Amer­ica’s first civil war

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

Sphiladel­phia ome Amer­i­can his­tory mu­se­ums be­la­bor vis­i­tors with this mes­sage: You shall know the truth and it shall make you feel ashamed of, but oh-so-su­pe­rior to, your wretched ances­tors. The new Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion is bet­ter than that. Lo­cated near In­de­pen­dence Hall, it cel­e­brates the lu­mi­nous ideas af­firmed there 241 Julys ago, but it does not flinch from this fact: The war that be­gan at Lex­ing­ton and Concord 14 months be­fore the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence was Amer­ica’s first civil war. And it had all the messi­ness and nas­ti­ness that al­ways ac­com­pany pro­tracted frat­ri­cide.

Among its many in­ter­est­ing ar­ti­facts — weapons, uni­forms, doc­u­ments — the mu­seum’s great pos­ses­sion is the tent Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton used from 1778 to 1783, which on its long, wind­ing path to the mu­seum was owned by Robert E. Lee’s wife and was later sold to raise money for Con­fed­er­ate wi­d­ows. The mu­seum makes rather more than is nec­es­sary of the Oneida In­dian Na­tion’s con­tri­bu­tions to Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dence but, then, the Onei­das are now in the casino busi­ness and con­trib­uted $10 mil­lion to the mu­seum.

The mu­seum has one of those “im­mer­sive” ex­hibits wherein vis­i­tors hear the can­non and feel the vi­bra­tions of bat­tle. It would, how­ever, be a more con­vinc­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of war if en­e­mies were try­ing to im­pale the vis­i­tors with this war’s most lethal de­vice, the bay­o­net.

Never mind. There are lim­its to what re­al­i­ties a mu­seum can, or should try to, con­vey. This prob­a­bly both­ers those who are prop­erly in­tent on mak­ing us face the worst facts. Con­sider, for ex­am­ple, Hol­ger Hoock’s re­cently pub­lished “Scars of In­de­pen­dence: Amer­ica’s Vi­o­lent Birth.”

He writes in the man­ner of cur­rent aca­demics, who are for­ever “un­mask­ing” this and that. He of­fers “an un­var­nished por­trait” of rev­o­lu­tion­ary vi­o­lence in or­der to purge the “pop­u­lar memory” of “ro­man­ti­cized no­tions” and end the “white­wash­ing and se­lec­tive re­mem­ber­ing and for­get­ting” and — here­with the in­evitable aca­demic trope — the “priv­i­leg­ing” of pa­tri­ots’ per­spec­tives.

Hoock is, how­ever, right to doc­u­ment the har­row­ing vi­o­lence, of­ten op­por­tunis­tic and sadis­tic, that was “fun­da­men­tal” to how both sides ex­pe­ri­enced “Amer­ica’s found­ing mo­ment.” The war caused “pro­por­tion­ately more” deaths — from bat­tle, cap­tiv­ity and dis­ease — than any war other than that of 1861-1865. The per­haps 37,000 deaths were about five times more per capita than Amer­ica lost in World War II. Sixty thou­sand loy­al­ists be­came refugees. “The dis­lo­cated pro­por­tion of the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion ex­ceeded that of the French in their rev­o­lu­tion,” Alan Tay­lor tells us in “Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tions: A Con­ti­nen­tal His­tory.” The eco­nomic de­cline “lasted for 15 years in a cri­sis un­matched un­til the Great De­pres­sion.”

Af­ter the sec­ond civil war, Wil­liam Te­cum­seh Sher­man de­clared that “war is hell.” Hoock demon­strates that this was true even when bat­tle ca­su­al­ties (only 23 pa­tri­ots died at York­town) were small by mod­ern stan­dards. He is, how­ever, mis­taken in sug­gest­ing that he is uniquely sen­si­tive to our found­ing may­hem. Con­sider two re­cent books that ex­am­ine the an­ar­chic vi­o­lence on both sides.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Rev­o­lu­tion” (2013) re­counts a pa­triot mob’s long tor­ture, in Jan­uary 1774, of loy­al­ist John Mal­com, a Bos­ton cus­toms of­fi­cer, who was tarred and feath­ered: The crowd dis­lo­cated his arm while tear­ing off his clothes, then daubed his skin with steam­ing tar that par­boiled his flesh. Pa­raded for many hours through Bos­ton’s two feet of snow, he was beaten, whipped and fi­nally dumped “like a log” at his home, where “his tarred flesh started to peel off in ‘steaks.’ ”

Tay­lor’s “Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tions” (2016) ham­mers home the war’s hu­man costs. A Con­necti­cut critic of the Con­ti­nen­tal Congress was tarred, car­ried to a sty and cov­ered with hog’s dung, some of which was forced down his throat. Con­necti­cut loy­al­ists were im­pris­oned in a cop­per mine, in dark­ness 120 feet un­der­ground. Ge­or­gia pa­tri­ots knocked a loy­al­ist un­con­scious, “tied him to a tree, tarred his legs, and set them on fire” and then par­tially scalped him. Some courts or­dered loy­al­ists “branded on the face or cut off their ears” to make them rec­og­niz­able.

This small, ef­fi­cient new mu­seum will stim­u­late public un­der­stand­ing by quick­en­ing in­ter­est in books such as th­ese. Its book­store in­cludes “The Last Muster,” a trea­sure of pho­to­graphs dis­played in the mu­seum. They are of peo­ple who were born be­fore the Rev­o­lu­tion and lived to sit in front of cam­eras. An un­quench­able dig­nity ra­di­ates from the vis­age of nat­tily dressed Cae­sar, who was born in 1737 and was owned as a slave by four gen­er­a­tions of a New York fam­ily un­til his death in 1852, shortly be­fore a new birth of free­dom in our com­pli­cated coun­try.

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