Past Exhibits at the American Independence Museum

African Americans in the American Revolution

African Americans played an important part in the war, as slaves, freedmen, camp followers, patriots, loyalists and maroon rebels.  At the start of the American Revolution, some 460,000 blacks lived as slaves in the British North American colonies.  Another 60,000 lived as free men and women, though freedom did not grant them any of the rights awarded to white inhabitants.  Enslaved or free, black people faced widespread discrimination.

In 1776, America declared its independence, evoking the sentiments of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The language espoused by Thomas Jefferson rallied many to the Patriot cause, whilst others sought to retain their connections to the British Crown. For many enslaved blacks, the war seemed a real opportunity to gain freedom and equality. In the end, a larger number of blacks chose to fight for the British, having been promised immediate emancipation for doing so. On the other hand, the new American government and its seemingly democratic, egalitarian values appeared promising to those hoping to witness the end of slavery. In both instances, blacks fought and bled alongside their white comrades, often without being granted the recognition or rewards that they deserved. Further, despite their heroism and shared experiences with whites, history has not always been kind to the memory of black Revolutionaries.

The legacy of the Revolution for many African Americans, slave and free, was that the rhetoric of freedom and equality espoused by the founding fathers solidified racism and strengthened the institution of slavery.  This exhibition therefore intends to explore these issues, with a hope that it can be done through the eyes of specific African American slaves and freedmen, Patriot and Loyalists, and from local African Americans in the Exeter area.

“All my Wareing apparill:” Production, Consumption, and the Culture of Women’s Clothing in Revolutionary Exeter

 When a woman in Revolutionary Exeter assembled her “Wareing apparill,” she acted as both a producer and a consumer.  Though often absent from the record, women were active participants in the local economy, bringing a multitude of goods and services to the marketplace.  Some would specialize in particular trades, such as repairing shoes or trimming hats.  Many more would process the wool or flax produced on their farms to various stages, trading cleaned, carded or combed fibers, yarns or threads – occasionally, woven cloth – with a merchant for the finer fabrics from which they would construct garments.

As a seaport, Exeter was linked to networks of trade which provided its residents access to goods from all over the world.  Using the credits she might accumulate with a local storekeeper as a producer, a woman in Revolutionary Exeter would also become a consumer, purchasing readymade pieces–such as silver buttons–and imported cloth.  American dependency on and attachment to British wares is revealed by their difficulty in enforcing non-importation agreements and by the speed with which they gave up wartime homespun.

The Currency of Colonial America: A Struggle for Economic Independence

When the pilgrims first arrived in New England, currency was not foremost on their minds. Bartering was the main economic powerhouse used for trade between settlers as well as between settlers and the Native Americans.  Even England was more than happy to barter with the colonies as this allowed them to control the settlers’ economic system. The Colonists began to see the need to have their own type of currency as it would provide a method for colonists to hold their own wealth beyond the goods they owned, and equalize the pricing and valuing of an array of goods.  Most importantly, having their own currency would give them control over their own economy and some independence from England. England denied the Colonists’ desire for their own currency as they wanted to maintain control of the Colonists’ buying and spending power.

At the start of the American Revolution, the Colonies, as well as Congress, began printing their own money, made out of cloth and recycled rags, to pay for military expenses and to facilitate economic activity.  This resulted in an array of different types and styles of paper currency. But complications arose during and after the Revolutionary War, focusing on the inability to legitimize their currency within their own states, and abroad as a young nation.

New Hampshire’s Founding Fathers

The role the state of New Hampshire played in the American Revolution is often overlooked in history books because no battles took place within the boundaries of the state. New Hampshire played a pivotal role in the early part of the war under the leadership of several brilliant men from the Granite State.

The first overt action of the American Revolution happened at Fort William and Mary in Newcastle, New Hampshire under the leadership of John Langdon of Portsmouth and John Sullivan of Durham.  Langdon and Sullivan led a successful raid on the British garrison at Newcastle which resulted in the colonials gaining much needed gun powder and weapons, which would be later used at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Men like John Stark, Joseph Cilley, Henry Dearborn, John Sullivan and others played important roles in the Battles of Bunker Hill, Trenton, Princeton, Bennington and Saratoga, as well as during the Siege of Boston. If it was not for men from New Hampshire who fought at Bennington and the two battles at Saratoga the war may have turned out differently. New Hampshire men prevented the British from cutting New England off from the rest of the colonies and the victory at Saratoga encouraged the French to assist the Americans in the war effort. New Hampshire men served with distinction throughout the war and also played an important part in the creation of the new nation following the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which ended the Revolution.

Bloody Work: Medicine in the 18th Century

God, Our Healer

For people of the 18th C., God was involved in all aspects of life, including their health. In New England especially, Puritan roots had taught generations of people that God alone determined who became unwell and who did not. People who fell ill with disease or injury were believed to be sinful and were being punished for this reason. Further, for many in the earlier part of the century, the spread of disease and illness (as well as environmental disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, and poor harvests) were signs of loosening piety and demonstrated the need for strengthened devotion to God.  In order to receive mercy and therefore recover, the ill would need to repent for their sins. For this reason, many people turned to local ministers in times of ill health to take care of their souls, and therefore their bodies.

George Washington and Epidemic Disease in the Continental Army

One of the biggest threats to the lives of soldiers in the Revolution was the spread of epidemic disease such as smallpox. Standards of hygiene in barracks and medical facilities were often poor, causing the deaths of thousands within relatively short periods of time. Though little was known about exactly how disease was spread, many doctors did recognize the need to isolate the infected from other patients, and attempts were made to prevent its advancements. In 1777, smallpox and other diseases threatened to alter the outcome of the war. In a bid to prevent an attack of smallpox amongst his encamped soldiers at Morristown, General George Washington ordered the immediate inoculation and quarantine of all of his troops who had not yet been infected. This action by Washington is largely believed to have saved the Continental Army from near eradication by smallpox.

Surgeons at War

Although larger ‘General Hospitals’ existed for the treatment of the Continental Army, injured and ill soldiers on the front lines would be treated in ‘Flying Hospitals’. These were mobile hospitals run by Regimental Surgeons, their apprentices and sometimes camp followers with medical experience. Often set only a matter of miles away from the theatre of conflict, these units moved with the army. When the battle had ended, doctors, their apprentices and able -bodied soldiers would remove the injured by stretcher or horseback to the movable hospital unit. In such places infection and disease were rife, causing the death of the majority of injured soldiers. Aside from disease, penetrating wounds such as those sustained by bayonets were thought to be the most fatal, usually causing hemorrhages, infection or gangrene.

George Washington and the Society of the Cincinnati

Along with being the first president of the United States, George Washington was the first president of the Society of the Cincinnati, named for a famous Roman general who was elected dictator and general and ultimately chose to give the power back to the Roman Senate once he won the battle. The Society was formed by Revolutionary War officers for the sake of preserving fraternity among the officers. The Society also supported the widows and orphans of fallen officers and offered financial support to officers who had neglected their personal business on account of the war effort. However, Washington had misgivings about being a member of an exclusive group of military officers. The bylaws of the Society seemed to contradict the egalitarian nature of republican ideals.

Just like Cincinnatus, Washington was a successful farmer, military officer, and statesman. This motivated his peers to identify him with Cincinnatus, a Roman general whose story was resurrected during the Revolution as the standard for the virtuous republican citizen. This exhibit examines the strong parallels between Washington and Cincinnatus and Washington’s controversial involvement with the Society.