JAR: You’ve just completed the latest in your series of novels on the American Revolution. Tell a bit about the series as a whole and this new book in particular.
There are five published novels in the series and I am writing the sixth and final one. The books chronologically follow the Revolutionary War and tell the story, through my fictional characters, from the viewpoint of ordinary soldiers, both black and white, Hessians, Quakers, women, Loyalists and Whigs. In many cases, I have used letters, diaries and memoirs to capture their authentic voice.
The series begins with Cannons for the Cause, in the brutal winter of 1775-76, and the struggle to haul cannons, some weighing up to two tons, from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake George, through the Berkshires to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Pulling them up the mountains through snow and ice, over non-existent roads, and preventing them from running over the soldiers, teamsters and animals on the downslope was an incredible feat of human endurance and engineering.
Henry Knox was the driving force behind this “noble train of artillery.” The idea for Cannons for the Cause, came to me after I read North Callahan’s biography, Henry Knox: General Washington’s General. Browsing through the bibliography I came across an entry for The Sexagenery – Reminiscences of the American Revolution by John Becker. Originally published in 1833, I was fortunate enough to find a reprint, dated 1866.
In 1775, John Becker was a twelve year old from Schoharie, New York, who together with his father, drove teams of horses and oxen from Lake George to the Massachusetts border. Today’s readers would not believe a twelve year old could manage a team of animals pulling a one or two ton cannon so I made him fifteen and Willem Stoner, my lead character was born.
The rest of the series, Tories and Patriots, Blood Upon the Snow, Spies and Deserters, and the latest one, Treason and Triumph, follow Will Stoner as he joins General Knox’s artillery regiment and is embroiled in the major battles around New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia and endures the suffering, starvation, and disease of the army in encampments.
On the trek to Cambridge, Will is befriended by Ensign Nathaniel Holmes of the Marblehead Mariners. The creation of the fictitious Ensign Holmes enabled me to portray several historical events involving Colonel John Glover’s Mariners, perhaps the first integrated unit in the Continental Army. Further reading about the Mariners led me to David Hackett-Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, and his gripping description of the race riot between the Mariners and backwoods riflemen at Washington’s Cambridge Headquarters in 1776. This incident cried out to be included in a novel and I added a free African American character, Private Adam Cooper and two other black soldiers of the Mariners to tell that story.
The latest book, Treason and Triumph, encompasses the low and high points of the revolutionary struggle in 1780 and 1781: the betrayal by General Benedict Arnold, who almost succeeded in turning over West Point to the British in the fall of 1780, and the October 1781 victory at Yorktown with the surrender of an entire British Army under the command of General Cornwallis.
At times, with Treason and Triumph, I thought I was writing a soap opera set during the Revolutionary War because some of the actual events are so over the top. This is especially true of Peggy Shippen Arnold’s behavior, playing the faithful, innocent wife, presumed by General Washington and others to have been driven temporarily insane by the exposure of her husband’s treason and his abandonment of her and their infant son at West Point. Not a single officer ever suggested that Mrs. Arnold be questioned about her role in her husband’s treason. Women, at the time, were deemed to be the fragile, weaker sex prone to excessive mood swings with lesser intellectual abilities and thus, deemed incapable of engaging in complex schemes and plots.
One description of her during her “mad” scenes at her home at West Point was of a woman barely covered in her night dress, screaming there were hot irons being driven into her head and imploring the doctor and officers who had come to comfort her not to “murder” Neddy, her little baby. She played her part to the hilt and was rewarded for her performance with a safe conduct pass from General Washington, to return to her family in Philadelphia. From there, she subsequently joined General Arnold in British occupied New York City and, for the much of the war, lived the high life of society balls, elegant dinners, and theater performances.
I was able to depict Peggy Shippen Arnold’s mad scenes in historically accurate detail through the fictitious character, Elizabeth Van Hooten, who I had inserted into Peggy’ rich and privileged set in Philadelphia in two earlier novels in the series, Blood Upon the Snow and Spies and Deserters. I attribute this to author’s luck and no foresight on my part.
JAR: When you started the first book in this series and created the characters, did you foresee that it would continue this far?
When I began writing Cannons for the Cause, I was certain I would continue the series until the war’s end. I did not know which characters would survive or which new ones I would introduce. I did plan to use regiments that participated in the battles I intended to describe and thus created fictional characters to serve in those regiments.
I did not start writing this series with any over-arching theme in mind. Through research, I began to discover lesser known events and the roles of blacks, women, Hessians, and Loyalists that are frequently ignored or glossed over.
I created the character of Private Adam Cooper, a free black man to explore not only his military experiences but also his anger and rage over insults and treatment by white soldiers and civilians and his conflict as a soldier fighting for freedom from the Crown while witnessing the continued enslavement of blacks on Long Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and at Yorktown. I created another character, Corporal Gideon Hazzard, a member of the all black 1st Rhode Island Regiment, demoted to private when his regiment was combined with the 2nd Rhode Islanders who fought at the battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield, New Jersey, and at Yorktown, Virginia. Blacks in the Continental Army became one of the major themes of the series.
Another main theme is the role of women in the Revolutionary War. They were spies and nurses, (and in some cases surgeons’ assistants). They ran the farms and businesses of their husbands who were in the Continental Army. The New Jersey Constitution, from 1776 to 1807, actually entitled them—as heads of households, owning property over a certain value—to vote. In the 1790s, approximately 10,000 unmarried widows were so classified.
The successive defeats in Brooklyn, Harlem Heights, Fort Lee and the retreat through the Jerseys led me to introduce the fictitious Mercy Buskirk Ford of Morristown. She is a strong character, skilled in medicine and treatments of diseases and comes from a family with divided loyalties. Lucy Knox, an intelligent, socially engaging woman, appears throughout the series. I have drawn on her frequent letters to “her Harry,” as sources for her words.
Then there are the Hessians, mostly simple farm boys forced into military service by the harsh laws of German principalities and the reality of agrarian poverty. Whig propaganda treated all Hessians as bloodthirsty, bayonet wielding plunderers and rapists. After reading diaries and books about the Hessians I added three Hessian soldiers, all young farm boys, terrified by the fifty plus day voyage across the Atlantic, initially disdainful of the rabble forces they face, and outraged by the Rebel practice of firing rifles at them from long range.
The Hessian prisoners captured at Trenton were paraded through Philadelphia and pelted with garbage, primarily by elderly women. Two of my fictional characters become prisoner of war farm laborers to families in Pennsylvania. One family treats their laborer, Georg decently, the other deals harshly with theirs. Through them I was able to present the Hessian soldiers attitude during the war and the American behavior toward them as prisoners.
JAR: You’ve made the wonderful choice to include information in your books about the primary sources that you used. What are your favorite sources that you’d recommend?
My hands down favorite source is the memoir by Private Joseph P. Martin. This Connecticut farm boy turned soldier for the duration of the war, is at times an acute observer of physical details, a philosopher one moment and a witty humorist the next. If you want a well written, eye-witness, ground level account of the so-called great events of the Revolutionary War, read Private Yankee Doodle – Being A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, by Joseph Plumb Martin, edited by George E. Scheer. Martin writes of the Continental soldier’s continuous gut wrenching hunger, of disease and lice, the constant itching from scabies, the cold, senseless night marches in the rain, the lack of promised clothing and rations, and the terror of battle and the agony of the wounded.
In the same vein but hardly as readable, Johann Conrad Dohla’s A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution, edited by Bruce E. Burgoyne, offers many first hand insights into the Hessian experience.
From a straight historical viewpoint, Thomas J. McGuire’s two volume work, The Philadelphia Campaign, Brandywine and the Fall of Philadelphia and Germantown and the Roads to Valley Forge, is essential not only for understanding the military aspects of the battles but for gripping descriptions of battlefield conditions. For example, he describes the paper cartridges soldiers had to bite open, which resulted in the blackening of the soldier’s mouth, “especially at the right corner as the teeth held and tore the cartridge while the right hand pulled it away, smearing the gritty powder across the face and hands.” The powder would sometimes spill into the soldiers’ mouths.
William M. Dwyer’s, The Day Is Ours: An Inside View of the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, November 1776-January 1777, offers a similarly riveting account of those battles as well as eye witness details such as this description of the aftermath of the fields outside Princeton: “The ground was frozen,” Sergeant R noted, “and all the blood which was remained on the surface, which added to the horror of this scene of carnage.”
Any books by Thomas Fleming, whose authentic historical voice was silenced by his death in July 2017 are a must. I especially relied upon The Forgotten Victory: The Battle for New Jersey, 1780 and Beat The Last Drum, The Siege of Yorktown, 1781.
Another must read on the battle of Yorktown which tells you where every siege line was dug, where each and every cannon was placed, and how many total shots and shells were fired at the hapless British is Jerome A. Greene’s The Guns of Independence: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781.
On special subjects like the tricks of spycraft, I found John L. Nagy’s Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution, a fascinating read.
For knowledge of American farm life, Noah Blake’s Diary of an Early American Farm Boy, illustrated by Eric Sloane, was invaluable for me in describing the setting and work of my Hessian prisoners of war on a Pennsylvania farm.
For the language and sentiments of Henry and Lucy Knox, I relied on The Revolutionary Lives and Letters of Lucy and Henry Knox, by Philip Hamilton, and for the thoughts, fears, and attitudes of women in general, In the Words of Women: The Revolutionary War and the Birth of the Nation, 1765-1799, by Louise V. North, Janet M. Wedge, and Landa M. Freeman.
When I was writing Cannons for the Cause, J. L. Bell’s blog,Boston 1775was incredibly helpful in recreating the details of life in British occupied and newly liberated Boston. Similarly, for the entire series I have benefitted from articles too numerous to mention that have appeared in the Journal of the American Revolution.
JAR: As you researched your books, did your perspective on the American Revolution change? What surprises did you encounter?
This is a terrific question.
My perspective changed with respect to those who fought and those who did not. Of course I knew about the starvation and suffering at Valley Forge. But that was just one winter. In fact, the winter of 1779-1780 was far worse.
I learned that the Continental soldiers suffered constantly throughout the war, regardless of the weather, from lack of food, shoes and even clothing. And Congress did little or nothing to alleviate their plight, despite General Washington’s pleas. Some states were better than others but in general, the ordinary soldier suffered in misery and yet, remained in service, with a few notable exceptions, such as the mutinies of the Pennsylvania Line and a New Jersey Regiment in 1781. It is remarkable that, ill clothed and with rags around their feet, they endured the lack of rations, lack of pay, and legislative lack of concern. I grew to understand the true sacrifice of these soldiers, far beyond that one winter at Valley Forge.
On the other hand, many farmers and merchants who could have supplied the Continental Army with food, blankets, shoes, and clothing, preferred to deal with the British. Some may have been Loyalists but many were simply greedy and sold their goods for hard currency (gold and silver coins) instead of the worthless Continental paper dollars. I learned about the “London trade”—shipments from American-held Philadelphia and New Jersey to supply the British Army in New York.
Then there were those civilians who, even though protected by the Continental Army from a rapacious British and Hessian force, failed to help wounded American officers with room and board after a battle. A case in point is that of Captain Stephen Olney of the 1st Rhode Islanders, wounded after the battle of Springfield, New Jersey, who was turned away from home after home by the well-off residents in the area, until he found some respite with a cobbler.
In another instance Colonel Ebenezer Huntington wrote to his father in Connecticut:
“I despise my countrymen. I wish I could say I was not born in America. I once gloried in it but now am ashamed of it . . . The insults and neglects which the army have met with from the country beggars all description. . . I am in rags, have lain in the rain on the ground for forty hours past, and only a hunk of fresh beef and that without salt to dine on this day, received no pay since last December.”
The myth of valiant Americans rising up in unified opposition to the oppression of the Crown is rebutted by the evidence of neglect, greed, and profiteering. It makes the miracle of ultimate victory all the more exceptional because a small band of merchants, farmers, and mechanics trained according to von Steuben’s manual but lacking basic necessities, became the Continental Army that bested the British (of course with a major assist from the French Army and Navy, and General Rochambeau’s treasury.)
As for other surprises, I think the greatest eye-opener for me was there were integrated regiments in the Continental Army as well as the all black 1st Rhode Islanders. I had no idea approximately 500 black soldiers were at Valley Forge and the army census in 1778 listed 755 blacks or that an estimated 5,000 or so African Americans served in the Continental Army or Navy. Nor was I aware of the large numbers of slaves in New Jersey and New York during the Revolution.
Another surprise was the anti-Catholicism of many New Englanders, a result of the French and Indian War when many fought against Catholic France, as well as the fear of French-Canadians being brought down from Canada by the British to suppress the American rebellion. I also was amazed how many of the Continental Army Officers, not only George Washington, but Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, and William Mercer, as well as ordinary soldiers, including many of the Lexington militia, gained their military experience in the French and Indian War.
JAR: What challenges did you face in maintaining historical accuracy while creating fictional characters and story lines?
One challenge was in writing dialogue. New England soldiers were called “Yankees” by others. They spoke with a distinct accent that soldiers from other regions recognized and whose accents were different than New Englanders. But in reading the diaries, memoirs, and letters of officers, soldiers, and women, I was struck with how familiar the words and sentence structure were to our times. (Spelling and capitalization are another matter.) At times, I was concerned that my characters would seem too modern and not of the Revolutionary era. In the End Notes, I try to point out that many of the speeches I placed in my characters’ mouths were taken from the actual letters of real people of the time, or broadsheets, gazettes, or sermons.
I would like to think I did not create fictional story lines, but simply placed my characters in historical situations. For example, the fictional character of Elizabeth Van Hooten, who is an American spy, becomes a friend of the real Peggy Shippen in British-occupied Philadelphia. The plays, balls, dinners, and galas she attends are described by Peggy and the lovely young ladies of her circle, like Becky Frank, in their letters. I merely inserted Elizabeth into those social events.
This is especially true of many of the battle scenes because much more has been written about battles than balls and dances. I took great care to ensure that my characters belonged to regiments that actually were present at those battles. And incidents and descriptions the officers and soldiers wrote about found their way into my novels through my fictional characters.
Another challenge was recognizing that individual officers and soldiers did not see the overall battle but only took part in the fighting in their sector, unaware that the army had been outflanked, was retreating or surging forward somewhere else on the field. I tried to maintain this narrow focus of my characters so they seemed to be swept up in the events that led to victory or defeat without quite knowing why they were advancing, retreating or staying in place. The real fog of war was the smoke from muskets, rifles and cannons that hung over many battlefields and obscured the sight of the participants.
JAR: Do you have plans for any more American Revolution projects?
Technically, about the American Revolution, no.
Several of my friends, who have read the novels, have encouraged me to carry some of the characters forward into the early years of our country, say from 1783 to 1800 or so. Specifically, they have suggested it would be interesting to read about newly discharged officers and soldiers returning to their farms and businesses or establishing themselves in major cities and becoming entrepreneurs, merchants, or mechanics. It is an intriguing idea but one I am not yet ready to accept.
For now, I am concentrating on writing the sixth and last book in the series, tentatively titled, Book of Negroes. It follows my characters through the vicious guerrilla warfare in New Jersey and Westchester, life in British occupied New York City and Long Island, and the army camp at New Windsor, New York.
I do know that whether or not I continue to write about the American Revolution, I will continue to follow the blogs Boston 1775 and Journal of the American Revolution. I am a committed enthusiastic and addicted reader.