Mayer, Holly A. Congress’s Own: A Canadian Regiment, the Continental Army, and American Union. Campaigns and Commanders. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021.
Offering a unique genre or original interpretative approach to portraying Revolutionary Era history is daunting, as countless American War of Independence books are published yearly. Dr. Holly Mayer creatively addresses the genre innovation challenge in her book Congress’s Own: A Canadian Regiment, the Continental Army, and American Union. Dr. Mayer’s work is, at its core, a regimental history of the Second Canadian Regiment. However, there are many layers to Mayer’s intensively researched monograph. She posits that Congress’s Own, as many soldiers referred to the Second Canadian Regiment, represents a microcosm of the Continental Army for four reasons; the unit uniquely consisted of soldiers from many colonies, as with other regiments, there were constant, intense intra and inter-unit interpersonal disputes among the officers, the Second Canadian represents the general Revolutionary Era historiographic concept of “borderlands” and officers and soldiers experienced trouble getting paid for their service at the end of the war.
As Revolutionary War historiography is generally bereft of regimental histories, Mayer’s book is a valuable addition to all Revolutionary Era libraries.[i] Congress authorized the First and Second Canadian Regiments during its 1775 Canadian invasion. Congressional members anticipated that by forming a dedicated force, Canadians would flock to the new regiments to fight against British rule. Accordingly, Congress appointed Moses Hazen, a former British Army Lieutenant and a current prominent Canadian land owner, as the Second Regiment’s colonel. The Hazen appointment, offering a dedicated unit for Canadian volunteers, and commissioning a regiment under Congress’s direct control proved to be good decisions. Sergeant Major, John H. Hawkins’ journal adds a fascinating first-person account that brings the Second Regiment’s daily activities and controversies to life.
Mayer notes that the Second Canadian Regiment was one of the longest-serving and most successful units in the Continental Army. Its history spans the 1775 Canadian invasion to the war’s end in 1783. Hazen’s Regiment most prominently contributed to seminal battles, including Brandywine, Germantown, and Yorktown. As interesting, Mayer recounts the Second Canadian’s independent mission to the Upper Connecticut River Valley to build a road for a potential second Canadian invasion. Motivated by the potential to reclaim his Canadian land holdings, Col. Hazen adeptly executes this mission only to discover that it was an elaborate ruse to deflect British attention from Maj. Gen. John Sullivan’s 1778 raid on Native Americans in Western New York State. While the carrot of a return to Canada continued to be dangled in front of Hazen, the unit ended the war, performing guard duty for captured British soldiers in Lancaster, PA, and, later, uneventful garrison duty in the Hudson Highlands.
After the failed 1775 Canadian invasion, Mayer asserts that the Second Canadian served as a microcosm of the Continental Army. While retaining a core of two companies of Canadians, the unit’s officers recruited new soldiers from other regions. Eventually, residents of all thirteen colonies would be represented in the unit’s ranks. As the regiment was not associated with a specific state, many began to refer to the unit as Congress’s Own. While Congress sought to downplay this association, the moniker stuck among the unit’s soldiers and with troops in other commands. It is remarkable that Col. Hazen successfully maintained force levels with over nineteen hundred soldiers enlisted in the corps during the war. Furthermore, the unit achieved high cohesion, performing ably in combat. Gen. George Washington exhibited high confidence in a breveted Brig. Gen. Hazen assigning him brigade leadership during the Yorktown campaign, a command usually given to a confirmed brigadier general.
While the Second Canadian Regiment performed competently during campaigns and on the battlefield, it experienced high conflict levels among its officers, like other Continental Army units. A headstrong Col. Hazen regularly entered into disputes with other Rebel officers. For example, he brought charges against Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold during the Canadian invasion for war profiteering. Arnold retaliated by court martially Hazen for insubordination. As with most Continental Army court-martials, both officers were found innocent. Another dispute between Col. Hazen and Maj. James R. Reid became personal and nasty. Again, both sides preferred charges with court verdicts exonerating the defendants. Additionally, Maj. Reid engendered conflicts with most other officers who prepared a memorial that they would not serve under his command. Washington must have highly valued the Second Canadian’s combat effectiveness to contend with this continual string of court martials that he had to approve formally and the need to referee the intra-unit officer disputes.
Disputed or loosely-defined regions, where people and nations come together, fascinate historians and readers. Twenty-first-century scholarship has supplanted Frederick Jackson Turner’s concept of a “frontier” with “borderlands” to describe these contested meeting places.
The typical definition of borderlands is places and timeframes where Native Americans operated between two European powers. Mayer extends this concept from place and time to people, such as the diverse backgrounds of the Congress’s Own soldiers and their contributions to nation-building. The Regiment represented not only the border between the rebelling thirteen colonies and Canada but also the states and the army, natives and immigrants, and military and civilian domains. While the regiment retained two Canadian-dominated companies, later recruits were representatives of borderlands, such as the British Army deserters, North American immigrants, and citizens of all thirteen colonies. Thereby navigating the borderlands to come together, the regiment was a representation of forming the nation. While applying the concept of borderlands to interpreting the Second Canadian Regiment is innovative and interesting, it is the least compelling of Mayer’s reasons that the unit represents a microcosm of the new nation. The regiment’s borders were less defined, defended, and contested than the ones with Native Americans and Europeans in the classic definition.
On the other hand, the post-Treaty of Paris pay, land grants, and settlement experiences are the most convincing demonstration that the Second Canadian Regiment was a microcosm of the Continental Army. Like Loyalists on the opposing side, the regiment’s Canadians could not return to their homes and had to subsist on government rations. Also, experiencing the financial plight of other veterans, the now-stateless soldiers received undeveloped land grants and little cash. Utilizing pension applications, Mayer’s concluding chapter on what happened to the officers and soldiers after the war is her best. It demonstrates that most officers and soldiers sold their land grant rights to speculators or resettled in lands previously occupied by Native Americans. Receiving little in the way of compensation for their service and sacrifice, few veterans achieved financial success. Like most Loyalists, the rebellious Moses Hazen never received reimbursement for his lost Canadian estates. Deep in debt, he passed away in 1803 with unfulfilled aspirations of a profitable estate in Northern Vermont and Southern Canada.
While Mayer provides persuasive and forceful arguments in support of her microcosm thesis, readers are left with several fascinating questions. For example, what led to the Second Canadian Regiment’s success, why Congress’s Own officers were more successful than others in recruiting and maintaining force levels, and why Washington highly valued Col. Hazen’s leadership despite the continual disputes with other officers? What about his leadership merited Hazen continuing in command after 1781 when Congress disbanded the First Canadian Regiment and its commander, Col. James Livingston, resigned? The Duquesne University Professor Emerita describes Moses Hazen as having an imperfect, even infernal, reputation in camp but as honorable in the field. Why such a leadership performance dichotomy? The reader would benefit from an expanded view of why Col. Hazen was differentially successful as a regimental commander and why Gen. Washington supported him despite the scrapes and controversies with other officers. Perhaps, questions emanating from Dr. Mayer’s work point to the need for a new Hazen biography, as the previous one is dated almost fifty years ago.[ii]
I recommend Congress’s Own as a unique addition to your Revolutionary Era reading list. Military historian Mayer combines big picture, strategic storytelling with detailed vignettes of the experiences of officers and privates, placing the reader in the position of an eighteenth-century observer. Scholars and students will benefit from her insightful period interpretations supported by meticulous research methods. So often, describing a book as a regimental history conveys a dry, rote recounting of uneventful daily activities. With its nuanced layers, the case of Congress’s Own could not be more distant from this stereotype.
[i]Regimental histories are more likely to be produced for British units. Examples include Donald J Gara, The Queen’s American Rangers (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2015), E. A Cruikshank and Gavin K Watt, The King’s Royal Regiment of New York (Toronto: G.K. Watt, 1984).
[ii] Allan Seymour Everest, Moses Hazen and the Canadian Refugees in the American Revolution, 1st ed, A New York State Study (Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 1976).
Note: ChatGPT assisted the author in developing this book review title.