The best books to understand what made American Revolution soldiers tick

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian who loves watching the Founding Fathers do not-so-Founding-Fatherish things, like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson bonding over how awful Alexander Hamilton was, James Madison reporting how the king of Spain liked to relieve himself daily by the same oak tree, and George Washington losing his temper, asking his cousin to look for the teeth he just knew he’d left in his desk drawer, or spinning out a conspiracy theory. It’s details like this that reveal that even the most revealed figures were real people, like us but often very different. Figuring out how it all makes sense is a challenge I enjoy. 


I wrote...

A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution

By David Head,

Book cover of A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution

What is my book about?

A Crisis of Peace tells the story of a pivotal episode of George Washington's leadership and reveals how the American Revolution really ended: with fiscal turmoil, out-of-control conspiracy thinking, and suspicions between soldiers and civilians so strong that peace almost failed to bring true independence.

After the British surrender at Yorktown, the American Revolution blazed on—and grave problems surfaced. The government was broke. Political rivalry among the states paralyzed Congress. The army’s officers, encamped near Newburgh, New York, brooded over a civilian population indifferent to their sacrifices. The result was the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy, a mysterious event in which disgruntled Continental Army officers may have collaborated with politicians such as Alexander Hamilton to pressure Congress to approve new taxes and strengthen the central government.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington's Army

David Head Why did I love this book?

When I wanted to start understanding the culture of the Continental Army, this was the first book I read. Cox shows that General Washington wanted a hierarchical army, modeled on the British system, with gentlemen to lead the way as officers. He got much of what he wanted. Officers were recruited differently, rewarded differently, and punished differently than enlisted men. They experienced illness and injury differently (they were much more likely to be cared for in a private home, not left to suffer in camp), and they even died differently, with their names recorded for posterity while ordinary soldiers rarely rated a personal mention. Still, soldiers pushed back, not always accepting their lowly status, a key source of tension in an army fighting for liberty.

By Caroline Cox,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Proper Sense of Honor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Armies are the products of the societies that create them. In 1775, when patriot leaders formed the Continental army, they were informed by their own experiences and their knowledge of the British army. Thus, the Continental Congress created a corps of officers who were gentlemen and a body of soldiers who were not. Caroline Cox shows that, following this decision, a great gap existed in the conditions of service between soldiers and officers of the Continental army. Her study of daily military life, punishment and military justice, medical care and burial rituals illuminates the social world of the Continental army…


Book cover of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation's Ideals during the Revolutionary Era

David Head Why did I love this book?

Mention “honor” in an 18th-century context, and most people think of dueling. Honor was about dueling, but it was also about much more. As Smith shows, a sense of honored suffused the 18th-century world. Different understandings of what honor meant helped propel the separation between Britain and its colonies. Smith takes the Founders' ideals seriously. Though they often fell short, knowing what they aimed for provides key insight into the mental universe they inhabited—and the legacy the left the new nation.

By Craig Bruce Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Honor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The American Revolution was not only a revolution for liberty and freedom, it was also a revolution of ethics, reshaping what colonial Americans understood as "honor" and "virtue." As Craig Bruce Smith demonstrates, these concepts were crucial aspects of Revolutionary Americans' ideological break from Europe and shared by all ranks of society. Focusing his study primarily on prominent Americans who came of age before and during the Revolution - notably John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington - Smith shows how a colonial ethical transformation caused and became inseparable from the American Revolution, creating an ethical ideology that…


Book cover of A Revolutionary People At War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783

David Head Why did I love this book?

A classic statement of the mentality of the men who fought the American Revolution, A Revolutionary People at War documents how the enthusiasm of the war’s early days, the “rage militaire” in Royster’s memorable phrase, waxed and waned during the brutal conflict as soldiers and civilians settled into an uneasy relationship often in danger of collapsing into anarchy or a military despotism as everyone feared. Royster seems to have read every scrap a soldier or officer produced across the war’s 8 years, and researching the book in the 1970s, he someone kept track of everything, deploying a deft quote time after time, without the aid of a computer. How?

By Charles Royster,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Revolutionary People At War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this highly acclaimed book, Charles Royster explores the mental processes and emotional crises that Americans faced in their first national war. He ranges imaginatively outside the traditional techniques of analytical historical exposition to build his portrait of how individuals and a populace at large faced the Revolution and its implications. The book was originally published by UNC Press in 1980.


Book cover of Becoming Men of Some Consequence: Youth and Military Service in the Revolutionary War

David Head Why did I love this book?

The men who fought the American Revolution were often young, in their teens and twenties, and the war coincided with their transition to adulthood, interrupting the traditional passage into beginning a career and forming a family. Ruddiman recaptures what it meant for the revolution to happen not just at a particular time in the nation’s history but at a particular time in the lives of the men who fought it. For officers, the war was an unmatched opportunity to enhance their social status because it cemented their reputation as gentlemen—especially when they really weren’t genteel by any other standard. It’s a reminder that status mattered a lot, even in an army fighting against aristocracy.

By John A. Ruddiman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Becoming Men of Some Consequence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Young Continental soldiers carried a heavy burden in the American Revolution. Their experiences of coming of age during the upheavals of war provide a novel perspective on the Revolutionary era, eliciting questions of gender, family life, economic goals, and politics. ""Going for a soldier"" forced young men to confront profound uncertainty, and even coercion, but also offered them novel opportunities. Although the war imposed obligations on youths, military service promised young men in their teens and early twenties alternate paths forward in life. Continental soldiers' own youthful expectations about respectable manhood and their goals of economic competence and marriage not…


Book cover of Winding Down: The Revolutionary War Letters of Lieutenant Benjamin Gilbert of Massachusetts, 1780-1783

David Head Why did I love this book?

One of the most interesting people I met in my research was Benjamin Gilbert, a young officer from Massachusetts, whose letters were edited and published for the first time in 1989. Gilbert writes openly about the trials and tribulations of camp life, including his attempts to woo the daughters of local gentlemen—and his visits to houses of ill repute. On one furlough home, Gilbert got a girl pregnant, and a recurring storyline in the letters is his attempt to weasel out of marrying her. Though full of colorful details, there’s one major way Gilbert failed me as an author: he was present in camp during the climactic moment of the Newburgh Conspiracy—Washington’s speech to the officersbut he says nothing about what happened. Come on, Lieutenant Gilbert. Think of the historians!

By John Shy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Winding Down as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An eyewitness account of the end of the Revolutionary War


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The Forest Knights

By J. K. Swift,

Book cover of The Forest Knights

J. K. Swift Author Of Acre

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I love a good fight scene! It doesn’t need to be long and gruesome, but it must be visceral and make me nervous for those involved. Don’t get me wrong, I also love a good first-kiss scene but unfortunately, my past has made me more adept at recognizing and writing one over the other. I started training in martial arts at the age of nine and continued for thirty years. I don’t train much these days but I took up bowmaking a few years back and now spend a lot of time carving English longbows and First Nations’ bows. I recently also took up Chinese archery.

J. K.'s book list on with realistic fight scenes

What is my book about?

The greatest underdog story of the medieval age.

A wild land too mountainous to be tamed by plows. A duke of the empire, his cunning overshadowed only by his ambitions. A young priestess of the Old Religion, together with a charismatic outlaw, sparking a rebellion from deep within the forests. And an ex-Hospitaller caught between them all.

The Forest Knights

By J. K. Swift,

What is this book about?

A druid priestess enlists the help of an ex-Hospitaller warrior and a charismatic outlaw to fight Austrian tyranny in medieval Switzerland. A subtle blend of fantasy and history, ALTDORF (Book 1) tells the events leading up to one of the greatest underdog stories of the medieval age, the Battle of MORGARTEN (Book 2).


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the American Revolution, civilization, and masculinity?

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