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America Goes to War: A Social History of the…
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America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army

by Charles Patrick Neimeyer

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Charles Neimeyer provides one of the first thematic accounts about the common soldier during the American Revolution. Neimeyer, retired U.S. Marine Corps officer and current adjunct faculty member at Regent University, is also the author of two books on the American Revolution. In this book, Neimeyer attempts to “demonstrate that those who served in the army as long-termed Continental soldiers were not those whom historians have traditionally associated with the defense of liberty” (xiv).

The thematic quality of the book permits the reader to skip from the opening chapter on “The Social Origins of the Continental Line” directly to the chapter “The Soldier as Wage Laborer.” Continuing the thematic format, Neimeyer focuses on four main groups: the Irish, the Germans, African-Americans, and Native Americans and further breaks it down into the three colonial geographical regions: New England, Middle Colonies, and Southern Colonies. He follows this up by discussing the soldier as a laborer and concludes with mutinies in the Continental Army.

While his sources are abundant some of his rhetoric may alienate his potential audience. The clearest example is in the preface where he speaks of separating “fact from fire-eating rhetoric of the rebel elite” (xiv). Throughout the book, he uses expressions that could have been substituted with factual, non-emotional words in order to keep the book on a more scholarly level. The author’s use of emotionally charged terms or non-germane statements, such as discussing Adams’ reluctance to go to Canada, or Washington’s slaves, alert the reader that he may have a bias (xiii, 78). In another example that may illustrate a potential bias, Neimeyer discusses slave control in the south and mentions two individuals who “perhaps as a result of their experience with slave resistance…became very active in revolutionary activities” (68). Later, he discusses the desertion of a group of soldiers stating, “they probably reasoned that a two-week extension would have brought them more of the same garrison duty” (118). In these instances, such subjective words as “probably” and, from the earlier example, “perhaps,” lack the evidentiary support necessary for inclusion in a scholarly work. At best, they should have been included as footnotes indicating Neimeyer’s own observations.

Neimeyer goes to some length to describe the American Revolution as an “’Atlantic’ phenomenon” and how the “presence of large numbers of non-white and non-Anglican groups” made the struggle an Atlantic one rather than purely a North American / British conflict (4, 7). Neimeyer proves this point throughout the book. Simultaneously in proving this point, he weakens his argument that these were poor, down-trodden men who had no choice but to join the military. The Irish, the Germans, and to some extent, the African Americans all had something to gain from an American victory and that was some semblance of liberty and the promise of land.

His attempt to illustrate the poor being exploited by the rich and had little choice but to join the Army is not fully convincing. However, he does prove that the young and landless joined the Army but the author never explains why (18). He takes various anecdotes and many figures to show a link between poverty and enlistment. Yet there are no actual figures why various individuals joined the Army. It is a leap in logic to go from stating the poorest were in the military to contending that is the reason they joined the military (19).

Perhaps one of my strongest disputes with the book is the author’s seeming inability to grasp tone within the context of enlisted troops’ writings. The author leans heavily on Joseph Plumb Martin and his narrative of the war; several times he refers to Plumb’s own account of his “indenture.” The tone of Martin’s narrative and the use of the word “indenture” versus the use of the word “enlistment” should not be taken to imply a servile attitude versus a patriotic attitude (133).

Neimeyer’s book is not without some positive elements. Among these are individual chapters dealing with the groups. It was interesting to read the various anecdotes of why men joined the Army and what happened to them afterward. His chapter on the “Soldier as Wage Earner” was particularly interesting and well explained and evidenced.

Ultimately, Neimeyer fails to connect with a general audience through his use of tendentious rhetoric and arguments that would sometimes weaken other points in his contention. However, on a second look at his book, Neimeyer does make a strong case that the yeoman farmer we thought fought the American Revolution is not, for the most part, the man who actually did fight the American Revolution. ( )
  ebturner | Jan 2, 2011 |
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