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The American Revolution

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Who was the American soldier during American Revolution?
Who was the American soldier during American Revolution? A Historian's Perspective 
by Caleb Klingler

The American Revolutionary War has been well documented by historians, especially the narration of battles and the generals who commanded them. However, an under researched topic is the study of the soldiers who fought the battles. During the 1970's and 1980's social trends focused on explaining the makeup of these individual soldiers, and how the American Revolution affected them. Historians, such as John Shy's A People Numerous & Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence, helps trace the American soldier in the war. Sylvia R. Frey's The British Soldier In America: A Social History of Military Life in the Revolutionary Period, helps to bridge the gap of understanding the British soldier. Don Higginbotham's The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Polices, And Practice 1763-1789, develops how military policy effected different social aspect of the war. Exploring different aspects of historians' works, scholars begin to gather different perspectives of the soldiers that fought the war, and misspell common understandings.

John Shy's A People Numerous & Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence, is a collection of short essays written by a renowned military historian. He contends that other historians' approaches to the subject of military history are to preoccupied with battles and their commanding officers. Shy's focus of his thesis the American soldiers during the American Revolution as a unique collection of volunteer soldiers that fought either part-time in the militias or fought full time in the Continental Army. In each individual essay he explores how his thesis affects different aspects of the war based on the American soldiers view.

Sylvia R. Frey's The British Soldier In America: A Social History of Military Life in the Revolutionary Period, puts the focus on the British soldier in his daily life during the American Revolution. Frey's different chapters focus upon the nature of soldier behavior in the war, such as: "volunteer's verses conscription", "rewards and recreation", "crimes and punishment", "training and campaigning", and others. Her study combined different facets of everyday life that that the British soldier faced.

Don Higginbotham's The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Polices, And Practice 1763-1789, traces how military policy affected both the American soldier and society. Another important focus of his is in the personal relationships that occurred during the war, the "Continental Army and Congress", "Loyalists verses Patriots", "economic trepidation", "the impact of the war in the South", and other facets of life under the war. Higginbotham thesis explores a broad understanding of the war and its impact.

John Shy's study of the American perspective of enlisted soldier consisted of two forms of volunteer, either militia or continental soldier; both are didactic in their difference. Even though America drafted some soldiers into the army, this was a small number that it did not affect the greater number of enlisted troops. The militia, Shy described had many different explanations of exactly what the typical militiamen looked liked. Shy equated the typical militia soldier to typically being a man in his upper twenties, a landholding farmer of the lower to middleclass. There are many factors needed to understand why this classification is fairly accurate. As the militia members tended to stay localized in their theater of warfare, the middleclass farmer could not afford to be away from his estate for long periods of time. During the Revolutionary period, farmers tended to be older gentlemen as the family and estate were typically passed from father to eldest son.

Popular history describes them as a "citizen soldier", a part time soldier that picks up his musket and rushes off to battle when their homes are threatened; the romantic image of the minuteman from Lexington and Concord. Though the image is correct for the most part, the truth is less attractive. When the minutemen were called out for service only a few in number showed up and the conflict raged briefly. It's in the British return trip to Boston that the militia inflicted heavy casualties as they fired from concealed positions and then retreated to a fire from a new one. The nature of the militias focused on a particular style of warfare that favored the American woodlands, not the style of European soldiers lined shoulder to shoulder. In 1776, George Washington questioned the reliance of the militia methods during the most desperate moments of the American Revolution; the battles for New York. These few factors alone tried Washington's patience with the militias, as he asked the Continental Congress to create a standing army in order to avoid the militia's shortfalls.

As problematic as the militias were, they did have many redeeming qualities. Throughout the course of the war the numbers of American troops in the regular army always remained small, but when the British army lurked near for a fight, American commanders could call out for the militias help. This swelled the American ranks by as much as a couple of thousand. In this way the militias proved a valuable asset, as it left the British constantly guessing to the real numbers of their opponents they faced on the battlefield. Even if the nature of the militias tried the patience of American generals, their numbers were needed on the battlefield, as they could be called forth at any moment.

The Continental troops, or the regular full time soldiers, proved to be a different breed of soldier altogether. American generals tended to request more Continentals because of their professional military qualities. They could be depended upon to hold their ground whereas the militias would retreat. In the camps, the Continentals would retain professional standards and recognize the status of officers, where as the militia officers tended to frequently fraternize with enlisted soldiers because of their status in the community made them equal. Militia officers were also elected from amongst the ranks and they did not want to alienate themselves from their communities once the emergency passed. The number of Continentals tended to remain small as it was hard to recruit new members into regular service. The militia quickly realized that military life was harsh from the early siege of Boston, therefore causing a life that only appealed to the hardiest of men. Shy described typical Continental soldiers as being young (ages 18-24) and typically usually the second son or later as they would inherit from the family estate. These soldiers came from the poorest and most desperate rungs of the social spectrum. These soldiers were drawn to regular service through promises of cash bounties or land once the war was over. However, many of these promises never came to fruition. The Continental soldiers came with many positives, such as American generals could depend on their loyalty and professionalism as soldiers. On the other hand, they also came with a lot of negatives. Continentals were lured into regular services with promises of cash or land and when some received their bounties they would desert for another unit to collect other bounties. Another negative stemmed from their few numbers that volunteered for the Continental army. A loyal few never amounted to large standing army and the British usually had larger armies on the battlefield.

Warfare in America was nothing like it was in Europe, fighting shoulder to shoulder arrayed in columns did not function well in the heavily wooded areas. The militias were the first to grasp the importance of firing from concealed locations and then retreating to take up new positions in which to fire from, at Lexington and Concord. Shy devotes a chapter discussing the American "Art of War" and its champion General Charles Lee and its protagonist General George Washington (the personal relationship between Lee and Washington would deteriorate early in the war over the issue of the militia's use.). Lee found that hit and run tactics were very effective and noticed their impact had upon British mentality. American militias fighting in this style would allow the British to roam amongst the countryside, but the psychological effect on the British proved to be tremendous as an early form of insurgent warfare. On the other hand Washington disagreed with the militia style of warfare and believed America could not afford to allow the British to run at will in the countryside. He preferred the European style of fighting, where soldiers fought side by side. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, the militia proved capable of fighting in the European style, by fighting from prepared positions of earthworks and trenches. This laid the foundation for the Continental regulars as they would be better disciplined to fight in this fashion. However, for Washington to achieve this, he would have to wait years until the American mentality could be trained to accept the ridged soldiers life, where as the British were already disciplined professionally by comparison.

In response to the new and different style of fighting, the British improved their forces with dragoons (a soldier that can fight either mounted similar to cavalry or dismounted like an infantrymen), the American theatre made having cavalry in America nearly impossible to use, thus negating an effective charge. Another British modification to American warfare, they brought over experienced German Jaeger regiments (Jaeger in German means hunter) which were experienced in light infantry tactics and known for their marksmanship. The early American riflemen from Pennsylvania and Kentucky proved devastating during the siege of Boston, but by using Jaegers the British were able to counter the American riflemen and created more flexibility in British fight styles. Shy illustrates an important point between the militias and continentals, by stating they were at their most effective when working in coordination with each other. The southern campaign proved a genius stroke of military skill that the British had problems fighting. At the Battle of the Cowpens, General Harry Lee used his own dragoons and militia to land one of the greatest victories against the British and Banastre Tarleton. At the outset of the British campaign in the South, the British seemingly went from victory to victory and Tarleton's elite forces, called Tarleton's Legion proved stunning as the Americans had no concept on how to combat their mobility; Tarleton took a play out of militias' playbook by using hit and run tactics. However, Tarleton's defeat at the Cowpens was proof of Lee's ability to adapt his dragoons to be more effective and as a result this forced the British to retreat from South Carolina into North Carolina.

Sylvia Frey's The British Soldier In America: A Social History of Military Life in the Revolutionary Period takes a different look at the war than John Shy. Unlike Shy, she does not focus on how the war impacted the style of soldier, but she attempts to present what military life was like for the typical British soldier. In her first chapter, Volunteers and Conscripts, she explores the different ways British men served in the army. The British army, unlike the American army, severely lacked middle classes participation in the enlisted ranks. Shy presented the American middle class as members of the militia and a few volunteered into the Continental Army. Frey's study shows that middle class British citizens had the financial means to pay for officer commission typically a rank of ensign or lieutenant. The poor did not usually have the luxury of becoming an officer, happenstance might allow for bravery on the field of battle. Many of Britain's poor were attracted to a soldiers life verses their dreary civilian lives. During the eighteenth century when food and jobs were scarce the prospect of stability, showed many poor the harsh life of the army as a palatable alterative. However, Britain's large empire required more manpower than there were volunteers; the British resorted to many colorful means of filling the ranks.

Conscripting civilians into the military was achieved though many different ways. The obvious, the military draft could bring many new soldiers in a fair and unbiased manner at least in theory. In reality, Frey shows that many of the poor did not meet military standards of weight and height requirements because of malnutrition in English diets that kept them from services. Other civilians were exempt because of important job skills that they posed, such as carpenters or shipwrights, these skills prevented a large portion of the population from conscription. An alternative, but equivalent to conscription that Frey points to is impressments; the example of press gangs rummaging through local taverns to haul drunks into the army or navy is a way in which people were forced in the service against their will. The press gangs took many of the unwilling persons away and later found many of them deserting at the first opportunity they could. Frey explains that many enlisted soldiers came from all over the empire, though most were from England and Wales, necessity required others from Ireland and Scotland.

In other chapters of Frey's book, she illustrates many different ways in which a soldier's lives were affected outside of combat. In chapter two, Diseases and Doctors, she explains as there were few doctors in the service many soldiers died from simple diseases that could have been treatable, even during the period. In chapter three, Rewards and Recreation, Frey explores how soldiers took their minds off military life. A popular reward for British soldiers was through alcohol for good deeds. Frey's study reflects another interesting point about recreation in British military life; women and children were not simply viewed as camp followers. In fact the roles of women were extremely important, Frey mentions they acted as nurses, camp cooks and washers. Their contribution helped to keep soldiers minds at ease while on campaign. By having their wives and children with them allowed for a rustic form of family community. The roles that women played in camp life allowed them some other liberties, such being paid a wage or drawing military rations that were not in place for women in the American camps. Frey's other chapters deal with subjects dealing with crimes and punishment, training and campaigning, and the relationship between officers and soldiers.

Frey's explanation of British soldiers allows scholars to understand the other story of the American Revolution. The British soldier clearly faced different challenges then the American soldier, as well as their backgrounds forced from uniquely different paths. Shy explains that it was hard to point out a typical American soldier, as they could either be a middle class militiamen or a poor Continental. Frey's thesis explains a similar explanation of recruits in the British army: they could be a poor volunteer or conscripted.

Don Higginbotham's The War Of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, And Practices 1763-1789, he narrates the war in its larger picture based upon the changing nature of military policy. Higginbotham's book does not try to make conjectures about the soldiers themselves or look into narrowly defined phenomena as John Shy or Sylvia Frey does about the roles soldiers in the war. He is interested in the presentation of military policy in a broad spectrum that includes the soldiers' perspective. In chapter one, The Colonial Tradition, Higginbotham explores the nature of what is the militia and how it came about. Shy's work looks at who the soldiers were and what motivate them to fight in the militia. Higginbotham's traces the militias' origins before and during the French and Indian War, and from there he presents the militia as a unique institution to America because of the designed nature of fighting warfare in heavily wooded areas. Higginbotham makes one interesting conjecture, when he describes the civilian control of the militia. Unlike the British army, where nobility often purchased officer ranks and kept the military hierarchy within the sphere of the monarchy, he argues that militia is a truer form of Oliver Cromwell's institution of militia, as seen during the English Civil War. The practice of militias, Cromwell preached, should not be dictated by kings, but subject to civilian elected parliament, who should only call out the militia in times of state emergency.

In chapter three, Militia verses Regulars, Higginbotham describes the use of both militias and regulars. At the beginning of the war, Higginbotham explains that the militias were very popular in America; it was the way in which they knew how to fight. In the beginning of his book, during the French and Indian War, American soldiers learned to prefect a style of fighting that suited their own needs as this style gave the British many problems confronting it. Generals like George Washington, who abhorred this style of fighting, wished transform the "citizen soldier" into something they were not accustomed to. The regular forces that Higginbotham discusses were new in the use of American warfare. Washington wanted more disciplined and professional troops based upon what he witnessed during the Siege of Boston (1775-1776) and the Battle of Bunker Hill. American militias stood behind entrenched positions and battered British regulars as they assaulted frontally. The Americans repeatedly threw back the British with heavy casualties and the militia did not run until they exhausted their supply of ammunition. However, during the campaign for New York, the militia showed less restraint against British regulars and ran a move that nearly doomed the revolution in its infancy.

It is at New York that Washington lost his faith in the militias. The battles of Bunker Hill and the campaign in New York illustrated stark differences between the style of combat the militia were capable of, and a rationale explanation is needed to determine their behavior. The Battle of Bunker Hill was a single battle in which the soldiers felt safe and secure behind prepared defensive position, which enabled them to handle the British. However, the campaigns in New York were quite different. These battles were fought in the open, where American militias were constantly being out maneuvered by the British regulars. In these series of events the American militias were surrounded and forced to surrender. Observations of these circumstances, the American militias could not go toe-to-toe with the British while fighting a European styled battle. Even if America had a standing army it would have fared similar to the militias because they lacked the necessary experience to fight in this manner.

In the sixth chapter, Britain at War, Higginbotham explores British military policy. The British army's weakness during the war, as Higginbotham explains was not the quality of its troops. Britain had the best equipped and trained units in the world and German mercenaries were the most feared globally. What Britain lacked was quantity of troops, as they had a few thousand soldiers in a single army, which was unable to crush the American forces or subdue the colonies. The American army in the field had a knack for the escape, especially at Bunker Hill, New York, and the New Jersey campaigns. All of these were British victories and seemingly had the Americans crushed only to have a portion of the American army escape at the last moments. The British navy proved superior in terms of quantity and quality in ships and sailors, but was limited in their ability to stop American shipping and commerce. The navy never completely blockaded the coast, as French supplies still got into the hands of American field armies. American privateers prayed upon British supply convoys with great success, as this forced the British to expand large amounts of resources combating them. In the end, the French victory over the British navy off Yorktown forced Cornwallis to surrender and turned the war in American favor. The sheer numbers of British troops proved incapable of subduing any American colony completely, and forced them to shift focus of their war effort accordingly; example early war focuses the north and by the end of the war their focus shifted to the south.

The British dependency on Loyalists never amounted to the great numbers that the British had hoped they would. Loyalist sympathies were large in America, but fears of retribution from American Patriots or others who felt disinclined to fight undermined British war plans; the Southern campaign being a great example of miscalculation. During 1777 and after, the British turned to the Southern colonies and hoped to gain a limited advantage in the war. They believed that sympathies in the South would bring out Loyalists in large numbers. What the British received in actuality was something altogether different; a new and more fearsome form of irregular warfare. The partisan warfare in South was the most extensive and violent the war had witnessed. After the Battles of the Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse the British had to abandon the South and General Cornwallis moved into Virginia.

Higginbotham's military policy approach of the British perspective differs greatly with Sylvia Frey's social construct of the British soldier. Frey illustrated how the war was influenced the soldiers themselves, not through combat, but dealing with the everyday grind of a soldier's life. Higginbotham on the other hand explains how the war affected British actions on a greater scale.

The American Revolution has been long documented in many different ways by historians. The contribution of John Shy's analysis of American soldiers in the militia and the Continental army shed in insight into their world. Sylvia Frey's study of the British soldier in the American Revolution period is a revolutionary attempt to understand the British during the war, another example of an understudied field in American history. Don Higginbotham immense understanding on military policy during the war helps to explain how the war impacted the soldier and society during the conflict. All three historians provided a new and fresh perspective on the war.

* * *

Copyright © 2008 Caleb Klingler

Written by Caleb Klingler. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Caleb Klingler at:
cklingler@emich.edu.

About the author:
Caleb Klingler is working on his MA of History from Eastern Michigan University. He is an army veteran and served as an M1A1 Abrams tank crewmen.

Published online: 06/12/2008.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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