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People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War

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Fred Anderson. A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War. Reprint. The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years' War

Anderson sets out to examine New England provincial soldiers and their experiences during what he terms the “last and greatest of America’s colonial wars.” He considers it a work of social history because of the quantitative data on which it is based but caveats that its focus is a single conflict, the Seven Years’ War, as opposed to a long term study. His focus is on ordinary men. His conclusion is that the Seven Years’ War was nothing less than world-shaping and thus unifying to the lives it impacted. Their common experience marked them as a unique generation, like others in later times who would be identified with the major events of their lifetime.

He also considers this work to be one of military history because of its focus on war and military service. But he claims an intentional diversion from the classic approaches of military historians whose focus is more on campaigns and the “analysis of generalship.” Anderson’s focus is the story of the common citizen-soldier inclusive of their shared values and their beliefs concerning war and military service.

He divides his study into three parts. The first section titled “The Contexts of War,” provides background for military service of men in Massachusetts. A key conclusion of this section is that “the way in which provincial armed forces were recruited strongly influenced their performance in the field.” The second section, “The Experience of War,” looks at the details of daily life in the military. Anderson examines both the nature and impact of variables such as diet, shelter, disease, discipline, work, and combat. He concludes that the delta between the experiences of these men before and after military service began was so large that it created a unique frame-of-reference from which they subsequently viewed their experience. The third section, “The Meaning of War,” explores in more depth the unique frame of reference possessed by soldiers from Massachusetts and how that remained incomprehensible to both their superiors and British regular officers. Much of the content of the book comes from primary sources of soldier’s own accounts.

The audience for this book is those interested in scholarship on America’s early history, social history, and military history. It has several special features including five informative appendices. One includes as listing of primary sources predominantly in the form of diaries. Another provides a fascinating summary of troop disorders suffered within the Provincial Army between 1755 and 1759. Anderson has chosen to footnote his work rather than have a separate notes section.

Fred Anderson brings strong academic credentials in fact this work is based on his doctoral dissertation. He received his B.A. from Colorado State University in 1971 and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1981. He has taught at Harvard and at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he is currently Professor of History. His has also published Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (2000) and, with Andrew Cayton, The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000 (2005). This work is entirely readable and an excellent addition to early American scholarship. Its extensive use of personal accounts adds to its appeal.

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Fixing an Army – Steuben

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The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (norton In-house Inst PbI’m still finishing up last week’s reading of A Revolutionary People at War: The Continential Army and American Character, 1775 – 1783 by Charles Royster which has been very interesting albeit a bit redundant at times. It covers in some detail the character of both American (and to some extent British) enlisted men and officers. Also examined are the experiences of “camp,” march, battle, and discipline. Of absolute certainty is that Continental enlisted men had an independent streak and “such a high opinion of their own prowess that an officer had to be exceptionally overweening to outdo them.” [i] This puts in perspective my study of Civil War enlisted soldiers who still swaggered with independence.

Prior to the arrival of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (right), who became Inspector-General to the Baron Von Steuben Continental Army, American officers made a concerted effort to pattern themselves after their British peers. A rather startling example… Commander-in-Chief George Washington lobbied congress for permission to allow 500 lashes as punishment to maintain discipline among his soldiers! Congress never approved above 100 lashes. The British allowed 1000! Officers were becoming more and more “separate” from the enlisted cadre. The divide was often one of respect.

When Steuben arrived at Valley Forge (see the park site here), he found an army still struggling with many military basics. He introduced “skills of the parade ground, then attention to dress, cleanliness, equipment, health, camp sanitation, orderliness on the march, grievances among the men, and all the other elements of mutual respect and hierarchical obedience. These provided a code by which soldiers could judge officers and expect to be judged by both their officers and their fellow soldiers. ” [ii]

“The survival of American independence entailed not only the preservation of revolutionary ideas and the reluctant use of the coercive powers of government, but also the growth of military discipline that proudly replaced individual freedom with the professionalism of an army.” [iii]

Steuben helped the Continental army become “an internally disciplined group apart, more self-consciously virtuous than the society at large. The professional loyalty and pride of achievement that Steuben encouraged provided a tangible partial expression of the unity in unselfish service to which revolutionaries aspired.” [iv]

[i] Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continential Army and American Character, 1775 – 1783, (The University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 222.
[ii] Ibid., Ibid.
[iii] Ibid., 228.
[iv] Ibid., 223.