This is a blog about people in revolution. Specifically, it’s a blog about documents and what they can and cannot tells us about the people who participate in revolutions. It is inspired by something Kathleen DuVal said at our November symposium: “War creates documents.” This struck me as a profound truth about the way many historians study revolutions. The most bountiful manuscript collections related to the American Revolution, for example, owe much of their abundance to wartime documentation. George Washington’s eight years of wartime correspondence are more voluminous than the rest of his life combined. Similarly, the Papers of the Continental Congress devote volume after volume to collecting and organizing materials tracing the course of the war. Historians do not always study revolutionary war. But they owe much to its largesse.
Wartime documents offer unique opportunities to examine individual lives during revolution. In a period where ordinary people left few documents providing detail about their lives, military service created a vast paper trail that once reassembled allows us to reconstruct the experiences of those who are often silent in the documentary record. In this scenario, even the seemingly mundane can turn out to have incredible significance.
During the course of dissertation research, I came across the document pictured to the left (courtesy of the National Archives and Fold3.) Found in federal pension records from the nineteenth-century, this soldier’s discharge from December 1783 is a relatively unremarkable document except for the fact that the soldier in question turned out to be former slave with the felicitous name of Fortune Freeman. Living in New York City in 1818, Freeman appeared before a city judge to attest that he was “extremely poor” and needed “the assistance of my Country to prevent my being dependent on charity.” His net worth was less than ten dollars; his only belongings clothes “all old & nearly worn out.” As proof of his military service during the American Revolution, he produced his discharge. The court clerk (who described Freeman as “a black” in the record) sent the materials to Washington DC for review. Fortune Freeman soon received a standard soldier’s pension of eight dollars per month. .
Freeman’s life turned out to be a bit of a mystery. Hoping to learn more about his background, I dug into the comprehensive seventeen-volume index Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War. To my surprise, I found no less than four men named Fortune Freeman serving in the Continental Army between 1777 and 1783. To my even greater surprise, not one seemed to be the individual who applied for a pension in 1818: all were serving in different regiments and at different places than those claimed in Freeman’s pension application. Further research into extant army muster and pay rolls has led me to believe that Fortune Freeman was originally a slave from Essex County, Massachusetts named Fortune Conant. He served in the Continental Army for two different terms totaling six years. Significantly, enlistment documents for his second term of service list him as Fortune Freeman, indicating that he probably earned freedom through military service.
Fortune Freeman’s discharge is a simple document. It lists his name, his regiment, the date of his discharge, and not much else. There are thousands just like it scattered across the millions of papers in the pension files, but this one turned out to be a treasure trove. Whereas I began my quest searching for one man, this document revealed the Revolutionary stories of five different African-American soldiers each with their own unique wartime experiences.
But if Fortune Freeman opened new doors, others remain firmly and frustratingly shut. Each of the five men discovered through this single document remain otherwise invisible in the historical record. Massachusetts town and census records contain few references to men named Fortune Freemen, let alone for several different ones. Fortune Freeman’s life in New York City is equally obscure. He doesn’t appear in city directories or on the decennial census schedules. Even the federal government eventually lost track of him: an undated, handwritten note on his pension record reads “Time of death not on file.” Ultimately, their lives before and after the American Revolution are unknown. Each survives in the historical record solely through materials created to document their military service. This speaks not only to the importance of wartime documentation in tracing people in revolution, but also to the significance of the Revolutionary War in each of these eighteenth-century lives.
 All quotations from documents in the pension file for Fortune Freeman, File S43572, National Archives Microfilm Publication M804, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files.
This is so interesting, John. Your post made me curious about the subject, or genre, of war documents more broadly. (I’m not a historian and this is totally not my field, so please bear with the free association questions!) What types of “war documents” were the most common at the time, and which have been the best preserved? What kinds of documents are the hardest for you to find in your research, or does that tend to be contingent on the specific situation of soldier you’re tracking? It seems that there must be subfields even within this broad category of “war documents,” and I’m curious about the kinds of narratives that can unfold there.
Fascinating instance of war throwing bright light on ordinary people, and also of historians’ need to look where the light is best. I’m not entirely sure we can conclude that the war was signally important in Freeman’s (and the Freemans’) lives just because that’s where they enter our radar. Deep obscurity was clearly a norm for such folks; would being enumerated legibly have counted as exceptional for them (vs. for us)? How might we tell? As you suggest, Freeman’s name is one of the most striking things about the record(s). I can’t help wondering about the extent to which it’s a wartime coinage–either Freeman’s own, or the record keepers’, or in some interesting partnership, the work of both. Reminds me of Herb Gutman’s classic work on the married names that freedpeople took in the wake of the Civil War, in his BLACK FAMILY IN SLAVERY AND FREEDOM: another instance of wartime transformation, documentation, regimentation…and, of course, of promises seized, and betrayed.
John, after reading your post, I find myself wondering: How does one write (about) revolutions? Does narrating revolutions require crafts other than the ones that are needed when writing about the past in general? Or is there something about revolutions that makes it more difficult to write about them than about other historical events?
In one of my blog posts, I alluded to the fact that one of the challenges that scholars of revolutions face is the tension between continuity and change. Revolutionaries, almost by definition, insisted on ruptures and discontinuities. However, no matter how radical the break, the past can never be totally erased, as historians know well. Yet, because of the emphasis on rupture in revolutionary discourses, and in many ways the reality of rupture itself, it would seem that the tension between continuity and change during and in the wake of revolutions is more acute than for other historical events.
Furthermore, I agree with Haram that the concept of “collectivity” matters in the study of revolutions, and I would argue that it complicates the process of writing about the past. Because revolutions are periods of radical and often sudden transformations (notwithstanding the fact that these transformations may have started long before the eruption of revolutionary events), allegiances shift at a fast speed and the collective takes on different forms. Moreover, the scale of revolutionary events, in particular the complex interplay between the local and global in an imperial context, during the “Age of Revolution” further complicates the story.
Based on my previous comments, it would seem then that writing about revolutions necessitates particular skills. Based on your own research and experience with writing about revolutions (I am asking John here, as well as all other seminar members), what do you think are the crafts that scholars of revolution need the most? Do you prioritize some kinds of narrative over others? How do you strike a balance between explaining what people in revolutions thought they were doing, and explaining what they were doing? Whose story do you decide to tell? And, how do you tell the story of people who have left no trace in the historical record?
Really interesting post, John. I was also intrigued by Kathleen DuVal’s connection of war with sources, and of the intrinsic appeal of biography when attempting to understand a significant event. By focusing on people, she said, we can attempt not only to understand the event itself, but also to glimpse how people lived within that event – how they responded to it, how they influenced it, or simply how they coexisted with it. DuVal explained, and you have shown with your inquiry into Fortune Freeman(s), that the Age of Revolution is particularly ripe for a biographical approach to the study of events. DuVal suggests this is in large part because the Enlightenment accentuated a focus on the individual, and on his or her perceptions of both their exterior and interior worlds.
DuVal also talked to us about “slightly important people” – individuals who have received little or no attention from historians, but who nevertheless allow us some new insight into the people and events that populated and punctuated their lives. They may be “slightly important” because of their occupations, because of the people with whom they interacted, or because of their accomplishments. This importance is largely connected to sources. People become “slightly important” when they leave behind a written record, allowing historians access to a life and an experience that would otherwise remain unknown.
I’ve also been thinking, though, about the slightly important people who haven’t left us sources, whose historical significance is diminished because of this, who would be an unqualified “important” if only the primary source base were different. Thinking again about Kathleen DuVal’s visit, I found myself wondering how an individual can still enhance our understanding of a historical event if we have little knowledge of the individual’s own thoughts, actions, or experiences? And from this, how else might an individual achieve slight importance – and give historians new insight into revolution?
Part of what you’ve demonstrated, then, is the importance of examining a broad source base. Your documents don’t, in fact, tell us much about Freeman’s interior life, but they do show us something about his experience of war. I am constantly intrigued by how new analysis of administrative documents, business records, and other seemingly impersonal documents really can allow us to glimpse people that other sources cannot. Fortune Freeman(s) may have been neither important nor slightly important in his own time, but that importance can and certainly should be reassessed by historians as they mine sources in new ways.