'Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom': History for the general reader


It probably says more about Ethan Allen, the legendary leader of the upstart Green Mountain Boys during the American Revolution, that outside of Vermont his name is better known for the national furniture conglomerate than as a general of troops who was in the right place at the right time — yet whose actual record in the field has been debatable.

Allen's reputation as something of a self-promoting blowhard has even been chronicled by none other than Herman Melville in his novel "Israel Potter's Fifty Years of Exile," as well as more recently in the theatrical play "The Almost True and Truly Remarkable Adventures of Israel Potter," by Joe Bravaco and Larry Rosler.

These depictions were no-holds barred, apparently for good reason: Where there's smoke, there almost always is fire, and historically, Allen stoked those flames with great braggadocio.

That brash spirit, at the very least, seemed to trickle down to the soldiers he commanded, the militia known as the Green Mountain Boys, whose exploits, under Allen's command, are followed in this year's release (Simon and Schuster, 2018, Hardcover, 302 pages, $ 26.00) of Christopher S. Wren's concise history: "Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom: Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys and the American Revolution."

The word "history" remains apt, but still, is used cautiously. Wren, now 82 and a Vermont resident who is a visiting professor at Dartmouth, was a longtime New York Times foreign correspondent and editor who headed up news bureaus in a number of key cities such as Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, Ottawa and Johannesburg.

His view of the world is thus a broad one, and his writing style, as in his previous books, decidedly journalistic.

This is not a pejorative by any means, because readers who want an account of Allen's escapades from his first involvement with the New Hampshire Grants in the mid 1700's to the establishment of Vermont as the 14th state in 1791 (fittingly, in Chapter Fourteen), will get one in clear prose meant mostly to inform readers chronologically in as many brief chapters which give you the basics, and bring to life relevant characters, but not much more.

Along the way, Wren covers a lot of ground, from Allen's tour de force: the taking of Fort Ticonderoga from the British in May 1775 by way of a surprise attack, to his nearly immediate shaming just a chapter later in the failed attempt to capture Montreal in the same year, just four months later. This disaster led to a spell in prison courtesy of the Crown, until 1778.

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Of tremendous local interest is a full chapter on the Battle of Bennington in 1777, and more so its regional repercussion and fallout, starring the leadership of Seth Warner and John Stark, and a ragtag crew of Vermonters and others who carried the day, Wren colorfully tells us:

"Stark's pickup army of Green Mountain Boys, militiamen, farmers, and a fighting clergyman had cut to pieces the best German mercenaries money could buy. At least 207 lay dead, and more than 700, including 30 officers, were captured. The Americans lost 30 killed and 40 wounded. The corpses littering the road included Seth Warner's brother Daniel. Seth `jumped off his horse, stooped and gazed in the dead man's eyes, and then rode away without saying a word.'"

There's quite a bit of this book that is not about Allen, of course, but about his relations and associates who carried the fight, as well as the political intrigue, when he was indisposed in shackles. It is, therefore, a good bird's-eye view of early Vermont.

And while Wren provides explanatory notes on his sources for each chapter, he neither cites them directly as one might expect in a scholarly history, nor attempts deeper examination of events.

But if someone wants a solid launching point into this slice of the American past, the appeal of "Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom" is undeniable.

From Wren's account, a reader can then go forth in several key directions of further study and research, be it to the synergy (or not) of revolutionary geopolitics, to a more intimate and thorough look at the man who was Ethan Allen, as well as his many lieutenants and other key figures in that fledgling 14th state.

In this informed primer, then, Wren has offered us a brief popular history of early America with a broad appeal to a more general audience, and well worth the read.

Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias at: E-mail: tchalkias@aol.com, Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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