My expectations for this book were high. H.W. Brands has written many solid history books and has a strong reputation. To promote this book, he made the rounds on a lot of the popular podcasts. The book, Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution, is appropriate for the zeitgeist of the current political moment. People talk about polarization in America and wonder, Could we have another civil war in this country? If so, what would it look like?
H.W. Brands has helped people understand that the “Civil War” from 1861 to 1865 was not the first one in the sense that the nation was divided militarily. Much like the Civil War between the Confederates and the Unionists, the American Revolution tore apart families and led to bloody battles between neighbors.
However, Brands’ book falls short in its exploration of the American Revolution as a civil war in the strict sense of brother taking up arms against brother. It is fine enough in its focus on key players of the American Revolution like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. In fact, I appreciate it as a good historic recap of the Revolutionary War that helped me learn more about Ben Franklin. But, it lacks the splash of its title, and over promised on the topic of the civil war.
Civil War Between the Franklins
The fallout between Ben Franklin and his son, William Franklin, is the book’s strongest exploration of how the Revolutionary War created divided loyalties. While Ben Franklin was an ardent patriot, his son, William Franklin, cast his lot with the British. In fact, William’s decision led to his removal as governor of New Jersey followed by his imprisonment in Connecticut, and eventual exile to England. At the end of the war, father and son attempted to reconcile. However, they were not able to do so and Ben Franklin cut his son out of his will.
Brands’ book fails to provide an in depth analysis of why the split occurred. While we learn about Franklin’s motives, William’s remain somewhat opaque. Brands muses that he was headstrong like his father and acted out of a mere sense of duty to his King. Perhaps this is the whole story. However, there are a lot of other Loyalists in the story. Brands makes little effort to fully analyze their motives.
This is the type of book and topic that warrants original research. Brands has not unearthed anything novel that can shine light on the Revolutionary War as a civil war. He merely sees the intriguing case of William and Ben Franklin and says, “See, this was actually a civil war.” Of course, it is helpful to know that not all colonial Americans wanted to take up arms against the British. But, why? What made them different? Couldn’t they see their rights being trampled on like the Sons of Liberty saw them?
Where was the “Civil War”?
I have recently done a three part podcast series on the Revolutionary War in the Carolinas. When I bought this book, my expectation was that the book would explore the battles that took place in South Carolina. In fact, South Carolina is arguably the epicenter of the civil war. The battles in South Carolina pitted neighbor against neighbor in some of the bloodiest and cruelest fights of the war. Moreover, nearly one third of all battles in the American Revolution took place in South Carolina, and a significant number were strictly Loyalist Americans fighting against Patriot Americans.
For example, the Battle of Kings Mountain was a battle in which the “Over Mountain Men” attacked and destroyed nearly one thousand Provincial soldiers under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson. As a native of Scotland, Ferguson was the only non-American in the battle. The Battle of Musgrove’s Mill is another great example of Americans fighting Americans. However, the battles in South Carolina get maybe one page of coverage. If the author really wanted to dive into the civil war aspect of the American Revolution, the war in the Carolinas should have been the bulk of the book.
While the book does not have any original research, Brands has some good stories. The story of Grace Galloway is obscure, but interesting. Her Loyalist husband, Joseph, left her in Philadelphia after the British evacuated the city in 1778. Joseph took off with their daughter to New York. Grace stuck around to try to hold on to the families’ house. The reader feels deep sympathy for her and her plight. Brands paints her husband in a negative light. Meanwhile, Grace is strong willed and ultimately remains loyal not to her husband but to the monarch. In the end, she pays a heavy price for it.
Another story involves that of a slave who takes up arms for the American cause. This is the story of Jeffrey Brace, who fought bravely for American independence. One would think that Brace would have fought for the British to escape slavery. Thus, the reader is left scratching his head and wondering why Brace didn’t desert the American cause when given the chance. Furthermore, Brace was set free after the war. Brands does not fill in any of the macro details. For example, was this typical? What was the total number of manumitted slaves? Leaving out these details and other relevant statistics is an unfortunate omission.
Thomas Hutchinson also plays a prominent role in the early part of the book. As a native of Massachusetts, Hutchinson’s loyalty demonstrates the way in which many Americans remained loyal. Additionally, Brands dedicates a portion of the book to Benedict Arnold’s treason. However, there is hardly a reference to his taking up arms and fighting in Virginia.
What is this book about?
Sections of the book are dedicated to showing how the war forced people to pick sides. However, most of the book is about George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. At the end of the book, Brands discusses the Newburgh Conspiracy. This incident was a near mutiny that occurred in March 1783. George Washington singlehandedly put down a simmering rebellion of Continental officers. He did this with the force of his own leadership. However, Brands never ties the would-be conspirators to anything having to do with the civil war or the motivation of other Loyalists. For example, did the conspirators feel the way that Benedict Arnold felt? What made them similar or different?
Overall, if you are looking for a solid book to refresh your knowledge on the particulars of the American Revolution, then go ahead and read Our First Civil War. But, if you are really looking to dive deep into the “civil war” aspect of the conflict, then I am sorry to say that Our First Civil War comes up short. Will you learn some interesting history? Undoubtedly. However, you will not learn anything about the Loyalists that did the heavy fighting in places like South Carolina. You will not get a full analysis of how and why people fought on one side and then switched to another. It is great that Brands highlights the divisiveness of the conflict. Nevertheless, there is a discrepancy between what the book promises in its title and ultimately delivers in its content.