10 facts you probably don't know about early America

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 2:01 PM

Every year the flags are a-waving and the fireworks are a-popping come the Fourth of July — our nation’s birthday.

Somewhere between the parades and barbecues, we may pause to reflect on the events surrounding the founding of our country, from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the fighting of the redcoats.

But how well do we really know this story? As Independence Day approaches, we turned to a local expert on the Revolutionary War to find out a few of the lesser-known details of this historic conflict.

Vikki J. Vickers of Weber State University says historians are always unearthing more information about the war that shaped our nation’s destiny, as well as some of the myths that surround it.

“It’s like all of U.S. history, there are things that are myths and there are things that are facts and it’s difficult separating the two sometimes,” says the associate professor of history who admits she’s been fascinated by the Revolutionary War since she first saw a film about “Johnny Tremain” in the fifth grade.

Here are Vickers’ 10 Things You May Not Know About the American Revolution:

1. Our nation’s birthday is July 2. The professor likes to tell her history students that “we’re two days late” with our July 4 celebrations. The vote for independence was actually taken by the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776 — but we celebrate July 4 because that’s the day the Founding Fathers approved the Declaration of Independence.

And what about those paintings and drawings depicting the famous gentlemen gathered around a table to sign the revolutionary document? Didn’t happen, Vickers says. Only two persons signed the declaration on July 4, one of them being John Hancock, penning his grand signature. The others didn’t sign until the fall of 1776 and that happened on a piecemeal basis, as members of the congress came and went.

“It was an image meant to capture this historic moment — it just wasn’t a accurate image,” she says of the various artists’ renderings.

2. Our country’s first best-seller was “Common Sense.” The “Common Sense” pamphlet spread like wildfire across America after its publication in January 1776, Vickers says. In its pages, author Thomas Paine argued that “independence is the only way for America ... we are better off as our own country,” she says.

One in three colonists either read or heard about the pamphlet, and its message resonated, Vickers says. The groundswell of popular opinion for independence gave the Continental Congress — then debating America’s future — the mandate to move forward, says the professor, author of a 2005 biography about Paine, “My Pen and My Soul Have Ever Gone Together: Thomas Paine and The American Revolution” (Routledge).

It’s also ironic, Vickers says, that the very Paine arguing for independence was an Englishman who didn’t move to the colonies until he was 37 years old.

3. Americans rebelled because they lacked a voice and vote. Taxes get the rap, but Vickers says the real issue behind the American Revolution was power and rights. The people living in the colonies weren’t opposed to paying taxes and did so in their local communities, where they had a voice and vote in choosing officials who made the laws.

But the colonists objected when Great Britain tried to impose taxes because the Americans had no representation in Parliament where the decisions were made.

4. Our best military commander was Gen. Nathanael Greene. George Washington is often revered as not only our first president but also a great Revolutionary War general; Vickers says the second accolade is not deserved.

“Washington was a great leader of men, but he wasn’t a winning general — that wasn’t his claim to fame,” says the professor, adding that Washington’s strategy was to avoid engaging the British troops whenever possible.

The war’s most notable commander was Gen. Nathanael Greene, leader of the Southern Army, whose strategy in taking the South back from the British paved the way to the ending of the war at Yorktown, Vickers says.

5. Our early army was integrated. African-American soldiers were found in nearly every unit of the Continental Army, Vickers says; some were free men who volunteered, some were slaves who had run away, a small number were serving as substitutes for men who didn’t want to fight.

“On top of that, you have a lot of Irish, a lot of Germans in the Army — it was really an American kind of army,” Vickers says.

Even more African-Americans joined up to fight with the British Army, Vickers adds, because the British used slavery to their advantage and promised blacks freedom outright.

6. The worst winter of the American Revolution was at Morristown, N.J. It wasn’t Valley Forge — it was actually two years later, Vickers says. The snowfall and weather conditions at Morristown during 1779-1780 were much worse; however, fewer soldiers died there than at Valley Forge.

“They had learned from Valley Forge how to build camps to survive a winter encampment,” the professor says, including the construction of log huts.

Following the horrible Morristown winter, many soldiers decided not to continue fighting and simply left the Army, Vickers says. Just as Washington had to rebuild the Army after so many deaths at Valley Forge, he had to rebuild again after a different type of troop loss at Morristown.

7. George Washington did not pray at Valley Forge. The image of Washington kneeling in prayer, in the snow, at Valley Forge is a popular one in paintings — including a famous one by Utah artist Arnold Friberg — but Vickers says there is no evidence such an event ever happened.

The incident was related by early Washington biographer Parson Weems, the same author who also told the now discredited story of a young George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, Vickers says. Weems’ 1800 book was full of tales that attempted to elevate our nation’s first president to a kind of “deified status,” she says.

Such a prayer at Valley Forge would have been totally out of character for Washington, who scholars say was not a religious man and not devout in any sense of the word, Vickers says.

8. Thousands of wives, children and female workers followed the American soldiers. During the American Revolution, the folks tagging along with the Army were rarely prostitutes, as is often thought, Vickers says. American soldiers simply didn’t have any money for that type of off-hours activity.

But the Continental Army did have thousands of wives, children and female workers in tow to take care of the soldiers’ everyday needs.

Washington didn’t care for this contingent, but he told the women that if they were going to be there, they had to clean, cook, sew or perform some other service for the soldiers, Vickers says. Although this practice of women accompanying the troops was common in warfare of that era, it didn’t continue after the American Revolution, the professor says.

9. America had only a fledgling navy. America’s navy was made up of only about 50 ships, most of which were destroyed or captured by Great Britain by the end of the war, Vickers says. The British, in contrast, had the largest navy in the world.

During the Revolution, the bulk of America’s fighting on the high seas was carried out by privateers: “These are just merchant seaman, American civilians, licensed to go out and target British ships,” Vickers says. “They were pretty effective — they did a good job,” she adds, because they captured or destroyed around 600 British vessels.

America’s naval prowess doesn’t really evolve until the 1880s, the professor adds, explaining that the new nation was more concerned about internal issues, such as American Indian affairs, rather than protecting its coastline from outward invasions.

10. The French were heavily involved in the final battle of the Revolutionary War. The final battle of the Revolutionary War took place at Yorktown, Va. — with more French troops involved in the 1781 action than Americans, Vickers says.

The number of American and French regulars fighting against the British was about even, Vickers says, but when the forces in the French navy are factored in — and their sea work was key to securing the victory — the number of Frenchmen at Yorktown was double the number of Americans.

“It’s our great victory, it’s our great ending of the war,” Vickers says, but, “I think the French should get their credit for that. ... We acknowledge the French contribution in general to the Revolution, but I don’t think we think about that decisive battle and how critical that battle really was.”

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