By Adam Goodheart
Rough Crossings: Britain, Slaves, and the American Revolution, by Simon Schama, Ecco, $29.95
Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution, by Joseph Glatthar and James Kirby Martin, Hill & Wang, $26
“It is not one war, but many.” So wrote the foreign correspondent William Langewiesche in a recent dispatch from Baghdad. The truth of this apothegm must be evident to anyone who has, even from a distance, watched the Iraqi conflict unfold. For American military strategists, it is one front in a global “war on terror.” For pan-Islamic jihadists, it is one front in a global holy war. For Sunni and Shiite militiamen, it is a battle for power and a settling of ancient scores. For many Kurds, it is a long-awaited opportunity to assert their people’s independence. And for most ordinary citizens of Iraq, it is simply a daily struggle for survival.
Indeed, Langewiesche’s statement (in the September 2006 issue of Vanity Fair) probably applies to most large-scale military conflicts throughout history. Warfare, with its sudden unleashing of entropy and violence, also has a way of unleashing long-contained hatreds and aspirations and messianic hopes, not just among the principal combatants, but also among those who might have been considered mere bystanders or bit players. Often, this side action ends up shaping the course of the entire conflict—not to mention that of thousands of individual lives—in ways that the protagonists could never have foreseen, much less wished.
Such was the case with our own Revolution. For two centuries, most historians have treated the struggle more or less as a two-sided conflict between the forces of liberty on the one hand and those of imperial authority on the other. Yet as two recent books describe it, for certain Americans the wartime experience resembled not the well-ordered faceoff of Minutemen and redcoats at Lexington and Concord, but rather the opportunistic violence seen lately in Fallujah and Sadr City. And in these new accounts of a familiar epoch in our history, it is often disturbingly unclear which side could lay stronger claim to the mantle of freedom.
Consider one brave regiment of Americans who took up arms in 1775, marching toward battle wearing badges on their uniforms that bore the motto “Liberty to Slaves.” These native sons of liberty assembled not under the newly unfurled banner of the United Colonies, but beneath the Union Jack. They were African Americans, members of a unit exotically dubbed Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment—and, as Simon Schama aptly calls them, “an army of free blacks on the march against America and slavery.”
Dunmore was the last colonial governor of Virginia, an ill-starred imperial bureaucrat whose name would be cursed by generations of white southerners. In the first year of the Revolution, faced with unpropitious military odds, he issued the proclamation that made him notorious, declaring “all indented Servants, Negroes or others (appertaining to Rebels) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper sense of their Duty to His Majesty’s Crown and Dignity.”
Many of the loyal Ethiopians would be slaughtered defending His Majesty’s crown and dignity, not to mention Lord Dunmore’s own hide, at the calamitous battle of Great Bridge in December 1775. They were among tens of thousands of enslaved blacks who flocked to the British lines, from New England to the Deep South, during the course of the war. These fugitives, Schama writes, formed “by far the greatest exodus from bondage in African-American history until the Civil War and Emancipation.” Although many were simply refugees seeking asylum, some eagerly joined the war effort as laborers and scouts, soldiers and spies. One veteran of the Ethiopian regiment, a former slave named Titus, rebaptized himself “Colonel Tye” and led a mixed-race band of Loyalist guerrillas that rampaged through New Jersey, slaying patriot sympathizers and burning their houses and farms.
This part of the story is not wholly new—it was told almost a half century ago by the pioneering black historian Benjamin Quarles, and more recently by such scholars as Sylvia R. Frey, whose 1991 book Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age is cited frequently in Schama’s footnotes. But Schama is that rare thing among academics: a master literary stylist, perhaps even the greatest descriptive historian of our time. Like his Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, this chronicle of an earlier revolution contains paragraphs that drop the reader smack into the 18th century, among the teeming throngs of a London slum, or amidst the muzzle flashes and black-powder smoke of battle.
Moreover, Schama, unlike the vast majority of authors who have written about the American Revolution, does so (despite the quarter century he has now spent on this side of the ocean) from a solidly British vantage point. As he tells it, the redcoats were not such unlikely apostles of black freedom as they might now seem. Across the Atlantic, a vigorous antislavery movement had sprung up in the pre-war years, and its London-based advocates had managed to score a few important victories in the English courts of law. These abolitionists—even those who sympathized from afar with the patriot cause—scoffed at the idea that the fledgling United States could present itself to the world as both “the land of the brave and the land of the slave,” in the words of the antislavery leader Granville Sharp.
On the American side, meanwhile, the blacks’ uprising—the “domestic insurrections amongst us” that Jefferson complained of in his draft of the Declaration—sowed the widespread panic that the British hoped for, to a disproportionate extent, in fact, considering the actual number of runaways. (The very afternoon of the surrender at Yorktown, one American soldier recorded laconically that he had spent his whole day “collecting Nigars.”) Schama goes so far as to say of Southern patriots: “Theirs was a revolution, first and foremost, mobilized to protect slavery.”
But even if this were true—and Schama’s evidence, though well chosen, is too impressionistic to be wholly convincing—it still would not imply, of course, that the British were fighting a war to destroy slavery. For commanders like Lord Dunmore, himself a slaveowner, emancipation seemed simply as a wise military stratagem.
Unlike most other counterinsurgency forces throughout modern history, including the present-day allied occupiers of Iraq, the British armies in North America were not attempting to reimpose order so much as, perversely enough, to undermine it. The structures of royal authority in the colonies, always fragile and exiguous, had been swept away by the first gusts of rebellion and supplanted by a national government under the Continental Congress that, even in its earliest years, exerted more real power than King George or his forebears ever had. To resume the modern analogy, the British weren’t patrolling the streets in armored Humvees, striving vainly to keep the peace. Peace itself was the enemy.
This explains why (to cite another of Jefferson’s grievances in the Declaration) King George’s minions, in addition to inciting those aforementioned “domestic insurrections,” also “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.” One of the few real British claims to the colonists’ loyalty had been their garrisons’ success in defending the Appalachian frontier. If that frontier were now breached—if the Native Americans could be incited to open a second front, as it were, in the war—perhaps the chastened Americans would scurry back under the protective skirts of the mother country.
This act of the revolutionary drama, almost as little remembered today as the slave defections, played itself out largely in the Iroquois territory of northern and western New York, which forms the setting of Joseph Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin’s Forgotten Allies. For more than a century, this area had seen interaction, peaceful as well as warlike, among Englishmen, Frenchmen, the Dutch, and various native tribes. The cultural juxtapositions could be startling. In the houses of the more assimilated members of the Iroquois Confederacy, such as the Oneidas, you might sit down to tea in a parlor adorned with your host’s collection of scalps.
During the first few years of the Revolution, both Loyalist and patriot agents worked assiduously to undermine the Iroquois league’s pledge of neutrality. By 1777, they succeeded, in the process shattering the alliance among the Six Nations that had lasted since time immemorial. The Mohawks, beguiled by British promises to protect their land rights against encroaching colonists, launched raids on pro-patriot settlements. The Oneidas, who had recently undergone a religious revival at the hands of a New Light minister from Connecticut, rallied to the defense of their white neighbors: naked Presbyterian warriors swooping down on the enemy with bows and tomahawks. Most of all, each side hoped that by picking the winner in the Anglo-American contest, they could ensure their tribe’s security and prosperity after the conflict’s end.
Both sides, with white as well as Indian participation, fought a nasty, even terroristic war, destroying villages, burning crops, and capturing or killing civilians. Though loyalist commanders like the Mohawk Joseph Brant have taken most of posterity’s blame for the atrocities, the American side, too, appreciated their Indian allies’ fearsome reputation: returning to Valley Forge from a foray to the Oneida country, Lafayette vowed to “bring down to your excellency some scalping gentlemen for dressing the fine hair of [General] Howe.” (Apart from this, one patriot officer marveled at the figure that these lithe aboriginal warriors cut among the dumpy ex-farmers of the Continental Army: their “strength [is] of a beast of prey, rather than a beast of burden.”) Loyally, they served their “Great Chief Warrior,” Washington, through Yorktown and beyond.
In return, the patriot leaders promised similar faith to their Oneida allies. “While the sun and moon continue to give light to the world, we shall love and respect you,” pledged a delegation from the Continental Congress in December 1777. “As our trusty friends, we shall protect you; and shall at all times consider your welfare as our own.” Needless to say, once the British defeat was secure and Americans again began looking hungrily at Indian lands, such extravagant words were soon forgotten. “The gradual extension of our Settlements,” the Great Chief Warrior himself predicted placidly in 1783, “will as certainly cause the Savage as the Wolf to retire.” And so it did. By the early 1800s, the Oneidas were retreating en masse to Wisconsin, and by the start of the next century, the tribe’s lands in New York State had shrunk from 6 million to a mere 32 acres.
As for the African Americans who had pledged their faith to King George, they were little better rewarded. At war’s end, thousands of men, women, and children crowded into disease-ridden refugee camps behind British lines. Some of the survivors—mostly those who had belonged to Loyalist masters—were returned to slavery. The rest were eventually shipped off to languish in Nova Scotia, an oppressed underclass among the white Loyalist settlers. Finally, at the instigation of their antislavery friends in London, they were given the opportunity to resettle in the new African colony of Sierra Leone. Here (if they survived the disease, malnourishment, slave raids, French attacks, cobras, kraits, and ravenous fire ants) a few of them found at last what Lord Dunmore had promised: a kind of freedom.
But most of the loyal Ethiopians, like most of the patriot Oneidas, ended up simply as chaff in the grinding wheels of an imperial logic far larger than themselves. (If you want to know what that feels like, ask any Iraqi Kurd who remembers 1991.) Empires, both old and young, have their own vast purposes.
Adam Goodheart is the author of 1861:The Civil War Awakening, forthcoming in April, from which this article is adapted. He is director of Washington College’s C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.
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