In the early hours of Sept. 28, 1778, several hundred British redcoats stealthily approached the village of Old Tappan, close to New Jersey’s border with New York. Their commander, Maj. Gen. Charles Grey, had ordered them to remove the flints from their muskets to minimize any risk of gunfire that would rob them of surprise as they closed in upon their objective, a Continental Army cavalry regiment billeted in barns nearby. But their long, lethal bayonets were fixed and ready for use. The Americans, believing themselves among friendly inhabitants and safe from attack, were taken unawares when the British burst in. Half asleep, dozens were bayonetted or clubbed with musket butts before they could reach for their weapons and defend themselves. Others who tried to surrender fared no better and were likewise skewered or, in the words of a British officer, “knock’d on the head.” Before the bloodshed ended, more than 70 had been killed, wounded or captured.
‘A New Method of Macarony Making, as practiced at Boston,’ 1774. A ‘macaroni’ was a dandy. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
SCARS OF INDEPENDENCE
By Holger Hoock
Crown, 559 pages, $30
But as Holger Hoock shows in his “Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth,” the events of that bloody night also resonated long afterward. Shocked at the “massacre” of an elite unit that included the young sons of many prominent Virginian families, Congress swiftly authorized an investigation to document the unwarranted brutality of the British. Its report, conducted to forensic standards and complete with the harrowing depositions of wounded survivors, was widely printed in Patriot newspapers as part of a sophisticated propaganda campaign to prove what Congress called the “savage cruelty” of the British Empire. Mr. Hoock views this as a prescient precursor of later efforts to exploit “war crimes” in order to “control the narrative” and claim the “moral high ground” in a conflict.
In “Scars of Independence,” the author aims to restore such little-known episodes of visceral violence to a struggle that he believes to be popularly perceived as a sedate story of “great white men debating independence in Philadelphia’s hallowed halls.” Drawing upon impressive research, he makes a fluent, original and thought-provoking contribution to American Revolutionary scholarship. By examining a series of case studies, which follow a roughly chronological sequence, and then teasing out their broader significance, Mr. Hoock compellingly argues that the era was characterized by far more pervasive brutality—both physical and psychological—than prevailing perceptions of a high-minded fight for liberty might suggest.
Well-crafted vignettes reveal how the violence unleashed by the Revolution spread far and wide, leaving few communities immune from its effects. In 1779, for example, the Patriots launched what the author calls a “genocidal” campaign that sought to punish Britain’s Native American allies among the Iroquois Confederacy of northern New York by torching their crucial cornfields. Meanwhile the enslaved African-Americans of the South, who were promised freedom by the British, all too often experienced what Mr. Hoock characterizes as “the mutually reinforcing violence of racial oppression and war.” In 1781, when a free black Virginian, Shadrack Furman, provided supplies to British raiders led by the renegade American general Benedict Arnold, vengeful rebels exacted retribution, burning his home and crops, and leaving him blind and crippled.
“Scars of Independence” offers an even-handed study of a partisan conflict. [JB emphasis] From the outset, Mr. Hoock emphasizes that the Revolutionary War was also America’s first civil war, waged between bitterly opposed factions—Patriots who favored independence, and Loyalists determined to stay faithful to King George III —who nonetheless shared much in common: language, religion and, not least, a belief in hallowed political rights. Indeed, the author was inspired to tackle his subject after being struck by the many memorials in English churches that commemorate Loyalists who had been forced into exile from their native land.
In terms of population the Revolutionary War was bloodier for American combatants than any in the nation’s history—with the exception of that other, catastrophic civil war between the states. The death rate among prisoners of war was unequaled: Poor hygiene, epidemic illness, mismanagement and deliberate cruelty resulted in truly appalling attrition, especially among Patriot prisoners crammed aboard the foul British prison ships, or “hulks,” moored off New York City.
While “Scars of Independence” gives detailed consideration to war captives and to the mayhem resulting from such military encounters as the nighttime attack at Old Tappan, some of its most telling passages explore the more personal, but no less harrowing, experiences of civilians. Mr. Hoock leaves no doubt of the shame, pain and humiliation suffered by Loyalists who endured the ordeal of tarring and feathering at the hands of Patriot mobs (an experience portrayed in a shockingly effective scene in the HBO drama “ John Adams ”). And by exploiting the surviving court martial records of the British army, Mr. Hoock is able to give a voice to a Long Island widow, Elizabeth Johnstone, who was raped by two drunken redcoats who thought her nothing better than a “Yankee whore.”
The fact that Mrs. Johnstone’s attackers were both convicted and hanged for their crime is instructive. While many other such assaults must have gone unreported, or unprosecuted, such official action to protect civilians suggests the British army was not entirely unaware of the importance of winning that other battle, for “hearts and minds.” As the conflict ground on, George Washington spared no effort to ensure that the unruly behavior of his own army did not alienate the civilian support upon which the American cause depended. The Continental Army’s discipline grew tougher: Starving men who plundered farms for food could expect a flogging; more vicious marauders faced execution.
Mr. Hoock is likely right that the violence of the American Revolutionary era has been underemphasized, but for the sake of perspective it’s perhaps useful to draw comparisons with events across the Atlantic during the decade or so following Britain’s grudging recognition of American independence. For sheer ferocity, the American Revolution produced nothing to compare with the August 1792 massacre of some 600 Swiss Guards, who were literally hacked to pieces as they tried to defend the Tuileries Palace in Paris. And when the Poles were inspired by the French revolutionaries to rebel against Russian rule, they were crushed with pitiless brutality: On a single day in November 1794, up to 20,000 insurgents were massacred outside Warsaw. For all its undoubted brutality, which “Scars of Independence” lays unflinchingly bare, the American Revolution and the war that confirmed it were restrained affairs when set against the bloody excesses of the Old World.
—Mr. Brumwell’s books include “White Devil: A True Story of War, Savagery, and Vengeance
in Colonial America.”
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.