Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Symbolism of the Confederate Flag

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The Confederate flag as long been a matter of controversy.  Many on the left see it as a symbol of slavery, racism, or racial violence.  Many on the right claim it is a symbol of national heritage for southerners.  Of course, like any symbol, it can mean different things to different people.  But what is the history of the flag?

What is the Confederate Flag?

Many have said that the the familiar flag we are used to seeing with the red background, the blue cross of St. Andrew, and 13 white stars, was not the flag of the Confederate government.  That is actually not entirely true.  The full story gets a bit confusing.  But let's take a quick look at the facts:

The Confederacy's first flag had two red horizontal bars, with a white bar in between.  In then had a blue square in the upper left hand corner with a circle of stars indicating the number of States in the Confederacy.  At that time, there were only seven States in the Confederacy.

The big problem with that flag was that it could often at a glance be mistaken for the US flag.  Flags carried in battle had to be clear for one side or the other, even if they were crumpled up or damaged.  So, the Army of Northern Virginia decided to develop the familiar battle flag after the First Battle of Manassas.  The flag was eventually carried by virtually all the Confederate Armies and also flown on Confederate Naval vessels.

Almost two years into the Confederacy the government put the familiar battle flag in the corner of its flag, replacing the blue field with stars, and making the rest of the flag completely white.  But, because there was so much white, it was later decided it might be mistaken for a flag of truce.  So, they added a vertical red bar to the flag to make it stand out more.  

So, the familiar battle flag actually was at least a part of the official government flag for most of its short life span.

Some have said that the blue X in the battle flag is meant to represent the Cross of St. Andrew, from the Scottish national flag.  Many Southerners were of Scottish descent and saw the cross as a symbol of the defiance of Scottish opposition to the domination by England, much as the Southern States were opposing domination by the North.  In fact, the X was originally meant at least simply as a design element after an upright cross was rejected as being too sectarian.  Here is a letter from the man who designed the flag to Gen. Beauregard, who had requested a new flag to avoid confusion with the US flag in battle:

Richmond, August 27,1861. 
Gen. G. T. Beauregard, 
Fairfax Court house, Virginia:

Dear General, I received your letter concerning the flag yesterday, and cordially concur in all that you say. Although I was chairman of the 'Flag Committee,' who reported the present flag, it was not my individual choice. I urged upon the committee a flag of this sort. [Design sketched.] This is very rough, the proportions are bad. [Design of Confederate battle-flag as it is.]

The above is better. The ground red, the cross blue (edged with white), stars white.

This was my favorite. The three colors of red, white, and blue were preserved in it. It avoided the religious objection about the cross (from the Jews and many Protestant sects), because it did not stand out so conspicuously as if the cross had been placed upright thus. [Design sketched.]

Besides, in the form I proposed, the cross was more heraldic than ecclesiastical, it being the 'saltire' of heraldry, and significant of strength and progress (from the Latin salto, to leap). The stars ought always to be white, or argent, because they are then blazoned 'proper' (or natural color). Stars, too, show better on an azure field than any other. Blue stars on a white field would not be handsome or appropriate. The 'white edge' (as I term it) to the blue is partly a necessity to prevent what is called 'false blazoning,' or a solecism in heraldry, viz., blazoning color on color, or metal on metal. It would not do to put a blue cross, therefore, on a red field. Hence the white, being metal argent, is put on the red, and the blue put on the white. The introduction of white between the blue and red, adds also much to the brilliancy of the colors, and brings them out in strong relief.

But I am boring you with my pet hobby in the matter of the flag. I wish sincerely that Congress would change the present one. Your reasons are conclusive in my mind. But I fear it is just as hard now as it was at Montgomery to tear people away entirely from the desire to appropriate some reminiscence of the 'old flag.' We are now so close to the end of the session that even if we could command votes (upon a fair hearing), I greatly fear we cannot get' such hearing. Some think the provisional Congress ought to leave the matter to the permanent. This might, then, be but a provisional flag. Yet, as you truly say, after a few more victories, 'association' will come to the aid of the present flag, and then it will be more difficult than ever to effect a change. I fear nothing can be done; but I will try. I will, as soon as I can, urge the matter of the badges. The President is too sick to be seen at present by any one.

Very respectfully yours,

Wm. Porcher Miles.

So most of the flag was really about stylistic reasons and not about any particular symbolism.

Was the Civil War Really about Slavery?

Proponents of the view that the Civil War was about slavery often point to a number of quotes from various State declarations which all state rather explicitly that the primary reason for secession was over the institution of slavery.  You can read several of these here.  There is no question for secessionists, that protecting slavery and assuring that slave owners would not lose their property was the key reason for secession.  Incidentally, this was also the key reason Texas broke way from Mexico and joined the Union only a few years earlier.

As the States were announcing secession, incoming President Abraham Lincoln tried to assure the nation that the dispute was absolutely not about slavery.  He made clear in his inaugural address " I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."  He goes on to say that his focus is on saving the Union, nothing about slavery. You can read the full speech here.  A little over a year later, Lincoln reiterated this view in a letter to Horace Greeley, a newspaper editor in New York.  He said "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."  This was written only a month before he announced his imminent Emancipation Proclamation, where he proclaimed some slaves free while keeping others in bondage.

It seems clear in hindsight that Lincoln was in favor of full abolition of slavery.  He had to deal with a country at war.  His northern Union contained four slave States that could possibly still have jumped ship and joined the Confederacy.  There were also large portions of the population in the north that supported the right of slavery, including his own commanding General George McClellan.  He was a smart enough politician to realize he could not come out with an immediate end of slavery without potentially putting an end to the coalition that was supporting the War effort.

What his speeches do show, however, is that the north was most certainly not solidly anti-slavery.  Views remained divided for much of the War.  Passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery, ratified shortly after Lincoln's death, was accomplished in large part due to the desire of many northern voters to punish the south for the War and for Lincoln's assassination, not necessarily out of any noble aspiration to end slavery.

Was the South solidly pro slavery?  Again, that seems to be more nuanced than many are willing to admit.  The prevailing majority view was that the right of slavery should be protected.  But that is different than saying slavery itself is a good thing.  A few years a before the was began, Robert E. Lee, future commander of all Confederate forces, wrote a letter to a friend where he said: "There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages"  He then goes on to condemn abolitionists for trying to end suddenly and by force something that must evolve over time.  You can read more of his letter here.

I don't think Lee's views are an aberration.  Many southerners seemed to have problems with the institution of slavery.  At the same time, however, they were extremely hostile to the idea of outsiders telling them how to deal with the situation.  It would be like if the United Nations tried to to force the United States to change some of its laws.  As Americans, even if we agreed with the changes, we might resent the UN trying to force its will on us.  Many southerners seemed to feel the same way about federal intrusion on their existing legal systems and social norms.

Of course, these justifications were also likely reinforced by the fact that abolition of slavery would impoverish the South and destroy many of the comforts that white southern elites enjoyed.  If Americans today were told the world was putting in place a new economic system which would prevent our less than 5% of the world population from enjoying 20% of world GDP, we might oppose such a scheme.   Many of us understand that it might seem unfair how much privilege and advantage we have under the current system, but giving up privilege is a hard thing.  I sure don't want to see my income cut by 75% just because someone else might think it is "fairer."

Did the Confederacy stand for racism?

OK, so even though southern views on slavery might be a bit nuanced.  Can we at least say that southerners of that time were racist?  Yes, absolutely.  Racism was a fundamental belief of virtually all Southerners.  But virtually everyone in the north was also a racist.  Abraham Lincoln was a racist if we can believe his speeches.  During the famous Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858, he expressed this quite clearly:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”

Racism was the norm of that time period.  I should also point out that there is a very real difference between racism and racial prejudice or racial hatred.  These terms are often used interchangeably, but here are real differences.  Racism is the belief that members of one race are inherently superior to members of another.  It is simply a fact of nature, just as we believe today that human beings are superior to chimpanzees.  It does not mean that the racist necessarily hated blacks, or treated them violently, just as we don't hate chimpanzees or support cruel treatment of them today.  It simply meant that people believed that people honestly believed that blacks were not fully human and did not have the same capacities as whites. 

Today, of course, this theory of racism has been utterly rejected and is held by almost no one, other than perhaps a few fringe types.  Instead today, we call people racists who are racially prejudiced, that is associating certain traits to members of a race, such as laziness or violence.  Typically even these prejudiced people today do not believe that all blacks are inherently inferior and incapable of operating as citizens within society.  Racism as it existed in the 19th century is rightfully dead.  But it is important to understand how it existed at that time in order to appreciate the debate over slavery and abolition.

So yes, southerners were racist, but that is not what separated them from northerners. All of them were racists.  What separated them was the policies in place that would create a proper societal order in light of those racist views.

Post Civil War Racism

After the Civil War, the display of any Confederate symbol, including the flag, was a criminal act. The Courts had, shall we say, a much less enlightened view of the First Amendment back then.  So the defeated south did not use the Confederate flag much at all after the war.

In the decades following the Civil War, I am not aware of much of any use of the Confederate flag, even by the KKK.  It was the symbol of a lost cause and largely put away.  Perhaps it was used in secret, but I am not aware of any public displays  A generation later, once begins to see the use of the Confederate Flag again.  Mississippi adopted the flag as a portion of its State flag, which it still uses today.  This does not appear to be motivated by racism or any reaction to Federal control.  Rather it appears to be a way for State leaders to honor the prior generation, their parents, who fought in the Civil War.

Into the early 20th Century, one begins to see greater use of the Confederate flag as a symbol of regional pride.  Ironically, one place the flag was absent was in the KKK. Most Klan rallies of this era used the US flag.  The KKK of the early 20th century considered themselves the standard bearers of US tradition and liberties, opposing not only reforms for blacks but also opposition to immigration, and religious traditions outside of Protestantism.  The Klan of this era was not focused on the south either.  Large Klan organizations existed throughout the north and midwest. The KKK associated itself with real America, not in opposition to it.  Take a look at these pictures from early 20th Century Klan parades.  Plenty of US flags, no Confederate flags.

The real changes came in the 1950's and 1960's when the Federal Government began passing laws related to desegregation and nondiscrimination.  This led to a renewed resurgence in the South for the use of the flag as a symbol of opposition to federal "interference" with what were regarded as State and local issues.

It was during this period where one sees the Confederate flag incorporated into a number of southern State flags, or the flag flying over State capitols.  It also became more popular with individual southerners or racist groups such as the KKK. But even here, the use of the flag was not directly racist.  It was focused on opposition to interference in State polices.  Of course, the State policies in question did seem to be based on racism.  This is why many on the left today associate the flag with racism and want it abolished, or at least banished to museums, along side the "whites only" bathroom signs and KKK crosses.

Symbolism of the Flag Today

The Confederate flag, like all flags, does not have any real power or meaning other than symbolism.  It symbolizes different things to different people.  Simply saying the flag represents racism misses much of the point.  Today at many leftist protests, we see protesters often wearing Guy Fawkes masks.  Guy Fawkes, of course, is remembered for trying to pull off the terrorist act of blowing up the British Parliament in 1605 to protest British suppression of Catholicism.  Of course, none of the protesters today are supporting terrorism, blowing up legislatures, or focusing the rights of oppressed Catholics - or even religious discrimination generally. Fawkes' symbolism is all about opposition to government power and bad government policies generally. 

Similarly, for many, the Confederate flag is about opposition to government oppression or overreach.  It represents the single largest effort since the American Revolution to oppose the power of the federal government.  The flag is simply a way of objecting to federal power.  For others, it is a way of remembering their ancestors.  For others, though, the flag is inextricably linked to the racism of the mid 19th Century, and also to the opposition to civil rights of the mid 20th Century.  It is a symbol of the continued attempts to oppress black people and to prevent them from fully participating in the US as full citizens.  

The debate will, of course continue.  My hope in this post is simply to show that there are a variety of reasons why people display the flag and how they view the flag.  

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Boston Massacre: Patrick Carr vs. Crispus Attucks

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This post is admittedly along the same theme as my last one: why are some people remembered and others forgotten.  I promise this won't become a long term trend in my posts, but I thought this story is also useful for discussion.

The Boston Massacre - Lead Up

If you learned US history, you hopefully learned about the Boston Massacre.  This was one of many events in the Boston area that eventually led the American colonies into war with Britain and to Independence.

The Massacre took place on March 5, 1770.  Britain and her colonies were still at peace, but there had been great tension for several years.  Boston particularly was the center of resistance to many new British regulations.

A quick summary of events leading up to the Massacre: The British imposed taxes and began enforcing long unenforced trading rules on the colonies in order to raise money.  The Colonies deeply opposed this and thought any attempts to raise revenue should be handled by their own locally elected legislatures. Boston was particularly unruly in its resistance to these British attempts to collect money.  Well organized mobs of people destroyed the homes and property of tax collectors.  A few were tarred and feathered, threatened, and run out of town.

In late 1768, the British sent soldiers to Boston to restore order and protect the new tax collectors.
The locals saw this as a despotic act of using military force to deny them their rights and liberties. The brunt of their wrath fell on the regular soldiers who were just following orders.  Soldiers were heckled, harassed, had things thrown at them and generally treated horribly by the locals.

On March 2-3, 1770 there were several outright brawls between locals and soldiers, with one soldier left with a fractured skull.  Soldiers were discussing having revenge on the locals while the locals were said to be trying to provoke more fights with the hated soldiers.

The Massacre

This brings us to March 5, 1770.  Events that day began as a rather minor incident which quickly grew out of control due to existing tensions.  A young wig maker's apprentice named Edward Garrick shouted an insult at a British officer.  It was nothing political.  He accused the officer of refusing to pay for a hair treatment at his master's place of work.  The officer had the good sense to ignore the comment and walk away.

Hugh White, a British soldier on sentry duty in front of the Customs House did not let the comment pass.  He confronted the boy and said something about the officer being an honorable man who paid his debts.  Garrick then made some insulting comment directly at White (we don't know exactly what he said), which only enraged White to the point of hitting Garrick on the ear with the butt of his rifle. The boy's screams quickly caused a group of mostly boys and young men in the area to confront the lone sentry.   Someone rang the bells in a nearby church (taken as an alarm bell) which drew more people. The sentry found himself confronting a large angry mob.

White called for help the main guard. Six more soldiers, led by a corporal, responded. They were soon joined by the officer on duty, Captain John Preston.  Their guns were not loaded but had fixed bayonets, to intimidate the mob and force it to back down..

But these few soldiers were facing a crowd of almost 400 men. The crowd not only taunted them and shouted threats, but also began pelting the soldiers with snowballs and chunks of ice.  The soldiers loaded their weapons hoping to convince the mob that this was serious.  This only got the mob angrier and they began striking at the soldiers with clubs and a sword.

According to some accounts, one soldier was hit on the head by a chunk of ice or a club.  He then fired his weapon into the crowd.  The other soldiers also fired into the crowd.  Three men were killed instantly.  Eight more were wounded, two of whom died from their wounds within days.  The crowd dispersed from the immediate area, but then grew to thousands of people within a few blocks.  The small group of soldiers then retreated back to the main guard.

The mob was eventually dispersed on the promise that the soldiers would be arrested and tried for murder.  After a legal defense by local lawyer and Patriot John Adams most were acquitted based on a claim of self-defense.  Two soldiers Hugh Montgomery and Matthew Killroy, were convicted of manslaughter and had their thumbs branded.


Despite the soldiers getting off lightly, the event was a Patriot victory.  All British soldiers had to retreat from the city and stay in Castle Island in the harbor for their own safety.  They only came back to the city when they were in large numbers.  This clearly hampered their avowed purpose of protecting the lives and property of officials in the city.  For many years following, anniversary events were held to remind Bostonians of what the British had done and to rekindle their anger at the military occupation.

The event greatly inflamed tensions between Britain and her colonies.  The British saw the event as part of the difficulty in controlling the mob ruled Boston.  The people of Boston saw it as an example of the savagery of the despotic British attempting to crush their demands for liberty and their rights as Englishmen.

Crispus Attucks Gets the Honors

Alright, that is the background of events.  Two of the men killed in the Massacre with Crispus Attucks and Patrick Carr, the men I mentioned in the title of this post.  The other three were  Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, and Samuel Maverick.  All five men suffered the same death.  But only one seemed to have achieved any level of fame.

Many of you may have learned about Crispus Attucks in your grade school or high school history class. There are numerous buildings and other landmarks named in his honor.`

Attucks grew up in Farmington, Massachusetts, a small town just outside Boston.  His father was a slave born in Africa.  His mother was Native American.  In the language of the day, Attucks was a mulatto.  Today we would call him mixed-race.  Attucks is believed to have been a slave as a child but ran away to Boston.  He spent twenty years as a sailor on trading vessels and whaling ships. In 1770, he was working as a Boston rope maker and was involved in the street brawls with the British on March 2-3.  By some accounts he was the first person killed when the soldiers began firing.

Patrick Carr - One of the Forgotten Martyrs

The second person I wish to focus on is Patrick Carr.  Carr was an Irish Catholic Immigrant.  Remember that at this time, there were few Irish in Boston. Most arrived during the Irish Famine, nearly 80 years later.  Massachusetts was traditionally hostile to Catholic.  At one point the law called for the execution of any Catholic Priests found in the colony.  While not that hostile to Catholics by this time, there was still no Catholic Church in the colony.

After arriving from Ireland, Carr worked in Boston in a leather business.  He was thirty years old in 1770 when the Boston Massacre occurred. On the night of the shooting, he heard the Church alarm bell and rushed toward the events. Carr, familiar with soldiers and street mobs, seems to have at least suspected that the trouble had something to do with the British.  He started off with a small cutlass before his neighbor persuaded him to leave it behind. When the shooting erupted, he was wounded while crossing the street with his friend Charles Connor, a shipmaster.

Carr was shot in the abdomen, which meant almost certain death in those days.  He lingered for several days of agonizing before finally dying.  During his slow death, he was able to give some testimony about the events on March 5.  His suffering did not deter him from showing great forgiveness toward his killers  Carr said that he was surprised how much abuse the soldiers took before they fired in self defense.  He had seen soldiers suppressing Irish mobs in his home country, but ‘he had never in his life seen them bear half so much before they fired’. He further said he did not bear malice to the soldiers who had fired.  A few days later he passed away and was buried along with the other four victims.

Who is Remembered?

Of the five fatalities in the Massacre, Attucks is indisputably the best known.  Profiles appear in most grade school history books.  The US Treasury minted a commemorative silver dollar with Crispu Attucks on it in 1998.  There are at least four public schools, two parks, a theater, a road, and a bridge named in honor of Attucks.*  By comparison, I am not aware of any monuments or memorials named after any of the other four victims individually.

Why does Attucks get the special claim to fame?   The most obvious answer is that Attucks was black.  There has been a concerted effort to hold up black historical figures for enhanced recognition.  It is an effort to include the black story in the history of America.  Unfortunately, there simply were not that many blacks who did much of any significance.  Most blacks of that period were slaves. They could not rise to positions of importance in the military, politics, or industry.  Therefore, when someone like Attucks is a part of a well known event, his role is over emphasized.

While Irish Catholics were also clearly an oppressed minority in colonial Massachusetts, they have largely outgrown that designation.  There is not as great a need for modern historians to seek out historic figures of note who were particularly Irish Catholics.  If they do, there are probably more notable figures to select, such as John Barry, the famous Revolutionary War Naval officer, sometimes called the "Father of the American Navy."

But race is not the only reason Attucks may get special promotion.  The allegation that he was the first to die also gives him a special place.  Many consider the Boston Massacre the first real act of the Revolution where people died.  Therefore, the first person killed, is also the first fatal casualty of the Revolution itself.  That also may contribute to his special mention.  Whether Attucks really was the first to die (after all, three were killed instantly within seconds of one another)  is not the point.  That he was named as the first, makes it part of the narrative in perpetuity.  One could also quibble that there were several earlier fatalities in the political riots surrounding the Stamp Acts, but none killed by British regulars.

Attucks also seemed to take a leading role in the riot itself.  Several witnesses commented on his leading role in provoking the soldiers.  While some today might consider a mob provoking and attacking what were essentially police on guard duty as being "thugs," in the context of the Revolution it makes them brave and heroic. By contrast, Carr was killed while still standing a distance away from the events.

Attucks previous activities with Sons of Liberty protests and riots meant that he was probably friends with others dedicated to the cause and was likely a supporter of the political aims of the Sons of Liberty.  By contrast, Carr seems to have approved of the soldiers' actions that day, at least after the fact.  Patriot leader Samuel Adams was apparently deeply annoyed at Carr's willingness to forgive the soldiers.  Patriot leaders, therefore, had no interest in profiling him particularly as a face of the Patriot cause.

There may be many reasons why one person's role in history is remembered over others. But all are certainly deserving of our knowing what they did.

* Places named in honor of Crispus Attucks include:
  • Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Attucks Middle School in Sunnyside, Houston, Texas
  • Crispus Attucks Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri
  • Crispus Attucks Elementary School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
  • Crispus Attucks Elementary School in East St. Louis
  • Crispus Attucks Park in Carbondale, Illinois
  • Crispus Attucks Park in Washington, DC
  • Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia
  • Crispus Attucks Road in Spring Valley, New York
  • Crispus Attucks Bridge in Framingham, Massachusetts.
  • Crispus Attucks Association in York, Pennsylvania
  • Crispus Attucks Center in Dorchester, Massachusetts 
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Friday, June 12, 2015

Remembering Jemima Warner

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Why to some heroes achieve fame while others do not?

Most Americans are uninterested in most details of American history. If you ask someone to name a few heroes of the American Revolution, you might get a few answers such as George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, or John Paul Jones.  Few people outside of history professors or avid history buffs could name many others who served.  Gen. Henry Knox or Gen. Nathaniel Greene are hardly household names today despite their valorous actions and recognition at the time.  A few other offices such as Alexander Hamilton or James Monroe might be remembered, but only because of their future roles in politics.  Even experts would be hard pressed to name a veteran of the war who served in the enlisted ranks.  Yet these are the men who endured incredible hardships and engaged in amazing acts of bravery to give us the freedom we have today.

We honor the sacrifices and accomplishments in the abstract, but remember few actual heroes.  Heroes of more modern wars such as Sgt. York of WWI or Audie Murphy of WWII achieved fame through movies after their wars.  But heroes of earlier wars simply never gained or maintained the recognition.  Many of the heroes themselves might argue that so many people stood up and did the incredible deeds demanded of them that there are too many to remember and that is is unfair to single out only a few for historical recognition.

But even so, those few who seem to achieve even a small part of the public memory seem to do so not for specific merit but rather due to some accident of fate.  Paul Revere is remembered primarily because one man chose to write a poem about his small role in a much larger effort..  Betsy Ross receives recognition because her descendants worked to publicize her minor part in developing the flag.  Deborah Sampson has become a feminist champion for breaking the rules and serving in the army while posing as a male.  While all of their roles may be laudable, do they really stand out above all the other efforts of those serving the cause?

Jemima Warner: Forgotten Hero

It got me thinking, what really allows one person to be remembered while so many more are forgotten?  This brings me to the title subject of this essay: Jemima Warner.  Even most historians who know the American Revolution quite well could say much about Jemima Warner.  Yet her story is filled with heroism and sacrifice.

The Mission:

In late 1775, after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Continental Army was besieging the British in Boston.  Americans had already captured several military bases around the country, including Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point in New York.  Americans feared the British would launch a counter offensive from Canada to retake those forts and to continue down the Hudson River to New York City, thus cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies.  The British were already attempting to enlist Tory units and several Native American tribes to assist with this action.

To counter this risk, the Continental Army attempted an invasion that would deprive the British of a staging area in Quebec.and Montreal.  A main invasion force under Gen. Philip Schuyler would proceed up the Champlain valley from New York into Canada  A secondary force under Gen. Benedict Arnold  would attempt a second route through the wilderness of what is today Maine and Canada to link up with Schuyler’s forces and crush any British resistance.

Soldiers on the Quebec March faced some of the most difficult conditions of the war.

Private James Warner was a member of the Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion.  His unit joined Gen. Arnold’s attempt to seize Quebec.  This would be no easy task.  The wilderness area was deemed virtually impassible, especially in winter.  The harsh conditions and hostile Indians made any such invasion highly unlikely to succeed.  Jemima Warner joined her husband on this dangerous mission in order to assist him with the inevitable difficulties.

The conditions were harsh and many men died as a result.  About one-third of the force turned back and returned to Massachusetts in violation of Gen. Arnold’s orders   The commanding officer of the retreating force later faced a court martial for abandoning the effort.  He was acquitted because the court agreed that the dangers of proceeding posed too great a risk to his men.  Yet the teen-aged Jemima, who was under no military obligation to continue, stayed the course, remaining with her husband’s unit through all the difficulties.  These difficulties were not minor.  The men were ill clad and many died from exposure.  They were ill-fed, leading to near starvation.  At one point they were forced to eat one of the officer’s dogs.  Disease also took many lives.

One of the men who fell prey to the conditions was Private James Warner.   The men were unable to carry him and could not simply stop to care for him.  He was left under a tree to die.  He would have died alone except that his wife Jemima opted to remain by his side, despite knowing that she had no way to care for him and that both would likely die shortly from the conditions.  Shortly thereafter Private Warner died.  His wife did her best to bury him, then took his gun and powder.  Rather than heading home, she caught up with the advancing army.

Jemima Warner remained with the invasion force as it entered Canada and laid siege to Quebec.  A contingent of soldiers attempted to approach the city under a flag of truce to discuss terms, but was fired on by British canon.  After that, Jemima volunteered to approach  the city by herself and present the terms.  The terms were torn up and she was thrown in prison.  Five days later, the British released her and she returned to the American lines.  She continued to operate under enemy fire, bringing food, water, and ammunition to soldiers on the front lines.  Several days later she was shot in the head by British fire and died instantly.

Shortly after her death, the American force withdrew to await reinforcements.  They eventually invaded the city, but failed to take control, with most of the Americans either killed or captured.

Why is she forgotten?

There is nothing in what is known of Jemima Warner to suggest that she is anything less than a great hero.  She showed only bravery, sacrifice, endurance, and personal strength throughout  the action.  She gave the ultimate sacrifice for the cause.  Yet there are probably thousands of people better known and better honored from this era, often for far less than she gave.  Why?

There are several reasons why she is likely not remembered.

To start, the commanding officer of the mission was Gen. Benedict Arnold.  While he was one of the most active and heroic officers of the early war, his later decision to betray his country and offer his services to the British made him infamous.  There was little effort to celebrate or remember any of his earlier actions.  Even though those who served under him had nothing to do with his later infamy, they pay the price in their shared heroism being forgotten.

The mission itself was a failure.  Despite the heroic actions, Continental forces could not take and hold Quebec.  Although their actions probably prevented the British from mobilizing an invasion force in 1776, the immediate goal was not achieved.  History rarely remembers participants in a failed campaign, despite any individual heroism.

She died in the war.  When we publicize stories of heroes, we tend to want people who struggled against all odds and prevailed.  A death in battle only reminds us that many of those who struggle valiantly do not prevail and do not live to see the ultimate success of the war.

She left no descendants.  Many notable figures are remembered because their children or grandchildren continue to remember their small contributions to the great cause.  It’s the reason Betsy Ross as a bridge named after her in Philadelphia.  Jemima had no such cheering section.

She did not challenge authority.  Deborah Sampson became famous because she joined the army, in violation of the laws and norms of the time.  She is held up as a champion to feminism, proving that women could serve well as soldiers if they had the chance.  By contrast, Jemima was a civilian camp follower.  Although she put her life in every bit as much risk as any soldier,  her main day to day roles were the drudgery of cooking, laundry, and other menial labor that is never remembered by history.

Her name is uncomfortable.  It probably does not help that the name “Jemima” has become understood as a derogatory term for African Americans (even though Jemima Warner was a white woman).

She never had any real brush with greatness.  She certainly met Benedict Arnold, who is known to history, but as already stated,  is not remembered fondly because of his future actions.  Had she been close to a primary historical figure such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, she would have a better chance at fame.  That is the only reason why many of us know the name of Sally Hemmings, who never really did anything exceptional in her own right.

Beyond heroics, Why Remember?

All that said, she did have a few things going for her.  First, she was on the winning side.  As little effort as we make to remember those on the winning side, we make even less for the losers.  Even historians are hard pressed to name many famous Tory leaders or soldiers.

She was a woman, which makes her heroic role unusual.  To the extent she is remembered at all, you can find Jemima Warner’s name on a few lists of female heroes of the Revolution.  She is sometimes credited with being the first female casualty of the war.  If Private James Warner had gone to war alone, his bravery and sacrifice would likely not even be remembered by this essay.  He would have been one of many thousands who died in complete obscurity, despite showing nothing but bravery, valor, and sacrifice.

There are, of course many thousands, perhaps millions who have made great sacrifices and who were part of great movement that give us the country and world we have today.  Most of them are not remembered individually, but we owe them great honor and thanks for what they have done.

Listen to a Podcast of this episode.

Sunday, June 7, 2015


I am starting this blog to discuss my interest of US History.  I am an amateur historian without any formal credentials.  I have been a history expert on where I have been an expert in US History and General History for many years.  Feel free to ask me any history questions there.  I may eventually use some of my answers there to generate posts for this blog.

History has always been a fascination for me. I am particularly drawn to early US history, focusing mainly on the Revolutionary War era and the founding of the Republic.  But I have a more general interest in many historic eras.  History provides us with fascinating stories of adventure, war, love, sex, power, etc.  It is more interesting to me than any work of fiction the mind can imagine.

For too many students, history gets bogged down in memorizing dates or other unimportant detail.   Yes, some basic knowledge helpful in understanding the stories that history offers.  If all you do is memorizes dates and events, without really understanding them, history will be boring.  If you read the stories of adventure and change that history offers, it quickly becomes alive and exciting.

This blog deliberately avoids footnotes, sources, and date details because I want to prevent the subjects as an interesting story.  Not as an academic project.  I may often include links for further reading on a subject,  But my real goal is to tell a story, not to create an academic paper.  There are many other fine sources for that valuable research.

I thought this blog might be interesting to look at some of the more obscure or ignored issues that your school history class did not bother to teach.  That is where I got the title "Unlearned History."  This is the information that you did not learn in your basic history class.  I hope you find it useful, or at least interesting.