war and society

John Resch and Walter Sargent are in the forefront of historians re-interpreting the American Revolution as more than just a series of military moves and counter-moves, but instead as a convulsive event encompassing all of 18th Century American Society, including women, African-Americans both slave and free, and Native Americans of many tribes. In the first paragraph they state: “In this volume, historians view the Revolution from a different perspective. They view the Revolution as a total war that at some point during the eight-year conflict touched the lives of virtually all American families, slaves and free blacks, and Indian tribes.” (Resch and Sargent, Preface, page vii) That is to say, the new direction of historical research does not forsake the seminal events of the Revolution, Washington still crosses the Delaware and the British still lose at Yorktown, but the emphasis now is on the social context in which these events transpired.

A critical question, therefore, might be how a historian should go about seeking to understand the influence of one force upon the other. How, exactly, does an all-encompassing war affect and influence an entrenched society? The essays selected all follow one of three main lines of investigation. As John Shy says in the Introduction, “These lines, or issues, may be described as concerning motivation, mobilization, and impact.” Each topic is a big one, not easily understood or encapsulated, and the purpose of the book is to find the links between them.

Americans of the 21st Century seemed to have found a new appetite for the history of their country, and especially for its founding. The great men of the era, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, et al, are very much representative of the American Revolution in the public mind, as are the famous battles. Bunker Hill, Saratoga, Yorktown and, with Mel Gibson bringing the war to life in “The Patriot”, the Battle of Cowpens, these names are well known to Americans. But the war was fought by men from all parts of the society, be they the wealthy local leaders or the lowliest slave, and it was fought on many battlefields. Some were large, expansive set-piece battles at which the British excelled, while most were small skirmishes in unnamed places, fought by men from all aspects of society. But not just men. Women fought the war, too, even if their fight did not usually involve weapons. And that’s the whole point of the book. Who fought the American revolution, why did they do it, how did they do it and what lasting effect did it have?

The first essay, “Town Born, Turn Out” by Charles Neimeyer, is a fairly linear account of Massachusetts in the days of undeclared war, that is from 1774 through April of 1775, of how popular resentment of British rule went from tepid to boiling in the country surrounding Boston, and specifically the effect this change had on men’s willingness to oppose the British with force. Neimeyer makes great use of existing records, such as muster rolls, to illustrate exactly who these men were and why they fought.

Co-Editor Walter Sargent’s second essay, ‘The Massachusetts Rank and File of 1777′, gets into the dirty details of what 18th Century military service really meant for a Massachusetts volunteer. A man’s commitment to military life was a hardship and might be for short or long duration, making planning for he, his family and his commander, difficult at best. “The coming and going of troops on active duty was certainly nerve-wracking, but it was also routine for American commanders during the Revolution. The patterns of service data show Massachusetts soldiers turned out with particular alacrity when threats were imminent but, on the other hand, were reluctant to take responsibility for fighting outside of their home region of New England.” (Sargent, page 64) These two sentences seem to sum up the author’s essay beautifully and, in fact, shed a revelatory light on the organic nature of the entire American war effort. The country’s militias, state regiments and the Continental Army itself were in a permanent state of flux and commanders were constantly having to integrate new recruits into their commands. If, however, an acute crisis arose, the local communities would respond quickly and in force. At least in Massachusetts. As is made clear early on in the book troop rolls and relevant data are not available for many states and so extrapolations must be made, with the caution that what is true for New England might not also be true for the Mid-Atlantic or Southern States.

Sargent also takes the measure of General “Mad Anthony” Wayne, who complained that as the war progressed the human quality of his army deteriorated so that by 1777 one-third as his troops were “Negroes, Indians and Children.” (Sargent, page 43) He refutes this claim with graphs, charts and data that show nothing of the kind, directly confronting Wayne’s assertion with the scholar’s dispassionate eye. “There is little empirical evidence in the service records to suggest that Massachusetts recruiters turned disproportionately to the youngest, the poorest or the minorities of colonial society, despite complaints from commanders such as General Wayne.” (Sargent, pages 63-64)

Ultimately, Sargent reminds us that service to the new republic was voluntary, that men and families sacrificed much, sometimes all, because they wanted to, not because of any compulsion from the government. “…There was no centralized authority in Revolutionary America with coercive power to demand either manpower or material support.” (Sargent, page 65)

In the book’s third essay, co-editor John Resch reinforces a recurring societal theme from the first two, namely, that the war was local in nature. “In New Hampshire, mobilization, like politics, was a local matter.” (Resch, page 70) Likewise, his summary is just as succinct: “What began as a people’s uprising became a war of attrition conducted by a determined group of hard-core leaders who sustained war-weary townsmen and by young soldiers who were drawn from both the fringe of society and its establishment.” (Resch, page 71)

Resch uses five towns as the basis for his study, each representing a certain geographical area of New Hampshire. The survey begins with a study of Petersborough, a growing town on the western frontier. Making extensive use of troop rolls and other data Resch makes the point that military service from this town was not only representative of the community as a whole, throughout the war it attracted the best, brightest and most powerful Petersborough citizens.      The second town considered, Exeter, was as radical a pro-Revolution community as could be found. In 1774, in response to England’s punitive measures against Boston for the Tea Party, Exeter accepted the Philadelphia Resolves and added, for good measure, language that ‘branded anyone who consumed tea ‘an enemy to America..’” (Resch, page 80) And the third, Hollis, was very similar in its response to Exeter, its representation in the military proving that while the men serving might be of lesser means, that did not necessarily translate into lesser circumstances. A close examination of tax rolls in both towns shows strong military support from the wealthier citizens. “We see a pattern more clearly in Hollis than in Exeter: a core of town leaders and its wealthiest families sustained the war effort with material support as well as through the service of their sons in the Continental Army.” (Resch, page 86)

The fourth town in Resch’s study, Canterbury, was quite different from the first three in make-up, history and mobilization results. Internal tensions between its citizens hampered the war effort. “Tensions caused by recruitment, bonuses and taxes divided the town.” (Resch, page 87) Personal vendettas became quite a problem, with Patriotism as the favored weapon. And yet Canterbury’s wealthiest men still sent their sons to war even as enthusiasm waned.

Lastly, Resch turns to Weare, another frontier town established by those attracted to its abundance of good land and hunting, but a town torn apart by religious differences. He takes this opportunity to explore the ins and outs of bounties and taxes that were such an important part of towns meeting their recruitment quotas. Being far more dis-jointed than the other four towns makes Weare an interesting case of conflicting motivations and objectives, and the author explores the economics of mobilization in great detail.

Michael A. McDonnell investigates both race and class in the mobilization efforts of the largest state, Virginia, in his essay “Fit For Common Service?” Considering so many  leaders of the Revolution were Virginians, it seems at odds with their fervent image but “as early as the end of 1775, Virginia’s leaders had concluded that it was better to pay the poor to fight on behalf of taxpaying citizens and the ruling class than to send the sons of the elite and middling classes to war.” (McDonnell, page 107) Egalitarian they were not. Virginians found themselves fighting Virginians almost as much as the British and McDonnell’s argument is that the underlying cause for this enmity was slavery, which is usually thought to have been a unifying force. The lower and middle classes would not be bullied by the slave-holding class. “Slavery and class, then profoundly shaped mobilization for the Revolutionary War in Virginia.” (McDonnell, page 125)

Judith L. Van Buskirk contributes an elegant essay on the contributions of African-Americans during the Revolution, starting with the courtroom tale of John Harris, who applied for a pension in 1821. “Claiming Their Due” takes on the plight of the legally enslaved who served in the Revolutionary War, why they did it and what were some results.  The larger question is complex, as should be expected when dealing with hundreds of individuals, but some generalizations can be made. “But fifty years later, as old men, the veterans often narrowed their motives to one cause-liberation.” (Van Buskirk, page 133) Van Buskirk is openly sympathetic to the plight of these veterans ‘of color’ and much of her discussion concerns their postwar fight for a better place in society as well as the pensions they deserved. Van Buskirk  takes great pains to be even handed in her approach, though, following the evidence of her research. After giving examples of racism from whites during pension depositions for African-Americans, she makes clear these were the exception rather than the rule. “More representative, however, of the support depositions were white veterans who praised their old comrades with no racist qualifiers.” (Van Buskirk, page 142) Van Buskirk beautifully illustrates the vagaries and inconsistencies endemic to government bureaucrats,  particularly in relation to the plight of the African-American veteran.      Wayne Lee leads off the second part of the book, Restraint and Retaliation, with ‘The North Carolina Militias and the Backcountry War of 1780-1782′. The war in the South was more fratricidal than in the North, striking at the very foundation of society, the family unit. Such a personal war had its own morality, though. “Violence is always judged. Observers and participants evaluate its legitimacy or criminality, but they do so within their own cultural framework.” (Lee, page 165)

The war in North Carolina was sporadic and vicious. The government faced seemingly insurmountable problems, not least a strong Loyalist movement that fielded its own militia to fight the Rebel militias. The bloody trail of revenge and retaliation is dissected and brought to life. “Militia violence in the latter years of the war in North Carolina was neither unadulterated carnage nor the virtuous war that many had hoped for.” (Lee, page 183)

If there was ever doubt that war makes for strange bedfellows, Jim Piecuch dispels this myth with his ‘Incompatible Allies: Loyalists, Slaves and Indians in Revolutionary South Carolina’. On the face of it these three groups seem like a powerful source of opposition to the Rebel cause. Problems bringing this potentially decisive force to bear, however, were complex and tricky. Native Americans were not one monolithic people but many tribes, some of whom were at war with each other. Loyalists would fight for the King, but plans to arm slaves might sour that and unite them with their Rebel brethren. “Backcountry Loyalists in South Carolina did not see slaves as potential allies in the royal cause.” (Piecuch, page 195) The author tries to impose order on this societal stew and does so deftly but with a nice narrative flair. “In a sense, British leaders envisioned loyalists, slaves and Indians as three strands that, woven together into a rope, would bind South Carolina to the Empire.” (Piecuch, page 211) Such a rope, however, would prove to be weaker than the sum of its parts.

‘Dilemmas of Alliance: The Oneida Indian Nation in the American Revolution’ by Karim M. Tiro, surveys the confusing history of Native-American assistance and hostility to the patriot cause in New York and Pennsylvania through the story of one of its tribes, the Oneida, part of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. Against all odds the Oneida provided crucial help even to fighting other Iroquois tribes. “…Iroquois warriors were faced with the disconcerting prospect of harming one another in the course of fighting someone else’s war…(however) most natives balked at taking the lives of their fellows.” (Tiro, page 217) They were not dupes, though, but rather canny enough to understand where they thought their best long-term interests lay. They tried to protect themselves but failed. “The Oneidas confidence was misplaced.” (Tiro, page 229) Whatever guarantees had been made were soon broken. “…The consequences of their attachment to us…have not been good unless it is good for them to lose almost all their lands for a trifle.” (Tiro, page 119)

Until very recently very little scholarship on women’s experience in the war had been done. The first of two essays concerning the female experience in the American Revolutionary family is ‘Wives, Concubines and Community: Following the Army’ by Holly A. Mayer. The essay’s opening paragraph is revelatory, describing American Major General Israel Putnam’s winter encampment for his division of three brigades as “something like the City of Quebec.” (Mayer, page 235), A movable feast, as it were, of doctors and judges and officers and the wives and concubines of the men, a city in and of itself put down in the wilderness.

Mayer makes clear that the Revolutionary Army was as much a social formation as a military one. Then she puts a structure on that idea and makes clear what that community looked and felt like, even a community as alien to Americans as the displaced French Canadian (and Catholic) soldiers who through in their lot with the Rebels. But women, whatever their societal strata or  religion, were a common sight in military camps. More importantly, they were a vital part of the Army itself. “Ultimately, by attending to the soldiers, followers served American independence by helping to sustain the morale and cohesion of the army.” (Mayer, page 258)

Joan R. Gundersen returns to Virginia with ‘We Beat the Yoke: The War for Independence and Virginia’s Displaced Women’, a look at how women from both sides of the conflict lived through it and/or became refugees as a result.     The disruption and its effects were felt by huge numbers of women in Virginia, from a slave of George Washington to Martha Jefferson. “The scale of uprooting in Virginia during the Revolution was huge.” (Gundersen, page 284. As a backdrop to war it gives depth to the battlefields as the tide of war pushed women before it, washed over them and swirled them in its wake.

The final essay by the two editors, ‘Changing the Meanings of the American Revolution: An Overview 1789-2006′, attempts to wrap a final framework around this expansive book. “The Revolution was simultaneously a war for political independence, a revolution for social reform, a struggle for emancipation, a civil war over political power, and a war for survival.” (Resch & Sargent, page 291) The evolution of study of the war, from the earliest history in 1789 to the present, traces the birth of the book itself, placing it at the forefront of modern research.

When reviewing a book of essays it is useful to take each essay on its own merit and judge it against the stated purpose of the whole, as this has done. Some subjects are naturally more appealing to each individual reader, just as the variance in writing styles will find some readers more interested than others in how an author approaches its subject. Regardless of preferences, ‘War & Society’ delivers new material in a structured, convincing manner. Older histories were heavily centered on military events. Making the leap to a more comprehensive vision is a tall order, which this book fulfills quite well. No historical event happens in a vacuum, the consequences of events ripple through societies regardless of the outcome, but heretofore those consequences, as they relate to American Society of the Revolutionary period, have been largely overlooked. No longer. The scholarship here is impressive, but also interesting, the tales well told. The reader never doubts the research that lead to an author’s conclusions. And while the entertainment value may vary depending on the writer, the value of the content is never in doubt.