Moreover, beginning in 1778, the New England states, and eventually all Northern states, enlisted African-Americans, a practice that Congress had initially forbidden. Ultimately, some 5,000 blacks bore arms for the United States, approximately 5 percent of the total number of men who served in the Continental Army. The African-American soldiers made an important contribution to America’s ultimate victory. In 1781, Baron Ludwig von Closen, a veteran officer in the French Army, remarked that the “best [regiment] under arms” in the Continental Army was one in which 75 percent of the soldiers were African-Americans.
Longer enlistments radically changed the composition of the Army. Washington’s troops in 1775-76 had represented a cross section of the free male population. But few who owned farms were willing to serve for the duration, fearing loss of their property if years passed without producing revenue from which to pay taxes. After 1777, the average Continental soldier was young, single, propertyless, poor and in many cases an outright pauper. In some states, such as Pennsylvania, up to one in four soldiers was an impoverished recent immigrant. Patriotism aside, cash and land bounties offered an unprecedented chance for economic mobility for these men. Joseph Plumb Martin of Milford, Connecticut, acknowledged that he had enlisted for the money. Later, he would recollect the calculation he had made at the time: “As I must go, I might as well endeavor to get as much for my skin as I could.” For three-quarters of the war, few middle-class Americans bore arms in the Continental Army, although thousands did serve in militias.
III. Continental Soldiers Were Always Ragged And Hungry
Accounts of shoeless continental army soldiers leaving bloody footprints in the snow or going hungry in a land of abundance are all too accurate. Take, for example, the experience of Connecticut’s Private Martin. While serving with the Eighth Connecticut Continental Regiment in the autumn of 1776, Martin went for days with little more to eat than a handful of chestnuts and, at one point, a portion of roast sheep’s head, remnants of a meal prepared for those he sarcastically referred to as his “gentleman officers.” Ebenezer Wild, a Massachusetts soldier who served at Valley Forge in the terrible winter of 1777-78, would recall that he subsisted for days on “a leg of nothing.” One of his comrades, Dr. Albigence Waldo, a Continental Army surgeon, later reported that many men survived largely on what were known as fire cakes (flour and water baked over coals). One soldier, Waldo wrote, complained that his “glutted Gutts are turned to Pasteboard.” The Army’s supply system, imperfect at best, at times broke down altogether; the result was misery and want.
But that was not always the case. So much heavy clothing arrived from France at the beginning of the winter in 1779 that Washington was compelled to locate storage facilities for his surplus.
In a long war during which American soldiers were posted from upper New York to lower Georgia, conditions faced by the troops varied widely. For instance, at the same time that Washington’s siege army at Boston in 1776 was well supplied, many American soldiers, engaged in the failed invasion of Quebec staged from Fort Ticonderoga in New York, endured near starvation. While one soldier in seven was dying from hunger and disease at Valley Forge, young Private Martin, stationed only a few miles away in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, was assigned to patrols that foraged daily for army provisions. “We had very good provisions all winter,” he would write, adding that he had lived in “a snug room.” In the spring after Valley Forge, he encountered one of his former officers. “Where have you been this winter?” inquired the officer. “Why you are as fat as a pig.”
IV. The Militia Was Useless
The nation’s first settlers adopted the British militia system, which required all able-bodied men between 16 and 60 to bear arms. Some 100,000 men served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Probably twice that number soldiered as militiamen, for the most part defending the home front, functioning as a police force and occasionally engaging in enemy surveillance. If a militia company was summoned to active duty and sent to the front lines to augment the Continentals, it usually remained mobilized for no more than 90 days.