One of the most satisfying and illuminating contributions to the literature on the War of Independence in many years, Patriot Battles is a vastly entertaining work of superior scholarship and a refreshing wind blowing through some of American history's dustier corridors.
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Patriot Battles How the War of Independence Was Fought
By Michael Stephenson HarperCollins Copyright © 2007 Michael Stephenson
All right reserved.
Chapter One "A Choaky Mouthful"
The American Soldier
After the first heady flush of enthusiasm following the spectacular successes over the British at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker's Hill during that glorious spring and summer of 1775 when close to 20,000 American patriots of all stations of society from the New England states had snatched up their motley collection of arms to support the insurrection, worthy patriots refused to join the ranks in impressive numbers. From that time on, the war, far from being a populist, "democratic" affair, became a military burden shouldered almost exclusively by the poorest segments of American society. No matter how persuasive the rhetoric of freedom, the siren call of self-interest and the urgent demands of survival were often more compelling. John Adams, writing on 1 February 1776, saw it clearly, if ruefully.
The service was too new; they had not yet become attached to it by habit. Was it credible that men who could get at home better living, more comfortable lodgings, more than double the wages, in safety, not exposed to the sicknesses of the camp, would bind themselves during the war? I knew it to be impossible.
And it would drive George Washington into regular conniptions throughout his tenure as commander in chief.
How did some and not other Americans end up looking down the business end of the barrel of a musket across that fateful fifty yards of killing ground? There were essentially three organizations in which they could volunteer or be forced to "volunteer." The first was the states' militias; the second, the states' troops who were normally drafted or "levied" from the militia for short terms of service and for specific tasks, such as guarding strategic points within the state; the third, after Congress "adopted" the "motley Crew" of citizen-soldiers on 14 June 1775 who were besieging the British at Boston, the Continental army-the regulars. All three types might appear on the monthly returns of regular army strength if militia and state troops had been co-opted to serve with the Continentals.
The institution of the militia had been built into the fabric of the earliest colonies. The necessity not only to protect their settlements but also, where expedient, to expand their holdings, meant that technically every able-bodied man from the ages of sixteen to sixty was required to turn up, armed, for regular training and, if necessary, make himself available for longer periods of service. For example, the Patriot Committee of Frederick County, Virginia, proclaimed in the spring of 1775: "Every Member of this County between sixteen & sixty years of Age, shall appear once every Month, at least, in the Field under Arms; & it is recommended to all to muster weekly for their Improvement."
In the beginning it had been a decidedly convenient arrangement for Britain to set up what were essentially trading satellites charged with the responsibility of defending themselves with little financial drag on the mother country. It was only after the French and Indian War (1754-63) that the cost/profit ratio of Britain's American empire shifted in an uncomfortable direction. Britain's national debt rose from u75 million to a whopping u130 million. And in part, it was Britain's attempt to balance the increasingly wayward ledger books of its colonial investment that drove the colonies into insurrection.
Within each state not all were equally bound by the militia contract. Some, the lowest of the low in colonial society-slaves, Indians, white indentured servants and apprentices, and itinerant laborers-were exempt, not from some humanitarian impulse on the part of the white oligarchy but because it would too dangerous to arm groups that might at some future time turn their military experience in the wrong direction. In any event these people were property, someone else's property, and the rules and rights of property were at the sacrosanct heart of colonial society. It would be only during the severest pressures of the war that these rules would be bent or broken. At the other end of the social scale the more powerful could escape the inconveniencies of militia service by paying a fine or hiring a substitute, an avoidance long established in the colonial tradition: "No Man of an Estate is under any Obligation to Muster, and even the Servants or Overseers of the Rich are likewise exempted; the whole Burthen lyes upon the poorest sort of people," wrote Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia to the Board of Trade in 1716.
A comparison of the original 1669 militia ordinance and the 1774 Militia Act for North Carolina shows how wide a gap had opened between the generally inclusive demands of the original ("all inhabitants and freemen ... above 17 years of age and under 60") and the much more lenient expectations of the latter which excluded many categories of freeholders, including clergymen, lawyers, judges, millers, overseers, and constables. The hierarchy of Virginia was acutely aware of the political fallout if too many militia obligations were placed on what we would now call its "core constituency," and the General Assembly regularly restricted militia service to those who were "not free-holders or house-keepers qualified to vote at the election of Burgesses."
Even back in the 1750s when George Washington was colonel of Virginia's state troops, he would get a taste of the problems that would gall him throughout the War of Independence. With the exemption of what he would have described as the "right sort of people," Washington was forced to draw "upon the lowest orders of society, whom he once portrayed as 'loose, Idle Persons that are quite destitute of House and Home.'" And it would be just such as these who were to carry the main burden of the patriot cause whether in the militia battalions or Continental army. Most of the time, in those days of his colonelcy, the militia simply did not turn up (like trying to "raize the Dead," he wailed), and when they did turn up they were aggravatingly "bolshie": "Every mean individual has his own crude notion of things, and must undertake to direct. If his advice is neglected, he thinks himself slighted, abased, and injured; and, to redress his wrongs, will depart for his home."
Excerpted from Patriot Battles by Michael Stephenson Copyright © 2007 by Michael Stephenson. Excerpted by permission.
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