“Rabble in Arms”

“A rabble in arms, flushed with success and insolence.”

–General Burgoyne to Lord Rockfort describing American troops before Boston.

When we were living in New England years ago, one day I visited a favorite used book store. As I was talking books and history with the husband of the store owner,  he asked if I’d read Kenneth Roberts. I said, “No,” and he exclaimed, “You’ve never read Rabble in Arms!” Again, I replied, no, but with the anticipation that all bibliophiles know when they realize they are about to be given a new author to read.

One of the most enjoyable and easy way to learn history is through novels of the time. Kenneth Roberts was a Down Easter born in Kennebunk, Maine, and his books reflect the seafaring heritage of Maine. At times you may disagree with the shades of Roberts’s bias, but he was known for his historical accuracy and his books provide an entrance into the early days of our nation.

Kenneth Roberts opens Rabble in Arms with the above words of General Burgoyne and finishes with Burgoyne’s defeat at the Second Battle of Saratoga by the “rabble” he had so derisively described. The story begins in early 1776, and follows the American northern army during the retreat from Canada through the building of the first American Navy and the valiant delay of the British on Lake Champlain in the Battle of Valcour Island, to the turning point of the Revolutionary War: the Battles of Saratoga in 1777.

The story of the campaigns to stop Carleton and Burgoyne as they moved south is a story of perseverance when circumstances were grim and the odds of prevailing against the British offered no hope. It is a story of a frequently incompetent Congress that directed and interfered in matters with little understanding as it promoted and rewarded those who should have been ignored or disgraced. It is a story of petty jealousies and revenge among men who used their positions of authority in self-serving efforts and protection. It is also a story of a few leaders who sacrificially held to their course and inspired men to stand with them. It is a story to read in hard and difficult times.

…I turned to see where the British were. The Inflexible was coming into the wind, preparatory to tacking, far out beyond the headland. She fell off slowly on the other tack, working her guns with grim persistence. The shot splashed astern of the beached vessels. All of them were burning, the smoke and flames rolling and crackling from cabins and hatches. At their mast-heads flew our red and white flags, each with its rattlesnake and the words “Don’t Tread On Me.”

There was satisfaction in the knowledge that in three days of fighting, the British hadn’t been able to make us haul them down. And there was something in the sight of them that seemed to half strangle me. I think the scores who lay behind such shelters as the beach afforded, waiting for the fire to take those flags, must have felt as I did; for when Arnold, standing alone in the bow of the Congress to watch the progress of the flames, turned and stepped up on the bulwarks, the men burst into a shrill and quavering cheer that sounded as choked as my throat felt.

Other Roberts books I’ve enjoyed:1

  • Arundel (1929) The American Revolution through the Battle of Quebec
  • The Lively Lady (1931) War of 1812
  • Rabble in Arms (1933) Sequel to Arundel; the American Revolution through the Battles of Saratoga
  • Captain Caution (1934) War of 1812
  • Northwest Passage (1937) French and Indian War and the Carver expedition
  • Oliver Wiswell (1940) The American Revolution from a Loyalist’s perspective
  • Lydia Bailey (1947) The Haitian Revolution and the First Barbary War

In 1957 Roberts was awarded a Pulitzer Prize: Special Awards and Citations, for his historical novels, “…which have long contributed to the creation of greater interest in our early American history.”2
Culpepper Ensign: NavyJack.info Clip Art
1Book dates and summaries from Kenneth Roberts (author), Wikipedia.
2Elizabeth A. Brennan and Elizabeth C. Clarage, Who’s who of Pulitzer Prize winners, 571.

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