BOOK REVIEW: United for Independence: The American Revolution in the Middle Colonies, 1775-1776 by Michael Cecere (Yardley, Pa.: Westholme, 2023)
In the American Revolutionary War, probably no period was more dramatic than the time between April 1775 and August 1776. It was then that the skirmish at Lexington and Concord grew into an all-out war, and the thirteen British colonies boldly acted as one to declare themselves a new American nation. With few exceptions, the locus of action during this period was in the middle colonies, that is New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. It was here that independence was debated and where the British army came closest to crushing the army of General George Washington and destroying the United States.
In United for Independence: The Revolutionary War in the Middle Colonies, 1775-1776, Michael Cecere recounts some of the most exciting and consequential events of this early chapter in the Revolutionary War. A former high school teacher, Cecere laments that “in classrooms across America,” this part of the story is given short shrift as the narrative takes “a great historical leap” between Lexington and the Declaration of Independence (page xi). His book seeks to remedy this omission and does so admirably.
Because “each colony approached the rebellion against Great Britain differently,” Cecere proceeds both chronologically and spatially (xii). Each chapter covers a different season between Spring 1775 and Summer 1776, and within each chapter, each of the five colonies receive separate treatment. This has the effect of conveying both five united but very different colonies as well as how the push for unity coexisted with the colonists’ cultural and social diversity.
United for Independence begins in the aftermath of Lexington and Concord, which shook the colonies, especially New York. Within a month of the shot heard ‘round the world, Americans captured Fort Ticonderoga from British troops and threatened the British 18th Regiment in New York City’s Upper Barracks. Even pacifist Quakers in Pennsylvania rallied to the Patriot cause in the spring of 1775, while colonists in New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland filled the ranks of their militias as they awaited the next battle.
One of the advantages of Cecere’s colony-by-colony approach is that it brings into relief the different political and military infrastructures of the nascent nation. In New York and Pennsylvania, the capital cities of New York and Philadelphia, respectively, dominated the debate, and led to a concentration of power. Because the cities were perceived to be (and ultimately were) targets of the British army, colonial armies and militias focused on urban defense. However, because New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland each lacked an urban center, there was a decentralization of power and decision-making as local communities were left to man their militias and defend long stretches of coastline without much external support. This was especially true in the summer of 1775 as the governments of these three colonies were deeply divided over questions of loyalty to the King, and governed by ineffectual leaders.
Although United for Independence is not a military history per se, it pays careful attention to the weapons, campaigns, and battles that either occurred in the middle colonies or that involved large numbers of their population. Pennsylvania’s rifle companies were highly respected and “warmly welcomed” at Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the Continental Army amassed in the summer of 1775 (32). Large numbers of New Yorkers were involved on the invasion of Canada including the conquest of Montreal, the siege of St-Jean, and the disastrous assault on Quebec City. Cecere also recounts in vivid detail the struggles to control rowdy soldiers and riflemen who lacked rations and grew bored awaiting the next battle. The maps by Tracy Dungan are of exceptionally high quality and prove helpful in understanding the movement of the various actions.
Cecere diverts from his stated purpose to offer extensive coverage of the American attack on Quebec in December 1775, and thankfully he does so, as it’s one of most engrossing chapters of the book. As Gen. Richard Montgomery and Col. Benedict Arnold pursued a pincer movement against the capital of Canada, their men “went astray in the blinding storm and narrow streets” (70). Despite desperate combat, Quebec proved impregnable, and the Americans faced defeat, capture, and, in the case of Montgomery, death.
The British evacuation of Boston in the spring of 1776 brought some relief to the Continental Army, but it soon dawned on everyone that New York City would be Gen. William Howe’s new target. Cecere details the efforts by Washington to secure the city, adding that the general “expressed a degree of confidence about the strength of the city’s defenses” (94). Yet before the British reappeared, a series of smaller skirmishes broke out across the middle colonies. Of particular interest, Cecere explores the little known naval battle between the Pennsylvania navy and the HMS Roebuck in the Delaware River.
By the summer of 1776, it was clear to everyone that independence was imminent. Earlier disputes between Loyalists and Patriots (especially in Delaware) gave way to a consensus that the colonies were states and that they should be independent of Great Britain. As the delegates made their way to Philadelphia, the American army abandoned Montreal and the other outposts they held in Canada. As Cecere explains: “The lack of military supplies and most particularly provisions (food) and the inability to purchase such items from Canadians because of the lack of hard currency and an enormous debt from earlier purchases on credit, caught up to the Americans in early May” (115). These troops headed south to join the Continental Army in preparing to defend New York.
Shortly after the Second Continental Congress declared independence in early July 1776, 21,000 British and Hessian troops landed at Long Island. In the concluding chapter of United for Independence, Cecere details the futile American efforts to defend New York. As Howe chased Washington across the East River and took Manhattan, he dashed American hopes for a short war. Fortunately for the Continental Army, Howe repeatedly refused to press his advantage, allowing the American troops to escape even as he seized the city and surrounding countryside.
United for Independence is a lively account of the most pertinent events of the first year of the American Revolutionary War. Cecere is to be commended for weaving together so much information into a single story. Of particular value is his attention to smaller conflicts like the naval battles along the Delaware River while also offering a fresh reading of well-known engagements like the American defeat at Quebec and the Battle of Long Island.
His decision to deal with the five colonies individually is a bit tedious at times as it distracts from the larger narrative. I’m also not entirely sure why he decided to label Maryland a middle colony since its economy and demography was much closer to that of Virginia than Pennsylvania. The attention to Delaware is novel, although it also reminds us that the scale of events in this small colony paled in comparison to that of its larger neighbors.
Overall, United for Independence effectively fills in the gap in most people’s knowledge and offers an interesting retelling of some of the darkest days of the American Revolution.
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