Desmarais, Norman. The Guide to the American Revolutionary War In Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina: Battles, Raids and Skirmishes. Ithaca: Busca, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-934934-05-0. 333 pages, Paperback. $29.95.
This is the fourth in a planned six volume comprehensive guide to the location of thousands of military actions of the American Revolution-from the great and well-known battles through the many intermediate and less well known engagements to the almost numberless obscure skirmishes, raids, ambushes and chance encounters that were little noted at the time and which today are virtually unknown, even to many professional historians.
This is a truly monumental undertaking. But it is an undertaking in which the author appears to have been successful.
Before proceeding further with this review, it is important to clarify what this work is intended to be and what it is not intended to be. It is not intended to be a definitive history of the Revolution or even of the actions that it describes-that would take a library. Nor is it intended to be a complete catalog of every instance in which shots were fired in anger-historical research is a living thing and documentary evidence for previously unrecognized encounters is constantly being added to our knowledge base. It is, rather, intended to be a guide to the location of known sites at which people fought and died during the struggle for our independence for the use of those who wish to visit them and stand on hallowed ground.
Desmarais's work has two distinct but interrelated parts-the book, and two web sites. They should be regarded as integral parts of the whole.
The paperback book contains verbal directions to hundreds of sites in the five states covered in this volume, followed by brief sketches of the actions (often a dozen or more) that took place at and in the vicinity of that location. Each state's section begins with a small map on which sites in that state are denoted. The text then addresses each site (as near as possible in order from one end of the state to the other) with a boxed description of the site and its location, followed by brief descriptions of the actions that took place at and near it, in chronological order. Because the maps are small and the sites are presented in roughly geographic order, it can be difficult on occasion to find a particular site or action on the map.
That is where the web sites come in.
The first web site is the publisher's web site (www.buscainc.com). As this review is written, the buscainc home page features Desmarais's book. Clicking on the title brings up a page with links to a 119 page bibliography, three appendices and a gallery of 192 color photos. (Similar information for earlier volumes in this series can be accessed by clicking on "Busca Publishing" in the left hand list, then clicking on the desired title in the web page that appears.)
The appendices are quite helpful in locating specific sites and actions.
Appendix 1 is an alphabetical list of the battles, actions and skirmishes included in the book. Looking for a particular battle or skirmish? You should be able to find it here.
Appendix 2 is a chronological list of the battles, actions and skirmishes. Interested in what happened in, say, June of 1779? Look here.
Appendix 3 lists battle sites grouped and keyed to major cities and other locations. This can be a major time saver to those planning a trip who would like to visit historic sites while they are in an area.
The second web site is http:// gaz.jrshelby.com/desmarais/. This is where to find detailed maps and driving directions. At the very top of the initial page, in small letters, is the heading GLOBAL GAZETTEER. Clicking on that calls up the Global Gazetteer of the American Revolution page. Clicking on "Zoom Maps" in the line of choices below the world map brings up a page with several choices such as Google Earth and Google Map. This reviewer chose Google Map, which called up a world map with an alphabetical list of locations on the right, under which, in most cases, are listed the actions associated with that site. Clicking on a location brings up a dialog box. Enter a starting location, click on "GO," and detailed driving instructions with a corresponding map pop up. By zooming in on a location, many helpful details such as street names, nearby landmarks, and even the names of businesses in the vicinity are revealed. This driving instruction/map feature can be a tremendous asset to travelers who do a little forward planning. By entering their hotel as the starting point, they can get all the information they need to find their way to battle sites in the vicinity.
This website is still evolving, so a couple of cautions are in order.
Not all of the locations listed in the book are listed in the website. This reviewer was unable to find maps for two of ten sites that he looked for in a sample test.
A number of the sites listed have the notation "incomplete." As this is written, they do not have actions associated with them. Hopefully, this situation will be remedied as time passes.
The information on landmarks and businesses in the vicinity that is shown on detail maps should be used with caution. Things change. Businesses come and go. Names change. And the maps are not always updated promptly to reflect these changes. For example, in one instance, a living history museum is listed under a name that it has not used in over twenty years.
Finally, there is no information about accessibility (or lack of accessibility) to sites. Two of the eight sites looked up by this reviewer are known to be in gated, controlled access, residential communities. There is nothing to indicate that on the maps or in the written material. This could lead to disappointment should someone come from some distance only to find that they cannot access a desired site when they get there.
To compile the listings of hundreds of battle sites and thousands of actions large and small, the author consulted a staggering number of sources. Many of these sources were, of necessity, secondary sources.
One group of secondary sources consists of compilations by well-known and highly respected writers such as Mark M. Boatner's Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Benson J. Lossing's 2 volume The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, and Howard H. Peckham's The Toll of Independence. These sources and others, which collect in one place information on many places and incidents of the Revolution were clearly indispensable to completing the present work in something under several lifetimes. The downside to this necessary work and time saver is that the information about specific actions is only as good as the information available to the original author at the time it was written.
Another group of secondary sources employed consists of a wide range of little known local histories written during the first part of the nineteenth century and around the period of the Centennial of the Revolution. This, in this reviewer's opinion, was an inspired decision. Many modern historians tend to disparage or disregard these works because they often use hyperbole in their descriptions of events and rarely include footnotes, endnotes or other references to primary sources or, indeed, to any sources for the information they convey. But most of these small works were written by people who knew and conversed with the people who were personally involved in the events that they describe. They are the recorded "oral history" of the time, which is in many cases the only recorded history of small, obscure yet deadly actions that occurred with regularity throughout the land, far from the sites of major actions. By delving into them, the author has rescued many such actions from obscurity and made them accessible to us.
Mr. Desmarais also used an impressive array of primary sources to validate and add detail to the information gleaned from secondary sources and to identify other actions that had not made it into those secondary sources. The journals and diaries of people like John Montresor, Archibald Robertson, John Peebles, John Graves Simcoe, Johann Ewald and many others, both famous and obscure, provided much interesting and valuable information. But he didn't stop with these published sources. He went on to consult the correspondence of many of the participants on both sides of the Revolution, whose letters and reports provide first-hand accounts of the events that won our independence.
Is The Guide to the American Revolutionary War In Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina: Battles, Raids and Skirmishes perfect? Of course not. No work that is as comprehensive, detailed and ambitious as this one is can possibly be. Some small actions on the periphery of larger actions are not covered. Such actions are constantly coming to light as researchers delve ever deeper into the history of the American Revolution, so any work such as this is bound to be, at least partially, outdated the moment it is published. Some of the descriptions of actions contain minor inaccuracies that probably stem from the secondary sources, published decades ago, from which they were drawn. More recent research, some as yet unpublished, has since added to our knowledge and cast new light on them. And there are some copy editing errors such as a report of an officer receiving an order two years after his indicated date of death, and some instances of lines of text being duplicated, which may cause the careful reader to pause for a moment.
But these deficiencies are trivial when compared to the immense value of the comprehensive and voluminous information contained between the covers of the book and in its companion web sites.
The Guide to the American Revolutionary War In Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina: Battles, Raids and Skirmishes is an important work that deserves a place in the library of anyone who has an interest in the history of the American Revolution and who might wish to visit some of the sites of actions which contributed to the winning of American independence.
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