Book Review — Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth

Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock
Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth by Holger Hoock is a look at the more violent side of the American Revolution. Hoock holds the Amundson Chair in British History at the University of Pittsburgh and serves as Editor of the Journal of British Studies. Trained at the Universities of Freiburg, Cambridge, and Oxford, he has been a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress, a Visiting Scholar at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Konstanz.

I was in middle school for the run-up to the bicentennial celebration. The Revolutionary War was taught with a great deal of idealism and although there was a war the violence was minimal. There was the Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga but the battles seemed very civilized. Much emphasis was placed on the ideals of the revolution. Liberty, representative government, and the right to determine one’s own future were key issues. What was not mentioned was what the British were quick to point out — Slavery. The American colonists were also unhappy with British troops occupying their property, much like the native Americans were feeling for and fighting for in the West.

At the time warfare was still very violent and personal. Muskets had little range and the bayonet was still used often in close quarters. Bayonets used by the British were triangular rather than bladed. The shape was used to cause the most damage going in and coming out. Grapeshot (picture a canon sized shotgun) was used to attack massed troops. The killing was done close in. The navy was the only force that could shell from a great distance.

What made the American revolution so violent is perhaps best seen from the British view. It was not so much a revolution but a civil war — British against British. The Colonists were seen as traitors more than an enemy nation. In fact, the British had to look as the colonists as traitors, something far worse than enemies of another nation. To consider them otherwise would mean recognizing American independence. Captured colonist combatants were considered criminals rather than soldiers. This created another problem for the British. If colonists were captured and detained, they still had rights as British citizens to habeas corpus, bail, and a trial. Trying to suspend habeas corpus for the colonists also would mean suspending it for those in Britain too. The American Revolution became a legal as well as a military problem for the British.

On the American side, British loyalists and officials were poorly treated by those “liberty groups” which seemed like roaming bands of thugs than patriots. Looting and beatings were very common. Rape was not uncommon (a charge leveled at both armies). Some patriot groups looted both loyalists and rebel homes and property. Military discipline was seriously lacking in many actions. The British in lower commands were just as bad at times. Most ranking military leaders, however, chose to abide by the European standards of warfare although this didn’t always happen, a serious effort was made by both sides.

Prisoners perhaps bore the worst treatment. Britain held American colonists on prison ships in appalling conditions. Others held in occupied territory received little in the way of food and clothing. Although, in some circumstances opposing leaders allowed humanitarian aid to prisoners. This was unofficially done between commanders and Britain was unwilling to take any action that might be seen as recognition of an independent America. Logistics was a major problem with prisoners. Neither side could support the care and feeding of huge numbers of prisoners; it was difficult and expensive to keep the fighting armies fed and cared for, let alone prisoners.

The American Revolution was a violent and bloody affair. It was not only the armies engaged in a violent struggle. It was colonist against colonist. It was colonists against native Americans. The war was more than a simply fighting a few battles. It was seven years of bloodshed which involved more than the Colonists and the British. Hessians were used by Britain since the king could not keep a large standing army. France joined America after the Battle of Saratoga and Spain seeing a distracted Britain declared war also. Hoock uses both American and British source material in his research and dedicates almost a third of the book to cited sources. A well done and enlightening history.

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