Documents Of Freedom

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The Revolutionary War is familiar to most of us. Even before the guns were stilled, historians began writing about it. As time passed, popular poets committed its heroic episodes to verse, painters put them down on canvas, and for a century and a half—alas, not so often any more—the war was the stuff of which stirring Fourth of July orations were made. A familiar war, but remote, and made more so in recent years by the centennial of another, later war. Most of us can still cite a handful of Revolutionary names—Washington, Wayne, Lafayette on “our side”; André, Burgoyne, Cornwallis on “theirs”—but we see the men in the tricorn hats, white wigs, and knee pants as in a dusty, wavy mirror. Their formal portraits are of little help, their speeches sound stilted to our modern ears, and even the newspapers of the time cannot give us the feeling of having been there. It is rather in their letters, written under the stress of battle, in the elation of victory or the gloom of defeat, that we come to realize that these were very human beings, with feelings much like our own. In the pages that follow, A MERICAN H ERITAGE presents facsimiles of a number of such letters, touching upon significant moments of the Revolution from Lexington and Concord to Yorktown, selected from the extraordinary manuscript collections in the William L. Clements Library of the University of Michigan. As we look over the shoulders of the letter writers, the intervening decades fade away, and the great war and the great men themselves come compellingly to life again.