The principle basis for insightful and groundbreaking historical inquiry emanates from interpreting copious primary sources supported by facts from well-researched secondary sources. However, just finding and quoting historical sources is not enough for researchers. History writers should thoroughly skeptically understand the source’s veracity, biases and motivations.
In particular, special care is required when interpreting American Revolutionary War sources written in the 19th century, as they can be fraught with errors and biases. During this period, many historians exhibited a bias by seeking to establish a national founding myth by glorifying revolutionary events and leaders. Further, in many cases, participant accounts were accepted on face value without skepticism, which introduced unreported prejudice and event distortion into historical accounts. Lastly, the early historians did not have physical access to pertinent and geographically dispersed primary sources and people creating unintentional gaps and omissions.
Importantly, for Revolutionary War historians today, the uncritical use of 19th century sources can introduce errors into their writing. The views of former British Lt. Col. Charles Lee on the character and military capabilities of Massachusetts’s militia Gen. Artemas Ward are good examples of research errors and uncritical interpretations by highly accomplished historians who utilized 19th century sources.
In 1775, as the Continental Congress debated the formation of the Continental Army, Lee lobbied Congress to be appointed commander-in-chief of the Patriot forces. Although he possessed extensive British Army and mercenary experience in both European and North American conflicts, Lee quickly realized that the rebels sought a native to lead its army. Lee would have to serve further down the ranks. On June 17, 1775, the Continental Congress commissioned Artemas Ward as the first major general serving under George Washington and Charles Lee the second major general.
All historical sources agree that Lee was piqued by having to serve under Ward, a military leader he regarded with vastly less capabilities. However, the sources dramatically differ on how Lee expressed his frustration, which provide illuminating examples of how to evaluate and check source validity. In David McCullough’s widely acclaimed 1776, McCullough states:
“General Lee privately called him a “fat, old church warden” with “no acquaintance whatever with military affairs”[i]
As we shall see, Lee’s views were not private and there is no evidence that he uttered the last portion of the quote. As reference, historian McCullough cites a secondary source, Christopher Hibbert’s Rebels and Redcoats for the Lee quotation. However, a review of Hibbert’s book indicates a somewhat different characterization of Lee’s words and Hibbert provides no source reference to check his research.[ii]
McCullough is not alone in miss-interpreting the Lee/Ward historical record. In 1860, George Moore became the first historian to misquote Lee in his expose of a previously secret document purporting to indicate treasonous activity during Lee’s brief captivity.[iii] Several eminent historians followed with similar mistakes including Don Higginbotham[iv], James Kirby Martin[v] and Christian McBurney[vi]. Edward S. Delaplaine even further deviates from the historical record by quoting Lee in 21st century language by characterizing Ward as a “joke of a warrior”.[vii]
So how did these errors occur?
Here is the historical record that can be verified. In a July 23, 1775 letter to John Thomas, another Continental Army general who also thought he was inappropriately snubbed by receiving a lower rank, Lee wrote:
“I ought to consider at least the preferment given to General Ward over me as the highest indignity.”[viii]
A year later and after Ward resigned, when the Continental Congress debated commissioning additional generals, Lee wrote to Congressman Richard Henry Lee, stating:
“Did I not consent to serve under an old church-warden”[ix]
That is all that Lee, who was only four years younger than Ward wrote down for posterity about his feelings with respect to Ward. In the 19th century, historians began to misconstrue the historical record. In an 1838 tract entitled Memoir of General Lee, the British Sir Henry Bunbury, characterized Ward as,
“a fat old gentleman, who had been a popular church-warden, but had no acquaintance whatever with military affairs.”[x]
Bunbury’s short memoir is contained in a four-volume set of Lee’s papers and correspondence and in another Bunbury publication. In addition to not finding the above quote in Lee’s correspondence or another authoritative source, there is further doubt as to the veracity of this language as Lee knew that Ward had “acquaintance with military affairs” as he ably served as an infantry commander during he French and Indian War. In the British doomed British attack on Fort Ticonderoga in 1758, both Ward and Lee led company-sized units in the bloody assault. And writing home, both had the same views on the poor military judgments of British commander-in-chief James Abercromby.[xi]
As to Bunbury’s motivations and biases, there were family and British society connections with Charles Lee. Lee’s mother was first cousin of Bunbury’s father. In general, Bunbury’s account is favorable to Lee and dismissive of many rebel leaders. Demonstrating his biases, Bunbury states,
“This poor man (Ward) was not long in discovering his own incapacity and he resigned his commission…”[xii]
More to the truth, Ward had the confidence of many Patriot leaders but chronically suffered from what in the 18th century was called “calculus”, which is likely either gall, bladder or kidney stones making military campaigning difficult. With a better understanding of the author’s motives, an assessment of the prior relationships between the subjects and not finding other verifiable conversations, Bunbury should not have deviated from Lee’s own words. This is the source of the errors made by later historians.
Although these errors are perpetuated in books written up to and including the last five years, two new Lee biographies get it right. While Lee biographers Dominick Mazzagetti[xiii] and Phillip Papas[xiv] disagree on some aspects of Lee’s military career, both authors correctly cite Lee’s appraisal of Ward.
Historians’ depictions of Lee’s comments on Artemas Ward’s fitness to be a military commander are good examples of why it is important to trace information back to primary sources and not rely on secondary sources. Further, special care should be given to reading of 19th Century sources and this skepticism also should extend to all sources. Most importantly, authors need to thoroughly and critically evaluate primary sources to gain a proper interpretation. And finally, readers should question even the most eminent historians as from time to time the complexities of research do introduce errors.
[i] David G. McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 52.
[ii] Christopher Hibbert, Redcoats and Rebels – The War for America 1770-1781 (London: Folio Society, 2006), 74. Although no notes are contained in any published edition, the author indicates that annotative source notes are available in select libraries.
[iii] George H Moore, The Treason of Major-General Charles Lee (New York: Charles Scribner, 1860), 27.
[iv] Don Higginbotham, The War of American Independence Military Attitudes, Policies and Practice, 1763-1789 (Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1971), 89.
[v] James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender, A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789, The American History Series (Arlington Heights, Ill: H. Davidson, 1982), 34.
[vi] Christian M. McBurney, Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee & Richard Prescott (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2014), 6.
[vii] Edward S. Delaplaine, “The Life of Thomas Johnson,” Maryland Historical Magazine XV (1920): 270.
[viii] Charles Lee, The Lee Papers, ed. Henry Edward Bunbury (New York: New York Historical Society, 1872), Vol. I, 197-8.
[ix] Lee, Vol. II,146.
[x] Bunbury, Sir Henry, Memoir of Charles Lee, Major General in the Service of the US of America reprinted from the Life and Correspondence of Sir Thomas Hammer, London 1838 and printed in Lee, Vol. III,177-8.
[xi] Lee, I,8. Lee called Abercromby “booby in chief” and Ward said that the army “shamefully retreated” in his diary quoted in Martyn, Charles. The Life of Artemas Ward, the First Commander-in-Chief of the American Revolution. Kennikat American Bicentennial Series. Port Washington, N.Y: Kennikat Press, 1970, 25.
[xii] Sir Henry Bunbury, The Correspondence of Sir Thomas Hanmer, Memoir of Charles Lee (London: Edward Moxen, 1838), 461.
[xiii] Dominick A Mazzagetti, Charles Lee: Self before Country, 2013, 80, http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=1562499.
[xiv] Phillip Papas, Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 115.