J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, May 27, 2006

George Washington: turnaround manager

A couple of months back, NPS ranger Paul Blandford of Longfellow House gave me a copy of Fred Anderson's article "The Hinge of the Revolution: George Washington Confronts a People's Army, July 3, 1775." It's available at HistoryCooperative.org, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, which published it in the first volume of the Massachusetts Historical Review. I actually have a copy of that magazine in my home, but I hadn't gotten around to reading it and would need about a week to find it from a sitting start. So I'm grateful to Paul for saving me such trouble.

Anderson is the author of A People's Army, Crucible of War, and The War That Made America. In other words, he's one of our top experts on the Seven Years' War in North America (or French & Indian War as we who are not French or Indian like to call it). Which gives Anderson a fine vantage-point for discussing how New Englanders, the British military, and George Washington saw themselves as the Revolutionary War began.

It's part of the human condition to prepare for the last war (if one prepares well for any war at all). And Anderson's article made me realize how different experiences of the Seven Years' War colored men's expectations for the first campaign of the Revolution.

  • New Englanders by and large had been shut out of the fighting during the Seven Years' War. Instead, they proudly remembered the last last war: King George's War (1744-48). Colonials had managed the North American theater of that conflict without the regular British army. And the New England troops triumphed: they conquered the French fortress at Louisburg, only to see it returned to Louis XV as part of the peace settlement. So they thought their militia and command system could work well if it was given a chance. And in some ways it did. After the fall of Fort William Henry in 1757, that system put well over 10,000 armed men on the march in just a few days. Could the Crown in London do that?
  • The British military officers who had served in North America during the Seven Years' War had come away with a different, and much worse, impression of the New England troops. British regulars were expected to serve as long as they remained alive and healthy. In contrast, New Englanders saw military service as a contract, not a career. The British officers used to commanding the first group had a hard time managing the second, and came to see them as malingerers or cowards—even though New England culture was among the most strait-laced and fervent in the British Empire. As a result, the regular army commanders kept New England militiamen in minor service roles during the Seven Years' War (i.e., "by and large shut out of the fighting"—see above).
  • Finally, there was Washington. He had had terrible experiences in the French & Indian War: Fort Necessity, Braddock's retreat, and never getting a regular commission, perhaps not in that order. He didn't share New Englanders' high regard for themselves, in part because of aristocratic prejudices (as in his famous complaint about seeing an officer shave an enlisted man) and in part because he knew how dangerous the British military could be and what a long campaign required. Washington also represented the best hope of turning the middle and southern colonies' short-term response to the outbreak of war into sustained commitment to drive the royal army off the continent.
That's why Anderson sees Washington taking command of the Continental—formerly New England—Army in July 1775 and then taking control of it through reorganization in later 1775 as a crucial turning-point in the entire conflict.

1 comment:

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