On July 4, 1776, wealthy, educated men called themselves Americans and declared their independence day. In 1787, these same men crafted, with words, the most enduring and fair laws for people to live by in history – the United States Constitution. But, it took more than eloquent words to create a nation based on self-determination, due process, and fundamental fairness.
The Revolutionary War was fought not by thinkers, writers, or speech givers, but mostly by men, boys, and women who by circumstance or compulsion had little other choice. History appropriately acknowledges the debt civilization owes the likes of Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. On July Fourth we should pause with a sense of gratitude to those men and women who, through their bravery and suffering, forged from the words the reality of the United States of America with their blood, sweat, and tears.
The colonies entered the war without an army or navy. Their only fighting forces were state and local militia units consisting of citizen-soldiers who occasionally met to meet local emergencies. Akin to a modern volunteer fire department with guns, the men had to supply their own equipment. The militias were comprised of white male citizens, landowners, and freemen, numbering up to 150,000 over the course of the war. Important to winning the war, especially early on at Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, the militiamen served with varying enthusiasm and effectiveness, usually for days to months before returning to the comforts of home.
Recognizing the need for a professional army, the Second Continental Congress established the American Continental Army in 1775; ultimately, they resorted to a draft requiring each colony to produce men and appointing George Washington commander in chief. Early on the Continental Army consisted mainly of indentured servants, paid substitutes, farm laborers, unemployed persons, and transients. Later the ranks were filled with slaves, free Blacks, and many immigrants, especially Germans and Irish. Up to 200,000 served in the Army, but never more than 20,000 were under command at any given time. While the army was supposed to be paid, it was low and inconsistent. Food, clothing and arms were scarce. There was no home to return to, only more harsh conditions, chaos and a high likelihood of becoming a casualty, especially from starvation or disease. For many years after the victory, the Continental Army regulars took a back seat to the militiamen, mostly for political reasons; militiamen had the vote and the money, along with a feel good story of citizen-soldiers beating back the British invaders.
A key in Revolutionary War scholarship is a man who lived and died in obscurity – Joseph Plumb Martin. Martin was educated and raised by his wealthy grandparents. Seeking adventure, Private Martin was 15 years old when he joined the Connecticut militia seeing action battles around New York. Martin could have stayed in the militia or his grandparents could have paid for a substitute, instead Martin enlisted in the Continental Army for the duration serving 1776-83. Historians believe Private Martin kept a journal during the war, as he did not write his wartime memoir until 1830 at the age of 70. By that time, the role of state militias in the War for Independence had reached epic proportions, while the dying veterans of the Continental Army were still arguing for their pensions. Martin published his book anonymously and not for personal gain; only as a way to set the record straight. Martin’s book went largely unnoticed. An original copy was found in the 1950s and it is now regarded as the best primary source of the war experience: A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier (2001). Martin does not exaggerate his involvement. Rather, he is personally grateful, exhibits typical military humor, and speaks in plain language. Here are some excerpts:
“Almost every one has heard of the soldiers of the Revolution being tracked by the blood of their feet on the frozen ground. This is literally true, and the thousandth part of their sufferings has not, nor ever will be told… For on our march from the Valley Forge, through the Jerseys, and at the boasted Battle of Monmouth, a fourth part of the troops had not a scrap of anything but their ragged shirt flaps to cover their nakedness, and were obliged to remain so long after. … “Rub and go” was always the Revolutionary soldiers motto.”
“As to provision of victuals, … we were promised the following articles for a ration: one pound of good and wholesome fresh or salt beef, or three quarters of a pound of good salt pork, a pound of good flour, soft or hard bread, a quart of salt to every hundred pounds of fresh beef, a quart of vinegar to a hundred rations, a gill [a quarter of a pint] of rum, brandy, or whiskey per day, some little soap and candles, … . And as to the article of vinegar, I do not recollect of ever having any except a spoonful at the famous rice and vinegar Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania, in the year 1777. … Oftentimes have I gone one, two, three, and even four days without a morsel, unless the fields or forests might chance to afford enough to prevent absolute starvation. … When General Washington told Congress, “the soldiers eat every kind of horse fodder but hay” he might have gone a little farther and told them that they eat considerable hog’s fodder and not a trifle of dogs–when they could get it to eat.”
“One little incident happened during the heat of the cannonade, which I was eye-witness to, and which I think would be unpardonable not to mention. A woman whose husband belonged to the artillery and who was then attached to a piece in the engagement, attended with her husband at the piece the whole time. While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher for in that case it might have carried away something else, and continued her occupation.”
“That the militia did good and great service … I well know, for I have fought by their side, but still I insist that they would not have answered the end so well as regular soldiers … They would not have endured the sufferings the army did; … and when the hardships of fatigue, starvation, cold and nakedness, which I have just mentioned, begun to seize upon them in such awful array as they did on us, they would have instantly quitted the service in disgust, and who would blame them?”
Referring to Congress, Private Martin states: “You ought to drive on, said they, you are competent for the business; rid the country at once of her invaders. Poor, simple souls! It was very easy for them to build castles in the air, but they had not felt the difficulty of making them stand there. It was easier, with them, taking whole armies in a warm room and by a good fire, than enduring the hardships of one cold winters night upon a bleak hill without clothing or victuals.”
“When those who engaged to serve during the war enlisted, they were promised a hundred acres of land, each, which was to be in their or the adjoining states. When the country had drained the last drop of service it could screw out of the poor soldiers, they were turned adrift like old worn-out horses, and nothing said about land to pasture them upon. … The truth was, none cared for them; the country was served, and faithfully served, and that was all that was deemed necessary. It was, soldiers, look to yourselves; we want no more of you. I hope I shall one day find land enough to lay my bones in. If I chance to die in a civilized country, none will deny me that. A dead body never begs a grave;–thanks for that.”
This Independence Day holiday weekend many Americans will spend time with family and friends, picnic, grill out, watch fireworks, go for a run, swim, read, do yard work, or whatever they want, in a society that is remarkably both free and secure – thank you Continental Army regulars.