Saturday, November 11, 2017

Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock

Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock is an examination of the American Revolution through the lens of violence. Specifically, the author looks at non-battlefield violence, such as mob attacks, violence directed against civilians, violence and mistreatment of prisoners of war and similar events and incidents. Though I disagree with some of the author’s contentions, this is an important and riveting history book. 

Early on, Hoock makes an assertion that is, in my opinion, questionable. He argues that there exists a pattern of underplaying and whitewashing of the violence that occurred during the American Revolutionary War. He cites several historians and books. He writes,


"For over two centuries, this topic has been subject to whitewashing and selective remembering and forgetting. While contemporaries experienced the Revolution as frightening, messy, and divisive, its pervasive violence and terror have since yielded to romanticized notions of the nation’s birth. In painting an unvarnished portrait of Revolutionary-era violence, violence, we can shed new light on how participants understood their struggles and how survivors and subsequent generations have remembered and mis-remembered the conflict."

I find this contention unconvincing, at least in terms of contemporary history and popular accounts. I have read somewhat extensively on this subject. While there may be some tendency in popular culture to see the Revolution through rose-covered glasses, and some histories to not touch upon the negative aspects of the event, anyone who reads or otherwise explores the history of this era in any detail will be familiar with the bad stuff. Violence against civilians, mistreatment of prisoners of war, mob violence, etc., are commonly chronicled and sometimes analyzed in history books. Works such as Fighting For the King in America's First Civil War by Thomas B. Allen, Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor by Willard Sterne Randall, and His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis, are just a few examples of books that I have read over the past few years that examined these terrible events. Even the recently aired television series Turn depicted a lot of violence that was part of this trend. 

Despite my above objection, this is a very worthwhile book. It is a fair account of the dark side of the American Revolution. Though other books and accounts do delve into these things, by focusing on this kind of violence, Hoock is able to paint a coherent picture of this aspect of the revolution. He also provides important insights and analysis. Violence committed by both armies as well as by mobs and bands of citizens is detailed. The horrendous actions of both sides are well illustrated. This is a balanced history.

The British army perpetuated rape and general violence against civilians as well as pillaging. American prisoners of war were treated horrendously and endured starvation, disease, exposure to the elements and filth. Hoock gives credit where it is due. For instance, with a few notable exceptions, the Americans treated British prisoners of war much more humanely. 

There are plenty of things that Hoock calls the rebel side to task for. For instance, an American force in upstate New York carried on a brutal campaign against mostly noncombatant members of the Iroquois nation. The Loyalists in particular were subjected to terrible violence and often endured mob attacks and torture. Their property was often destroyed or confiscated.

Hoock succeeds not just in organizing this violence and crimes, but also in illustrating the causes as well as some of the implications of these events. For instance, he attributes the better treatment of British prisoners to two factors: first, George Washington had a strict code of honor that impelled him to ensure that prisoners were humanely treated; second, the rebels had a lot more physical room at their disposal to house prisoners. The author explains how this difference in available space made an enormous difference in the quality of life of prisoners of war. 

Another interesting, insight: Hoock explains how brutal mob violence aimed at Loyalists was a major consideration for the British to deploy troops in America as well as to continue the war even after a series of defeats.

The above are just a few examples of the many insights contained in this book. It is filled with close examinations into the circumstances as well as the underlying causes of both questionable actions by both sides of the conflict. 

This is a really good book for anyone interested in the American Revolution or in American history in general. Though not as groundbreaking as the author maintains, it is a solid work of history that builds a coherent picture of some of the worst things that happened during The American Revolution.

33 comments:

Lory said...

This is a topic that is of interest to me. All wars are obviously outbreaks of violence and will include non-authorized as well as "legitimate" examples of this, but we like to paint them as noble and necessary struggles from our own point of view -- thus the "whitewashing" that always occurs. Anybody who goes a bit more deeply into the subject will see that there is more to it than that, so it's a bit naive for the author to think he's made some kind of unique breakthrough, but it still does sound as though he's made an interesting and cogent study. Thanks for this helpful review.

Suko said...

This sounds like a very worthwhile book about the brutal American Revolution, all in all. Excellent commentary, Brian Joseph.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lory - Indeed, to some extent what is true about The American Revolution and the way it is viewed is true of many wars. At least in history books, there is a tendency to avoid whitewashing these days.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. I thought that it was worth reading.

Deepika Ramesh said...

Enlightening meditation on the book, Brian. Although reading about war is always painful, I realise it's important to know our history. Thank you for the post.

Dwight said...

Glad to see you liked it. I read a few books this summer on the Revolution from Loyalist writers or viewpoints, and this book was helpful to source complaints on both sides.
One of these days I hope to be able to post about some of these books. Thanks for posting on this one!

Kathy's Corner said...

Thanks for another fine review Brian. It was my plan to read more American History and then 2016 happened and the energy wasn't there. What did it all mean if it led to Trump? But the good thing about the Scars of Indepenence is it shows our founding warts and all and so maybe the times we are living in now aren't the worst we have gone through.

Jillian said...

I would love to read more on the revolution. Thanks for sharing this, Brian. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Deepika - I think that sometimes books need to show us the darker side of the world.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jillian - The American Revolution has been a lifelong interest of mine.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - I tend to struggle with the Trump thing too. It is very relevant to The American Revolution. Alexander Hamilton in his writings seemed to very much foresee Trump. I think that our system may or may not survive Trump. If it does it means the Constitution still works. If not - as Ellis and others have pointed out, The American Constitution has endured much longer the most of The Founders thought that it would. It has had a great run.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Dwight - I am not sure if you read it or not, but I liked: Tories: Fighting For the King in America's First Civil War by Thomas B. Allen http://briansbabblingbooks.blogspot.com/2014/04/tories-fighting-for-king-in-americas.html

CyberKitten said...

All wars are nasty by their very nature. What little I've read about this one says it was no exception. Apart from the expected death and destruction both sides went too far for a whole host of reasons. All nations look back on their history (and especially their foundation myths) with rose coloured glasses. No nation is made up purely of heroes (or villains). The good and the bad exist on both sides and in each person. War brings out both the best and the worst in human nature. That's one reason why historians (and some of the rest of us) find it so fascinating.

Brian Joseph said...

Hu CyberKitten - Indeed these are common things that apply to all wars. As terrible as they are, wars are indeed fascinating.

Maria Behar said...

OUTSTANDING review as usual, Brian!!

You know, I'm sure it's hard for some historians to be objective when they're reporting war crimes committed by their own side. And I think it might be just as hard for them to admit to other types of violence. Thanks to your extensive reading about the American Revolution, you can easily dismiss this author's contention that this violence has been "whitewashed".

Now that I've stated this, though, I'm wondering whether Hoock's argument could justifiably be applied to history textbooks used in schools. Hmmmm.... I sure don't remember reading about violent acts committed against civilians during the American Revolution, when I was studying American History in high school. Still, you do have a point, since there have been other books written, not used in classrooms, that do depict these atrocities.

To be honest, I don't think I could stomach reading about these violent events, Brian. I would probably do better with a "whitewashed" version of the American Revolution, ironically enough!

Thanks for another very insightful review!! Hope you have a WONDERFUL week ahead!! <3 :)

Sharon Wilfong said...

I appreciate your balanced review of this book, Brian. As you say, I don't think anyone is under any kind of delusion that war is romantic. I really need to read more about the Revolutionary War. There seems to be various kinds of books out there. Many books today seem intent on making our Nation's Founding Fathers look bad when, in fact they were simply human. It's important to find books that are objective, but it's not easy.

Have a good week!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - Indeed these are common things that apply to all wars. As terrible as they are, wars are indeed fascinating.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I have read a l lot of the newer history books. At least the ones that I have read have not demonized or overly criticized the Founders. These books are from the most main stream historians. However, there is a movement tied to what I am now calling The Postmodernist Left, that only sees the negative aspects of Western history. The American Founders are a particularly favorite target of theirs. I thought that this book was not of that strain. Instead it was just aimed at showing the more brutal sides of the conflict.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

You raise a good point about history textbooks. Perhaps they whitewash more then just the events of The American Revolution. At least when it comes to war crimes, they may not be telling the entire story.

I understand not wanting to read about brutality and violence. I think that books can point out that these things happened without going into detailed descriptions. As OI get older, I am also finding that I am more easily disturbed by this stuff.

James said...

Thanks for a realistic review of this history text. My experience reading about the history of the Revolutionary War (or the War for Independence from Great Britain) has not been one that saw the war as anything less than was. There was violence on both sides. It seems that as far as revolutions go, ours pales in comparison to the French Revolution about a decade later. Perhaps our leaders, in spite of their flaws, had a a more reasonable and enlightened approach.

Dwight said...

Thanks Brian. I've had that on my list but haven't read it yet.

Two related ones I'll mention here that I really liked, if you're interested: 1) Liberty's Exiles by Maya Jasanoff (she has a current book out on Joseph Conrad that looks really good), covering what happened to Loyalists during and after the war, and 2) for historical fiction I can recommend Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts, told from the vantage point of a Loyalist that happens to be in the right place at the right/wrong time for several important events during the war. The catch with the second book is that Wiswell dismisses all rebel claims of mistreatment at the hands of the British while believing all claims of cruelty caused by rebels. An engaging read, even so.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Indeed, The French Revolution, like so many revolutions spiraled out of control into madness. It seems that most folks who have read about The American Revolution do not seem to have found it to be sugar coated.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Dwight - I have Liberty's Exiles sitting on my shelf but I have not read it yet.

Oliver Wiswel sounds really good, thanks for the recommendations!

baili said...

Thank you for insightful review Brain!

i know little of american revolution and birth of america in the leadership of george washington though but i am aware of much the violence that wars caused to the world .

i am glad that writer is being honest in his expressions and revealing the actual dark side of wars .

Our country was came into being in 1947 and largest migration of people happened in subcontinent .
we used to sing songs for our soldiers who fought bravely in the field as we heard from our grand parents .
but as i grew and through books and movies knew the horrible and terrifying aspects of wars i felt miserable .

Wars like darkness reveal the real face of men who get opportunity to exhibit the heep his inner ugliness

Tracy Terry said...

I must admit the few books I have read on the subject have been somewhat rose tinted but then again I suppose these have been books marketed for a British audience.

As always a thought provoking review that has obviously had a lot of thought put into it. Thanks Brian

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili. We look at some wars with reverence, often for good reasons. With that, terrible things happen in all wars. It is best that we recognize that and try to do better in the future.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy. It is interesting that you found books that are marketed to U.K. readers like that. Hoock is a European historian so I wonder if that influenced him.

thecuecard said...

I guess there must have been many sympathizers or spies on both sides which led to a lot of violence & that causes & grievances meant so much to each side. Although I haven't seen the TV series Turn yet, I remember the movie The Patriot (from 2000) with Heath Ledger & Mel Gibson that was very violent indeed. I guess this author just wants his book to get a bigger audience & read by claiming his book's importance etc.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - The war was in many ways a nasty civil war.

I remeber The Patriot as showing a lot of brutality from the British side.

There is a tendency for some writers who document negative events to take a lot of credit for doing so first.

The Bookworm said...

I know you are a history buff and this sounds like a good one. It's crazy to think what people suffer during wars throughout history. Also, what they are able to do to each other in the name of war.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - History does indeed reveal that terrible thing on top of terrible thing came out of war. It is hard to wrap one's head around it.

HKatz said...

Not sure I'll get around to reading this, but I enjoyed your review. I haven't studied the American Revolution in-depth, but at least I learn a lot of interesting things about it from your blog.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila - The American Revolution is a particular interest of mine. One cannot be interested in everything. For one thing, there is not enough time!