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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.




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
Sr
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!




Connections

In The Light, set in Trenton, New Jersey, I depicted the wild scene that greeted the arrival of news of Lexington and Concord. In terms that are nakedly inflammatory, the Committees of Safety transmitted the account from town to town, spreading it as quickly as horse and rider could bear it:

A tumult outside the shop caught both men’s attention then, as a small crowd surged past the door to the smithy.  Robert and Charles caught shouts from the crowd, “War!  War has begun!” and hurried out to hear what the cause of the ruckus might be.  At the head of the crowd was a rider, with dried foam crusting his horse’s flanks, attesting to a hard drive.

Hurrying to catch up, Robert asked a man rushing along at the periphery of the crowd, “What is this about?”

“He carries an account of a fierce and deadly battle between a militia of men in Lexington, near Boston, and a brigade of the British.  Blood has been spilled, and the war has begun!” The bell of the nearest church began to toll now, bringing more people into the streets to learn what had happened.

The rider was being directed to the home of the organizer of the local militia, the self-styled “Committee of Safety,” where he dismounted and carried his post within.  Milling about with the crowd that had gathered, Robert heard angry voices trading ever-wilder rumors.

The British had slaughtered a militia, bringing canon to bear against light arms.  No, they had caught the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in their deliberations, and begun hanging them on the spot for treason.  They had gone house to house in Lexington, looking for weapons and powder, and had killed all who gave any resistance.  A church in Concord was in flames, and the fellowship locked within.

Nothing seemed too outrageous to be passed along, from one person to the next, as they awaited the true contents of the missive.   Finally, the door opened, and the rider took a fresh horse someone had fetched for him, and rode off at a full gallop, leaving a small, persistent group of well-wishers and rumor-mongers who had streamed out behind him.

The local committeeman emerged now, and began reading from a sheet held in trembling fingers, his voice carried away by a fitful breeze.

“Received this morning, four o’clock and forwarded by the committee in Princeton, a letter addressed to various and sundry persons, including the delegates from Connecticut and Massachusetts now in Philadelphia, dated this Wednesday near ten of the clock, in Watertown.

“To all friends of American liberty be it known that this morning before break of day, a brigade of some one thousand to twelve hundred men under arms landed at Cambridge and marched to Lexington.  They there found a company of our colony militia in arms, upon whom they fired with no provocation whatever, killing six men outright, and wounding four others.

“An express from Boston informs us that another brigade marches from there, supposed to be about another thousand men…  I have spoken with several persons who have seen the dead and wounded…  ‘Tis signed by one J. Palmer of the local Committee of Safety there.”

He lowered the page in his hand and bowed his head.   “May God grant mercy to their souls and receive them in their honor.”  Lifting his eyes to the crowd again, his manner changed suddenly now, and he roared, “To arms, men!  Prepare yourselves!  The war is begun and ‘tis only a matter of time before the King’s men are here as well.  If you have a weapon and will not use it—” his gaze fell upon Robert and Charles, marked as Quaker by their hats “—I beseech you to make it available to those  who will.  Likewise, if you have powder or bandages or other useful materials, come and speak with me to ensure that I know if it.”

He surveyed the crowd, taking their measure. “We must stand together now, as patriots all, lest the British find us unprepared, an easy target for their object of putting us down into abject servitude.  Now is the moment we have been preparing for; now is the time to set aside our factions and our bickering and to come together.   The King has made plain his intent—he means to crush us, to make the streets run red with our blood, that he may then squeeze us wholly dry with his taxes.  Will you have it?”

A ragged shout in answer rose from the crowd, “No!”

“He means to deny us the most basic rights of an Englishman, and yet demand that we enrich his treasury with the sweat of our brow.  Will you have it?”

He led the crowd this time, his fist shooting into the air as he shouted with them, “No!”

“He means to send his agents into every home, seek out every voice that dared question his tyranny and still it forever.  Will you have it?”

The crowd lifted fists into the air and roared back as one, “No!”

He roared back, “Then let us stop it!” His fist still raised, he marched down the steps of his home and led the crowd down the street toward the meeting-house where the militia had been gathering for the past months.  Robert and Charles split away from the crowd and started back to the smithy, somber and quiet.

Recently, I’ve discovered that my great-great-great-great-great grandfather was active in the Revolution, serving on Philadelphia’s Committee of Correspondence, in Pennsylvania’s Convention, marching with Benedict Arnold to Montréal, and finally, accepting the duties of Barrack-Master General to the Continental Army (after having been dismissed from service for cussing out President Hancock and the Continental Congress). Quite a colorful character, my forebearer was.

Let’s go back to that first item in his list of service, though… I just found a transcription of the letters passing along the news from that fateful April day in Massachusetts, and immediately after it passed through the town of Trenton, as I wrote, its very next stop was in Philadelphia, where it was received, acknowledged, and sent on its way by four men… one of whom was my direct ancestor.

My novels have always been personal, focusing on the circumstances and experiences of regular individuals who lived through and took part in the events I depict. But this — this is bringing it right home.  Ooof.




A Taste of Things to Come

Believe it or not, the next novel in the Tales From a Revolution is slated for release soon, and I wanted to share with you a brief excerpt, in the form of a letter penned by an anguished Loyalist in Massachusetts to her dear friend in exile in Nova Scotia.

The events at Plymouth Rock related in this letter took place as described, and it is hard to escape the thought that those who came around and saw the broken stone in the morning would have shuddered at what they portended, no matter which side they were on in the conflict.

My dear friend Susannah,
I was filled with Joy at receiving your letter; it was a most unexpected pleasure to have had Communication from your outpost so soon after your sad Departure. I feel keenly your absence, and am fairly bursting with things to tell you about. Paper is dear in these troubled Days, however, so I will restrain myself to only a few anecdotes. I am happy to relate that my especial Friend Ezekiel has taken up a Position of some responsibility, helping to guard the King’s custom house at the docks. He looks fine and tall standing watch, and he has bravely and patiently borne the Taunts of the rebellious rowdy boys who come around from time to time. Some of those selfsame rowdy boys or their Brothers in Spirit have committed a heinous Act, which I hesitate to relate, but which is so much on my mind in these days at the end of the year that I cannot but spare a few lines with which to unburthen myself to you. As you know, not far down the Coast from our formerly happy home is that precious Relic of the Arrival, the very Rock at which the Pilgrims alit at the end of their perilous Voyage hither. A crowd of Rowdy Boys determined to take it Prisoner to their own cause, and made to spirit it away to stand at their accursed so-called Liberty Tree. In the process of moving the Rock, they instead broke it into two pieces, and being of little Fortitude, suffered Half of the rock to lie in state where it fell, bringing the other to their blasphemous Shrine. I cannot but think that this is a Sign that they will find some measure of success in their efforts, but will in the process Break our People into Two Parts, transporting one part to places distant and foreign to us. As I write this Line, I realize that this Cruel Fate has already befallen my dear friend and correspondent, and my Tears threaten to pollute this Page. I shall turn now for a few lines of happier news. Our friend Louise, whom you will recall had been courting with a fine Man from nearer the Frontier, has announced her Promise to be joined with him in the happy Institution of matrimony this spring next. My heart overflows for her everlasting Joy, and I hope only that she is not contaminated by his family’s Whiggish Tendencies. No mean political difference can stand in the way of the heart’s true Desire, though, and I know that you will join me in wishing her all possible Joy of her engagement and hope for her fulfillment without regard for these Troubled Days. Please write soon and pour out the Inmost secrets of your heart to me without fear. I am particularly Intrigued by the details of your new Tutor, about which you were most mysterious in your former letter. Until I shall again hold your words to my breast, I am, your friend,
Emma




The Smoke: Tales From a Revolution – New-York

EBook-Cover

 

I’m happy to announce that the third novel in my set that explores the small stories of the Revolution is now available in both paperback and ebook editions.  In The Smoke, we meet Joseph Killeen, a young soldier in the Patriot Militia, tasked with scouting out the territory of the Iroquois Confederation as the Continental Congress is planning retribution for British-spurred attacks on frontier settlements in New York and Pennsylvania.  A shocking turn of events brings him face-to-face with the Indians — and forces him to examine not only where his loyalties lie, but who he really is.

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