This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution

Larry Holzwarth - April 10, 2019

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
Soldiers of the Continental Army often did not received promised inducements, but were subject to the promised discipline. Library of Congress

5. Punishments in the Continental Army were often severe

George Washington, with the approval of the Continental Congress, installed the use of corporal punishment in the army, up to and including execution for some offenses. Striking an officer, inciting a mutiny, desertion, and cowardice in the face of the enemy could all be punished by either hanging or firing squad, most frequently hanging. For lesser offenses, such as sleeping on duty, theft, disobedience, fighting, gambling, drunkenness, or failing to use the latrines (called vaults in Washington’s parlance)soldiers could be and often were punished by whipping, delivered publicly as an example to the rest of the troops. As many as five hundred lashes could be administered for some offenses, given over a period of several weeks, or even months.

The list of offenses which were punished with public lashing was long. Often, to avoid a soldier being severely flogged for what was a relatively minor offense, the non-commissioned officers – the sergeants and corporals – failed to report the crime to their officers and took it upon themselves to administer punishments, usually extra guard duty or the hated duty of filling in latrines and digging new vaults to replace them. In that manner, as in the manner of all armies throughout history, the non-commissioned officers were the lynchpin which held the army together. Officers were not subject to flogging regardless of the offense, though they could be made to suffer capital punishment. Officers were usually cashiered and drummed out of the camps in disgrace, the loss of honor then considered a greater punishment than death.

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
Morgan’s rifle units expanded and served throughout the war, including in the Saratoga Campaign and the Southern Campaign. US Army

6 Life on the march was tiring and arduous

One of the earliest non-New England units to join the Continental Army outside of Boston was Daniel Morgan’s Riflemen, Virginia marksmen armed with Pennsylvania long rifles. They were recruited from around Winchester, Virginia in the summer of 1775. The initial detachment of just under one hundred men left Winchester on July 14, arriving in Cambridge on August 6, having marched 600 miles across mountainous terrain and poor roads in three weeks, without the loss of a single man. The Continental Army would sometimes move by Durham boats operated by the Marblehead Regiment, as before the Battle of Trenton, or by flat-bottomed boats known as bateaux, as during the assault up the Kennebec River to attack Quebec, but most of the time when it moved it did so on its feet.

While marching the soldier carried most if not all of his personal equipment, which included his musket, ammunition, a bayonet if he was so fortunate to be equipped with one, a haversack in which he carried any spare clothing which he possessed, a blanket, personal items such as a knife and spoon (few had forks), a razor, tobacco if he was so inclined, and any other personal possessions. Few carried any money, as hard money was scarce and Continental paper money was so inflated to be for the most part useless. As with any army some carried contraband as well, playing cards, flasks of rum, food foraged on the march, and the favorite gambling device of the Continental soldier, dice.

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
Washington nearly didn’t have an Army with which to cross the Delaware in December 1776 due to desertions and expiring enlistments. Wikimedia

7. By the end of 1776 the Continental Army almost ceased to exist

In the early years of the war American soldiers enlisted for a term of one year. The approach of the Christmas holiday and the end of the year meant for Washington that his army was about to dissolve due to expiring enlistments. The year 1776 was one of a series of defeats for the Americans, with the gains achieved in Canada the preceding year wiped out by ill-supply and British-Canadian counterattacks, and the main army under Washington defeated in New York. As the Americans retreated across New Jersey morale among the men plummeted. By the time Washington reached the relative safety of Pennsylvania, with the Delaware River between his men and pursuit, most of the troops were determined to go home.

Washington appealed personally to the regiments, thanking them for enduring the travails of the preceding campaign and asking them to remain for an extra six weeks in a last ditch attempt to prevent his army from dissolving at the end of 1776. The men regarded their crumbling footwear, tattered clothing, bad food, and the months of constant defeat as they considered their commander’s words. At the end, some agreed to stay; they were the troops which won the Battle of Trenton at the end of 1776, and the Battle of Princeton in the first week of 1777, victories which saved the Revolution. Other men did not, trekking home on their own as 1777 began. One such man was a New England patriot named Joseph Plumb Martin.

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
Joseph Plumb Martin missed the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, and the winter at Valley Forge, but he returned to the Continental Army the following spring. US Army

9. Joseph Plumb Martin kept a diary recording his experiences in the war

Joseph Plumb Martin was a member of the Connecticut Militia who served with that unit in the New York campaign of 1776, present at the defeat of the Americans at the Battle of Long Island. Martin recorded the events of the retreat of the American army, its dramatic escape from entrapment on Long Island and its withdrawal up Manhattan, including his own actions at the Battle of White Plains, part of Washington’s fighting retreat. As the army’s retreat continued across New Jersey, pursued by the energetic British and Hessian advance units, Martin kept a record of the privations suffered by his unit and others. Martin also recorded Washington’s pleas to the men to remain with the army.

Though Martin recorded Washington’s dilemma and his efforts to retain the steadily shrinking army, he did not heed them. At the end of 1776, his enlistment up, Martin left the army and returned home to Connecticut, thus missing Washington’s successful campaign in New Jersey. After recovering from his travails over the winter, Martin rejoined the Continental Army in the spring of 1777, this time enlisting for the duration of the war. Much of the remainder of the Revolutionary war is recorded in his diary, which be published years later. The manuscript remains in print in the 21st century, an invaluable record for scholars and historians studying the war and its impact on both those who served in the Continental army and those who did not.

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
During the Continental Army’s first encampment at Morristown, New Jersey, Washington made inoculation from smallpox mandatory for the troops and all future recruits. National Park Service

10. The Continental troops received medical care which included inoculation from smallpox

George Washington contracted smallpox in his youth, and after recovering carried some pock marks on his face for the rest of his life. He was lucky, or perhaps it was his overall good health and physical fitness which allowed him to survive a disease which was as often as not fatal. For the remainder of his life he was intrigued with the process of inoculation through which the disease was avoided. Following his victories at Trenton and Princeton, Washington led his army into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, near enough to New York City to keep a wary eye on his British adversaries, but far enough away to be protected from surprise attacks. While at Morristown he took on another enemy.

During the Revolutionary War one of nine fatalities suffered by the Continental Army was due to combat. The rest were from disease and accidents. Washington was determined to eradicate smallpox from his army, and during the winter encampment of 1776-77 he took action to do so, having the troops under his command inoculated from the disease, extending the campaign against smallpox to the local population. His order, issued on January 6, 1777, extended mandatory inoculation against smallpox to all new recruits (unless they could prove they had previously contracted the disease) and for the first time American fighting men faced mandatory “shots” as part of their induction into the service.

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
The gardens at the Morristown winter encampments eased the food shortage slightly in the spring, but starvation and malnutrition threatened Washington’s troops during the winter encampments. National Park Service

11. The winter encampments were not times of rest for the troops

Eighteenth century armies did not, for the most part, engage in campaigning during the winter. There was little food available for foraging parties to feed an army on the march, roads became impassable, and living in bivouacs was brutal. Small raiding parties from either side harassed their enemies, but for most of the troops the winter was spent in encampments, in wooden huts on the part of the Americans, in confiscated civilian housing for the British and Hessians in and around New York (or Philadelphia in 1778-79). Washington based most of his army at Morristown, New Jersey, during the winters, using Valley Forge in Pennsylvania but once, the winter during which the British occupied Philadelphia.

During the winter of 1776-77, at Morristown, Washington inoculated his army in stages (since the process induced a mild case of smallpox, rendering the troops too ill to serve), and kept the operation secret to ensure the British would not move against his weakened army. Congress wasn’t informed of the process for over a month, an indication of Washington’s attitude over that body’s ability to keep a secret. Later winter encampments were periods of extensive military drill, during which the army learned a new manual of arms. Soldiers in the encampments were forced to follow the same routine as those of the summer, fatigue duty, guard duty, drilling, and foraging, regardless of the harshness of the weather or the low quality of shelter and food.

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
The winter at Valley Forge is the best remembered of the Revolutionary War, though the winters at Morristown were far worse, in weather and lack of supplies. Wikimedia

12. The winter at Morristown in 1779-80 was worse than that remembered at Valley Forge

The hard winter endured by the Continental Army at Morristown in 1779-80 was one of the coldest winters on record in the United States, with over two dozen measurable snowfalls, including a January blizzard which dumped more than four feet of snow on the encampment. The enduring cold ensured that the snow remained for weeks. The troops struggled through the snow and ice as they went about their routine duties, wrapped in thin blankets when they had them. The wooden huts in which they lived were drafty, chill, and damp. Food supplies were scarce, and when food was available it was often unable to deliver it to the camps, hindered by roads made impassable by the weather.

Washington informed Congress that at times his men were, “5 or Six days together without bread, at other times as many days without meat” and that there were periods when there was no food at all for the troops. As the army lost men to desertion and disease, it was reduced from the approximately 12,000 who entered the encampment to about 8,000, and Washington reported more than a third were too sick for duty. The harvest in the region had followed a drought that summer, and the reduced crops were insufficient to support the number of men encamped, even had local farmers been willing to sell to the Continentals. Most were not. Washington later said that the army at Morristown had “never experienced a like extremity at any period of the War”.

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
Although Baron von Steuben’s credentials were wildly exaggerated by Benjamin Franklin, he demonstrated a marked ability to train troops in the rudiments of army life. Wikimedia

13. The disparate units became an army at Valley Forge

During the winter of 1778-79 the Continental Army in name became an army in standing through the intercession of Baron Wilhelm von Steuben, a Prussian officer of questionable past sent by Benjamin Franklin to Washington’s staff. Von Steuben wrote a new manual of arms, several steps shorter than that of the British which had theretofore been practiced by the Americans. He then presented it to a temporarily created unit of non-commissioned officers, who in turn presented it to their units. By late winter the Continental Army could load and fire their muskets at a speed which exceeded that of British regulars, and could march and countermarch with military precision.

Von Steuben could speak little English, and he relied on both German and French interpreters to deliver his messages to the troops, often directing his interpreters to swear at the men for him. Von Steuben installed even stricter discipline upon the troops, though he took the unusual step of explaining why it was necessary, and the troops responded with a willingness to learn. The volunteers and militiamen became, for the first time in the Continental Army, soldiers who could understand and follow orders with alacrity. By the time the army was ready to depart Valley Forge in the spring of 1779, von Steuben had created an army which could stand firmly against the British, as it did at the Battle of Monmouth in June, 1779, the last major battle of the northern campaign during the Revolutionary War.

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
The taking of Stony Point using only the bayonet demonstrated that the Continental troops had become as professional as their British and Hessian adversaries. Wikimedia

14. The Battle of Stony Point demonstrated to the British that the Continental soldier was their match

Following the Battle of Monmouth Court House, where the Continental Army attacked the British rear guard as they withdrew from Philadelphia to New York, the British mainly remained inside their fortifications in and around New York City. As British attention shifted to the southern states, Washington and his army established bases of their own near New York and along the Hudson River. His troops continued to train within their bases, and training camps for new recruits were established in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia. Enlistments were for three years or the duration of the war, whichever came first.

In July, Washington decided to test the mettle of his troops in a daring attack on the British fortifications at Stony Point, on the Hudson River thirty miles north of New York City. The attack was led by General Anthony Wayne, with about 1300 men armed only with the bayonet. A secondary attack was conducted by normally armed troops as a diversion. On the night of July 15 the Continentals moved into position and early the following morning, under the cover of pre-dawn darkness, the British fortifications were carried and over 500 British troops were taken prisoner. By that afternoon British commanders in New York were faced with the realization that Washington now commanded an army of troops which were professionals, equal to the best of the British regiments.

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
The Battle of Guildford Court House was the end of the period of inexperienced troops in the South being overrun by the British. Wikimedia

15. The shift of the war to the south brought about a repeat there of the early days of the war in the north

With the Continental Army demonstrating that it could stand against the British in the open field, and with the growing influx of French supplies and troops, the British Army shifted its attention to the southern colonies, where there were few Continental troops and there existed a large number of militant Loyalists. The British held Savannah from 1778 and the two main Continental armies in the south suffered defeats in 1780, at Camden under Horatio Gates, though the main body of the troops escaped; and at Charleston the same year, when Benjamin Lincoln was forced to surrender the city to British army and navy units. Lincoln surrendered 5,500 Continental troops and supporting militia.

It was the largest surrender of American troops until the Confederates under Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865. The approximately 2,500 Continental Army regulars captured were for the most part housed in prison ships in Charleston and New York, where they endured conditions worse than any they had endured during their service in the war to that time. With the surrender of Charleston and the defeat at Camden, there existed no viable Continental Army presence in the American south, and those in Virginia were scattered and for the most part untested. The war in the south continued as a guerrilla war, one of considerable ferocity and violence, and tried and tested Continental regulars were shifted to the theater.

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
Nathaniel Greene stabilized Patriot fortunes in the south at the expense of several engagements and forced marches. Wikimedia

16. The Continental troops in the south faced almost daily forced marches

After Washington sent General Nathaniel Greene to command the southern contingent of the Continental Army, Greene in turn split his forces, sending a wing under Daniel Morgan to deal with the raiding British under Banastre Tarleton. Tarleton’s wing was crushed by the American force of Continentals and militia at the Battle of Cowpens in early 1781. The southern campaign became one of speed, with the British under Earl Cornwallis attempting to engage one or other of the wings of the American army before they could reunite. Failing in that after being checked by Greene at Guildford Court House, the campaign became a race to Virginia, from where the American units were supplied.

Both before and after the Battle of Guildford Courthouse the campaign was one of forced marches, battle, withdrawal, and another forced march to a defensible position. “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again”, Greene wrote to Washington. Washington sent additional troops who faced the same daily conditions as Greene, forced marches in the blazing heat of the Carolinas in summer, cold, damp nights and days in the winter, the enduring problems with lack of food. The terrain was swamps, or thick woods with entangled underbrush, and poor roads, made worse by clouds of mosquitos and other pestilence biting exposed flesh. The British regulars endured the same conditions, with their morale steadily declining as they approached Virginia.

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
Rochambeau (center, pointing) Washington and Lafayette at Yorktown, by which time the Continental soldier was well trained, fed, and equipped, but still for the most part unpaid. National Archives

17. The regulations written by Baron von Steuben transformed the Continental soldier

Von Steuben’s Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, which described in detail how the men of the Continental Army should conduct themselves on the march and in battle, also contained detailed descriptions of how the army should establish and maintain encampments. Von Steuben ensured that the soldiers in camp, under the supervision of their officers and non-commissioned officers, took steps necessary to the preservation of health and hygiene. He directed that in clear weather tents be struck daily, with the bedding within well aired. He forbade the consumption of meals inside of tents, except during inclement weather. Under von Steuben, the company mess tent came into being.

The training provided by von Steuben is usually described as being mainly directed at the men in the ranks, but in fact he provided training as well on how officers should both lead their men and preserve their health and welfare. “The oftener the soldiers are under the inspection of their officers the better”, he wrote, “…see that their clothes are whole and put on properly; their hands and faces washed clean; their hair combed; their accoutrements properly fixed, and every article about them in the greatest order”. Von Steuben’s concern with cleanliness extended to camp and soldier, and many men who had bathed infrequently, if at all, were admonished that, “the men shall bathe themselves as frequently as possible”, though he recommended a period of repose first to allow the men “to get cool”.

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
The Continental’s life was one of responding to drum calls, in camp, on the march, and in battle. US Army

18. The Continental soldier responded to the beat of a different drum

The soldiers of the Continental Army responded, on the march, in battle, and in camp, to signals made to the regiments by drums. Even the call for recruits in towns and villages was often preceded by a drummer to gain the attention of the residents. Drum calls beaten in camp were also used in battle, though with different meanings. A drum signal which in the field called for a parley with the enemy was used in camp as a call for church services, for example. Fatigue parties were called forth through a drum signal. The day began with the beating of reveille, calling forth the troops from their tents or huts, and ended with the tattoo, which directed the troops back in their tents, where unless they had duty they were to remain until morning, other than answering calls of nature.

There were specific drum calls telling the companies to gather firewood, to gather water, and to assemble for provisions, the latter being called roast beef by von Steuben, somewhat ironically since meat was frequently absent from the provisions. When meat was available it was often pickled in salt, either beef or pork, and in the summer months the heavily salted diet contributed to the considerable thirst the Continental soldier suffered on the march. Drinking on the march from one’s own canteen was not permitted except during rest breaks, which were also signified by drums. Troops who indulged in the habit of tobacco were allowed to consume the product either by smoking a pipe or chewing. Since matches had yet to be invented, pipe smoking on the march was rare.

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
The soldiers of the Continental Army faced pay stoppages to replace lost or damaged equipment, which varied depending on their unit. Wikimedia

19. The Continental soldier was subject to fines despite infrequently being paid

By 1780 von Steuben’s regulations were in effect in all of the encampments of the Continental Army, though their efficiency was reliant on the ability of the officers imposing them. French supplied equipment, especially in the areas of arms and clothing, were becoming more readily available, at least to the main army under Washington, which was in encampments and fortifications around New York. The French maintained their main base in the United States at Newport, Rhode Island, and supplies passed between the armies both across Connecticut and along the coast line, protected by the French Navy and coastal forts.

The supplies issued to the troops were expected to be maintained properly, and marked with the initials of the owner as a deterrent to theft. Items which were missing at morning inspections were to be replaced, but the soldier who had lost the item was fined. Since the soldiers had no money to pay the fine because pay was irregularly distributed at best, the fine was entered into the books as a stoppage of pay for the amount of the fine. Losing a musket flint cost the soldier one twentieth of a dollar, loss of the musket itself resulted in a stoppage of fifteen dollars, over two months of a private’s pay. Losses of equipment due to lack of proper care on the part of the soldier responsible could also make him liable to military discipline.

This is What Life was Like for Soldiers of the Continental Army during the American Revolution
The Continental Army was vindicated at Yorktown, presenting a formidable fighting force supported by its French allies. Wikimedia

20. The Continental Army also provided written instructions individually to men of all ranks

By the time of the Franco-American victory at Yorktown, which effectively ended the hostilities of the Revolutionary War, the soldiers known as Continentals were members of a professionally officered army, with written instructions (by von Steuben) as to how they should comport themselves at all times. Since a significant portion of the Continental Army was unable to read, the instructions were read to them by an officer or non-commissioned officer. A soldier was instructed to “dress himself with a soldier like air”, and to “wash his linen and cook his provisions”. They were instructed to “acquaint himself with the usual beats and signals of the drum, and instantly obey them”.

The Continental Army began disbanding before the British evacuated New York, but enough regiments remained in place along the Hudson River for the Army to be led by the only commander it had throughout its existence, George Washington, into New York on November 25, 1783. Efforts by the troops to obtain their back pay and other promised inducements met varying levels of success. In 1818 Joseph Plumb Martin applied for a war pension for his service during the Revolutionary War and succeeding in obtaining a pension of $96 per year (about $1,800 in 2018). His service with the Continental Army had included the Battles of Long Island, Harlem Heights, Germantown, Monmouth Court House, and Yorktown, as well as others during the war. Only at Yorktown had he seen the Continental Army clearly prevail.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Gunpowder Shortage”. Jimmy Dick, Journal of the American Revolution. September 9, 2013″

“The Siege of Boston”. Donald Barr Chidsey. 1966

“The Continental Army”. Robert K. Wright, Center of Military History, U.S. Army. 1983. Online

“General George Washington: A Military Life”. Edward G. Lengel. 2005

“Supplying Washington’s Army”. Erna Risch, Center of Military History, U.S. Army. 1981. Online

“Rebels and Redcoats: The American Revolution Through the Eyes of Those who Fought and Lived it”. Edited by Hugh F. Rankin. 1987

“Washington takes command of Continental Army in 1775”. Article, Center of Military History, U.S. Army. June 5, 2014. Online

“Revolutionary Rangers: Daniel Morgan’s Riflemen and their Role on the Northern Frontier”. Richard B. LaCrosse Jr. 2002

“1776”. David McCullough. 2005

“A Narrative of a Revolutionary War Soldier: Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin”. Joseph Plumb Martin.

“Washington Inoculates an Army: The Continental Army Battles an Invisible Foe”. Article, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“Frequently Asked Questions: Morristown National Historical Park”. National Park Service. Online

“The Magnificent Fraud”. Thomas Fleming, American Heritage Magazine. February/March 2006

“Battle of Stony Point”. Michael J. F. Sheehan, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“The Southern Campaign of the American Revolution”. Cowpens National Battlefield. National Park Service. Online

“The Southern Theater of the American Revolution 1775-1783”. Article, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States”. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. 1794 edition.

“Outfitting an American Revolutionary Soldier”. J. Lloyd Durham, Tar Heel Junior Historian. Fall 1992

“Voice of the Common American Soldier: Joseph Plumb Martin”. Article, American Battlefield Trust. Online

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