Oral history from the American Revolution; The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence, edited by John C. Dann. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press $20
In a book fairly bursting with feats of darling, perhaps the most spectacular accomplishment of them all is this volume's transformation of its readers into the grandchildren of Revolutionary War soldiers. It sets us upon the knees of feisty old men and at least two spunky women and regales us with their stories.
We have inherited many written accounts, and still more imagined accounts of the war for independence, but this is a collection of sokenm accounts (all but one never made public before) -- an amazing gathering of 79 surrogate Yankee grandparents who tell us in their own words what they saw with their own eyes.
Strange as it may at first seen, this new book of 18th-century chronicles is a work of oral history, recorded long before tape machines. It is the legacy not of far-sighted historians but of bespectabled 19th-century federal bureaucrats.
In 1832 Congress passed a Pension Act for all veterals and widows of the Revolutionary War. To be eligible for benefits, veterans had to document their service. But by that time few of them could find the commission or discharge papers from 60 years before, os the only proofs they owned were their memories. The government allowed them to submit "very full accounts" of their service in the form of sworn legal depositions, dictated to a court clerk, a judge, lawyer, or pension agent.
The happy byproduct of this process was the first, and quite possible the largest, oral history project ever undertaken in America.
These depositions have been resting in the the National Archives since they were taken, touched occasionally by genealogist or those tracing their lineages in hopes of joining the DAR, but strangely neglected by serious historians of the Revolutionary period.
John C. Dann, director of the Clements Library at the University of Michigan and editor of this book, combed through the 80,000 documents on file, chose 80 of the best, and turned these pension applications into a readable, important book.
He has employed no alchemy, no wizardry; this is not a shiny book of historical conjecture "based upon" fact, but rather a straightforward, well-edited collection of primary materials.
Each veteran gets his or her own chance to speak. They hail from every colony and fight in every theater of the war, on land and on sea.
John Mersereau was a spy, Abel Woodworth a sailor. Ansel Goodman was, along with Daniel Boone, captured by Indians. Alpheus Parkhurst watched Benedict Arnold escape to the British. Eli Jacobs saw Major Andre blindfoed himself and slip the noose around his own neck. Sarah Osborne traveled with her husband's company, washing and cooking; she describes the British surrender at Yorktown. Samuel Larabee helped heave tea into Boston Harbor. William Lloyd borrowed Washington's spyglass.
That these are all common soldiers makes their narratives very special. Of the 50 or so diaries, journals, and memoirs of Revolutionary War soldiers published in the last 200 years, all but a handful were written by officers, drawn from the colonies' educated elite. This book contains the memoirs of the illiterate, soldiers of the rank and file -- th e minuteman, the drummer boy, the scout, the rifleman. They afford us a perspective of the war from the bloody ground up.
The narratives provide exciting eyewitness reports of all the famous maneuvers and battles, even adding new details and insights, but there are also tender memories of comrades and funny memories of pranks. There are portraits of the great and the notorious in odd poses, as in the description of Gen. Benedict Arnold returning to the barracks late one night, "having been out woman hunting," and unable to tive the password to the sentines. The book is also generously illustrated by portraits and period drawings of the people and events described in the stories.
Taken together, these narratives broaden our understanding of the meaning and the limits of revolutionary patriotism. When the fife and drum called muster, the men of this book did fall in, some voluntarily, others not. Some were drafted a dozen times. Many paid substitutes to serve their tours of duty; often the substitutes agreed in roder to make money or free an older brother. One young indentured servant in the book runs away to join the army, then must lie, hide, and be beaten before he can join a company. There is also a brazen draft dodger who admits: "I was twelve years old for a good many years."
The narratives have the bouncy cadence of speech, peppered with archaic words and spiced by the character of the times and of the speakers -- with a few exceptions: Sometimes grandpa has to speak through a translator. the court reporters and lawyers who faithfully took down the veterans' stories occasionally transcribed them into weighty third-person prose ("The Deponent thus deposes that"). Granddad's simple, husky voice usually manages to come through anyway, however.
Each veteran is introduced to us by the editor, who provides essential biographical and historical background. He also points out any inaccuracies, discrepancies, exaggerations, or memory lapses in the tale.
The time gap between the war and the reminiscences causes some problems, and the materials must be handled cautiously (as we are well warned by our vigilant editor), but it also imbues the narratives with a measure of knowledgeable hindsight, even wisdom.