Jewish World Review July 3, 2000 / 30 Sivan, 5760
America's second civil war, 1861-65, has, as it should, an unshakable hold on America's imagination. Not so America's first civil war, which is what the Revolutionary War was--an internecine conflict that sometimes turned on the hardihood of small numbers of men, sometimes in (more or less) well-regulated militias, who helped keep British forces so embattled in the South, they could not move north against Gen. Washington.
We who think the American Revolution was mankind's finest moment, and that the British have not yet apologized enough for the Stamp Act, this week received a delight from an unlikely source. Just in time for Independence Day, Hollywood, which is not famous for flag-waving, has given us "The Patriot," a movie about the bloody business that turned American independence from an aspiration into a fact.
Mel Gibson plays Benjamin Martin (based loosely on Francis Marion, South Carolina's "Swamp Fox"). Gibson found a large audience for "Braveheart," his movie about 13th-century Scottish nationalism, and "The Patriot" is "Braveheart" to the tune of "Yankee Doodle." The mayhem--including a memorable decapitation by a cannonball--is considerable. And as he was when playing Scotland's William Wallace, Gibson is handy with a hatchet.
Gibson's British nemesis, Col. Tavington, is based on a real British officer, Lt. Col. Tarleton, known as "the Butcher." The war really was nasty, brutish and long. Especially in the South, it featured guerrilla tactics by the American rebels and disregard of the rules of war by the British, who considered the conflict a compound of war and treason, and by militias loyal to the British.
"The Patriot" comes at a time when American history is being made accessible and entertaining in movies and novels. "The Patriot" does for the Revolutionary War what "Glory" (1989) did for the Civil War. Jeff Shaara's novels "Gods and Generals" and "The Last Full Measure" tell the story of the Civil War before and after Gettysburg, which was the subject of his father's classic, "The Killer Angels." This spring Shaara published "Gone for Soldiers," a novel about the war with Mexico, which stoked the nation-shattering debate about the expansion of slavery and was a rehearsal for young officers such as Lee, Grant, Longstreet, Pickett and others. And this August Max Byrd, whose novels "Jefferson" and "Jackson" are better history than some biographies of those men, publishes "Grant."
Much of this popular history is, like "The Patriot," an antidote to a recurring misinterpretation of the American experience--our supposed "loss of innocence." American innocence was supposedly lost during the Spanish-American War. Or the First World War. Or the Depression. Or Vietnam. Or Watergate. What nonsense.
"The Patriot" is pertinent. If by "innocence" is meant ignorance of the toll history takes on idealism, or of the fact that "hero" is not a synonym for "saint," any American innocence (John Adams, an innocent? Madison? Washington? Franklin?) disappeared as the nation was being born.
Why is the Revolutionary War so eclipsed in America's memory by the Civil War? Partly because in Lincoln and Lee the Civil War produced figures more empathetic and tragic than George Washington as mummified by many historians. Also, the Civil War produced songs we still sing, presidential rhetoric we still recite, battles we still analyze and soldiers' letters we still read. Lost is the romance of the Revolution, which was one of history's close calls.
Even without the victory, such as it was, at Gettysburg, the Union probably would have survived. But were it not for the fortunate fog that made possible the Revolutionary War's Dunkirk--the evacuation of Washington's army from Brooklyn, across the East River--the war might have ended in 1776. And without the 1777 victory won by just 13,000 Americans at Saratoga, arguably the most important battle in American history, there probably would have been no Yorktown four years later.
For more than a century we have been plied and belabored with theories purporting to explain history in terms of rival inevitabilities, of the inexorable working out of this or that iron law of history's unfolding. Revisiting the Revolutionary War is a bracing reminder that the fate of a continent, and the shape of the modern world, turned on the free choices of remarkably few Americans defying an
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