Book Review: Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution by Kathleen DuVal (New York: Random House, 2015).
Increasingly, historians are interpreting the American Revolution from two wider perspectives. First, it was a global war fought on five continents with major battles outside of the thirteen colonies critical to the war’s outcome. Second, there is a fresh emphasis on conveying individual participants’ stories and describing the war’s differential impact on their lives. Kathleen DuVal’s new book Independence Lost weaves these two perspectives into a compelling narrative about the American War for Independence in the Gulf Coast region.
While the book covers the period from the 1770’s until the American acquisition of Florida in 1819, DuVal focuses on the events of the American Revolution and its impact on the people in Western Florida and Louisiana. Significant military conflict came to the Gulf Coast in 1779 when Spain declared war on the British. In one sense, the Spanish were allies of the Americans because they attacked British colonies throughout the world and clashed with the British Navy on the high seas. However, Spain had its own territorial ambitions including the prime goal of capturing British-held Gibraltar. Further, the Spanish hoped to secure the entire Mississippi River drainage and recapture Florida from the British, which it had lost in the 1763 treaty ending the French and Indian War. They expressly were not fighting for American independence and were wary of the American trading and settlement advances beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Spain sought to bottle up the Americans on the eastern seaboard and deny American navigation and access to the Mississippi River.
One of the book’s key themes is that the Gulf Coast region was on the fringe of the main rebellion and is overlooked in most Revolutionary War histories. For example, Robert Tonsetic‘s book 1781 – The Decisive year of the Revolutionary War omitted any mention of the capture of Pensacola by the Spanish or any of the battles on the Gulf Coast. Even though outside of the main battle theaters, DuVal makes the case that the Revolutionary War did have a fateful impact on the Gulf Coast’s inhabitants. Further, she concludes that the Gulf Coast battles affected the outcome of the global conflict and set the stage for the future westward expansion of the United States.
DuVal points out that while the Spanish held New Orleans and claimed all land west of the Mississippi and the British claimed Florida, Native Americans controlled the vast preponderance of the land mass with only a few towns and trading posts administered by European powers. Native Americans sought to enforce their territorial integrity and to restrain encroachment by Europeans and Americans. In contrast to many earlier accounts, DuVal describes Creeks and Chickasaws as independent sovereign nations with their own diplomatic and military objectives.
She continues her narrative by describing the Spanish conquest of western Florida led by Louisiana governor Bernardo de Gálvez. Over an almost two year campaign, Gálvez tenaciously attacked and captured the British held towns of Baton Rouge, Mobile and Pensacola, which ended British control on the Gulf Coast. In addition, Spanish raids were conducted as far north as St. Joseph, Michigan to exert claims to all lands west of the Appalachian Mountains.
While the story of the Spanish conquest of British Florida has been thoroughly researched and recounted by several historians, DuVal brings to life the motivations and fears of the people living in this region. She describes the conflict through the eyes of selected participants, each having a different stake in the conflict’s outcome.
- Payamataha – A Chickasaw chief, Payamataha strongly advocated and pursued a neutral stance between the European powers and did not fight, even though a treaty obligated the Chickasaw Nation to support the British.
- Alexander McGillivray – Son of a Creek mother and a British father, Alexander McGillivray served as the Creek Indian Nation’s leading diplomat. As a matrilineal tribe, the Creeks considered him a full-blooded member. McGillivray actively supported the British in their attempt to squash the American rebellion and keep Americans outside of Creek territory.
- Oliver Pollack and Margaret O’Brien – Oliver Pollack, a politically connected merchant trader and an American from Philadelphia, operated a trading business in New Orleans. He met Margaret O’Brien in New Orleans, converted to Catholicism, and they married. The Pollacks supported American independence by using their trading business to fund and furnish needed war supplies. The couple amassed considerable debt, as Congress did not pay amounts due on a timely basis.
- James Bruce and Isabella Chrystie – In recognition for his military service in the French and Indian War, Bruce received four thousand acres of land in West Florida. On a trip back to his native Scotland, he married Isabella and returned to Pensacola to live. Bruce became a Crown customs collector and remained loyal to Britain throughout the war.
- Petit Jean – A slave in Mobile, Petit Jean worked as a cattle driver for a British master. As his job provided partial freedom of movement, Petit Jean spied for the Spanish, thereby earning his freedom.
- Amand Broussard – After the end of the French and Indian War, the British forcibly relocated Amand and his family from Acadia to French Louisiana. Broussard operated a cattle ranch in Attakapas, Louisiana. Given the bitter enmity over his forced exile, Broussard actively fought with the Spanish and eventually with the Americans against the British.
None of these people are prominent today, but during the Revolution, Pollack, McGillivray and Payamataha were well known by many American and European leaders. Contemporaries knew the two women only as wives to their husbands, and no slaves were prominent. DuVal points out that prior historical accounts omit descriptions of the lives and impact of women and slaves. For example, a prominent prior history of the region’s conflict by J. Barton Starr entitled Tories, Dons & Rebels omits narrative on the lives or contributions of any women or slaves.
DuVal argues that ancestry, economics and the prospect of personal freedom determined the loyalties of the region’s populous. The Bruces and the Pollacks as landowners and merchants respectively, aligned with the belligerents that supported their business interests. Petit John spied for the Spanish so that he might become free from slavery. The Native Americans either tried to stay neutral or support the British as the best way to preserve their sovereignty. Broussard remained loyal to his ancestry and joined the side that fought the British, protecting his family from the fate of his father’s. There was almost no support on the Gulf Coast for the American rebels and British Florida remained loyal to the British Crown.
Duval continues chronicling the eight individuals after the conclusion of the Revolution. Critical subsequent events include the sale of Louisiana to the Americans by the French in 1803, the War of 1812 and the American acquisition of Florida in 1819. As a result of the Revolution and these subsequent events, she concludes that many of the region’s people had less personal freedom than before the American War of Independence. Of DuVal’s eight persons, only Amand Broussard benefited civically or economically from American independence. After the Revolution, he returned to farming in Louisiana, fought again in the War of 1812 against the British and lived the remainder of his life as a successful plantation owner.
Both the American and British couples suffered economic and political setbacks. Oliver Pollack and Margaret O’Brien were economically tied to trade with the thirteen colonies and demonstrated unwavering loyalty to the American cause. They endured many financially difficult years before they were able to dig out of the debts incurred to fund Revolutionary activities in the region. They never again achieved the financial means they enjoyed before the rebellion. Margaret died at a small family farm in Pennsylvania and, later, Oliver died at his daughter’s home in Mississippi. Refusing to live under Spanish rule, James Bruce and Isabella Chrystie abandoned their holdings in Pensacola and returned to Europe.
Both Native Americans and blacks lost measures of their independence as a result of the war. While Petit Jean would remain a free mulatto, many other blacks were consigned to a life of slavery. Under Spanish rule, blacks could and did buy their freedom or win freedom by serving in the armed forces. These avenues to freedom ended under American control.
Native Americans lost the protection of the British Government and American settlers swarmed onto their lands after the war. Both Payamataha and Alexander McGillivray died before the total subjugation of the Native Americans in the region and their forced removal west of the Mississippi River. Today, many surviving tribal members are in Oklahoma, but without the sovereignty sought by Payamataha and McGillivray.
And women lost citizenship rights and stature. DuVal points out that married women lost limited rights to own property to which they were entitled under Spanish and French colonial law when the Gulf Coast region became part of the United States. In addition, women’s economic and cultural prosperity was inextricably tied to their husbands, and to provide for themselves and their children, women were constrained to “marrying well.”
DuVal concludes that only a small sliver of Gulf Coast residents were better off after the war than before. Most residents were thrust into a war that they did not seek and had their lives upended without any ensuing benefits. By telling the story through the stories of eight participants, DuVal demonstrates that the ideals of the American Revolution were not instantaneously achieved, and realizing the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution has been a long process and continues to evolve today.
One of the book’s strengths is connecting the hostilities in the Gulf Coast and the adjoining thirteen colonies to a larger global conflict. DuVal discusses the strategic importance of the Gulf Coast and the British rationale for sending reinforcements to Pensacola in an attempt to fend off Spanish or American invasion. She also points out that the number of British and Spanish forces during the penultimate siege of Pensacola were larger than many more famous battles within the thirteen colonies.
DuVal’s smooth flowing text is supported by copious footnotes and extensive primary source references. However, a limitation is that she does not provide a bibliography. Further, Duval describes the later lives of the major participants but not James Willing, an American living in Natchez who led an American military expedition down the Mississippi River from Fort Pitt to raid British Florida. Her description of the raid is spread over multiple chapters and contrary to the other subjects, she does not recount Willing’s life after the Revolution.
Duval subtitles her book Life on the Edge of the American Revolution. The book, however, is restricted to events on the Gulf Coast. There were other important regions on the edges of the thirteen colonies including Canada, the Caribbean and the Northwest with equally important events to interpret and lives to chronicle. Maybe DuVal will turn to these regions next with her intensive personage research and engaging writing style.