Soldiers in the Revolution
The History Cat Classroom
Life in the Continental Army
Life for the average soldier in the Continental Army was rough, no scratch that, brutal. Most of the people who enlisted after the Battle of Lexington and Bunker Hill were farmers with families to feed. Caught up in Patriot Fever, many farmers did not realize that they had enlisted for a long stretch of time. Instead, they figured they were fighting wars like the ones they had against the Indians or the French where they joined the militia, defeated the enemy and got home in time to harvest their fields.
By winter 1776, many soldiers complained of the miserable conditions, disease, filth, and poor food rations in the camps. The camps themselves held thousands of people living very close together. Without proper sanitation, it was only a matter of time before disease like typhoid (from contaminated water) swept through the camp. Many of the soldiers were ready to go home to their families and many threatened to riot if they were not allowed to do so. In addition to bad living conditions, the Continental Army was not very well supplied. The officers came from wealthy backgrounds and were given better food and clothing than the common soldier.
Most soldiers had the clothes they wore on their backs and the muskets they used for hunting. After miles of marching after the British, their boots were falling apart. Some soldiers stuffed their boots with rags to keep their feet warm. Others had it even worse; they didn't even own a pair of boots. Washington and other colonial commanders often wrote letters complaining of the miserable conditions and demanded more supplies to prevent mutinies. Sometimes they got their supplies, sometimes they didn't. Of course, even if money wasn't an issue, there was a blockade going on and quality goods were hard to come by for everyone.
Colonial legislatures had the enormous task of transforming a group of farmers into a disciplined army. Some colonies, like Virginia, made it mandatory that soldiers drill for up to several months a year. Many farmers were angry because they could not afford to leave their farms for so long. They were also angry that the plantation owners were exempt from military service. There reason given was that they had to stay home to prevent slave insurrections. Why should the rich get out of fighting when the poor could not?
To get young men to enlist, military parades would be held in local towns. They would march up and down the street playing music and shouting patriotic slogans. Many young men were excited to become a Patriot. Others joined because all of their friends were doing it. Almost 80% of the colonial army was made up of young men under the age of 16. Whatever the cause, few soldiers understood what hardships lay ahead. By 1776, not enough soldiers had enlisted and the Continental Army had no hopes of winning against the tens of thousands of British regulars. An offer was made that gave anyone who enlisted for 3 years $20, a new suit of clothes, and 100 acres of land. It was probably the land more than new clothes or money that attracted most new recruits.
Continental Army 1777: Documentary
Camp followers in a British military camp.
The French-design Charleville musket was a popular weapon for American troops during the Revolutionary War. The musket could fire 50 to 100 yards but its biggest advantage was the attched bayonett for hand to hand combat.
One soldier, Jeremiah Greenman, kept a diary of his account. His diary keeps mentioning over and over how tired and hungry the men are after marching for days through mountains. He talks about how some men become too sick to go on and are carried home. Others die right on the spot.
Winter is setting in and snow is on the ground. In an act of desperation they eat their dogs. Colonial soldiers were far more likely to die from disease, hunger, or exposure to the elements than they were on a battlefield. However, if a soldier was wounded in battle, often it was better for the wound to be fatal.
"the ground covered with Snow and very Coldwe expetckit to kill sum of our dogs to eat-
In a very misrabel Sittuation nothing to eat but dogs hear we killed a nother and cooked I got Sum of that by good with the head of a squirll with a parsol of Candill wicks boyled up to gether wich made very fine Supe without salt"
Unearthed in 1840 by railroad workers in Connecticut, this skull belongs to an unknown revolutionary war soldier.
During colonial times, (in fact, until the 1960s) the role of American women was in caring for the home and family. The men's duties included working outside of the home and contributing to politics. During the American Revolution, patriot women served their cause through cooking, cleaning, working as nurses, spies, boycott organizers, and sometimes soldiers. Going all the way back to the Stamp Act of 1765 and leading up to the war, women played an important and often overlooked role in fighting for the American cause.
By refusing to order tea, clothing, or other household items from Britain, they were sending a strong message to the king (through angry British merchants who were losing money) that colonists' demands had to be met. Women often organized quilting bees, where they turned the tedious and boring task of sewing into a social event. Those who could not make their own clothes often bought their clothes from countrywomen who knew how; in this way both city and rural areas were linked together
When war broke out, women took on new roles to help the Revolution. Charity groups were organized called Ladies Societies that collected money, food, medicine, and other goods that the soldiers needed. Martha Washington (wife of George) personally worked with the Ladies Society of Philadelphia and delivered the goods directly to her husband. Women often, either because they wanted to be with their husbands, find adventure, or earn money for their families, often helped directly on the battlefield. Most women worked as cooks, nurses, washerwomen, or water carriers. These women kept the soldiers fed, mended clothing, cared for the sick and even dodged bullets bringing water to parched soldiers. A few women, including slaves; especially those who worked inside the home, were recruited as spies. An even smaller number dressed up as men and enlisted in the army. One of the most famous male impersonators was Deborah Sampson from Massachusetts. She enlisted in 1782, but failed to report for duty because she got a little too drunk the night before. However, a few months later she enlisted with a new regiment and fought as well as any of her male counter-parts. However, her disguise was discovered by an army doctor after she was seriously injured. She was honorably discharged from the Continental Army and returned to Massachusetts.
The Betsy Ross Myth-Understanding
One of the most famous stories of all Revolutionary women is hands down the one about Betsy Ross. In 1776, Elizabeth Griscom Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress, (nicknamed Betsy for short) was approached by General George Washington to sew the first flag of the new republic. Ross had sewn shirt cuffs for Washington before, so it was no accident that he would approach her. The problem is that this story probably never happened. Every new nation needs its legends and Betsy Ross became the symbol of the spirit of colonial women.
The problem is that no record exists of Washington ever commissioning Ross for the job. Even stronger evidence is that the first mention of the event happened 94 years later when Ross' grandson, William Canby, wrote a letter to the Philadelphia Historical Society claiming that his grandmother had created the first flag. Betsy Ross' contribution to the revolution may be a myth but what is undeniable is that women's efforts to achieving independence helped to win the war.