Q&A with Phillip Papas, author of Renegade Revolutionary

We invited Phillip Papas on our blog for an exclusive Q&A session on his new book, Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee. Happily, he obliged. Below, Papas discusses his inspiration for writing the book, shares a surprising moment in his research, and gives us the final word on Charles Lee in Assassin’s Creed. Read it, and if you haven’t already, check out the gorgeous trailer for the book!

What prompted you to write Renegade Revolutionary?

Phillip Papas: I came to the subject of Charles Lee through my doctoral dissertation which looked at the conditions that fostered strong Loyalist sentiments on Staten Island (subsequently published by NYU Press as That Ever Loyal Island: Staten Island and the American Revolution). In setting up the defenses of New York from February through March 1776, Lee had left the loyalist community of Staten Island at the entrance to New York harbor and by extension the Narrows, undefended. This did not mean that Lee had not thought about the island strategically. He had. Lee recommended that all of the livestock should be removed from Staten Island and that its residents be disarmed. If this approach did not work, Lee suggested Congress “secure their [the Staten Islanders’] children as hostages.”

I had heard of Charles Lee before working on my dissertation. More often than not, the references were to George Washington’s eccentric, egomaniacal second-in-command who was followed around by a pack of mangy dogs, who always challenged Washington’s military judgment, was captured by the British and offered them a plan that would keep them in the colonies, and faced a court martial after the battle of Monmouth in 1778 which eventually ended his military career.  Of course, Lee was an avid dog lover and always had a few of them by his side, especially his favorite Spado. Lee also had an ego the size of Texas, but who else among the leading revolutionaries didn’t? And he did challenge Washington’s military judgment, he was captured by the British in December 1776 in New Jersey, and he did face a court martial after the battle of Monmouth, where Washington had famously confronted him on the battlefield. But who was Charles Lee? Who was this former British officer who had become an avid supporter of the American resistance against Britain’s imperial policies and who eventually became one of the earliest and loudest voices for American independence? Who was this intellectual who recognized America’s potential and characterized her as the “last asylum of liberty?” Who was this professional soldier who admired the fighting spirit and irregular tactics of the colonial militiamen? I found these questions interesting and they led me to do further research on Charles Lee.

What surprised you most as you conducted your research?

I think it would have to be Lee’s cosmopolitanism, his intellectual curiosity, his support for providing women with a formal education, his recognition of America’s potential, and his attempts to dispel the British media’s portrayal of the Native Americans. Lee’s confidence in a popular war of mass resistance against the British fought using a strategy of petite guerre or irregular warfare also caught my attention. Lee’s belief that a strategy of petite guerre carried out by small units of Continentals in cooperation with local militia and roving groups of partisans to effectively stymie the British war machine, neutralize Loyalists, and win American independence fascinated me because it seemed to portent certain aspects of modern revolutionary military strategy.

In your book, you write that Lee suffered from manic depression, experienced phases of hypersexuality, drank to excess, and preferred the companionship of dogs to humans. What is the biggest misconception about him?

That he was an “oddity” or an eccentric. For Americans, a true gentleman was a man of honor and integrity; someone who embraced rigid rules of etiquette and manners, demonstrated emotional self-restraint, exhibited a proper sense of decorum in public and displayed elegance in speech and dress. The impressions of Lee by his American contemporaries revealed a provincial misunderstanding about what it meant to be an English gentleman. Although Lee’s outward appearance and behavior did not meet with American standards of gentility, in his background, upbringing, financial independence, and classical education Lee was an English gentleman.

Moreover, much of Lee’s behavior evidenced signs of what modern psychiatry would classify as manic depression.

Charles Lee is featured as one of the main antagonists in the video game Assassin’s Creed. How accurate is this portrayal of Lee as the ultimate villain?

I first heard about the video game Assassin’s Creed 3 from one of my students at Union County College. I could not believe that the subject of my research was a key character in a video game set during the American Revolution. Perhaps the game designers chose Lee as the game’s ultimate villain because he lacked political savvy and throughout his career he openly challenged the decisions of his superior officers and, of course, during the American Revolution became Washington’s chief antagonist. Lee was ambitious and an opportunist; he was a person who was willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve his goals. Many of Lee’s actions and decisions exemplified the saying “the end justifies the means.”

What do you hope readers learn from your book?

I hope that readers come away from the book with a new view of Charles Lee as a complex, fascinating person who made important contributions to the Revolutionary era as a propagandist and as a soldier and whose ideas on the education of women and on democratic societies set him apart from many of his contemporaries. I also hope that readers will gain new insights into the way the Americans waged the Revolutionary war and debated the question of the proper military organization in a democracy.

Book trailer for Renegade Revolutionary

In November 1774, a pamphlet to the “People of America” was published in Philadelphia and London. It forcefully articulated American rights and liberties and argued that the Americans needed to declare their independence from Britain. The author of this pamphlet was Charles Lee, a former British army officer turned revolutionary, who was one of the earliest advocates for American independence. Lee fought on and off the battlefield for expanded democracy, freedom of conscience, individual liberties, human rights, and for the formal education of women.

Phillip Papas is Associate Professor of History at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. He is the author of Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Leeavailable now from NYU Press.

Many thanks to the team at New York Dub for producing this gorgeous trailer!

One Day in December: Starred review in Library Journal

One Day in December casts a spotlight on the remarkable “missing actor” of the Cuban Revolution, Celia Sánchez. Based on ten years of original research, the biography draws on interviews with Sánchez’s friends, family, and comrades in the rebel army, along with countless letters and documents.

Alice Walker “loved the book;” Sapphire, author of Push, called it “a damn good read;” and most recently, the book has received a much-deserved starred review in Library Journal!

From Library Journal, May 1, 2013

Stout, Nancy. One Day in December: Celia Sanchez and the Cuban Revolution. Monthly Review. 2013. 457p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781583673171. $28.95. BIOG

The Cuban revolution so closely associated with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara also involved those such as Camilo Cienfuegos, Eloy Menoyo, Frank Pais, and Celia Sanchez, all revolutionary heroes in their own right. Sanchez was Castro’s supporter, confidante, and—depending on the source—his lover. In this impressive biography Stout (reference librarian, Fordham Univ. Libs.; Havana: La Habana) utilizes interviews, Cuban archives (to which she was granted special access by Castro himself), letters, and other documents to provide an accurate portrait of Sanchez, who ran the planning organization of the revolution after the death of Pais in 1957. Slight in stature, Sanchez saw combat and was arguably the most influential among Castro’s cadre of revolutionary leaders. Her role during and after the revolution was remarkable, and Stout’s biography tells her story as well as offering insights into other revolutionaries and their contributions. Sanchez’s death from cancer in 1980 shook Castro and all of Cuba but her legacy remains in buildings and projects that bear her name. VERDICT Highly recommended for readers and scholars of Cuban history. With a foreword by Alice Walker.—Boyd Childress, formerly, Auburn Univ. Libs., AL.

Want more? Read the introduction by Alice Walker or an excerpt from the book—and watch our exclusive interview with author Nancy Stout.

WWI centennial update

—Lisa Budreau

It appears that the nation’s plans to commemorate the Centennial of the First World War in 2014 are progressing. The WWI Centennial Commission Act (House Resolution 6364) passed by Congress and was, until recently, awaiting the President’s signature. However, the bill died on the Presidents desk. And, as the rules go, if a bill, for other than appropriations, signed by both parts of the legislature goes to the executive branch and is not signed within 10 days, it becomes law. That’s Poli Sci 101 in any university. And thus, the Frank Buckles bill, heretofore known as the WWI Centennial Commission Act, is now law but quite toothless. There’s no funding. The chairman of the commission can task government agencies as might be pertinent but on a reimbursable basis. (Read more about this here.)

In general, the bill provides for the formation of a board consisting of twelve members within 60 days after it becomes law. Plans have already begun to nominate members of this board, though unofficially. So, who will be the leader of this new Commission? Where will they be based, on the East Coast or Kansas City? What role will the American Battle Monuments Commission play in our national 4-year remembrance? They are, after all, the appointed caretakers of nearly all the American First World War commemorative constructs.

Once again, history repeats itself and commemoration remains one of the most political of all national activities, but risks becoming an exploitative process, one used to fulfill agenda far from the intended purpose of remembering the war dead.

Let’s hope that this group remembers the true meaning of commemorating this first global event. It, and our dead, deserve our respect.

Lisa Budreau is a consultant to the WWI Regional Office with the American Battle Monuments Commission, based in Arlington, VA, and Garches, France. She is author of Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933 (NYU Press, 2009).

On Veterans Day: A look at the past and present

Yesterday marked the 93rd Veterans Day since the holiday’s enactment in 1919. And, depending on where you work or go to school, observations for the important day are still underway at this moment. This year, to celebrate our veterans, our thoughts immediately sprang to the newly released In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation—a book that chronicles the lives of Korean War soldiers, and, in doing so, voices a greater truth about the pain, bravery, and selflessness of the men and women who have served our country. Here the author, Melinda L. Pash, takes us back to the beginnings of her book (it all started at a high school prom…) and shows us the unwavering support the older generation of soldiers have for today’s troops.

Watch more from this interview over at our Youtube page.

Veterans’ Day: 21st Century Remembrance

Time for a Recasting?
a post by Lisa M. Budreau, author of Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933

As another Veteran’s Day approaches with tragic losses in Afghanistan and Iraq mounting, shouldn’t we be asking how, when, and where the nation will commemorate these sacrifices? Why wait years after the last body is returned home before we initiate a public discourse on remembrance? Are we assuming continuity of tradition—following an instinctive impulse to chisel more names onto another national monument on the mall or, are we waiting for state-centered initiatives? Is it our intention to fill every inch of ground at Arlington or to construct new cemeteries to address the eventual space deficiency? In other words, is it appropriate for Americans to observe the same 19th century commemorative rituals for our 21st century conflicts?

Are we complacent, or do we as a nation, find value and comfort in those familiar observances that stem largely from the Civil War and its 1917-1918 succedent? Perhaps we fear the same lack of consensus that ensued after that other contentious war, the one to end all wars—World War I, when heated debates raged across America as disparate factions wrestled with the ideal way to honor their deceased. Despite the extraordinary developments of the past ninety years, methods of honoring the war dead have remained essentially unchanged. Does this continuity help us remember effectively?

I suggest that the recent conflict in the Middle East warrants a new approach. Take a stroll through Arlington where the most recent casualties have been laid to rest. One sad distinction soon becomes apparent—the increasing number of large, multi-named headstones marking the burial of comingled remains. Here, individual identity has given way to eternal unity in death. We are reminded that the loss of even one soldier affects us all. Honoring our connectedness may be the best memorial we can offer the future.

Veterans’ Day: Still Battling the Bureaucracy

Still Battling the Veterans’ Bureaucracy: Veteran Organizations and Returning Veterans, 2009
a post by Stephen R. Ortiz, author of Beyond the Bonus March and GI Bill: How Veteran Politics Shaped the New Deal Era

Between 2008 and 2009, 250,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan applied for educational benefits made possible through the 2008 GI Bill for post-9/11 veterans. Despite over a year head start, this fall, Department of Veterans Affairs officials found the agency overwhelmed by the number of applicants creating a delay in funding for many of the 82,500 veterans matriculating across the nation. As late as October, thousands of enrolled veterans scrambled for tuition and fees payments, forcing many to apply for short-term loans or to find employment to pay their educational costs while they awaited the processing of their government benefits. Finally, as Congress called in VA officials to chastise them for the backlog, VA Secretary Gen. Eric Shinseki announced the emergency issuance of $3000 checks to veterans in this predicament.

While the VA should be commended for the relative responsiveness of the agency, in many ways the force behind the VA’s action was the collective response of veteran organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. These organizations—as well as the newly formed Iraq War Veterans Organization— sounded the warning on the burgeoning problem as their outreach and service programs began collecting enough evidence from frustrated and panicked veterans seeking their help. In this, veteran organizations remained true to their historical importance as intermediaries between the federal bureaucracy and individual veterans.

From their inception, these organizations have done more than just support veterans’ legislation and throw fish fries in local communities. Beginning in the 1920s, for example, both the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) created service arms to help World War I veterans navigate the newly created veterans’ bureaucracy. From the war’s end, these organizations loudly complained to Congress of the inadequacies of care for disabled veterans as they collected crucial information from local posts and state departments. They aided in promoting the creation of the Veterans Bureau’s in 1921 as a bureaucratic reform to help in the implementation of veterans’ hospitalization, pension, and rehabilitation services. When the Bureau was later transformed yet again into the Veterans’ Administration in 1930, the veterans’ organizations were at the fore. But, more important, after World War II and the passing of the 1944 GI Bill, a bill that both the Legion and VFW had a hand in getting passed, the veteran organizations continually held Congress and VA administrators’ feet to the fire to make sure that the legislation’s implementation went smoothly. They also continued to serve as intermediaries and guides for beleaguered veterans through the bureaucratic red tape. In short, the more expansive the entitlements given to veterans, the more individual veterans have come to lean on veterans’ organizations to carry on their battles with the bureaucracy. As we honor the men and women who have worn the uniform for the United States this Veterans’ Day, let’s remember the role veteran organizations have played in making sure they actually receive the benefits bestowed on them by a grateful country.

What is the Cost of Empire?

Truthdig’s review of Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle against U.S. Military Posts, edited by Catherine Lutz.

In her foreword to “The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts,” an important collection of articles on United States militarism and imperialism, edited by Catherine Lutz, the prominent feminist writer Cynthia Enloe notes one of our most abject failures as a government and a democracy: “There is virtually no news coverage—no journalists’ or editors’ curiosity—about the pressures or lures at work when the U.S. government seeks to persuade officials of Romania, Aruba or Ecuador that providing U.S. military-basing access would be good for their countries.” The American public, if not the residents of the territories in question, is almost totally innocent of the huge costs involved, the crimes committed by our soldiers against women and children in the occupied territories, the environmental pollution, and the deep and abiding suspicions generated among people forced to live close to thousands of heavily armed, culturally myopic and dangerously indoctrinated American soldiers. This book is an antidote to such parochialism.

Catherine Lutz is an anthropologist at Brown University and the author of an ethnography of an American city that is indubitably part of the American military complex: Fayetteville, N.C., adjacent to Fort Bragg, home of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School (see “Homefront, A Military City and the American Twentieth Century,” Beacon Press, 2002). On the opening page of her introduction to the current volume, Lutz makes a real contribution to the study of the American empire of bases. She writes, “Officially, over 190,000 troops and 115,000 civilian employees are massed in 909 military facilities in 46 countries and territories”

Vietnam’s Forgotten Army wins 2009 Society for Military History Award for Biography

The awards keep coming for our fabulous authors! Andrew Wiest just received the 2009 Society for Military History Distinguished Book Award for Biography for Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN. Congrats to Prof. Wiest and his editor, Deborah Gershenowitz.