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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Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Charles Royster and the Rage Militaire

The historian Charles Royster died in early February. He was the author of Light-Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution (1981), The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of George Washington’s Time (1999), and studies of the Civil War.

But the book historians will most remember Royster for is A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775–1783 (1979). Eighteen years after its publication, Joseph R. Fischer wrote on the H-War listserv that it “continues to rank as the definitive work on the Continental Army’s relationship with the American people.”

This month, twenty-two years after that encomium, Michael Lynch wrote in an appreciation on his Past in the Present blog:
I first encountered Royster’s work when I was fresh out of college. At that time I was a newly-minted aspiring historian who had decided to study the American Revolution. On a family trip to Williamsburg I found a copy of A Revolutionary People at War in a bookstore. It probably had a bigger impact on me than any academic book I’ve read, whether at that time or since. It was one of my first experiences with a work of history that asked such probing questions and constructed such meaningful answers.

Sometimes, when you’re just beginning to engage with a field, a book will smash its way into your intellect like an asteroid, but then you revisit it later when you’re more seasoned and find the magic’s worn off. You decide it must have made a big impression only because you read it when you were green and had a narrow frame of reference. That’s never been the case with me and A Revolutionary People. Every time I take it off the shelf, it’s as powerful and insightful as it seemed before I started graduate school. To this day, I think it’s an unparalleled analysis of the Continental Army and its role in defining what the Revolution meant.
Focusing as I do on the start of the war, I find the most helpful concept from Royster’s book his emphasis on the rage militaire that energized Patriots in 1775. That phrase was the title of his first chapter. It’s cited widely by other authors. Royster studied how that feeling fell apart over the next year and a half, and what thoughts and feelings replaced it.

That’s not just a story of the army—it’s also a story of the society that produced, sustained, grumbled about, and reabsorbed that army. As Gaines Foster wrote in his obituary for the American Historical Association, “Charlie always bristled at being termed a ‘military historian,’ although he would admit that he studied ‘war and society.’”

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