Rabble in Arms (1933)

by Kenneth Roberts

Rabble in Arms follows up on Arundel, the first of Kenneth Roberts’s historical novels about the American Revolution. Like Arundel, Rabble in Arms has a narrator from Arundel (later Kennebunkport), Maine, who volunteers to fight for American freedom from England. Though narrator Peter Merrill is the presumed protagonist, the hero is still-loyal Benedict Arnold. If it weren’t for Arnold, Roberts contends, we’d have lost to the superior English forces.

Rabble in Arms tells the story of the Northern Campaign, whose success kept New England from being severed from the rest of the colonies. The climactic Battle of Saratoga, won through Arnold’s heroics, comes near the end of a long book that is eye-opening for those brought up on tales of patriots. Many of the so-called heroes cared more about their fortunes than the country’s, the Congress was inept, and politicians were promoted above able commanders. The fighting men were ill trained, ill disciplined, and poorly supplied.

As in Arundel, Roberts places his fictional characters into real events. Readers of the first novel will recognize Steven Nason, Cap Huff, Marie de Sabrevois, and Natalis and will enjoy new character Doc Means, a crusty, iconoclastic doctor. It’s too bad Roberts couldn’t find a way to get Phoebe Nason from Arundel, Steven’s wife, into the story more. She’s more interesting that the conventional Ellen Phipps, Peter’s love interest.

At the end of the book Roberts devotes a chapter to Peter’s defense of Benedict Arnold, written years after the main action. His argument is that Arnold could foresee the chaos into which an uncontrolled Congress was plunging the country, destroying what the Revolutionary soldiers had fought for, and so Arnold “sought to give everything to England until we had regained our strength.” The interesting, if far-fetched, premise is worth getting historians’ takes on. Historical fiction that persuades readers to learn more history has done its job well. 


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