Occupied America: British Military Rule and the Experience of Revolution
Donald F. Johnson
University of Pennsylvania Press
by Donald F. Johnson
Finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Military History Prize, granted by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Winner of the Society for Military History's Distinguished Book Award in the US History category
In Occupied America, Donald F. Johnson chronicles the everyday experience of ordinary people living under military occupation during the American Revolution. Focusing on day-to-day life in port cities held by the British Army, Johnson recounts how men and women from a variety of backgrounds navigated harsh conditions, mitigated threats to their families and livelihoods, took advantage of new opportunities, and balanced precariously between revolutionary and royal attempts to secure their allegiance.
Between 1775 and 1783, every large port city along the Eastern seaboard fell under British rule at one time or another. As centers of population and commerce, these cities—Boston, New York, Newport, Philadelphia, Savannah, Charleston—should have been bastions from which the empire could restore order and inspire loyalty. Military rule's exceptional social atmosphere initially did provide opportunities for many people—especially women and the enslaved, but also free men both rich and poor—to reinvent their lives, and while these opportunities came with risks, the hope of social betterment inspired thousands to embrace military rule. Nevertheless, as Johnson demonstrates, occupation failed to bring about a restoration of imperial authority, as harsh material circumstances forced even the most loyal subjects to turn to illicit means to feed and shelter themselves, while many maintained ties to rebel camps for the same reasons. As occupations dragged on, most residents no longer viewed restored royal rule as a viable option.
As Johnson argues, the experiences of these citizens reveal that the process of political change during the Revolution occurred not in a single instant but gradually, over the course of years of hardship under military rule that forced Americans to grapple with their allegiance in intensely personal and highly contingent ways. Thus, according to Johnson, the quotidian experience of military occupation directly affected the outcome of the American Revolution.