We lost one of America’s finest historians this year.
Some time ago word went around on Twitter that Charles Royster had passed away, but I didn’t see anything official until somebody passed along this obit from the AHA. Royster was Boyd Professor of History at Louisiana State University.
He completed his Ph.D. at Berkeley under Robert Middlekauff, writing a monumental dissertation—monumental both in its importance and its size—on the Continental Army. The dissertation became the basis of his book A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783, which won the Francis Parkman Prize, the National Historical Society Book Prize, and the Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award.
That volume alone would have been sufficient to establish him as one of the premier scholars of American history, but his Civil War study The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans was just as acclaimed as his first book, winning both the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize. He was also the author of Light-Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution and The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A History of George Washington’s Times.
I first encountered Royster’s work when I was fresh out of college. At that time I was a newly-minted aspiring historian who had decided to study the American Revolution. On a family trip to Williamsburg I found a copy of A Revolutionary People at War in a bookstore. It probably had a bigger impact on me than any academic book I’ve read, whether at that time or since. It was one of my first experiences with a work of history that asked such probing questions and constructed such meaningful answers.
Sometimes, when you’re just beginning to engage with a field, a book will smash its way into your intellect like an asteroid, but then you revisit it later when you’re more seasoned and find the magic’s worn off. You decide it must have made a big impression only because you read it when you were green and had a narrow frame of reference. That’s never been the case with me and A Revolutionary People. Every time I take it off the shelf, it’s as powerful and insightful as it seemed before I started graduate school. To this day, I think it’s an unparalleled analysis of the Continental Army and its role in defining what the Revolution meant.
The SMH devoted a panel to A Revolutionary People at the first academic history conference I ever attended. I heard Royster himself would be there, and brought my copy to ask if he’d sign it. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it. I regret that I never got to meet him and thank him for his body of work. But that body of work remains. I’m sure people will be turning to it for as long as there’s an interest in the American past.