Book Review: “Rabble in Arms” by Kenneth Roberts (1933)

51p0X2UPjgLMy dad has told me for years I have to read this book, along with another of Roberts’ novels, Oliver Wiswell. Well, Wiswell isn’t on Kindle, but Rabble in Arms is. So the choice of which to buy seemed obvious, although as it turned out, it might have been better to go with a physical copy–more on that later.

Rabble in Arms is set in the early years of the American Revolution, and is told from the perspective of Peter Merrill, an American patriot and merchant who joins the rebelling colonists.

Peter’s brother Nathaniel also joins, but is constantly distracted by Marie de Sabrevois, a beautiful but devious woman who is obviously (to everyone except Nathaniel) a spy for Britain. Peter himself falls in love with her niece, Ellen.

Repeatedly, Peter is thwarted in his efforts to court Ellen by the actions of de Sabrevois, and likewise his attempts to look after his brother are thwarted by the same. Well, that, and the war gets in the way too, as the Americans–represented by a colorful cast of supporting characters, highlighted by the one-dimensional-but-still-funny Doc Means–continually find themselves struggling against the mighty British Empire, thanks to a blundering, out-of-touch Congress and a number of incompetent, bureaucratic officers.

Patriot officers are depicted as a pretty worthless bunch in Rabble in Arms, with one significant exception: General Benedict Arnold. Indeed, it became pretty clear early on that Peter’s romance with Ellen, and Marie’s seduction of Nathaniel, and all the antics of Doc Means and the other supporting characters, are just filler sub-plots. What Roberts was really out to do with this book was rehabilitate General Arnold’s image. (Peter at one point tells the reader, “It has not been my purpose… to tell the story of Benedict Arnold.” But he’s lying.)

And frankly, it seems like Roberts has some legitimate points. How many people know that Arnold was wounded fighting for the Americans in the invasion of Quebec? For that matter, how many people know the Americans invaded Quebec? The aftermath of this invasion forms the first act of Rabble in Arms, and Arnold’s heroics are the highlight. The fact that the action was a defeat for the revolutionaries is laid at the feet of other officers.

Likewise, in the American retreat, Arnold is portrayed as a master strategist and brave warrior. Presumably, Roberts made his fictional narrator a ship captain so he could have a front row seat for Arnold’s feats of daring at the Battle of Valcour Island.

Roberts seems to be on firm factual ground here. Wikipedia (As my statistics teacher used to sarcastically call it, “the most valid source ever.”) summarizes: “The invasion of Quebec ended as a disaster for the Americans, but Arnold’s actions on the retreat from Quebec and his improvised navy on Lake Champlain were widely credited with delaying a full-scale British counter thrust until 1777.”

After Valcour Island, our heroes are captured by a tribe of Native Americans, who later turn them over to the British, who then turn them back over to the Native Americans again. If anyone is wondering how the Native Americans are portrayed, I guess I’d say, about like you’d expect from a book written in 1933.

All the characters who aren’t actual historical figures are basically stock caricatures. The only two female characters who say anything of substance are the pure, sweet, innocent Ellen and the evil, manipulative temptress Marie. The Madonna/Whore complex is strong with this one!

After more misadventures, one odd interlude with a captured Hessian soldier, and more problems caused by Marie, Peter makes it back in time to witness Arnold win the battles of Saratoga, despite being stripped of official authority by the bumbling General Gates.

Again, Roberts has the facts on his side here: Arnold indeed performed bravely at Saratoga, and was again wounded–shot in the same leg as in Quebec.

The penultimate chapter is a summary of why Peter will always defend Arnold, in spite of his subsequent treason. Indeed, Peter (who is clearly acting as a surrogate for Roberts here) even defends Arnold’s betrayal, arguing that Arnold came to view Congress as a greater threat to the United States than the British Empire.

While I was doing research for this review, I came across something interesting: Benedict Arnold’s open letter “to the Inhabitants of America.” That’s right; back in 1780, shortly after his betrayal, Arnold tried to explain himself to the people he’d just sold out. I recommend reading the whole thing. But here’s the key bit:

I anticipate your question, Was not the war a defensive one, until the French joined in the combination? I answer, that I thought so. You will add, Was it not afterwards necessary, till the separation of the British empire was complete? By no means; in contending for the welfare of my country, I am free to declare my opinion, that this end attained, all strife should have ceased…

…In the firm persuasion, therefore, that the private judgement of an individual citizen of this country is as free from all conventional restraints, since as before the insidious offers of France, I preferred those from Great Britain…

If we take Arnold at his word–which admittedly is a dangerous thing to do with the most infamous traitor in history–he was defecting because he didn’t like Congress making an alliance with France. That’s pretty ironic, considering it was the Arnold-led victory at Saratoga that persuaded the French to enter the war.

Throughout Rabble in Arms, Peter makes repeated reference to the Continental Congress giving undeserved military ranks to French officers, passing over more qualified Americans to do it. He doesn’t explicitly connect the dots between that and Arnold’s betrayal too closely, but the pieces fit.

(For what it’s worth, the most famous Frenchman to fight for the American colonies, the Marquis de Lafayette, went to France to secure military support for the Americans in January 1779. Arnold set the wheels of his betrayal in motion in May 1779. Make of it what you will.)

I’m not saying it’s accurate, but Roberts laid out a plausible case here: Arnold feels Congress is overlooking him. Congress is casting their lot with the French. Arnold doesn’t like Congress, and he doesn’t like the French. So, he thinks America is better off negotiating with the British. Arnold was perhaps the first (but not the last) American patriot who believed he had to fight the government in order to save the country!

Except…

Arnold wasn’t just betraying Congress. He was betraying the men who had fought with and for him, and the families of the men who died for him. He was betraying the trust Washington had shown in him by giving him command of West Point. (While Arnold was generally disliked and unpopular among his comrades, Washington seems to have been one of the few people who actually liked and respected him.)

This is where the “Arnold-had-to-betray-America-in-order-to-save-it” theory breaks down a bit, and other possible reasons for his betrayal start to loom large.

Despite his best efforts, Roberts’ novel comes up short in persuading me that Arnold’s treason was justified. Arnold was no doubt a brave soldier, and quite possibly a brilliant strategist. He may well have been badly treated by men not half as skilled as he was. But I just can’t buy the conclusion that Arnold did it, as the narrator claims, “to fight a greater threat than England.”

So, Rabble in Arms doesn’t fully succeed as pro-Arnold propaganda, but it makes a solid effort. Arnold gets all the best lines, and when he’s not around, I found myself longing for him to get back into the story. The rest of the book is pretty standard historical adventure type stuff, though it’s not without its charms. Roberts could make the occasional keen insight. For instance:

“The vainer a man is, the tighter he clings to his preconceived notions; he’s afraid of someone accusing him of changing his mind, which would show he hadn’t been the all-wise possessor of all knowledge from the moment of his birth.”

All in all, it’s a decent book if you like historical fiction and can stand a tale that takes a–well, let’s just say, a very old-fashioned approach to portraying its non-white and female characters. It’s actually pretty mild by the standards of its time, really. I’ve read other books from the period that just ooze racism and misogyny; this is more patronizing.

And now, a word of caution for those who buy it on Kindle, as I did. Whatever software they used to scan the pages of the physical copy to make the electronic version has some flaws. Quite often, a word was misinterpreted by the scanner, and an incorrect word inserted in its place. It was usually possible to figure out the correct word from the context–“lie,” for example, was throughout rendered as either “he” or “be”–but this got annoying after a while. I could never be sure if some characters’ names were really what they appeared to be. It would have actually made for an interesting meta-literary device had it been done intentionally and in another context–I was always second guessing what I read, like an unreliable narrator story.

I wouldn’t say this ruined the book for me, but it was irritating, and some readers may prefer to spring for the physical version and avoid the hassle of things like figuring out that when a character appears to say “TU he,” what he’s actually saying is “I’ll lie.”

4 Comments

  1. You should not get a history teacher started. When I taught summer school I could lecture 4 hours non-stop.
    This may be apocryphal, but it’s said that after the war Arnold faced some Americans in Canada and wondered if he could go back. The answer was that they would bury his wooden leg in memory Saratoga and hang the rest of him.
    Arnold was the best battle commander of the entire war on the rebel side. Gates was the worst. Washington was mediocre, but a good politician. Arnold lost his fortune for the cause and when he tried to restore it he was charged with war profiteering. He was castigated by Washington and demoted to command of West Point. He wouldn’t have been the worst traitor in American history if he hadn’t been our greatest commander. BTW, he also captured Fort Ticonderoga and transported the cannons there across the Appalachians in the snow to Boston. Washington used them to force the British out of Boston and into Nova Scotia..
    I highly recommend Oliver Wiswell. In this book he has Tories watching the battle of Bunker Hill and discussing it while it’s happening. Growing up a Prescott the family was always proud of Samuel Prescott who actually made it to Lexington and Concorde and William Prescott at Bunker Hill. Reading OW explained how extremely stupid Prescott was for leaving Breeds going down to Bunker Hill. It took an equally stupid General Howe to not invade the top of the peninsula and trap them with little damage to his men.

    1. Your recommendation settles it: I am going to read Oliver Wiswell. I love history; so feel free to lecture on here as long as you like; I’m always glad to read it.

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