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John Peebles’ American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier, 1776-1782, edited by Ira D. Gruber, Stackpole Books, $49.95.

Perhaps the best single primary source from the British side on the American Revolution has become widely available.

One of a historian’s most noble callings is to extend an understanding of the past to readers by publishing original accounts of seminal events. Professor Ira Gruber of Rice University has answered that call by adding to the list of British officers’ Revolutionary War diaries and eyewitness battle descriptions. Heretofore, this prize was only available in Scotland at the Public Record Office.

Two characteristics of Lieutenant John Peebles’ diary make it an invaluable aid to understanding the bloody emergence of the United States. First, Peebles was no ordinary observer of the American struggle for independence. Prior to the war, he traveled throughout New England, Virginia, and Canada while serving as a surgeon’s mate in the French and Indian War. He made a number of friends among Americans he met and observed their habits and peculiarities. Few British military diarists during the American Revolution had this background and understanding of their opponents. Second, Peebles also had a more extended Revolutionary War service than many of the other diarists. He was a participant in the West Chester campaign of 1776, the 1777 Battle of Brandywine, and the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, and he fought along the Hudson River and in South Carolina in 1779 and 1780, respectively. At the end, he was with the unsuccessful relief force bound for Yorktown.

No slim volume, the diary provides the reader with almost five hundred pages of battle descriptions, travel notes, and daily thoughts from a British officer in a rebellious land. It tells the tale of a man whose attitude toward the rebels gradually changes from disdain to grudging admiration. Peebles’ thoughts about Britain’s cause also change, as the Scottish lieutenant grows increasingly disgruntled with London’s handling of the conflict.

Professor Gruber has done more than put Peeble’s diary into print. Besides adding a healthy index and notes, he has provided biographical sketches of the principal personalities about whom Peebles writes. And Gruber gives the reader a glossary of terms the diarist uses as well as an extensive bibliography that includes a list of other diaries and journals by British Revolutionary War officers.

It is not the sort of book that belongs on every shelf; however, acquisition librarians of any institution that treats the birth of the United States seriously should obtain it.