A Revolutionary People At War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 / Edition 1

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In this highly acclaimed book, Charles Royster explores the mental processes and emotional crises that Americans faced in their first national war. He ranges imaginatively outside the traditional techniques of analytical historical exposition to build his portrait of how individuals and a populace at large faced the Revolution and its implications. The book was originally published by UNC Press in 1980.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Represents a quantum leap in our understanding of the Revolution.

Edmund S. Morgan, New Republic

It is a work of art. . . . No student of early American history should miss it.

Journal of Southern History

From the Publisher
Represents a quantum leap in our understanding of the Revolution.

Edmund S. Morgan, New Republic

It is a work of art. . . . No student of early American history should miss it.

Journal of Southern History

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Charles Royster, Boyd Professor of History at Louisiana State University, is the author of The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of George Washington's Times, Light-Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution and The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans, which received the Bancroft Prize, the Lincoln Prize, and the Charles S. Sydnor Award in Southern History.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2003


    In A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, historian Charles Royster searches for and analyzes the ¿American character prevalent during the War for Independence.¿ (vii) Royster finds that with regard to the Continental Army specifically and the Revolutionary populace in general, ¿allegiance to the `American¿¿side in the War for Independence was the prevailing sentiment¿ in the United States, and that this allegiance was based primarily on what he terms ¿a national character.¿ (viii) throughout the course of this book then, Royster chronicles the revolutionary character of America¿s soldiers, and how it changed markedly as the war progressed. One of his central questions concerns the ¿ideals espoused during the revolution,¿ and how the patriots¿ actions measured up to them. By 1783, Royster finds that the gap between ideals and reality was often significant. Eight years of war, it seems, ¿severely tested American¿s dedication to independence.¿ (3) Royster uses a prologue to define his terms with a useful essay on the idea character. The war would test Americans, especially those in their country¿s uniforms, and determine if they were worthy of victory. Eventual victory would of course demonstrate that revolutionary soldiers had the necessary virtue and selflessness to be deserving of such good fortune. Soldiers were keenly aware that the eyes of world were on them, and that their sacrifices would be remembered throughout the ages by countless generations of their descendents. Royster shows that Continental soldiers were inspired by religious beliefs, knowing that God was on their side. These men also employed the language of slavery to describe their predicament¿if they failed, they argued, Britain would not only enslave them, but their children as well. Thus, these men in arms had a sacred duty: ¿the struggle for independence was the greatest test of the chosen people. In it they bore the weight of both their heritage and God¿s promise for the future.¿ (9) In 1775, Americans began the war with high ideals in a period Royster denotes as the ¿Rage Militaire.¿ The Continental army went about preparing to defend America in a uniquely American way, reflective of the national character. Royster points to simplified drill manuals, short-term enlistments, soldiers in hunting shirts and civilian control of the military establishment as evidence that Americans would wage a war based upon their own terms, not simply by mimicking the British. Yet by the end of 1776, the ¿contrasts between the ideals of 1775 and the conduct of the war¿ were apparent, in the form of battlefield defeats and Continental army¿s ¿lack of discipline and decorum.¿ (58) Numerous desertions, for example, showed that not all American soldiers lived up to the ideals of patriotic sacrifice in the face of adversity. In fact, ¿not only did the Continental Army fall short of Americans¿ ideal of an army,¿ Royster notes, but recruiting difficulties created ¿a network of evasion and corruption that spread far into the populace.¿ (63) He asserts as well that as the virtues of the soldiers were called into question after reverses, desertions, and abuses, many revolutionaries distanced themselves from the army, and denied that it embodied the cause of liberty exclusively. By early 1777, the army was not seen by Americans as virtuous. Many civilians began to associate active military duty with a class of people¿the young, unattached, ¿shiftless¿ types who were more logically suited to the ardors of Continental service. This attitude greatly curtailed recruiting of army battalions to full strength. High enlistment bounties designed to encourage men to join the ranks attest to the fact that the spirit of sacrifice so widespread in 1775 was much reduced by the beginning of the campaign of 1777, as did unscrupulous recruiting officers, uncooperative civilians and unruly men in the ranks. Americans, Royster finds, were

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