Across the street from our house in Warwick, Rhode Island, beyond the backyard of our neighbors, an old cemetery was perched atop a small hill. The cemetery was surrounded by a low stone wall. A rusty iron gate opened into the cemetery on one side of the wall, but I never remember using the gate. We always just hopped the wall. The cemetery itself was strange and a little scary to the ten-year old I was at the time. I never dreamed of visiting it at night. Gravestones were scattered about, almost at random. Bramble and thorny vines seemed to overgrow the center of the cemetery so that only the outskirts were bare. Trees loomed over the entire space, which couldn’t have been more than half an acre.
The name of the cemetery was Carpenter-Wightman Cemetery. I didn’t learn that until decades alter. Walking around the cemetery was strange. The ground had a hollow thud to it as we stepped through it. Many of the graves were so weatherworn that it was impossible to read the inscriptions on them. But there were several graves that stood out. They weren’t larger than the other, or brighter. They all had a dull, aged look, but these specific gravestones had rusted bronze emblems buried into the earth before them. They were, I eventually learned, markers signifying that the person buried there was a veteran of the American Revolution.
I thought about this cemetery a lot as I read Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming, the first of a three-volume history of the American Revolution. I’ve read many histories of the Revolution, and Atkinson’s was vivid, especially where the battles were concerned. I find that he really tries to put you in the midst of the fighting to see what it was like rather than to glorify it. War is gruesome, and it was the description of one battle after another, that had my thoughts returning to the cemetery on the hill. For instance, Atkinson writes,
Sparks ignited the powder, first tearing off the rammer’s arm, then detonating with such violence that six men “were blown all to pieces by imprudence,” a passing mariner named Christopher Prince reported. “Their legs, arms, and bodies were all separated, so much so that we put them all on two handbarrows and carried them up to the Bowling Green, and dug a hoel and put their remains in it and covered them over.”
As a kid, walking through the cemetery, I didn’t think much about the history of it. Today, I get something of a shiver to think that I was standing in front of the graves of men, some of whom were fighting for the American cause, others simply because that’s what they thought they should do.
Aside from the battles, it was interesting to read so many descriptions from the diaries of people living in that period. Atkinson located so many diaries from the period that it seemed that everyone kept a diary. A single diary, of course, can give a skewed view of any situation, but in aggregate, I think they help to form a good picture.
Once again, history demonstrates that behaviors we think are new and strange, behaviors we sometimes don’t understand, are not new at all. They are just new to us. One example came early in the book, when discussing smallpox in Boston:
A report in late March noted that thirty-eight smallpox patients were quarantined on a hospital scow in the Charles River, “some distance from the wharf.” Freeholders voted to continue a recent ban on inoculations; many now feared that it posed a greater risk of epidemic than natural infection.
How many people in that little cemetery, I wondered, were planted there because of smallpox?
One amusing line came from King George III, who supposedly,
once asserted that seven hours of sleep sufficed for a man, eight for a woman, and nine for a fool.
My favorite parts of the book, however, were not the pitched battled, but rather the descriptions of the people involved, be they ordinary citizens, just trying to make a living, or the extraordinary people whose names we know today. This book wasn’t among my favorite books on the Revolution, but every book serves a purpose. This one put me in mind of that cemetery from my youth. It also suggested further investigation of two other people I’ve often been curious about: King George III, and Henry Knox, the bookbinder-general.
In November, a massive 800-page biography of King George III is coming out, titled The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III by Andrew Roberts. It’s on my to-buy list. I also picked up Henry Knox’s Noble Train: The Story of a Boston Bookseller’s Heroic Expedition that Saved the American Revolution by William Hazelgrove. This is the great thing about the butterfly effect of reading. Even books that don’t completely wow me can still lead me in new and interesting directions.
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