Book review: Becoming Men of Some Consequence: Youth and Military Service in the Revolutionary War by John A. Ruddiman (University of Virginia Press, 2014).
Distinct from the many works that focus on the political dynamics, notable figures and military campaigns associated with the American War for Independence, Professor John Ruddiman centers attention on the psyche, motivations, and individual experiences of the young men who came to form the Continental army.
With a title derived from a mostly derogatory comment made by a British officer, Becoming Men of Some Consequence examines the aspirations and myriad factors that drove young males to pursue paths as professional soldiers and is logically organized in a manner that parallels their journeys; from the impetus to enlist, assimilation with other soldiers and transition to manhood, military existence and relationships with civilians, and eventual re-entry into private life as veterans achieving varying levels of success after the war. Readers learn that young Continental soldiers’ rationale for enlistment was very often attributable to an expectation that serving would offer an optimum path toward the self-sustainability necessary to marry, support a family and achieve standing among those in their communities. Further, the author reinforces the notion that soldiers’ individual experiences and drive toward positions of respect and personal independence were a microcosm of the yearning and struggles of the new nation – modestly resourced and uncertain but resolute and principled in seeking its own way.
At its outset the war effort and its promise of steady compensation and bounties appeared to offer disproportionate opportunity to men who were without property, marginalized or “something less than average.” Not unlike the profiles of the young men and women enlisting in the armed forces today, roughly seventy percent of the males who enlisted in the Continental army did so before the age of twenty-six and less than one in five were married. Moreover, the 200,000 who served during the course of the Revolution comprised approximately forty percent of those eligible. Since conscription was irregular and the Patriot cause was not embraced by an overwhelming majority at the time, the substantial volume of enlistments was accomplished not only through economic incentives, but a mix of subtle and even not-so-subtle community pressures as well as an overall rage militaire which prevailed during the early phases of the conflict. For men with the proper social standing, Gen. Nathanael Greene summed his view by commenting that an officer’s commission afforded the “Opportunity of traveling the shortest Road to the greatest heights of Ambition.”
Although students of the Revolution are generally familiar with the many challenges persistently faced by the Continental army, Ruddiman surfaces intimate narratives of soldiers’ hardships that further illustrate and underscore their truly extraordinary commitment. Readers learn that even men who served with opposing forces were confounded by the steadfastness and will of the Americans. For example, after Yorktown a captured Hessian officer rhetorically asked, “With what soldiers in the world could one do what was done by these men, who go about nearly naked and in the greatest privation?” In addition, the author highlights the tension and resentment that existed between troops and inhabitants of the areas where they served, primarily brought about by the neglect of Congress to adequately supply them and their subsequent reliance on locals for food and other resources.
Possibly more enlightening than the explanation of the motivations for enlisting in the Patriot cause is the author’s analysis of soldiers’ decision-making regarding when to escape the army, whether by simply waiting out terms or by desertion. Fueled in large part by steadily depreciating currency and an understanding that extended service often resulted in less favorable or at least delayed prospects at home, men were faced with achieving a delicate balance between retaining the respect they had earned as soldiers and doing what was believed to be in their best personal and financial interests, no matter how murky.
Ruddiman goes on to expose the many obstacles faced by discharged troops who, simply to buy the food and clothing needed just to return home, were exploited by speculators that purchased settlement certificates issued by state governments for fractions of their face value. Similar speculation existed for bounty land certificates, and veterans were beset further with a faltering economy as well as the physical and psychological debilitations common to all warfare regardless of era. To buttress the sketches of the hurdles faced by veterans, the author cites a statistical analysis based on a cohort of New England veterans’ pension applications that, tragically, found a negative correlation between length of military service and post-War prosperity, supporting the notion held by the troops at the time that re-enlistment or extended service was ill-advised.
Exceptionally well-written and meticulously researched through scholarly review of numerous personal accounts as well as dozens of secondary sources, Becoming Men of Some Consequence is of tremendous value in gaining a more complete understanding of the war, the mindset and sacrifices of those who waged it, and their ensuing condition.