Continental Army enlistment—no drums, no drunks (sorry, Adam Ruins Everything)

Posted on April 18, 2018. Filed under: Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 3 of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode, in which we hope to go through more than 90 seconds of video per 10,000 words (which we failed to do last time, in post 2).

So far, the episode has claimed that in 1775 there were no patriotic Americans who supported independence, and so George Washington personally tricked drunks and immigrants into joining the army. It was, we have shown, the other way around: most revolutions enjoy a surge of passionate but temporary support fueled by the excitement of the moment, deeply held belief in the cause, or a mix of both. If the revolution is not over quickly, most of those original volunteers melt away, and few want to take their places; the majority of the population holds out until something—a great victory, a heroic sacrifice, a threat by the enemy—prompts them to join.

Thus it was with the American Revolution. In 1775 the ranks of the Continental Army were pretty well filled, and not with drunks or rubes swindled by Washington, but by men who were hot to fight the British. By the beginning of the 1776 campaign, Washington and all the other generals were struggling with far fewer soldiers than they needed to face the enemy.

This point is made by one of the authors ARE actually sources: Erna Risch, “Supplying Washington’s Army.” (1981) ARE quotes Risch as saying that Continental Army recruiters (and Washington himself, according to the show) would “walk into bars beating a drum and literally march drunks into the army,” We could not find anything in Risch about drums or forced enlistment. Here’s what we did find:

Four days after the battles of Lexington and Concord [on April 19, 1775],  the Massachusetts Provincial Congress voted to raise an army of 30,000 men and requested the other New England colonies to join this effort. New England colonies then began the process of forming from their various militias a volunteer army enlisted for the rest of the year. In June the Continental Congress took over the New England army besieging Boston and reinforced it with ten rifle companies from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, the first soldiers drawn from outside New England. Congress thereby created the CA.

The delegates unanimously elected George Washington to be commander of all forces then raised, or to be raised, for the defense of American liberty. To Washington fell the unenviable task of trying to whip up enthusiasm for reenlistment among the New England troops whose terms of service expired at the close of that year. From this nucleus he built he Continental Army, but the unpatriotic attitudes he encountered discouraged him. (pp. 5-6)

This was when Washington wrote the comments about lack of patriotism that ARE quotes. It’s one red flag that we could not find the drumming quote ARE cites in Risch, and another that this source does not corroborate the show’s picture of Washington or the army.

ARE also claims Risch says that Continental recruiters would “frame colonists for crimes and have them ‘punished’ with forced enlistment.” Again, we could not find a reference to forced enlistment in Risch; if someone out there can find these quotes, send them to us.

In fact, as we see, Risch notes that the Continental Army was well supplied with soldiers—but only for one term of service. After that, it would be a difficult process to keep soldiers in the army for anything longer than their 6-month or one-year terms. But far from resorting to crime to trick people into fighting, Washington tried to get soldiers to re-enlist by improving their food, clothing, and ammunition supply. His furious letters to members of the Continental Congress lambasting them for sitting in comfort while his army starved are legendary. Here is part of one, from December 23, 1777:

“[W]e find Gentlemen …reprobating the [decision to make a winter camp rather than attack Philadelphia] as much as if they thought Men [the Soldiery] were made of Stocks or Stones and equally insensible of frost and Snow and moreover, as if they conceived it [easily] practicable for an inferior Army under the disadvantages I have describ’d ours to be to confine a superior one (in all respects well appointed, and provided for a Winters Campaign) within the City of Phila., and [to protect] the States of Pensa., Jersey, &c. but what makes this matter still more extraordinary in my eye is, that these very Gentn. who were well apprized of the nakedness of the Troops …advised me, near a Month ago, to postpone the execution of a Plan, I was about to adopt  for seizing Cloathes… [they] think a Winters Campaign and the covering these States from the Invasion of an Enemy so easy a business. I can assure those Gentlemen that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire side than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and Snow without Cloaths or Blankets; however, although they seem to have little feeling for the naked, and distressed Soldier, I feel superabundantly for them, and from my Soul pity those miseries, wch. it is neither in my power to relieve or prevent…”

This does not sound like a man who didn’t care what happened to the men recruited into the Continental Army. Or, as ARE puts it, “even with all that chicanery, Washington still didn’t have enough men.”

We move now to the show’s aghast bombshell that “wealthy elites were able to avoid the draft by paying poor people to take their place.”

This was, in fact, a common practice by this time (mid-18th century). Hiring substitutes was not just something the wealthy did; many middling farmers did it. You didn’t have to pay substitutes a fortune, just enough to convince them to take your place. This continued during the Civil War, and was not a cause of shame at the time. Older men, men with many children, and men with vital war industries, including farming, could choose to hire a substitute with minimal or no backlash.

This doesn’t make it right, perhaps, but what we quarrel with here is ARE’s seeming lack of any historical understanding or context for substitutions.

The narrator of the show interjects at this point to say, “You’re telling me Washington’s army was made of people drafted, tricked, or paid off?” The answer? “Yes, and as a result, desertion was a constant problem… as many as 30% of all the soldiers deserted.”

The source cited here is James Howard Edmonson, “Desertion in the American Army,” 1971. We looked this up and found it was a dissertation, but could not find a copy online. Edmonson from 1971, Risch from 1981; it’s not quite ancient historiography, but one wonders why ARE’s sources are, so far, so dated. History, like any field, is constantly updated. A few classic works stand the test of time, but in general, we wouldn’t try to prove a hypothesis strictly with works that are 40-50 years old.

We’ll stop here, because next time we’re tacking the thorniest problem of the show: the claim that Washington murdered 200 Continental soldiers.

 

 

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Give me liberty or give me death! – an appreciation

Posted on November 27, 2012. Filed under: Revolutionary War, The Founders | Tags: , |

Here we pay homage to Patrick Henry and his speech of March 23, 1775 to the Second Virginia Convention. The speech ends with the well-known line “Give me liberty or give me death!”. but the whole speech is well worth looking at, and makes the ending even more incredibly stirring than it already is.

Henry founded the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, was a delegate to the First Continental Congress, and was a member of the Convention which began meeting on March 20 in St. John’s Church (as it is known today) rather than the Virginia capital at Williamsburg because it had been prevented from meeting by British officials (just as Massachusetts’ Assembly had been outlawed and forbidden to meet in Boston). This was exactly 30 days before hostilities in Massachusetts between British soldiers and patriot milita led to the first battles of the Revolutionary War (see The Revolution did not begin at Lexington and Concord), so the possibility of armed conflict between a colonial militia and the redcoats was not out of the question, even in Virginia, where tensions were not running quite as high as in New England.

Patrick Henry presented a formal proposal to form a militia to Convention President Peyton Randolph. We do not have a contemporary transcription of his speech; no one wrote it down at the time, but Henry’s first biographer William Wirt pieced it together from the recollections of men who heard it, and remembered especially its stirring conclusion, and from notes in Henry’s papers.  Here it is as we have it, until the day that some new finding tells us that this version is all wrong. Frankly, we think that if this isn’t the speech Henry actually gave, it should have been, and whoever wrote it if not Henry was a master of the rhetoric of liberty we wish we could celebrate by name:

“MR. PRESIDENT: No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve.”

—Clearly some men have spoken out against forming a militia; Henry will now oppose them as forcefully as possible.

“This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.”

—If only our members of Congress today could harken back to this guiding idea(l) that “in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate”; it seems today that the more important the issue, the less real debate is allowed, and only grandstanding and accusations of non-patriotism are allowed.

“Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.”

—For Henry the situation is very clear: they as Americans are in a “great and arduous struggle for liberty”, even before any battles are fought or any war is declared against Britain. As protectors of liberty, all Americans are called to “know the whole truth” and prepare for the worst—a war with Britain.

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves, and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort.”

—Here, when speaking of “our petition”,  Henry is referring to The Declaration and Resolves drafted by the First Continental Congress in October 1774 demanding the repeal of the Coercive Acts (known to us today as the Intolerable Acts). Britain would not respond formally to the petition, and instead sent more and more troops to the colonies.

“I ask, gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain.”

—When he talks about “the last ten years” Henry is referring to the protests which began with the Sugar Act in 1764. Americans had been protesting punitive British taxes and restrictions of American liberties, both violently and nonviolently, since that date—to no avail, as the influx of troops and the rejection of The Resolves and Declaration proved.

“Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free, if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending, if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!”

—Here is where Henry really picks up steam and gets the blood of a patriot singing. Will Americans “abandon the noble struggle” which they have “pledged never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained”? Or will they—will we—fight for our liberty, for our freedom? We must fight, according to Henry, even if our only ally in that fight is God himself.

“They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house?”

—Again, this was no idle threat or imagining, as the Quartering Act mandated that Americans offer food and lodging to British soldiers, and by this time, about half the population of Boston, Massachusetts was made up of British soldiers who were part of the troop surge to the colonies.

“Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.”

—One can almost picture those three million people cloaked in the aura of “the holy cause of liberty”, “invincible by any force”; it is a righteous army indeed that Henry conjures up for the Convention. And, as the Bible puts it, if God be on our side, who can be against us?

“The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable, and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.”

—By “election” Henry means “choice”. The clanking of the chains of slavery now heard in Boston, cannot be long delayed in reaching Virginia. Henry would be proved right that the war was inevitable by the fighting outside Boston a month later.

“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Nothing we can say here adds anything to this mighty conclusion. The men of the Second Virginia Convention remembered rising from their seats in what we might call an adrenaline rush by the time Henry got out the last words, and this time, unlike when he spoke out against the Stamp Act in 1765 in the Virginia House of Burgesses, no one cried out “Treason! Treason!” (That speech was the source of Henry’s other famous ultimatum, in his reply to the shouts—“If this be treason, make the most of it.”)

Patrick Henry’s eloquence ruled the day, but was even more powerful when vindicated by events a month later in Massachusetts. He became a colonel in the 1st Virginia Regiment in August 1775, and served as Virginia’s governor from 1776-1779. He was a member of the Virginia Assembly from 1780-84, and died in 1799.

We are justified in our frustration and disgust at Henry’s slaveholding; it is our cross to bear that many of the men who spoke of and fought for liberty enslaved black Americans. We can only take comfort in the fact that 62 years after his death, Henry’s words sound remarkably like the language of abolitionists, and could well have been used to inspire the men who fought the Civil War to end slavery.

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