Pythia Peay

America On The Couch


The Worldwide Stage and Trauma of the American Revolution

Part 2: At the Museum of the American Revolution, the trauma and scope of war.

Posted Mar 14, 2020

 Museum of the American Revolution
A portrait of Richard St. George by English artist Thomas Gainsborough (1776) before he shipped out for New York, on loan to the Museum from Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne).
Source: Museum of the American Revolution

Part Two of a Three-Part Series

For Temple University Professor Gregory J.W. Urwin, it wasn’t so much how the British lost the Revolution—but what they wore to the war, and how it affected their performance on the battlefield. As he remarked in his lecture, “From Parade Ground to Battlefield: How the British Army Adapted to War in North America,” as a military historian he takes particular interest in “the British Army in which Richard St. George soldiered and how it responded to the challenges of fighting a difficult war . . . thousands of miles from home.” Sampling a Redcoat or Continental’s diet, for example, Urwin continued, or knowing where his shoes blistered, "increases empathy for the people studied by historians."

Indeed, over the course of his lecture, Urwin overturned misconceptions portraying Redcoats as “unthinking automatons completely unsuited for the challenges they encountered” who “campaigned in colorful, impractical uniforms . . . and practiced rigid linear tactics suited for the clear, flat expanses of Europe rather than rougher or often wooded terrain.” In fact, Urwin continued, the British Army George Washington faced was what today’s American military calls a “thinking enemy” who quickly adapted, becoming a “much more formidable force than most of today’s Americans appreciate.” At the outset of the war, for example, said Urwin, the British army’s penchant for more elaborate uniforms—from scarlet sashes to metallic lace—had proved a liability, making the leadership easy targets. After a greater number of officers were killed or wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill, British officers, noted Urwin, “began dressing down for American service. . .”  As these and other modifications illustrate, concluded Urwin, the British Army of the American Revolution was not some “effete, parade-ground organization led by gallant but impractical fops.” Nor, he said, was it an accident that the “British soldier won most of his battles, or that it took Americans eight grueling years to secure their independence.”

Just as the American Revolution wrought profound changes on the British Army, and around the world, so, too, said Daniel Mulhall, the Irish Ambassador to the United States, did it have a lasting impact on Ireland. After the Declaration of Independence was issued in America, for example, explained Mulhall, a copy of it appeared in an Irish newspaper. Events in Revolutionary War America, said Mulhall, also had a special effect on those with Presbyterian family members in Ireland. Nonetheless, the rebellion of 1798 was crushed, he explained, “principally because of the [geographical] distance between America and Ireland—and that was the big difference.” Indeed, explained Mulhall, “one of the more important reasons the Revolution succeeded while the Irish uprising was crushed,” was because of the American Colonies’ distance from Great Britain, compared to Ireland’s geographical proximity to the superpower.

Nonetheless, said Mulhall, nine years later the ideas of the French Revolution in combination with the ideas of the American revolution “gave rise to the Society of the United Irishmen. . .” and its goals of independence for Ireland, as well as bringing Protestants and Catholics together around the Republican ideal.” In fact, noted Mulhall, “there was a direct line between the American Revolution in the 19th century as a Republic” and the Irish who arrived here, and who, from the beginning, became “integral to the fabric of American public life, while at the same time maintaining their passion to reverse the injustices” inflicted on the homeland of their ancestors.” Ambassador Mulhall concluded his remarks on a ringing note of appreciation for the American Revolution, saying that it “produced a republican experiment which was unparalleled in human history.” And of the European countries that became independent in the 19th century, Mulhall continued, none “declared themselves a Republic—not a single one, but Ireland.” Equally important, he explained, is that Ireland chose not to have a monarchy. That Ireland chose this course, said Mulhall with passion, is because “the American example. . .was so powerful. . .” To this day, he concluded, "Ireland is a genuine republic, while other countries have. . .imperial republics. 

In his closing keynote address, “The Legacy of History for Making Peace in Ireland,” Dr. Martin Mansergh—a former diplomat. political advisor, author, and columnist—also spoke movingly of Ireland's storied relationship with America. “Both historically and now,” said Mansergh, the relationship with the United States is “of supreme importance to Ireland.” The conference’s location in historic Philadelphia similarly inspired Mansergh, as he described the “great privilege” of visiting the city of Philadelphia, “where the Continental Congress met, and the Declaration of Independence was drawn up, [and] where the Constitution of the United States was agreed . . .”

The reason he was there that evening, however, said Mansergh, was “more personal,” in that he was “distantly related, across two centuries, to the subject of the exhibition. . .Richard M. St. George,” who, he said, was “a witness in both art and writing, but also a troubled figure on the margins of a revolutionary period that began in America, climaxed in France, and ended in the tragedy of the 1798 rebellion in Ireland.” There is generally a human cost to revolution, Mansergh went on to say, “even the most justified one, both at the time, as well as later.” It is that cost, he emphasized, that “also deserves reflection,” in order “to deepen our understanding and ensure that pride and enthusiasm, where appropriate, are tempered by an appreciation of the hard realities and the cost of conflicts.” That sentiment, concluded Mansergh, “is very much the spirit of the Museum’s exhibit here.”

Next: Part Three, with attendees' responses 

All of the artwork mentioned in this piece can be found here.

You can visit the Museum of the American Revolution online.