Cover image for The Soldiers’ Revolution: Pennsylvanians in Arms and the Forging of Early American Identity By Gregory T. Knouff

The Soldiers’ Revolution

Pennsylvanians in Arms and the Forging of Early American Identity

Gregory T. Knouff


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ISBN: 978-0-271-02335-9

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336 pages
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The Soldiers’ Revolution

Pennsylvanians in Arms and the Forging of Early American Identity

Gregory T. Knouff

The Soldiers’ Revolution makes a signal contribution to our understanding of why ordinary Americans fought in the Revolution. By placing the defense of local communities at the center of American nationalism, Knouff makes us rethink both the importance of local life and the meaning of nationhood in the Revolutionary and early national eras. By making race and gender an essential part of popular nationalism, he casts a brilliant light on the complexity of the Revolutionary experience.”


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  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
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What did the American Revolution mean to the ordinary soldiers who fought in it? Were they inspired by high-minded ideals of liberty and democracy, or were they seeking the material and practical rewards—bounties, land, and political advancement—that victory might bring them? We know much about the philosophical positions expressed by America’s Founding Fathers, but the common people did not necessarily share the Founders’ ideas. The Soldiers’ Revolution looks to those who took up arms in Pennsylvania to reveal the rich tapestry of local interests that led a nation to war.

Many rank-and-file Revolutionaries left behind records of their experiences—everything from letters and journals to pension applications and loyalist claims. These records bring to light the soldiers’ widely ranging ideas and opinions about the war, about themselves, about the enemy, and about the American nation. In Pennsylvania enlisted men defined their communities through various local interests. This general localism was, ironically, one of the few shared popular Revolutionary ideals. Moreover, the experience of military violence was critical in defining broader ideologies of citizenship that contributed to ideas of an emerging American identity—an identity that privileged white men above Indians, African Americans, and women. "Tories," meanwhile, were forced to shed their local perspectives and embrace other ideas in keeping with imperial interests.

The Soldiers’ Revolution offers us a rare glimpse into the everyday world of the American Revolution. We see how the common experience of war drew soldiers together as they began the long process of forging an identity for a fledgling nation.

The Soldiers’ Revolution makes a signal contribution to our understanding of why ordinary Americans fought in the Revolution. By placing the defense of local communities at the center of American nationalism, Knouff makes us rethink both the importance of local life and the meaning of nationhood in the Revolutionary and early national eras. By making race and gender an essential part of popular nationalism, he casts a brilliant light on the complexity of the Revolutionary experience.”
The Soldiers’ Revolution is well researched and strongly based on pension records and Loyalist claims. This gives the work a personal feel as readers see the first-hand accounts of numerous participants on both sides. The author also includes a thoughtful essay on the merits and limitations of these sources. While the book is generally well written and logically organized, at times Knouff lapses into jargon with his discussions of ‘hegemonic culture’ and ‘otherness.’ Still this work offers insights into how people from different races responded to the Revolutionary War in Pennsylvania, and it helps explain why they fought.”
“This is an intricate and passionately argued book that compels scholars critically to assess the Revolution and the theoretical framework that informs The Soldiers’ Revolution.”
“This is a thought-provoking contribution to the complex debate about racial and ethnic lumping and splitting in American history.”

Gregory T. Knouff is Assistant Professor of History at Keene State College in New Hampshire. He has contributed chapters to two Penn State Press books: Beyond Philadelphia: The American Revolution in the Pennsylvania Hinterland (1998) and Friends and Enemies in Penn's Woods (forthcoming).





1. Conflict and Community on the Eve of Revolution

2. Why They Fought

3. Identity and the Military Community

4. The Meaning of the War Against the British

5. Race and Violence on the Frontier

6. Civil War and the Contest for Community

7. The Memory of the American Revolution


Essay on Sources and Methodology



In the early nineteenth century, Jacob Stahley, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, issued a statement in support of his erstwhile comrade, Peter Shindel, who was applying for a pension. Stahley stated that he remembered “the said Peter Shindel to have been actually engaged as a soldier in the cause of the people during the glorious struggle for independence.” It is a truism to say that the American Revolution was the crucible in which the United States was forged. But Stahley’s brief statement raises a fundamental question: What exactly was the “cause of the people”? In the American popular imagination, colonists unified and inspired by egalitarian ideals fought a war for national independence and swept aside monarchy in favor of a republic. Such a perspective is shaped by histories of the nation’s birth that focus on the so-called Founders. This somewhat imprecise term typically refers to various well-known political and military leaders, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, about whose views on the Revolution historians know much. Many Americans also typically believe that the views of the Founders reflected those of most Revolutionaries. Such a presumption, however, is far from self-evident. As humble enlisted men, Stahley and Shindel were not famous, but they too were “founders” of a sort. Their understandings of the “cause” and of who constituted “the people” deserve to be addressed.

Soldiers—active participants in the War for Independence—affected the war’s outcome and character. With a relative paucity of qualitative accounts left by poorer Americans (compared with those generated by literate elites), the task of piecing together how common people understood the Revolution is difficult. One possibility is that the lower and middling sorts adopted the ideologies of the upper sorts and framed the war in terms of a united struggle for independence against Britain. Such a formulation suggests that people were typically good Whigs who supported revolution or Tories who embraced the British empire. It is also plausible that poor people were forced to fight or that they took up arms in order to receive bounty money. Apathetic toward the politics of their day, they became involved primarily in return for a meager material reward. Either of these readings could grow out of analyses of ordinary people’s behavior during the war and the commentaries of elites. Fortunately, though, many Americans who fought in the Revolution as common soldiers left records of their experiences (in the form of pension applications and loyalist claims, as well as letters and journals). Enlisted men were often poor, but payment for service was not their only goal. They had clearly defined ideas that affected the war and the nation. By recovering their voices, we will better understand America’s Revolution and the development of the early United States. We will also discover that their perceptions, actions, and goals shaped American national identity in profound ways.

This study is a cultural history of such soldiers. It analyzes the perceptions of ordinary Pennsylvanians who fought in the American Revolution. The primary focus is on the developing worldviews of poor “white” men who were rank-and-file Revolutionaries. These men held little, if any, property, and they are largely viewed by historians as “winners” in the American Revolution because their service led to enhanced political rights in the postwar era. Indeed, the participation of this group was vital to the success of the war and the viability of the republic. Military service provided these men, many of whom were formally disenfranchised during the colonial period, access to politics and participation in the public sphere as members of a Revolutionary army. Rather than being paid pawns of elites, they were active in shaping their own future—and that of the nation. Pennsylvanians who opposed or who were marginalized by the Revolutionaries are subjects as well, however. This book examines the experiences of Tories, African Americans, and Indian warriors for comparative purposes. Ultimately, I employ an analysis of soldiers (broadly defined as men who fought in the war) in order to provide a window onto how ordinary early Americans viewed and experienced the Revolution.

The central premise of the book is that Revolutionary soldiers constructed what I call the “localist white male nation” before, during, and after the war. Localism, here defined as an outlook that purposefully emphasized the interests of an imagined community over those of nation, empire, or individuals, permeated the worldviews of enlisted men. Soldiers’ understandings of what constituted their “community” were complex interstices of class, regional, racial, ethnic, religious, and gender identities. These variables are the primary categories of analysis employed in this study, and no single factor can be understood in isolation from the others. For example, enlisted men’s notions of masculinity were inextricably bound to their class status as members of the lower orders, their ethnic backgrounds, and their local situations. Perceptions of race differed by class and region. In other words, views of “locale” varied situationally. This study seeks to reconstruct what soldiers meant, exactly, when they referred to their “neighborhoods.” In fact, much of the work of the Revolution was defining imagined communities, and soldiers were very active in this enterprise. Those who were marginalized by the Revolutionaries typically had ideas of community that were at odds with dominant ones in specific locales. Moreover, even the variances in ideas of what constituted a “patriot” order were myriad. Soldiers created what ostensibly appears to be a cacophony of competing and, at times, directly conflicting ideals of community. Cosmopolitan nationalists, especially many army officers, were often frustrated by enlisted men’s localism. Ironically, though, soldiers’ commitment to such a localist view was one of the bases of national identity in the early republic. Localism was the central strand of American nationalism for many citizens of the new republic. The perceived defense of diverse imagined communities was seen as a larger struggle to preserve local interests, one of the few underlying commonalities in various understandings of Revolutionary ideals. Contending views of community could then coexist under the rubric of valuing local difference. This Weltanschauung at once embraced and transcended regionalism and constituted what we may call popular nationalism. Without it, the Revolution could never have succeeded, and few ordinary people would have been willing to risk their lives.

Obviously, such a formulation of a nation based on competing localisms could well be unstable. The potential for conflict was mitigated by the second major factor in the soldiers’ outlook: the growing consensus over white male supremacy. The American Revolution helped consolidate a self-perception as “white” among ethnically diverse European Americans. Indeed, as being a “male white inhabitant” became the de facto definition for liability to militia service and oaths of allegiance in Pennsylvania during the war, the public sphere of military service became an important arena for defining who possibly could be an “American.” The nineteenth-century shift in national identity from earlier economic and gender-based notions of citizenship (franchise based on male property-holding) to a purely biological definition predicated on white maleness was rooted in the American Revolution. Although “racial idioms” had long existed in Anglo-America, it was in the War for Independence that they were inextricably linked to political subjectivity in terms of U.S. citizenship. Soldiers, in their actions and their views of themselves compared to persons perceived as “non-white,” took an active role in defining national identity. Perceived bodily categories of citizenship stabilized popular nationalism by providing another commonality beyond potentially divisive localism.

What follows, then, is more than a study of the Revolutionary War and its armies. It is the story of a nation and its peoples. The book focuses most closely on the cultural construction of racial and gender identities that became linked with American identity and the effects of these processes on social conflict and the marginalization of outsiders. Additionally, the importance of localism to the soldiers’ worldviews suggests that the war was, in many senses, a conflict over who would rule at home as well as a conflict with Britain. Conditions in America, specifically within states and regions, were as important as issues within the British empire (if not more so). The Revolution was not simply a two-sided affair as “patriots” rebelled against a “tyrannical” centralized government. While the war became one for independence from a colonial relationship, it was also a crucible for new self-definitions. Emerging “American” national identities—a sense of who was and was not fit to be a citizen—represented a radical departure from the colonial period and shaped politics and society into the nineteenth century and beyond. And as significant participants in the war and the military public sphere, soldiers were vitally important actors in these processes.

I deliberately chose Pennsylvania as the subject of my work. This is not to imply that it was the most important state or that its wartime experience approximated that of all states. I do mean to suggest, however, that the state’s many regional, social, and ethnic variables during the Revolution were emblematic of the conflict’s diversity throughout North America. The Commonwealth was also one of the most culturally heterogeneous states in what would eventually be a very heterogeneous federal union. Pluralistic and conflict-prone, Pennsylvania was representative of the nation that emerged in the war; the ways in which alliances among groups in the state were negotiated during the war offer a model for understanding the Revolution. In short, my focus on a single state reflects the need to understand early America on a local scale in order to flesh out a complex larger picture. The plethora of competing communal interests and various definitions of “outsiders” in Pennsylvania specifically illustrates the emergence of a localist white male nation in very particular contexts. Thus, I seek to make connections between the microhistories of early American communities and a macrohistory of national identity.

Pennsylvania’s regional diversity facilitates a comparative framework involving urban, rural, and “frontier” soldiers as well. The state contained the major city of Philadelphia, a rural region that Anglo-Americans of the period would have called “settled” (that is, where colonists viewed Native Americans as largely subjugated), and a “frontier,” where European Americans and independent Indian groups interacted. I use such categories to reflect the popular understanding of most Pennsylvanians in the Revolutionary era; by no means do I wish to posit that they reflected reality. Some Indians retained independence in areas that colonists viewed as “settled.” And views of the trans-Appalachian west were clearly relative: though it was typically called a “backcountry” by Revolutionaries, Native peoples saw it as the forefront of European colonial expansion. I also do not wish to imply that Indians did not “settle” and practice agriculture on their lands. Nonetheless, this tripartite categorization of the state’s political geography, rooted in the subjectivities of eighteenth-century European Americans, allows me to use evidence from Pennsylvania to suggest some basis for generalizations about how the Revolution played out differently among common people from cities, the European American dominated countryside, and frontiers where various groups struggled for control of the lands. Specifically, men considered to be urban soldiers are those who entered the service while residing in Philadelphia. “Rural” Revolutionary and Tory soldiers were from the regions of the state south and east of the Blue Mountain, which roughly cuts a diagonal swath across the southeastern third of Pennsylvania. This area included what during the Revolution were Bucks, Chester, and York Counties as well as parts of Berks, Cumberland, Lancaster, and Northampton Counties. Frontier troops and most Indian warriors came from the region north and west of Blue Mountain. This area comprised all of Bedford, Northumberland, Washington, and Westmoreland Counties. It also encompassed sections of Lancaster, Northampton, Cumberland, and Berks. These definitions are somewhat arbitrary, but again, they derive from eighteenth-century Pennsylvanians’ views of the regions within the state. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that soldiers from a given region had uniform experiences. The greater Pennsylvania frontier, for example, was so vast that it included Connecticut farmers in the northeast, Anglo-American fur traders from the Pittsburgh vicinity, Delawares, Senecas, and Shawnees, just to name a few. Such differences within a region are vital to our understanding of soldiers’ imagined communities.

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A few further specifics in regard to the parameters of the book are in order. First, the term “soldier” is broadly construed. Readers will soon see that the primary focus is on the perceptions of “white” (that is to say, European American) men who fought. Nonetheless, Indian warriors and runaway slaves and free blacks who served on both sides are subjects as well. Therefore, we will examine the experiences of members of the Continental army, the Revolutionary militia, informal frontier ranger units, Native war parties, and loyalist organizations. The Continental army was the Revolutionaries’ regular army, raised under the auspices of the Continental Congress, with its soldiers serving relatively long tours. In contrast, the militia was under the authority of the states, concerned with local defense, and called into the field for short terms during times of emergency. In Pennsylvania, the militia was drawn from all white, able-bodied males in Pennsylvania between the ages of eighteen and fifty-three. Other units under state control included frontier rangers—usually volunteer troops serving slightly longer tours than the militia. The Flying Camp was a strategic reserve of militia troops for the Continental army drawn from the Middle Atlantic states in 1776. These men were paid by the Continental Congress, although some remained under the jurisdiction of the state. Loyalist units were often enlisted for long tours and attached to the British army, although they retained their provincial distinctions. Other Tories joined the British regular army or Indian groups who fought the Revolutionaries. Indian warriors fought both with and against the Revolutionaries, but by the end of the war, most belligerent Native groups were hostile to the “patriot” Pennsylvanians. Like the militia, Indians fought typically on a local basis to protect their villages. Some nations split over whether to take sides—or which side to take. African Americans also served on both sides in combat and labor capacities. The vast majority of slaves who sought to free themselves in Pennsylvania did so by attempting to join the British forces.

Obviously, there were major differences among these various types of service. Continental troops tended to be the poorest of all soldiers and often served out of state for long periods, for example; Indian war parties typically fought in coalition with their allies, but with a great deal of military autonomy. Among the Revolutionary forces, however, while dissimilarities among branches of the military are important and shall be noted when appropriate, the emphasis here is on the soldiers’ common experiences. For the most part, Pennsylvania Revolutionary enlisted men shared motivations, outlooks, and expectations. Moreover, many served in different capacities over the course of the war and are difficult to categorize exclusively as Continentals, militiamen, rangers, Flying Camp troops, or even as Tories. John Davis, for example, served two times in the Bucks County militia as well as four years in the “standing army.” George Leonard underwent four tours of duty with the Lancaster militia before joining the Continental army in 1780. Mathias Lockman, a regular in the Fifth Pennsylvania Regiment in 1777–80, also served in the militia and the Flying Camp. Daniel Doyley split his military career fighting in the East with the Third Pennsylvania Regiment of Continentals and then as a militiaman on the frontier. Joseph Fox served in the Revolutionary militia early in the war before switching sides to fight with the British as a loyalist. In such a context, it is problematic to even try to categorize soldiers as being solely representative of a single branch of the military.

Centering attention on these enlisted men, though, facilitates an analysis of “ordinary” men in the war. The early modern American military hierarchy was intended to mirror the social structure: military rank order was modeled on the class system. Soldiers and officers usually came from very distinct backgrounds. The overwhelming majority of the rank and file came from what we might call the lower and lower-middling orders of early American society. Most were young and relatively poor. Laborers, journeymen, servants, apprentices, and lesser craftsmen constituted the lowest social ranks entering the army. These men owned little or no property. Small farmers, artisans, and minor shopkeepers were among the middling classes serving as soldiers. Although these men owned a bit more than some of their comrades, they were far from well off. Even enlisted militiamen, while purportedly citizen-soldiers, were primarily lower-sort Pennsylvanians. More affluent men avoided militia service by paying fines or hiring substitutes. (Furthermore, the ranks of Tory forces—like the Revolutionary troops—were filled with common people.) Among the Revolutionaries, we will encounter men such as Richard Meggs, a wheelwright; Robert Peling, a basketmaker; and Henry Shantz, a carpenter. David Reamer, Thomas Rowe, and Joseph Roberts were all blacksmiths. Jacob Dowderman was a journeyman oak cooper. William Moore, John Harris, Adam Swager, and William Todd were laborers. Methuselah Davis was “by occupation a farmer,” which was a common enough pursuit in the predominantly rural state. Robert Oldis identified himself as a poor farmer. Samuel Campbell candidly stated that he had “no occupation.” Loyalist troops included William Dermont, a shopkeeper; John Laycock, a journeyman carpenter; George Peters, a free black miller; and Frederick Smith, a frontier farmer. Also among the Pennsylvanians who opposed the Revolutionaries were sizable numbers of slaves, such as Jacob Awl’s “Negro man named Joe.”

In contrast, high-ranking officers came from the most prominent stations of early American society. Junior officers were more likely to come from the upper-middling and middling sort. Struggling professionals, fairly successful merchants, artisans, shopkeepers, and their sons sought to enhance their status by availing themselves of the prestige of officership. Continental officers, in particular, aspired to genteel status. Imitating their European counterparts, they believed that military distinctions should be reinforced by social ones. Even among the elected militia officers, the higher-ranking ones were drawn from the upper ranks of society and were fairly well known. Wealthy Tories usually became loyalist officers and often contributed money to the outfitting of their troops. These social and rank distinctions were, of course, not completely rigid. A few men of humble origins received commissions. Fewer still of the well-off served in the ranks. Still, the class distinctions inherent in military service—differences assumed by eighteenth-century Americans and quantified by recent historians—hold up well enough. The views and experiences of officers, contrasted with those of soldiers, facilitate class analysis.

The chapters of this study are organized by interpretive themes rather than exclusively by chronology, but collectively, they do trace the development of soldiers’ cosmologies before, during, and after the war. The first chapter explores colonial Pennsylvania on the eve of the Revolution. It elucidates the social conflicts that informed ideas about various communities before the war began and how those conflicts shaped soldiers’ views of the constitutional crisis that had developed within the British Empire. The second chapter analyzes soldiers’ motivations for fighting in the American Revolution. It addresses why Whigs, Tories, slaves, and Indians were moved to fight and how they viewed their communities. The third chapter takes up how soldiers developed identities within their respective military communities. It investigates how enlisted men refined their prewar views of self and how the worldviews of loyalists and Revolutionaries began to diverge. The next three chapters focus on the meaning of wartime violence and the development of identities in terms of negative references to groups perceived as enemy Others. Chapter 4 explores the meaning of the war against the British regular army largely from the perspectives of Revolutionary soldiers. It probes the development of an Anglo-American military culture of supposedly “conventional” war and how it played out in the exigencies of military violence. In contrast, Chapter 5 explores the vehemence of war in the frontier region. It describes how the development of a common frontier military culture shared by Indians and European Americans abetted the construction of racial ideologies. The sixth chapter addresses the meaning of civil war among Pennsylvanians and how these conflicts shaped community definition. The final chapter explores both the memory and the meaning of the Revolution to veterans over time. It discusses what former soldiers remembered about the conflict—and why.

Readers will quickly note that this story of the soldiers’ Revolution is rife with ambiguity. While the construction of the localist white male nation proved beneficial to many soldiers, by definition, it excluded all deemed to be outsiders. Extreme localism limited the scope of communities that many could or would imagine. Enhanced freedom for some was predicated on racism, male dominance, and the obfuscation of class conflict. In addition to women, Indians, and African Americans, European American men who did not embrace dominant views of community were marginalized in the new nation. Even those poorer men who gained full political rights in the early republic via their military service did not find their material conditions much improved in the postwar order. Curiously, most American scholars of the Revolution, regardless of their politics, tend to assume that the conflict was ultimately “a good thing” (often for completely different reasons). I bring a far more critical perspective to bear and have no such presumptions. Nonetheless, I do not simply wish to designate Revolutionary soldiers as the “bad guys” in the nation’s genesis. History—and human experience in general—is far too complex to create simply one-dimensional heroes and villains, no matter how comforting such a narrative may appear. While enlisted men sought to disenfranchise or conquer those deemed social outsiders, they also entered the army with understandable ambitions, such as expanding the definition of who could be a citizen and defending their ideals of community. I approach my subjects with the intent of understanding them without endorsing or dismissing their cosmologies. I seek to reconstruct how common people viewed their world during a most uncommon time, to comprehend how their actions were limited by the cultures in which they lived, and to suggest the ways in which their participation in the Revolution influenced the culture of the United States well beyond their own lifetimes.

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