By Joe Craig
“The better the novel the more dangerous it is, because readers are more likely to think it’s true.”
Richard Ketchum’s Saratoga, Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War has been a continual best-selling item at Saratoga NHP. Not only is the story compelling about world-changing history but the often repeated verdict is that it “reads more like a novel than a history book”.
Mr. Ketchum’s works are regarded as “popular history” and to some more serious-minded historians rate one or two notches above historical fiction. But considering that historical novels certainly enjoy a great popularity among the reading public, it’s no bad thing to be compared as such. Indeed, being able to tell great stories from the past in an engaging way is too often a rarity among historians.
For some individuals, historical novels are a wake-up call that the boring history suffered in school actually had something really fascinating about it. And historical novels often are more accessible than a history book to the non-expert (save perhaps Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose), and often become an entry point to the study of an era.
But here is where we must exercise caution. Writers of historical novels (unlike historians) have “literary licenses.” That means they can often be more “colorful” being able to invent interesting, memorable characters and dialog or tinker with the real ones. Also, novelists can wallow in pure speculation to fill in the gaps of the historical record with invented events and situations…and mostly get away with it
Novelists may also indulge their biases towards historical characters, and often do so to the fullest extent of their literary powers. This does not always sit well with historians, no matter if they are academics or “public historians.” Hillary Mantel’s treatment of Saint/Sir Thomas More in her novel Wolf Hall stirred up some severe criticism by historians, including the reaction of Antony Beevor quoted above.
Ms. Mantel is by no means alone in such goings-on. Quite a few novels have monkeyed about with the character of historical personages. Indeed, Saratoga National Historical Park’s interpretive staff seems doomed to be haunted by Kenneth Roberts’ portrayal of Benedict Arnold in Rabble in Arms as a larger than life character.
Besides Roberts’ canonization of Arnold in that work, he makes the horrible death of one Jane McCrae as the reason for American resistance against Burgoyne’s invasion. His protagonist witnesses her heinous end and is sent on the sawdust trail to spread the word of the horrid event, rallying all and sundry to repel the British invaders and their brutish native allies.
Roberts was not the first to make literary hay over Jane’s demise. Her death inspired forgettable poetry and plays in the 19th and 20th centuries. But if ever there was an event that could make it as an historical novel, the murder of Jane McCrea would be hard to beat. Indeed, how could anyone go wrong to write about the tragic and useless death of that young woman? A young life snuffed out, a clash of cultures, a side bar story in a gigantic tale of war, love lost…practically a Lifetime Network Movie that writes itself.
Usually, party-pooping historians will step in with their spoil-sport insistence on facts, but 19th Century antiquarians made sure that Jane’s death was a centerpiece of the Revolutionary War. They happily quoted and re-quoted each other, and even ripped each other off in word-for-word plagiarism. Later, ostensibly more serious historians (including Mr. Ketchum) have followed suit in their verdict of the importance of Jane’s murder.
What is striking about Jane’s death and the subsequent literary and historical works is how little seems to be known about what precisely happened. The very reasons for her death are truly unknown: some hold that the Native warriors escorting her quarreled over who would reap promised rewards. Others postulate that they were just in an ugly mood over the loss of some of their men in a previous skirmish. There’s even conflict as to who croaked Jane. Some accounts claimed that Jane was actually shot by militia firing on her captors. Muddying the waters further are entirely fictitious Native fighters, “Wyandot Panther” and “Le Loupe”, invented as the culprit.
Jane herself seems to be many different people from a variety of sources, contemporary and later. No one seems to agree on exactly how old she was at the time of her death; it ranges from 17 to 23 years old. Jane’s hair has been described in various colors, almost sounding like a catalogue for hair dyes: brown, “dark as a raven’s wing”, red, blonde, golden, yellow and auburn. Jane is invariably described as “beautiful”, although the notorious James Wilkinson did not seem too impressed by her looks.
With so little factually known, it is small wonder that the story of Jane McCrea’s death blurred the emotional reactions and historical impact in people’s minds: a recent visitor to Saratoga NHP actually proclaimed “We wouldn’t have American History without Jane McCrea”. Reining in the tale has often been difficult, to say the least.
While we might not be able to know who killed Jane, nor his motives, we can safely say that her death didn’t become the rallying point that so many have come to believe. To be sure, General Gates took General Burgoyne in a letter sent 2 September 1777to task about the depredations of his Native fighters, mentioning “Miss M’Rea” specifically. The letter was meant for public consumption and was duly published in many gazettes. What is important to remember is Gates’ letter was dated some five weeks after Jane’s death. Gates’ letter used Jane as a rather personal dig at Burgoyne, but it certainly wasn’t a rallying call for the militia.
It is a fact that New England and New York militia had been serving in the Northern Department during the 1777 campaign. But it’s vital to remember that militia wasn’t some sort of rod and gun club, or an armed volunteer fire company. They were present because they had been called to duty by their respective governments. Militiamen were bound by law to report for duty but sometimes it was with great reluctance that they did. Such duty was an imposition on their time and livelihood and potentially dangerous to boot.
The journal of William Smith a loyalist living near Livingston Manor records some of the “doings” during the summer of 1777. Of particular note are some entries in early August, when popular imagination holds that the militia were rabidly turning out to “avenge Jane McCrea.”
Mrs. Place’s nephew who came from Fort Miller last Saturday …says that the Militia were discontented at tarrying so long and had agree [with] ours & those from N. England to retire Home as last Tuesday with or without leave They will not do the duty of Continental Soldiers without pay….[2 August 1777]
There was a thin Meeting of the Militia to Day at Pulver’s A letter from Genl. Ten Broeck arrived there urging their coming on, but lost its Effect by the Return of 4 Waggoners who when they had delivered their Loads Yesterday at Albany took Liberty to come Home and now report that Genl. Burgoyne’s Indians kill and scalp at the rate of 30 per Day The Officers adjourn ordering a new Summons for a Meeting next Friday….[6 August 1777]
It is reported …that the Militia refused Yesterday to move up the Country and take the Places of that half of the Militia who consented to stay three weeks on the Promise of being discharged to Morrow…. [9 August 1777]
While we must allow for a certain bias on Smith’s part, it is striking that no mention is made of Jane McCrea. Received knowledge claims that everyone was appalled by Jane’s death, and even those who were Loyalists were willing to serve in the militia. However everyone appears to be less interested in avenging her death than giving vent to very human emotions of being tired of the whole damn war and utter fear of the Native fighters with Burgoyne’s army.
So why did the militia turn out?
In July General Washington recognized the problems facing the Northern Department and urged Congress to send General Benedict Arnold to assist General Schuyler. Washington noted, “Under [Arnold’s] more immediate command, I trust the Militia who come out, will render important Services….” Unfortunately, even “an Officer of Judgement, bravery and Enterprize” failed to get cooperation from the New Englanders, who really did not care much for Schuyler.
It actually took two events to galvanize the resolve of New England to send troops to the Northern Army to repel Burgoyne. The first was understandably selfish: the New England States wanted to be certain that Burgoyne’s path wasn’t about to turn east into their turf. The second was the appointment of General Horatio Gates to the command of the Northern Army, superseding General Schuyler. Gates was someone that the New England states admired and respected.
The tipping point against Burgoyne was far too prosaic for a novelist: the Northern Department got a new commander. It might lack romance, but it made for a signal victory.
Post Scriptum: many thanks to Park Ranger/Historian Eric Schnitzer for his insightful edits and suggestions to improve this essay.