Luther Spoehr: Review of Robert Sullivan's "My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

tags: American Revolution, book reviews, Luther Spoehr, My American Revolution, Robert Sullivan

Luther Spoehr is a book editor for HNN and senior lecturer at Brown University.

As a native Pennsylvanian, I’m always glad to see the Middle Atlantic states get their historical due, even when, as in this case, New York and New Jersey get more attention than the Keystone State, and even when the presentation is far from conventional. Robert Sullivan, whose articles have appeared in the New Yorker and elsewhere and who has written books on topics ranging from rats to Henry David Thoreau, looks at the landscape of the American Revolution, treating the terrain as a kind of palimpsest and trying, through research and imagination, to peel back the layers and see it as it was almost two-and-a-half centuries ago.

Readers seeking chronological narrative won’t find it here. This is not the first book to read when looking to understand, say, the Battle of Trenton (go to David Hackett Fischer’s marvelous Washington’s Crossing for that) or the Battle of Brooklyn (David McCullough’s brief, readable 1776 is probably the place to start). Sullivan bounces back and forth between past and present, with numerous stops in between, as he describes his “reconnaissance missions” that try to bring to life historical locations often “camouflaged…by cities and strip malls, by toxic waste sites and high-end commercial properties.”

Along the way, Sullivan strings together stories of his encounters with amateur and professional preservationists, antiquarians, re-enactors, and others, putting together a tale that is discursive, to say the least: even the digressions have digressions. But his book has its appeal, and persistent readers will be rewarded by mini-essays and vignettes explaining, for instance, why...

**New Jersey’s Watchung Mountains, whose tallest peaks fall well short of 1,000 feet in altitude, were a significant geographical factor during the Revolution, no matter how insignificant they may seem in the day of trains, planes, and automobiles. While trying to duplicate Washington’s march to Morristown, Sullivan injures his back.

**more American soldiers died on the British prison ships in New York Harbor than in wartime combat. “Prisoners who survived recalled meals served from a large green-encrusted copper pot: worm-filled bread, sour oatmeal, and beef that came apart in strings described by one prisoner as ‘a rope-like yarn.’ ... Officers sold their clothes to pay for fruit; sailors were covered in ‘rags and filth.’”

**the winter that the American army spent in Morristown, NJ, in 1779-1780, was far more severe than the more famous one at Valley Forge in 1777-1778. Indeed, says Sullivan, “the Hard Winter is thought to have been worse than [any in the previous 150 years], the only winter in the recorded history of America during which all the inlets, sounds, and harbors on the Atlantic coastal plain -- from North Carolina to what was not yet called Maine -- were frozen, closed to boats for what is estimated to have been a month or more.” General Nathanael Greene lamented, “Almost all the wild beasts of the fields and the birds of the air have perished with the cold.” It makes me almost embarrassed to complain about the weekend we just spent without heat or electricity because of Winter Storm Nemo. Almost. Our ancestors were tough. 

**the water had to be just right for Washington to cross the Delaware successfully, on his way to victory at Trenton. Sullivan outlines the story behind Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting (and Larry Rivers’ version of it) and observes a reenactment. “The water needed to be high enough for boats to cross -- sandbars stood in the way at low water—but not so fast moving that the crews could not row their way across.” 

The charm of Sullivan’s book is in its details. His will to imaginatively reconstruct the landscape of the past is formidable. Sometimes he tries too hard (at one historic tavern, “I could easily imagine that some of the timbers of the house had absorbed the laughter or whispers or the huzzahs of the Revolutionary War-era patrons”) or even becomes downright mystical. But he brings it off often enough to make his book worth the trip. (He might have brought it off even more often had his publisher chosen to include some maps and illustrations.) As he goes along, he acquaints us with others similarly obsessed, such as I.N. Phelps Stokes, whose six-volume Iconography of Manhattan Island, was put together a century ago, is a creative jumble of materials from New York’s past. Stokes, Sullivan says, was “an expert in a kind of time travel; he could see the city…in layers.”  Just so. Just like Sullivan himself. 

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