Alongside fighting the war and defeating the British, the Continental Army was expected to act as a powerful symbol of American identity and to help unify the men and women of the nation behind a single continental cause. Dr Jon Chandler demonstrates that the reality was far more complicated and that, in fact, many members of that same Army saw themselves, and their identities, in a very different light.
Three months after the first shots of the American Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington on 19 April 1775, Christopher Vail left his home on Long Island to join the Continental Army. Aged seventeen, he spent the next three years in almost continual military service with a range of continental, state and militia units. Vail served in regiments raised in both New York and Connecticut, and never left those states. However, in the summer of 1778, he chose to enlist on a thirty-gun privateer. While Vail did not share the reasoning behind this decision, he was probably enticed by the monetary reward on offer. Nor was service at sea likely to be an unknown quantity, since before the war Vail’s father had operated a merchant vessel. Six months into the voyage the privateer was intercepted by a British schooner in the Caribbean, and Vail found himself imprisoned in Antigua. After a period of confinement, he resolved to cut short his stay by enlisting on a merchantman sailing for Britain. Over the next three years Vail served across the Atlantic with a variety of British and American privateering vessels. Vail was routinely ‘examined’ by his new employers, and questioned on his regional and political background. Upon joining a British privateer, one of Vail’s comrades explained that he was not a rebel because he was not only ‘willing to fight the French and Spaniards,’ but also ‘willing to fight the Americans.’ Throughout his narrative, Vail identified himself variously as an American, a Yankee, and a New Yorker as his service took him to Lisbon, Cadiz, Bordeaux, Salem, and New York. Like many British Americans, Vail was unable to separate the war from the question of his identity.
The American Revolutionary War divided friends, families and communities, and ultimately tore apart the British Empire. The imperial crisis had weakened political loyalties, but most British Americans still considered themselves to be proud Britons and faithful subjects of the king. When the political dispute became violent, it was not clear how British Americans would respond, or whether a majority would even support the conflict. These questions became even more significant on 4 July 1776 when the contest transformed from a war of reconciliation to a war of independence. However, the fight was far from over, and for revolutionary leaders securing popular support for the war became more important than ever.
Winning the war was entrusted to the men and women of the Continental Army. The congressional delegates who created the institution imagined an army that would represent the continent, its interests, and its people, who would unite in support of its continental cause. The war, they hoped, would encourage the diverse population of British America to imagine themselves as a continental people, represented in the fight by the Continental Army. ‘We Should not Consider ourselves inhabitants of a Parish, a County or a Colony,’ James Hendricks of the First Virginia Regiment urged his men two months prior to the Declaration of Independence, ‘but of the great Continent of America’.
This image dominated popular print throughout the American Revolutionary War. Pamphlets, plays, and poems informed British Americans from north to south that the fate of the continent depended on the Continental Army achieving victory. The performance of celebratory and commemorative rituals reinforced this message in the public sphere. The Continental Army of the popular imagination consisted of a people united by the continental cause.
However, for those who called the army home, the reality was somewhat different. The army’s ability to create continental connections among its soldiers was limited. Instead, their sense of community was nurtured by military culture. Through the course of the war, the soldiers of the Continental Army considered themselves as members of a transnational community of military professionals, neglected by civil society. Those civilians who encountered the army during the course of the war were likely to share this interpretation of the army as a distinct military community rather than representative of the continental as a whole.
This guest post was written by Dr Jon Chandler, Teaching Fellow in History at University College London.