I wrote this review, which appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of On Point: The Journal of Army History.
The First American Army: The Untold Story of George Washington and the Men Behind America’s First Fight for Freedom. By Bruce Chadwick. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2005. ISBN: 1-4022-0506-6. Illustrations. Bibliography. Notes. Index. Pp. 399. $24.95.
Bruce Chadwick, former journalist now lecturer in History at Rutgers and writing teacher at New Jersey City University, attempts to tell the story of the ordinary soldier in the Continental Army. Utilizing the diaries of seven central figures, including one doctor, a poet, and one chaplain, Chadwick intertwines these soldiers’ stories with small quotations from numerous other sources to bring to life a story that should have been told years ago.
The reader experiences Bunker Hill, Saratoga, Trenton, and Yorktown, as well as the disastrous Quebec campaign through the eyes of men who fought there. Readers are witness to the ravages of smallpox in the camps and posts following the Quebec campaign, and the harrowing winter at Valley Forge. The struggle to maintain the fight through mutinies and desertions is a constant in the book, which enhances the image of the Continental Army and further reveals just how desperate the war was and how stubborn the Americans could be in their fight for the cause. The reader also learns the little known story of an all-black regiment and the story of the participation of blacks in the conflict in which they face opposition based on race and the fear of a slave revolt, but gain the opportunity to serve because of manpower shortages.
Chadwick shows the personal sides of the soldiers, both good and bad. The reader observes one soldier who goes to great lengths to obtain leaves to see his beloved wife, while another leads a secret life of adultery. We see chaplains pushed to their breaking points attempting to minister to the sick and dying, only to come back and deliver powerful sermons that lift the spirits of the army. The reader experiences the dedication of the men as doctors continue to work until near death, while other common soldiers will reenlist even after facing repeated serious illness.
In many ways, Chadwick’s work is long overdue, but it has weaknesses. One of the major areas is scholarship. Numerous worthwhile sources, especially primary documentation, are used, but Chadwick does not give adequate endnote citations, which leaves the reader no real clear structure to check the work’s accuracy. In fact, Chadwick begins his bibliography with the following:
All of the quotes from . . . the central figures in the book, were from their diaries. To cite each of the hundreds of quotes from the same sources would be futile, so the single sources for each man’s quotes are listed below. The citations from the more than one hundred other people in the work are listed separately.(371)
The main issue with this quotation is that there are very few endnotes given the amount of material quoted and covered, which prevents the reader from knowing exactly in which source and where the author used material. Instances of reading over two full pages before encountering the next citation in sequence were common. While the validity of the sources is not in question, the lack of endnotes prevents the reader from fully appreciating the work and may raise questions about this works validity.
The other problem area in this work deals with the chapter devoted to women of the revolution. Instead of mentioning the story of Molly Pitcher or the few women who dared to impersonate men to serve in the Army, Chadwick uses this chapter to talk about prostitution and the sexual escapades of the men involved with them. This may turn off many readers who were expecting to learn about women serving in the Army or aiding in other ways.
Overall, Chadwick presents a compelling story, which will excite readers. His background in journalism is present as the story is well written. However, the endnote issue detracts from the work’s value to historians attempting to do research into this time. If these issues are corrected in a second edition, Chadwick’s story will be more worthwhile and useful for a wider audience.