Book Review

CECERE, MICHAEL. GENERAL PETER MUHLENBERG: A Virginia Officer of the Continental Line. (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2020).

Often, a person is only known for one apocryphal incident in their life. Revolutionary War General Peter Muhlenberg is one of these people. As the story has been told and retold, Parson Muhlenberg preached a stirring, patriotic sermon after the outbreak of hostilities, flung off his religious robes revealing a Continental Army uniform and instantly recruited three hundred parishioners to fight for independence. Unfortunately, most historical accounts merely cite Muhlenberg as the “fighting parson”  and nothing else about his accomplishments.

In the first full-length Muhlenberg biography in over seventy years, accomplished Revolutionary War historian Michael Cecere attempts to separate faction from fiction and fully describe Muhlenberg’s many contributions to the Rebel cause. Leveraging his extensive expertise with Revolutionary events in Virginia, Cecere provides insights into Muhlenberg’s war record, many of which have not been previously depicted.

The real “fighting parson” story was less dramatic, less like Hollywood than what happened in that rural Virginia church. Courageous and patriotic, it’s more likely that Muhlenberg donned a simple hunting shirt under his parson’s robes. He may have recruited a few people after his last sermon, but nowhere near three hundred new soldiers. What is not in dispute is that Muhlenberg was a natural leader, both in civilian life and in the military.

Muhlenberg served in the Continental Army for almost the entire eight-year conflict. George Washington and the Continental Congress recognized his leadership capabilities and military judgment by promoting him to Brigadier General. He served in all but the New England states, including several independent commands in the later years of the war. Perhaps, his most significant contributions were in Virginia in the months before Yorktown, where he kept superior British forces at bay.

The main criticism of Cecere’s work is the reliance on informed suppositions. Howeverm the issue is not with the author’s scholarship but the lack of available primary sources. Unfortunately, Muhlenberg was not a self-promoter or letter writer and did not leave extensive papers or diaries for historians to interpret. While Cecere was able to debunk much of the “fighting parson” myth, there is still much that is unknown about the man.

In contrast to many Revolutionary War generals, after the war, Muhlenberg enjoyed considerable popular support in politics. Pennsylvania citizens elected him to the first House of Representatives and later to the Senate. One of the rare Democratic-Republican generals, Thomas Jefferson, appointed Muhlenberg as Collector of the Port of Philadelphia.

I highly recommend Cecere’s book to those who would like to better understand the many contributions of lesser-known generals. The twenty-nine Continental Army major generals receive the lion share of the press and credit. However, their subordinate generals such a Muhlenberg derve more of the acclaim.