Enough about us. How did the Brits feel about the American Revolution?
That’s essentially the question historian Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy set out to answer, and now his book, “The Men Who Lost America” (Yale University Press), has won the George Washington Book Prize — snatching victory from the jaws of a very old defeat.
The $50,000 award, announced at a ceremony at Mount Vernon on Tuesday night, honors the previous year’s best book about early American history. The prize is sponsored by Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
In a statement praising the winner, Adam Goodheart, director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, said: “Countless popular books and Hollywood films have portrayed the redcoats and their leaders as blundering nincompoops at best, sneering sadists at worst. O’Shaughnessy’s work ought to kill these stereotypes once and for all — and, in the process, give Americans a richer and more nuanced understanding of our nation’s origins.”
O’Shaughnessy, a history professor at the University of Virginia, joked that winning the George Washington Prize at Mount Vernon for a book about the British side of the American Revolution sounds like “a man bites dog story.” But he noted that “there is in reality no better way to appreciate the achievement of the patriots than through the eyes of the British.”
Perhaps his dual citizenship in Britain and the United States sensitized him early to the distorted attitudes toward King George’s forces.
Publishers in the U.K. told O’Shaughnessy that “no one wants to read about wars we lost.” But he had long been troubled by what he called “a tendency to parody the British commanders as aristocratic buffoons, which was even more pronounced in Britain than in the U.S. It is a thesis that is perpetuated in movie caricatures, popular history and even college text books.”
His objection to that portrayal is that it “distracts from the real essence of this war as a war of ‘hearts and minds’ — a term used by the British commander-in-chief Sir Henry Clinton — in which civilian support was crucial. It was a civil war as well as a revolution, but the British lacked strong support before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. After their withdrawal from Boston, they literally had to reconquer America.”
To correct those long-held misperceptions, he constructed a work of history that presents what he calls “interlinked biographical cameos of the key military and political decision makers . . . the best and brightest.”
Noting that every historical situation is unique, O’Shaughnessy is reluctant to draw any precise parallels with contemporary conflicts. But he points out that “it was the role of civilians that really made the war in America very different from wars between professional armies in Europe. It is almost impossible to dominate and control a hostile population short of using the most ruthless measures, which were indeed advocated by some junior officers like Banastre Tarleton.”
As a history professor and as director of research at Monticello, O’Shaughnessy has serious concerns about “the dire state of historical knowledge in the United States.” Thomas Jefferson and John Adams knew that a healthy democracy required well-informed citizens who understood the past and the methods of tyranny. It’s no coincidence, O’Shaughnessy says, that in his novel “1984,” George Orwell “made the Ministry of Truth the most important government agency.”
The George Washington Prize is the second big-money award that “The Men Who Lost America” has won. In April, O’Shaughnessy received the New-York Historical Society’s $50,000 American History Book Prize.
He’s put some of that money toward the purchase of two portraits of Redcoat officers from the American Revolution. “My brother jokes that they will be part of a wall of intimidation to welcome my guests in Charlottesville,” O’Shaughnessy says. “I prefer to think that I am bringing them back into captivity since the British army from Saratoga was imprisoned for more than a year in Charlottesville.”
Surely, Gen. Washington would approve.