A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW EDITORS' CHOICE
A magisterial new work that rewrites the story of America's founding
The American Revolution is often portrayed as an orderly, restrained rebellion, with brave patriots defending their noble ideals against an oppressive empire. It’s a stirring narrative, and one the founders did their best to encourage after the war. But as historian Holger Hoock shows in this deeply researched and elegantly written account of America’s founding, the Revolution was not only a high-minded battle over principles, but also a profoundly violent civil war—one that shaped the nation, and the British Empire, in ways we have only begun to understand.
In Scars of Independence, Hoock writes the violence back into the story of the Revolution. American Patriots persecuted and tortured Loyalists. British troops massacred enemy soldiers and raped colonial women. Prisoners were starved on disease-ridden ships and in subterranean cells. African-Americans fighting for or against independence suffered disproportionately, and Washington’s army waged a genocidal campaign against the Iroquois. In vivid, authoritative prose, Hoock’s new reckoning also examines the moral dilemmas posed by this all-pervasive violence, as the British found themselves torn between unlimited war and restraint toward fellow subjects, while the Patriots documented war crimes in an ingenious effort to unify the fledgling nation.
For two centuries we have whitewashed this history of the Revolution. Scars of Independence forces a more honest appraisal, revealing the inherent tensions between moral purpose and violent tendencies in America’s past. In so doing, it offers a new origins story that is both relevant and necessary—an important reminder that forging a nation is rarely bloodless.
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The George Washington of American legend is the humanitarian who, in a young lady’s widely published acrostic, “Intent on virtue, and her cause so fair, / Now treats his captive with a parent’s care!” From the very start of the conflict, Washington had been adamant that his army’s conduct towards prisoners of war align with European customs. The honor of the American nation, as well as Washington’s own obligations as a gentleman officer and wartime leader, was at stake. It was, after all, for a place among the world’s civilized nations that America was vying. For leaders like Washington, treating prisoners of war adequately was a genuine moral concern that also made sound strategic sense.
Washington had a personal history to reckon with. In his very first combat mission, on the Ohio frontier in 1754, he had failed to prevent his Native American allies from committing the gruesome ritualistic murder of a French envoy, Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, and then massacring other French soldiers after they had surrendered to him. Washington had covered up the disaster as best he could. His official report glossed over the extreme violence, making it sound as if all French casualties had been sustained during an honest fight. But when he had to surrender Fort Necessity to the French later that year, Washington—unable to read French—signed terms of capitulation that held him responsible for Jumonville’s “assassination.”
When the British and American Loyalists resurrected the murder charges two decades later, we can only imagine how it must have nettled Washington, who guarded his honor and reputation as jealously as any gentleman officer in the British Empire. He appreciated that he must go out of his way to observe—and, crucially, to be seen observing—the codes of civilized warfare. Washington knew that defending “the sacred Cause of my Country, of Liberty” required him and his army to embrace Enlightenment ideals and what John Adams called a “policy of humanity.”
Washington had absorbed the codes of war pertaining to the capture, treatment, and exchange of prisoners of war, as far as conflicts among European powers were concerned, when fighting alongside British officers in the Seven Years’ War. These codes of war allowed an army to imprison any enemy soldier or officer in order to prevent him from taking up arms or as a ransom for peace terms. Captors, however, had no right over the life of a surrendered soldier: prisoners of war were not to be killed unless they made a new attempt to fight or had committed a crime warranting death. Both sides had a vested interest in the preservation, and ultimately the exchange, of expensively trained captive soldiers.
In the eighteenth century, conventions of war dictated that captive soldiers were to be fed, housed, and cared for like one’s own armed forces, although they were to receive clothing and payment from their own state or army (and not their captors). Enlisting prisoners of war in one’s own military was forbidden. During most eighteenth-century conflicts among Western European powers, ransoms and, increasingly, agreements between belligerent powers, so-called cartels, regulated the imprisonment, provisioning, and exchange of captives. Although a state was bound to procure its own prisoners’ release—a promise that was crucial to recruitment—commanders might delay exchanges in order to temporarily impose a greater economic burden on their opponents or deny them fighting strength. At war’s end, ransom or compensation would settle mutual claims. Unlike soldiers, captured officers were commonly released back home or allowed to move freely within a specified territory, on their honor and parole—from the French for “spoken word”—to abide by certain restrictions.
These principles of prisoner treatment were not easy to uphold under the conditions of war. Unequal numbers of captives, inadequate record keeping, and the sheer scale of transcontinental warfare in the eighteenth century meant that exchanges were complex to organize. There was, therefore, a broad trend away from large-scale exchanges and towards holding prisoners for longer periods of time in the captors’ homeland. In the American Revolutionary War, unique politico-legal circumstances further complicated matters: the British refused to designate captured rebel combatants as prisoners of war, since that would mean recognizing the United States as a sovereign state. In doing so, they rendered large-scale exchanges characteristic of wars between European nations impossible, which meant that both sides faced the challenge of keeping unusually large populations of captives. Throughout much of the war, British officers sought to arrange partial, ad hoc exchanges on the honor of the local commander and without formally invoking the king’s name, so as not to compromise the government’s position.
Whereas Washington was bent on a pragmatic humanitarianism and hence willing to participate in exchanges in order to alleviate prisoner suffering, Congress wanted to use the issue of prisoners to force Britain to recognize the United States. It also wished to avoid returning too many British soldiers. It was keen not to pay for large exchanges if accounts could not be settled. And it preferred to conceal the short terms of enlistment of American soldiers. Throughout the war, American and British leaders blamed each other for the repeated collapse of exchange negotiations. The numbers of prisoners exchanged through ad hoc arrangements, though probably totaling several thousand over the war as a whole, proved too small to relieve in a meaningful way the pressure on detention sites in most places at most times.
Some British officers in America demanded that “rebel” captives be treated as such, and not like prisoners from legitimate, conventional European armies. At least keeping them indefinitely, suggested the Irish-born Captain Frederick Mackenzie, “and in a state of uncertainty with respect to their fate, would certainly strike great terror into their army.” He worried that the failure to implement capital punishment—“Not one rebel has suffereddeath, except in Action”—only encouraged the insurgency. Nevertheless, even Mackenzie later insisted that it was “right to treat our Enemies as if they might one day become our friends. Humanity is the characteristic of the British troops, and I should be sorry they should run the risque of forfeiting what redounds so much to their honor, by one act of even necessary severity.” Mackenzie advocated strategic humanitarianism in order for Britain to create the right climate for postwar reconciliation. In practice, the British could hardly treat American captives as traitors without any rights. This was, first, because officials in charge of recruiting German troops had asked the British government not to complicate their task by repeating the situation of the anti-Jacobite campaign of 1745: prisoners then could not be exchanged, a predicament the German negotiators were now well aware of. And once the Americans had captured significant numbers of British troops, Britain had to treat American captives as de facto prisoners of war in order to protect their own from retaliation.
* * *
Washington set the tone early on in the Anglo-American debate about prisoners. Just weeks after taking charge of his new army at Cambridge in 1775, he complained to General Gage that “the Officers engaged in the Cause of Liberty and their Country, who by the Fortune of War have fallen into your Hands, have been thrown indiscriminately into a common Gaol appropriated for Felons—That no Consideration has been had for those of the most respectable Rank, when languishing with Wounds and Sickness. That some have been even amputated in this unworthy Situation.” Washington demanded that politics be set aside; instead, he asserted, “[o]bligations arising from the Rights of Humanity, & Claims of Rank, are universally binding and extensive, except in Case of Retaliation.” With this caveat, Washington invoked another principle in the laws of war, thus putting Gage on notice that in the future his treatment of Anglo-German captives would mirror the treatment of American prisoners in British hands.
Gage replied that, to “the Glory of Civilized Nations, humanity and War have been compatible; and Compassion to the subdued, is become almost a general system.” The British, he reassured Washington, “ever preeminent in Mercy, have outgone common examples, and overlooked the Criminal in the Captive. Upon these principles your Prisoners, whose Lives by the Laws of the Land are destined to the Cord, have hitherto been treated with care and kindness, and more comfortably lodged than the King’s Troops in the Hospitals.” It was Britain’s natural humanitarian impulse, Gage was saying, not her obligations under the laws of war, that had ensured the good treatment of rebel prisoners. If he indeed had ignored distinctions of rank, it was only because “I Acknowledge no Rank that is not derived from the King.” Retaliation worked for Gage as well, he reassured Washington, especially since he also had the American Loyalists to consider:
My intelligence from your Army would justify severe recrimination. I understand there are of the King’s faithfull Subjects, taken sometime since by the Rebels, labouring like Negro Slaves, to gain their daily Subsistence, or reduced to the Wretched Alternative, to perish by famine, or take Arms against their King and Country. Those who have made the Treatment of the Prisoners in my hands, or of your other Friends in Boston, a pretence for such Measures, found Barbarity upon falsehood.
But Washington was not going to be intimidated by imperious saber-rattling. He lectured Gage that he had deliberately avoided political questions, such as whether “British, or American Mercy, Fortitude, & Patience are most preeminent,” or “whether our virtuous Citizens whom the Hand of Tyranny has forced into Arms” deserved to be hanged as rebels. As far as the Loyalists were concerned, however, Washington had made inquiries and reported that “[n]ot only your Officers, and Soldiers have been treated with a Tenderness due to Fellow Citizens, & Brethren; but even those execrable Parricides, whose Counsels & Aid have deluged their Country with Blood, have been protected from the Fury of a justly enraged People.” Congress duly published the Washington-Gage correspondence for propagandistic effect. By this time, not only in America but in Britain, too, Washington was becoming widely recognized as an honorable gentleman officer who sought to uphold high ethical standards.
Even as allegations of British maltreatment of American captives soured relations, and perhaps especially then, Washington continued to cling to these standards: he would always try to “render the situation of all prisoners in my hands as comfortable as I can, and nothing will induce me to depart from this rule, not a contrary line of conduct to those in your possession. Captivity of itself is sufficiently grievous, and it is cruel to add to its distresses.” Noble ideals, captured in soaring rhetoric, found their real test in the actual treatment of prisoners under the strains and stresses of a grueling war. As Patriot soldiers learned throughout the conflict, being a rebel prisoner in British hands was a precarious and often violent experience.
Table of Contents
List of Maps ix
1 Tory Hunting 23
2 Britain's Dilemma 55
3 Rubicon 85
4 Plundering Protectors 127
5 Violated Bodies 151
6 Slaughterhouses 181
7 Black Holes 211
8 Skiver Them! 245
9 Town-Destroyer 275
10 Americanizing the War 299
11 Man for Man 335
12 Returning Losers 361
Map and Illustration Credits 533