12 Questions with Holly Mayer


July 17, 2013
by Todd Andrlik Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

hollymayerWhen we asked our Facebook readers who they’d most like to see interviewed, Holly A. Mayer was at the top of that list. Mayer just stepped down as chair of the History Department at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to focus on research and teaching. She concentrates her scholarship on civil-military relations during the Revolutionary War and is well known in history circles for her book Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution. Mayer is currently writing another manuscript titled Congress’ Own: The 2nd Canadian Regiment’s War for Independence. Mayer was kind enough to answer our questions about camp communities, the 2nd Canadian Regiment and other American Revolution miscellany.

1 // In Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution, you study the roles of camp followers. What are the most important things our readers should know about camp communities and what they meant to the war effort?

One of the biggest points that I wanted to make was simply that armies are social, not just military, organizations.  The Revolution’s soldiers and officers labored, trained, and fought in platoons, companies, and regiments, but they lived in camps and garrisons that were also homes and workplaces for associated peoples.  Strong camp communities reinforced the will as well as ability to continue the military mission.

2 // How important were camp followers in the Continental Army’s survival and success?

They were vital to the army’s survival and thus to its success in accomplishing the mission of securing independence for the United States.  To put it another way, consider how the army would have maintained itself if it had not had the goods and services provided by the thousands of women, contractors, sutlers, servants and volunteers who were with it at one time or another during the eight years of the war.  To say this is not to downgrade or ignore the soldiers and officers who fought the war, but simply to have people consider how they lived the war.

3 // Can you share any lesser-known examples of camp followers being uniquely involved in battle?

While there are many accounts of followers in camp or following with the baggage on the march, there aren’t many verifiable stories of followers directly involved in battle (actually bearing arms).  Those that have been verified include the well-known story of Margaret Corbin, “Captain Molly,” at Fort Washington in 1776. A lesser-known example is that of Anna Maria Lane who received a pension from the Virginia General Assembly in 1808 for her actions in 1777 at the battle of Germantown, where “in the garb, and with the courage of a soldier, [she] performed extraordinary military services, and received a severe wound” (Sandra Gioia Treadway, “Anna Maria Lane: An Uncommon Common Soldier of the American Revolution,” Virginia Cavalcade 37(1988): 134–43.)

4 // Your Duquesne University bio says you’re presently working on a book manuscript titled Congress’ Own: The 2nd Canadian Regiment’s War for Independence.  How many regiments were not directly tied to states but rather supported by the Continental Congress? What was their purpose and what makes the 2nd unique as opposed to, say, the 1st Canadian Regiment?

The overwhelming majority of Continental Army regiments were tied to particular states for recruiting, support, and bounty-land or pension purposes.  Most regiments were affiliated with just one state (as in the 1st New York, 2nd Pennsylvania, or 3rd Virginia regiments), but some units, such as the 2nd Continental Artillery Regiment, had companies recruited and maintained by different states.  Such organization reflected how most soldiers wanted to serve in units with men from their state communities and the fact the Continental Congress needed the states to field the army.  There were a few specialized units or partisan corps that could recruit at large and/or had large numbers of foreign-born soldiers.  When the Continental Congress authorized the 1st and 2nd Canadian regiments, its members believed that the regiments would be recruiting primarily Canadians and that they would be maintained by Canada (and so they would be like the other state-affiliated units).  When Canada did not join the rebellion, there was the dilemma of what to do with the regiments and the Canadians who remained within them.  Congress essentially “adopted” the Canadians within them, meaning that it would see to their pay and supplies.  It then authorized Colonel James Livingston of the 1st to recruit in New York, and so that regiment became like many others that were primarily affiliated with one state.  Congress, on the other hand, authorized Colonel Hazen to recruit at large, which was unusual.  The result, however, also created difficulties throughout the war, as he had to communicate with the various states to support the soldiers he recruited out of them.

5 // Who is Moses Hazen and what remarkable things did he accomplish?

Moses Hazen was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, in 1733 and served in the American theater of the Seven Years’ War in Rogers’ Rangers and then in the 44th Foot of the British army. He settled near Montreal after 1763 and speculated in lands and businesses.  As he accumulated land, he also accumulated heavy debts, which he repeated after the Revolution.  Hazen established a manor with lands and tenants in the Fort St. Johns (Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River) area and so was on one of the invasion routes for the American forces heading north in 1775.  After waffling for much of that year, he finally decided to throw his support to the Americans and joined the fight at Quebec that December.  Although that failed, he and Edward Antill then acted upon the Continental Congress’ authorization to form a Canadian regiment.   The retreat from Canada in the spring of 1776 resulted in the regiment losing most of its Canadian troops and thus, although Canadian in name, ultimately most of the regiment’s soldiers were from elsewhere, including recent immigrants and some German prisoners of war.  Hazen thus created an especially diverse regiment that racked up a distinguished record fighting at Staten Island, Brandywine, Germantown, and Yorktown.

6 // How did your interest in the American Revolution originate? 

I can actually trace my interest all the way back to eighth grade when I read the book Johnny Tremain.  Before that I had been digging into the history of ancient Egypt, but there was something especially compelling about rebelling Americans.  That interest deepened in college as I studied colonial and revolutionary America to try to answer, among other questions, Crèvecoeur’s query:  “What then is the American, this new man?”

7 // What historians have most influenced your work?

I suppose that depends on whether we’re talking about those who taught me historical analysis and methods in classes, whether or not such courses were about the Revolution, or those whose works have influenced what I do or how I look at what I do.  In the former case, they include James Whittenburg, Michael McGiffert, James Axtell, Drew Faust, and Richard Maxwell Brown.  In the latter case, they include the writings of Don Higginbotham, John Shy, Fred Anderson, Mary Beth Norton, Linda Kerber, Charles Royster, David Hackett Fischer, and Alan Taylor.  But there are many more.

8 // Which new (since 2007) or soon-to-be-published books about the American Revolution are most intriguing to you? Why?

Among the recent books is Michael McDonnell’s The Politics of War:  Race, Class, & Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (2007) and Rosemarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (2007).  Among the brand new ones in 2013 are Andrew O’Shaughnessy’s The Men Who Lost America:  British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of Empire and Daniel Krebs’s A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War during the American Revolution.  Caroline Cox’s manuscript on the boy soldiers of the American Revolution is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press.  I’ve not only read works by these authors but also listened to them at conferences and very much appreciate their new perspectives about the haves and have-nots in and outside of American society.

9 // What books – other than your own – do you consider essential to any American Revolution buff’s library?

Thanks for the compliment that mine may be essential.  On the other hand, there are so many books—and articles—that I consider vital that it is tough to choose.  It’s also challenging to find the right balance between the classics and new works, and between military, political, social, cultural, and other studies. From among the many, I suggest those by some of the historians I mentioned in 7 and 8 above, as well as a sampling of those by Edmund Morgan, Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, Pauline Maier, Jack Greene, Gary Nash, Alfred Young, and John Ferling.

10 // We’re constantly learning new things about the American Revolution. What new or exciting thing about the American Revolution have you recently learned or discovered?

The McNeil Center for Early American Studies just organized and sponsored a conference titled “The American Revolution Reborn: New Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century” that provided clear evidence of a resurging interest in the Revolution that goes well beyond biographies of the founders. There continues to be a focus on the dynamics of social power but there also seems to be a developing reemphasis on the political.  Also, besides extending the geographic borders of the Revolution, people are expanding its temporal boundaries.  The Revolution does not “end” at 1789 or 1791 with the ratification of the Constitution or its first amendments, or even with the election of 1800 or that “Second War for Independence” the War of 1812.  The reverberations of Revolution continued well into the nineteenth century.

11 // If you could time travel and visit any American colony/state for one year between 1763 and 1783, which colony and which year would you choose? Why?

I might have to flip a coin between Pennsylvania in 1776 and New York in 1783, but at the moment I’d be inclined to choose New York, specifically the Newburgh area, in 1783 so that I could listen to the soldiers reflecting on what they’d been through and what they wanted to do next. 

12 // With all of the recent scholarly chatter about setting aside the ideological and social arguments for why the Revolution happened, do you think scholars should, or can, also set aside the economic argument of why the Revolution happened to focus on how people experienced the war? Do you think scholars can set aside any of these arguments and still study and discuss the Revolution?

Some scholars have already focused on how people experienced the war and some will continue to do so, just as others will continue to explore the various political, economic, cultural, and social topics and themes that help us understand the destructive and constructive, radical and conservative, natures of the Revolution.  Topics and analytical threads come and go, reflecting current interests and methods, but to know the whole, not just the parts, we need to engage with the various arguments, not set them aside.

One thought on “12 Questions with Holly Mayer

  • Wonderful interview. Ever since reading Joseph Plumb Martin’s book, I’ve been intrigued by the ‘everyday life’ aspect of the soldier. While looking forward to reading about the glory of a fighting soldier, Martin’s numbing descriptions of hunger, foraging and winter weather that took up much of his journal, made me realize how survival wasn’t dodging musket balls but finding that next meal, keeping warm and avoiding illness. It also brought home the notion that the war was fought and supported by everyday people. I’m looking forward to reading “Belonging to the Army…”

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