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Patriot Battles: How the Revolutionary War was Fought

Patriot Battles: How the Revolutionary War was Fought

by Michael Stephenson

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Drawing on hundreds of specialist sources, contemporary and archival, Patriot Battles is the comprehensive one-volume study of the military aspects of the War of Independence. The first part of the book offers a richly detailed examination of the nuts and bolts of eighteenth-century combat: For example, who fought and what motivated them, whether patriot


Drawing on hundreds of specialist sources, contemporary and archival, Patriot Battles is the comprehensive one-volume study of the military aspects of the War of Independence. The first part of the book offers a richly detailed examination of the nuts and bolts of eighteenth-century combat: For example, who fought and what motivated them, whether patriot or redcoat, Hessian or Frenchman? How were they enlisted and trained? How were they clothed and fed? What weapons did they use, and how effective were they? When soldiers became casualties or fell ill, how did medical services deal with them? What roles did loyalists, women, blacks, and Indians play?

The second part of the book gives a closer look at the war's greatest battles, with maps provided for each. Which men were involved, and how many? What was the state of their morale and equipment? What parts did terrain and weather play? What were the qualities of the respective commanders, and what tactics did they employ? How many casualties were inflicted? And no less important, how did the soldiers fight?

Throughout, many cherished myths are challenged, reputations are reassessed, and long-held assumptions are tested. For all readers, Patriot Battles becomes not only one of the most satisfying and illuminating works to be added to the literature on the War of Independence in many years but also a refreshing wind blowing through some of its dustier corridors.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

A former editor of the Military Book Club, Stephenson (Battlegrounds) aims to strip away "the slow accretion of national mythology and popular history" that has "embalmed" the American Revolution. The result is a well-documented, entertaining and mildly revisionist military history in two parts. In the first, Stephenson examines "The Nuts and Bolts of War," answering basic questions about who fought, how and why. He concludes, unsurprisingly, that "the war was not revolutionary in any military sense." What's intriguing is how similar the American and British armies were—Stephenson notes that for each, "It was like gazing into a mirror." To analyze prosaic details like supply and transport, weapons and medical care, the author uses an array of statistics and technical data—muzzle velocities, shot weights, equipment lists, etc.—but wisely leavens them with anecdotes. In part two, Stephenson turns to an analysis of the major battles of the war, from the opening skirmishes at Lexington and Concord to the climactic showdown at Yorktown, and concludes that the Continental Army's victory was always predicated on its numerical superiority. This excellent popular history should attract a wide audience with its fresh perspective. 16 maps. (Apr.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Stephenson (Battlegrounds) seeks to reinvent the wheel. His objective is to explain who fought the battles of the American Revolution, how, and why—topics better explained long ago in superior texts. Part 1 covers "The Nuts and Bolts of War," with chapters analyzing such topics as who constituted the various military forces involved, the equipment they carried, and the food they ate. Parts 2 and 3 describe the battles occurring in the North and South, respectively. Battles are described well enough, but there is little explanation of events transpiring in between. The result is a series of case studies with little context. Throughout, Stephenson is prone to injecting absurd phrases and strange references. He refers to some British officers as "deadbeat young twits," compares a burned-out soldier to a computer's frazzled motherboard, and draws a parallel between the Revolution's financier Robert Morris and today's Halliburton. The absence of a conclusion is another problem. Does the author not have a point he wishes to reinforce? This is not a bad book; it is merely unnecessary. Readers would do better to select one of the more standard secondary sources Stephenson references, such as Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause. An optional purchase for public libraries.
—Matthew J. Wayman
Kirkus Reviews
An iconoclastic, provocative study of the Revolutionary War that invalidates a few chestnuts-including the one that the surrendering British played "The World Turned Upside Down" at Yorktown. "There is no hard evidence," writes former Military Book Club editor Stephenson (ed., Battlegrounds: Geography and Art of Warfare, 2003), that the British played anything other than a slow march, befitting the mournful occasion. There is plenty of evidence, though, that the war was a tough business for all concerned. Proceeding cautiously, Stephenson makes a case that will induce teeth-gnashing on the right-wing talk-show circuit, namely that, inasmuch as "colonial wars share a certain geometry," it is not beyond the pale to liken the rebel colonial struggle in America to nationalist insurgencies in places such as Vietnam and Iraq, where American soldiers now take the place of the imperialist lobsterbacks of old. (In case the point is lost, Stephenson notes that George Bush is more George III than George Washington.) Whatever the parallels, Stephenson observes that an army with a home-field advantage has vastly better odds of survival than one in a different country and culture; moreover, it is part of that geometry that militias will take it as a priority to crush loyalism, wherever it might be encountered. In the American colonies, this meant civil war on several fronts, though the loyalists were at their strongest in New York and New Jersey, one reason the British tried so hard to center the war there, where they could count on the help of friends. After examining such matters as the lives of officers, who had it easier than the enlisted men if only because they could resign without being hangedor beheaded as deserters, and the musket-and-mutton material world of the soldiery, Stephenson turns to more familiar ground, analyzing the war's most important battles and sometimes, as with Trenton, musing about why things didn't work out disastrously for the American cause. Contrarian and well-written-a welcome remedy to Parson Weems-ish tales of the past.

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Read an Excerpt

Patriot Battles How the War of Independence Was Fought

By Michael Stephenson HarperCollins Copyright © 2007 Michael Stephenson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-073261-5

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 Militia

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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael Stephenson is the former editor of the Military Book Club and the editor of National Geographic's Battlegrounds: Geography and the History of Warfare. He lives in New York City.

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