“Boston has its Liberty Trail, and Virginia has Mount Vernon, where George Washington farmed and fished, ran a mill, and manufactured various kinds of alcohol. But the British were fought — and, to a large extent, avoided — in the Middle Colonies. Dozens of battles, all of them less well known than the Battle of Bunker Hill, took place in the area of New York; Connecticut and New Jersey were home to hundreds of skirmishes. And New York City itself was the place where Washington officially began the Revolution, as well as the place where it ended, on Evacuation Day, a day celebrated for a century and a half with parades and flags throughout New York City, though no longer. And then, when the war was over and a new government formed and a president inaugurated, that first president took up residence in a house on a plot of land that is today unmarked and frequented by skateboarders.”
As that extract suggests, Sullivan is as interested in how we have forgotten the revolution as in how it was fought. In the course of his wanderings through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, he encountered more historic markers than he bothered to count, yet many of them were in out-of-the-way places rarely if ever visited by tourists and accompanied by no evidence, apart from the markers, of the war itself. He devotes a good deal of attention to the Battle of Brooklyn, fought in the summer of 1776 — interest in which “remains low . . . for two reasons: (1) it happened two centuries ago; and (2) the Americans, outnumbered by about five to one . . . lost, big time” — but in 21st-century Brooklyn he found, to all intents and purposes, no remains of it.
He began his tour in northeastern Pennsylvania, at a village called Washington Crossing on the Delaware River. There, on Christmas in 1776, Washington led his ragged troops across the river en route to their “winter encampment spot in Morristown, New Jersey, on the flanks of New Jersey’s Watchung Mountains — the place from which the newborn Americans observed and obsessed over New York. It’s not to be confused with Valley Forge, to which Washington took his army a year later and which, for whatever reason, Sullivan did not visit, though it underscores his argument about the importance of the Mid-Atlantic during the revolution. He did want to watch a reenactment of the crossing, which turned out to be a useful “introduction to the landscape of the Revolution and all its iconic associations, its changing popular traditions.” In the course of the play-acting he was able to reflect upon the mythology stirred up by “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” the stupendously famous painting — “the egg to the chicken of the contemporary idea of the American Revolution” — by the German artist Emanuel Leutze. The painting bears virtually no resemblance to the realities of the crossing, such as we know of them, but as inspiration for a heroic myth, it has few rivals in the country’s history.