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.
(As an Amazon Associate, JAR earns from qualifying purchases. This helps toward providing our content free of charge.)