revolution. The episode discusses the training of Clark’s men in Kentucky and his easy captures of Kaskaskia and Cahokia in Illinois, as well as his initial capture of Vincennes, Indiana. The show chronicles Clark’s British opponent Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton, known as the Hairbuyer, for his trade in American scalps, very well. Clark leaves only a small force at Vincennes, which allows Hamilton to retake the town and its fort, named Fort Sackville. Clark then leads an epic expedition across the cold winter prairie of southern Illinois, which includes several days of marching through chest-deep, frigid waters and huddling on mounds of mud, as the Wabash River was swollen and little dry land existed. Clark and his men, exhausted to the point of collapse, then lay siege to the fort and force its surrender. Clark’s expedition paves the way for securing the old Northwest for the Americans.

The final episode of the series deals with the life of Tecumseh and his efforts at a pan-Indian confederacy to drive out the American settlers in the early 1800s. Included in this episode is Tecumseh’s early life, including his fighting during St. Clair’s defeat and the Battle of Fallen Timbers, his brother, later known as “the Prophet”, fight against the whites, including the Battle of Tippecanoe with William Henry Harrison, service and death with the British in the War of 1812. The episode provides great insight into his service in the War of 1812 with the British army and death at the Battle of the Thames in 1813.

Overall, all four episodes in this series are worth watching, as they focus on important people in frontier America and the events surrounding them. Though the programming on The History Channel has declined some over the years, Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest is one program that illustrates how historical programming on frontier America should be done.

The Politically Correct Revolutionary War

I take children’s television programs dealing with historical events very seriously because not only are kids our future, but if they are given a bad education on history, I will end up attempting to fix the mistakes when they arrive at college (shudders). This leads me to examine a series, originally put out by PBS called Liberty’s Kids. The goal of the program is to educate kids age 7-12 about the American Revolution (God forbid that kids are encouraged to read books on the subject). This is certainly a noble effort, but the show falls short, choosing to present a politically correct story of our war for independence that ignores many historical facts. While you may be wondering why I would follow a kid’s show, I must state that I take such things seriously and want to make sure that history is presented correctly to kids, especially in today’s society where kids are not as likely to pick up books and seek out historical truth.

The main characters of the show report the events of the Revolutionary period while working for Dr. Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. While it is true that Franklin printed such a paper, a Google search is inconclusive for the time of the Revolution. However, two details of Franklin’s life support the idea that he was not publishing the paper during the Revolutionary period. First, he was serving in an ambassadorial role to England on several occasions from the mid 1750s until 1775, which meant being in London for years at a time, which would have prevented him from publishing the paper. Likewise, his service in France during much of the Revolution would have also prevented him from publishing the paper. While I certainly understand that the cartoon is somewhat fictitious, I also do not want children to get the wrong ideas about Benjamin Franklin and the Revolution. In addition to the child reporters of Dr. Franklin, is another character named Moses, a former slave who taught himself to read and purchased his freedom, who now works for Franklin. This is even more unlikely given the nature of society at the time with regard to slavery and the status of blacks in society.

The major problem I have with this show is the over emphasis on minority characters and the glossing over of the negative aspects of these characters for the sake of political correctness. For instance, African Americans are frequently highlighted in areas where they would have had little presence at the time, particularly in the Continental Army (less than ten percent of all Continental soldiers were black, but you would get the impression from the show that it was much higher). American Indians were also shown in favorable light, with characters such as the Shawnee Cornstalk used to give the impression that American Indians were at peace and harmony until the white man arrived, which contradicts mounds of evidence to the contrary.

In addition, several key battles are overlooked. For instance, George Rogers Clark’s expedition to liberate the Illinois Country was not covered by the series. Instead, the series focuses on two of the main characters traveling down the Mississippi River to meet Governor Galvez with a Continental officer. The series does not examine Quebec, which was an important early battle in the war, specifically because of the amazing journey through the Maine wilderness by Benedict Arnold and his men. Only one episode covers the entire Southern theater of battle, which has the important events of Camden, Gulliford Courthouse, and Cowpens. While I understand that covering everything in the war would be too much for young children, consider this, the series was made up of 40 episodes at roughly 30 minutes each, which is 20 hours of total time. In contrast, the groundbreaking series by A&E The American Revolution covers the entire war very well, including the events overlooked by Liberty’s Kids, in a little over eight hours (I watched The American Revolution when I was ten, which is the target age area for the PBS show).

To be fair, there are some aspects of the show that I like. The show does a wonderful job of portraying George Washington to be a wonderful man of character, which is somewhat lacking in today’s historical discourse. The portrayal of Benedict Arnold is quite good, and the battle sequence, though a little quirky, is done very well, so not to scare young kids, but give them a decent concept of the nature of the battles during the war. In addition, the show illustrates the trials of the Continental army at Valley Forge, their training by Baron von Steuben, and the attempts to seize power from Washington by other officers. The political and international relations aspects of the show are also very well done.

In closing, PBS’s attempt to present a politically correct American Revolution to kids fails this historian’s litmus test for the most part. While it is important to tell the stories of minority participants in history, the over emphasis of minority characters, as well as the neglect of several events in the Revolutionary War only serve to give kids a misguided idea about this critical time in our history. There are some good qualities to the show, but they are overshadowed by the problems noted. I encourage parents to watch the show, if available, and talk with your children and make sure they have access to books on the Revolution and the major players, so that they can gain a better education about this time in our nation’s past than through the tube. Kids, do not let your knowledge of American history be only what you watch on television, get out and read, as you will discover many wonderful things that TV will not provide.

Review of The First Way of War by John Grenier

I wrote the following review for On Point: The Journal of Army History and it will appear in an upcoming issue.

The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814. By John Grenier. Cambridge University Press, 2005. i-xiv, 232 Pp. Figures. Maps. Index. ISBN 0-521-84566-1. $30.00

Through gripping accounts taken from primary sources to maps of the regions in question, Air Force officer and Air Force Academy history Professor John Grenier argues and illustrates how America developed its unique military heritage and style of war making based upon irregular warfare. Specifically, Grenier examines the killing of non-combatants and destruction of crops and homes during the wars in the colonies as well as the American Revolution, the Indian wars of the early republic, and the War of 1812.

In his introduction, Grenier discusses the history and historiography of military and specifically American military history, including the development of America’’s unique way of making war. He lists off several historians and works from the past that discuss this topic, which provide the reader with a good background on the subject presented in this work.

Grenier presents the history of American rangers through much of the work and he keeps the story in chronological order beginning with the wars in the colonies from 1607-1689, which occurred between colonists and Indian tribes. He brings to light how ranger companies were generational with sons often leading units that their fathers once led. He then moves into the wars on the continent between France and England in the eighteenth century as well as the lesser-known wars, noting the role that rangers and the tactics they used played in the conflicts in the mid-eighteenth century prior to the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

Grenier then breaks the flow of the work with a chapter dealing with the history of petite guerre in Europe. This story is important for understanding this work, but would better serve the work if it was the first chapter as in the current placement as the third chapter, it breaks the flow in a way that hurts the story that the author is presenting. This is not to say that the chapter does not belong as it does, but rather that it belongs in a different place within the larger work.

Grenier then examines America’’s way of war making in the French and Indian War. He notes that Britain realizes the need for American rangers, especially after Braddock’’s defeat, but that they are slow to realize this. Shortly after Braddock’’s defeat, various units of American rangers are formed in response, including one unit formed by Robert Rogers (the famous Roger’’s Rangers). He also notes how the British after initially relying on the rangers attempt to replace them, but fail. Finally, he concludes the chapter by examining how the British adapt the American way of war.

Grenier also examines the Revolutionary War period, primarily focusing on the war on the frontier, which includes stories about George Rogers Clark as well as the Northeast frontier. Grenier then examines the 1790s, which present great defeats and triumphs on the frontier from St. Clair’’s defeat to the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The story then carries into the early 1800s, focusing on events like the Indian war in the Northwest against Tecumseh and the Creek War to the south, finally ending in 1815.

Overall, Grenier’’s scholarship is quite good with many primary sources drawn together for this work, including the papers of Sir William Johnson, as well as many government documents. He also provides a good selection of maps and illustrations to aid the reader in understanding. His style is formal, but not beyond the general reading audience, which gives it a wider audience as both historians and general readers can understand the book. Though he is an Air Force officer, Grenier proves that he knows the subject well. His work adds greatly to the scholarship of both American history and US Army history. Both historians interested in the topic and general audiences will benefit from reading The First Way of War.