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Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before It Was History, It Was News

By Todd Andrlik, Sourcebooks

This is “you are there” history at its best: 70 essays by modern historians based on eyewitness accounts, battlefield letters and newspaper stories from 1763 to 1783. Cumulatively, the collection lets us see and feel how events unfolded for the people who lived them.

Back then, word traveled by letter and an extraordinary number of newspapers: “Local taverns and coffee houses often subscribed,” one historian explains, “and customers either read them directly or listened while someone else read them aloud.” It took months for news to spread, and it got laced with attitude and partisan slants along the way. After the Boston Tea Party, for example, the Pennsylvania Packet reported wryly, “Letters from Boston complain much of the taste of their fish being altered.” But there was some amazing journalism. Despite the obvious difficulties of getting reliable information in war-torn, primitive America, the Dixon and Hunter’s Virginia Gazette managed to publish a remarkably accurate schematic diagram of the Battle of Bunker Hill only two months after it was fought; it is the only known newspaper illustration of a current event during the Revolutionary War.

Seeing history through contemporaneous eyes lets us revisit legends as people. As one historian notes, “[It] took almost a century before Henry W. Longfellow’s poem, ‘Paul Revere’s Ride,’ made the silversmith into an American icon. On April 19, 1775, he was just one of thousands of men caught in the start of the war.” That doesn’t diminish Revere; it’s the way it really was.


Originally published in the February 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.