I wasn’t ready for “Oliver Wiswell” the first time. I read probably less than 100 pages and put the book away. It bothered me too much.
“Oliver Wiswell,” published by Kenneth Roberts in 1940, describes the American Revolution from the Loyalist viewpoint. Wiswell is a college man who returns home to his ailing father on the eve of the rebellion and rescues a man, Thomas Buell, who was tarred and feathered by a Patriot mob. An argument the next day with Wiswell’s sweetheart’s Patriot family unwittingly discloses Buell’s presence in the Wiswell home, resulting in a nighttime visit by a mob that forces the Wiswells, Buell and the family servant into a cart on the road to Boston, launching Wiswell and Buell on a series of adventures encompassing the length and breadth of America’s 18th-century civil war.
Together, Wiswell and Buell travel the roads of the Revolution, from its start in Massachusetts to its dying days in the South and New York. They retreat with other Loyalists to Boston in April 1775 and watch the Battle of Bunker Hill from a rooftop. They watch the Battle of Long Island from a distance that gives them an overall, objective perspective of the fighting, live in Paris trying to undermine American efforts to engage French support of the Patriots’ cause, travel to Virginia in search of Burgoyne’s Convention Army that had surrendered at Saratoga but wasn’t allowed to return to England, travel the Wilderness Road between the mountains of western Virginia, endure the siege of Ninety-Six, S.C., and watch Sir Henry Clinton sit tight in New York when he could have attacked a French force under Rochambeau that was preparing to unite with Washington’s troops. Through it all, Wiswell and Buell rage in frustration at the refusal of British officers to listen to American advice and to finish battles that were nearly won time and again.
What bothered me the first time was the portrayal of Patriots as a dirty, unkempt and uneducated mob that cried for liberty but suppressed all speech and ideas not in keeping with those espoused by Sam Adams and John Hancock. Often the voice of discontent in “Oliver Wiswell” was Buell:
“And about the only thing they’ve got plenty of is grandfathers. There’s more grandfathers to the square inch in that army than there is to the square mile anywhere else! It’s just like a convention of dirty old grandfathers. It looks as if all the old fellers in New England that hadn’t had anything to eat or anything to do, or any powder to put on their hair or in their guns, or anything to wash in for the last thirty-four years, had got wind of what was happening, and come flapping down to Boston like a lot of buzzards, hoping to shoot somebody and sneak up and get some new breeches off him.”
Roberts was part of a revisionist trend sparked by Claude Halstead Van Tyne’s “The Loyalists in the American Revolution,” published in 1902, that glorified “Loyalists as honorable people victimized by a diabolical mob,” writes Mark M. Boatner III in “Encyclopedia of the American Revolution.” “Generations of American schoolchildren were taught that if anything during the American Revolution was lower than a British regular or a Hessian it was a Tory or Loyalist. What good could possibly be said about a native-born American who sided with the British?” writes Boatner.
But this time I was ready for Wiswell and Buell, and Robertson entranced me with passages such as that describing, from Wiswell’s vantage point on Long Island, the British army’s departure from Staten Island before the Battle of Long Island:
“… we saw that all the hundreds and hundreds of warcraft that dotted the water between us and Staten Island were hoisting their sails and moving like bits of shining white glass in a kaleidoscope. All around them rowed innumerable flatboats, so that there was restless movement everywhere — even upon the Staten Island meadows. The white tents upon those distant slopes seemed to slip about and quiver. Whole acres of them wavered and flattened, as though pressed down by an invisible hand; then the little squares of canvas seemed to shrink; and where the tents had stood, appeared splotches of green which flowed together and became open fields.”
Roberts’ research was accurate and detailed. Boatner’s entry detailing the siege of Ninety-Six, S.C., in May and June 1781 quotes “Oliver Wiswell,” saying that Roberts’ “picture of the siege, from the Loyalist viewpoint, is better ‘history’ than most histories.”
Dartmouth College awarded a Doctorate of Letters to Roberts in June 1934. Writing of the presentation in “The Dartmouth,” President Ernest Martin Hopkins lauded Roberts’ work: “ … you have pictured in accurate form the manner of living, the sentiments, and the events of Colonial days, and have shown in new perspective the characters and personalities of some of the important figures of American history.”
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