In preparation for upcoming American Revolution 250th commemorations and reflecting on the primary source accounts I periodically review as part of research completed on behalf of the American Battlefield Trust, National Park Service, South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust, and related organizations, I am frequently reminded of the tremendous sacrifices made by our forefathers to secure the freedoms we so often take for granted in the modern era. Ideally, their commitment of 250 years ago will inspire and incite us to do more.
First-person statements call attention to the many challenges and dangers faced by Continental Army troops and patriot militiamen across multiple categories. They include:
- Shortages of equipment, clothing, and food
- Difficult weather and climate conditions
- Rampant disease
- Lack of compensation
- Impairment from wounds
- Mortality – the ultimate sacrifice
As evidence and to illustrate with some granularity, I have selected and share below the words of men who experienced such hardships. Admittedly, I am awed by the strength and resilience of those who served.
Shortages of Equipment, Clothing, and Food
Among the more prominent milestones of the Revolution was the winter encampment at Valley Forge, where approximately 12,000 men camped in makeshift huts for about six months and became a real army under the instruction of Baron Von Steuben. Early during the encampment, General Washington himself wrote:
We had in Camp, on the 23rd Inst by a Field Return then taken, not less than 2,898 men unfit for duty, by reason of their being barefoot and otherwise naked. Besides this number, sufficiently distressing of itself, there are many Others detained in Hospitals and crowded in Farmers Houses for the same causes…1
About clothing shortages, a Connecticut private in Washington’s Army at Valley Forge wrote this:
The army was now not only starved but naked: the greatest part were not only shirtless and barefoot, but destitute of all other clothing, especially blankets. I secured a small piece of raw cowhide and made myself a pair of moccasons, which kept my feet (while they lasted) from the frozen ground, although, as well as I remember, the hard edges so galled my ancles, while on a march, that it was with much difficulty and pain that I could wear them afterwards; but the only alternative I had was to endure this inconvenience to go barefoot, as hundreds of my companions had to, till they might be tracked by their blood upon the rough frozen ground. But hunger, nakedness and sore shins were not the only difficulties we had at that time to encounter; we had hard duty to perform and little or no strength to perform it with.2
Closer to home was the experience of members of Lee’s Legion, camped along the Edisto River near Orangeburg in 1781. Lt. Colonel “Light Horse” Harry Lee wrote in his memoirs:
We had often experienced in the course of the campaign want of food, and had sometimes seriously suffered from the scantiness of our supplies, rendered more pinching by their quality; but never did we suffer so severely as during the few days’ halt here. Rice furnished our substitute for bread, which, although tolerably relished by those familiarized to it from infancy, was very disagreeable to Marylanders and Virginians, who had grown up in the use of corn or wheat bread. Of meat we had literally none; for the few meagre cattle brought to camp as beef would not afford more than one or two ounces per man. Frogs abounded in some neighboring ponds, and on them chiefly did the light troops subsist. They became in great demand from their nutriciousness; and, after conquering the existing prejudice, were diligently sought after. Even the alligator was used by a few; and, very probably, had the army been much longer detained upon that ground, might have rivalled the frog in the estimation of our epicures.4
About the trying and extraordinarily cold winter of 1779-80 spent at Morristown NJ where 26 snowstorms were recorded and sea inlets were frozen solid from North Carolina to the Canadian Maritimes, Joseph Plumb Martin wrote, “We were absolutely literally starved; – I do solemnly declare that I did not put a single morsel of victuals into my mouth for four days and as many nights, except for a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wood, if that can be called victuals.” He went on to state that he saw several of his fellow soldiers roast their old shoes and eat them.5
Trying Weather and Climate Conditions
From the cold and snows of present-day Maine and Quebec to the heat of the Carolinas and Georgia, troops endured extreme conditions.
About the heat before the Battle of Sullivan’s Island a British physician, Dr. Thompson Foster, stationed on what is now the Isle of Palms, wrote this:
…the most insufferable I ever felt, not a breath of air stirring… every hundred yards a swamp with putrid standing water in the middle, full of small Alligators, a thick cloud of Mosquitoes everywhere, and no place free from Rattle Snakes… I very frequently saw spiders, their bodies as large as my coat buttons… Crocodiles are very frequent and large in these places; we killed one nine feet long which attacked a soldier…1
The sides and top of the mountain were covered with snow, shoe-mouth deep. On the top of the mountain there was about one hundred acres of beautiful table land… Here the troops paraded.1
Dr. Lewis Beebe was a physician from Massachusetts who maintained a detailed journal during Continental Army Colonel Benedict Arnold’s expedition against Canada. In May of 1776, Beebe wrote about troops’ living conditions and a smallpox outbreak.
Last evening we had one of the most severe showers of rain ever known; it continued almost the whole night, with unremitted violence; many of their tents were ancle deep in water. Many of the sick lay their whole lengths in the water, with one blankett only to cover them. One man having the small pox bad, and unable to help himself, and being in a tent alone, which was on ground descending, the current of water came thro his tent in such plenty that it covered his head, by which means he drowned…2
About men held on a prison ship in the Charleston Harbor, likely suffering from malaria, Dr. David Oliphant, Dr. General of Hospitals for the Southern Department of the Continental Army, wrote this to General William Moultrie on November 14, 1780:
Inclosed is the return of our sick for last month; the mortality is great; by much the greater number of deaths happen to those patients from onboard the prison-ships: within these three days, there is an appearance of a jail fever from the ship Concord; she has been a prison ship throughout the summer. No less than nine of the sick, sent from that ship, died in the space of 24 hours; all of them bearing the appearance of a putrid malignant fever. The unfortunate sufferers are the militia sent from Camden. 1
Similarly, Dr. Peter Fayssoux, a Continental Surgeon caring for imprisoned troops in Charleston wrote this:
After the defeat of General Gates, our sufferings commenced. The British appeared to have adopted a different mode of conduct towards their prisoners, and proceeded from one step to another until they fully displayed themselves void of faith, honor, or humanity, and capable of the most savage acts of barbarity. The unhappy men who belonged to the militia and were taken prisoners on Gates’s defeat, experienced the first effects of the cruelty of the new system. These men were confined on board prison ships in numbers by no means proportioned to the size of the vessels, immediately after a march of 120 miles in the most sickly season of this unhealthy climate. These vessels were in general infected with small-pox; very few of the prisoners had gone through that disorder. A representation was made to the British commandant of their situation, and permission was obtained for one of our surgeons to inoculate them — this was the utmost extremity of their humanity. The wretched objects were still confined on board of the prison ships and fed on salt provisions without the least medical aid, or any kind of proper nourishment. The effect that naturally followed was a small-pox with a fever of the putrid type, and to such as survived the small-pox a putrid dysentery, and from these causes the deaths of at least 150 of the unhappy victims. Such were the appearances and such was the generality of the cases brought to the general hospital after the eruption of the small-pox; before the eruption not a single individual was suffered to be brought on shore. Upwards of 800 of these prisoners, nearly one-third of the whole, exhausted by a variety of suffering, expired in the short space of thirteen months’ captivity. When the general exchange took place in June, 1781, out of 1900, there were only 740 restored to the service of their country. 2
The distressed situation of the sick here is not to be described: without clothing, without bedding or a shelter sufficient to screen them from the weather.
I am sure your known humanity will be affected when I tell you we have at present upwards of one thousand sick crowded into sheds and laboring under the various and cruel disorders of dysenteries, bilious putrid fevers and the effects of a confluent smallpox; to attend this large number we have four seniors and four mates, exclusive of myself, and out little shop does not afford a grain of jalap, opecac, bark, salt, opium and sundry other capital articles and nothing of the kind to be had in this quarter; in this dilemma our inventions are exhausted for substitutes, but we shall go on doing the best we can in hopes of speedy supply…1
The treatment of prisoners varied greatly, generally dependent on the region and the social class of the persons imprisoned. Among the more horrific was the experience of the troops who endured conditions aboard the British prison hulk HMS Jersey after the Battle of Brooklyn. Robert Sheffield, a survivor, wrote the following:
The heat was so intense that [the 300-plus prisoners] were all naked, which also served the well to get rid of vermin, but the sick were eaten up alive. Their sickly countenances, and ghastly looks were truly horrible; some swearing and blaspheming; others crying, praying, and wringing their hands; and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving and storming, all panting for breath; some dead, and corrupting. The air was so foul that at times a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which the bodies were not missed until they had been dead ten days. One person alone was admitted on deck at a time, after sunset, which occasioned much filth to run into the hold, and mingle with the bilge water…2
It is estimated that five to ten corpses of expired prisoners were tossed overboard each day.
Similarly, in the spring of 1778, Lt. James Morris of Connecticut was held prisoner by the British in Philadelphia. The situation in the prison was similar to the hospitals but worse: “At this time seven hundred prisoners of war were in the jail. The soldiers were soon seized with a jail fever and in the course of three months it swept off four hundred men, who were all buried in one continuous grave, without coffins. Such a scene of mortality I never witnessed before. Death was so frequent that it ceased to terrify; it ceased to warn; it ceased to alarm survivors.” 3
Recent scholarship has focused on the Revolutionary War military service of more African Americans than many assume, some freedmen but others who remained enslaved. It is estimated that approximately 5,000 African Americans served the cause of Independence either as soldiers or seamen, with nearly 1,000 as Continentals. Lt. Colonel John Laurens, an aide-de-camp to General Washington and son of Henry Laurens, one of the largest slaveowners in the South, wrote to Congress with a plan to create a regiment of black soldiers in the Continental Army but met with significant opposition.
Slaves were faced with a particularly difficult dilemma – attempting to predict whether siding with the British or patriots held the greatest probability of earning their freedom.
Sample profiles and accomplishments of two African American patriots who served in the Carolinas as follows:
Ishmael Titus – Born into slavery, in the American Revolution, Ishmael Titus served as a one-year substitute for Lawrence Ross of Rowan County, North Carolina, and was granted manumission at the end of his enlistment term. Titus then re-enlisted as a freedman and was assigned to other North Carolina militia units with General Nathanael Greene’s forces, fighting at the Battles of Camden, Kings Mountain, Deep River, and Guilford Courthouse. Interestingly, Titus’ pension affidavit provides an account of his being captured by loyalists within days of his discharge in what is now East Tennessee. He was temporarily held with Colonel Benjamin Cleveland, but after being tasked with searching for the tories’ horses one morning, Titus encountered patriot troops, including Colonel Cleveland’s sons, and led them back to the tories’ mountain camp to successfully free those who had been captured. After the War Titus moved to New England, ultimately settling in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He reportedly lived to well past one hundred years of age.
Jim Capers – Born into slavery on a plantation opposite of Bull Island in Charleston County and 33 years old when the American Revolution began, in June of 1775 Capers enlisted in the 4th South Carolina Regiment as a Drum Major. Capers saw action in several Revolutionary War battles such as Savannah, Port Royal, Camden, Eutaw Springs, and Biggin Church. In addition, he served as a partisan under the command of General Francis Marion, enduring four wounds during the Battle of Eutaw Springs including two saber cuts to his head and one to his face, and a shot that passed through his side, killing the drummer behind him. He was discharged from the army in 1782 and eventually settled in Alabama from where he applied for a Revolutionary War pension. A pension in the amount of $8.00 per month was approved but never received by Capers before his death in 1853.
Soldiers at the siege of Yorktown, including a black soldier from the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. From a watercolor drawing in the diary of Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger, an officer in Rochambeau’s army during the American campaigns of 1780–81. Verger, Jean Baptiste Antoine de, “Soldiers in uniform” (1781). Prints, Drawings, and Watercolors from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library.
Lack of Compensation
Early in the War, riflemen were paid $6.67 per month and eventually, there were varying wages if paid in specie or hard currency – which was significantly more valuable – versus Continental paper money. Further, bounties were paid for enlistments or re-enlistments by the states, with exchanges not always simply for currency but sometimes tangible assets such as livestock or land. Regardless, monthly wages often remained unpaid or were at least paid haphazardly. Further and despite having no funds to disburse at the conclusion of the War, the government issued “settlement certificates,” essentially IOUs for payment at some later date. For want of funds to support travel to their homes, many soldiers sold their certificates to speculators for cents on the dollar.
Even worse, some troops had been discharged before certificates were issued. About them, the Maryland State Council noted that veterans were, “daily returning to the State, without cloths, without money, & without means of subsistence.” 1
Note too that a meaningful pension system for Revolutionary War veterans was not established until 1828, nearly fifty years after the conclusion of the War and when most veterans who had survived would have been seventy years of age and older.2
Sample Revolutionary War Claim from Catherine Elliott based on the service of her husband, Captain Barnard Elliott.
Elliott served in the 2nd South Carolina Regiment under the command of Colonel Moultrie in capturing Fort Johnson from
the British in 1775, then became a Captain in the 4th South Carolina Regiment (Artillery) through the end of the War. He passed away in 1791. In 1838 Catherine was granted $4,200 and an additional $300 annually for his service.
Impairment from Wounds
It is estimated that little more than 6,000 patriot troops were wounded in battle, seemingly a modest number given the length of the conflict and the much higher numbers suffered in following wars. However, one must remember the brutal nature of the arms customary for the time… .75 caliber round balls, triangular-shaped bayonets that made for horrendous puncture wounds, and the exceedingly crude surgical and medical care that prevailed.
This makes the case of Captain John Stokes of the 6th Virginia Regiment and his experience at the Battle of the Waxhaws all the more extraordinary. Some years after the Battle his case was explained by Dr. Robert Brownfield, a surgeon’s mate in the Continental Army.
To consign to oblivion the memory of these gallant suffering few would be culpable injustice. When men have devoted their lives to the service of their country, and whose fate has been so singularly disastrous; there is an honest anxiety concerning them, springing from the best and warmest feelings of our nature, which certainly should be gratified. This is peculiarly the truth in regard to Capt. John Stokes, although in his military character perhaps not distinguished from his brother officers, than by the number of his wounds and the pre-eminence of his sufferings. He received twenty-three wounds, and as he never for a moment lost his recollection, he often repeated to me the manner and order in which they were inflicted. – Early in the sanguinary conflict he was attacked by a dragoon, who aimed many deadly blows at his head, all of which by the dexterous use of the small sword he easily parried, when another on the right, by one stroke, cut off his right hand through the metacarpal bones. He was then assailed by both, and instinctively attempted to defend his head with his left arm until the forefinger was cut off, and the arm hacked in eight or ten places from the wrist to the shoulder. His head was then laid open almost the whole length of the crown to the eye brows. After he fell he received several cuts on the face and shoulders. A soldier passing on in the work of death, asked if he expected quarters? Stokes answered I have not, nor do I mean to ask quarters, finish me as soon as possible; he then transfixed him twice with his bayonet. Another asked the same question and received the same answer, and he also thrust his bayonet twice through his body. Stokes had his eye fixed on a wounded British officer, sitting at some distance, when a serjeant came up, who addressed him with apparent humanity, and offered his protection from further injury at the risk of his life. All I ask, said Stokes, is to be laid by that officer that I may die in his presence. While performing this generous office the humane serjeant was twice obliged to lay him down, and stay over him to defend him against the fury of his comrades. Doct. Stapleton, Tarleton’s surgeon, whose name ought to be held up to eternal obloquy, was then dressing the wounds of the officer. Stokes, who lay bleeding at every pore, asked him to do something for his wounds, which he scornfully and inhumanely refused, until peremptorily ordered by the more humane officer, and even then only filled the wounds with rough tow, the particles of which could not be separated from the brain for several days.1
Miraculously and despite his horrific wounds, Captain Stokes survived and in 1790 was named Judge of the United States District of Western North Carolina by President George Washington.
Most are familiar with the story of the Battle of Camden when Maryland and Delaware Continentals and militiamen from Virginia and North Carolina were overwhelmed and cut down by British regulars and provincial forces in August of 1780. In just a short time approximately 900 patriots were killed or wounded and 1,000 men captured.
The battleground setting was then and is now a sandy, relatively open pine forest where there’s been meaningful archaeological research over the years as the site essentially serves as an unmarked cemetery.
This past Fall the remains of 14 soldiers were uncovered and exhumed by professional archaeologists and forensics specialists. One specific unmarked burial location was that of two young men of the 2nd Maryland Regiment who had clearly been hastily tossed in a makeshift grave, little more than inches beneath the surface of the ground and likely dug using a tin cup that was found with the remains. In this specific case, it was discovered that the spine of one of the soldiers had been shattered by a round ball and further, based on examination of their growth plates, it is believed the two who had been buried together and essentially thrown on top of one another were 15-17 years old – in our era the ages of high school students. Their sacrifice is stirring to say the very least.
From my reading over time, two prominent officers, in particular, summed the courage and deportment of American troops in a manner that most resonated with me. They include Baron Ludwig von Closen, aide-de-camp to French General Rochambeau; and Lt. Colonel Henry Lee III, commander of Lee’s Legion in the Continental Army.
While in Virginia in July of 1781, Ludwig von Closen wrote about Continental soldiers, “I had a chance to see the American Army, man for man. It was really painful to see these brave men, almost naked, with only some trousers and little linen jackets, most of them without stockings, but, would you believe it, very cheerful and healthy in appearance.” Not long after he added, “It is incredible that soldiers composed of men of every age, even children of fifteen, of whites and blacks, unpaid, and rather poorly fed, can march so well and withstand fire so steadfastly.”
Finally, in his memoirs, the well-known Continental cavalry commander Henry Lee wrote this about his troops:
…They found their houses burnt, their plantations laid waste, their herds and flocks destroyed, and the rich rewards of a life of industry and economy dissipated. Without money, without credit, with debilitated constitutions, with scars and aches, this brave and patriotic group gloried in the adversity they had experienced, because the price of the personal liberty and of national independence. They had lost their wealth they had lost their health, and had lost the props of their declining years in the field of battle; but they had established the independence of their country; they had secured to themselves and posterity the birthright of Americans. They forgot past agony in the delight of present enjoyment, and in the prospect of happiness to ages yet unborn…2
They established the independence of their country indeed. A legacy for which I am extraordinarily grateful.
Lt. Colonel Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, III by Charles Willson Peale
2 The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the America Revolution as Told by the Participants by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, page 643
3 Becoming Men of Some Consequence: Youth and Military Service in the Revolutionary War by John A. Ruddiman, page 158
4 Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States by Henry Lee, page 336
6 The Land Battle for Sullivan’s Island, Charles Town, South Carolina, June-July 1776 by Kim R. Stacy; https://www.jstor.org/stable/44233000
7 The Battle of Kings Mountain: Eyewitness Accounts by Robert M. Dunkerly, page 24
8 The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the America Revolution as Told by the Participants by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, page 822
9 Memoirs of the American Revolution: So Far as it Related to the States of North and South Carolina, and Georgia by General William Moultrie, page 142; https://ia800300.us.archive.org/18/items/memoirsofamerica12moul/memoirsofamerica12moul.pdf
10 The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783 by Edward McCrady, page 349
11 The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the America Revolution as Told by the Participants by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, page 825
13 “Fever” by Kim Burdick in the Journal of the American Revolution; https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/11/fever/
14 10 Facts: Black Patriots in the American Revolution by American Battlefield Trust; https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/10-facts-black-patriots-american-revolution
15 John Laurens and the American Revolution by Gregory D. Massey (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000)
18 Becoming Men of Some Consequence: Youth and Military Service in the Revolutionary War by John A. Ruddiman, page 160
20 A Sketch of the Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion by William Dobein James, Appendix; https://www.gutenberg.org/files/923/923-h/923-h.htm
21 “French and Hessian Impressions: Foreign Soldiers’ Views of America During the Revolution” by Cosby Williams Hall, pages 58-59; William & Mary Theses, Dissertations, and Master Projects
22 The American Revolution in the South by Major General Henry Lee, Page 540
About the Author
Bennett earned his undergraduate degree in economics from Wake Forest University and graduate degree from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke. He resides in Mount Pleasant.