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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.