Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Flag Day & Army Birthday, 2017

A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army & American Character, 1775-1783 – Charles Royster

Royster focusses these long essays on why the Continental Army endured in spite of hardships and how Americans managed to sustain an eight-year war effort that all but did in their economic lives. One reason was idealism. People and soldiers sincerely felt that their principles and cause were just. Another reason was the development of a disciplined professional army.

Royster says that at first the rage militaire of 1775 was fueled by optimism. Many men enlisted in the army, though they distrusted standing armies as threats to republics. They did not expect to have to serve a long time because of their idealistic confidence in their own courage and Heaven’s aid would defeat the British army and navy in a speedy victory.

By 1777, battlefield reverses had dampened that optimism. Defeats in battle seemed to call the Americans' virtue and courage into doubt. Soldiers lacked discipline and decorum, especially since they were not careful with supplies. They sold provisions for cash and simply jettisoned stuff as they retreated from the field. Other problems were theft and plundering and desertion.  Terms of enlistment were a problem. Enlistees left after a year and went back to their own lives. General Washington had to implore them to stay in the army.

What held the army together? Why didn’t it simply disband? Royster argues that American soldiers were fighting for political liberties and ultimately for independence, which would have felt like a more inspiring personal cause to many people. A cause, a conviction with which people had a personal connection gave Americans, both military and civilian, endurance during the war.

I realize making an argument for idealistic convictions presents problems to readers who want hard proof for attitudes and beliefs. Royster, however, backs up his assertions with much evidence from newspapers, pamphlets, sermons, public records, journals, correspondence, and memoirs. As with Rosyter’s incredible Civil War book, The Destructive War, it seems as if he has read everything.

Another reason for victory, Royster claims, was the development of professionalism in the army. Officers developed knowledge, skill, and abilities (though at time felt like rubes when dealing with Europeans like von Steuben, Pulaski, and Lafayette). As importantly, they developed a sense of serving society and a sense of a corporate identity. However, Royster asserts, this growing professionalism accompanied anti-civilian sentiment of the soldiers (who were hungry and thread-bare and perceived well-fed civilians making money from the war). Negative feelings were reciprocated with fears among civilians that a “standing army” had developed. Some civilians also felt guilty that they had lost revolutionary virtue by doing well economically out of the war.

Like his book about the Civil War, Royster’s in-depth analysis of evidence and intricate arguments are unquestionably not for the casual reader. Royster himself warns that his book "does not lend itself to short, abstract summaries of its argument." But committed high-intermediate and advanced students of the War for Independence would get much out of this book.

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