Rebellion in the Ranks

Title:                      Rebellion in the Ranks

Author:                 John A. Nagy

Nagy, John A. (2007). Rebellion in The Ranks: Mutinies of The American Revolution. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing

LCCN:    2012288760

E209 .N34 2007


  • Break open the guard house: mutinies of command and control—Hungry, naked, and broke: mutinies of destitution—Firecake and water: the difficulty of supply—A perfect storm: no food, no money, no soldiers, no officers—The mark of Cain: The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny I—A sleeping giant awakes: The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny II—Spies at the College of New Jersey: The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny III—Mutiny in Independence Hall: The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny IV—Negotiations: The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny V—Hanging spies: The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny VI—The end of the line: The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny VII—The domino effect: The New Jersey Line Mutiny—General Greene’s travails: Mutiny in the South—The Newburgh conspiracy—Congress held hostage—Peace is declared—Walking the plank: Continental Naval Mutinies—The madman and the pirate—The king’s problems: British and Hessian Mutinies on land and sea—Appendices: A : Mutinies by date—Appendix B : Continental army mutinies by location and cause—Appendix C: Oliver De Lancey’s journal—Appendix D: Round Robin list—Appendix E: Pennsylvania Line return of December 11, 1780—Appendix F: First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry—Appendix G: Officer’s letter at Newburgh—Appendix H: George Washington’s speech at Newburgh—Appendix I: Proclamation by Elias Boudinot.

Date Posted:      October 4, 2017

Reviewed by James Kirby Martin[1]

John A. Nagy did not claim that his history of mutinies during the American Revolutionary War is exhaustive, but rather representative of hundreds of mutinous incidents, both large and small. At the outset, he indicates that “Hollywood history has led us to think that mutinies are strictly a naval event.” However, states Nagy, “[g]roups of men, usually armed, acting in defiance of authority happened both on land and at sea” (p. xv). With the exception of two chapters that describe uprising on patriot naval vessels, the bulk of this volume focuses on soldier mutinies, in most instances involving Continentals.

At the outset, Nagy takes note that about six percent of all recorded patriot courts martial involved allegations of mutinous behavior. He observes that the largest-scale mutinies occurred later in the war when essential supplies, especially food and clothing, too often were lacking or non-existent. Early on, by comparison, mutinies were usually smaller in scale and involved some type of defiance toward command authority. Nagy’s first chapter, “Break Open the Guardhouse,” thus recounts command and control mutinies while eight chapters ( pp. 65-166), more than a third of the text, narrate in some detail the famous uprising of the Pennsylvania line in January 1781. Other chapters look at mutinies during the southern campaigns of 1780-083, the threatened Newburgh Conspiracy coup of 1782-83, and a smattering of British and Hessian mutinies, among many other instances of insubordinate soldierly behavior during the Revolutionary War.

In regard to primary sources, Nagy points out that surviving records are often not only incomplete but also make little or no distinction between what might be depicted as minor cases of soldierly disobedience and insubordination, on one hand, and more consequential acts of mutinous behavior, on the other hand. Rather than offering a clear definition of what he means by the term mutiny, Nagy seems to add to this descriptive muddle by not making basic distinctions among the large number of incidents that he presents, most of which fell well below the mark of forcible attempts to overturn constituted command authority. Had Nagy offered some form of a working definition he might have saved his readers the annoyance of trying to separate so many trivial acts of disobedience from mutinous clashes serious enough to have affected the direction and outcomes of the Revolutionary War.

With rare exception, such as the 1781 Pennsylvania line mutiny, readers will find themselves wading through incident after nasty incident in what is largely a catalogue-like listing of soldierly flare-ups, all with little attempt to construct some level of interpretive significance. Chapters rarely feature conclusions, and Nagy’s closing remarks more or less repeat points made at the outset of the book. Certainly, the author has the prerogative to eschew analysis, but he could have offered his readers so much more had he consulted the published works of Charles Van Doren, Charles Neimeyer, Mark Edward Lender, Charles Royster, and others, including this reviewer [James Kirby Martin], that have sought to derive broader meaning from what all this soldier protest and defiance meant in regard to comprehending the true character and nature of the American Revolution.

In the old but worthy Dragnet television series, the late actor Jack Webb, playing Sergeant Joe Friday of the Los Angeles Police Department, would often repeat his famous investigatory phrase, “Just the Facts, Ma’am”. For readers wanting just the unadorned facts, lots and lots of them, Rebellion in the Ranks will prove to be a satisfying volume. For those seeking something more, they might well begin with Van Doren’s enduringly valuable Munity in January, originally published in 1943, and go forward from there.

[1] James Kirby Martin in Pewnnsylvania Histor4y: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies(76, 3, Summer 2009, pp. 370-372). Martin was at the University of Houston (TX) at the time of writing.

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One Response to Rebellion in the Ranks

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