|Greene Monument at Guilford Courthouse, NC|
However you feel about History Channel's politically correct portrayal of figures such as Sam and John Adams, it’s true that many of the key players in the American Revolution were a mixed bag, morally. My last post was devoted to deconstructing popular opinion on one of them, the infamous “Bloody Ban,” Banastre Tarleton of the British Legion, but truth is that so many men of his time were neither half as evil nor half as righteous as popular history now portrays.
One of the odd benefits of initially studying the Revolution from the British perspective is that if there was any dirty laundry on those of the Continental side, they would have aired it. It was interesting overall to see who emerged as true men of honor, and who were ... not so much.
So I present you with a rough sketch of who, by admittedly my own subjective eye, could be categorized as heroes ... and rogues ... and then out-and-out villains.
First up is our revered first President, George Washington. I was surprised—and quite relieved—that as bits of gossip surfaced about other prominent men and women, none did regarding him. True, his past isn’t entirely uncheckered ... there was one uncomfortable matter during the French & Indian War ... but by the time the RevWar rolled around, the worst that could be found was criticism regarding his accepting the position of Commander in Chief of the rebellion's armies. (King George shouldered his own share of criticism on the other side of the pond, for engaging those pesky rebels to start with.) His relationship with wife Martha was loving and constant, he did not drink or eat to dissipation, and while he is recorded as resorting to mild profanity in a moment of extreme frustration on the field of battle, well ... he was also human.
|John Adams on left, Staten Is. Peace Conference|
Throughout this life, Adams was opposed to slavery, never owned a slave, and was quite proud of the fact. After the Boston Massacre, with anti-British feelings in Boston at a boiling point, he provided a principled, controversial, and successful legal defense of the accused British soldiers, because he believed in the right to counsel and the "protect[ion] of innocence".
Third—and don’t shoot me for this—Charles Cornwallis, Earl of the realm and general of the British army. This is a man around whom scandal is conspicuously absent—whose devotion to his dying wife drew him home again to England, with the war still in full swing, then grief for her drove him back, just in time to head up the Southern Campaign in Henry Clinton’s wake. He found the Carolina backcountry enchanting, and though shocked at the viciousness of the partisan warfare shredding the very fabric of society, he endeavored to tread the line between English gentleman, and general of the army whose job it was to enforce order and loyalty to the Crown. Too bad he was so prone to unwise decisions when it came to war strategy, especially his insistence in pushing across North Carolina during the early spring of 1781 ... and I have to take points off for his calling in sick the day he was to surrender to Washington at Yorktown, and sending his second in command instead. Still, he was steps above being classed as a rogue or villain.
Fourth—no mention of heroes would be complete with mention of Nathanael Greene. General of the Continental forces after the complete rout of Gates at the Battle of Camden, he was raised a Quaker but later was read out of meeting for his interest in the militia and brewing revolt. Passionately and unfashionably devoted to a wife around whom rumors and scandal swirled, but who despite everything went to amazing lengths to join her husband on the field, when she could. All that aside, Greene was famous for his cool under fire, his brilliance at strategy, his patience in completely wearing out the British army.
These are the ones who, on either side, might not have been perfectly honorable, but you couldn’t help admire their panache, or they were considered darlings by their superiors. Yes, I believe Tarleton fits more closely here than the last category, but he’s joined by ...
Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee—the Continentals’ counterpart to Tarleton. Yes, really. He was quite the fire-eater, just as hotheaded as Ban Tarleton but looked upon with a kinder eye because he was Washington’s “pet,” while Ban was the favorite of Cornwallis. Consider the possible humor—and exasperation?—in the tone of this note from General Washington:
The measure you propose of putting deserters from our Army to immediate death would probably tend to discourage the practice[, but] I think that the part of your proposal which respects cutting off their heads and sending them to the Light Troops had better be omitted. (July 9, 1779)
“Mad” Anthony Wayne, General of the Continental forces, so nicknamed for a slightly crazy but wildly successful night attack on the British in 1779. So did he, or did he not, have something going on with Caty Greene? We may never know. He was, despite gossip and rumors, brave in battle and a devoted friend to the Greenes, present when Nathanael died tragically after the war, and remaining a source of support for Caty.
|John Andre, self portrait|
John Andre ... another young, dashing figure—handsome, witty, talented British officer who managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, captured by the Continentals and hung as a spy. It’s reported that he went bravely to his death.
|General Henry Clinton of the British|
Henry Clinton, General of the British forces ... touchy, opinionated, sure that anything in the colonies was at his personal disposal. Including, and maybe especially, his landlady. Guilty of constant criticism of his superiors (General Howe) and bickering with those under him (General Cornwallis), and giving not very good military advice at times.
|Continental General, Charles Lee|
And lastly, Continental general, Charles Lee. (No relation to the Lees of Virginia.) Pompous, self-serving, constantly critical of Washington. Lee gave up all his holdings in England to throw in his lot with the revolution, and thought he deserved payment for it. (Washington agreed to serve for no pay, only having his expenses covered.) In fact, he'd expected Washington's job and didn't get it. So, he might have fought for the Patriot side, even though he wasn't American-born, but he didn't like anybody, and nobody really liked him.
Agree? Disagree? Anyone care to add to this very short list? :-)
All images from Wikipedia and/or public domain.