Pythia Peay

America On The Couch

The Worldwide Stage, and Trauma, of the American Revolution

Part Three: On the home front of the Revolutionary War.

Posted Mar 16, 2020

Plate 4 from the City of Philadelphia as it appeared in the year 1800
"Arch Street Ferry, Philadelphia"
Source: Plate 4 from the City of Philadelphia as it appeared in the year 1800

Part Three of a three-part series

It is the rare historian who steps beyond the battlefields and politics of the American Revolution to examine that war’s domestic impact on families. Yet that was the focus Lauren Duval, Assistant Professor in History at the University of Oklahoma, brought to her description of the Revolution’s invasion into—literally—the homes of Philadelphia’s local inhabitants. Titled “The Home Front: Gender, Domestic Space, and Military Occupation in the American Revolution,” Duval, who specializes in women’s and gender history, said that American homes in occupied cities “became battlefields in unexpected ways. . .”  Because of the war, for example, many men were absent, “either because they were away fighting; were taken away as prisoners of war; were injured—or had fled.” In their absence, Duval explained, British soldiers and officers were often quartered in Philadelphia homes. For those men who remained home, Duval continued, the British presence altered gender dynamics, because they “didn’t respect. . .their domestic authority,” and, as a consequence, family relationships had to be re-negotiated. Drawing on the Quaker family of Elizabeth and Henry Drinker as an example, Duval described how, after Henry was exiled for refusing to swear allegiance to the new United States—as a Quaker, he was neutral for religious reasons—“there were often knocks on the door,” and frequently, continued Duval, Elizabeth felt afraid to go to bed at night. In conclusion, Duval broadened her theme to include ideas about the “masculine idea” of the private home, and how, over the course of the war, “home” came to epitomize American independence, as well as a “repository for Republican virtue.” Domestic tranquility and his eventual return to his beloved Mt. Vernon, for example, said Duval, was “Washington’s reward for his service” after the war.

And what of the reward gained by conference attendees, and their response to learning more about the international scope of the American Revolution? For Sarah Meschutt, senior curator of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, the conference presented an opportunity to learn more “about new ways of designing exhibitions to reach out to our public and audiences.” It also provided her an opportunity, she said, to look at what curatorial staff at the Museum of the American Revolution had secured from private and institutional collections to “tell a particular story”—that of the “cost of the Revolution.” Additionally, for Meschutt, the conference gave her an opportunity to network with “the presenters, the Museum’s curatorial staff, and to meet other historians and teachers of public history,” as well as to learn more about the life of Richard Mansergh St. George, and Irish contributions to the legacy of Revolutionary history. In that regard, said Meschutt, she found the closing keynote by Martin St. Mansergh on the topic of the 1998 Irish revolution “very rewarding.” Meschutt, who is a native of England, also said she found it “refreshing” to learn about the Revolution from the British and Irish standpoint, and to “get updates of more recently published research of the Irish and Scottish speakers and historians of the American War for Independence—as we call it in Britain.”

Conference attendee Carrie Chait, a Pennsylvania teacher who works with fourth- and fifth-grade school teachers, said that she, too, appreciated “following the perspective of a British officer, looking at the other side of the [Revolutionary] war,” and seeing the redcoats as “real people with families, backgrounds, and their own struggles.” Although as a teacher she had studied and taught the American Revolution, said Chait, after the conference she found herself “humbled” by “what she didn’t know.” For instance, she commented, with Richard Mansergh St. George “being a British soldier, you always think of England—so the fact that he was Irish was even more of a twist to something that’s not often talked about.” The attention given to the psychological trauma St. George suffered after the war, continued Chait, also expanded her views on PTSD. “We think of PTSD “as being a new problem, starting with Vietnam vets, and then the Gulf War,” she said—but we don’t think of [those soldiers with PTSD] as people from the 1700s.” Indeed, Chait commented, “just seeing the effects of war—that it’s the same, that it’s continual, and will always haunt you, was sobering.”

Elizabeth J. Killian, director of the Children of the American Revolution in Washington, D.C., said in an interview that she had “enjoyed the opportunity the conference presented to pursue her interest in history, to see historical places, and to meet people from around the country.” Yet she, too, had attended the conference without realizing that it would be presented from “the British side.” Nonetheless, the conference had proved “very useful,” said Killian, particularly—as did museum curator Sarah Meschutt—when it came to garnering ideas for COAR’s own exhibitions and installations. On the topic of St. George’s suffering from PTSD, Killian insightfully remarked that “while most people today recognize PTSD in terms of recent combat in wars around the world,” they don’t typically “associate it with other wars, like shell shock in World War I.” For that reason, Killian continued, the conference provided “an opportunity to look back reflectively, and [to realize] that a lot hasn’t changed all that much; we can associate to what people went through then [in past wars] with what people go through today and what war does to us.” When asked how she might teach the war-related condition of PTSD to the children in her program, Killian remarked that while the staff would try to keep their material “age-appropriate,” telling the “whole story” of war would nonetheless be an important tenet of their curriculum, in that “war is not all happy,” and “even though those are your ancestors [who served during the American Revolution], there are two sides to the story.”  

Indeed, the original concept for the exhibition, said Hannah Boettcher, publicity director of the MOAR, was “to humanize the other side.” Through art, through narrative, through the material artifacts of war, through the sensitive depiction of the physical and psychological traumas of war, through scholarship, and through storytelling, the museum, in my experience, spectacularly succeeded in achieving that goal. Further, as a journalist who writes about history and psychology, and as the fifth-generation descendant of both British and Irish veterans of the American Revolution, my experience during the conference helped to deepen my sense of what had been an almost cartoonish, one-dimensional idea of the American Revolution. And for this citizen, that was an invaluable, lasting gift.