Wonder how those themes I identified earlier play out in an actual war narrative? So did my peer reviewers. even though I thought I was hitting people over the head with them…
Here’s the opening of chapter one of Ain’t Marching, with a somewhat-expanded musings about why these particular rebels made the cut. What do you think? Some longtime observers may note that I changed the tag for one of those themes, leaving Jerry Maguire behind for the less-pop-culture-y War costs. Who pays?) Thanks to Greg Turner for the evocative photo, “This is What Revisions Look Like.”
Chapter One: A Military Born of Dissent
Lt. Matthew Lyon was just getting to sleep when he heard the shouts. “ Turn out! Turn out!”
Lyon opened his eyes and reached for his weapon, a light infantry “fuzzee” with tamped-down bayonet.Were the Algonkin attacking already? Had the spies been lying? He sat up and ran out the door of the hut, sweating. It was July 1776, and all the river breeze in the world couldn’t stop the heat from rising off his neck.
What Lyon saw, he had feared. Not the redcoats of the British, nor the tanned and paint-spattered skin of the 500-strong Indian warriors reportedly massing at the next hill: just the backs of his men in formation, and preparing to leave the camp forever. In some ways, the 26-year-old lieutenant couldn’t blame them.
This was not the mission he had promised when he got them to reenlist. Not here in Upper Canada, ordered to stay after Washington retreated and“guard” land owned by some rich men they didn’t know. Starving as they were, they told him, they would never buy corn at the owners’ war-inflated prices.
Nonetheless, he had orders. The Indians were coming. Lyon issued commands that turned to pleas. He himself, he told them, would rather suffer death than the dishonor of court-martial; wouldn’t they?
“All entreaties were ineffectual,” Lyon told the U.S. Congress 20 years later. “They declared they had been abused—there was no chance for their lives there…As they were going to take the canoe to the other side, they insisted on [the officers] going [with them], and threatened violence if we refused.”
The men submitted to arrest after the company was returned to Fort Ticonderoga, which many of them had helped seize from the British. Their court-martial was overseen by Gen. Horatio Gates, a rival of George Washington’s and a dear friend of John Adams – the same general who had ordered the company north, on behalf of his wealthy supporters who owned that land. Gates ruled that the men were to be publicly flogged, while Lyon was “cashiered” and given a wooden sword in place of his prized musket.
By the time Lyon told his story publicly, he was a member of Congress. Adams was president, and not there to hear him speak. But he was very familiar with Lyon and his newspaper, The Scourge of Aristocracy and the Repository of Important Political Truths. A few years after his testimony, Lyon would be one of the first Adams ordered clapped in prison, for the new crime of criticizing the Presithedent.
That Jericho mutiny happened before many had finished reading the Declaration of Independence – a document that mentions, as cause for action, both oppressive standing armies and their suppression of dissent. Many in the new country’s uniform saw such agitation as just another fundamental, newly-asserted right. And for nearly every touchstone in what is popularly phrased the American Revolution, you find men in uniform acting as the full citizens they had just been declared.
Like the “Committees of Safety” that evolved into state assemblies, soldiers mostly went about asserting their grievances like citizens: they formed committees, petitioned their officers, assigned the more literate among them as representatives. They did so during the so-called “French and Indian War,” when enlistees held their enlistment papers as golden; they did so in the new Continental Army, which was was in its own way composed of the armed mobs who’d assembled in response to Lexington and Concord. They did so during early naval battles, including the first known military whistleblowers in 1777; in 1779, marching on the house of the future Treasury Secretary to protest hoarding, just as the colonies had secured assistance from Continental Europe and the British retreated from Philadelphia, and an even larger contingent leaving their posts entirely in January 1781, after years of pleas for better supplies. A few found themselves newly members of peace churches, like new Quaker Jacob Ritter, or in exile, like Simon Girty, a “white Indian” Army scout who deserted rather than perpetuate an original sin.
In the fragile depression years after the British surrender, Revolutionary veterans generated the anti-banker protest known as the Shays Rebellion, while others spoke on behalf of conscientious objectors at the Constitutional convention, or started newspapers in stark opposition to the government they had helped found. By the time of Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800, the deciding vote in a deadlocked Congress was cast by Matthew Lyon, who chose to have the ultimate dissenting answer to the man who had imprisoned him in 1798.
As the mini-history above might suggest, of our core themes the most prominent is the one identified by Lt. Ephraim Faulkner and other Pennsylvania militiamen in 1798: “the midling and the Poor shall bear the burden.” Or, in less 18th-century diction, “War costs. Who pays?That was the heart of Shays Rebellion, the January mutineers, even the New England militiamen waving their enlistment contracts on weary British commanders.
Also key from the beginning: the very few moved by conscience to refuse to fight, whether experiencing a mid-battle insight or staking ground for the original “peace churches.” The latter were also among the few consciously protesting one of the country’s two main original sins, since Quakers also spent a fair amount of time witnessing against slavery. In the face of that original sin, we have soldiers of color at a time when their very existence threw out multiple challenges, a few also participating in explicit rebellions. As for the other sin, only murmurs in soldiers’ letters and desertion by a few half-breed “White Indians” signaled any problem with “claiming” formerly Iroquois or Pequot or Shawnee or Alachua land.
Mavericks were there in full presence, if not exerting as much muscle as later. We see our very first military whistleblowers in 1777, in the form of Navy sailors who violated the chain of command because their commander was torturing prisoners of war. The nation’s first veterans were not shy in supporting press that made trouble, including Matthew Lyon’s Repository. As for combat trauma, explicitly regarded by American physicians as a “European” disease unfit for their young patriots, signs of it are still detectable in some veteran diaries and after-war memoirs, especially by Quakers – the latter, of course, beginning their perpetual role as official extreme that opened up room for everyone else to ask questions, some telling the extremists Hold onto your beliefs, brother. By the end of the era, as newer wars approached, you could even see the Revolutionary veterans preparing guides for the ones to follow.