Scars of Independence: America's Violent Birth

By Broadwater, Jeff | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Scars of Independence: America's Violent Birth


Broadwater, Jeff, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


Holger Hoock. Scars of Independence: America's Violent Birth. New York: Crown, 2017. Pp.576. Cloth, $30.00.

In an impressive new book, Holger Hoock has put the Revolutionary War back into the American Revolution. Americans, Hoock argues, have, for several reasons, long minimized the violence associated with their war for independence. Much of the violence was committed by, or against, Loyalists, a group largely forgotten in the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth. Compared to later conflicts, casualty figures from the Revolutionary War seemed small in absolute terms, but Holger points out that as a percentage of the population, nearly five times more Americans died in the Revolution than died in World War II, and the death rate among American prisoners of war was the highest of all American wars. The Anglo-American rapprochement that began to take shape after the Civil War created a new motive to sanitize the Revolution, and when the United States entered World War I on the side of the British in 1917, any allusions to British violence against American Patriots become "politically toxic" (405). World War II and the Cold War only reinforced the trend.

Hoock begins his narrative with the abuse of American Loyalists before and in the early stages of the Revolution. In January 1774, for example, a Boston mob tarred and feathered a minor customs official, John Malcolm; it was a far more gruesome ordeal than modern readers might realize. By comparison, George Washington, as commander of the Continental Army, fares well in Hoock's hands. Washington tried to observe the rules of war and to prevent his soldiers from plundering civilian property. The notorious Hessians, German mercenaries employed by the British, were, according to Hoock, no worse than British regulars. Their "atrocities appear to have been the exception rather than the rule" (118-19). On the frontier, meanwhile, pro-British Native Americans scalped and tortured white settlers, while Continental and state officials engaged in what later generations would call ethnic cleansing.

British generals suffer by comparison to Washington. Especially egregious was the treatment of American prisoners of war, many of whom were confined to overcrowded prison ships off the coast of British-held New York City. …

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