Lightning struck twice for me in October, as Facebook's personal marketing profile proved to be well calibrated to my interests, at least where local events are concerned. Facebook's sidebar suggestion that I experience the new Walkway Over the Hudson sent me and my children on a grand adventure a week ago. Then last Friday it picked up on my Revolutionary War interest and clued me in to a pair of terrific events in Torrington, not to mention a whole local history initiative in Western CT about which I had previously been unaware. Score one for social media: it is still a long way from a decent batting average, but a nice example of what is possible.
Locally Grown History is aspparently in its second year, and an effort to showcase the extraordinary opportunities in our region to experience its history and cultural heritage and integrate these resources with what our children learn in schools, as well as what the public in general knows about our past. Sponsored by the University of Connecticut in collaboration numerous groups and agencies, including the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Corridor, it is a wonderful local resource. It seems to be doing for our heritage of regional history the same sort of thing that the Litchfield Hills Greenprint Collaborative that I direct is striving to achieve for regional conservation by aggregating the resources and talents of local conservation groups in the service of important land protection efforts. I would commend any effort out of hand that tackled this objective for our history, but in addition to that the organizers of last weeks events produced a high quality forum on the Revolutionary History of Connecticut that was most welcome and very well received.
It began on Friday evening at UNCONN's Torrington campus (immediately after a Civil War Sesquicentennial event at the site of John Brown's birthplace) with a screening of Mary Silliman's War. The movie was presented by historian Richard Buel, who produced the film and was the co-author of the book The Way of Duty on which it is based. The opportunity to see this film was very timely for me, as that very day I noted that J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 discussed the paucity of historically accurate, watchable films about the American Revolution. I can now confidently add Mary Silliman's War to that impoverished list.
This movie was not a big budget Hollywood film - and regrettably it will set you back $75 to purchase a DVD from the distributor - but they did wonders with the resources they had. The acting, particularly by Nancy Palk in the title role, is quite compelling. From an historiographical perspective it belongs in the a progressive tradition, viewing the war as a socially disruptive civil conflict on a human scale, more in keeping with My Brother Sam is Dead than Johnny Tremain. Professor Buel shared his thoughts on the compromises that are made translating a book to film and conveying complex events and ideas in visually compelling ways. In one interesting aside, he mentioned that the officer leading the reenactors who represented the royalist forces who burned Fairfield objected to one scene of sexual violence saying; "The British did not rape", demonstrating a blind spot that is not borne out by any serious study of the subject and the historic record. I've been reading Sharon Block's Rape & Sexual Power in Early America, so I feel fairly current in this regard.
I found it particularly well done regarding the values, attitudes and expectations (changing and immutable) that the characters had of themselves and for each other. The film displays the Silliman household, with its children, servants and slaves, in a way that does not trivialize or over exploit power relationship and the effects on the family of the loss of the patriarch. As an aside, my ancestor Ebenezer Olmsted of Ridgefield, CT fought in Silliman's regiment From June-December, 1776, and both of them were present at the Battle of Ridgefield during Tryon's Danbury Raid the following year.
It was a terrific set up for Sunday afternoon's Revolutionary War forum. The keynote address was by Professor Robert Gross, author of The Minutemen and their World. He spoke of his experience of the marvelous diorama at Minuteman National Park of the fight at Concord Bridge that prompted his book. As he gazed at the little figures, frozen under glass, he was struck at how this depiction of a highly symbolic moment in time placed both the event itself and the people of Concord out of context. His subsequent research revealed that militant patriotism only took hold in Concord in 1774 with the revocation of the colonial charter, and it was this event, rather than taxes and tea, that threatened the local institutions that were already fraying in Concord.
There were a number of workshops offered following this address. I participated in two:
- Revolutionary Archaeology in Connecticut: Dr. Nicolas Bellantoni, Connecticut State Archaeologist
- Children and the Revolution through Literature: Prof. Christopher Collier, University of Connecticut, former Connecticut State Historian and co-author of the Newberry award-winning My Brother Sam is Dead and other historical novels for young adults.
Each presenter had a unique style - Bellantoni's clear enthusiasm for his subject and Collier's thoughtful pedagogical engagement with each of the participants - and I learned new things from each. I will be sure to follow the Rochambeau Trail through Connecticut and revisit Collier's novels at my earliest opportunity. As I myself am writing a novel based in the Revolutionary era - albeit a counterfactual one - I was keenly interested in Collier's thoughts on how to stay true to the values and attitudes of his characters and their time while making them empathetic and approachable to modern readers. He very kindly provided us with a number of free copies of the teaching aid he wrote for his historical novels for young adults entitled My Brother Sam and All That and there is much there about writing historical fiction as well as using it in the classroom that I am enjoying thinking about.
The last session was a round table of the topic of Religion and the Republic: Approaching a Central Theme in Connecticut History. In keeping with the spirit of Locally Grown History, this was a collaborative effort, expertly woven together by Professor Andrew Walsh of Trinity College. I have come to believe that the first Great Awakening, as much as any other causal factor of the Revolution, played a pervasive and dominant role in determining loyalties within communities and the direction of social, and therefore political life. In an increasingly secular society, where we are either too partisan, polite, or politically constrained to thoughtfully discuss the history of religion in America and its influence on the growth and development of our Republic. This is an area of study to which I need to give more thought.
I felt the afternoon, despite the dreary wintry mix outside, was a grand success, and look forward to becoming moire involved in future Locally Grown History events. This collaboration is a true regional asset.