A 2009 survey revealed that 83 percent of adults do not possess a basic understanding of the American Revolution.
More than one third did not know in what century the war took place, some placing it even after the Civil War. One in four didn’t know which country we fought, much less why.
Such revelations of our current historical ignorance frighten me, though I can’t say I’m surprised.
Who cares what a bunch of rich white slave owners did a few hundred years ago?
The Colonial period through and beyond the founding of our country has long been my favorite period of history, in no small part because I count myself a Virginian above most everything else. Here in the Commonwealth, the past is always present. It’s like the mud that gets left on all those mountain paths after a long rain—you can’t help but get in it and then go around tracking it everywhere.
Our valley is littered with crumbling homes said to have been hewed from the calloused hands of those who stood against King George III. The ghost of a brokenhearted bride whose betrothed was felled by an English musket ball is said to roam our nearby wood, doomed to wander the ridges in silent mourning, dressed in her wedding gown as she searches for her love. Each spring when the farmers turn their fields, all manner of artifacts are driven from hiding and back into the sun. One can find arrowheads and spearpoints, even the occasional cannonball. It is no mystery why some say Virginia is our most haunted state. The centuries are like the fields beyond my window. They are constantly being turned upward and driven from hiding.
My olden kin had already been well established here when our war for independence began. They were Irish mixed with a bit of Cherokee by then. These mountains were their home. Sadly, I know little more of them than that. I don’t know what my people were doing during the Revolution, though I can make somewhat of an educated guess based upon all I have ever known of the Coffey folk. Two possibilities come to mind—either they were fighting the Redcoats wherever and whenever they could, or they were holed up in the hollers wanting only to live their lives as they saw fit and to be left the hell alone.
Those seem the only valid choices. The Coffeys I know, the ones here, are strange creatures. I state this with no malice or offense intended, as I am one. We tend to live close to the land, are self-reliant, eager to help a neighbor in need and yet covetous of our own privacy. Most of us—the vast majority, if I am honest—possess a healthy distrust of authority in any form other than the Lord God Almighty. We will fight you if we must (and sometimes even if we must not), only to then turn and help bind your wounds once that fighting is done.
Maybe things were different back then, when our country was young.
Maybe my people then were not as they are now. But most of me doesn’t think that the case. Times change, as do things, but people change seldom. And I’ve found mountain folk change not at all.
Still, I wish I knew what choice my fathers of old made. There is nothing in me that allows for the prospect their hearts sided with the King George; that distrust of authority seems too deeply seated and must have come from somewhere. But of course a dislike of one side does not necessarily mean an allegiance to the other, even where freedom is involved.
I would imagine freedom was a thing easily enough had in the Blue Ridge back then, so far as it was removed from the world. It is easy to think we made our own way here, and without interference from any or all else fave the dry seasons that threatened our crops and the cold winters that left us hungry.
It would have been an easy thing to spend those long years between April 1775 and September 1783 holed up in our own hillbilly paradise. To fight soil and beast rather than Cornwallis and Gage.
But a quick search of Google shows quite a horde of Coffeys listed as members of the Continental Army, serving as officers and soldiers both. We did take up arms. We laid down our plows and let our fields rest in order to march off under threat of death. We stood for revolution, knowing full well that loss would brand us traitors.
Tonight I will gather my family and walk around our neighborhood, oohing and ahhing at the fireworks that explode over us. We will likely visit my parents and stand close as Dad honors his own Fourth of July tradition by emptying his .30-30 into the blue Virginia sky.
Dad, he would have fought. My father would have been on the front lines, cussing and giving old King George the finger.
Me, I’ll likely bear witness to all of that and wondering what I would have done those centuries ago. Would I have stood for what was right and true, or would I have instead sought to keep to my own peaceful corner of the world and prayed for those who stood for me?
That answer seems an important one, because that looks to me the choice each of us must still make all these years later. To stand and do our part to ensure this great country continues on strong and free, or to choose instead to tend to our own affairs and our own lives and damn the rest.
The story is told of a European who visited the newly formed United States in the years following the war. He and his American relative were roaming the capital when they spotted President Washington walking alone on the other side of the street. The European was shocked at the sight of a ruler making his way alone and unbothered. In a panic, he asked his relative where Washington’s guards were.
His relative stopped cold and slapped his own chest, saying, “Here is his guard.”
I want a country like that again.
I want a people of differences and opinions united in both a singular love of a freedom born of blood and tears and a profound sense of duty toward the protection of it.
For freedom is a rare thing in this world, and easily taken from those whose only wish is to be left alone.
From those who would rather sit and pray for others to stand.