In the popular mind, the American Revolution was mostly about liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and the war that followed the Declaration of Independence wasn’t much of a war. We imagine toy soldiers in red coats chasing picturesque rebels.
Actually, the War of Independence was horrific, according to John Ferling, a leading historian of early America. It was a grinding conflict that rivaled, and in some ways exceeded, the Civil War in its toll on American fighters when looked at on a percapita basis. Ferling chronicles the suffering in his new book, “Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence” (Oxford University Press).
“There’s a sense that there was a great deal of gallantry,” Ferling told me, “and the Revolution was a war unlike modern wars.” Not so.
Ferling offers a gritty, bootson the-ground account of a war that subsequent generations had melted into a patriotic story suitable for children. The reality was that combatants on all sides committed atrocities and the body count turned ghastly.
One in four men who served in the Continental Army lost his life, a higher percentage death toll than in the Civil War, where one regular in five perished. In World War II, one in 40 American servicemen died.
Almost half the American rebels taken prisoner died, mainly from disease and malnutrition. The mortality rate among Union soldiers held at the infamous Andersonville POW camp in Georgia was a far lower 37 percent.
Ferling challenges other misconceptions about the period. One is that the War of Independence came upon a previously peaceful land.
By 1754, Virginia had already fought five wars against the Indians. In the North, the Puritans and their descendents had fought six wars. (Some of them involved European powers vying for the control of America.) Before sailing for America, settlers would hear sermons warning them to prepare for war.
In these earlier hostilities, Ferling writes, the colonists “not infrequently adopted terror tactics that included torture; killing women, children, and the elderly; the destruction of Indian villages and food supplies; and summary executions of prisoners or their sale into slavery in faraway lands.” English soldiers would refer to such methods as the “American way of war.”
Another flawed impression is that the War of Independence was an overwhelmingly Northern phenomenon. (Before World War II, most of the historians writing about the Revolution came from the Northeast.) Ferling, who grew up in Texas City, Texas, devotes about half the book to the war in the South, where the rivalries were perhaps the most brutal.
“The only real instances of guerilla warfare are in the South,” Ferling notes. After the British took Charleston in 1780, the Carolina backcountry erupted into a civil war. At King’s Mountain, rebels massacred loyalists – and the carnage was such that a shocked Virginia colonel asked his officers “to restrain the disorderly manner of slaughtering … the prisoners.”
In trying to find a winning strategy, British officers and American loyalists entered familiar debates on whether they should terrify the rebels or try to win their hearts and minds. A Pennsylvania Tory named Joseph Galloway urged Britain to drop its “romantic sentiments” in dealing with Washington’s army and to turn the redcoat into a “soldierexecutioner.”
But others worried that excessive cruelty would hurt efforts to bring colonists back into the fold after Britain’s expected victory. British General Henry Clinton, for example, said it was necessary “to gain the hearts and subdue the minds of America.”
“Almost a Miracle” provides a needed corrective to the idea that the fighting unleashed by the fine words of July 4, 1776, was mild by modern standards. The War of Independence, it turns out, was no cakewalk. ©2007 The Providence Journal Co.