Which one event of the Revolution is incorrectly interpreted most often? Explain.
The battle of Saratoga. There is a group who are determined to prove Horatio Gates deserves most of the credit. I don’t agree. I have a low opinion of “Granny” Gates. His flight to the rear at Camden (after demonstrating his total lack of military judgment) proves he was an empty uniform.
So frequently I see claims that Benedict Arnold inflicted such damage to the British fleet at Valcour Island he turned the invasion away and saved the day for the Patriots. The truth is much less exciting. Schuyler and Arnold engaged in a war of delay and ship building of fleets that caused Carleton to delay his movements until after the time for campaigning had ended for the year. The battle itself provided the British general with something of a message in terms of resolve and defiance but had little impact on the outcome of the 1776 invasion of New York.
It seems the most commonly misinterpreted event is an aspect of Paul Revere’s ride. Thanks to Longfellow’s epic poem of wrong facts, nearly all parts of Revere’s ride are misunderstood. But it seems like the “one if by land, two if by sea” lantern part is still popularly embedded in rock out there. Most people still think that Revere, after rowing himself across the Charles River, waited in Charlestown for the lantern signal from the Old North Church, before riding off on his solitary midnight ride.
In actuality, Revere was told of the British plan by Dr. Warren, and Revere arranged for three of his friends to shine the two lanterns in the church belfry. So, Revere already knew of the lantern signal before two friends rowed him across the river. Revere wanted his Charlestown contacts to know the plan to send other riders, and in case Revere couldn’t cross.
The Battle of Monmouth is probably the most misunderstood event of the Revolutionary War. For many historians, General Charles Lee became the villain of the piece, but I think his actions were defensible. Lee began the engagement with a slight numerical superiority, but when General Henry Clinton rushed in reinforcements, the advantage shifted to the British. Lee did what almost any prudent commander would have done under the circumstances. He began an orderly retreat. His objective was to take up a defensive position on favorable terrain. Once Washington relieved Lee of command, he chose to do exactly what Lee was planning to do. Alas, the engagement ended with Lee’s career in tatters. Most historians, as almost always has been the case, have sided with Washington, portraying Lee as flawed commander and Washington as the savior. Lee blundered egregiously after the battle, but not during it.
The Continental Congress not only made a military but a principled mistake when it ordered the invasion of Canada in 1775. Most historians focus on the epic and ill fated nature of the invasion including: Benedict Arnold’s heroic journey through the Maine wilderness, the death of General Richard Montgomery at the walls of Quebec and the sickly, disorganized retreat in the face of an overwhelming British counterattack.
However, many scholars gloss over fact that Congress launched an unwanted annexation of another colony that was generally satisfied with British rule. The French Canadian populace generally regarded the Americans as invaders and did not provide material support, especially after the failed attack on Quebec. With more than a bit of hubris, American writers assume that the United States had a right to invade Canada due to the presence of British forces.
Lots of people misunderstand the Quartering Act. They think the royal government wanted to force civilians to house soldiers in their homes (and, in the most salacious interpretations, their daughters’ beds). In fact, the army wanted all its enlisted men in large barracks so the sergeants could watch over them. Otherwise, the army’s desertion problem would have been even worse.
The Quartering Act (passed in 1765 and then expanded in 1774) required local governments to provide barracks for soldiers and firewood. In the 1760s New York and Boston resisted those unfunded mandates. The 1774 law therefore empowered magistrates to commandeer buildings, starting with public structures and working down to “uninhabited” private buildings—but that last provision was never enforced in peacetime.
The matching bookends of the Revolution: “The shot heard ’round the world” at Lexington (although Emerson’s quote referenced Concord, of course) and the alleged final battle at Yorktown. Although Lexington/Concord and Yorktown were undoubtedly signature events, they did not denote the beginning and the ending of the Revolution. The British advance on Lexington and Concord was a counter-revolution military offensive; the actual revolution (by definition, the forcible overthrow of political and military British authority) had already occurred throughout all of Massachusetts. After Yorktown, King George III vowed to continue the war and Washington urged Congress to step up its defenses. More Americans were killed in battles following Yorktown than died in the first year of combat, which included Lexington/Concord, Bunker Hill, and Quebec. At fault here is the classic narrative demand to place neat beginnings and endings on the jumble of history.
I think this has to be the entry of the French into a military alliance with the United States. The entry was the deciding factor of the war. Without the French the Americans could not have won what they did if they even won anything at all. Why the French entered is really the problem. They did not enter because of the American victory in the Saratoga campaign. Saratoga accelerated their entry into the conflict mainly because the Americans (Franklin) were able to push the French into thinking the Americans might reconcile with the British as the result of the British defeat at Saratoga. The French had been trying to convince Spain to enter into the conflict with them on the side of the Americans since at least mid-1777 as they rearmed their navy. If the victory at Saratoga had a real impact, it was in convincing King Louis XVI that the Americans could win and it ended his hesitation which allowed his ministers to move forward rapidly with the decision to enter the war.
The Wyoming Massacre. Most laypeople don’t understand the social complexities that led to the event; it is not as simple as ‘Indians slaughtered people’, though that is often how it is presented.
Depends upon what audience one might be addressing, and there are many candidates for most misunderstood event. One that stands out with college students is the difference between July 2 and July 4, 1776, assuming they know these dates, which can’t always be assumed. July 2, Congress actually declared independence, with New York abstaining; July 4, Congress approved the Declaration of Independence after much haggling over details of language.
–James Kirby Martin
Certainly the “Worcester Revolution” of 1774, when Massachusetts citizens renounced British rule. Although just one link in the long chain of events leading to American independence that began in 1763, this peaceful defiance was a critical act that defined subsequent events. Only recently has it begun to receive the acclaim that it deserves.
I’ll revert here to the event I’ve written about frequently, the Waxhaws “Massacre” of May 29, 1780. Despite the preponderance of documentary evidence refuting the later massacre accounts, people still cling to the massacre myth. I guess it’s just too good a story to let go of it.
\\\ Featured image at top: Siege of Yorktown (1781) painting by Auguste Couder depicting Washington and Rochambeau giving instructions. Current location: Palace of Versailles