The Author’s Corner with John A. Ruddiman

Jake Ruddiman is Assistant Professor at Wake Forest University. This interview is based on his new book, Becoming Men of Some Consequence: Youth and Military Service in the Revolutionary War (University of Virginia Press, December 2014).

JF: What led you to write Becoming Men of Some Consequence?

JR: It began with a compelling set of sources. I was looking to explore the relationships between the War for Independence and the upheaval of the generation-long American Revolution. The perspectives of soldiers seemed a good place to start. I came across Benjamin Gilbert, a young soldier from Massachusetts, who marked his Revolutionary experiences with an extensive diary and family correspondence. Figuring out and explaining this young solider – and his comrades – proved a compelling challenge. I went looking for soldiers and found the common thread of young men’s aspirations for their own independence.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Becoming Men of Some Consequence?

JR: Soldiers’ youth fundamentally shaped their motivations, experiences, and relationships in the War for Independence. These young soldiers, as they tried to make their way towards full adult manhood through military service, in turn helped define the capacities of the army and the Revolutionary effort.

JF: Why do we need to read Becoming Men of Some Consequence?

JR: These young men of the Revolution created captivating and complicated stories. Their actions, perspectives, values, and voices jump off the pages of diaries, memoirs, pension applications, army orders, and military records. This book follows these young men as they fight and flee, go drinking, stealing, and streaking, form deep friendships and commit callous murder. Their “adventures and sufferings,” as one member of this generation described them, are powerful. It’s a book about young people trying to make their way in a world disordered by war and political upheaval.

Young Continental soldiers carried a heavy burden in the American Revolution. Their experiences of coming of age during the upheavals of war provide a new perspective on the Revolutionary era, provoking questions about 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 only ordered their experience of military service; they also shaped the fighting capacities of George Washington’s army and the course of the war.

Becoming Men of Some Consequence examines how young soldiers and officers joined the army, their experiences in the ranks, their relationships with civilians, their choices about quitting long-term military service, and their attempts to rejoin the flow of civilian life after the war. Their generational struggle for their own independence was a profound force within America’s struggle for its independence.

JF: When and why did you become an American historian?

JR: I have always loved sharing stories and reading history books. In college I first encountered the challenge of finding and explaining the raw historical sources for myself. I was hooked! As a historian I get to learn new things every day. It’s a great challenge to find ways to share it all in my teaching and writing.

JF: What is your next project?

JR: I am exploring how the diverse combatants in the Revolutionary War encountered and thought about slavery and enslaved people. This war carried soldiers far from their homes and all over the Atlantic world. Americans, patriot and loyal, white and black – as well as British, French, and German participants – experienced and noted the shifting contours of this fundamental American institution. The sources raise questions about the evolution of race, national identity, and both pro- and anti-slavery sentiment in the late eighteenth-century Atlantic.

JF: Can’t wait to read about it! Thanks Jake.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner