K.R. in Current Works: Mark York’s “Patriot on the Kennebec”

Today via the comment section of this blog, I was introduced to Mark York and his work titled Patriot on the Kennebec: Major Reuben Colburn, Benedict Arnold and the March to Quebec, 1775 .  According to York, here is a short blurb on his book:

In late 1775, a few months after the first shots of the Revolution were fired, Benedict Arnold led more than one thousand troops into Quebec to attack the British there. Departing from Massachusetts, by the time they reached Pittston, Maine, they were in desperate need of supplies and equipment to carry them the rest of the way. Many patriotic Mainers contributed, including Major Reuben Colburn, who constructed a flotilla of bateaux for the weary troops. Despite his service in the Continental army, many blamed Colburn when several of the vessels did not withstand the harsh journey. In this narrative, the roles played by Colburn and his fellow Mainers in Arnold’s march are reexamined and revealed.

In my reply to his comment, I’d asked Mark if he could provide a short summary on how he interacts with Kenneth Roberts’ works in his own Patriot on the Kennebec.  Mark kindly responded in an email with the following:

The journals of the members of the expedition Roberts collected and compiled in March to Quebec are critical to the study, but some of Roberts’ pet peeves, chinks in his historical armor, that he reveals in the margins of March are also disproven by the journals themselves. For example, the banquet at Fort Western and Aaron Burr’s exploits. The meal happened, and yet since his relative, Edward Nason, was an enlisted man, he would have been sleeping outside in the rain and not feasting inside with the Howards, Reuben Colburn, Burr and other officers. There was also some unflattering portrayals of the guides from my neck of the woods in Arundel that are sort of insulting. Roberts was a man of privilege, but he could be unapologetic and uncaring of anyone not so lucky.  

My essay in the opening of Patriot reflects these flaws while praising his efforts and making my job so much easier. Yet, I believe I’ve broken new ground in uncovering things about the expedition that other authors have miscalculated. Robert’s and I agree on the complex story of Natanis and Sabatis, though. He reveals his initial bias against my central Maine people in the dialogue of Arundel. ” I was prepared to mislike Colburn for Washington and Arnold’s fondness for bateaux, but I had wronged him.”

I find this very intriguing.  While Roberts was indeed a great writer and to be appreciated for his research and writing, he was not without his foibles and errors.  What I appreciate about Mark is that despite his appreciation for Roberts (or maybe because of ?), he is willing to critique Roberts and point out possible errors in his works. 

I look forward to reading this book and I hope you get a chance to purchase this book.  You can find it via Amazon by clicking here.

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8 Responses

  1. It is amazing that York differs so little with Roberts and seemingly not at all on Roberts’ major historical themes regarding Arnold’s military genius, the significance of pro-British agents in sabotaging the mission, the cake-walk scenario of an easy victory. Roberts comes off better than famous military historians going back to Thucydides. . And Roberts has written a novel, not a history.

  2. The pro-British agents, and Arnold’s cluelessness about them and who he trusted, is fully fleshed out in my book. All genius has chinks and blindspots.

    • Thanks for your clarification. I must admit, I envy your getting to research all of this! I would have eaten it up.

    • I am not an expert on the battles of the American Revolution (though I do hold a Ph.D. in US History), but I had been under the impression that Roberts very likely would have grasped at limited evidence about British agents to embellish his story. Whether Roberts should have criticized Arnold for gullibility on this issue seems a small point compared to Mr. York’s apparent confirmation that British agents really did play a significant role. Amazingly, the historical aspects of Roberts’ novel, published in 1930, would seem to hold up much better today than actual histories (on other subjects) by leading scholars of that era, such as Charles Beard.

      Now one very hostile review of “Patriot on the Kennebec” on Amazon seems to differ completely with what I write above, alleging that Mr. York “criticizes the ‘facts’ of Roberts’ work relentlessly.” Disregarding the negative thrust of this review, are there significant historical facts in “Patriot on the Kennebec” that differ from the ones Roberts presents in “Arundel”?

      • Stephen, you bring up an interesting question, one that I can’t really address right now. Further, it’s beyond my expertise (I’m getting a Ph. D. in philosophy, not US history).

        I’m witholding comments about York’s work because I’ve not read it yet; the excitement I referred to in a recent comment is due to my excitement that there is someone out there interacting with Roberts’ works. As to whether I agree with York, that remains to be seen.

        I plan on writing a short post on Roberts’ reasons for writing historical novels with the intent of saying we should give Roberts the benefit of the doubt when it comes to possible errors; I think the burden of proof falls on those who claim that Roberts intentionally provided erroneous information or embellished people or events just to fit a narrative. From what I read of him, I truly think he sought to present things acurately based upon what he researched.

        Again, though I may disagree with York once I read his work, I do appreciate the fact that he interacts with Roberts, who is sadly unknown by many today.

        I appreciate your comment, Stephen, and hope to hear more from you. Where did you find that review you mentioned?

  3. That hostile review is nothing more than a personal attack for reasons I can’t comprehend and founded on nitpicking over galleons and the command at Fort Western. Roberts portrayed the scouts as ignorant drunks. They weren’t. No one from Kennebunkport did anything of importance in the expedition. My grandfather organized the whole thing and was never paid. This is the story I tell. I invite you to read it for yourselves. The spies were Indians but not every Indian. We disagreed on whether a banquet happened at Howard’s. My evidence shows it did. Since Colburn hired Natanis to scout the route and he rescued the lost army later, he was not the spy as Arnold thought. I won’t say who the real spy was and can’t say I remember what Roberts concluded but I believe we agreed on that.

  4. Novels have to embellish and all do. They also eliminate boring facts. Characters are made up. Reuben Colburn is real.

  5. My review of Arundel in 2003.

    Arundel is a masterpiece of historical writing. As the grandson of one of the “real” characters in the story, Major Reuben Colburn of Pittston, Maine I appreciate the tale as no other could. Enough so, that I am writing a biography of Colburn at present and have nominated Colburn House as a National Historic Landmark. Roberts puts a Southern Maine spin on the true story, and I have points where I disgree with his interpretation but it’s as good as it gets for fiction. To answer the first reviewers question about why this was never made into a movie, I have written a screenplay based on our family story of the Arnold Expedition. As of yet Hollywood is not interested. We’ll see, but don’t expect Steven Nason or Cap Huff to be in there. The real patriots are better, still.

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