INDEPENDENCE LOST: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution. By Kathleen DuVal. Random House. 351 pages. $28.
When most Americans think geographically about the Revolutionary War, they envision a large swath of land roughly between Quebec and Savannah. A clearer focus develops over places like Lexington, Saratoga, Yorktown.
But what about Pensacola? Mobile? Does Havana come readily to mind?
Obviously, no clash of Redcoats and continentals took place on Cuban soil, but in Kathleen DuVal’s investigation of the lives of “marginalized” people along the Gulf Coast during the war, the Spanish Empire figures strongly, as well as that of the French and the British and, as her story gathers force, the Americans themselves, an eventuality that was by no means a foregone conclusion at the time. All competed for the loyalty of those described in this book and, conversely, those individuals often struggled to determine who offered them the best chance for a promising future.
DuVal contends that there were “vast numbers of people and places written out of the story of the American Revolution.” Within that multitude, she has chosen to examine the experiences of a British Loyalist couple, a French Canadian exiled from Acadia, a Chickasaw warrior, a slave and an Irish immigrant turned passionate American patriot, among others. These people moved about the area either as part of various fighting forces or, more often, in search of not only peace and safety but, as DuVal points out over and over, land and access to markets — what she calls “the building blocks of personal and familial independence.”
The book clearly places the Revolution in a larger context, one that had been foreshadowed, to a degree, by the brutal French and Indian War some 20 years before. What very few really considered at the time was that what began as a relatively small and shakily put-together new country on the east coast would someday stretch across the continent, undercutting both native American power and that of European nations who had never imagined having to give up the land upon which they expended so much blood and treasure.
The region that the author delineates and the events that occurred there in the late-18th century may be little known to many, but the shift in point of view and the diversity of characters and their various philosophies capture the reader’s interest.
DuVal suggests that groups interpreted the concept of “independence” in different ways and points out, for instance, that many western settlers were disgusted by the taxation and regulations of the new government, but hotly demanded the benefits provided by its “surveyors, diplomats and soldiers,” an attitude not unknown in 21st century America.
At the other end of the spectrum, in contrast to DuVal’s’s assertion that these “outsiders” were driven primarily by pragmatism and the search for economic opportunity and not by idealism and simple emotion, were people like Oliver Pollock, who bankrupted himself in support of the American cause; Amand Broussard, who was driven by unrelenting hatred of the British; and James Bruce, who could never compromise his belief that revolution was treason, no matter how much that belief affected his livelihood on the Gulf.
Though richly documented from primary sources, DuVal occasionally resorts to postulating what might have been, and what people may have thought, an approach that is hard to resist when one is dealing with ordinary people who did not include every detail of an occurrence in their written accounts.
Nonetheless her academic background as a professor of Early American History and American Indian History at Chapel Hill, in addition to her research for her previous book, “The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent,” serves her well here.
For most readers, this will be a very different way of looking at the American Revolution, one that may ignite a search for other people who functioned outside mainstream events in our history yet influenced their outcome in unexpected ways.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.