For Holger Hoock, a professor of British history at the University of Pittsburgh, examinations of the Revolutionary War often ignore a critical issue when talking about America’s founding — violence. Common narratives frame the war with bloodless images such as Washington’s stately boat stance, a galloping, shouting Paul Revere, or that quaint tea party in Boston. But Hoock’s 2017 book, Scars of Independence: America's Violent Birth, seeks the overlooked stories, and many of those highlight the horror and the bloodshed common in all wars. Take, for example, the Baylor Massacre, where British soldiers followed orders and slaughtered surrendering Americans. Through moments like these, Hoock reveals the difficult moral choices soldiers on both sides, who once were compatriots, had to make. “Holger Hoock’s important book recovers a rawer, more ruthless national beginning: a war long on wounds and short on principles — a war, in short, like any other,” says Jane Kamensky in The New York Times.
Re-enact spoke with Hoock about writing Scars of Independence and the way he hopes to change the narrative surrounding the American Revolution.
Re-enact: How did you become interested in the violence of the American Revolution?
Holger Hoock: I was looking at 18th century art for a previous book, and I stumbled across monuments in churches and cathedrals across England. They were monuments to American Loyalists and the inscriptions and iconography told the stories of these loyalists being hunted and persecuted, their property being confiscated, and them being driven into exile for opposing the Revolution.
As I finished up [Empires of the Imagination], their harrowing stories — the accounts of suffering — stayed with me. Mostly because those stories were hard to reconcile with the standard narrative that I had in my mind of a largely orderly, remarkably restrained non-violent revolution that was supposedly defended in a quaint, almost bloodless war.
I read more widely British and American sources and what jumped out at me were two things. One, the sheer scale and the pervasiveness of the violence impacting all sides — American Patriots, Loyalists, the British, the free, enslaved, and the indigenous. From there I made the decision that I wanted to write the book from these multiple perspectives. But, two, what was striking was that participants and survivors framed their Revolutionary struggles in terms of their violent experiences. So, I became curious about what a history of the Revolution would look like that didn’t just write the violence back into the story, but what put it center stage.
"The sheer scale and the pervasiveness of the violence impacting both sides, and from there I made the decision that I wanted to write the book from these multiple perspectives."
R: You mention the "violence impacting all sides." Tell me more.
HH: I felt it was important to try to tell this story in a balanced, even-handed way from as many perspectives as I could get my hands on. Not just American Patriots, who, at the end of the Revolution, wrote the dominant American narrative and wrote the violence against other Americans without any of the widespread American-on-American violence. For me, as a historian of the British empire, it was obvious I needed to look equally at the Loyalists as well as the British as well as their German auxillary. I also wanted to highlight the role of women, the role of Americans of African heritage, both free and enslaved, and the often neglected role Native Americans played.
R: What was the experience of writing a book about violence like for you?
HH: As you can imagine, it was often quite painful to research and write. And I expect it's at times difficult for the reader to encounter. But I felt it was important to write a narrative history and one that gave immersive experiences from the perspective of these individuals — whether they were perpetrators of the violence, victims, or witnesses. And trying to tell the same scene from these multiple perspectives to enable the reader to gain an understanding and even empathy across this wide range of perspectives. I think it’s important, especially for Americans, to re-engage with this aspect of their founding.
R: Through the research and writing, how did you balance perspectives in a history that can be very biased?
HH: Of course, there’s the fog of war and the attempt on all sides to control the narrative. You try to balance your accounts from as many sides as possible. So a rumor of a particular atrocity, or of a cluster of rapes in a particular region — rapes of American women by British soldiers — or abuse of prisoners is just that. And it is significant as such, as a rumor, which can take on its own life and spread and can impact people’s perceptions and behaviors.
To follow up rumors or reports from one side, you then try to get at the same theme or potential occurrence from the other side, a disinterested side. Often it helps if you find a cluster of references in unpublished sources, sources never intended for anyone but the author or maybe one corresponding other individual with no agenda behind it.
The Patriots were both conscious of the need to control the narrative, and of their era’s requirements for the construction of a plausible narrative. So they recognized if they just put out paid newspaper stories or pamphlets or satirical prints, that’s going to have some impact, but that’s not what an enlightened, skeptical audience will primarily be swayed by. Long story short, in the aftermath of an alleged atrocity, the Continental Congress appointed investigatory commissions, either members from their body, officers in the field, priests, lawyers, anyone with the recognized authority to document in an empirical way what might have occurred. They questioned local witnesses, interrogated enemy captives, and described the nature and number of wounds in the bodies of dead and injured soldiers. The Congress then disseminated their reports via press, turning America's wounded soldiers — and, similarly, the violated woman and emaciated, diseased prisoners of war — into assets in the moral war they were waging against the empire.
R: Is there any person or any moment that really sticks out to you as a significant representation of violence?
HH: There’s Abigail Palmer, the 13-year-old girl, and two teenage friends and her pregnant aunt who are raped at Abigail’s grandfather’s farmhouse over two or three consecutive days by individual and groups of British soldiers. She briefly gives a deposition which is then anonymously published as part of the broader report. What I wanted the reader to understand is that taking rape in the American Revolution seriously means at least two things. One, engaging with it on the horrific individual level, and two, to understand its role as a political tool.
Just as sexual violence is often still marginalized in Revolutionary histories, popular histories all still neglect the perspective of Native Americans. Many Americans remember the violence that Native Americans committed against white, frontier settlements. Far fewer remember the quasi genocidal campaign that the Continental Army under the Congress’ and George Washington’s orders waged in 1779 against the Six Nations, the Iroquois, and what is now New York State. This was a campaign against the cornfields, the orchards, the houses, and vegetable plantations. It was too late in the season to replant the crops, resulting in a fleeing of the third of the target population. Native American men, women, and children were dying at a number that’s the equivalent of 15 percent of all Patriot battle deaths in the entire war in just one campaign.
"In terms of writing about violence, it was often quite painful to research and write. And it’s often difficult for the reader, at times, to encounter and engage with. I felt it was important to write a narrative history and one that gave immersive experiences from the perspective of these individuals — whether they were perpetrators of the violence, victims, or witnesses."
R: What would you say is the hardest part of changing perceptions of history and breaking through the good guys/bad guys binary?
HH: It’s probably finding a way of establishing trust with your reader, that you have and opening and argument worth engaging with. That’s the author’s responsibility. I decided to start the book with the Boston Massacre, a story Americans are familiar with. It’s pretty straightforward British violence from an American reader’s’ perspective, and then we gradually learn that it’s a little more complicated than it first looks. I think readers are very intelligent, very open, generally, to be persuaded to looking at an additional perspective.
R: How do you think readers should view the American Revolution?
HH: This was America’s first civil war. It’s one of the most common ways of describing this conflict by participants on any side — whether American Loyalists, American Patriots, or the British. They call it an unnatural civil war amongst one people — one largely British people. Most may be familiar with the Franklins of Philadelphia —Benjamin, the founding father and his son, the loyalist leader William, but this is a very common experience for lesser known or now-forgotten families.
Once you take seriously that this revolution is at once a civil war, you have to take the violence that is at its core seriously, and the terror is not, as some historians would still have us think, a regrettable exception to an otherwise orderly, restrained, non-violent revolution, but a defining and necessary characteristic of the Revolution.
Holger Hoock is an 18th century historian and professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from the University of Oxford, and has written three other books about the British empire. Hoock currently serves as the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. Scars of Independence can be purchased at Amazon.com or at Barnes & Noble.
Cover photo courtesy of Holger Hoock.