- Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution by Kathleen DuVal
During the American Revolutionary War, only an unabashed fantasist could have believed that the northern Gulf Coast would ever become part of the United States. British West Florida, anchored by forts at Pensacola (the capital) and Mobile, was decidedly not in rebellion; Spain controlled New Orleans and the lower Mississippi River; powerful Indian tribes like the Chickasaws, Creeks, Cherokees, and Choctaws roamed the backcountry. A multitude of peoples and interests collided in the Gulf South, and few of them fit neatly into the received schoolbook narrative of minutemen and redcoats, liberty and treason. For this reason, the littoral’s tumultuous Revolutionary War history has for too long been underappreciated at a national level.
It is Kathleen DuVal’s genius to have wrestled this sprawling canvas into an attractive and compelling frame so that it may now be easily admired by the lay public. Her latest book, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution, richly merits the broad attention and praise that have come its way. Published by a major New York house, it won the Journal of the American Revolution Book of the Year Award for 2015, was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize, and garnered numerous admiring reviews from major outlets like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal. Short of a Pulitzer Prize and an HBO miniseries, it doesn’t get much better than that for an academic historian.
DuVal, professor of early American history at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, chooses to approach this saga through the lives of eight individuals. “The narrative of the Revolutionary era [End Page 335] is more true to its people and more fascinating in its complexity,” she declares, “if it … encompasses the war’s experiences and results in all their diversity” (xv). At least one of her chosen actors, the incomparable métis Alexander McGillivray, is already well known to Alabama history aficionados. Among the others are New Orleans merchant Oliver Pollock and his wife, Margaret O’Brien, well-traveled Irish immigrants seeking to make their way in a “cosmopolitan present” (37); James Bruce, a British official at Pensacola and his wife, Isabella; Payamataha, a Chickasaw warrior turned forest diplomat, determined to preserve his people amid grappling empires and advancing settlers; Petit Jean, a mulatto slave and cattle driver in Mobile who served the Spaniards as a valuable spy; and Amand Broussard, a French Acadian displaced to Louisiana and burning to do the British any harm he could. DuVal develops these personalities fairly well, despite a dearth of documentation, for the women particularly, and if she sometimes loses sight of them in the broader picture, she invariably retrieves her focus.
Throughout the book, DuVal wields a facile pen, with a particular appreciation for color. This significantly enhances the prose. “From their town,” she writes at one point, “Pensacolans could look out onto a place of striking colors—white sand beaches, water in hues from icy blue to gelatinous green to deep indigo, dark green sea grasses, and tall yellow sea oats” (5). Surely this is a woman who has stood on just that sugar white sand! Interior settings are equally well-painted. When Isabella Bruce entertained friends in her rude Pensacola dwelling, “she would have laid out on a tea table a complete spread, including cups, saucers, and a sugar bowl and cream pitchers, all probably of blue and white porcelain, along with silver tongs and a strainer” (50). And later, DuVal highlights the uniforms of New Orleans’ free black militia, “striking white jackets with gold buttons and round hats topped with crimson cockades” (172).
Like any superior historian, DuVal also has a keen grasp of irony. In describing the 1779 Spanish attack on West Florida, she notes locals’ reluctance to serve in the militia, work on fortifications, or lend their slaves’ labor. “Although the Declaration of Independence [End Page 336] accused King...