Posted by: history591seventeen | March 27, 2010

Generous Enemies

            According to author Judith Van Buskirk’s Generous Enemies, clear battle lines between the American Rebels and British Army did not exist.  Friends, family, and personal needs pulled individuals into each other’s claimed areas regularly.  Van Buskirk explains that there were laws on the books “that forbade communication with the enemy” (3). Therefore, the appearance of clear enemy lines were drawn up, just not observed.      

            Van Buskirk paints a picture of a different type of war for many British officers; the Revolution sounded more like a vacation than a war.  Sir Henry Clinton is referred to as “the Knight” because it is stated that he made “many excursion to the country for fox hunting and riding” (30) during his time in New York as Commander-in-Chief of the British forces.  General James Robertson of the British forces while in New York was said to have been “running after little misses . . . too busy for military matters” (30-31).

            The American Revolutionary War was a civil war, which split many families.  At the same time, political differences were not enough to completely separate some families.  These families continued to keep in touch through physical visits as well as through letters.  The Alexander family was certainly one of these families.  Even though family members (husbands) were on both the Whig and Tory sides, sisters obtained passes and still visited each other during the war, crossing emery lines.  Buskirk states that there was a “distinguish between the private and public demands of the war” (46-47).  Therefore, explaining why these communications were allowed.  At the same time, Van Buskirk explains throughout her book that these women who acquired passes to cross enemy lines were carrying military information back and forth, as well as family news.  Officers of both sided acknowledged this and tried to limit the amount of passes they would write; yet if a woman came from a certain upbringing (upper class) the woman was almost sure of receiving permission to move over these imaginary lines.  Additionally, “market women and slaves also conveyed information. . .” (57) from the people they met daily.

            New York resident, John Varick, Jr.’s father was imprisoned and Jr. obtained a pass to daily visit his father, most likely bringing him food and any other supplies the father may have needed (50). Loyalist Vincent Pearse Ashfield was imprisoned, only to be later released due to actions from an unknown family member on the rebel side (50).  Surely these men had family connections that helped them survive war times. 

            In order to have a little more control over this movement, both sides began using flag boats to transport individuals.  It was thought that they would be able to keep better track of these people in this manner (59).

            Letters were even forwarded through enemy lines.  British General Howe was known to not open letters of high-society women.  In fact, a letter from Martha Washington addressed to her husband, George Washington was forwarded unopened, as it was assumed that the information between a husband and wife was purely personal and of a private matter, unrelated to war (65). 

            Another interesting practice Van Buskirk explains is the parole system that both sides used in New York.  Captured officers were allowed to stay in nice accommodations (homes), not prison cells and allowed to walk the streets of the area in which they were confined. An officer was clearly a gentleman and could be trusted to stay where he was told to stay.  “. . . the British accorded such liberties to colonel, majors, captains and lieutenants as well” (73).  In fact, British officer, John Mc Namara Hayes thanked American General Gates for his treatment while a prisoner, “I shall ever acknowledge with gratitude your attention to me while a prisoner” (82). 

            Some business dealings that took place before the war continued during the war.  People did not view this as trading with the enemy, just good business sense.  Not everyone supported the war and saw no need to stop selling to those who did, no matter which side they were (108).  At the same time, family members were known to cross the lines to bring much needed medicine as well as extra grain to other family members. 

            The British also utilized the African American to their benefit, for the British believed in librating the slaves (7), whether they were owned by a Patriot or a Loyalist master.  This created a hardship for the Americans in taking away their black labor source (130).  Of course, the British support created more movement by the slave population as well, as the slaves began joining the British forces in order to secure their freedom.  According to Van Buskirk, “. . .the New York theater of war allowed a degree of leverage never before experienced by African Americans” (147).

            Certainly, when one thinks of a revolutionary war, one does not expect to view two different armies tolerating each other’s personal obligations; yet Judith Van Buskirk clearly explains how these two differing political ideologies supported each other.  The occupation of the British in New York did not create total warfare and therefore, when the war was over and it was time to repair the damages that war brings, Van Buskirk states, “New Yorker were aided by this simple fact: in 1783, they did not have to begin building bridges to one another; those bridges had never been destroyed during the war” (195).  Buskirk used “family letters, diaries, memoirs, soldier pensions, Loyalist claims, committee records, laws, newspapers, and church and meeting records” (5) to support her study.  Clearly, she utilized primaries to allow her subjects to tell their story.


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