Early in 2000, the Smithsonian Museum of American History announced… it would assist in the production of an epic film about the American Revolution starring Mel Gibson. Historians, history buffs, and living historians were further enticed by the original script detailing the exploits of “Swamp Fox” Francis Marion. Disappointment with “The Patriot” started early, as producers ordered a substantial rewrite of the script after researching the complex life of Marion. Apparently, a slave-owning Indian fighter cannot be heroic in a major Hollywood production. Gibson instead portrays an anachronism- a South Carolina plantation owner who allows free blacks to work his land; a rebel torn between his family and the American cause.
Cute kids mask bad movie
It’s as if a group of impressionable, idealistic college sophomores… sat down and scripted the American Revolution “as it should have been.” Young women stand up and chastise their elders in town meetings, slaves struggle for freedom in the deepest parts of South Carolina, and the evil imperialist British forces commit mass murder similar to the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre of 1944. There’s plenty of speechifying, Gibson’s slow boiling, hunky Heath Ledger, and adorable children- but the film is woefully short on history. Couldn’t the Smithsonian have advised on more than just costuming? Gibson’s rage is incapable of overwhelming such a careless script (the same script that compares British soldiers to Nazis.) The Hollywood community doesn’t have the courage to make a film about the complexities of American history. We are either preached to with politically correct drivel like “Dances with Wolves,” or insulted with comic-book nonsense like this monstrosity.
1776 or 1944?
The British defeat at Saratoga…in October of 1777 was clearly the turning point of the Revolutionary War. The surrender of an entire British army finally brought the French recognition and aid the Americans desperately needed. The defeat also put tremendous pressure on the administration of Lord North and its failing war policies. What is often overlooked is how close the war came to ending following Burgoyne’s surrender. Just days before Saratoga, Washington’s army had launched a surprise attack on Sir William Howe’s army near the sleepy village of Germantown, Penna. Two crushing defeats, nearly on top of one another, would have surely spelled the end of the North ministry. His replacement would have pursued resolution.
Fighting an increasingly unpopular war
The British forces and Germantown never expected… Washington’s bold stroke. Just three weeks earlier, the redcoats routed the Americans at Brandywine, the largest battle of the war. British commander Sir William Howe was not expecting an attack as his forces rested on the outskirts of Germantown. The battle that occurred on October 4, 1777 could have helped end the Revolution…..The British survived:
British stubbornly defend the Chew House
- Fog blanketed much of the field that morning, obscuring vital marching routes and confusing commanders on both sides.
- Washington’s plans were complex, too complex for his poorly trained army. His forces had to advance 16 miles on a night march in four separate columns. Orders were confused, troops became lost, and the attacks were not coordinated.
- At a pivotal moment early in the fighting, General Howe personally rallied his retreating troops, and was nearly killed by American artillery.
- Significant confusion led to a destructive round of friendly fire, which forced Washington’s men to disengage at the British center.
- British reinforcements were able to exploit the American disorder and drive the Continentals from the field.
Washington’s audacity at Germantown… attacking a numerically superior foe, just weeks after suffering a serious defeat, did not go unnoticed in Europe. The French were every bit as impressed by Washington’s near victory in Pennsylvania, as they were by the British surrender in New York.
The mythology surrounding Lexington and Concord often obscure the history… of the events of April 19, 1775. General Thomas Gage tried to put the day’s events into perspective for his anxious superiors across the Atlantic. Gage knew too well that this was not going to be a suppression of “farmers with pitchforks.”
every hill, fence, and house
“…a continual skirmish for the space of 15 miles, receiving fire from every hill, fence, house, barn, etc.. the whole country was assembled in arms with surprising expedition, and several thousand are now assembled about this town threatening to attack…and we are very busy making preparations to oppose them.” Gage to Earl of Dartmouth, April 1775
Ageing leads to reflection… 42 years have passed and reflection reveals a life devoted to the study of history. A career in education has shown how rare academic commitment can be…. all I have ever wanted to do is history. These books inspired, taught, and frustrated me along the journey. ..
Civil War chess master
- American Heritage History of the Civil War-Narrative by Bruce Catton. Little more than a coffee table dust collector in most homes, the copy in my parents’ home was well worn. Richly illustrated with historic photos and informative maps, it was the perfect introductory course in Civil War studies. Luckily, video game consoles weren’t available during the early days spent reading Catton’s crystal clear prose.
- Band of Brothers- by Stephen Ambrose. WW2 stories from my Grandfather inspired me to learn more about the greatest generation. Ambrose showed me the power of primary sources- there are hundreds utilized in this harrowing tale of Easy Company’s combat experience. All of the vitriol aimed at Ambrose (much of it jealousy) causes us to forget what a great storyteller he was.
Uncle Steve and Maj. Dick Winters
- Red, White, and Black- by Gary Nash. The book that deconstructed the mediocre history education I received in high school, Nash’s study opened my eyes to New Left historiography. The colonization of North America was more complicated than Pilgrims, John Smith, and Ponce Deleon; Nash’s vision challenges the cereal box standard that passes for history in many high schools.
- The Killer Angels- by Michael Shaara. Historical fiction at its very best, Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the battle of Gettysburg is steeped in history. Shaara exposes us to the battle through the eyes of its key participants, a riveting format often imitated, but never equaled. Growing up just an hour from the battlefield, this novel helped bring it to life better than any audio tour.
- Lincoln’s Virtues-by William Lee Miller. An “ethical biography” of our greatest President, Miller departs from the typical Lincoln canon. Rather than recounting Lincoln’s deeds, Miller attempts to explain the actions by examining the history of his belief structure. This book is essential in understanding the man behind the myths.
- The Radicalism of the American Revolution- by Gordon Wood. Spend enough time in college history courses and you’ll get the impression that the American Revolution was stale, conservative, and not all that revolutionary. Wood sets the record straight in a compelling study that makes a brilliant counter to the anti-Americanism of Howard Zinn. The work of Wood is so much more valuable than a passing quip by Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting.”
Don’t believe anything Matt Damon says
- Gettysburg: The Second Day- by Harry Pfanz. Richly detailed tactical study of the crucial day at the battle of Gettysburg that is essential reading to students of the battle. Pfanz does more than explain the complicated troop movements; he brings the battle to life with the memories of the men who were there. I spent many a Summer afternoon tramping the field with a well worn copy of Pfanz’s masterpiece in my hands.
- The American Mind- by Henry Steele Commager. Trying to explain the central American consciousness seemed an impossible task, but Commager’s signature study managed to frustrate a generation of history students. He should be admired for valuing stories above statistics, personalities over presumption, and a firm belief in American exceptionalism.
At the heart of historical revisionism is distrust… a lack of faith in previous interpretations of the historical record. This blog has bitterly observed the crass consumerism and intellectual vanity that often drive outlandish revisions in our history. But, a closer examination reveals the true divide between revisionist and traditionalist- trust.
Maybe there’s hope
As historians rush to laud Alan Taylor’s new revision… of the American Revolutionary movement, the distrust is laid bare. If revisionist historians refuse to come out and proclaim all previous work wrong, then there must be a lack of trust. Was Gordon Wood trying to deceive us when explaining how radical our Revolution was? Did Dumas Malone wish to hide Jefferson’s feelings on slavery and freedom? Was Edmund Morgan deliberately distorting history when explaining racial diversity in Colonial Virginia? All revisionists will say is that works like Taylor’s are now “the standards.” To hell with what came before…
Unite us, David
There is no mass historical conspiracy to disregard… races or classes of people. Gordon Wood should be read in first year graduate courses and beyond. In their zeal to legitimize controversial interpretations, revisionists like Taylor and Annette Gordon-Reed propagate the distrust of these noteworthy predecessors.
Friends and rivals
The American experience has always been built on experimentation… Our very existence doubted by most of the world, the optimism of Thomas Jefferson became essential to the survival of our republican experiment.
As the election of 1796 loomed… the friendship between Jefferson and John Adams waned. Jefferson reminded his friend of their experiment:
“I am aware of the objection to this, that the office becoming more important may bring on serious discord in elections. In our country I think it will be long first; not within our day; and we may safely trust to the wisdom of our successors the remedies of the evil to arise in theirs. Both experiments however are now fairly committed, and the result will be seen. Never was a finer canvas presented to work on than our countrymen…. This I hope will be the age of experiments in government, and that their basis will be founded on principles of honesty, not of mere force….If ever the morals of a people could be made the basis of their own government, it is our case.” Jefferson to Adams, February 28 1796