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 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 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.