Name one major misconception about the American Revolution that you would like to dispel.
Nathan Hale is perhaps the best known American spy in our history. Yet, almost everything we have been told about him is incorrect or inaccurate. Even the numerous statues of Hale placed around the country are nothing more than an idealized image of what an American hero should look like. He was not Washington’s choice for the spy mission, but rather volunteered after the chosen candidate refused the job. He was not vetted as to his suitability for the task, nor given any meaningful spy training. His cover story to explain his presence in New York was laughable. He was captured because a British counterintelligence office exploited his naïve personality and convinced Hale that he was a fellow American spy. No one knows what his last words were prior to being hanged. And, he was never a patriotic icon during the Revolution; he only became one several decades later. The one indisputable fact is that he was a brave patriot who died for his country. But, he was a lousy spy, sent on a poorly planned mission that from a professional perspective was doomed from its start.
Battle paintings of British soldiers lined up in red coats facing American soldiers lined up in blue coats. It’s a Hollywood moment that has no reality. The Continental Army was never a cohesive looking mass in any battle, even by 1781. You would always see formations of men in everything from ash and tan hunting shirts to coats or jackets of blue, brown, green, gray and yes – red. Red fell out of favor since it created deadly confusion in the thick smoke of battle. To complicate things, various regiments and specialties also dictated coat or jacket colors. Be it infantry, artillery, light dragoon, legions, partisans, riflemen, musicians, sappers and miners, artificers, militia regiments, and then the officers of those specialties had their own personal officer preferences. Add in a hodge-podge of regimental flags for extra color. No wonder some old geezers just wore their old French & Indian War uniforms.
–John L. Smith, Jr.
The idea that George Washington was a mere figurehead, for whom others did his thinking — and his success was and is explained by LUCK. It’s amazing how many historians believe this.
There is a persistent, lingering misperception that those living in the so-called New Hampshire Grants (aka “Vermont”) played a pivotal role in furthering the revolution’s goals. Yes, they did gather briefly to take Ticonderoga and then serve as a buffer to the threatening British to the north and rallied upon Burgoyne’s invasion. However, when not otherwise engaged, theirs is a story aimed at preserving the personal gains that many of the Grants’ leaders managed to obtain to the disadvantage of New York from whom they wrested control. This was a war within a war.
Further, the interactions between the Continental Congress and Grants’ leaders shows a continuing course of obstruction to the patriot’s cause and which, to the disgust of the nation’s founders, threatened the integrity of the nascent Articles of Confederation and their ability to conduct the war. Then, as evidenced by the later Haldimand debacle during which they sought to re-establish connections with Britain, it is clear that resorting to treason to the revolution’s detriment was never far off.
While not a misconception among those who are dedicated students of the Revolutionary War, there is a popular belief that the war was won and nearly over following Saratoga and France’s entrance into the war. Not only did the war last an additional four years before Yorktown, but a string of British successes in that period, coupled with America’s mushrooming economic woes and war weariness, created a situation by the first half of 1781 in which an American victory (and American independence) was far from certain. Had 1781 not witnessed a decisive Allied victory, the war likely would have had a very different outcome.
That the American Revolution was instigated by the selfish one percent for material gain. First, this ignores the huge risk that those who were already among society’s winners took and asserting they did it to simply accumulate more wealth really makes no sense. It also diminishes the agency of the working class who supported the Revolution for reasons of their own, and played such important roles as noted by Alan Taylor, Ray Rapheal and many others.
–Alec D. Rogers
People generally believe that the American Revolution pitted the British (supported by Hessian mercenaries) against Americans in a war waged within the thirteen colonies. In reality, a global conflict fought on five continents by many nations including Native Americans, Canada, Britain, France, Spain, Netherland and India (Mysore). In addition, Americans in the bitterly divided thirteen colonies contested a bitter civil war among American Loyalists and American Patriots (and many who chose to remain neutral).
One common misconception that pervades Revolutionary scholarship is the notion that patriotism was just a synonym for nationalism. Being a ‘patriot’ was actually a contested term in the eighteenth century, especially in times of political turmoil. It essentially meant you were a defender of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and its principles of mixed government; you were virtuous and above the corruptions of party-politics; and you were prepared to stand up to any corrupt authority, whatever guise it took. Therefore, when the American ‘Patriots’ seized this mantle, it was actually an incredibly important statement of political belief – not just in the thirteen colonies, but also in the wider British Atlantic world.
That Great Britain was the most powerful military power on earth. In truth, the British army was among the smallest in Europe, while other, larger armies, such as those of Russia, Austria-Hungary, and France were more experienced. Some of the smaller armies, such as Prussia’s, were more innovative. Frederick the Great (1712-1786) and his Prussians leap to mind. British military successes on the continent almost always came as a member of some coalition in which allies provided the bulk of the land power. Similarly, the Royal Navy had a storied history, but British naval mastery was far from uncontested.
None of this diminishes the military effectiveness of British forces or denigrates the daunting military task Americans faced in 1775, but it’s an overstatement to suggest that the Americans took on the world’s strongest military and beat it.
The Americans won the war as a result of rigid British European tactics that could not effectively counter the American partisans. This myth is incredibly persistent, even though everyone of the major battles under Washington, Gates, and Greene were fought in conventional, European-style manner as open-field engagements or sieges. Sure, the partisans contributed to victory, but their efforts were not decisive. Also, the British proved adept at nontraditional warfare, as demonstrated by the operations of Butler’s Rangers and allied Indians in the North, while Lord Rawdon in the South managed an effective counterinsurgency that had the partisans on the brink of defeat before Greene arrived with the Continental Army in April 1781.
That it was simple. There’s an overall perception that it was a straightforward conflict of freedom versus oppression, right versus wrong, good versus bad, or what have you, when in reality the conflict arose over disagreement about the extent to which Parliament could pass laws governing the colonies. These are the same types of problems faced today in the United States with conflicts between state and federal government, in Europe with conflicts between the European Union and member countries, and other places. American citizens would be much better served by understanding that their revolution was complex, than by believing it was simple.
–Don N. Hagist
One misconception I would love to dispel is that British soldiers were a bunch of convicts, gutter rats, thieves, and the like who joined the army largely against their will- and that those who joined willingly did so only to fill their bloodlust. In reality, impressment into the British Army was illegal! The overwhelming majority of soldiers serving in the British Army during the AWI were there as willing recruits, who fought for their king proudly.
–Michael J. F. Sheehan
One of the biggest misconceptions that I have dealt with over the years involves the character and conduct of American Riflemen in the Continental army. While it is certainly true that the very first rifle companies in the war included a number of undisciplined men who chaffed at orders and presented a challenge to General Washington, such conduct had largely disappeared by 1776 (at least among the riflemen in the continental army). Commanders like Daniel Morgan and Richard Butler demanded that their riflemen conduct themselves as soldiers, and a look at the regimental orders of Colonel Morgan show his efforts to treat the riflemen accordingly. Unfortunately, their unconventional dress, weapons, and tactics, stood out and gave the appearance to some that they were less than soldierly. Over the years, this myth was reinforced in books, and later movies and television, so that the image that many people have of riflemen in the Revolution is more of a lone, undisciplined cowboy rather than a disciplined soldier. Washington’s general orders and the regimental orders of rifle commanders during the war would suggest otherwise. Riflemen were seen, treated, and behaved, like soldiers, at least after the summer of 1775 in Boston.
The misconception that I would like to dispel is the belief that there was little activity in the northern theater of the war between the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778 and Washington’s march to Yorktown in August 1781. Here is a list of the major military actions in this theater in that three-year period: British attacks on: King’s Ferry, N.Y. (1779), Connecticut coast towns (1779), and Connecticut Farms and Springfield, N.J. (1780); American attacks on: Stony Point (July 1779), Paulus Hook, N.J. (1779), Staten Island (1780), and Bull’s Ferry (1780). And, of course, the two events of most strategic importance for the course of the war: the arrival of Rochambeau’s French army at Newport, R.I. in July 1780 and Benedict Arnold’s traitorous attempt to hand the strategically important fortress at West Point, N.Y., to the British in September 1780.
–Benjamin L. Huggins
If there is one misconception of the American Revolution that I would like to dispel, it’s the one that the Hessian soldiers were mercenaries.
Certainly one of the biggies is a distorted popular image of the average Briton: a bewigged nincompoop who was so dense as to don a red coat, bumble about the American countryside, and more or less wait contentedly for a scruffy Rebel to take a shot at him. That’s not very charitable to the British themselves, and it unnecessarily cheapens the accomplishments of the Patriots. Although guerrilla or “partisan” actions certainly had their place in the war, it’s not exactly what Washington was aiming for in command of the Main Army. Crown forces contained some pretty tough customers who knew their business. Washington and company still managed to forge a conventional army, outlast their opponents, and deliver an extraordinarily embarrassing black eye to the empire (a defeat so devastating that George III contemplated abdication). Those accomplishments are far more impressive than simply thrashing a few helplessly effete buffoons.
Although historiography has shifted our perceptions somewhat since the Bicentennial, many Americans still believe the American Revolution was unanimously “Rah-Rah and the 4th of July.”
More and more I totally “get” what John Adams said about the French Revolution, when he said, “I should say that full one third were averse to the revolution…. An opposite third… gave themselves up to an enthusiastic gratitude to… The middle third, always averse to war, were rather lukewarm ….” I think it was true in the American Revolution, and that this is a fairly normal breakdown in many situations. 18th century schisms became more believable to me during the 2016 Election cycle. Tories, Patriots, Quakers and others were probably as astonished as we are that long-term friends, relatives and colleagues could so stubbornly make such totally unexpected political choices.
That the Revolution’s leaders came out of the struggle with the same goals and principles that they had started with. The colonists who resisted new taxes, policies, and governance from London in the 1760s and early 1770s weren’t seeking independence or any radical change in their society. They saw themselves as British subjects advocating for British rights under the British constitution. The American Revolution was unusual in not overturning social order—basically, families who were wealthy in America after the war had been wealthy in America before. But the society had adopted some far-reaching new principles: republican government without a king or hereditary aristocracy, abolition of slavery in some parts of the country, the end of religious establishment in others. Those changes would have seemed unthinkable in early 1775, much less in 1765.
I teach the Revolution to 7th graders. 7th graders are, in general, concrete thinkers. One of the strongest misconceptions I run into is the simple idea of good guys and bad guys.
I list terms on the board: rebel, loyalist. I teach them about the various tax acts. I teach them about the Sons of Liberty and about the mobs that rioted in the streets, tarred and feathered their opponents, and wrecked houses.
I explain that all these people were Americans. I define “patriot” as someone who loves his country. Then I ask, “Which side had people who loved their country?”
I find that this idea — that both sides had patriots — is a tough concept for pre-adolescents and almost unknown in the general population.
I commend you for your profession and your commitment to teach… especially American history, and especially to the tough crowd of middle schoolers. David McCullough said that teachers are our most important resource and I whole-heartedly agree.
Your approach to teaching the American Revolution sounds very balanced. Hopefully your students (and as future voters) will all benefit from the critical thinking lesson you provide. Thank you for being an instructor!
Thank you, John. I teach U.S. History I (Paleo Indians to 1830) to 7th graders and U.S. History II (1830-1974) to 8th graders. It is very rewarding… and so much fun!
Across the top of my classroom wall, in foot-high letters, is the great quote from Harry Truman: “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”
How about that Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas eve and fought the battle of Trenton on Christmas day against a group of drunk Hessians. This misconception appears far too often.
I find it interesting how little is mentioned about the Spanish efforts to assist the American colonists. I am a firm believer the without that help the revolution would not have succeeded.
Very good comment. The Revolution would have most likely succeeded, but our U.S. history would certainly been different, While not a misconception, the Spanish involvement is almost unknown. I saw an article in the TSHA (Texas State Historical Association) about the Spanish that was quite informative. It seems that to truly understand the American Revolution, one must go beyond the American and English into early histories of Scotland, Ireland (Ulster and the all of Ireland), France, Spain, Germany, and other countries. The political, religious, and hereditary background of the colonies immigrants tell much about deeply held beliefs and attitudes. I have found that my initial interest in the American Revolution has taken me into far greater depth into other history studies than I ever envisioned.
(A) The Hessians were mercenaries of a sort, weren’t they (they were fighting because they had been rented by their rulers)? https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/08/8-fast-facts-about-hessians/.
(B) Washington and his troops crossed the Deleware on Christmas Eve, but the Hessians weren’t drunk but exhausted. The notion that they were drunk was largely a myth perpetrated by British officers looking to evade damage to their own careers.
The modern understanding of “mercenary” is “freelance soldier of fortune.” Which the Hessians (& others) were not. They served their Prince with pride & he decided where to sell their services. This is a case of one word not telling the whole story.
The drunken/hungover Hessians story was used in “The Crossing”–a made for TV movie based on Howard Fast’s novel. One of the many errors in the film. The tale’s worth a big budget retelling. In the meantime, I’d recommend “Winter Patriots”–which may be streamed at the Mount Vernon website. http://www.mountvernon.org/site/animated-washington/winter-patriots/
I will add a pair of myths – one already addressed is that the American forces were untrained patriots who exploited their superior skills to beat the bumbling British in their silly red coats – in reality better generalship and steady continental regulars beat the British. At the same time there is a countervailing myth that the Militia were useless, ran at the very sight of a red coat, and were more of a danger to the American cause than they were to the British. With good leadership, well defined goals the men understood, and a mission of which they were capable, the Militia (especially as the war continued and their ranks included former soldiers) could be quite effective on the battlefield. The two myths exclude one another, and both are false. And by the way, the Minutemen were a component of the Militia and were largely disbanded in 1777 because they were too expensive. They did not win the war either.
I concur and would add that the militia and similar forces were betrayed by poor leadership at the highest levels of the regular army from the very beginning. For example, any judgment of the performance of Pennsylvania militia from 1777 forward is incomplete without a consideration of the Pennsylvania Associators’ experiences on Long Island and at Fort Washington. There they performed courageously in the front lines against overwhelming numbers, despite being poorly armed and ineffectively deployed, but were betrayed by gross incompetence on the part of the strategists we now laud as heroes. The story of this betrayal, abandonment, and waste of local lives surely made its way back to the home front and influenced the motivation of militia from that point forward. (In fact, the suffering continued on the British prison ships long afterwards.) Add to this the fact that large parts of that home front were now faced with the more immediate threat of renewed Indian attacks, something which could only conjure up the horrors of 1755-1756 on the Pennsylvania frontier.
I’m sure there are several myths out there that need to be debunked, but the one I think is more in the National Consciousness is that the winter in Valley Forge in 1777-78 was one non-stop blizzard. In fact, the winter was nothing more than “average” wherein the winter in Morristown in 1779-1780 was the worst winter of the 18th Century.
Yes, more people died at Valley Forge, but that had more to do with disease and the inexperience of the troops in dealing with the conditions more so than the weather per se.
I question the often repeated claim that five thousand people were in the Old South Meeting House just before the Boston Tea Party, and yes, I know a lot of people accept the claim but it is still not credible.
The average person believes that the Revolutionary War ended with the Battle of Yorktown, not knowing about the numerous battles and skirmishes that occurred afterwards both in the colonies and globally.
There are also local myths including Betsy Ross designing the American Flag (as opposed to Francis Hopkinson), Phoebe (Fraunces) and the poison peas saving Washington, Tempe Wicke hiding her horse from the British in the attic of her house in Jockey Hollow, and other stories.
I grew up thinking that George Washington was a brilliant general who beat the British at every turn, only to find that he was a fair-to-middling strategist and tactician, and some of his worst defeats (Long Island and Brandywine in particular) were plagued by poor intelligence and knowledge of the terrain.
The crossing of the Delaware by Washington was not on Christmas Eve 1776. It occurred on the late afternoon and evening of Christmas Day. Washington and his army then marched the nine miles to Trenton and arrived there on the morning of December 26th not on Christmas Day.
The Soldiers from Hesse-Cassel as well as the soldiers in the regiments of the five other German speaking states that sent auxiliaries to aid Great Britain in the American Revolution were not private soldiers of fortune but serving members of the standing armies of their Princes. These German soldiers made up about a third of the soldiers fighting for the Crown in the American Revolution. They did not wear Red Coats but their own uniform coats usually in blue for the Grenadiers, the Fusiliers, and the Musketeers and in green for the Yaeger rifle units.
There were also provincial regiments here fighting for the Crown during the American Revolution. These were Loyalist Americans serving in uniformed units such as the Queen’s Rangers, the British Legion and the New Jersey Volunteers.