Chronicles of Violence: Professor Explores Brutal History of the American Revolution

Scars of Independence book coverSome seven years ago, British Empire specialist Holger Hoock was conducting field research for a book on 18th-century art. But in the process, he kept striking upon Revolution-era monuments to American loyalists scattered in churches across England.

The etchings depicted graphic scenes of persecution, displacement and suffering that complicated the popular narrative of an orderly, restrained War for Independence. 

“What jumped out at me was the sheer scale and pervasiveness of the violence and the fact that participants and survivors framed their struggles in terms of their violent experiences,” said Hoock, the J. Carroll Amundson Chair of British History in Pitt’s Department of History, associate dean for graduate studies and research in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and author of a new, unvarnished history, “Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth.”

Holger Hoock Hoock said he found that specialists in American history were rarely writing about the Revolutionary War in terms of violence. In “Scars,” selected as an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times Book Review, Hoock’s unusual approach eschews the relatively bloodless yet heroic depictions of the war that most Americans learned from textbooks or movies.

“I became curious about what a history of the Revolution would look like that did not just put violence back into the story, but put it center stage,” said Hoock. Consulting British, American and German archives, he set out to write not only a thematic history of the war’s violence, but also a study of how participants and survivors told those stories of conflict.

Among his discoveries: The Revolutionaries changed the field of war reporting by documenting enemy crimes in new ways. When rumors or reports of battlefield atrocities reached Philadelphia, the Continental Congress commissioned the first official investigations: American doctors, magistrates and army officers collected evidence to support claims that the British had violated the codes of war. The press used the investigation results to drum up local and international support for the cause.

As he told these stories of violence, Hoock said he was wary of depersonalization, of distancing his reader from the atrocities. At the same time, he said, he was conscious that the violence not become “either a litany or gratuitous and voyeuristic.” Instead, he zoomed in on specific, personal stories, addressing each type of violence only once in service to a larger point.

Knowing our history, listening for echoes, can — and should — inform the choices we make.

Holger Hoock

Relying on diaries, pamphlets, engravings, court testimonies and other primary sources, he reconstructed scenes in detail. One nighttime bayonet raid, for example, is played out in slow motion, stab by stab, blow by blow.

He described stories of mob violence against loyalists, including psychological and physical torture to extract information; the rape of colonial women and girls; the Continental Army’s decimation of the Iroquois through a brutal scorched earth campaign; horrific conditions on British prison ships and other sites of captivity that resulted in the highest mortality rates among prisoners of war in American history; the seizure of personal property; the stories of black soldiers recruited to fight, only to be denied compensation — and usually returned to slavery — on both sides after the war.

None of it was easy to parse, much less to compile, he said. But Hoock was sustained by the intellectual importance of the project and his drive to present lay readers and academics alike with a balanced, even-handed account of the war –– “neither a partisan narrative, nor a textbook-studied neutrality.”

There was also the matter of questioning the authenticity of publicly accepted histories. When the winner gets to write the story, all other perspectives tend to fall away, he said.

“In our age of armed conflicts worldwide, of terrorism, genocide and debates about the nature of patriotism, Americans seem to have clung to the Revolution as their last great romance with war. But, I would argue, it is precisely because we face an uncertain world of insurgencies, civil wars, stalled revolutions and failed states that Americans should confront their own tumultuous birth. In a world riven by conflicts, understanding how violence relates to nation building — and how it is represented and remembered — is critical.

“As the United States endeavors to find a way forward from its present divisions, I would hope that this time it will not be at the cost of forgetting and rewriting the history that led to this point: Knowing our history, listening for echoes, can — and should — inform the choices we make.”