The violence of the American Revolution
“In these circumstances, every man holds his life by the most precarious tenure, and our friends abroad should prepare themselves for learning…that we are numbered among the dead.” — Henry Laurens, in a letter to his daughter (1776), as quoted by Nadia Dean (2014).
Many of the leaders of the American Revolution were young men, a common ingredient in violent conflicts. In 1776, the violence of America’s first civil war was already tearing families apart in the Carolina backcountry and claiming their young men for the “cause of American independence.” Isaac Wise was the 17-year-old Patriot (Whig) son of a Loyalist (Tory), but this heritage did not save him from the Loyalists’ noose.
“Col. Chas Lynch, a brother of the founder of Lynchburg…was an officer of the American Revolution. At that time this county was very thinly settled, and infested by a lawless band of tories and desperados. The necessity of the case involved desperate measures and Colonel Lynch, then a leading whig, apprehended and had them punished without any superfluous legal ceremony. Hence the origin of the term ‘Lynch Law.’” — Masonic Journal (Greensboro, N.C.), November 4, 1875
Hanging, tarring and feathering, scalping, the rape of women and the total destruction (or confiscation) of property were common tactics on both sides of this first American civil war. As Nadia Dean notes, “Scalping was a means of brutalizing the enemy while obtaining valuable war tokens.” Seldom fatal in itself, it was accomplished “by quickly cutting an incision near the crown and ripping the scalp from the victim’s head.” Unfortunately these stories have seldom been told in any detail, so I’m pleased to see a contemporary historian address the issue of violence in the American Revolution directly.
Holger Hoock’s Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth (2017) is described as a “deeply researched and elegantly written account of the profoundly violent civil war” we call the American Revolution. Hoock is the J. Carroll Amundson Professor of British History and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. He claims to have written the “first book on the American Revolution and the Revolutionary War to adopt violence as its central analytical and narrative focus.”
“For over two centuries, this topic has been subject to whitewashing and selective remembering and forgetting. While contemporaries experienced the Revolution as frightening, messy, and divisive, its pervasive violence and terror have since yielded to romanticized notions of the nation’s birth.”
Hoock “writes the violence back into the story” and “examines the moral dilemmas posed by this all-pervasive violence, as the British found themselves torn between unlimited war and restraint toward fellow subjects, while the Patriots documented war crimes in an ingenious effort to unify the fledgling nation.” For example, here’s a description of tarring and feathering, from the book as well as the New York Times book review:
I’ve just started reading this book (and have added it to my bibliography on the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill), but I think you will find it to be a useful antidote to the whitewashed version of American independence that we just celebrated with cookouts and fireworks. In the above review, Jane Kamensky rightly asks: “But what, precisely, is its moral?” My own book has something to say about that, which I will be expanding on in the next in the series.
My first eBook, about my German-American colonial ancestors and their descendants, is currently available via Amazon for only $2.99.