SocraticGadfly: Memorial Day: The civil war before the Civil War

May 25, 2020

Memorial Day: The civil war before the Civil War

What is there that's not been said before, here and elsewhere, about Memorial Day?

It's for the war DEAD, not all veterans, and it was originally for the UNION dead after the Civil War, sadly despoiled by the Lost Cause and its redivivus among the alt-right today.

So, I offer up the civil war before the Civil War — the American Revolution, focusing on Vol 1 of Rick Atkinson's planned new trilogy, and an expanded version of my Goodreads review.

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was originally, when I finished, thinking three stars. But seeing how the "stanners" were rating this almost entirely five stars, with little in the way of nuaced, but favorable, four-star reviews, I had to counterbalance that. Per what follows, here's why, with detailed receipts

Rick Atkinson seems to be prepped to offer a storyteller’s three-volume history of the American Revolution. Well, if volume 1 is indication, he may be suffering from dilettantism and pretentiousness in his storyteller style. (“Prolix” was a word used by another reviewer.) In addition, the book has a few other issues.

First, the stylistic ones.

A firelock is a generic term for a whole historical list of pre-percussion cap long guns. A Brown Bess is normally known as a flintlock.

Yes, the world “firelock” may well have been used back then, along with “flintlock.” But, Atkinson offers only one direct quote.

This one alone I found almost as grating as Gregory Wawro shouting “doughboys” or just “doughs” every five pages in his WWI book “Sons of Freedom,” as reviewed by me here. But it wasn’t the only stylistic problem.

Talking of Hessian bands playing “hautboys” is snooty and incorrect at the same time. The French is “hautbois.” The alternative English is "hoboy" but was pretty much replaced by “oboe” by or shortly before the time of the Revolutionary War, with first documented English use in 1726. Besides again, “oboe” is the word in German.

In addition, direct-quoting Col. Rall in German on one page, then in English on the next, just three paragraphs later, looks like a mix of dilettantism and simply silliness.

Kind of a sneering take on Lord Stirling, who had had a Scottish court recognize his claim before the House of Lords overrode it. The fiscal pretentions may have been aristocratic, but they were based on a real titular claim.

Ditto on calling Hamilton’s mother a sugar islands harlot. Rather, she and his father were, essentially, common-law spouses since she left her husband for him until James Hamilton abandoned her. She did have an affair of some sort with one other man, also single, before James Hamilton. Here's the details. None of this makes her a “sugar islands harlot.” And, if he’s just repeating a trope from the Hamilton musical, then that’s lazy history.

Taken in conjunct with the Stirling sneer (as far as him being a spendthrift, one Thomas Jefferson was, too, as representative of the nobility-pretentious Southern American planter class), pretentious might not be right. "Supercilious," maybe?

That's the main literary issues, but I could have cited more. The Hamilton and Stirling ones go beyond literary to just bad or at least not good history.

There's one main history issue, with many parts.


Yes, SOME of Michael A. Bellesiles’ research was fraudulent. Not all of it. The cost of a gun as two months’ wages has IMO not been refuted. There was a reason the colonies were desperate to import guns at the start of the Revolution — there weren’t THAT many in America. Also, while Bellesiles may have made up will registries, his refuters fail to tell what percentage of colonial Americans died intestate — and, presuming these were mainly poor, how that influences the gun ownership percentages.

Rifles? Atkinson neglects to tell how slow they were to be reloaded and other things, until the last chapter. Readers might be wondering if they were that much more expensive than guns, or why they weren't used more. (They WERE more expensive, but that wasn't the only reason.)

Speaking of guns, while I know what 3-pounders, 6-pounders, etc., are, Atkinson could have done a better job of explaining them for more basic readers. And even for more advanced readers, he could have explained the range of an average 6-pounder of 1775 based on typical 1775 gunpowder. Ditto, of course, for other guns. And, if he's really wanting to write a three-volume, basically military, history of the revolution, tell me the penetration power against, say, brick, of a 12-pounder at 300 yards.

And also on the historical side, as one other reviewer notes, American Indians are almost entirely missing from the narrative. Yes, they didn't have a major part pre-1777, but they were in the picture more than Atksinson paints.

Finally, a "scope" issue.

Is this primarily a military history? If so, there's too much "padding" at times on what's happening in Privy Council on London, on details of Franklin's trip to Paris and more.

If not, maybe a few more words on the Continental Congress and the Declaration? On the invasion of Quebec, if you're quoting people, did any Frenchmen above the habitant level leave diaries? What did they think of the invasion?

This is a “marker” for Atkinson, whose WWII books I have generally liked, even if they were somewhat American triumphalist in style. Drop the snootiness, pretentiousness and dilettantism in the next two books of the trilogy or, if I even skim them, the ratings will be even sterner. (And don’t go further down the triumphalist road; I saw bits of that already here.)

On the plus side, he has an excellent explainer of the series of battles subsumed under the Battle for New York. His description of the flight across the New Jersey countryside is also good. But that doesn't counterweigh a bunch of problems.


Next, because Atkinson speaks little about slavery in 1775, including not telling you that Northern as well as Southern rebels were slaveowners?

Here's a book to rectify that.

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of AmericaThe Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a powerful, scholarly, well-informed overview of how the pervasive spread not just of slavery, but of slavery of Africans, was importantly connected to the American Revolution.

As part of this, Home shows that, decades before the Somerset decision of 1772 that freed a slave brought from Virginia to England, Americans (or proto-Americans, or mainlanders) feared just such a ruling.

Home leads up to this by showing that both the colonies and London, before 1700 in the Caribbean and by soon after on mainland North America, the English feared that France and Spain would encourage English slaves, in both locations, to either revolt or run away. Next came struggles on wanting to control slaves vs. having ever more of them brought into slavery.

Other subcurrents run through this. Until 1689, the British Crown had a monopoly on slave trading. After that, private traders gradually began taking more of the trade. That, in turn, connected to relations between the British sugar islands in the Caribbean and the mainland.

Meanwhile, the 1700s have three major wars between Britain and the two Catholic powers, who also generally seemed to view Africans with not quite as much disfavor and given them a few more chances at emancipation.

All of this ties together after 1763, when France and Spain no longer threaten the American colonies. Nine years later, Somerset squares the circle ... even as slave owners north, like John Hancock and James Otis, as well as those south, talk about rights and hint at revolution.


A non-American reading or two of the Revolutionary War, as far as the big picture, not just the military one, is never bad. Here's a good one from about a decade ago.

Scars of Independence: America's Violent BirthScars of Independence: America's Violent Birth by Holger Hoock

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is not a totally chronological history, though it follows that general order. It is in no way a military history.

Rather, it's about violence leading up to, and during, the American Revolution. Hoock, being a native of the Netherlands, is positioned for some type of "neutrality." (Several years ago, I read one British book of the period; from the British POV, it could be called the British Civil War.)

People who know this period are familiar with things like tarring and feathering of Stamp Act agents, etc., by Patriots. That's Hoock's starting point.

He deals with violence against other civilians by both Patriots and Tories, and by Continentals/militias and Redcoats/Hessians alike.

The civilians were about equally bad. Washington's troops weren't as bad as the British, but weren't perfect, and, of course, many Revolutionary theaters of action had troops not under his command. This includes American atrocities against Indians in New York.

I don't know if the number of relatively low ratings is in part due to some people not liking to hear all this message, or what.


That British history? This.

War for America: The Fight for Independence 1775-1783War for America: The Fight for Independence 1775-1783 by Jeremy Black

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The "Revolutionary War from a British history perspective

The only reason I didn't give this five stars is that I wish it had more depth. But, on the other hand, that does make it an easy read, and also, as more of a popularizing than academic historian, that's more Black's style.

As it is, Black goes more in depth into the Southern theater of operations than many American historians do. Without toppling Washington from any rightful pedestal, as part of this, he gives adequate coverage to Nathanial Greene and other American Continental Army and militia commanders.

With a little more depth/length, I probably would have liked to see more review and analysis of British Cabinet discussions and such, along with a British analysis of the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris.

View all my reviews

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