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Academic book review: Charles Royster. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army & American Character, 1775-1783

Charles Royster. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army & American Character, 1775-1783. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 1979. xi + 452 pp.

In A Revolutionary People at War, Charles Royster, Boyd Professor of History at Louisiana State University details the interrelationships between the political, military, and social structures in America during its first conflict – the Revolutionary War. In A Revolutionary People at War, Boyd captures the early mood or “Rage Militaire” of the American leaders, soldiers and citizens in their collective struggle to be free from the control of England. The American people are typified in their roles as private citizens, members of local militia and as soldiers in the Continental Army as they all fight to survive against the British Army.

A Revolutionary People at War was not intended nor written as a battle history or sequence but as a stand-alone study of America’s struggle to find its way through its first war and succeeds admirably. The research and bibliography behind Royster’s doctoral dissertation provides an in-depth argument for the existence of an “American character” that emerged just before 1775 and beyond. It was this character that prevailed and ultimately defeated the British – winning independence for America. This character is the underlying thesis for Royster, necessary for victory by a new and imperfect military endeavor from a young America.

Royster’s monograph highlights the creation and evolution of American military leadership for better or worse, at all levels: “The general’s poor judgment, not the army’s weakness, kept the Americans from beating Howe. George Bryan and Benjamin Rush tried to convince Christopher Marshall that there was ‘a general murmur in the people… against the weak conduct of Gen. Washington.” [1] For the first time in our military’s history, we see the many nuances and challenges that existed in the military structure and its hierarchy. Royster illuminates how commissions were given to men based on their social standing and wealth and the problems that were inherent from such a policy. These same challenges arose immediately following the formal end of the war in 1783 and the disbanding of the Continental Army. The officers as opposed to the enlisted men under them had the most difficulty in adapting to their return to civilian life. Their collective efforts in seeking lifetime compensation created considerable animosity among not just militiamen and the enlisted men of the Continental Army but throughout the American citizenry: “The officer’s demand for recompense and for aid in returning to civilian life brought them new trouble besides adjusting to their discharge… a flood of public abuse – as if long swelling but dammed until now – poured over Continental Army officers.” [2] Private citizens claimed that by defending their homes and towns they had also contributed to the war effort and were troubled by the elitist stance from the Continental Army’s officers: “In the eyes of the critics, the officers’ worst crime was not so much their attempt to get on the public payroll – a time-honored American ambition – as their claim to social distinction based on superior revolutionary merit.” [3]

Much has been written of the Revolutionary War – a keyword search on Amazon returns over 9,000 results. Most publications within this query focus on battle histories. David McCullough’s 1776, the most recent (2006) historical contribution and notable successor to A Revolutionary People at War achieves the closest similarity in the study of the “American character”.  Targeted at academia, Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War reads more effectively as a contribution to academic history as opposed to popular history.

Charles Royster is currently a Boyd Professor of History at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The distinction of Boyd Professor is the highest honor attainable from LSU and denotes national and international distinction for outstanding teaching, research, or other creative achievement at the LSU. [4] Royster’s talents as historian and writer make him uniquely qualified to write on the subject matter contained in A Revolutionary People at War. A Revolutionary People at War was Royster’s first published work on early-American history.

Bibliography

Louisiana State University. “Boyd Professors.” http://lsb380.plbio.lsu.edu/undergrad%20research/boyd.html (accessed June 19, 2011).

Royster, Charles. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army & American Character, 1775-1483. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979.


[1] Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 179.

[2] Ibid., 345.

[3] Ibid., 349.

[4] Louisiana State University, “Boyd Professors,” http://lsb380.plbio.lsu.edu/undergrad%20research/boyd.html (accessed June 19, 2011).

 
 
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