Book Review: The Guide to the American Revolutionary War in New York: Battles, Raids, and Skirmishes

Desmarais, Norman. The Guide to the American Revolutionary War in New York: Battles, Raids, and Skirmishes. Ithaca, NY: Busca, Inc., c2010.  261 p.  9781934934029 (pbk.)  $22.95
Review by Kirstin Steele, The Citadel, steelek1@citadel.edu

The Guide to the American Revolutionary War in New York: Battles, Raids, and Skirmishes is the second in a multi-volume geographic history; the first was Battlegrounds of Freedom: A Historical Guide to the Battlefields of the War of American Independence.  My heart sank when I read the preface of this book.  The level of detail is incredible, and I imagined the rest of the book would be the same.  I was correct about the detail, but unnecessarily apprehensive. The text is a good read.

Each chapter is arranged geographically, and then chronologically within each place on the map.  Identifying thousands of often-tiny engagements is a huge undertaking, and I can’t think of a better approach.  Starred chronological entries make each distinguishable despite a lack of white space.

The author keeps comments about present-day locations to a minimum: name changes are included, and if a landmark is difficult to find or, as in the case of Split Rock, “between the north and southbound lanes of the New England Throughway,” he makes note.  I wished for larger maps, perhaps with bodies of water labeled, but the sheer number of entries requires that the rest of the map be cleaner.  Perhaps a future project could be an oversized book of maps, or an interactive online map.

Desmarais digests each skirmish or battle into a couple of interesting sentences.  I imagine that people who know the geography of New York will find the accounts even more engaging.  I learned a few terms I usually just skip over:  breastworks, blockhouse public cattle, levies (as in recruits), sachems, and ambuscades.  As these words occur regularly in Desmarais’ text, I eventually felt compelled to look them up.  Some words were new to me altogether:  brass grasshopper, fire ship, pinnace, chevaux-de-frise, fascines, and babette battery.  The book has a short glossary.

Desmarais includes birth and death dates for many of the military and civilian figures mentioned.  This helped anchor the entries, as when a commentator is captioned in a documentary.  After a while I started noticing how old some of the people were when they died:  Major General John Burgoyne was 70; Governor George Clinton was 73; Major General Benjamin Lincoln was 77; Colonel Samuel Johnson was 83; and Lieutenant Jeremiah Vincent was 92.  I expected lifespans to be shorter during that period.  I also collected some memorable nuggets; for instance, I did not know that there was a giant chain strung across the Hudson River to keep the British out.

The Guide was thought-provoking for me.  There was a lot of burning that went on; how did they start the fires?  What was the purpose of scalping, and was it practiced outside North America?  The raids on settlements reminded me of accounts of the Rwandan conflicts in the 1990s; if CNN had been around to see the atrocities in America during the Revolutionary War, how would the war have been different?  At one point Desmarais refers to Lord Chatham’s addressing the House of Lords:  “…you cannot conquer America… if I were an American, as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I never would lay down my arms, never-never-never!”  I have to wonder if America was the Afghanistan of 1778.

Desmarais’ target readership includes Revolutionary War re-enactors, battlefield tourists, and historians, and the index is extensive.  I think this and other volumes in the series will be invaluable to patrons in academic and public libraries, and might find some readership in secondary schools too.

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