Just as errors and bias are rampant in the news we consume today, Revolutionary War memoirs, diaries and other primary sources contain definite biases and errors. An important task for any historian is to thoroughly evaluate the context, veracity and biases of the primary sources they cite. Just because a description of events is contained in a primary source does not make it an accurate depiction of what actually happened. Many primary sources contain errors in fact or mislead readers for political or personal reasons.
In reviewing Revolutionary War primary sources, it is especially critical to obtain primary sources from all perspectives including Native American, Patriot (Whig), Loyalist (Tory), British, Hessian, Canadian and other participant groups. Too often Revolutionary accounts are written only from a “Patriot” point of view and thereby don’t paint an accurate picture of historical events and personalities.
An example of effectively evaluating a Revolutionary War source document is the introduction by David Swain to a reprint of the Thomas Dring’s memoir entitled Recollections of Life on the Prison Ship Jersey.¹ In 1782, the British captured an American privateer ship and sent Thomas Dring, an officer on this ship, to the infamous prison ship Jersey in Wallabout Bay, New York City. By all accounts, the American prisoners on the hulk Jersey greatly suffered from overcrowding, bad food, sickness, exposure, poor clothing and as a result many thousands died.
To best understand Dring’s memoir which was penned over 40 years after the war, Swain critically investigated five questions:
- Does Dring’s views represent reality?
- How did Jersey conditions compare with other American and British prisons?
- Did Jersey conditions violate rules of war?
- Did Patriot leaders exacerbate the prisoners’ suffering by not exchanging them for British POW’s?
- Who to blame? Were the people cited by Dring to blame?
With answers to these questions, the reader is able to read and better understand the historical context of the memoir as well as to assess the truthfulness and the biases of the author.
An example of less effectively evaluating a primary source document is Robert P. Watson’s references to Dring’s memoirs in the book The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution.² Uncritically, Watson cities Dring without considering the questions posed by Swain. This leads to errors of interpretation such as failing to mention that the conditions on the Jersey were better during the time of Dring’s incarceration than other times and that the Patriots also employed brutal prison conditions including operating their own prison hulks and incarcerating Loyalists in a deadly inhospitable Connecticut mine. In addition, errors of fact are perpetuated as Watson repeats Dring’s reporting that his imprisonment lasted for five months versus the two months supported by prisoner logs and other contemporaneous sources. Lastly, Watson does not cite non-prisoner primary sources and does not fully consider the British or Hessian point of view.
Key questions to ask when evaluating and interpreting a primary source include:
- Is the source accurate? Has the document been changed over the years? Are there interpretation alternatives and uncertainties?
- Was the document prepared contemporaneous with the events being described or many years later?
- What purpose of the document and how does that change the interpretation?
- Does the author have an “axe to grind”? What are their motivations?
- Do other documents corroborate the source?
- How do these accounts compare to the source? Have all the relevant parties and points of view been considered?
Just as we don’t automatically assume that everything we read today is true, Revolutionary War researchers should read all primary sources with a skeptical eye and thoroughly evaluate the primary source before incorporating content in their research projects.