East Coast Adventures – US History

Our travels on the East Coast of America have focused mainly on two of my interests in life – food and history. There’s also been some room for reading too, but more on that in another post. I’ll be writing about the delights of American seafood, barbecue and pizza as I blog about the places where we enjoyed them, but I thought it might be worth writing a bit about US history generally, before getting on to the histories as told by different states.

Before coming to the States I had some knowledge of bits of their history – mainly gleaned as a child from playing Sid Meiers’s Colonization (similar to Civilization, but set between the discovery of the Americas and the achieving of independence) and more recently from half watching the first couple of episodes of HBO’s mini-series John Adams (I would recommend this for the fantastic theme tune and credit sequence alone). I also of course knew the story of the Civil War as told by Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind. But my understanding of the early history of settlement and interaction with the native Americans was sketchy; I wasn’t quite sure who had won the war of 1812 or what it was about; and while I knew not to forget it, I had no idea what The Alamo was. I had learnt quite a bit from the Smithsonian Museum of American History (I blogged about this education here last year) but nothing beats walking the streets where citizens protested the quartering of British soldiers or standing on the battle-field where the British surrendered.

What I have learnt from our travels, though, is that the narrative I thought I knew is largely the narrative of Massachusetts. The story of Puritans seeking a place to practise their religion in peace; of a populace rising up in righteous rebellion against a tyrant king; of the heroism of a New England silversmith, Paul Revere, riding to warn the rebels of the British attack; and the story of a North that sought to abolish slavery and bring about ever more union between the states… All these stories ring truest in Massachusetts – specifically in Boston.

When you travel in Virginia or Maine, however, you find plenty of people ready to dispute the details of this dominant narrative. Archaeologists in Virginia were keen to remind us that of course Jamestown was the first successful British colony – started in 1607 for commercial rather than religious reasons – predating the Mayflower Pilgrims’ Plymouth colony by over ten years. And the museum of Fort William Henry, near another very early fishing colony at Pemaquid Point in Maine, is scathing about the role played by Paul Revere in the Penobscot Expedition of 1779 (during the War of Independence, the British had seized Castine in Maine and the Massachusetts legislature ordered an expedition to dislodge them). In Maine, the story goes that Revere was incompetent as an artillery commander, disobeyed orders, and fled before receiving orders to retreat (the expedition was a disaster). They prefer to commemorate the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who immortalised Massachusetts’ hero in the poem, Paul Revere’s Ride – making it clear that there were of course many riders, and Revere’s name was just useful because it rhymed:

Listen my children and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere

(it’s not a particularly good poem).

Meanwhile, in Boston, they insist that Revere’s name was cleared in the court martial he demanded for himself in 1782. They claim that the accusations only came about because the Massachusetts militia needed a scapegoat.

While I loved Boston, and thought their museums were very persuasive on most things, I’m more inclined to believe Maine’s version of the story of Paul Revere. This is partly because I was influenced by Bernard Cornwell’s historical novel of the Penobscot Expedition The Fort, which was excellent holiday reading in Maine.

I’m by no means an expert yet, but I’m certainly enjoying continuing my education in American history through reading, watching TV series, and, of course, more traveling.

Recommendations for anyone looking to gain a more nuanced understanding of American history – or just a different perspective (based only on where I’ve been and what I’ve read so far):

On the early colonies:

  • Jamestown archaeological site, Virginia
  • Mark A. Noll and Luke E. Harlow, Religion and American Politics: from the colonial period to the present

On the War of Independence:

  • Fort William Henry, Maine
  • TURN: Washington’s Spies, AMC series
  • Bernard Cornwell, The Fort

On the Civil War and its aftermath:

  • Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial (in Arlington Cemetery)
  • E. L. Doctorow, The March
  • Ford’s Theatre (especially the Ranger talk)
  • D. W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation (warning: explicitly racist)
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