- Born in War
John Adams committed the original sin of Revolutionary historiography. The Quincy statesman famously asked in 1818, "But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war?" Adams, who was obsessed with his place in history and annoyed that war heroes had eclipsed his fame, answered no. "The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people. . . . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution."1 The former president was right in an important sense, but he also maddeningly skewed the narrative of the developments that led to American independence. With this stirring statement, Adams launched a generation of great historians who picked apart these principles and sentiments and lavished attention on the prewar politics of the colonies and the postwar nation-building and constitution-making of the United States. In doing so, historians of the last forty years have taken Adams's erudition too much to heart and thereby left mountains of wartime evidence to rot in the archives.
Still, it is time for academic historians of the Revolutionary War to stop beating their breasts about the neglect of military history. As this volume of essays makes clear, scholars are indeed doing excellent work on this subject. Perhaps the problem is that early American military historians have done too little to promote their work, among their colleagues or the general public. In the past, it was easier to blame the rest of the academy for military history's lonely state of exile. Practitioners could complain that early Americanists (like the academy more generally) turned up their noses at military history. "Everyone knew" that it was distasteful to muck around with bayonets, camp fever, and flanking moves, and so for explanations of the Revolutionary War, scholars ceded the field to esteemed practitioners like Don Higginbotham, John W. Shy, and a handful of others per decade: a Richard Buel here, a Charles Royster there. Historians of the war have also been reluctant to "go trade," lest they [End Page 351] complete their tumble into the presumed untouchability of studying "maps and chaps" along with the myriad writers who feed the public's insatiable appetite for learning about the Revolution. David Hackett Fischer and John Ferling are the most visible exceptions to this rule, along with a few others.
As a result, the period 1775–83 is not as well understood as the periods immediately preceding and succeeding it. Colonialists and early nationalists now vastly outnumber historians who look at the war years. Historians of the Revolutionary War are lagging behind historians of the American Civil War, and even King Philip's War has received a blessing from the Bancroft committee. The long and searing Revolutionary War certainly deserves better than a cursory treatment in the prefaces and epilogues of other scholars' work.
Through it all, Shy has bravely tried his best to integrate scholarship of the war with wider work on the Revolutionary period. He must be a humble man, since scholars (rightly) continue to laud his importance even as he has repeatedly lamented, over a span of more than thirty years, the unimportance—and even revulsion—with which other academics regard his chosen specialization (p. 4).2 This refrain, however, is starting to seem anachronistic. The editors of War and Society, John Resch and Walter Sargent, have assembled a good team of eleven essayists (including Shy and the editors themselves) to highlight a selection of these new approaches. Historians are indeed doing important work on the war—especially in their linking of war, society, and culture. Almost all of this volume's contributors, such as Wayne E. Lee, Holly A. Mayer, Michael A. McDonnell, Charles Neimeyer, and Judith L. Van Buskirk, plus Resch himself (Sargent seems sure to follow), have already begun making important advances in this area in recent monographs...