Book Review: A People’s Army

Provincial regiments that enlisted to fight the Seven Years’ War reflected the society and cultural attitudes from which they were recruited. The collective experience of these men in the service of the British Crown during the war was an important contributing factor to the anti-British sentiment prevalent in Massachusetts in the years leading up to the American Revolution. These are the assertions of University of Colorado professor of history Fred Anderson in his award-winning work A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War.

Anderson explained that he set out to examine “the experiences of New England provincial soldiers in the last and greatest of America’s colonial wars.” His work deviated from traditional military history as it did not focus on “the narration of campaigns and the analysis of generalship,” rather “the mundane aspects of soldiering – daily life, discipline, common attitudes to war, and so on – in order to gauge the effects of military service on the provincial troops themselves.” The author also opted to incorporate quantitative analysis of data, an element usually associated with works of social history, making it a hybrid of sorts – a cross between military and social history.

The author examined various surviving journals of individual soldiers who served in provincial Massachusetts regiments and regimental records. Through this research he discovered that 176 towns in the colony sent men to fight in the war, and that men from 138 of these became casualties – killed, wounded, maimed, or diseased. At least thirty percent of the men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-nine served in the provincial regiments; statistically it is feasible that every family in the colony was represented in the army.

Gathered in immense numbers, these men forged a common bond built upon a shared worldview steeped in their distinct customs and religious beliefs. Many were young men who hoped to acquire, through recruitment bounties and good pay, the capital necessary to begin life on their own. They also brought with them ideas that were anathema to the regular British army – leadership by consensus, right of contract, good neighborliness, and Calvinistic religious piety. In contrast with British regulars who were largely illiterate, often the dregs of society who were pressed into his majesty’s service, the provincial soldier was educated and expected to become a landed yeoman in the future.

Provincials looked upon their regular army counterparts with a combination of fascination and disgust – fascination with their soldierly discipline and bravery in combat, disgust with their blasphemous, and often scandalous, behavior. Regular officers regarded provincial officers and men with contempt because of their lack of martial discipline. No love was lost between the two groups who regularly exchanged insults, got into fistfights, or worse. The cruel punishments meted out by the British regular army, upwards of 800 lashes with the cat o’ nine tails in some cases, for infractions that seemed trivial in the mind of the provincial civilian soldier inspired terror. Provincial troops also felt that the regulars misused them by assigning them to the most undesirable work details and garrison duties, as well as by keeping them in service beyond their regular enlistments. Anderson concluded that living and fighting alongside British regulars and under British officers taught provincial soldiers some important lessons about themselves; it clarified where they stood in the eyes of those who ruled the empire of which they were subjects. It also cemented in their minds the idea that the British army, officers and enlisted alike, were “morally deficient” and “bad men.” This led to a widespread feeling of moral superiority amongst the provincials that remained with them long after the war.

A combination of patriotism and religious zeal motivated New Englanders to take up arms to rid themselves of the threat of Papist expansion from Canada. Local interests in the colonies also coincided with British strategic goals – a fortune could be made through military commissions and supply contracts. It also infused hard cash into an economy that operated largely on a contract-barter system. However, once the common cause was accomplished, what should have been a peaceful and prosperous colony under the protection of the most powerful empire on earth felt increasingly persecuted by the mother country. Later, as stories of the misbehavior of British regulars quartered in Boston filtered out to the surrounding countryside towns and villages, they fell on the sympathetic ears of these veterans and confirmed their own experiences.

Illustration of 33rd Regiment from The Costume of Yorkshire (1814) by George Walker (1781-1856).

Later, the revolutionary rhetoric and lists of grievances against the King spread by political and military spokesmen further validated the veterans’ experience during the war. Anderson pointed out that the realization that veterans and their way of life “were being threatened by other men: not by the abstract forces of corruption and power, but by flesh-and-blood men, whom they personally knew to be capable of behaving in disturbing, threatening ways” practically overnight transformed the Massachusetts colony from an “enthusiastic advocate” of the British Empire into one of her most stubborn opponents. Through his work Anderson shed new light on the origins of the revolutionary zeal in one of the hotbeds of American rebellion. Although the author could have included more information regarding provincial attitudes about their own army, officers, and service in addition to those they had about the British, this new understanding makes the work a valuable addition to early American historiography.