Lafayette: The Lost Hero to air Monday, September 13 on PBS

On Monday, September 13 at 9PM Central Time (check local listings), PBS will air a documentary on one of the more unique and important figures from the Revolutionary War, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette was a French noble, who came to fight for the American cause at only 19. Lafayette: The Lost Hero presents the intimate story of the man who served as major-general in the Continental Army, and was a close friend of George Washington.

The story of Lafayette involves struggle and troubles, as while he is from a noble family, he strives to prove himself in French aristocratic society. He marries Adrienne, daughter of French aristocrats in 1775. In his youth, he became enamored with the idea of liberty and found sympathy with the American cause, which motivated him to travel to America, leaving a pregnant Adrienne in France.

The Revolution is but one part of the whole story. Lafayette’s life after the Revolution is covered very well, including his role in the French Revolution, imprisonment in France and Austria, and return to America to a hero’s welcome in 1824-5. The interesting aspects of this film are the love between him and Adrienne, as well as how both France and the United States have seemed to forget Lafayette (an example given was a statue of him donated by American schoolchildren being moved from the center of Paris to an obscure park). Through wonderful use of living history demonstrations, interviews with scholars and descendants of the Marquis, and wonderful use of images and animations, Lafayette: The Lost Hero is a documentary that you should record and watch.

Here’s a trailer:

Lafayette: The Lost Hero from The Documentary Group on Vimeo.

Click here for images and information on the documentary from the PBS website.

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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.

Review of HBO’s John Adams

Now that I have had time to digest it and watch it again with friends, I am now prepared to review the recent HBO series John Adams for this site. The series link to the Revolutionary War and early National period are quite appropriate for this site. I was thoroughly impressed with this program, though did notice areas of artistic license and a couple areas of inaccuracy.

The series begins in Boston in 1770 and presents Adams coming upon the Boston Massacre, which likely did not happen, but was a way for the series to link the event to Adams’ defense of the British soldiers. The bulk of the first episode revolves around the trial of the soldiers, the Boston Tea Party, Intolerable Acts, and Adams’ election to the Continental Congress. There are a couple of disturbing scenes, first, the aftermath of the Massacre, and the second showing a man being tarred and feathered. In addition, the members of the Adams family, particularly Abigail, are introduced.

The second episode deals with the beginning of the Revolution and the debate over independence and introduces George Washington and Ben Franklin into the series. The portrayal of Franklin was quite good, but I personally found the portrayal of Washington a bit troubling. In the series, Washington is portrayed as rather soft-spoken, which may recall his humble personality, however, given his temper, particularly when he dismissed Lee at Monmouth, I argue that the actor portraying Washington could have been humble, but spoke louder. The appearance of Washington is also a bit inaccurate in the early episodes, as he appears as a much older man, when he was only in his 40s. The appearance is likened to the portrait on the dollar bill.

The third episode finds Adams and his son John Quincy journeying to France to assist Franklin in securing aid. This episode portrayed the French as a bunch of prissy people, with men and women wearing lots of makeup and the men acting rather feminine. This portrayal of the French was quite amusing, as was the clear discomfort displayed by Adams towards the rather liberal culture of France displayed. Adams is then dispatched to the Netherlands to appeal for financial assistance for America and is initially unsuccessful. At the same time, he sends John Quincy (who was fourteen at the time) to Russia as a diplomatic aid. He contracts illness and is shown near death.

The fourth episode finds John and Abigail reuniting in France to negotiate the Treaty of Paris. This episode begins to illustrate the eventual split between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The Adams are dispatched to England, where Adams meets with King George III. The Adams are unhappy in England and John requests recall. The recall is granted and they return to America, with John finding his children much older and Charles heading down a path to destruction. Adams is elected Vice President and we see a great scene of the inauguration of Washington.

The fifth episode finds Adams serving as VP and President of the Senate. His personality causes the Senate to change the rules barring him from speaking when he attempts to create an elaborate title for Washington, which annoys the Senators. Adams experiences conflicts with Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, as well as being excluded from Washington’s Cabinet meetings. Much of the episode revolves around the ratification of Jay’s Treaty. The episode ends with Adams being elected President.

Episode six focuses on Adams’ presidency, particularly the XYZ Affair and Quasi-war with France. The split between Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton becomes complete. The episode also shows John and Abigail entering the White House. Adams’ son Charles plays a prominent role in the episode, as Adams confronts his son’s alcoholism and disowns him. Charles dies in 1800 and Adams will not forgive his lost son. Adams is defeated by Jefferson and retires to private life.

The last episode of the series finds Adams living at his farm Peacefield in the last years of his life. This episode contains the most inaccuracies of any episodes. In addition, the passage of time in this episode is the greatest, with twenty-five years passing through the hour-long episode. The episode revolves around the deaths of his daughter Nabby in 1813 and Abigail in 1818, as well as his aging and rekindling his friendship with Jefferson. The inaccuracies include when Adams and Jefferson reignited their friendship, which was in 1812, but portrayed in the series as after Abigail’s death in 1818. This inaccuracy contains another within it, as Dr. Benjamin Rush encouraged Adams to write Jefferson, but in 1812 (he died in 1813) In addition, a scene involving Adams criticizing Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence signing painting is inaccurate, as Adams only mentioned the door that Washington bolted out of when he was nominated to be commander of the Continental Army. The election of John Quincy to the Presidency is portrayed nicely. The end of the episode features a touching segment dealing with the deaths of Adams and Jefferson and is very well done.

Overall, the series is quite good, despite some inaccuracies. John Adams and most of the other persons portrayed are done well. John Adams is the Band of Brothers of the American Revolution and I hope that the series will ignite renewed interest in the American Revolution and early National periods in our history. I encourage everyone, except kids (there is adult content) to watch the series or order it on DVD, as it is reasonably priced. Great job HBO on another great historical series.

Review of Founding Fighters

founding-fighters.jpgThis review will appear in an upcoming issue of On Point.

Cate, Alan C. Founding Fighters: The Battlefield Leaders Who Made American Independence. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2006. 264pp. ISBN: 0-275-98707-8 $49.95

Founding Fighters is an interesting new book from former infantry officer and history professor Alan C. Cate, and is published by Praeger Security International. Cate explores an often-overlooked area of study on the American Revolution, the generals who made the core of commanders of the Continental army and their influence on the war’s prosecution and outcome. Cate seeks to indict academic history that he notes often overlooks the major players of the revolution (dead white men) in favor of minorities and other overlooked stories. While he does not state that the stories of minorities are not important, Cate offers his book as a more traditional history that will delight readers.

Cate explores several high-ranking officers in the Continental army through his work. Each officer is profiled via a detailed biography that chronicles their careers prior to the war, their exploits during the war, and, in most cases, their post-war careers. The book is well organized and the introduction provides the reader a brief, but detailed account of the Revolutionary War. This allows readers unfamiliar with the period to read and understand this book, which is beneficial to all readers.

After the helpful introduction to the war, Cate presents detailed biographies of several notable Continental officers and their contributions to the American victory. Some of the officers he chose to examine are a well-known group: Richard Montgomery, Henry Knox, Nathaniel Greene, Benedict Arnold (Arnold’s treason not withstanding), John Paul Jones, Francis Marion, Ethan Allen, Daniel Morgan, and George Rogers Clark. These men and the others Cate examined played significant roles during the Revolution and make this work quite refreshing.

There are many positives to this book. The organization of the book into topical chapters groups each officer chosen along common features, from former service in the British army, to self-education, to frontier legends. In addition to learning about the men and their qualities, the reader learns more about the Revolution, as Cate chose a diverse group that represented the many different campaigns and important battles of the war. Cate draws upon many wonderful sources in this work, both primary and secondary that illustrates thorough research into the subject. The brevity of the work is a plus, as the reader enjoys details about our war for independence without being bogged down in a lengthy tome.

There are a couple of drawbacks to the book, but they do not detract from the worth of this work. The book would benefit from a couple of maps to aid readers unfamiliar with the war as to where the battles mentioned are located. In addition, while Cate seeks to add to the historiography on the American Revolution, given his criticism of academic history, he does not state what other scholars have said on the subject he covers with his work. A little background on the previous historical writing around the officers covered and what he adds would enhance the reputation of the work among professional historians. Again, these problems are minor, but addressing them would help make this book even better than it is already.

Overall, Cate has provided readers with a wonderful book that will educate them on the men who were instrumental in America gaining independence. While most are familiar with Washington, reading Founding Fighters will familiarize them with the other major players of the war. General readers and scholars should add this book to their list. Perhaps Alan Cate will someday write a work on the major leaders of the British army during the Revolution.

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.

Review of The First American Army By Bruce Chadwick

1st-am-army.gifI wrote this review, which appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of On Point: The Journal of Army History.

The First American Army: The Untold Story of George Washington and the Men Behind America’s First Fight for Freedom. By Bruce Chadwick. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2005. ISBN: 1-4022-0506-6. Illustrations. Bibliography. Notes. Index. Pp. 399. $24.95.

Bruce Chadwick, former journalist now lecturer in History at Rutgers and writing teacher at New Jersey City University, attempts to tell the story of the ordinary soldier in the Continental Army. Utilizing the diaries of seven central figures, including one doctor, a poet, and one chaplain, Chadwick intertwines these soldiers’ stories with small quotations from numerous other sources to bring to life a story that should have been told years ago.

The reader experiences Bunker Hill, Saratoga, Trenton, and Yorktown, as well as the disastrous Quebec campaign through the eyes of men who fought there. Readers are witness to the ravages of smallpox in the camps and posts following the Quebec campaign, and the harrowing winter at Valley Forge. The struggle to maintain the fight through mutinies and desertions is a constant in the book, which enhances the image of the Continental Army and further reveals just how desperate the war was and how stubborn the Americans could be in their fight for the cause. The reader also learns the little known story of an all-black regiment and the story of the participation of blacks in the conflict in which they face opposition based on race and the fear of a slave revolt, but gain the opportunity to serve because of manpower shortages.

Chadwick shows the personal sides of the soldiers, both good and bad. The reader observes one soldier who goes to great lengths to obtain leaves to see his beloved wife, while another leads a secret life of adultery. We see chaplains pushed to their breaking points attempting to minister to the sick and dying, only to come back and deliver powerful sermons that lift the spirits of the army. The reader experiences the dedication of the men as doctors continue to work until near death, while other common soldiers will reenlist even after facing repeated serious illness.

In many ways, Chadwick’s work is long overdue, but it has weaknesses. One of the major areas is scholarship. Numerous worthwhile sources, especially primary documentation, are used, but Chadwick does not give adequate endnote citations, which leaves the reader no real clear structure to check the work’s accuracy. In fact, Chadwick begins his bibliography with the following:

All of the quotes from . . . the central figures in the book, were from their diaries. To cite each of the hundreds of quotes from the same sources would be futile, so the single sources for each man’s quotes are listed below. The citations from the more than one hundred other people in the work are listed separately.(371)

The main issue with this quotation is that there are very few endnotes given the amount of material quoted and covered, which prevents the reader from knowing exactly in which source and where the author used material. Instances of reading over two full pages before encountering the next citation in sequence were common. While the validity of the sources is not in question, the lack of endnotes prevents the reader from fully appreciating the work and may raise questions about this works validity.

The other problem area in this work deals with the chapter devoted to women of the revolution. Instead of mentioning the story of Molly Pitcher or the few women who dared to impersonate men to serve in the Army, Chadwick uses this chapter to talk about prostitution and the sexual escapades of the men involved with them. This may turn off many readers who were expecting to learn about women serving in the Army or aiding in other ways.

Overall, Chadwick presents a compelling story, which will excite readers. His background in journalism is present as the story is well written. However, the endnote issue detracts from the work’s value to historians attempting to do research into this time. If these issues are corrected in a second edition, Chadwick’s story will be more worthwhile and useful for a wider audience.