“the poor and Midling will bear the burden”

I promised more last time, so here are some mavericks, some eary CO’s, and the guys who pioneered the idea that “War costs. Who pays?” As my last (?) deadline on this book looms, pieces like this will come faster, I think. (At right: the cover of one of my book’s precursors, by the acclaimed Carl Van Doren — who narrated in much more detail than I could one of the first such rebellions.)

all being Volunteers

The Continental Army was itself built upon a “revolutionary crowd,” the “mobs” who stomped on the Stamp Act and and threw tea into Boston Harbor.By 1775, the empire began to crack down, finally noticing that these “mobs” had gradually acquired more and more autonomy for themselves and their legislatures. Parliament enacted the Administration of Justice Act, under which a soldier who killed a rioter could only be tried back in England, out of sight of the colonists being suppressed.ii When four thousand nervous redcoats laid siege to Boston, one result was the “Massacre.”

The militia responded in kind on April 19, 1775, alerted by Paul Revere and his cohorts. A young Minuteman named Daniel Shays was among the 70 militiamenwho mobilized after the redcoats had set fire to homes and fields and most civilians to flee Boston.v Shays was one of the many Irish immigrants that joined the call early, inspired to fight the same oppressors that had driven them across the Atlantic.

After Lexington and Concord, armed rebel supporters camped out at Harvard Square. Most were from already-existing state militiasvi from all the Mid-Atlantic colonies, come to defend Boston’s famous Minutemen and the towns’ “Committees of Safety.” It was this possibly-unruly lot that the First Continental Congress then declared an Army under the command of George Washington, a former British Army colonel from Virginia. Among the enthusiastic recruits at “Cambridge Camp” was young Daniel Shays, who was soon commissioned second lieutenant in the new Army.

A similar offer was being made to Ethan Allen, Seth Warner, and their Green Mountain Boys, who by then included a printer’s assistant named Matthew Lyon. Lyon had arrived in New-York from Ireland in 1765 (the week the Stamp Act was passed); after eight years of indentured service to the captain who’d brought him over, he started drilling with Allen and moved to the border area known as “New Hampshire Grants” (now Vermont). On May 10, the Boys flooded into the nearly-unguarded Fort Ticonderoga and seized it from the British; the ammunition inside helped end the siege of Boston and equipped the new army for the battles in New-York. Inspired by these victories and emboldened by Jefferson’s 1776 poetry, even more joined the fight.

The new Army was thus a loose coalition of regulars and state forces organized along regional lines. Commanders and newspapers alike lauded the “Maryland Line,” the Connecticut and New-Jersey Lines, the swelling forces of the western frontier in Pennsylvania. Some native allies were reported to join in: in Boston a local chief was quoted as “offering to raise a tomahawk” against the British, given the Bostonians’ solid treaty agreements. Benjamin Franklin, who’d spent the revolutionary spring in France, exulted in July: “The Tradesmen of this City were in the Field twice a day, at 5 in the Morning, and Six in the Afternoon, disciplining with the utmost Diligence, all being Volunteers.”

That “utmost Diligence” included immunity to the cause for desertion so often parodied in Voltaire’s Candide, that “Swiss disease” known as nostalgiavii — at least according to Dr. Benjamin Rush, the Continental Army’s first physician. In letters, Rush exulted that the more they felt like a national army, the less subject they would be to the disorder now known as PTSD:

From the effects of the nostalgia, and the feebleness of the discipline, which was exercised over the militia, desertions were very frequent and numerous in his army, in the latter part of the campaign; and yet during the three weeks in which the general expected every hour an attack to be made upon him by General Burgoyne, there was not a single desertion from his army […. which must be] ascribed to an insensibility of body produced by an uncommon tone of mind excited by the love of liberty and their country.viii

Rush’s statement echoed Franklin’s vision of a Revolution waged by the “citizen soldier” defending his property, his religion, his rights, assuming that the new country would be free of the old country’s maladies. That assumption was, of course, premature.

A nasty lot”

Also premature was the idea that America’s war for independence would be won purely by “citizen soldiers.” Undoubtedly citizens who believed in the the republic, soldiers were also far more likely to be poor, landless, and to have been conscripted or lured by the offer of a cash bounty. On January 17, 1776, six months after Congress declared the milling Cambridge militiamen an Army, the New-York Reader and Weekly Mercury printed this noted that Congresss had acted to set the rules:

That the Recruiting Officers be Careful to Inlist only sound, able-bodied men of at least 16 years of age; […. ]that the soldiers will be Paid ten Shillings per week.[…] No bought indentured servants be employed on board the Fleet or in the Army of the Colonies, without the consent of their Masters.

Plans drawn up by Washington and the Massachusetts generals had envisioned a total strength of 20,000; by January, the ranks of the regulars were only at 8,000.ix Even in the state militias, for which service was theoretically mandatory, many of 1775’s happy warriors preferred to then find someone to serve in their place.

In addition to trying to coax farmers and craftsmen from their livelihoods and families, recruiting officers also had to contend with the varied religious beliefs of the stubborn colonials. These included whole “Peace Churches” such as the Society of Friends (the Quakers), the German Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren. Twenty years earlier, seven Quaker conscripts had faced down a young British Army colonel named George Washington.

According to a 1760 narrative compiled by the Society of Friends, the Virginia objectors “were obliged to stand close by a deserter who was shot, the officer hoping that might shake their constancy, but the criminal behaving with an uncommon degree of fortitude and resignation it had quite the contrary effect.” x Impressed, the man who would soon command the new nation’s army told the young Quakers that “all he asked of them in return was that if ever he should fall as much into their power as they had been in his, they would treat him with equal kindness.”

By the time of the 1775 call-up, the official solution to this recruitment problem was to require objectors to hire a substitute. If, like that Virginia corps, they refused, the protocol was not kind; the peace churches have preserved accounts of their torments. These conscientious objectors (the term itself coined in 1650) were beaten, imprisoned, and their usually-minimal property seized by local militia and Continental Army commanders alike.

a surplus population

As famously observed by Fred Anderson, author of A Citizen’s Army: “Soldiers are a surplus population.” Especially as the glow of Lexington, Concord and the Declaration faded, recruiters offered bounties, which ballooned as the war wore on (from $1 in 1775 to $16 in 1778). They sometimes seized at a wavering recruit’s stray mark as a signature on a enlistment contract. Most enlisted men were men and boys with little or no property: For example, the Pennsylvania Line, whose 17,000 men and 143 infantry companies comprised one-fifth of the entire fighting force, listed in one of its regiments 23 shoemakers, 19 weavers, 12 carpenters, 93 farmers, and 42 other trades, some simply marked as “laborer.”

The Continental Army also drew in hungry teenagers, brand-new immigrants (not just the Irish of the Line but German and Dutch), indentured servants and former slaves.Current slaves were more likely to throw in with the British, especially after the royal governor of Virginia issued a promise of immediate manumission to all who crossed over.The latter issue complicated the efforts of anti-slavery officers both north and south, as when Washington aide John Laurens, a South Carolinian, wrote asking his father Henry, the president of the Continental Congress, to release his “able bodied men Slaves, instead of leaving me a fortune” so that he could turn them into his own black regiment, with whom “I am sure of rendering essential Service to my Country.” There was a man determined to expiate a sin all by himself.

While Henry Laurens refused his son’s request, many governors didn’t seem to distinguish much between new immigrants like Matthew Lyon or former slaves like Moses Shah of Massachusetts, a “negro soldier” who fought with Daniel Shays.Both Rhode Island and Connecticut raised entire regiments of African-American soldiers, who were promised equal payment with white soldiers in addition to their freedom. A 1778 strength report of the entire army showed 755 “Negroes” in fifteen different infantry brigades, almost definitely an undercount given the ability of many to “pass” as white.

Mingled quietly within those ranks was a fair number of women. Some were nurses like the iconic Mary Ludwig Hays, usually called “Molly Pitcher,” while others turned from helpmeet to battle buddy in the heat of battle: Margaret Corbin, manned a cannon to defend Fort Washington when her husband died (eventually receiving a soldier’s pension). The result of all this “passing” was an unexpectedly diverse army: one Pennsylvania captain wrote home to his wife of New England battalions, “Among them there is the strangest mixture of Negroes, Indians, and Whites, with old men and mere children, which together with a nasty, lousy appearance makes a most shocking spectacle.”

In state militias, Even among many of the junior officers — for whom militia service was a sort of local social and political club—the lack of early victory beat back urgency after the glow of the Declaration and early victories gave way to mud and blood. Such gentlemen increasingly exercised the option, built into most draft laws, of procuring a substitute, including John Adams, who declined militia service over and over, citing his sickly constitution.

Though motivated partly by need these soldiers were nonetheless firm believers in the cause, and held firm ideals about the sacred rights of the common man. They saw their enlistment contracts, agreements signed by free men as individuals, as documents of near-religious weight. When colonial governments failed to live up to their side of the bargain, either by attempting to retain soldiers past their commitment or failing to feed, clothe and equip them as promised, militiamen and regulars both often acted quickly. In New England, where local government consisted of committees and petitioning was a civic duty, soldiers formed committees, routinely petitioned their officers and their local officials, and occasionally went on strike. War costs. Who pays? .

Such committees began during the height of the Seven Years’ War, also known as the French and Indian War. In 1763, Massachusetts militiamen dispatched to Quebec to fight the French staged “a most Horrible Mutiny,” which appears to have been actually a relatively genteel event, committees presenting petitions. One private wrote in his diary:

And so now our time has come to an end according to enlistment, but we are not yet got home nor are like to…. The Regiment was ordered out for to hear what the Coll. had to say to them as our time was out and we all swore that we would do no more duty here so it was a day of much Confusion with the Regiment.

These soldiers’ grievances were not always limited to terms of service or poor pay. Democratic ideals extended, for them, to the way units were commanded and structured, including the right to serve only under the commander who enlisted them. One company presented a letter explaining to the British why provincial soldiers would not be commanded by redcoats:

[Our] Army was a proper Organiz’d Body and that they by the Several Governments from whom these Troops were rais’d were Executors in Trust which was not in their power to resign, and, even should they do it, it would End in a DISSOLUTION OF THE ARMY as the Privates Universally hold it as one part of the Terms on which they Enlisted that they were to be Commanded by their own Officers and this is a Principle so strongly Imbib’d that it is not in the Power of Man to remove it.

The same sentiments stayed in force post-1775. In Massachusetts, Lt. Daniel Shays went home to Middlesex County and returned with 20 such recruits, each of whose agreement to enlist “was conditioned upon his being appointed captain.” xxii Such conditions placed on their enlistment by 18th-century grunts, who called themselves and their chosen officers “Executors in Trust,” stunned the British and General Washington equally. “A nasty lot,” the Virginian famously said of the New England militias.

Even after the Declaration, those “nasty” troops still felt perfectly entitled to respond to conditions in the field as they saw fit. After early successes at Fort Ticonderoga and Princeton, the Colonial Army began to lose battles in Canada and New-York, including the bloody battles of Manhattan’s Kips-Bay and Brandywine just outside Philadelphia. Fourteen Continental brigades and militias from all over could only content themselves with how many British had died.

The new Continental Navy, composed mostly of former privateers and political appointees, was also having a hard time under the command of soon-to-be-turncoat Benedict Arnold (though future hero John Paul Jones was already a star), way outnumbered by the empire. Its commodore Ezek Hopkins, his brother a signatory to the Declaration, was also deeply unpopular, especially aboard his own Rhode Island frigate the Warren. In February 1777, a handful of officers took a controversial action, composed a letter to Congress about Hopkins after he boasted of mistreating British prisoners and called the civilian Congress “a Sett or Parcel of Men who did not understand their Business, that they were no Way calculated to do Business, that they were a Parcell of Lawyers Clerks, that if their Measures were followed the Country would be ruined, and that he would not follow their Measures.”

Hopkins was quoted above by Capt. John Grannis, who testified about the petition to the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress about a month later, when Hopkins was accusing him and his co-signers in the petition of treason. His peers, said Capt. Grannis, were a trustworthy and diverse lot: “ John Reed is Chaplain and belongs to Middleborough, and James Sellers is Second Lieut of the Warren and of Dartmouth, both of Massachusetts Bay, Richard Marvin is Third Lieut and of Providence, George Stillman first Lieutt of Marines, Roger Haddock is Master of the Frigate and formerly was of New York..” and so on. In any event, he repeated at his conclusion:“I have been moved to do and say what I have done and said from a Love to Country, and I verily believe that the other Signers of the Petition were actuated solely by the same Motives.”

By then, Washington and John Adams had revised the colony’s Articles of War to conform more to the British code. While Adams was a fierce advocate of Hopkins, he couldn’t prevent Congress from removing Hopkins from his command while the charges were investigated; others, agitated that Grannis and others were suffering retaliation, wrote and passed the military’s first military-whistleblower law:

That it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.”

it was contrary to the Divine Will for a Christian to fight”

The same Laws of War that penalized Hopkins also increased penalties for insubordination and threatening execution for desertion and mutiny,xxvin response to desertion rates that hovered between 20 and 50 percent. Not all insubordination or desertion constitutes dissent, but when numbers of either rise it has often meant that something has gone badly wrong. For one thing, they were underfed and underclothed: neither Congress or the states wanted to admit the war would last long by budgeting for it. War costs; why pays? Desertion was easy, especially for those whose homes were near where they were fightingAnd sometimes, just sometimes, it happened because someone’s conscience could take no more.

Some even had that moment questioning the expansion of the colonies onto land inhabited by others. The most famous were “white Indians” like Simon Girty, Alexander McKee and George Elliot, who had lived in tribal communities before joining the new army but eventually deserted, after realizing their new nations’ plans for Indian lands. For them, the original sin was still growing and unforgivable.

Simon Girty, raised by Senecas after he watched his stepfather, John Turner, burned to the stake before his eyes in 1750, rejoined white society 20 years later. Joining the militia at Fort Pitt as a scout and interpreter, Girty the “white Indian” had never shunned native dress or the language of his childhood. In 1778, he began to doubt his homecoming, after he was ordered to march with 500 militiamen deep into the Cuyahoga River.

The mission, the notorious “Squaw Campaign,” failed for logistical reasons, militiamen taking their frustration out on the nearest villages afterward. At the end, one of them held “four women and a boy… of whom [only] one women was saved.” Afterward Girty ended his long, scattered military career, convinced that his fellow patriots were more interested in trampling on treaties than besting the British. After he went to Canada, his name remained frontier legend. And most of these young men had no Girty, knew Indians only as “savages” in an “empty” land. If they had grievances, it mostly wasn’t in opposition to war.

Still, those who did were visible. Veterans of the 1777 Battle of Brandywine might have remembered the young Jacob Ritter, the second-generation German immigrant from Maryland who during that battle had stood completely still amid mortars at Chadd’s Ford.

Ritter, who had recently enlisted after his Lutheran pastor spoke of “the propriety and necessity of coming to the defense of our country against her enemies,” had spent two days with his platoon building a battery against the British assault. But then, he wrote later, he was seized with the un-Lutheran conviction that “it was contrary to the Divine Will for a Christian to fight…I supplemented the Almighty that if he would be pleased to deliver me from shedding the blood of my fellow-creatures that day, I would never fight again. […] Throughout the engagement I remained perfectly calm, though the bombshells and shot fell around me like hail.”In later years, the now-Quaker Ritter told young Friends that nightmares brought him back to that bloodied field.

To his fellow soldiers, as well as any watching him hold onto his never-fired musket, Ritter’s principled stillness may have looked like cowardice. Then as now, military authorities struggled with how to cope with these strange people, tending not to believe testimonies like Ritter’s from young men whose beliefs came purely from within.

As the war wore on, rendering the new nation’s currency worthless and enriching merchants who appeared to play with food supplies, a new brand of dissent emerged: a troop-created sort of civic action like that to which Matthew Lyon, for one, had already borne witness.

The midling and the Poor will bear the Burden”

Enlisted militiamen and Continentals may not have cited Whig thinkers like the 17th-century British politician Algernon Sidney, who exalted a form of citizenship based on labor and personal valor over inherited privilege or the dread professionalism.xxx But those ideas had filtered down through Thomas Paine, through Hobbes and Locke and the Declaration, crossed with the “moral economy” long seized by revolutionary crowds. In these soldier-rebellions, the new republicanism offered some less privileged men a new vocabulary in which to argue for redress.

Take that 1776 revolt among Matthew Lyon’s men: As Lyon told Congress years later, by mid-1776 he was in one of General Horatio Gates’ regiments as the army struggled to reorganize in the wake of defeats in Canada. Knowing that his own Green Mountain colonel, Seth Warner, was assembling his forces for the New-Jersey campaign, Lyon “set about enlisting my men, and immediately obtained my quota […] But at this juncture application was made to the general, [who] was induced to order our party to march to Jericho, and take post at a certain house on the north side of Onion river, at least sixty miles in advance of the army towards Canada—from whence the army had retreated.”Lyon tried, he said, to get the attention of generals perhaps not as close to the land speculators seeking protection: “This letter was either neglected or followed by another with a fresh order for marching.”

Lyon and his boys packed up their muskets and headed north, the latter only revolting after they learned that 500 Algonquin and Iroquois warriors were preparing to attack, allying themselves with the treaty-honoring British. The men’s sense of being used in a commodities gamble was as real as their fear of being scalped: “The soldiers considered themselves sacrificed to the merest of those persons who bought the crops for a trifle, and wanted to get our party there to eat them at the public expense.”

By 1779, fears of similar profiteering helped engender perhaps the fiercest of soldiers’ protests— the “Fort Wilson Riot,” staged by the First Artillery of Philadelphia after Congressman James Wilson ignored six months of quieter civic action.

The tide was beginning to turn in the war, and the colonies had enjoyed victories in Philadelphia and a daring attack on Stony-Point, in upstate New York, in which Captain Daniel Shays helped reclaim West Point under Pennsylvania colonel “Mad Anthony” Wayne. But with crops burned, shipping damaged and many farmers and craftsmen in deep debt, state currencies were subject to intense inflationary pressure. Shippers and suppliers were thus able to create and exacerbate food shortages: future Treasury Secretary Robert Morris left grain stores in their ships at the harbor rather than release the grain for flour. Colonial currency was so depreciated that merchants were demanding silver for their goods.

To the militia, many of whom had fought at Brandywine, Princeton and on the Indian front, the shortages hit particularly hard, and they resented even more the wealthy families who’d been able to buy their way out of militia service.The militia’s “Committee of Privates” began to communicate with the State Assembly on May 12: “many of us are at a loss to this day what Course or Station of Life to adopt to Support ourselves and Families.” A broadsheet issued that spring sounds oddly contemporary but for its archaic diction:

the Midling and the Poor will still bear the Burden, and either be ruined by heavy Fines, or Risque the starving of their Families, whilst themselves are fighting the Battles of Those who are Avariciously working to Amass Wealth with the Destruction of their Community.

As their plea for price controls went unheard, the Germantown and Philadelphia committees met repeatedly. And on October 4, Captain Ephraim Faulkner put out a call for “All Militiamen” to join him marching toward the home of the privileged Wilson.

On October 5, scores poured into the city and joined Faulkner at Burns’ Tavern at Arch and 10th Streets. The militiamen gave three cheers at the City Tavern on Second Street, walking toward their more direct enemy, the half-century-old Mercantile Exchange. After shots were fired (unclear who shot first), the local police arrested 27 militiamen. The men only spent a night in jail, after townspeople (called “mobs” only by loyalist newspapers) surrounded both the courthouse and jail.

Afterward, citing the “apprehensions of great distress among poor house-keepers in this city, from the high price of Flour,” Pennsylvania President Joseph Reed asked the Assembly to order the distribution of one hundred barrels, with a “preference” being given “to such Families as have performed Militia duty, [especially] the Families of such Militia Men as shall serve on the present expedition.”

General Washington had just asked for additional troops for the next set of battles. With the pressure on, militias and the Continental Army continued to conscript pacifists, some of whom became the earliest noncombatant conscientious objectors.

Methodist minister Reverend Lee, when drafted in 1780, agreed only to drive the supply wagon: “I told him I could not kill a man with a good conscience, but I was a friend to my country, and was willing to do any thing that I could, while I continued in the army, except that of fighting.” After the militia arrived in North Carolina, Lee told the soldiers how he felt: “I began under the trees, and took my text in Luke xiii. 5. Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish…. Many of the people, officers as well as men, were bathed in tears before I was done.” Stand by your beliefs, brother.

Some continental and militia commanders learned to say the same, as had Washington in 1760. One young Quaker conscript had his claim dismissed by his “presiding officer” who told him that “you have not the cootermants” (meaning accoutrements, the extreme plain dress of many Friends). Upon seeing written documentation, “the officer now called for a shears that he might trim him: and so he cut off his capes and his lapels and sich a hair tail he had behind, and them said to him, ‘now you may go, now you look more like a Quaker.’”

The civilian laws guiding the behavior of these commands comprised the usual colonial patchwork. Pennsylvania, whose founder meant specifically to create a haven for oppressed sects like the Quakers, and Rhode Island were the most explicit in declaring members of such churches exempt from militia service. Rhode Island’s law said in part that no citizens ”shall be persuaded in his, their conscience or consciences […], that he nor they cannot nor ought not to train, to learn to fight, nor to war, nor kill any person or person.”


What follows: a cascade of dissent. But you’ll have to buy the book for it, including the soldiers-revolt led by Daniel Shays and how Matthew Lyon ended up in prison.

Published by chrislombardi

Journalist, novelist, educator.

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