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Revolutionary War, Military, Continental Army, Militia, New England
On October 2, 1775, Samuel Shaw stepped off the ferry from besieged Boston to the town of Chelsea, guarded by Massachusetts troops. He carried two London newspapers and the latest Boston News-Letter as sources of intelligence to share with General Washington. It was Shaw’s twenty-first birthday. He had left the house of his father, who was renting rooms to British military officers, in order to seek a commission in the Continental Army.1
Samuel Shaw is a clear example of a young man coming of age and linking his personal quest for independence to the American colonies’ [End Page 818] struggle for independence from Britain. He is also an example of how difficult that quest was, a pattern John A. Ruddiman explores in depth in Becoming Men of Some Consequence: Youth and Military Service in the Revolutionary War. Despite eventually achieving the high rank of major, the only way Shaw could make his fortune after the war was to risk sailing to China, and in 1794 he died at sea.
As Ruddiman’s many examples show, youths in eighteenth-century America were trained to see military service as a respectable route to manhood—the overlapping qualities of masculinity and maturity. New England boys grew up watching their town militia companies drill, knowing that when they turned sixteen they would be able and required to join. The book notes how war veterans proudly used their military ranks throughout their lives; that habit prevailed before 1775 as well, even for militia officers who had never seen combat. Simply by showing themselves ready to fight, those men gained their neighbors’ respect.
Actual army service, however, was a minefield of paradoxes. An ideal man was a pillar of his family and community, but joining the army meant leaving home for a very non-domestic environment. For enlisted men, taking that path to independence meant subsuming their individual identities into military companies subject to strict discipline and trained to act as one. To maintain their status as free men, American soldiers insisted on going home at the end of their enlistments and mutinied to ensure they were paid as promised, but officers called such actions unpatriotic. Though civilians honored soldiers in the abstract, many feared and resented them in person, especially as the war dragged on. The skills of soldiering were rarely useful in the civilian economy, and young men who stayed home got an earlier start on families and careers. But no one said growing up was easy.
Becoming Men of Some Consequence focuses on “the forces commanded by George Washington,” drawing on an impressive combination of contemporaneous military records, published memoirs and letters, pension applications, diaries, diaries filed with pension applications, and more (12). The five main chapters discuss the process of enlisting, life in the army, relations with civilians, leaving the army, and life after the war. There is a strong New England tilt, but that reflects the makeup of those Continental forces.
Ruddiman acknowledges that focusing on those soldiers leaves out many other young men who came of age during the same conflict: sailors on privateers, men who served shorter stints in state militia units, and [End Page 819] Americans who fought the same war on the side of the Crown. In addition, non-whites had distinct experiences: Society blocked African American soldiers from full manhood status, while Native Americans had other traditions of masculinity and coming of age. Unfortunately, sources on non-white soldiers’ experiences are much sparser.
In focusing on the commonalities of youths in the Continental Army, Becoming Men of Some Consequence might play down the divisions within that age cohort, particularly those of social and economic class. Most sections of the book explore the same themes for enlisted men and officers in parallel, but those two sets of young men did not face exactly the same challenges. There is little discussion, for example, of how young officers recruited...