Contest for Liberty: Military Leadership in the Continental Army, 1775–1783


October 14, 2019
by Patrick H. Hannum Also by this Author


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Contest for Liberty: Military Leadership in the Continental Army, 1775-1783 by Seanegan P. Sculley (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2019)

Seanegan P. Sculley’s recent book, Contest for Liberty: Military Leadership in the Continental Army, 1775-1783, is organized into five chapters with a substantive introduction and a short conclusion. Each chapter addresses one of the five elements selected for detailed development by the author: Officership, Recruiting, Discipline, Training, and Morale. The book is appropriate for readers with substantial background knowledge on the Revolution and an interest in the development of leadership in the Continental Army.

Sculley’s approach to the complex topic of leadership is both thoughtful and innovative. His overall purpose involves understanding how leaders negotiate with subordinates, including standards of leader conduct and the nature and scope of their authority over soldier’s behavior and expectations. As an active duty U.S. Army officer serving as a history professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he is interested in understanding the origins of the many factors that influenced relationships between leaders and subordinates during the Continental Army’s eight years of existence. Effective leadership during the tumultuous period of national army organization, reorganization, and warfighting became crucial to maintaining cohesion within the force.

Sculley’s research illuminates the dynamics of both officer-soldier relationships and elements of civilian control of the military, a hallmark of future American military organizations reflected in today’s U.S. Army and Department of Defense. His work provides an in-depth analysis of revolutionary military leadership, examining numerous examples derived from a variety of primary and secondary sources.  He relies on various state records, drawing heavily on surviving records from the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. In effect, the research highlights the different regional and state approaches that influenced leadership. The author effectively traces the evolution of the Continental Army from a collection of militias with differing regional and state concepts of military service to an organization that rivaled the more professional and seasoned British Army. His research also provides insight into the historical basis for contemporary relationships between officers and the soldiers they lead.

Sculley, referencing research by both Don Higginbotham and Max Webber, defines military leadership as a system of decision making that forms a social contract between all individuals involved. The author points out “officership” and officers’ authority evolved during the eight years of the war from elements of democratically inspired leniency combined with Gen. George Washington’s concept of personal honor. As the war progressed, recruiting efforts, strategy and tactics evolved in response to the available manpower. Because the composition of the army changed, leaders needed to adapt to retain and serve their soldiers. Morale fluctuated through the eight years of war because the Continental Congress’ and states’ failures to properly support their soldiers. Despite the swings in morale, there was less need for and emphasis on harsh discipline as standardized training improved the performance of the collective army. The author concludes the concepts of discipline and training are closely linked. Adaptive leadership by example combined with improved training and discipline sustained adequate morale to keep the army together and prevent wholesale desertion and mutiny.

Ultimately, Sculley provides detailed research and analysis to demonstrate negotiations between the leaders and the led that contributed to developing a distinctive leadership culture in the army. Readers will appreciate the fact that Sculley writes from the point of view of a seasoned leader himself, yet the book necessitates reflection on the perspective and supporting information his text reveals about soldiers and leaders during the American Revolution. The text is more of a scholarly work than a casual read, but that also makes it a valuable reference source. Most readers will find that the book requires more than one read to fully appreciate the depth of analysis, but for those readers with the time and desire, the breadth and perspective provided by Sculley furnishes valuable insight and a new and innovative perspective into the complex subject of Continental Army leadership.


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  • I pre-ordered this one and it’s sitting on my bookshelf next to Stephen Taafe’s “Washington’s Revolutionary War Generals.” Figured I’d read them together. Nice to see a few more studies out there about how the Army worked since it came to represent the heart and soul of the Revolution. As long as the army existed, there was a foci of resistance to British authority. Thanks for the review!

  • Contest for Liberty is an important book. It skillfully explores the development and employment of military leadership in the Continental Army in an entirely fresh and pioneering manner. For this accomplishment it deserves to be studied and included in any early American scholar’s collection as well any anyone interested in developing leaders in challenging times. This alone makes it deserving of five stars. Contest for Liberty is far more than that.
    Far too often books on leadership concern themselves with the behaviors and actions of a few key figures such as a Washington, Lee, Patton, or Eisenhower. The success or failures of great enterprises are too often attributed to the nature and abilities of a few remarkable individuals and the study of leadership confined to those well-known and extensively documented characters. As a professional soldier who has served both in the ranks of the enlisted and as a commissioned officer, the author accepted the challenge to look far beyond the obvious and well-worn examples of senior officers in the Continental Army to examine the extremely complex factors that comprise leadership in large and diverse organizations.
    Complementing his extensive experience as a soldier, Sean Sculley employs his skills as a professional scholar to examine primary sources, prior scholarly analysis, and his own understanding of the American military. He describes the unique way in which Continental leaders and soldiers negotiated what became the legitimate authority to command and the subordinate’s subsequent willingness to follow that authority. This is an entirely distinctive and useful way with which to understand the complex dynamics at work within the nascent American forces and illuminate factors that continue to this day. An understanding of this negotiation will well serve any modern leader building effective organizations in business, government or the military.
    Leadership is not only extremely complex, it is sublime. The author recognizes this by taking a systems approach to examine leadership at the soldier, junior leader, field grade and general officer levels. This is a challenging undertaking given a dearth of primary sources for most of these levels. Undaunted the author conducts a brilliant analysis by addressing the effects and outcomes of leadership in chapters on officership, recruiting, discipline, training and morale. In this manner he is able to present the reader with a broad picture that substantiates his description of a “negotiation of authority.”
    Soldiers of a free nation agree to risk their lives and future based upon explicit promises of adequate sustenance, clothing, equipment, shelter, pay, and competent leadership. The Continental Congress failed to provide most of these and left it up to the leadership in the field to hold the army together. The failure of the central government to live up to the basic expectations of its army raises the most interesting question of the revolution: what kept the army functioning in the field? In the most comprehensive manner to date, Sculley has managed to describe how the leadership of the Continental army, at all levels, dealt with these Congressional failings to provide the army with the barest of necessities, failings that often led to understandable mutinous behavior. These leaders forged unit cohesion through their personal dedication, shared suffering and by providing soldiers with examples of republican virtue thereby giving them a cause for which they were willing to serve. The result was the first institution that could be considered national in scope and it exhibited a distinctly American ethos.
    Contest for Liberty makes an invaluable contribution to Revolutionary war scholarship by illustrating that the Continental Army was ultimately successful not solely because of remarkable leaders such as Washington, but because of thousands of NCO’s and junior officers that kept the army effective in the face of almost insurmountable odds. This in no way detracts from the more famous leaders but rather acknowledges in an exceptional way, the nameless and unrecognized leaders that made the army. As a soldier/scholar the author creates a masterful description of the process that transitioned regional, small unit militias into an effective national military culture.
    This is not an entry level book into either the study of the Revolution or the nature of leadership. Its 162 pages of text is densely packed with detail and analysis that deserves close study. My copy is covered with highlights and notes and his footnotes and bibliography worthy of study in their own right. I will re-read it many times.

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