A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783

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Charles Royster. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783. Reprint. University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

In his award winning, sweeping work on the American Revolution, Charles Royster sets out to prove his thesis that “there was an American character prevalent during the War for Independence and that we can profitably analyze it.” His focus is on the emotions, attitudes, and conduct of Americans in wartime but he also set out to prove that Americans exemplified collectively the disposition of revolutionaries. This notion of national character is an important one because it suggests an emergence of a sense of nationhood among the inhabitants of America’s colonies. Royster acknowledges that not all Americans were anti-British but he does conclude that the majority of Americans during the War for Independence were loyal to the revolution’s cause. These arguments are foundational to his discussion of the Continental Army. Royster deals with the rather broad topics of the ideals of revolutionary citizenship, society, and state by limiting his scope to the standards “that Americans defined for themselves in creating, recruiting, and fighting in an army” and it is this focus that makes the book more relevant to the military historian. He finds evidence of a disparity between society’s ideals and its actual conduct, the latter being “always flawed.” To find reasons for the disparity he touches, admitted lightly, on other areas such as religion, government, and commerce, drawing a connection between these and the way in which Americans related to the army.

Royster describes his book as analytical rather than narrative history. This distinction drives the book’s chronological format which supports his position that the study of revolutionary attitudes and the changes that took place over time are best observed “in the order that Americans experienced them.” Royster begins with an examination of the high ideals that Americans caught up in the revolutionary mindset placed upon themselves and others, ideals of virtue and valor. This foundation then allows him to explore the “tension” created when Americans failed to live up to those ideals and how they dealt with the disparity between desired standards and reality. Thus Royster begins with the years prior to the war’s start, describes the “rage militaire” of 1775, and then proceeds through the early war years in a series of chapters with religious titles and analogous themes: 1776: The Army of Israel, Jericho, and The Promised Land. The second half of the book focuses on Valley Forge, Treason, Division, and finally Legacy. It is in this final chapter that Royster brings together his analysis of the whole of the American experience at war.

This work is intended for students of early American history and particularly those who want to better understand the American Revolution. It should also find interest among military historians because of its focus on the experience of soldiers in the American Army of Independence as well as the institutional history of America’s armed forces. Royster’s forays into the realms of sociology, psychology, political, and civic history, should allow the book to find even broader readership. The work’s extensive notes section is worth mention. There is also an essay in the appendix that challenges some other authors who draw conclusions too quickly from statistics about American soldiers who fought in the Revolution, many of whom were both young and poor. The book is particularly noteworthy for its use of readily available primary sources but fresh approach to the information contained therein. His presentation is entirely satisfying albeit occasionally repetitive. One of the clear strengths of the book is its introduction to the reader of a broad number of characters of the period often through their own narrative or those of others around them.

Charles Royster brings impressive credentials to his work which is a shortened version of his doctoral dissertation. He received all of his degrees from the University of California, Berkeley including an A.B. (1966), M.A. (1967), and Ph.D. (1977). At the time of the book’s publication, Dr. Royster was assistant professor of history at the University of Texas. He is now professor of history at the Louisiana State University. Royster has amassed an impressive list of publications several of which received academically recognized awards. His work Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans won the Bancroft Prize, The Lincoln Prize, and the Charles S. Sydnor Award in Southern History. A Revolutionary People at War was recognized with the 1981 Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians, the 1979 John D. Rockefeller III Award, the 1981 National Historical Society Book Prize, the 1980 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award from the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York, and the 1980 Silver Medal, Nonfiction from the Commonwealth Club of California.

Overall, Royster provides an excellent addition to scholarship of early America.

On War and Words

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As I finish up my final paper, I’ve gone back to the first book read for my class, “Studies in U.S. Military History.”

The Name of War

King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity

Jill Lepore. The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. Vintage Books, 1999.

In this unusual book about King Phillip’s War, Lepore sets out to study war and how people write about it. She suggests that writing about war can be almost as difficult as waging it. And writing can be essential to winning a war. Her work is thus in its essence about words and how they are used to both describe and impact the outcome of war. She concludes that “truth in war is relative,” a profoundly insightful statement that gets to the core of why many wars are waged in the first place, the clashing of points of view. And so, she concludes, “war is a contest of injuries and interpretation.” Lepore’s opening chapter, “What’s in a Name?” is nothing less than masterful.

To the victor go the spoils but also the power to explain the war completely to his advantage. For the loser, whether dead or defeated, loses his voice.

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And so the reading begins… in earnest

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Historiography is a wrap. The new class, Studies in U.S. Military History, started yesterday. There was a slight change in texts. For the Korean War, Roy E. Appleman’s East of Chosin: Entrapment and Breakout in Korea, 1950  will be used rather than the one I mentioned earlier.

East of Chosin

I also picked up a book on the recommended reading list, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890 – 1990  by George W. Baer. I’ve added both to my virtual bookshelves here.

The U. S. Navy, 1890-1990

The class will be a challenging one. Thirteen books will be required reading as noted in my last post here. The pace will be more than one book per week in addition to writing assignments. Best get to it!

First up – jumping into Millett and Maslowski’s For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America – which will be the primary text for the course. Just a chapter this week dealing with the period between 1607 and 1689.

For the Common Defense

Second – reading in its entirety Jill Lepore’s The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity which was winner of the Bancroft Prize in 1999.

King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity

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