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The Problem With History – 21st Century

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Author's Note: If you’re just interested in reading a dashingly good spy story, then feel free to skip to the first chapter. These next few pages aren’t for you. But if you like to know the facts behind the fiction, then keep going right where you are…

I’ve heard it said that “the problem with history is that there’s too much of it,” and oh my word but is that true! Most people mean this as a complaint that history gets tedious because it’s never-ending. For me though, it’s all so interesting; yet there’s no humanly way possible to know every bit of it.

When I first set out to write Maiden America, I thought I was pretty well-versed in the Revolutionary War, since it’s my favorite time period. But the collection of sources I scoured quickly showed me how naive that opinion was.

For one thing, the thirteen colonies were by no means united in supporting independence. Nor did the British all back the idea of manhandling them into submission. There were even members of Parliament who either partially or completely sided with the Americans in their list of grievances.(1) In addition, enough of the citizenry took issue with the war that King George III had to rely on German mercenaries to bulk up his military force; and he tried – and failed – to hire twenty thousand Russians for the same purpose.(2) There were even a few prominent figures in Britain’s army who were noted American sympathizers, including Commander-in-Chief William Howe. The same went for Lord Richard Howe, who was in charge of the Royal Navy.

Like many British citizens of the day, the Howe brothers took their duty to the crown very seriously. They might have hated what they were called to do, but they still did it, regardless of whether it meant compromising their morals.(3) Scholars today debate about how much those personal leanings kept the British from decimating Washington in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1776. My opinion is that King George could have made his life easier by calling on like-minded men to enforce his will in the colonies.4 Unfortunately for him, he was too monarch-minded to consider any such thing.

Respected historian and author David McCullough captured the king’s perspective very well in his 1776:

Still youthful at thirty-seven, and still hardworking after fifteen years on the throne, he could be notably willful and often shortsighted, but he was sincerely patriotic and everlastingly duty-bound… He had never been a soldier. He had never been to America, any more than he had set foot in Scotland or Ireland. But with absolute certainty he knew what must be done. He would trust to Providence and his high sense of duty. America must be made to obey.(5)

In his mind, George III wasn’t being tyrannical. He was being what he was supposed to be, which was a king. And, the Howe brothers and a few other notable exceptions aside, most of His Majesty’s royal forces shared that mindset. To them, the Americans were guilty of treason; unsophisticated rebels who needed to be whipped into shape. Major General Sir James Grant was by no means alone when he advised his men to “laugh at the Yankees and turn them into ridicule when an opportunity offers.” That was while he was up in Boston, and he hadn’t changed his mind one bit by the time he took charge of New Jersey in December 1776.(6) Overall, the British military’s contempt for American patriots was pervasive and well-documented.

As for the Americans, several historians suggest that no more than a third of the people at any time were fully on the revolutionaries’ side. As a general rule, those who shunned the spirit of independence did so because:

  • They believed the king’s ways and God’s ways were one.

  • They wanted the supposed financial benefits of siding with the crown.

  • They were pacifists.

  • They ranked other admittedly worthwhile concerns above freedom, such as their farms, families and personal safety.

The latter half of 1776 was especially bad in this regard. After driving the British out of Boston earlier that year, the patriots were on a high. Most of them, including their commander-in-chief, believed the war could be resolved within a matter of months. So it was already dragging on longer than expected by the time the Declaration of Independence was announced in July.

Then the British invaded New York, leading to an excruciating August and September for the Continental Army. The Battle of Long Island propelled General Washington to retreat out of Brooklyn Heights to Manhattan. Two weeks later, he had to quit that place as well. Next up were the stinging defeats at White Plains, the loss of Fort Washington, and then the loss of Fort Lee. Just a week into December, the main patriotic military force was pushed out of New Jersey as well, a decimated and despondent band that very few people had any hope in anymore.

According to David McCullough, “Washington is said to have wept” as he watched Fort Washington fall “from across the river; and though this seems unlikely, given his well-documented imperturbability, he surely wept within his soul… To his brother Jack, he would write, ‘I am wearied almost to death with the retrograde motions of things.’”(7) That was on November 16. A month later, he was writing to his brother Samuel that, if some change of fate didn’t happen soon, “I think the game is pretty near up.”(8) Even as far back as September 30, he confided to Lund Washington, “Such is my situation that if I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy on this side of the grave, I should put him in my stead with my feelings.”(9)

If the indomitable George Washington felt that way, it’s not surprising that the middle states of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – already not as committed to the war efforts as New England – lost even more faith in freedom. Washington and his commanders were bitterly disappointed at the lack of turnout from these areas, where residents were either too loyal to the crown or too terrified to declare anything else, especially with the British and Hessian forces tearing up New York and New Jersey on a regular basis. Not to say the American patriots were always respectful. Because they weren’t.(10)

This brings me to my final introductory note. In writing this story, I wanted to portray the situation as truthfully as possible. Yet the problem with writing an accurate account of any period is that we’re all biased to some degree. Even when we try to stick to the facts, we can still fall prey to any number of prejudices, such as past experiences, inaccurate reports and bouts of intellectual weakness. Then there’s the often overwhelming amount of information to consider. As I mentioned before, there’s just no way to write anything on any subject and include every bit of fascinating or necessary material available.

In other words, heroine Abigail Carpenter is speaking from her somewhat limited perspective. And from mine as well.

For her part, Abigail is worried about herself, her family, her state and her country: emotions that have her very partisan at times. Then there’s her creator (i.e., me), whose many sources sometimes contradicted each other. In short, neither of us are going to be entirely accurate. However, I tried my very hardest to be as detailed as possible concerning prevailing attitudes, terminology, prominent leading figures, dates and even the weather… which played an enormous part in how Washington was able to retake New Jersey.

I do have endnotes listed throughout this story to comment on certain facts, as well as details I made up for one reason or another. That commentary and documentation can be found in the “Historical Notes” section after the last chapter. While Abigail’s story is based off many documented figures I came across during my research, she herself is fictional.

The same goes for most of the people she directly interacts with except for Lieutenants Benjamin Tallmadge, Joseph Hodgkins and Elisha Bostwick, and Brigadier General Leslie and General George Washington. However, any other congressmen, Hessians, and high-ranking British and American military leaders mentioned by name (other than Major Phillips) are very real figures.

In the meantime, here are a few little facts to keep in mind:

  • At the time of the Revolutionary War, Princeton University was called the College of New Jersey.

  • New Brunswick, New Jersey, was then known as plain Brunswick; and the larger colony/state was often called “the Jerseys.” Likewise, Princeton and Trenton could be referred to as “Prince Town” and Trent Town.”

  • 1776-1777’s “Post Road,” or “King’s Highway,” is today’s Route 206.

  • Supper was the largest meal of the day. Dinner was eaten later in the evening with more moderately-sized portions.

  • When writing letters, both the British and Americans seemed to capitalize random words, often nouns.

  • While there were definitely theists, agnostics and hypocrites in America, most people of European descent – the British and Hessians included – did believe in the Christian God during this time. But faith played an especially important role for the revolutionaries, in part thanks to the Great Awakening sixty years before.(11) By 1776, preachers like Princeton’s John Witherspoon had inspired (Britain would say inflamed) America to look at liberty as a God-given right worth protecting. So much so, in fact, that the British’s aforementioned Major General Grant was quoted as saying, “If a good bleeding can bring those Bible-faced Yankees to their senses, the fever of independency should soon abate.”(12) And Lord Francis Rawdon called them “Yankee psalm-singers” in less than respectful tones.(13)

While Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Amish were around in 1776, I have no proof their potato salad was a hit quite yet. That probably was another century or two in the making.

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