- Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution by John Gilbert McCurdy
U.S. Revolutionary War, British Army, Military geography, Quartering Act
In the Declaration of Independence, colonists opined against the quartering of British troops as one of the enumerated grievances they addressed to King George III. This experience was not limited just to colonists in Boston or other major cities in British North America. By contrast, as John McCurdy compellingly reveals in his book, Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution, this practice pervaded British colonies throughout the Atlantic world. The Crown was eager to station troops throughout North America, yet British officials did not fully anticipate the ramifications of this plan. In the years leading up to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, dealing with British troops had become a reality intimately known to most colonists across North America. Moreover, it was through this shared experience, McCurdy argues, that Americans began to separate themselves from the British and imagine themselves as a nation as they sought an answer to the fundamental question of “where do soldiers belong?”
Structuring the book thematically, McCurdy explores the evolution of Americans’ views on the proper place of the military within eighteenth-century society. He considers more traditional places one might associate with quarters such as houses and barracks in addition to broader locales ranging from the more localized level of cities and towns to the nation and empire. In doing so, McCurdy astutely links these variety of spaces through the discourse of military geography, a term he defines as the study of “the [End Page 741] influences that soldiers, weapons, and martial codes have on notions of place” (7).
McCurdy reiterates throughout his book that historians have far too long ignored the particular practice of quartering employed by the British in addition to the military geography of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, more broadly. This is a valid critique for much of the research produced by revolutionary-era scholars; however, he overlooks the great work of Steven Elliott, a recent graduate of Temple University whose dissertation focuses on the military geography of New Jersey during the Revolutionary War.1 McCurdy, though, is admittedly more interested in the prewar years because at the core of his study is a fresh re-examination of the Quartering Act. Because of the centrality of the language of the Quartering Act and its revisions over time to the nuances of the book’s argument, it would have been useful to have an appendix with the complete text of the legislation for reference. Nevertheless, McCurdy persuasively contends that the Quartering Act “reshaped the military geography of British North America,” and the variety of responses to the attempts to implement it within the colonies by key British officials like General Gage foreshadowed the Crown’s inability to accommodate the demands and interests across its empire (91).
One of the greatest strengths of McCurdy’s wide-ranging study is his consideration of quarters within the borderlands. His discussion fits well with current scholarship investigating the interactions within the land inhabited by Native Americans yet challenged by colonists’ persistent desire to expand westward across the continent.2 He skillfully demonstrates how, on the ground, there were inconsistencies in the implementation of the Quartering Act as British officials weighed the particular variables of local conditions against the needs of the army. Whereas Americans sought to rid their homes and towns of the presence of the British troops, the borderlands were inherently much more militarized because of the [End Page 742] tension between colonists and Native Americans. At the same time, though, there was also much more ambiguity on the borderland about the proper place for the military.
McCurdy examines the practice of quartering not only in the western borderlands but also in British colonies throughout the Atlantic world. Although some of this story will be familiar to those who have read Andrew...