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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gregory Urwin reviews "The Guide to the American Revolutionary War in New York"

In 2009, Norman Desmarais, a librarian at Providence College and editor of the Brigade Dispatch, launched an ambitious effort to identify every spot of ground on which hostile shots were exchanged during the American War of Independence. After reading Desmarais’ first volume, The Guide to the American Revolutionary War in Canada and New England, this reviewer hailed the project as “what promises to be the closest thing we will ever see to a comprehensive catalog of the sites touched by the War of Independence.” In this second installment of the series, The Guide to the American Revolutionary War in New York, Desmarais lives up to those high expectations.

Desmarais describes this book as part of a “multi-volume geographic history of the American War for Independence.” Desmarais has done much more than merely compile a catalog of the locations and summaries of battles and skirmishes. He breaks new ground by revealing that the Revolutionary War was a much broader and sustained struggle than even accomplished scholars of that period realize. Howard Henry Peckham’s standard reference, The Toll of Independence: Engagements and Battle Casualties of the American Revolution (1974), numbers the conflict’s land engagements at 1,330 and those at sea at 220. Before Desmarais finishes with this series, he expects to more than double Peckham’s figures.
As can be seen in The Guide to the American Revolutionary War in New York many of those clashes occurred within the borders of what later became known as the Empire State. The war did not begin in New York, but several key factors turned it into a magnet for the opposing forces. This large state linked New England with the Middle Colonies. It shared a long border with Canada, which made it a threat to British holdings to the north and also a vulnerable target. Finally, New York possessed a major Atlantic port that offered the British strategic advantages if they could seize and hold it.
Desmarais adopts a regional approach to reconstructing the war that raged in New York between1775 and 1783. Separate chapters treat Upstate New York, Downstate New York and the Hudson River Valley, Eastern Long Island, Western Long Island, and finally Manhattan and Staten Island. The book amply covers General William Howe’s New York Campaign of 1776, Lieutenant General John Burgoyne’s Saratoga Campaign of 1777, Major General John Sullivan’s punitive expedition against the Iroquois in 1779, and the sharp actions that occurred at Forts Montgomery and Clinton, Stony Point, and other places. Desmarais devotes even more pages to the incessant raiding and skirmishing that filled and often ended the opposing soldiers’ lives between the bigger battles.
Twenty-first-century Americans who read Desmarais’ work cannot help but be struck by the insurgent nature of their ancestors’ struggle for independence. Both Continentals and militiamen often operated in small bodies, pecking away at their British, German, and Loyalist enemies. The fury that the King’s troops demonstrated in combat must have stemmed in large part from the fact that they could never feel completely safe in most parts of North America. The Crown’s forces also engaged in considerable raiding – along coastal waters and rivers, and perhaps even more terrifyingly, on the frontier, where they made free use of their Indian allies and vengeful Loyalists. It is clear that many supporters of the Patriot cause – civilians included – faced their share of perils before independence could be won.
In addition to regaling the reader with familiar and forgotten history, Desmarais also provides a useful travel guide, profiling the forts, museums, and other sites related to the Revolution in New York. The book provides the web sites to these establishments, which will allow interested readers to check on their hours of operation and other information.
The Guide to the American Revolutionary War in New York stands as a worthy companion to the first volume in Desmarais’ monumental series. It also demonstrates that the high quality that marked the launch of this series has not slackened. The Guide to the American Revolutionary War in New York is an important reference work. A copy of it should sit in every academic and public library in the Empire State, as well as the collection of any individual with a serious interest in the American War of Independence.

Gregory J. W. Urwin
Colonel’s Company
Royal Welch Fusiliers in America

Professor of History, Temple University
Vice President-Elect, Society for Military History
General Editor, Campaigns and Commanders, University of Oklahoma Press
2011 Earhart Foundation Fellow on American History, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
2011 Tyree Lamb Fellow, Society of the Cincinnati
Academic Fellow, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies
Fellow, Company of Military Historians

Monday, June 13, 2011

Review: Geography, biography and history

Randy L. Abbott, Head Reference Librarian, University of Evansville Libraries, reviews Norman Desmarais's "The Guide to the American Revolutionary War in New York: Battles, Raids and Skirmishes" published by Busca, Inc.

"Norman Desmarais, a librarian at Providence College in Rhode Island, and an active American War of Independence re-enactor, has written a highly detailed guide to the American Revolutionary War in New York State. This title is the second in a projected series that aims to identify and describe all the battles, raids and skirmishes from each state during the eight-year conflict. The first volume, published in 2005 and co-authored with June Fritchman, was titled Battlegrounds of Freedom: A Historical Guide to the Battlefields of the War of American Independence, and it served as an introduction by outlining the most significant battles of the war.

This New York state guide is arranged by geographic location and includes maps and illustrations. Desmarais has written his guide in five parts: Upstate New York, Downstate/Hudson Valley, East Long Island, West Long Island and Manhattan/Staten Island. Presented chronologically within each geographic section, the places, towns and cities are accompanied by notes explaining their location in relation to other landmarks, places, towns or cities mentioned in the guide. The volume includes an extensive section of notes, a glossary of terms and an index.

For every place name that saw a battle, raid or skirmish, there is a complete listing of dates. Separate paragraphs denoted by stars distinguish the individual occurrences at that particular location. One feature Desmarais has excelled at is in providing birth and death dates for all named persons, and this is done the first time the person is mentioned in a paragraph detailing a battle, raid or skirmish. It will not be long before the reader has memorized the birth and death years for General George Washington, General William Howe, Major General Benedict Arnold and others of the most-often mentioned war leaders. However, the reader must remember that this is a guide, not an historical narrative. As such, it is an impressive volume due to its level of specificity and depth of description, often including the number of dead on each side of a conflict, the type and number of livestock stolen, the number of acres of grain destroyed, the type and severity of wounds suffered in battle, and often a discussion of the strategic importance of a place that made it worthy of attention.

The author brings the horror of war home to the reader, and the generations of soldiers removed from the American Revolutionary War might suffer wounds inflicted on the modern battlefield caused by explosive devices or grenade launchers, but the severity of the injuries, both mortal and non-life-threatening, remain the same. Descriptions of scalping, beheadings, and other mutilation brought about by crude weapons such as tomahawks and musket balls remind us of the eternal brutality of war.

The importance of New York State in the strategic defence plans of General George Washington during the American War of Independence was paramount. Washington's greatest concern was that Britain and its loyalist allies would drive a wedge through the colonies by way of the Hudson River, cutting off New England, dividing his forces into two or three distinct isolated factions. New York City was the headquarters of the British-led forces, and Washington spent much of his time during the war years within the state's boundaries. When Washington became president, he took the first presidential oath of office in New York City. Beyond its mere strategic importance, the state of New York was heavily populated by opposing loyalists. Opposing combat forces included the British, Hessian mercenaries, and Native Americans of the Six Nations (especially Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondoga and Seneca) fighting the Continental Army, state militia, and Native Americans of the Six Nations (especially Oneida and Tuscarora).

The vast fields of grain and abundant livestock in the New York countryside were vital in feeding the armies of all combatants. An army marches on its stomach, and farmers in upstate New York were desperate to hide their grains and livestock from marauders on both sides. What crops and livestock the armies could not eat or steal, they burned or slaughtered to prevent their enemies from doing the same.

New York State was the site of major battles, including the battle of Saratoga, one of the most important victories of the conflict and an early success for the colonists. In addition, New York was also the site of the battle for Fort Ticonderoga, the site of Nathan Hale's execution, the site of Benedict Arnold's treachery at West Point, the site of British major John Andre's execution, and the first instance of a submarine used in war (The Turtle).

From 1775-1783, the War for American Independence raged, and was finally halted by the signing of the Treaty of Paris. During these eight years, Desmarais notes, 21,417 men of the state of New York served in the war, including nearly 18,000 in the Continental Army. In addition, tens of thousands of New Yorkers, loyal to the British throne, either fought against the American forces or fled to Canada."

Randy L. Abbott
Head Reference Librarian, University of Evansville Libraries
Evansville, Indiana, USA
Reviewed in:
Emerald Journal: Reference Reviews
RR 2011/144
Review Subject: Geography, biography and history : The Guide to the American Revolutionary War in New York: Battles, Raids and Skirmishes
Review DOI 10.1108/09504121111119130
vol.25, no.3,pp.52-53,2011
Copyright: © Emerald Group Publishing Limited
ISSN: 0950-4125

The book:
The Guide to the American Revolutionary War in New York: Battles, Raids and Skirmishes
Publisher: Busca, Inc.
Place of Publication: Ithaca, NY
Publication Year: 2010
ISBN: 978 1 954934 02 9
Price: $22.95
Article type: Review
Pages: 285 pp.

Keywords: Eighteenth century, Guides and handbooks, United States of America, War