Skip to main content

The Revolution 1776 To 1787

May 2024
3min read

I’ve been fighting the war of the American Revolution (on paper, that is, and with none of the suffering the participants endured) off and on since 1962, and my research has included journals, diaries, letters, newspapers, and books on nearly all the campaigns. For the list that follows I have assumed that a reader is interested in the overall story of the Revolutionary War. (Books about specific campaigns or battles are far too numerous to include.) These are books I have found informative, enjoyable, and, in some cases, worth reading again and again. They are old friends, and though a number of them were published some time ago, they are reliable.

One work I am almost reluctant to mention because of its size and limited availability is nonetheless worth pursuing in a good library. This is American Archives…A Documentary History of…the North American Colonies, edited by the archivist-politician-printer Peter Force and published between 1837 and 1853. Its coverage of the Revolution is in the fourth (six volumes) and fifth (three volumes) series—nine books, each with a 9-by-13¾-inch page size, and 2½ or more inches thick. A lot of words, and absolutely fascinating day-by-day documentary accounts of events in the form of letters, debates in state legislatures, and proceedings of the Continental Congress. The fourth series contains documents from the King’s message of March 7, 1774, to the Declaration of Independence in 1776; the fifth series picks up there and includes material to the Treaty of Peace with Great Britain in 1783.

Now, for the more accessible titles:

Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766

by Fred Anderson (2000; Knopf), is a superb account of the period. The seeds of the American Revolution lay in the Seven Years’ War (or, as the colonists called it, the French and Indian War), and the road to revolution was opened by removal of the French threat from Canada, while the French and Indian War gave the British a rationale for taxing their colonists.

The War of the Revolution

by Christopher Ward (1952; Macmillan; out of print) is a solid, eminently readable narrative of the entire war, in two volumes. If you wish to limit your reading to a single source, this would be it, in my opinion.

A splendid account of how the rebellion began is Allen French’s The First Year of the American Revolution (1934; Octagon; out of print). This is, like the two books mentioned above, a thoroughly readable work.

The story of the Revolution is the story of individuals who were caught up in it, and in two important and similar works (which I’m counting as one entry) the authors have introduced and connected excerpts from contemporary sources: Rebels and Redcoats, by George Scheer and Hugh Rankin (1957; Da Capo), and The Spirit of ’Seventy-Six, edited by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris (1958; Da Capo).

More than any other man, George Washington was the American Revolution, and the second volume of James Thomas Flexner’s four-volume biography of the Commander-in-Chief, George Washington in the American Revolution (1775–1783) (1968; Little, Brown; out of print), is essential to an understanding of what the Continental Army and its leader faced.

Another biography I recommend highly is Carl Van Doren’s Benjamin Franklin (1938; Penguin). Although it was published 66 years ago it remains a classic study of the Renaissance man who was the best-known American of the eighteenth century and whose role in virtually every phase of the Revolution was pivotal.

An excellent historical study of Britain’s strategy during the revolt of its American colonies is Piers Mackesy’s The War for America, 1775–1783 (1964; University of Nebraska). The question that pervades this study is why the British leaders did what they did. It is a fascinating tale.

Catherine S. Crary’s The Price of Loyalty: Tory Writings From the Revolutionary Era (1973; McGraw-Hill; out of print) provides a poignant picture of the Americans whose decision to remain loyal to the King often exacted a terrible price, worst of which was exile from the land they loved and ultimately life as displaced persons. The author introduces each section of the book and then lets the Tories themselves tell their stories.

Diary of Frederick Mackenzie…

(1930; Books for Libraries Press; out of print) is a remarkable memoir of an Irish-born British army officer’s active duty from 1775 to 1781. It is filled with acid and perceptive comments about participants on both sides. Mackenzie was no admirer of Gen. Henry Clinton, and after the arrival of a French fleet in America, he wrote: “So extraordinary an event as the present, certainly never before occurred in the History of Britain! An Army of 50,000 men [i.e., Clinton’s force], and a fleet of near 100 ships and armed vessels, are prevented from acting Offensively by the appearance on the American Coast of a French Squadron of 12 Sail of the line and 4 Frigates, without Troops.”

For insight into the experiences of a private soldier in the Continental Army, one of the best surviving accounts is that by Joseph Plumb Martin. Edited by George F. Scheer, Private Yankee Doodle (1962; Signet) chronicles Martin’s service from 1776 to war’s end. Writing of the cruel winter of 1779–80, he said, “It snowed the greater part of four days successively, and there fell nearly as many feet deep of snow, and here was the keystone of the arch of starvation. We were absolutely, literally starved.… I did not put a single morsel of victuals into my mouth for four days and as many nights, except a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wood.… I saw several of the men roast their old shoes and eat them.…”

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.