Editor’s Note: This story has been updated at 11:33 a.m. on Oct. 23.
Gregory Urwin isn’t trying to knock the Founding Fathers off their historical pedestal with his new book. But he is trying to tell the stories of everyday people during the Revolutionary War.
“We tend to give the founders the benefit of the doubt,” said Urwin, a Temple University history professor and military historian. “They were the perfect politicians, they were completely altruistic, they had no other concerns but to make America free.”
Urwin is taking a sabbatical this semester to write his book, “When Freedom Wore a Red Coat: The British Invasions of Virginia, 1781.” The book, which he hopes to have published in 2021, will discuss how the British Army protected enslaved Africans, who fled from their owners and were promised freedom by the British during the Revolutionary War.
During the war, around 20,000 runaway slaves joined the British forces to try to secure their independence. Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, offered freedom to slaves willing to fight for the British.
Urwin said most scholars who study the war often discuss the Siege of Yorktown, the final battle of the Revolutionary War, and celebrate George Washington’s military strategy that ended the war.
He added that during the Revolutionary War, Founding Fathers from the South like Washington and Thomas Jefferson had other priorities than just making America independent from Britain, including protecting the institution of slavery. Both Washington and Jefferson kept slaves in their homes.
In his writing, Urwin’s goal is to focus on the internal struggles Americans went through when deciding which side of the war to be on — especially the struggles of African American slaves to make this decision.
“The fact remains that a lot of African-Americans believed they would find freedom at British hands, not the hands of slave owners,” Urwin said.
While researching, Urwin discovered the story of London Pleasants, a slave who fled to the British side and became a trumpeter when the British Army invaded Virginia.
Urwin said he discussed stories like Pleasants’s with representatives at the Museum of the American Revolution, which is in Old City on 3rd Street near Chestnut. The partnership created the “Sometimes freedom wore a red coat” gallery in the “A Revolutionary War” historical exhibit at the museum.
Philip Mead, the director of curatorial affairs and chief historian at the museum, said the institution wanted to reflect the complex problems African-Americans faced when deciding who to fight for during the revolution.
“On the one hand, you have Congress and its supporters talking about liberty, on the other hand, you have a British Army that after 1779 was offering protection [for] enslaved people who had fled their masters,” Mead said.
He added African-Americans who joined the British usually weren’t enlisted into the army and were put into groups to do field labor.
Jacob Brown, a history Ph.D. student, said he thinks Urwin’s style of putting military history into a broader social context makes the subject more interesting. Brown took Urwin’s Rise of the American Military Profession course in Fall 2017.
“It seems there’s a lot of layers to military history that people don’t think of immediately and that he’s interested in exploring,” Brown said.
As a military historian who has authored six books, Urwin said he wants his book to include the social context of the American Revolution instead of just solely focusing on military tactics.
“That kind of mindset, just looking at where armies go and what battle they fight, who gets killed and wounded, is one reason why military historians and military professionals continually misunderstand the nature of war,” Urwin said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated Urwin’s book will be published in Spring 2019. He hopes to have the book published in 2021.