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.

Frontier Battles Reader’s Choice

I am somewhat at a loss for what to write about for here, but also hope that my dad will post something on here about his road trip to Fort Massac in southern Illinois to the annual Fort Massac Encampment tomorrow. With that said, I am asking you, the readers, to offer suggestions for topics that you would like to see on Frontier Battles. You have two ways to make your opinion known, either comment on this post, or use the contact page to contact me directly. Let me know what topic you would like to see and I will do my best to make it happen. If you would like to write on a particular topic for this site, please do not hesitate to use the contact page and let me know your interest.

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.

Thoughts on the PBS Documentary “The War That Made America”

My apologies for not keeping up with this site, but I hope to keep up with it, as I am reviewing a book dealing with the period, and I hope to get other writers involved.

I have been meaning to write something about the documentary “The War That Made America” for some time now. As one who enjoys good television programming on the subject of early American history, I not only own this show, but both “Frontier” series put out by the History Channel (back when it was good), as well as the A&E documentary “The American Revolution”, which is a classic (reviews on these will appear some day).

That said, I would like to highlight some of the good parts, as well as some of the bad with this program. The documentary is narrated very well by Graham Green, an Oneida actor who had ancestors that fought in the conflict. The documentary is packed with information and good living history excerpts. It examines the war from all sides and discusses many of the important figures and events of the war, though sometimes with only a mention. In addition to good narration and balance, the research is quite solid. Finally, the acting for the living history is good and certainly not as annoying as recent documentaries on The History Channel.

There are a couple of problems that I do have with this program. While the acting is quite good, the way it is presented is somewhat awkward. This is because in many of the scenes the main character in question (Washington, the Marquis de Montcalm, etc.) pulls a stunt out of Saved by the Bell, in which the scene seems to freeze with the actor portraying the character in question talking to the audience. While the tactic is interesting and makes the attempt to have a historical figure communicate with the audience, I believe that a traditional scene, similar to a movie would be more appropriate. This is only a small problem that does not negatively affect the value of this program much.

The other, more serious, problem is the portrayal of George Washington. The program portrays Washington as a brash and blundering young man. While this may be somewhat true based upon the events involving him and the ignition of the war, it must be noted that if he were so brash and blundering, how could he have secured a position as a major in the Virginia militia? Yes, his family was well off, but Washington did possess valuable experience.

In addition to the portrayal of Washington, another problem is the overt amount of attention paid to him by the program. While I certainly revere Washington and admire him, I also know that he was a minor player in the grand scheme of the war in America. More attention could have been paid to other aspects of the conflict, like the siege of Louisbourg.

Overall, while there are minor problems, I find this program to be very good and a useful tool for educators wishing to find a good program to show classes dealing with this period. I applaud PBS (which is a rarity given my views on their politics) on this fine program and encourage everyone to consider watching it.