Book review

Sarah J. Purcell. Sealed With Blood – War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002)

After the Revolutionary War, commemorative events including parades, speeches, and celebrations turned individual private memories into public memories. This is the thesis of a book by Sarah J. Purcell entitled Sealed With Blood – War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America. A professor at Grinnell College, Purcell defines five distinct periods of public Revolutionary memory development starting during the war years and extending fifty years after the Rebel victory at Yorktown. For each period, Professor Purcell connects Revolutionary War commemorations with contemporary events and cites examples to illustrate her conclusions.

As the revolutionary conflict lasted eight years Purcell begins by describing the veneration of Richard Montgomery and Joseph Warren, two Patriot generals who early in the war heroically died in battle. Initially, Patriot societies were willing to venerate these heroes, but not the common experience of celebrating nationhood for the thirteen colonies. However as the war progressed, the building of a national image developed through commemoration public memory of martyrs, heroes and great battles. Two significant examples are the annual commemorative victory celebrations at Bennington, Vermont and Charleston, South Carolina.

Starting in the Confederation era, the focus of public celebrations changed from hero veneration and battle celebrations to honoring the sacrifices and successes of all Revolutionary War veterans. Veterans sought recognition for their service expanding commemorative events beyond military leaders and heroes. In the new nation, military gratitude led to consensus building among the diverse states and became a stabilizing force for the new nation. However by the close of the Confederation period in the late 1780’s, hints of fractious divisions emerged as groups used memories of the Revolutionary War to legitimize their own interests.

With the new Constitution and the nascent rise of party politics, the nature of public memory and commemorations changed. Political partisans interpreted their own versions of Revolutionary memories slanted to support their political views. For example, the Federalist and Democratic-republican parties each had their separate Evacuation Day celebrations in separate NYC locations. Hero worship became intertwined with partisan politics. Also during the 1790’s, individual Americans became more comfortable with sharing Revolutionary experiences.

The turn of the 19th Century ushered in a twenty year period in which collective memory was destabilized which contributed to national crises of expansion and new conflicts. With the increasing Patriot settlements west of the Appalachians, Revolutionary memories were invoked to construct new statehood and establish political leaders in the territories beyond the original thirteen colonies. Even within the original thirteen colonies, memories were subject to public argument. During a bitter race for the Massachusetts Governorship, the role and courage of General Israel Putnam during the Battle of Bunker Hill became an issue. Another example occurred in New York in which Tammany Hall politicians sought to honor the washed up Patriot POW bones in Wallabout Bay to generate political favor. By 1820, public gratitude for dead prisoners or great officers could no longer be taken for granted.

The fifty year anniversary of Yorktown signaled the final turn of public memory in Purcell’s study. This period is defined by Lafayette’s triumphal tour of the United States. Starting with a massive recreation of the Battle of Yorktown, the public celebrated the past to highlight a bright national future. In events like the Yorktown recreation, a commercialized democratic nation kept eyes on the past to inspire future progress. To further cement these memories , as veterans passed, the nation’s elite raised new public monuments such as a large obelisk on Bunker Hill.

I highly recommend Purcell’s book to better understand the impact of the memory of Revolutionary events impacted the development of the American national identity and the impact of various groups and political activity on the first fifty years of the nation. Purcell’s book is also instructive to better understand today’s relationships between America’s Middle Eastern wars, patriotism and public gratitude for military service.