Contributor Close-up: Thomas Verenna

About Thomas Verenna

Thomas Verenna is a member of the Valley Forge Chapter, Sons of the American Revolution, an Associate Board Member of the Moore Township Historical Commission, and a History student at Columbia College, MO. He is an alumnus of Valley Forge Military Academy—about five miles away from the site of 1777-1778 encampment—which he attended in 1998. Thomas’ research focuses on Pennsylvania’s military and political role in the War for American Independence.

What inspired you to start researching and writing about the Revolution?

I think I first became interested in the Revolution as a child. I grew up in Easton, Pennsylvania, reading signs and plaques about this Revolutionary War event or that General who did such and such a thing in town. Everyone in the area celebrates the anniversary of the reading of the Declaration of Independence in the center of town on 8 July 1776, for example. It was impossible for me to escape that history and energy. Nor did I want to.

What really energized me to start digging into the past was a series of personal decisions about three years ago; around the time I started digging into my own genealogy and discovering—much to the surprise of my relatives—all of these Revolutionary War ancestors that made up a chunk of my family tree. Reading the pension files made their stories very real to me. I had to know more. What were they like? What was their household like? What did they believe? What obstacles did they face? The more I read and learned, the more enthralled I became.

You write a great deal about Pennsylvania in the Revolution. Why does that subject interest you?

Besides being my home state (to which I have an obvious bias), Pennsylvania is quite unique among the 13 colonies in America during the colonial period. The great diversity of its inhabitants, both politically, religiously, and ethically, made it one of the more unstable places to live. It had revolutions within revolutions.

It also represents the staple of democratic thought in the revolutionary era. Its state constitution, ratified in 1776, appears to have been the most radical for the time. Religious freedom was guaranteed, it removed the fifty-pound fee for eligibility to vote. While these weren’t necessarily new concepts in the 18th century, and though they fell short of a total equalitarian society, these resolves do mark anchor points of democracy that previously did not exist in the colonies—at least not while they were under British authority.

Based upon your articles here at JAR, it appears as though the militia in Pennsylvania were pretty useless. Why focus on them when you could write on the Continental Line?

I think that it’s an important story to tell.

While the Pennsylvania militia did not do anything particularly defining, and often blundered through the things they did accomplish, it is important to remember that these were primarily drafted men. For the first time in Pennsylvania’s history, there was a military force made up of all sorts of individuals from a multitude of backgrounds and from all over the state They represent the apex of tensions between political, racial, economic, and ethnic divides, most of which had been building up for decades. If Pennsylvania could be viewed as a ‘country’ in 1777, then the militia was its first ever unified defense force. But it wasn’t a voluntary force. These men didn’t want to be there and because classes were called up from across the county, rather than by townships, it’s quite likely that they were drafted with people whom they hated.

That’s a huge difference from the Continental troops. The Continental Line was made up primary of volunteers, after all; men who generally all agreed on the basic and fundamental principles of independence. They were themselves political radicals who believed in violence as a means to reach their end. That is why they volunteered and that helped them bond as a brotherhood of men in arms. But the militia, throughout most of the state, wasn’t a volunteer force. There was no bonding moment for them. These men barely had time to train—if they trained at all—before marching countless miles across wilderness and frontiers to a place they could care less about to fight a claimed enemy to whom they held no real animosity.

These were men who were given rather disturbing ultimatums which, to them, seemed tyrannical. They were farmers and merchants and tradesmen and craftsmen, with families, who faced steep fines and possible jail time—or worse—if they refused to turn out when called. That is why, when reading the muster rolls of the different military units throughout the war, you only see certain (often German) names on the militia rolls and not in the Continental rolls. In my humble opinion, that alone makes the story so fascinating as well as necessary.

What historians or books have most influenced your work? Why?

As some of my readers know, prior to changing fields to focus on American history, I was double-majoring in Ancient History and Classics (with a focus on the ancient Near East). It’s not a stretch for me to say that my current research methodology is strongly impacted by my experiences in those fields. The biggest influence on me has been my long-time friend and colleague Thomas L. Thompson, professor emeritus of Old Testament, Copenhagen University.

In the field of American history, a lot of what I’m writing is new territory. As a result, there hasn’t necessarily been any definitive work that I would say defines my style. However the other editors of JAR have certainly impacted me in positive ways. I know that sounds tacky, because I’m writing this interview for JAR, but, you know, facts are stubborn things. Don and Todd especially deserve much praise. Without their patience (more often than I’d like to admit), sympathy (when warranted), and guidance, I don’t know if my work would have been as successful on its own.

What are your go-to research resources?

Being a full-time student has its advantages. I can access JSTOR at any time and I’ve come across some rather useful secondary sources that way. But my two go-to resources are the Pennsylvania Archives and the Marx Room at the Easton Public Library. I’m a firm believer in books—that they are to be read and enjoyed and held (I’m old fashioned that way).

The Pennsylvania Archives can be difficult to navigate but with practice it is indispensible as a resource. Some of the content you have to take with a grain of salt as the bias and politics of the author can impact their impressions of the events in subtle ways. That is where experience and methodology come into play. The real challenge is to recognize where the records are incomplete and for that, I utilize the Marx Room. It has anything and everything you could want on the history of Pennsylvania (and Northampton County in particular)—from genealogical resources on the first settlers, to manuscripts, to grave listings, and early maps—and the research librarians are very knowledgeable.

Which of your own JAR articles is your favorite or most rewarding? Why?

Oh man, you mean I have to pick one? Meh. Well, I’m going to split this up and say that I have one that is my favorite and another that is the most rewarding (so I can get away with plugging two… muahahaha *twirls the end of his invisible mustachio*).

My favorite article is actually one that received little attention when it was published, but it is also the most personal and dear to me: ‘The Spartans of Long Island’. The article primarily dealt with the Northampton County Flying Camp at long Island, which was interesting to write (and I got to look at and hold manuscripts from 1776 while doing research for it which is just so flipping cool). I also know of one ancestor who was in the Flying Camp battalion at Long Island. The hard part is determining if he was captured or escaped (I think captured). But it was also such a little known topic—the Flying Camp and the Associators from Northampton County played such an important role in the fighting and yet are hardly ever discussed.

My most rewarding article, however, was my review of the Sons of Liberty program on History. I had a lot of fun with it. I was surprised at how intensely the article spread through social media and how much attention it garnered. I was able to get an interview on national television as a result. It was especially rewarding live-tweeting the article during the show, which I’m sure brought in additional readership to JAR (at least, I hope it did) and engaged a largely young audience with the real history behind the fictional show.

Other than your own contributions, what are some of your favorite JAR articles?

Can I say all of them? All of them. Oh, you need an actual list of a few of them? Well, okay.

The first article that comes to mind is Todd Braisted’s article ‘The Patriot-Loyalist’. In a similar vein as that, Don Hagist’s article ‘Would They Change Their Names?’ is a fantastic read. Michael Shellhammer’s work mythbusting John Adam’s ‘Rule of Thirds’ and also bringing attention to the mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line have been great for my own research into the counter-cultural world of the Revolution that so many Americans (myself included before becoming interested in the field) know nothing about. Robert M. Dunkerly’s article on camp followers is an important list that raises attention about the families of the soldiers who followed them to war. Last but not least, Derek W. Beck’s fantastic treatment of the first shot of the war is just so engaging and useful.

What books about the American Revolution do you most often recommend?

It’s probably easier to list them in no particular order:

  1. Breen, T.H., American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People, New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.
  2. Maier, Pauline, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1992.
  3. Riordan, Liam, Many Identities, One Nation: The Revolution and Its Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
  4. Frantz, John B., and William Pencak, Beyond Philadelphia: The American Revolution in the Pennsylvania Hinterland, University Park: Penn State University Press, 2000.
  5. McGuire, Thomas J., The Philadelphia Campaign, Vol’s 1 & 2, Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2006.
  6. Miller, Ken, Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities During the War for Independence, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014.
  7. Silver, Peter, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008.
  8. Hagist, Don N., British Soldiers, American War: Voices of the American Revolution, Westholme Publishing, 2012.
  9. Hagist, Don N., The Revolution’s Last Men: The Soldiers Behind the Photographs, Westholme Publishing, 2015.
  10. Andrlik, Todd, ed., Journal of the American Revolution: Annual Volume 2015, Westholme Publishing, 2015.

What new research/writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m not sure when this interview will be published, but I have three articles currently in the works for JAR. One article is on the draft riots in Pennsylvania in 1777 while another is on the Sugarloaf Massacre in Northampton County in 1780. The final article is a bit of a secret, but it really goes into the political divisiveness and struggles of Pennsylvania —and how they turned violent—during the war.

Beyond those, I am currently working on a book dealing with the darker side of the Revolution in Pennsylvania with a focus on the militia. No release date or publisher as of yet.

What other hobbies/interests do you enjoy?

I won’t bore the reader with a personal biography, but one of the most relevant hobbies I have is reenacting. I primarily do events with the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment. To those outside the hobby it might seem hyper-nerdy, but it’s great fun and the whole unit is just like an extension of my family. There’s really nothing quite like it. I also occasionally do historical impressions of a Pennsylvania militiaman for the Northampton County Historical and Genealogical Society. Being able to engage with spectators in period clothes and accoutrements is often very rewarding, despite the occasional question from an enthusiastic person if the roaring fire behind me is real.

Why is Journal of the American Revolution important to you?

What’s not to love? There really is no other site out there quite like JAR. It’s a great place to contribute historical content to and the staff is easy to work with. All of the contributors produce work that is incredibly useful and entertaining. I’m sure the frequent readers of this site already have figured most of this out.

The best part is that JAR isn’t preachy. I don’t have to worry about reading articles that proselytize a particular point of view. Sure, the editors expect solid scholarship and research, but they want you to have a little fun with what you produce. And reading the vast wealth of articles on this site will easily corroborate that. The community is just fantastic; it’s all very inclusive.

Is there an article, or subject area, that you would like to see appear in JAR?

First and foremost, I think there is a lot more out there that could and should be written about women, American Indian, and African American experiences during the war. People tend to care more about the big names in the Revolution—Washington, Adams, Howe, Gage, etc.—and so, unintentionally, these topics tend to get marginalized or forgotten. Nevertheless, these are valuable topics that deserve more attention.

Admittedly, I also really enjoy articles one archaeological digs, so seeing more articles on this subject that focus on the physical remnants of the war would absolutely interest me.

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14 Comments

  • Tom – a great interview and I’m glad everyone will have a chance to know you better from it. You bring such a unique perspective to your work and articles, it’s just a pleasure to hear about all things Pennsylvania from you.

    Even in this close-up, I was able to learn even more about the differences between the state’s Continental Line soldiers vs. Pennsylvania militia.

    Much appreciated and carry on, sir!

  • Fascinating interview Tom. Your focus areas deserve the attention you’re giving them and I always find your work interesting, well-researched and fun to read. I’m going to gather some of your recommended sources. I am most honored you’ve enjoyed some of my own pieces. Glad to have another Pennsylvanian writing here – history certainly resonates in the Keystone State! See you on the Turnpike.

    • Mike,

      That’s very fine praise indeed. Thank you sir. I’m grateful for your work on Pennsylvania! Makes me feel like I’m not the lone wolf howling at the moon. 😉

      Speaking of which, did you happen to catch the name of the fellow who survived the Sugarloaf Massacre in my recent article? George Shellhammer. Ancestor of yours perhaps? Wouldn’t that be something if our ancestors served together in the same unit at the same time?

      Incidentally, or not (depending on how you look at it), ancestry research is a good way to scare the pants off the researcher. It’s rather traumatic learning how close one came to never having been born.

  • Its nice to see other serious historians my own age!! Always enjoy your views on things Tom, and that you appreciate telling all sides of the tale- whether an inglorious militia engagement or whatever; you understand that such stories must be told! Kudos!

    • Michael,

      Thank you for the kind words! Yes, you are correct; every story, whether it is heroic or not, deserves a voice. It’s the ones that are inglorious, as you put it, that can tell us the most about ourselves and our past.

  • Tom: Thought I would mention that I have an ancestor, Gabriel Boppenmeir, who appears on militia muster roles for Northampton (Lehigh) County (as Gaberil Puppingermeyer!). His father, Stephan, immigrated there in 1745 from a little town called Massenbach, just south of Heilbronn, in Germany. Family lore has it that they were “Swiss German”, which may be plausible since the Rhine Valley was depopulated during the 30 Years War and re-settled by Swiss after 1648 (also, note the word “Bopp” in the name). Family lore also has it that Gabriel paid for a replacement to serve in his stead. No details. I would love to know how much it cost, who was hired, etc., but have no time to do the research right now. Thanks for all of your outstanding work! –Ron

    • Ron,

      Thanks for the note. Looks like the 2nd battalion district for your ancestor (7th Class). I was not able to locate any service record for him, but that’s actually not all that uncommon. Neither is the belief that your ancestor had someone else serve in their stead. That was extremely common, especially into the waning years of the war (some lists from 1782 and 1783 have maybe a handful of the 40-50 men called up through the draft serving their tour–nearly every one is serving through a substitute or paying fines for not mustering).

      Your best bet is to contact the PHMC, and request copies of the returns they have on file. It’s not at all expensive–about $15 will get you everything they have on your ancestor. Here is their email: ra-statearchives@state.pa.us

      Hopefully that will help!

      • Thanks much, Tom! By the way, I assume you have seen/read Sweet Land of Liberty, a short book about the activities of some of the Northampton County militia who terrorized local Moravians. The lead instigator was apparently someone who had been ejected from the Moravian community and who used his position with the militia to exact revenge. According to the author, it eventually became a subject of considerable political embarrassment, leading to action by the State Legislature.

        • Ron,

          Yes, I’ve read the book. It’s not bad, but the author does take a lot of liberties with the facts. And he misses some opportunities to make an important social and economic point about the war and especially within the context of a primarily German community. But that is where my book, as it is written, will fill in those gaps and correct some of his (and other) mistakes.

          • I look forward to reading it! After reading Breaking the Backcountry, about the devastating effects of the F&I War on social cohesion in frontier colonial communities, it appears from my limited viewpoint that these areas were probably ripe for chaos by the time the Revolution came around.

  • By the way, I have a print copy of an unpublished diary (by a McMichael, as I recall) that you may be interested in. He was a Pennsylvania line officer who described his experiences traveling by himself through German communities in eastern PA, I believe while on his way to join his regiment. His observations and prejudices are very instructive, and may touch on themes you are exploring in your book.

  • I have traced my family history to Northampton County, Pennsylvania Germans. I live far away from Pennsylvania. Do you have any any books to recommend to a novice in the area’s history? I am a descendant of the Eilenberger/Ellenberger and Butz families. Christian Eilenberger/Ellenberger was in the PA Militia.

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