Audiobooks have become an excellent resource for me. They don't cause eyestrain, and I can absorb quite a bit while listening, especially when a skillful reader animates a text. For example --
I've been doing some thinking ahead. If I can finish the novel I'm revising now and decide to start a new one, I'll likely take up a subject I've avoided so far -- the American Revolution. I've recently listened to three audiobooks that give accounts of this war, which has not only shaped the United States but has influenced peoples' minds all over the world.
Though I've studied a fair amount of history in schools, I had only a broad outline of the American War for Independence. During my listening, I've had more than one surprise.
- Our Revolution wasn't a storybook war but was a nasty affair, with countless deaths and injuries. At times, American soldiers were so poorly supplied that they sometimes marched or fought in winter conditions barefoot and bloody. 2500 soldiers died of cold, hunger, or illness at their winter quarters from 1777-78 in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The following winter in Morristown was worse.
- I've learned that Americans weren't supposed to win the war, for the British navy had control of the sea and their army was disciplined and confident that they'd succeed in punishing colonists who acted like rebellious children. Americans soldiers, by contrast, were mostly untrained and without experience. Persistence and determination carried them through.
- Only three American generals served through the whole war: Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and George Washington, who was no figurehead. He brought discipline to the American army and held it together. The sight of him riding his horse among soldiers who'd fought more than one disappointing battle revived spirits and and kept tired men going.
- Martha Washington and other women contributed to the American effort by tending to wounded soldiers and providing food and decent clothing.
- The French, who longed to defeat their British rivals, contributed enormously with money, soldiers, ships, and skilled leaders. It's not clear to me that Americans alone could have won the war without the French. Officers from Poland and Germany also provided substantial help. Baron von Steuben, for instance, brought invaluable training in drill and discipline. He shocked other officers by working directly with enlisted men like a sergeant.
- American forces tried to take Canada. They held Montreal for a time but fared poorly when they reached Quebec City and retreated in defeat.
- After indifferent success fighting the northern colonies, the British adopted a southern strategy. They thought they had supporters there and that they'd bring the rebellious colonists a neverending headache if they could detach the four southern colonies from the north. As it happened, the cruelty of British occupying forces turned people against them. Two hundred skirmishes and battles took place in South Carolina alone, more than in any other state.
- One South Carolinian, Francis Marion, contributed greatly to the British retreat from his state. He led fairly small groups of soldiers in what we now call guerrilla warfare. He fought at night, relied on surprise, and kept the enemy off balance. Still known as the Swamp Fox, Marion's methods make him controversial even today. A British commentator recently called him a terrorist who doesn't deserve honorable recognition. Maybe so, but he's part of the story, he fought well, and many admired him.
- Even after Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781, fighting continued, especially in western territory.
- The years after the Revolution were filled with uncertainty. What kind of money would Americans have? How would the states pay their war debts? Would the new country have a strong or weak central government? A tax rebellion took place in Massachusetts. Discussions in 1787 about a new constitution came with no clear direction or guarantee of success. How much autonomy would states have? Which was more important -- community or personal liberty? What about slavery?
Two issues came to mind during my hours of listening:
- I heard a comment that America's elites at the time got the Revolution going and made sure it continued. Leaders are important, of course, but if the people didn't see a benefit for themselves in the war, they wouldn't have fought and died and put up with extreme inconvenience. The leaders didn't create the spirit of dogged persistence that gained the Americans victory. I like to think of it this way -- that everyone's a servant, even the rich and powerful.
- The turbulence that marked the War for Independence and the years after has been an occasional feature of American life ever since -- later wars, years of economic trouble, times of protest, and when people hunger for political change. The country grows as a result of periods of stress.