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Four Years at the Mount

Junior Year

Historyís greatest underdogs

Kyle Ott
MSM Class of 2015

(7/2014) I have a confession to make. I used to hate U.S. history. Yes, I know how strange that sounds coming from someone who is a self-admitted history junkie, and a proud citizen of the old U.S. of A. However, there were many years where the prospect of studying the lives of our nationís leaders and the events that shaped America seemed to pale in comparison to the Hollywood-esque sweeps of events like the Third Crusade, or the Napoleonic Wars. It wasnít until I had completed AP U.S. History in high school that I discovered my love for the topic. While it doesnít sound like much, AP U.S. History at my high school was less of a class and more of a trial by fire. You took the class knowing that it was going to be more work than youíd ever done in your entire life. It would drain you, break you, and as one of the older students mentioned, someone will cry in class.

The whole thing was taught by Thomas Breech, a grumpy bear of an old man with a walrus mustache, a penchant for growling when he talked, and a considerable amount of girth that he had retained from his career as a wrestler and football player. The tales of that class were not exaggerated, and even today as a senior in college, I count my time spent studying under Mr. Breech as one of (if not the most) grueling academic experiences of my life. However, in between the hard work, long hours, and late nights, Breech imparted something on all of us; a love for U.S history. While there were many things that I cherish from that time it was his lessons on the American Revolution that stuck with me the most. These werenít the tales of unprecedented heroism that I had grown up with. No, these were the stories of an ethnically diverse group of immigrants that broke with their mother country not for the altruistic reasons of freedom, but because they didnít want to be taxed any more.

Our struggle for independence and the first Fourth of July werenít as black and white as years of Schoolhouse Rock taught me. For the first time, we didnít hear the story of the fearless patriots who struggled in the face of overwhelming odds because they wanted to be free. Washington morphed from a mythical leader into a man who lost more battles then he won but whose major talent was in unifying people politically. In an instant we were faced with a revolution that was as interesting as it was flawed. It is my sincere hope that by painting the entire imperfect picture of our independence, you will come to love and appreciate it all the more.

At the time that the American colonies seceded from the British Empire, the entire world laughed long and hard at what they thought was going to be a one sided bloodbath. To be fair, the Brits had every reason to be confidant. They had the worldís largest, strongest, and most battle tested army. The redcoats may be known today for their bright uniforms and tendency to stand in straight lines, but what textbooks forget to mention is that these were soldiers who had already been tested over and over in the fires of combat. Their American opponentís, in contrast, were nowhere near as battle ready. While songs and stories immortalize the American minutemen of Concord and Lexington, the majority of the continental army was composed of farmers, craftsman, old men and boys as young as 10 and 12. While there were some skilled soldiers in the American ranks (usually veterans of the French and English war, or Scots-Irish pioneers accustomed to hunting and skirmishes) the vast majority of the American army was untrained and underpaid. Furthermore, Britainís navy was the scourge of the oceans having practically invented colonial naval combat. Every nation from France to Spain and back again knew that the Royal fleet was something to be feared and avoided at all cost to the point where English dominance of the sea was practically a given. While America boasted several great port cities like Boston and New York, its maritime options were nowhere near as powerful or as vast as Englandís.

Another myth about our beautiful 4th of July was that American forces wiped the English out quickly and efficiently. The simple fact of the matter is that America didnít so much as defeat the British, but exhaust them. Royal forces held major urban centers like Philadelphia and New York for the majority of the war, and won major engagement against colonial forces. Despite their successes, they could never chase down and completely destroy the Continental Army and so they were forced to remain in their urban fortresses. The major problem for the British was that America was so vast. Sure they were stronger, but unlike the continental guerrillas, they could not be everywhere. George Washington and his ragtag band of soldiers may not have won many set piece battles, like those portrayed in Mel Gibsonís The Patriot, but they could skirmish like no other. For every major encounter the British won, they lost two or three skirmishes. Their men were picked off in the wilderness, outmaneuvered in the mountains, and routed among the thorps and hamlets of early America. With every loss, King George was forced to shell out more money, and pour more resources into his rebellious colonies which were desperately needed at home and in its other investments abroad. With a lot of help from the French navy, the final siege at Yorktown proved a decisive victory for American forces. Our independence was won not with one knockout punch, but a thousand cuts.

Even our greatest heroes differ from the classic stories that we tell around bonfire and backyard barbecues. Perhaps the greatest military mind of the revolution, a man who contributed not only his expertise, but his familyís personal wealth and resources to the cause was a young aristocrat who cast down his trappings of status to lead armies in the field. No, Iím not speaking of our first president George Washington, but of the French nobleman the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette came to America as a young man interested in adventure, but discovered something unique about the American condition that made him throw his fortunes behind the cause of independence. Starting as a field officer, he quickly became one of Washingtonís chief aids and friends. (Lafayette would actually name his son George Washington). While Washington provided political clout, it was actually Lafayette who provided the continental army with much needed tactical and strategic knowledge. Another brilliant man that helped shift the tides of war was the renowned Prussian Drillmaster Colonel von Steuban. Von Steuban has the historical distinction of not only improving, but revolutionizing (I had to sneak the pun in somewhere) the American army. It was Steuban who was responsible for transforming the battered American survivors at Valley Forge into soldiers. It was Steuban who set the standard in camp sanitation that helped relieve the brunt of disease among the army. It was his careful discipline that allowed Continental forces to win multiple bayonet engagements. Steuban even went on to write the code that would be used to train Army recruits until 1812.

While all of these stories are wonderful, interesting, and in some cases a little shocking, especially if you snoozed in high school history, they serve to illustrate a greater point about the founding of our country. America didnít just come out of nowhere. Our country and our freedom werenít born of ballpark franks and cheap fireworks. We have a tendency to gloss over the nitty-gritty of Americaís beautiful creation. We forget that we werenít born out of patriotic fervor, and incredible talent; that the identity of our nation was forged in a crucible of work, effort, success and failure, good along with the bad. It is the imperfections of this tale that make it significant. The fact that a nation composed of foreigners, thieves, exiles, and religious dissidents could forge a strange, disjointed, and utterly wonderful culture is nothing short of a historiographical wonder. So while youíre busy flipping burgers think about this; long before we took the spotlight on the world stage, our ancestors were historyís underdogs. We werenít pretty, or popular, but we were strong, smart, pragmatic, and innovative. And at the end of the day, thatís something to be proud of. Iím Kyle Ott, wonít you sit and read for a while?

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