Our History & Our Heritage by Bill Kiefer

I am getting a little tired of playing who was who in the Revolutionary War, and what was named after them. If you have been reading this you probably are tired of it too. On the other hand there is, or was, a Thaddeus Kosciuszko Hall in Weirton, and yes that T.K. was a hero in the Revolutionary War… so maybe on another day. Another thing from the era that I have been researching is Lafayette’s 1824 tour of America, which did have nearby appearances.

However, as I research the colonial era I notice that, just as the events of the Civil War have been more or less romanticized, politicized and falsified, the same is true of the Revolution, and many of the events surrounding its leaders. For example how many of us were taught that George Washington never told a lie? That he chopped down a cherry tree as a child? That he threw a silver dollar across the Potomac? I don’t know about you, but I was taught all of those things. As a dutiful child I also believed each of those things. It seems to me that in the1950’s there was a nearly cult like worship of the Revolutionary War leaders. This started with those who taught us in grade school, and extended to other areas of our lives.

Early television reinforced this. Walt Disney had a Friday night series about Johnny Tremain a fictional, 14 year-old boy apprenticed to Paul Revere to learn the art of being a silversmith. He suffers a burned hand which hinders his choice of a trade, but does become a teen age rebel and fights for colonial freedom. He meets many of the historical figures of the time, and is present at key events such as Lexington and Concord. Johnny was fictional, a creation of novelist Esther Hoskins Forbes, the book was published in 1943, a time when patriotism was sorely needed. However, even though Johnny Tremain was made-up, Paul Revere was a real person. Most of us think of him as the “midnight rider” who rode from town to town to let the colonial militia know that British troops were on the march. His ride has been poetically remembered in “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” written in 1861 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In reality he was riding to Lexington to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams of the British approach, and on the way warned militia and town leaders. His fellow rider, William Dawes has not been well-remembered by history.

Revere went on to participate as an artillery commander for part of the war. His only action was in a campaign to drive the British from the central coast of Maine at Penobscot Bay. It was a disaster. The Colonials sent more ships to challenge the smaller British navy contingent and were optimistic. The Colonial force had a 32 gun frigate and several 24 gun ships and a large number of small ships having 10 -14 guns. The Brits had only about 10 ships but three were 32 gun frigates and one was a 64 gun ship of the line, two were medium sized with 24 guns. In a World War II analogy the Colonials showed up with a one cruiser, three destroyers and a bunch of PT Boats to take on 4 destroyers four cruisers and a battleship. Kind of like bringing a penknife to a gun fight. In any event it was a disaster and the British kept control of Penobscot Bay. Today’s mood about colonial heroes is not what ours was, but is occasionally equally poorly informed. An example of this involves Mr. Revere. In the early 2000’s the City of San Francisco politicized Revere’s actions in the Battle and stripped his name from a middle school in the city. Not researching the history of the period very well they believed that the battle was not to drive British forces from the area, but rather to “steal land from the Penobscot Indians.”

In any event Paul Revere survived the ride, survived the war, and remained a successful silversmith whose wares ranged from spoons to tea service sets. He expanded his business into a hardware store, a brass foundry and finally a copper rolling mill, designed to produce copper sheet. Today his silver is still highly regarded. His works are held in some of the finest museums and collections in the country. In January 2013 one of his 1782 teapots sold at Christie’s New York Auction House for $230,000.00

Another Disney series that I particularly enjoyed was “The Swamp Fox.” It was loosely based on the exploits of Brigadier General Francis Marion, a South Carolina militia leader. The Disney series portrayed him as an extremely clever commander who always got the better of the British led by Banastre Tarleton by attacking, doing the intended damage and melting away into the swamps. The movie “The Patriot,” starring Mel Gibson, further romanticized Marion, but again got it wrong, making him sort of a 17th century “Rambo.” In reality he was born in 1732. He was not a “saint,’ rather he was a man of his times. He owned slaves, he fought Indians. He was made a Captain in the South Carolina militia in 1776. He did little more than garrison duty until 1780 when the focus of the war moved south. His involvement then became one of fighting skirmishes against the British with largely hit and run guerilla tactics. At times he was reckless and certainly brutal, yet his numerous successes did much to keep South Carolina in the pro-Independence camp. He was no shy and retiring sort but had a genius for guerilla warfare.

 Neither was Tarleton the personification of evil which media has made him to be. Rather he was the son of the mayor of Liverpool England. He descended from a line of ship owners involved in the slave trade. He was educated at Middle Temple and Oxford and trained for a career in law. Upon his father’s death when he was 19 he inherited a small fortune, and lost it all on wine, women and cards within a year. Thereafter he purchased a commission in a cavalry regiment. Yet in the southern colonies he was often brutal. At Waxhaw Creek his men chased a detachment under a Colonel Buford who at first refused to surrender. After suffering a small number of casualties Buford raised a white flag to do so. Tarleton ignored it and pressed his attack. His men killed 113 and wounded 150 after the attempt to surrender. British losses were 5 killed and 12 wounded. Tarleton lost most of his force in the British defeat at Cowpens. He was with Cornwallis when the surrender at Yorktown occurred.

Following the war, he returned to England helped to manage the family business, was obviously an advocate of slavery as it was where he made his money, and served in Parliament for over twenty years. He was brutal, and nasty, but his situation was one of trying to suppress guerillas which the American Government has since learned is quite difficult.

Next time, I will try to stay more local.