Cannons for the Cause: A Novel of the American Revolution
by Martin R. Ganzglass (Somalia 1966–68)
A Peace Corps Writers Book
Reviewed by Thomas E. Coyne
Martin R. Ganzglass has been a Peace Corps Volunteer, a lawyer, a non-fiction author and is now a novelist who believes “thoroughly researched, well-written historical fiction will attract readers who otherwise would not read straight history books”.
And he is right!
The ranks of those who are turned off from the knowledge of days and decades gone by because of over emphasis on dates and place names would probably fill several armies. They never get to savor the meat and potatoes of past events; the unlikely stew of people, prejudices, truth and lies that are in our past and have shaped our present.
Cannons for the Cause begins a tale that, if the author has his way (and the stamina), will fill several volumes about the Revolutionary War. It starts in the bitter cold winter of December 1775 and January 1776 with a saga called by historian Victor Brooks “one of the most stupendous feats of logistics” of the entire war; the transport of fifty-nine cannons, together with carriages, flint, shot, side boxes, cannon balls and ramrods from Ft. Ticonderoga, New York to Dorchester Heights, Massachusetts overlooking the Harbor and the City of Boston. Harbor and city were occupied by the British Navy and Army fully intent on beating down the rebellious colonials defying the British Parliament. It was, equally, fully the intent of General George Washington and his Continental Army to free the harbor and city and these cannon provided the last link in the General’s net.
The narrative of this remarkable transport of heavy cannon by horse and ox-drawn sleds and wagons over rutted roads and snow covered hills, fields and rivers in extreme cold and exhausting conditions is also the story of Willem “Will” Stoner, a fifteen year old boy hired out by his father to drive a team of horses pulling one of those sleds. His experiences and observations throughout that journey and in the events following to the eventual liberation of Boston are the backdrop for a look at the American Revolution not usually seen in classroom textbooks.
Textbooks emphasize heroes and battles. Ganzglass emphasizes the complex mix of people, propaganda, rumor, fear, greed and nobility that fuel action and events. Even the “good guys” in Cannons for the Cause have their prejudices. The myth that the United States sprang full blown from the patriotism of farmers, merchants and frontiersmen united against the tyranny of a mad king and an overbearing Parliament dissolves quickly as the author portrays just how uneasily the Revolutionary opposition came together.
Using the novel form allows the author to join people and groups that never worked together and to embellish actual historical events. In fairness, he provides End Notes that correct some of these literary liberties. He also gets a bit ahead of himself in introducing the Marblehead Mariners since there is no evidence any Mariner participated in the “noble train of artillery” and their most noteworthy achievement, getting Washington’s army across the Delaware to attack Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day, 1776, was months after the close of this novel.
However, it is in the depiction of the everyday humanness of the participants that the author excels. These are people, not cardboard cutouts. They drank; they made lewd comments; they complained; they held noble thoughts and crude prejudices side by side. Some of their motives were stirring and pure. Some were greedy and mean. Some worked willingly in the cause of freedom and independence. Others were loyal to their former homeland and disdainful of rebels and their motives. Neither Tories nor Patriots were tolerant. Neither was above using a slanted version of events to further their cause.
The birth of our nation was messy. It is history. It is life unfolding . . . and I look forward to future chapters from the author.
Thomas E. Coyne (full disclosure — he’s John Coyne’s older brother) has a B.A. in History from Western Michigan University (1955) and an M.A. in History from the University of Michigan (1956).
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