Friday, November 14, 2014

Campaign 1776: Hallowing the Small and the Great

I am of two minds regarding the recent launch, by the Civil War Preservation Trust, of Campaign 1776, the Trust's effort to preserve battlefield land from the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. On the one hand, I have a 21st-century bourgeois appreciation for conservation: preserves and parks and historic sites improve the quality of life in their region, and tend to increase property values as well, not a bad thing in a depressed national real-estate market. Also, as a student of mine observed just the other day, most Americans learn more history from battlefields and museums and non-written media than from books. Experiential learning is very powerful, and actually visiting a historic site and walking over the landscape (or treading the boards within a historic house) gives one a visceral appreciation for the events associated with that site. Visiting the U.S.S. Constitution or the Paul Revere House in Boston, for example, allows one to see how cramped were the private and maritime spaces in which eighteenth-century Anglo-Americans spent their time. And many people who have visited the Gettysburg battlefield, your humble narrator included, have come away convinced the place is haunted, even if the battle itself wasn't the turning-point that its boosters claim. So, two cheers for battlefield preservation!

But I'll reserve the third cheer for the time being, because public history is a difficult enterprise to conduct properly, and the leaders of Campaign 1776, while energetic and well-intentioned, don't (yet) seem to have thought too deeply about the lessons they want to impart to the public.

Based on their website, it looks like Campaign 1776 wants to present a very conventional, top-down account of the Revolutionary War, one which focuses on the heroism of specific leaders, lumps common soldiers together into a largely nameless mass, downplays the motives of British and Loyalist and Native American combatants, and assumes that the Revolutionary War consisted of regular soldiers maneuvering and fighting one another. The Campaign’s discussion of the Battle of Princeton, for instance, focuses on Washington’s endurance, Mercer's heroism, and the historical intersection between the battlefield and Princeton College, rather than on the bush-whacking campaign that Patriot militia units in New Jersey conducted against the British army after the battle. As David Fischer points out (Washington's Crossing, OUP, 2004), this campaign drove Britain out of New Jersey for most of the rest of the war. A focus on the Continental Army disregards the central role that rebel militia played in winning the war: they attacked British outposts and foraging parties, terrorized Loyalists into flight or surrender, and made it impossible for Britain to control the countryside, except a few frontier zones dominated by royalists. Militiamen were, in John Shy’s words, the “sand in the gears of the [British] pacification machine” (A People Numerous and Armed, Univ. of Michigan Press, 1990, p. 237).  It’s difficult, however, to memorialize the actions of a para-military organization that fought few set-piece battles. It’s harder still to build memorials to naval victories or to grants of foreign aid, which is why I also suspect Campaign 1776 will spend little time emphasizing the role that France played in winning the American victory, particularly during the Battle of Yorktown.

From a practical standpoint, though, one thing Campaign 1776 might consider doing is emphasizing the experiences of ordinary soldiers - regulars, volunteers, and militia - in the battles whose sites they are now helping to preserve. The War for American Independence left behind a massive and, for its time, unique body of records dealing with the experience of enlisted men: the pension applications that war veterans filed under the 1818 and 1832 federal pension acts, which fill nearly 900 reels of microfilm at the U.S. National Archives. These applications included veterans’ names, states of residence, and accounts of the battles and engagements in which they served. I don’t ask, of course, that Campaign 1776 plow through thirty or forty thousand records, but other scholars have already mined some of the pension files – John Dann, for example, read all (!) of the Revolutionary War pension applications and later reprinted several dozen of them in The Revolution Remembered (Chicago, 1980). Surely it would not be difficult, as these doughty preservationists raise funds to buy land they regard as “hallowed” – literally, made holy – by American soldiers, for them to remind the public that not everyone who fought at Monmouth or Yorktown was a Great White Man, and that we can recover and retell the life stories of many of the ordinary soldiers and militiamen who took part.

Also, I would like to see Campaign 1776 inform Glenn Beck fans that their movement simultaneously supports conservation, which Beck’s followers associate with the evil Agenda 21 conspiracy, and preserving the memory of the first generation of American heroes. Then we can watch the Beckians’ heads explode from the unresolvable contradiction, just like in Star Trek.


And, yes, the image above is of British soldiers, or more precisely British-soldier re-enactors. Their story, and that of their Loyalist and Native American allies, also deserves telling to the public, but that's an issue for another day.

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