Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities during the War for Independence. By Ken Miller. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014. xii, 247 pp. $35.00.)
This review first appeared in Journal of American History, Sep. 2015, Vol. 102 Issue 2, pp. 539-540.
Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities during the War for Independence
Reviewed by Michael A. McDonnell, University of Sydney
In the wake of the American Revolution, local historians competed with their nationalist minded counterparts to produce tales of the war that made sense to them and their neighbors. Often overlooked in favor of the epic stories told by the likes of David Ramsay and Mercy Otis Warren, these local histories better represented the vantage point from which most early Americans experienced the conflict. When modern historians have paused to view the War for Independence from the same vantage point, they have usually yielded important insights into the complicated process of mobilization, conflict, and revolution. Ken Miller’s fine work on enemy captives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is no exception. Drawing on many of those early local histories along with a plethora of archival and printed sources, Miller paints a richly textured portrait of a community at war. Focusing on the ethnically diverse Lancaster County, the book charts the fortunes of the county as it played host to first British, then Hessian, prisoners of war and tried to cope with the demands of a protracted, divisive, and bloody conflagration. On the surface Miller’s assiduous research reveals how these wartime pressures helped citizens of Lancaster County overcome local divisions and nurture a budding patriotism among those who were inclined to oppose the British. For some, hosting recalcitrant enemy captives threw into bold relief the differences between them and their European counterparts and helped a diverse people recognize what they had in common. The county’s story illustrates how the Revolution evolved from a civil conflict grounded within a shared but contested imperial space to a contest between disparate British and American nationalities. “Increasingly alienated from the British,” Miller concludes, “the insurgents embraced a revolutionary identity all their own” (p. 95).
Of course, the story was not so seamless, as Miller is quick to point out. The case of Lancaster County also reveals that the forging of this new American identity was a deeply contested process. The pressure of hosting enemy combatants may have united zealous patriots in a common cause, but it also created new divisions between those patriots and increasingly intrusive Continental officials. The presence of the prisoners also brought to the fore deep divisions between county citizens. As Miller notes, by the end of the war loyalists had formed an underground railroad between Pennsylvania and New York along which hundreds of escaped prisoners were guided on their way back to British lines. The safe passage of the prisoners illuminates a deep-rooted ambivalence about the Revolution. Indeed, Miller’s evidence points to a war that divided people. The speed with which what Miller calls parochial concerns and conflicts emerged and re-emerged under pressure (such as in the face of the invasion of Pennsylvania) and when that pressure lifted (immediately after Yorktown) suggests that a budding sense of common identity, let alone a national identity, was a fragile proposition. Yet it also helps explain the numerous divisions amid the tumultuous decades of the 1780s and 1790s. And it also helps us understand the contrasting accounts of the local and national historians who later wrote about the war. A dazed and bruised population found it difficult to overcome their differences to make sense of the War for Independence. As Miller suggests in his epilogue, it would be left up to subsequent generations to give meaning to the Revolution.