A Book Review
Thacher, James. Military Journal of the American Revolution: From the Commencement to the Disbanding of the American Army : Comprising a Detailed Account of the Principal Events and Battles of the Revolution, with Their Exact Dates, and a Biographical Sketch of the Most Prominent Generals. Gansevoort, N.Y.: Corner House Historical Publications, 1998.
Revolutionary War diaries tend to focus on the notable aspects of the author’s military service and generally cover a short period of the eight-year war. While James Thacher provides selective light on his Revolutionary service, the most interesting aspects of his diary are his depictions of notable military life events, insights into the character of the Revolutionary leaders and a broad sweeping view of the entire war and its major military campaigns and battles.
Sounding a bit odd to the modern ear, Thacher’s nomenclature immediately catches the reader’s attention. The British Army is referred to as the Royalist Army, likely as many Rebels still identified themselves as British by background and were fighting the King and his policies. Likewise, Loyalists are referred to as Tories and Rebels as Whigs, the nomenclature for two opposing political factions in Britain. While some modern day writers have returned to the Tory and Whig labels, most Revolutionary War accounts use Loyalists and Patriots (Rebels).
A pre-conflict Massachusetts doctor, Thacher served initially as a hospital and later as a regimental surgeon from 1775 to 1783. In addition to being present during the siege of Boston in 1775 and the defense of Fort Ticonderoga in 1776, Thacher witnessed the two largest British Army surrenders at Saratoga and at Yorktown. Describing the aftermath of the Saratoga battles, Thacher extolled the competence of the British medical officers while denigrating the competence of the Hessian surgeons. And at Yorktown, he postulates that in desperation, the British sent African Americans suffering from smallpox to infect the French and Rebel forces. Also, he describes Virginia planters present at the Yorktown surrender ceremony seeking a return of their slaves from British forces.
In between these two surrenders, Thacher spent most of his time at West Point and the Hudson Highlands. He provides an excellent first hand account of the “cowboys” and “skinners” who were Loyalist and Rebel paramilitaries, who operated on the fringes of military and civilian control in the neutral ground between the British in New York and the rebels outside of the city. Also while at West Point, he witnessed the execution of British Maj. John Andre, corroborating other primary sources on the compassion and respect Rebel officers exhibited for Maj. Andre and his fate.
In addition to providing an interesting overview of military operations, Thacher offers insightful vignettes on Revolutionary society. For example, specie deprived New Englanders quickly changed their views toward the erstwhile hated French as a result of the French Army paying for food and supplies in hard currency. Being outgoing and engaging, he describes many celebratory dinners and parties. Clearly, Thacher obtained significant materials for his diary from these social engagements.
Early in the war, Thacher’s diary concentrates on the major military campaigns and battles, and in the later years portrays the details of military camp life. Interestingly, Thacher does not focus on describing the operation and practices of military hospitals and battlefield medicine. While one would expect poignant stories about soldiers and their injuries, Thacher’s most emotive stories are about soldiers facing execution. In detail, he illustrates the execution scenes and notes that often at the last minute the commander-in-chief pardoned the condemned offenders. Another series of camp stories revolved around duels between officers. To protect the identity of the participants, Thacher identified the officers by rank and one initial. Certainly, fellow officers knew the duelers’ identities, but this euphemism protected the protagonists from prosecution as both Continental Army regulations and state law forbade dueling. Lastly, Thacher takes great care to point out desertions on both sides. Notably, French forces under Rochambeau also suffered from desertions and routinely executed recaptured soldiers.
Given that Thacher wrote several books on the practice of medicine, one would have thought he would have spent more time on treatment of injuries and illness. Only from time to time, he interjects a story about a specific patient. One exception is his view of and his participation in small pox inoculation. He touts of the inoculation efficacy of one group of 500 participants in which only four men died. Unfortunately he reports that other inoculation populations did not fare so well.
Although Thacher explains his desires for additional responsibilities and to be a regimental (versus a hospital) surgeon, missing from the diary are accounts of his successes and accomplishments. In fact, the diary contains extensive detail on one highly embarrassing episode. Apparently after a night of boastfulness, Thacher and a fellow surgeon engaged in a musket-shooting contest. As it turned out, neither could hit the target. Unknowingly and out of sight, Brig. Gen. John Glover’s horse was within gunshot and accidentally killed. More importantly the errant musket shot came within a couple of feet of striking a soldier tending the general’s horse. The two surgeons paid Glover $500 in restitution and they never again fired muskets.
Thacher had the opportunity to meet, socialize and work with many senior generals. At the end of the book and uncharacteristic of a diary, Thacher writes brief biographies of several of these senior military officers. While generally tempting to overlook appendices, these sketches offer discerning insights into the senior officers’ personalities and characters. For example, he deduces that Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam “displayed no less urbanity at the head of the table than bravery at the head of his division.” And he concludes his biographical sketch of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee with the following Thomas Paine quote, “Above all monarchs, below all scum.”
Successful as a literary volume in his lifetime, Thacher penned editions in 1823 and 1827 and after his death publishers reprinted the diary numerous times later in the 19th Century. Readers of the post-Thacher editions should be aware that editors altered Thacher’s content, sometimes inappropriately such as the 1862 version, which includes the story of Molly Pitcher.
Even though Thacher provides an excellent overview of the war, his diary is not a scholarly composition. He does not cite sources, occasionally is ambiguous such as the name derivation of Fort Putnam at West Point (Israel or Rufus Putnam) and errantly reports events such as Lord Sterling’s death at the Battle of Connecticut Farms. Even with these limitations, I highly recommend those interested in first hand accounts of both general officers and an officer’s ordinary camp life read Thacher’s diary. He provides a cogent overview of the war and provides a good sense for what it was like to serve as a Continental Army officer.