Thursday, October 23, 2008

Guest Blogger: Suzanne Adair

The South's Other War

You've seen the bumper stickers and T-shirts:

"The South Shall Rise Again!"
"Forget, hell!"
"Dern tootin' I'm a rebel!"

Obviously we're talking about the Civil War — for many people, the only war of significance in the South. From school history classes, most Americans have received the impression that the Civil War was fought almost exclusively in the South, while the North claims the Revolutionary War. Yorktown, Virginia gets passing mention in history texts as the place where General Cornwallis surrendered during the Revolutionary War. Most people forget that North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia were part of the original thirteen colonies. The fact that Florida was strategically important for King George III is almost unknown.

St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest city in the United States. It was settled by Spaniards in the sixteenth century, decades before the English founded Jamestown. The Spaniards who lived in St. Augustine weren't weenies. They endured hurricanes, epidemics, famines, droughts, and attacks from the French, the British, and local Indians. They reluctantly handed over St. Augustine to the British after the Seven Years War because they'd sided with France. During the Revolutionary War, St. Augustine belonged to the British. In fact, the British also had strategic bases in Pensacola, Florida and Mobile, Alabama. But do any of those facts make it into the average American's history text?

As a kid growing up in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, these omissions annoyed me to the point where I resolved to find a way to put Florida on the map historically for the general public. I wanted to show the importance of Florida, thought of as a Southern state, before the time of railroad tycoons Flagler and Plant, before the Civil War. Florida, important in the war that's so often attributed to the North, the Revolutionary War. That opportunity arrived with my first published novel, Paper Woman. The Florida Historical Society awarded me the Patrick D. Smith Literature Award for it.

In my subsequent novels, including the recently released Camp Follower, I continued to explore the South in the Revolutionary War. (Dr. Christine Swager, who also writes fiction about the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War, calls it, "Stamping out the frontiers of ignorance.") Major, decisive battles occurred in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The South is where the British strategy to subdue the colonial insurrection finally collapsed. Most historians now believe that more battles were fought in South Carolina than in New York. But almost none of that information makes it into history texts. So I keep writing, and I wonder why the South gets gypped for recognition when it comes to the Revolutionary War.

From the extensive research I've conducted for my own series, I've derived theories, of course, but I'm a novelist, so I leave those complex social and political elements to history scholars. However, voices from the South are often heard with more skepticism than those from other regions. Southerners have deep roots in folklore. Sometimes, we embrace folklore so well that we fail to distinguish it from fact. When that happens, we shoot our own credibility in the foot.

This summer, I received email from a columnist (I'll call him "Jimmy Olsen," for the cub reporter in "Superman") from a small Georgia paper. Mr. Olsen was writing a piece about how the South's contribution during the Revolutionary War has been downplayed, and he wanted feedback from me, a novelist who writes about the South in the war, to substantiate his views. Huzzah! With all my traveling, by the time I got back to him, he'd already published his piece. However he said the publisher would be delighted to print my response to his piece as a letter to the editor. I asked him to email me his original article.

When I read it, I cringed. Not only had Jimmy Olsen gotten facts incorrect about the Revolutionary War in the South, he'd accepted as fact tales of Southern folklore. I'm sure he meant well, but the bottom line was that we Southerners had shot ourselves in the foot. Again. Why should anyone bother to take the South's claims of significance in the Revolutionary War seriously when Southerners cannot even get their facts straight and believe in myths and boogey monsters of the war?

My publisher suggested that I submit a letter that supported Jimmy Olsen's overall premise and gently corrected his mistakes. I did so. The paper never published my letter. Did I irritate them? Embarrass them? I certainly hope I did. Either way, it appears that they dropped the topic. What's more disturbing is that Mr. Olsen told me he also teaches high school. That means he's perpetrating factual errors upon subsequent generations.

More than 225 years ago, Southerners fought hundreds of crucial Revolutionary War battles within the Southern colonies. Today, Southerners are fighting ignorance about their own history. This ignorance is perpetrated in a vicious cycle from school texts to schoolteachers. Even Hollywood doesn't get the story right; "The Patriot," released in 2000, purported to show facts of the war in the South but only reinforced the folklore.

The best way off this rat wheel is to explore the history for yourself. For starters, here are some well-written sources:

A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens, Dr. Larry Babits
The King's Ranger, Dr. Ed Cashin
Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, Dan Morrill
Journal of a Lady of Quality, Janet Schaw
Brutal Virtue: The Myth and Reality of Banastre Tarleton, Dr. Tony Scotti
The Oldest City: St. Augustine, Saga of Survival, Jean Parker Waterbury, ed.
The Journal of Don Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, 1780 – 1783, Francisco Morales PadrĂ³n, ed.

Have fun!

Suzanne Adair won the Patrick D. Smith Literature Award from the Florida Historical Society for Paper Woman, the first novel of her mystery and suspense series. The Blacksmith's Daughter and Camp Follower continue her fictional ventures into the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War. For more information, visit


Mary Buckham :-) said...

Suzanne ~~

It's no wonder your historical mysteries are such a delight to read! Thank you for some thought provoking insights into regional fact vs fiction.

All the best with CAMP FOLLOWER and your series!

Suzanne Adair said...

Hi Mary! Yes, it's easy to confuse fact with fiction when it comes to regional stories -- and the South isn't the only area where this happens. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, and I appreciate the kudos on my fiction. Suzanne

Vicki Lane said...

I confess to being woefully ignorant of the Revolutionary War era, especially in the South, and look forward to correcting that by reading your books!

Suzanne Adair said...

Vicki, most of us have had to piece together the contribution of the Southern colonies from the scraps of stories we were told in school. When we finally learn the importance of the South in the war, it boggles the mind. I try to write novels that act as a catalyst, get readers interested in researching on their own. Thanks for commenting! Suzanne

Rhonda Lane said...

I have a theory that may be off-the-wall - US history was written by Yankees, like some tweedy historian scholars from Harvard or Yale.

But then, that would be playing into another set of stereotypes. :)

Keep up the good work in "keeping' it real," AmRev-style.

Suzanne Adair said...

Hi Rhonda, a version of the "US history was written by Yankees" theory has support among some scholars. As you can imagine, it's a charged topic. :-) Thanks for your post -- and for the kudos on my writing. Suzanne