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Book Review: Scars of Independence (Holger Hoock)

Scars of Independence should carry a big banner across its front, shouting “New & Improved!”  The book’s central, and only, claim to relevance is that it offers fresh insight into the War of Independence, uncovering hidden truths and exploding myths.  But, as with most “New & Improved” products, the consumer is disappointed, for while this is a serviceable history of the Revolutionary War, focusing on the violence involved, it is neither new, nor improved (although at least, unlike many other “improved” consumer products, the author hasn’t shrunk the box and increased the price).

The key underlying claim of Holger Hoock’s book, around which the entire book pivots, is that the violence of the Revolutionary War is forgotten and we today view the war as a “bloodless . . . romance of national mythology.”  Hoock’s thesis is not merely that the war was in fact bloody, but that the bloodiness affected the populace other than the soldiery in unappreciated ways to an unappreciated degree.  But Hoock never demonstrates the underlying claim, which is false, and in reaching to prove his thesis, Hoock ends up proving the opposite.  He shows that, in fact, in almost all ways the war, on and off the field of battle, was conducted with restrained methods and practices unheard of in any other culture beyond England’s.

Presumably seeing the threat to his thesis from the actual facts he adduces, Hoock tries to expand the definition of violence to make it easier to prove his thesis.  Thus, he defines violence to include “psychological violence: the use of threats, bullying tactics, and brutality to instill fear.”  Up to a point, this is true enough.  But the reader begins to suspect that Hoock is pulling a rhetorical trick—expanding the definition beyond “physical force to . . . cause damage to people or property,” so that he can sweep in every bad thing that people did to each other during a war, where physical violence is traditionally the focus.  That focus exists for good reason, for while bullying is unpleasant, getting your house burned or being shot at is much less pleasant (I am told, not having had either happen to me), and making such distinctions enables comity to be more easily restored when peace returns, which is why the line is normally drawn to focus on physical violence.

Hoock’s struggle to prove his thesis is exacerbated by his claiming and demanding an American exceptionalism, where “the founders launched their new nation with a sense of moral purpose . . . grounded in a set of beliefs.”  He concludes that “we should include among those beliefs the conviction that a society must uphold its core values even—and especially—in times of war.  Projecting the power of America’s example . . . was a foreign policy principle the founders embraced; it is a notion that modern leaders would do well to remember.”  We can ignore the throw-away, non-specific jibe about “modern leaders,” meant as virtue signaling, but we should note that Hoock explicitly believes America should be held to a higher standard than the rest of the world in its conduct of violence, and this again suggests his thesis is on weak ground, if he has to set the bar higher at the start of his analysis.

The author begins by discussing “Tory Hunting,” how supposedly in the buildup to the war, Loyalists were violently persecuted.  He focuses on the story of John Malcolm, a convicted counterfeiter and extortionist, who was acting as a “minor customs official” in Boston.  Malcolm struck a shoemaker who intervened when Malcolm attacked a small boy who accidentally ran into him on the street.  A mob tarred and feathered him.  That sounds unpleasant (more on that in a second).  But Malcolm was a known jerk and criminal as well as tiresome government enforcer, who had just assaulted two people on the street, including a child.  Group punishment was hardly a stretch in that day and age.  Still, Hoock tries to use this incident to frame his entire discussion of how Loyalists had violence done to them.  But there is no allegation that any of these Loyalists were not Loyalists or chosen for the purposes of general terror.  All were grown men.  Nobody was killed.  Few people lost property to mobs.  Sure, various Loyalists were frightened by groups of men muttering curses in their direction.  But most people would agree that, compared to all other modern social unrest resulting in or during revolutions elsewhere, this is very tame behavior.

As far as tarring and feathering, Hoock either deliberately or through error exaggerates the damage and suffering.  It is not true that the “tar burned through [the victim’s] skin and scalded his flesh”—that would kill a man, and Malcolm merely moved to England after his treatment, permanently abandoning his wife and five small children in America, and moped around asking for a pension.  Not that tarring and feathering wasn’t very unpleasant and at least potentially damaging.  But Patriots used pine tar, melting at 140 Fahrenheit, not modern petroleum tar or asphalt, and thus the damage wasn’t usually from burns, but from scraping the mess off.  And Hoock only talks about the most vicious known attack, on John Malcolm—but even he didn’t suffer permanent injury, and not a single person ever died of the procedure.  Hoock further ignores that many such incidents involved tarring people over their clothes.  Tarring and feathering was meant as a humiliation, more like bullying than, say, whipping.  So, in fact, compared to, say, the French Revolution, where tens of thousands were killed for their social status, to settle personal scores, to make an ideological point, and to spread an atmosphere of raw terror in the service of imposing a new ideological social order, tarring and feathering was a very mild form of violence.

Hoock focuses a great deal on local “committees of safety,” which often served to identify and pressure Loyalists to conform or keep their heads down in areas where they were a minority.  He notes they “echoed similar groups organized in the previous century during the English Civil War.”  But he does not note a much more famous echo, of the “Committee of Public Safety” formed a few years later during the French Revolution to administer the Terror.  Hoock doesn’t note it, or ever mention the French Revolution, because that would highlight the comparative mildness of the American committees, which were focused almost exclusively on persuasion supplemented by so-called psychological violence (and thus were remarkably similar to leftists on today’s American college campuses).

In fact, Hoock admits that the committees “attempted as best they could to avoid physical violence.”  His lame response?  “Yet, even if many committees did push for renunciations and apologies, and even if they displayed a concern with the appearance of due process, we need to recognize that creating solidarity always relies on excluding others, often through violent means.”  That’s pretty weaselly.  Hoock implies there’s some doubt about the lack of violence and the due process—but gives us no reason to doubt it.  And “creating solidarity” seems like an important objective during a revolution, after all, and doing it with minimal violence a big accomplishment, even if Hoock then still implies, after having effectively admitted his basic claim to be false, that the solidarity was mostly accomplished through violent means.

No doubt there were frequent incidents of mob threatening, and some of actual violence, but Hoock is very vague about how common those were, and gives no incidents, for example, of any victim being notably injured, much less killed.  Instead, he complains about “the climate of distrust, self-censorship and fearful apprehension.”  That’s also not pleasant, and doubtless true for Loyalists in areas where they were a minority, but as I say no different than a conservative today on any college campus, or a social conservative in any large corporation in America.  And none of that is “violence” in any rational world, even if Hoock goes even further and characterizes it as “terror.”  That’s just loose and propagandistic use of language.  The French experienced terror, and Hoock shows nothing approaching widespread terror in America.

In fact, during the war, property when confiscated was confiscated from Loyalists by operation of law (not by mob action).  Hoock notes that “confiscation laws mandated that family members abandoned by male Loyalist refugees be left with some clothing, furniture, and provisions when their estates were seized.  In Massachusetts, a wife’s customary right to a third of her husband’s property remained protected.”  This isn’t even violence, much less terror.

Even active aid to the enemy seems to have been punished with little rigor.  In New York (held throughout the war by the British), a woman who actively spied for the British and carried intelligence to them was merely stripped naked, with no physical punishment at all.  And when she did it again, and also snuck Loyalists across battle lines, one American soldier burned the bottom of one foot with hot coals “to teach her to carry off Loyalists to the British Army.”  Sounds like she got off easy.  This suggests the American regime was mild, not one of widespread terror, and that Hoock tries to make hay of this incident suggests he couldn’t find a more violent one or one with a less guilty victim.  Similarly, in 1777, a South Carolina shoemaker who followed an American military unit and kept shouting “Hurray for King George” got dunked in the nearby river, but still kept cheering the King.  So he was tarred and feathered, “drummed out of town and told not to return at the threat of being shot,” but he “never yielded to his tormentors.”  Hoock describes this as “Revolutionary terror.”  But it’s pretty indicative that the shoemaker wasn’t in any fear of his life at all, or even of his person.  In environments of actual terror or even widespread violence, prudent people don’t openly shout traitorous slogans at armed military units.

Hoock then turns his focus to Britain, competently describing the run-up to the War, including the open arguments among leading Englishmen about whether violence in the form of war was the answer at all.  Hoock notes that chief among George III’s concerns was the “need to demonstrate [Britain’s] continued commitment to moderation and civility, even—or especially—in war.”  But this wholly undercuts Hoock’s thesis.  No other nation on the planet in the 1770s would have given any consideration at all to such matters in war, especially to a war against rebels (and it was a recent development with respect to rebels in Britain, certainly).  Thus, Hoock merely proves the unique virtue and superiority of the English approach to political organization and life in general.

This approach carried over to the actual conduct of the war.  Hoock makes much of the 1775 burning of Falmouth by the Royal Navy.  As Hoock describes it, the naval officer in charge anchored offshore, read a proclamation to the assembled people, and gave them a day to evacuate with their possessions before he shelled the town.  Sure, having your town shelled is extremely disagreeable.  But even by modern standards, this is minimal violence in a war.

Hoock proceeds through the war by stages.  His narrative is well-written and interesting.  He focuses on violence, naturally, though he seems surprised to find that soldiers kill each other in wars, mostly as much as they can.  And all too frequently he exaggerates what little evidence he can find to support his book’s thesis.  Thus, he claims “One German officer, in a passage written in code in a letter home, admitted to atrocities against prisoners.”  The reader breathlessly awaits these atrocities that were so vile they had to communicated in code.  Sadly, they were merely that “the prisoners who knelt and sought to surrender were beaten.”  I’m sure getting beaten is unpleasant (when I was younger, I only ever dealt out beatings).  But it’s not an atrocity, particularly in a society where corporal punishment for minor offenses, especially for soldiers, was the norm.  An atrocity would be torture or killing.  This type of stretching facts to the breaking point is endemic to Scars of Independence.

For example, the cover image of the book is the bayoneting of the American General Hugh Mercer, depicted in a painting by Jonathan Trumbull, during a 1777 battle in New Jersey.  Presumably the reader is meant to recoil.  But Mercer was bayoneted because he refused to surrender.  He knew what he was doing.  Hoock admits that Mercer was “legitimately killed in the heat of action,” according to the rules of war.  Of course, his death had great propaganda value to the Patriots.  But it’s not an example of notable violence.  Along the same lines, Hoock discusses a few one-sided military massacres, such as General Charles Grey’s attack with bayonets at the Battle of Paoli (he was called “No-Flint Grey” for his repeated orders to his men to remove the flints from their guns to ensure silence and the use of the bayonet only).  Hoock admits that these “events . . . were unusual,” and anyway there is nothing truly notable about a military unit that allows itself to be surprised and overrun suffering grossly disproportionate casualties, nor do they have any legitimate right to complain of unjustified “violence” as a result.

To counter this obvious weakness in his argument, Hoock spends a lot of time on the odious Banastre Tarleton (the villain in Mel Gibson’s good-but-exaggerated movie The Patriot and in later years one of the last die-hard British supporters of the slave trade).  But Tarleton was the exception, a man of low character, son of a rich merchant, about whom the main complaint was that he fought unchivalrously and not up to British standards of “moderation and civility” to which high-class Britons were supposed to hew.  Tarleton fought in the South, where for reasons Hoock claims are unknown, the war was more brutal, with more violence against civilians.  I suspect this brutality was due to the cultural differences among settlers identified in David Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed, which notes that those Americans originating as Cavaliers and Scots-Irish were violent in the extreme, unlike the Puritans and Quakers found farther north.  When they fought each other, as Loyalists and Patriots, without the British Army’s substantial involvement, nastiness resulted.  But Hoock has nothing to say about sub-cultures in America, which he treats mostly as a unitary whole in service of his (swiftly eroding) argument.

Hoock also complains about military discipline, which was actually mild in the American army (thirty-nine lashes was the maximum, as opposed to the five hundred or more commonly dealt out by the British).  This is not really the kind of violence Hoock’s book is supposedly about—he just shoehorns it in for atmospherics.  And the example of a flogging Hoock dwells on was meted out by Washington to a soldier for looting the home of a particularly heroic American army officer, a crime which in context seems pretty bad.  Hoock also oddly claims that “there is no clear evidence that flogging actually reduced the incidence of military crimes.”  I’m sure Washington didn’t hire sociologists to conduct surveys, but common sense suggests this uncertainty is obtuse.  Then Hoock cites another scholar to the effect that “Washington seems never to have been concerned with the terrible suffering endured by soldiers being punished.”  Unless there was some doubt as to their guilt, why should a general fighting a war for existence be so concerned?  This is purely namby-pamby.  In fact, as Hoock notes, Washington was very focused on matters of actual importance in the arena of violence:  preventing plundering of Tory property and maintaining discipline, due process and the rule of law.

That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of collateral violence during the Revolutionary War.  Any war where plundering and living off the land was a normal method of supply involves frequent bad behavior by troops, up to and including rape and murder.  But Hoock admits such offenses were generally harshly punished by both sides.  (Hoock also expresses shock at the possibility that “armies offered soldiers a conception of masculinity that validated aggression.”  He needs to get out more, maybe to some country-and-western bars.)  What is news is not the collateral violence, but the punishment of it.

Scraping the bottom of his barrel of tricks, Hoock discusses at great length the terrible conditions in which the British held American prisoners, particularly on prison ships.  True enough, but this is well known (and used widely as propaganda at the time).  And as Hoock notes, both the Americans and the British, especially the former, in fact “modeled magnanimity” as a civilizational marker, and much of the bad treatment was due to logistical difficulties, not deliberate maltreatment.  What is more, there was keen oversight—Hoock notes of solitary confinement used as punishment that “So harsh was this punishment that a private British lawyer warned the [British prison keeper] that he would have him indicted for murder if any prisoner were to die in the confining hold.”  This sounds like the rule of law was very much keeping violence in hand, as much as is possible in a war.

In the last third of the book, Hoock extensively treats violence as it affected American Indians and black Americans, slave and free.  As to the former, it is well known that the Indian wars involved levels of violence on both sides greatly exceeding those in intra-European wars, including ritual torture of captives by Indians and punitive expeditions to destroy food sources in winter by Europeans.  (Hoock does claim something I had not heard, that rape by Indian warriors, at least woodland Indians in British America, was essentially unknown, in part because most captured women were forcibly adopted into the capturing tribe, and thus the prohibition prevented accidental incest.  Assuming that’s true, which is unclear since no cite is provided, it’s an interesting historical counterpoint to the common view that rape is universal in war.)  As to black Americans, they fought on both sides, creating the usual fears among slaveholders and, by all accounts, acquitting themselves admirably, especially given that their treatment as prisoners was usually worse than that of white prisoners.

Towards the end of the book, Hoock examines the curious case of Captain Charles Asgill, a young English prisoner selected randomly on Washington’s order to hang in retribution for a British-protected Loyalist lynching of a Patriot prisoner.  This is quite interesting—but it again proves the opposite of the thesis of Hoock’s book, for despite British refusal to hand over or condemn, after a trial, the offending Loyalist, Washington (or rather Congress) declined to carry through the execution, in part because of tear-jerking letters written by Asgill’s mother to Washington and to Louis XVI.  Asgill was released and everyone had group hugs.  This transparent, formal and decorous affair hardly seems like the raging violence that Hoock claims consumed America during the Revolution, even though it was used for propaganda effect on both sides.

Last in his history, Hoock examines the difficulty of Loyalists, after the war, returning to homes and property they had fled.  Unsurprisingly, many were not welcomed.  Surprisingly, many were, and many or most regained property and position, the latter perhaps after a few years of political disability.  But within a decade or so, most hard feelings had disappeared.  Again, this undercuts Hoock’s thesis.  For a counterpoint, look at the American Civil War, and think no further.

So, yes, it is true, as Hoock concludes, that “individuals and communities on all sides bore the scares of revolution and war.”  Anything different would be incomprehensible.  War, especially civil war, is a harsh, harsh master.  What is amazing is that the scars were as shallow as they ultimately proved.  And that scars existed does not prove that the Revolutionary War was especially violent.  Hoock says his goal is “to explode those myths that had been perpetuated by both sides.”  He doesn’t actually identify any myths, though, and as a result, he doesn’t explode any, either.  What’s left is a competently done history of the war that fails to fulfil its promise.

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