Reporting The Revolutionary War: Before It Was History It Was News

February 3, 2018 talk before the Pennsylvania Society of the Some of the American Revolution

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Pennsylvania Society of the Sons of the American Revolution

Inn at Reading

            Good afternoon. First I want to thank the Sons of the American Revolution for inviting me to give a talk on our sacred American history. And, I want to thank everyone here for helping to preserve our history, a subject that is being lost in America these days.

I’ve been asked to talk about the book REPORTING THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR: BEFORE IT WAS HISTORY, IT WAS NEWS. I had the honor to write the chapter on Brandywine and Germantown for the book. And I’m proud to say recently the book was listed as one of the top100 books ever written on the American Revolution.

This book should be used in our nation’s schools. I’ve talked to educators and they all agree there is more American history contained in this book than is being taught in a student’s life time about the founding of our nation.

The book is unique in the way it was prepared and written and originated with Todd Andrik. Todd was one of the authors but more importantly he has the largest collection of original newspapers from the War of Independence. Todd’s idea was to send copies of the articles pertaining to a subject to authors and historians. The authors were to write about what is correct and wrong in the original articles and the importance of the event to American history.

What a great idea for a book and presentation. My association began with an E-mail in September 2011 from Todd. This is from the beginning of the original E-mail:

I hope you’ll take three minutes to read my email as I’ve assembled an all-star cast of historians for my book project and am anxious to add you for the Brandywine and Germantown.

My name is Todd Andrlik and I’m writing a book, tentatively titled Reporting the American Revolution (Sourcebooks, 2012), that tells the story of the Revolution via a compilation of 200+ original newspapers, printed 1763 to 1783, which I’ve collected and in many cases restored from near loss.  I work with the Library of Congress and other institutions to help build their collections of historic newspapers and have also built one of the most significant private collections, which I’m making public with this book.

Wow! What an honor! Of course it took me about a split second to say yes I’ll take part.

Todd enlisted 37 historians for the project and more than 60 essays were written for the book to go with reproductions of original newspaper stories and reproductions of period illustrations. The book’s goal was to bring to life eighteenth-century newspapers in a firsthand account of American’s founding, distinct from the history we receive in high school and university texts. Never before has such a significant collection of American Revolution newspapers have been made available to the general public in such color and detail. Never before has access to such an archive been made so easy. And never before has this version of the American Revolution been told.

Todd accomplished this goal as the New York Revolutionary Roundtable announced that Reporting the Revolution the best book on the American Revolution in 2012. The Round Table said, “Seldom, if ever, have we welcomed a book with more power to carry us back to the days of 1776 with such compelling authenticity.

I had spent about six years researching and writing my book on the Battle of Brandywine. SEPTEMBER 11, 1777: WASHINGTON’S DEFEAT DOOMS PHILADELPHIA. It was the first in-depth look at the battle. The research took me to historical societies, libraries, private individuals, groups and a trip to London to the Public Records Office and British Army Museum.

Besides being given the opportunity to do some additional research on Brandywine and Germantown, I had a second reason for being thrilled about taking part in the project. In a prior life I was a newspaper reporter. I covered breaking news stories and legal proceedings for the most part. Did the newspapers of the 1700s cover the stories the same way I did in the 70s, that is 1970s and 80s?

I certainly hoped they did a better job than the news media of today.

Newspapers have been called the rough draft of history and the Reporting The Revolutionary War project was about seeing if some of those rough drafts were accurate.       For the colonists reading local newspapers such as the Boston Gazette and Pennsylvania Journal they received weekly updates on the war with Great Britain.

The newspapers were used to “fan the flames of Rebellion, igniting the ideas of patriotism and liberty.” In other words, they were used as propaganda tools to encourage American farmers and shop keepers to take up arms against the King. Of course the London Chronicle and other newspapers also did the same in England against those rebel rascals.

When you look at the history of newspapers and news organizations, you readily see that during the course of history they were used at times to promote a person’s view, political party or financial interest.

Maybe not much has changed over all of these years.

I especially like a report of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, Philadelphia, in June 1775 and the notation “A common propaganda tactic was to inflate the enemy’s numbers while deflating yours. This spirited writer overstates by a factor of two the number of regulars engaged, while indicating only a quarter of the actual colonial force.”

I know I learned a lot about the American Revolution and enjoyed the different writing styles and perspectives of the writers. The book begins with the “Cursed Stamp Act” and continues with the riots in Boston. As London newspapers reported:  the “mobs, violence and boycott, which forced resignations of stamp distributors, effectively preventing the enforcement of the Stamp Act and leading to its repeal.

            Not all of the violence came from the disagreement with Great Britain. The book has an interesting little article of a publisher who offended one of his readers. The publisher was confronted in the street and a pistol was fired before the publisher sought the shelter of a home.

The “Late Horrid Massacre” – The Boston Massacre – was also detailed as was the occupation of Boston. By the way, one of the historians concludes the Boston Massacre was a PR crisis with each side scrambling to control the news. Of course the Boston Tea Party is also reported. The Boston Tea Party didn’t ignite the revolution but the repressive acts imposed by Great Britain after the tea party did so.

As you can see the book goes step-by-step through the factors leading up to the revolution as well as the revolution itself. Was the shot heard around the world fired at the beginning of the Lexington and Concord engagements the first shot of the revolution?  Four months before there was an exchange of fire between the two armies in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and some believe that is where the revolution really began.

Of course we know not all inhabitants wanted freedom from Great Britain and the Quakers were opposed to fighting on either side. An article in the New England Chronicle was reported in connection with Common Sense statements made by Thomas Paine. The book essayist stated, “Some Americans disagreed with Paine. One religious group, the Quakers, argued against independence based on their pacifist tenets. Paine responded by appending an address to the Quarters to Common Sense that countered the points they had raised.”

I won’t review all of the engagements and events but some little known fascinating encounters, including the Battle of the Rice Boats, Sullivan Island and the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in the southern part of the colonies, are covered.

Now, as for my research on the newspapers reporting the battles of Brandywine and Germantown I would give the reporters a passing grade. There was some factual errors.

I’d received copies of the London Chronicle and New York Gazette. October 28, 1777, 17 days after the engagement an article appeared in the London Chronicle and had few details but overstated the casualties of both armies. The information came “by way of France.” The paper said Washington lost 2,000 – actual about 1,300 – and British at 700 to 800, closer to the 600 lost. Other newspaper reports said a fire destroyed Philadelphia when occupied, another misstatement. Later copies of British newspaper reprinted letters from members of the British army.

An article in the New York Gazette included a report from an American officer during the late afternoon of September 11. The report was overly optimistic and only reported on one section of the battle. Brandywine was an utter defeat for George Washington’s army.

The newspaper reports on Germantown are few in number and recount the loss. Washington admits defeat but he hails the valor shown by his troops. Fog and friendly fire were some of the issues at Germantown.

Benedict Arnold and the hanging of John Andre are covered as is the conclusion of the war with battles in the south and Yorktown and independence.

Included is a section on Washington’s farewell to his officers at the historic Fraunces Tavern in New York City. I had the honor of speaking on the Battle of Brandywine at the tavern. Very impressive place. CSPAN taped the talk and it is shown on television from time-to-time.

        The book concludes, “Newspapers were absolutely essential for Americans in their struggle for independence. The press played an important role during the Revolution by keeping Americans engaged in the war even when the fighting occurred far away,  Some writers used the newspapers to stir up people’s passions against  Britain, but the press served primarily to keep Americans informed about the progress of the fight for independence.

I believe our history is very important to us as a nation and I also feel that our history and the principles that founded our nation are being lost. I have read and heard about surveys where students and people on the street can’t identify presidents and historic documents. I remember one young person stating England won the American Civil War. For many students Vietnam is ancient history. I view this book, as my other historical works, as one way to keep the history alive. Just as you all do to keep history alive!

Thank you. Questions?