Coming Face-to-Face With a Character

As a novelist of the American Revolution, time and time again, I am struck by the sheer concentration of extraordinary men and women who could be found among the relatively small population of North America in that era.

In the course of writing The Will — which marked a departure from my normal practice of using purely fictional characters to help bring life to real events — I encountered many such remarkable figures among the Philadelphians whom my ancestor (perhaps; see the novel) Isaac Melcher is known to have personally interacted with. Many more were almost certainly within his social circles, as Philadelphia was a relatively small town at the time.

I don’t like to write about my characters just happening to be commended by Philip Schuyler to Thomas Jefferson, or serendipitously meeting George Washington, or fighting alongside Benedict Arnold (when he was one of the “good guys”), yet all of these were true of Isaac. I mostly left those parts of his life out of the book, though, because there were just so many less well-known people who passed through his all-too-brief life.

One of those people was an artist named Pierre Eugène du Simitière, from whom Isaac commissioned a portrait, noted in the artist’s log book as having been rendered “in crayon,” which was the common term of the day for what we now call pastels. When I set out to write a short story about Isaac sitting for that portrait, I had no idea what kind of fascinating person I was about to encounter!

Du Simitière came to Philadelphia from Switzerland, via the islands of the Caribbean — nearly all of the islands of the Caribbean. He had gone there to conduct a study of the natural history of those islands, which soon also became a study of their human history, as well. By the time he arrived in Philadelphia, mere months before the Colonies were convulsed by the outbreak of rebellion, he had assembled the most remarkable collection of drawings, specimens, coins, and articles from that region that anyone had ever seen.

As depicted in “The Portrait,” his collecting only accelerated once he arrived in Philadelphia, and he wound up essentially stumbling into opening the first museum in North America, based around his collections. Along the way, he inadvertently established the practice of numismatics here, and his resulting knowledge of the symbols of heraldry enabled him to create several state seals. He is also credited with being the first to suggest the United States motto of “E pluribus unum,” which is still used to this day.

With all of these incredible accomplishments, though, what he was most widely known for was the creation of a series of engraved portraits of many of the leading patriot figures of the American Revolution. One of these is the earliest known portrait of George Washington, and the series was widely reproduced at the time, both here and across Europe.

So, the fact that Isaac is known to have sat for a portrait by such an accomplished artist excited my interest while I was researching my ancestor’s life, and I tried to discover whether and where that portrait still be extant. The Library Company of Philadelphia thought that they might have some du Simitière portraits in their holdings, but nobody could confirm it for me, much less that Isaac’s portrait was among them.

Then I came upon the portrait shown above. It is part of the collection of the New-York Historical Society, and the only du Simitière pastel portrait of anyone that I was able to discover. Most intriguingly, the identity of the sitter is unknown. Could this be the face of Isaac Melcher? The odds are against it, but… it is not impossible, so for the purposes of my story, I have treated it as being Isaac’s portrait.

The details of its execution are also described by the NYHS, and I’ve tried to incorporate those into my story. Isaac’s experience of sitting for his portrait must have been quite close to what I’ve described, in any event, and I reveled in the opportunity to visit with yet another of the participants in the lively ferment of intellectual development that seemed to fill every corner of that town.

I sincerely hope that you enjoy reading about du Simitière, and that my affectionate depiction of this wonderfully complex man strikes the right balance between amusement at how others must have seen him and deep, genuine respect for his accomplishments.

A Comprehensive View

The Tales From a Revolution books take place within a relatively narrow span of years, and over a pretty sweeping expanse of territory. I often hear the question of which one comes first, and how the stories relate to one another.

To answer that question succinctly, I put together an infographic, layering a timeline over a contemporaneous map of England’s North-American colonies. I think it’s the clearest way to quickly visualize all of this information, and I’m pleased to share it with you now.

Obviously, as I add new books to the series, finding a way to ensure that this infographic continues to be useful will be a challenge, but I do plan to maintain it as I share more stories from the pivotal era of the American Revolution. Click on the image below to download a printable PDF. Enjoy!

Why The Revolution?

I’m often asked why I write about the American Revolution.  It is true that here are many fascinating and compelling eras in human history.  Indeed, when I reach the end of my explorations of the Revolution, I expect to broaden my scope.

In part, I started writing about the Revolution because of the opportunity – there are a lot of fascinating small stories that contributed to the big events of the Revolution, and few of them have been explored in fiction.  Having a wide, uncrowded field in which to work is hugely appealing.

Too, the events of the Revolution are familiar (if imperfectly), so I’m not having to explain to my readers that the Americans fought the British to achieve independence.  They open my books knowing that much.  The details and nuances, though, make terrific grist for my imagination.

Then there is the opportunity to remind readers that history is shaped by the small decisions of ordinary people.  The Revolution was not accomplished by just a few heroic figures striding across the pages of history atop mighty white horses.  Critical events were shaped at the kitchen tables of folks who would never make it into our histories.  I take my readers to those kitchen tables and let them imagine what choices they might have made – and reflect on how they may affect history with their choices today.

Most importantly, though, I write about the Revolution because it changed the course of human history.  It is unique in that it was not fought over the question of which prince would rule over a patch of dirt.  The American War of Independence was as much a philosophical revolution as it was a military one.  It reframed the very concept of governance – the whole relationship between the people and their leaders.

With the Revolution, we emerged from being subjects of the King to becoming citizens of the Republic.  We were no longer ruled under divine right, but are led by men and women of our own choosing.  It has become fashionable to focus solely on the imperfections of the Revolution – which were many and about which I write unflinchingly.  However, thinking only about what the Founders got wrong tends to overlook how much they got right.

This magnificent accomplishment, which took a scattered collection of hardscrabble colonies and united them as one of the leading nations of the world, is well worth understanding deeply.  That is why I write about the American Revolution, and will do so for some time to come.

Originally published as a guest post on Karen Chase’s blog, Chasing Histories

A Broader View

When we think about the American Revolution, I suspect that most of us picture men in powdered wigs and waistcoats trading quips about taxation and tea in between firing volleys at faceless, vile Redcoats.

I’ve sought to puncture the idea that the Revolution was a phenomenon of elites from Boston, New-York and Philadelphia, widening the view to include all of the colonies, and to include people from many walks of life.  We’ve seen apprentices and craftsmen, professional soldiers and merchant sailors, farmers and housewives, all struggling with the same questions of loyalty versus rebellion, and deciding whether to choose involvement over avoidance.

I’ve also examined the Revolution from the standpoint of people whose ancestors were here before Europeans came to these shores, and who now had to decide how to respond to the conflict that had erupted between rival factions of the new arrivals.  I’ve only touched on the experience of those brought here against their will as slaves, but who often had to weigh the same concerns and worries as their masters.

It is past time that I give a fuller consideration to the story of slaves and freedmen in the Revolutionary era.

The Freedman: Tales From a Revolution - North-CarolinaIn The Freedman, I hope to broaden our view of the Revolution not just to a wider geographical area, but to a wider set of participants.  Calabar was brought to North-Carolina as a boy and sold to a plantation owner, where he learned the intricacies of indigo production, fell in love, and started a family.

Abruptly released from bondage, he must find his way in a society that has no place for him, but which is itself struggling with the threat of British domination.  Reeling from his personal grief, and drawn into the chaos of the Revolution, Calabar knows that the wrong moves will cost him his freedom — and that of the nation.

This was in many ways the most difficult book I’ve written yet — between the heartbreaking details of the treatment of slaves and freedmen I learned about in my research, and the long, difficult journey that Calabar had to take through that setting, it affected me deeply — but in the end, I think it was a success.  I am looking forward to sharing it with you.


The Expédition Particulière That Helped Win Yorktown

Most readers doubtless know that the French helped, not only at sea, by helping to keep the English from landing reinforcements, but by land, with the force under le Compte de Rochambeau combining with Washington and Lafayette’s forces to besiege Cornwallis at Yorktown.  Cornwallis’ surrender sapped the will of the British public to continue the fight against their aggrieved cousins in America, and was the single event that is usually considered to have ended the war.

France entered the war following the defeat of the British at Saratoga, and immediately sent a large naval force out under le Compte d’Estaing.  d’Estaing was supposed to help free Philadelphia, but found it already back in American hands on his arrival.  The French and Americans agreed to try instead to remove the British from Newport, Rhode-Island.  Due to miscommunication, damage sustained due to storms, and mauling of his flagship at the hands of the Royal Navy, d’Estaing withdrew, leaving the Americans feeling betrayed and discouraged.  Another abortive action at Savannah, Georgia sent d’Estaing back to France, with much ill feeling in his wake.

It was into this fraught situation that Rochambeau’s Expédition Particulière set sail from Brest, carrying 5,500 soldiers to Newport; by this time, it was back in American hands, though much the worse for wear.  Arriving in July of 1780, they remained encamped there for a full year, before marching with Washington’s troops to Virginia and destiny.

In my forthcoming novel, The Path, we’ll get to see the Expédition Particulière from the viewpoint of an ordinary foot soldier in its ranks, a young man whose fondest wish is to return home safely to his mother after honorable and useful service to his King… but fate sets him on a very different path.  We’ll see the pernicious effects of slavery, on both the enslaved and the enslavers, and see early America through the eyes of a visitor to our shores.

I’m looking forward to sharing this story with you all!

April 19th, 1775

“The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”

As we observe the anniversary of the outbreak of open hostilities between Britain and her restive subjects in America, I thought you all might enjoy this brief peek into the moment on that cool spring morning that has echoed through history to today.

As the sun rose on a cool spring morning, a knot of men stood in the Lexington common, muskets on their shoulders, nerves frayed.  The past few years has brought the American colonies to the brink of open conflict with their King, between crackdowns on traditional smuggling operations, new taxes, and punitive measures imposed by Parliament in distant London in answer to provocative protests in Boston and other ports along the New England coastline.

The men had gathered in response to a warning dispatched from Boston that the British troops there were moving out into the countryside to seize provincial stores of powder and arms.  They’d just received a pair of riders who had said that the Crown’s forces we less than a quarter hour distant on the road through town.

At a word from their neighbor, John Parker, they lined up in ranks, swallowing their fear and determined to present a brave face to the naked force they expected to see on display.  “We’re looking for no trouble,” Parker said in a raspy voice, facing them.  “The Redcoats are said to have been offering insult to the countryside as they’ve advanced this way; let us give them no cause to molest us here.”

He looked grim.  “I expect none of you to fire unless we are fired upon.  Should that happen, though, if the British mean to have a war, then let us show them what a war it shall be.”  He nodded crisply to the men who faced him, and noted that despite the chill, nervous sweat stood out on more than one brow.

Chewing the inside of his lip to hide his own nervousness, he turned back to face the road, squinting into the sun as it stood low on the horizon.  He could see a pall of dust over the rise and swallowed hard.  The British were coming, and in enough numbers to darken the morning, no matter his own actions.

And then, a solitary British officer appeared on the brim of the hill.  Parker saw him pause at the sight of the village, and of the neatly-arrayed ranks of men who stood on the common behind him.  The head of the column of troops appeared behind him, and the officer spurred his horse and rode forward, drawing his sword and holding it aloft before him.

As he rode close enough to be heard, the Redcoat shouted, “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels!  You’ve no business with us – go back to your homes and let us pass without challenge.”  The man’s face was red with exertion, and Parker saw with some surprise that he looked nearly as nervous as he felt, himself.

The British column had sped up to a trot to catch up with their officer, and the thunder of their hooves raised such a din that Parker struggled to make himself heard.  He turned his head and said over his shoulder, “We’ve made our point, boys.  Let’s go on home, and let these rascals do what they must.”

The men broke ranks and those around the edges of the common began to move away toward their homes, already thinking of cider and bread that awaited.

It was not to be, though.  Parker’s blood ran to ice as a shot rang out, and he threw himself to the ground beside his men as it was followed by a second, and then a storm of thundering fire and clouds of acrid smoke.  He found his own finger on his trigger as he picked his target, and he knew that the world had just changed before his eyes…

National Television Again!

This was so much fun to be a part of — you can see me tonight in my appearance on America: Fact vs. Fiction, sharing what I know about the fateful events when Alexander Hamilton met Aaron Burr at the dueling grounds at Weehauken.  Was Hamilton, as the song says, taking “deadly aim” at his opponent, or did he “throw away his shot?”

Although it didn’t appear in the show, it’s fascinating to know that Burr was charged with murder twice for Hamilton’s death — not only in New Jersey, where the shot was fired, but also in New York, where Hamilton died.  Ultimately, though, Burr evaded justice, hiding until the trouble blew over, only to emerge and later lead a plot to carve out a part of the frontier territory at the time as a separate empire… under his rule, naturally.  Burr is not one of favorite figures from the Revolutionary Era…

As with my prior appearance, you can use the AHC Channel Finder to find your local listings. As the AHC is not carried in all cable plans, I will keep you all apprised as the streaming video edition of the show becomes available.

A Congressional Appeal to a “Friend of Science”

Some things can’t wait for matters of war or peace…

From the Baxter Manuscripts, containing a documentary history of the conduct of the American Revolution in Maine:

Letter to the Commandg Officer of the British at Penobscot—
Similar One to Genl Wadsworth.
Boston Sept. 12, 1780
It is expected that there will be a very remarkable Eclipse of yeSun on ye 27th of Octo next, and that it will be central & total at or near the british Post at Penobscot where you command: the centre of ye Moon’s Shadow if the longitude & latitude of that place by ye Maps can be depended on, being by calculation to pass over Penobscot Bay,  As accurate observations of this Eclipse at a place so situated may be greatly beneficial especially in Geography & Astronomy, the Genl Assembly of this State have made provision for Suitable persons to observe it at any place most proper for that purpose, and to which they can have access.  The Gentleman who will be employed is ye Revd Mr SamlWilliams Hollisson Professor of Mathematics & Natl Philo at our University at Cambridge with such assistants as he shall take with him.  If he shd judge your Post or any other place within your command most suitable for making his observations it is not doubted that as a Friend of Science you will not only give him yr permission for that purpose, but every assistance in your power to render the observation as perfect as possible.  Though we are politically enemies, yet with regard to Science it is presumable we shall not dissent from the practice of all civilized people in promoting it either in conjunction or separately as occasions for it shall happen to offer.
Please favour me with an answer, and with Passes for the safe going & return of Mr Williams & his associates, and of the Vessel and Mariners.
I am respectfully Sr yr most obt hbble Servt
John Hancock   Spkr

Sounds like the kernel of a great story to me — and I had a lot of fun telling it!

The Perfect Storm: Bernardo de Gálvez and the Gulf Coast Campaign

One of the genuine pleasures of research is the discovery of someone whose contributions are barely noticed in classroom histories, but without whom, events would have turned out dramatically differently.

The Spanish Governor-General of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez, is one such figure.  His energetic and often brilliant contributions to the American Revolution ensured that the new United States would not be hemmed in on its West and South by stubborn, Loyalist-controlled colonies, but would have free access to the important shipping channel of the Mississippi, and, later, opportunities for expansion.

Even prior to Spain’s entry into the war in support of the American rebels, alongside their French allies , Governor Gálvez had exhibited sympathy with the rebel cause.  Spain held New Orleans at that time and claimed the territory to the west of the Mississippi. While turning a blind eye to patriot smuggling past New Orleans, in 1777 he took the occasion of a British crackdown on rebel-aligned traffic to seize British smugglers’ boats, and ordered all British subjects to leave Louisiana.

When Spain formally declared war on England in May of 1779, Gálvez was already preparing an attack up the river, having intercepted British communications that revealed that they planned to strike New Orleans.  As his fleet gathered in August of 1779, a hurricane struck, sinking nearly every ship he had planned to use to transport his forces.

A lesser man would have given up the attack, or would at least have waited for reinforcements from the Spanish colonial capital at Havana.  Gálvez, however, was keenly aware of the need for surprise, and so he mustered his 1,400-strong force and marched them overland 115 miles.

They arrived at Fort Bute, only to find a skeleton garrison, which they quickly overcame, suffering no losses.  Learning that the British forces had retreated upriver to Baton Rouge, Gálvez and his forces continued to the new fortification there, and found it much more formidably constructed and staffed.

Here, Gálvez demonstrated his cleverness as a military commander.  Perceiving that the fort had a potential weakness on one side, but that getting his artillery into position would mean exposing his men to withering British fire, he devised a ruse.  He sent a detachment into a wooded area on the opposite side of the fort with instructions to draw British fire and attention, and the British forces fell for it completely.

While the cannon bombarded a mostly-empty stretch of woodland, Gálvez and his forces moved their artillery to within a few hundred feet of the walls of the fort — on the opposite side from where the British were paying attention.  Protected by the terrain, the Spanish opened fire on the fort, and in a matter of hours, they wreaked enough destruction that the British commander had no choice but to surrender.

Gálvez pressed his advantage, demanding that the last British fort upriver, at Natchez, also be surrendered, and the British commander assented, securing the Mississippi River entirely into Spanish hands.

Having accomplished this much, Gálvez then wrote to General Washington, notifying him of his plans to attack Mobile, further along the Gulf coast toward his ultimate goal of the capital of the West Florida colony, at Pensacola.  In January of 1780, he set out with 1,200 men on fourteen ships, intent on a quick strike at the second-largest remaining British settlement in the colony.

As he and his forces reached Mobile Bay, though, another hurricane roared into the armada, killing 400 men.  Further calamity struck as several of his ships were wrecked on a sandbar in the perilous entry into the bay.  Despite these losses, Gálvez set up camp and sent urgent requests to Havana for reinforcements.

Once those reinforcements arrived, he began positioning his artillery, and sent a demand for surrender to the British commander.  As the fort was in disrepair, and its garrison was undermanned, Gálvez felt sure that he could come to terms with the British, but despite a polite, even collegial, exchange of letters, he was obliged to open fire.  Again demonstrating his ability to employ unconventional approaches, Gálvez sent a detachment to burn the British commander’s own plantation, to sap his will (and remove the military hospital on its grounds).  In the end, the British capitulated, and Gálvez sailed in triumph for Havana.

There, he gathered the largest force he had led yet, toward the ultimate aim of removing the British forces completely from the West Florida colony.  A fleet of fourteen warships and a number of smaller transports, carrying 3,800 men, sailed for Pensacola in October of 1780.  It seems unbelievable, but once again, a hurricane struck his forces, scattering the armada and sinking several ships.  He had no choice but to reluctantly retreat to Havana and regroup.

Following a lengthy period of preparation on both sides of the line between the Spanish and British forces, the Battle of Pensacola finally began in earnest on May 8, 1781.  A lucky strike of a Spanish grenade outside a powder magazine touched off an enormous explosion, killing or wounding a hundred defenders in an instant.Gathering a force of 3,000 from Havana onto a convoy of 32 ships, together with reinforcements from Mobile and New Orleans, Galvez led his men into a perilous landing under the British guns at the mouth of Pensacola Bay, demonstrating such personal bravery that he was nearly challenged to a duel by an embarrassed naval officer.

Taking advantage of the destruction attending the explosion, the Spanish forces set up cannon on the high ground that had housed part of the now smashed British fortifications, and quickly forced the remaining defenders to raise the white flag.  Within days, the surrender of the whole of West Florida to Spain was negotiated, and the remaining British forces were taken as prisoners of war.

The role of the Spanish in ensuring the success of the American revolution is scarcely acknowledged in most classroom histories, but it was a key factor in that struggle.   Crucial to their success in assisting us was one storm-plagued Spanish general, who is primarily memorialized today only in the name of the city of Galveston, Texas, and who deserves to be better known.

(This post was originally published at the Journal of the American Revolution.)

I Write Dead People

I, like many authors, am sometimes taken to task for killing off favorite characters.  While I’m no George R. R. Martin, my stories (being set in a time of war, and a period of far more medical uncertainty than today) often rack up a body count.

It is well to remember that no matter how happy their endings, my characters (real or imagined) are two hundred years in the grave.

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée le Brun, Self-Portrait with daughter, 1786

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée le Brun, Self-Portrait with daughter, 1786

Sometimes, as when I’m researching period art, and I come across a particularly striking portrayal of someone who clearly loves being alive, who lives and smiles on from the canvas, and yet is no more than moldering bones today, this gives me a sharp, even unbearable pang of grief.

It also helps to remind me that we are, all of us, short-lived, mortal, and bound to the same fate that overtakes our characters.

What matters, though, is what they — and we! — do with the days that are granted in this human experience, and in telling their tales, I am helping to extend my characters’ time in the company of the living.

So, rather than mourning the deaths of the characters who people my pages, I encourage you to celebrate their lives, and the fact that through my words, you have had the opportunity to know them and to keep the flame of their memory alive.

As an author, I certainly prefer that to being pelted with rotten fruit, at least.