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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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Reading Rebellion in the Ranks

Rebellion in the Ranks: Mutinies of the American Revolution is a specialized study by John A. Nagy, current president of the American Revolution Roundtable of Philadelphia. It focuses on Continental soldiers’ resistance to their own officers’ orders, particularly late in the war.

The book’s first chapter describes the mutiny of about three dozen men in Col. William Thompson’s battalion of Pennsylvania riflemen, as I described yesterday. That chapter is about mutinies prompted by grievances over military discipline, though in this case even Pvt. Jesse Lukens, a fellow Pennsylvanian, thought the problem for those men was too little discipline.

Subsequent chapters of Rebellion in the Ranks emphasize the scarcities of food, clothing, and money that prompted much larger mutinies late in the war, and tend to sympathize with the enlisted men. Chapters 5 through 11 constitute a detailed history of the defiance of the Pennsylvania regiments in 1781 and 1782, which spread to other units. There are then chapters on the Newburgh conspiracy, a potential uprising of officers against the authority of Congress, and finally three chapters on rebellion at sea. One interesting note is how, especially later in the war and in the static New York theater, a lot of the information on mutinies comes from enemy intelligence.

Appendix A is a comprehensive listing of mutinies by date, divided by Continental Army, Continental Navy, and Crown forces. This shows how few uprisings occurred in the Boston campaign. For all of Washington’s worry about lack of discipline among the New England troops, Nagy counts only two episodes of significant resistance on land: the Pennsylvania riflemen, and a “mutiny” quelled by Gen. Israel Putnam, which was apparently so minor that it gets no description. The book also notes complaints from the crews of four American ships and one British ship between September 1775 and April 1776.

Other appendices classify the mutinies by locations and causes. Nagy argues that the episodes of widespread defiance in the war’s final years were prompted by scarcity of basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, and pay. However, it appears that in 1776 and 1779 most of the small mutinies were protests against discipline. And the year 1776 had the most uprisings of all, at least by number, perhaps because men were just getting used to being soldiers.

TOMORROW: Putnam puts down a “mutiny” in December 1775.


pilgrimchick said...

That sounds fantastic--really. I particularly enjoyed learning about the "popular culture" movement during this time, and this sounds like an interesting natural extension of that to explore.

By the way, I did pick up "Blindspot." I am not really impressed with it, actually, because it really is extremely predictable and the character development is flat. I do applaud the authors for their efforts to combine 18th century literary techniques with their extraordinary background in the history of the time period.

Mr Punch said...

I quite enjoyed "Blindspot," though I will not say that pilgrimchick is wrong in her assessment. I was amused by the "product placements," where the authors worked in the titles of their books.

"I had hoped to win a prize at the fair for my pattypan squash, but I cannot deny that the Reverend Byles's entry deserved its victory -- 'twas truly the marrow of puritan divinity."

Oh, okay, I made that one up.

Benjamin Carp said...

I've always been impressed with John Nagy, and I'm definitely planning on getting to the book eventually, which I'm sure is excellent--my one quibble (and one should never judge a book this way) is with the cover. The cover image is a fake European portrayal of the New York City fire of 1776: an image without much real historical validity or (it would seem--I can't recall if Nagy covers that fire) any connection to Nagy's worthwhile topic.

Given where I blog, you'll hear no unkind words from me about Blindspot (and there's a lot to love about that book). But I will say this: I'm a little more than halfway through M. T. Anderson's two-book series and it is genuinely transporting. It ought to be required reading for anyone interested in the period--it's that good.

J. L. Bell said...

I thought I recognized that image on Rebellion in the Ranks. Having worked as a book editor, I can attest that an author doesn’t have much sway over cover design; that was probably Westholme Publishing’s choice.

I’m glad you’re enjoying M. T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing novels. Anderson is simply one of the best word-crafters out there, writing for any audience.

RJO said...

Does "Rebellion in the Ranks" discuss Shays' Rebellion at all? Although a post-Revolution event, it might be fruitful to compare and contrast it with events that took place during the Revolution proper, since many of the leading Shaysites were former Revolutionary officers.

J. L. Bell said...

As I recall, Nagy sticks to formal military mutinies only.

On Shays’, I got a lot out of Leonard L. Richards’s Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle (2002).