Recruiting for the Continental Army–the true story (sorry, Adam Ruins Everything!)

Posted on October 18, 2019. Filed under: American history, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

In part one of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode and its myth-creation promoted as myth-busting, we focused on the premise of the episode—that everyone in the Continental Army during the Revolution whether a drunk, or an immigrant, or a farmer, was there for mercenary reasons only; as Adam puts it, “to get paid.”

The episode quickly “proves” this by moving on to characterize George Washington as a criminal.

Narrator: But I thought these people had so much of that patriotic spirit.

Adam: They weren’t. George Washington himself said, “it grieves me to see so little of that patriotic spirit, which I was taught to believe was characteristic of this people.”

As we mentioned in part one, Adam Ruins Everything always posts its sources on-screen so you can check them. Here, the citation is “The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, U.S. Government Printing Office.” This is less complete than his sources usually are, including those posted later in this episode—no date of the “Writings” publication, no editor. Under Washington’s words, it says “George Washington, 1775.”

This Washington quote is taken wildly out of context, as we’ll see below. For now, let’s continue.

Adam: Without the support of the people, Washington and the Continental Congress were desperate for an army, so they resorted to shady recruitment practices to raise their ranks.

Washington: Let’s go trick some rubes into fighting against their will! [evil laugh]

Narrator: Come on: how shady could they possibly have been?

Adam: First, they offered money to bribe the potential recruits.

Washington to a man in tavern: Look, I know you don’t want to fight, but maybe my friend Mr. Washington can change your mind? [holds a dollar] …I’m bribing you.

Man: Bribe? Why didn’t you say so? Gimme a gun, I’ll shoot those red jackets.

Adam: But the Continental Army didn’t have enough money to actually pay the soldiers, so most received IOUs.

Washington: Here you are! You can cash it in at the end of the war… if we win. And if you don’t lose that [piece of paper]. Washington runs away …And if you survive!

So Washington himself went into bars to recruit drunks through bribes that could not be paid in cash… Unwilling to suspend our disbelief on this one, we did some research.

We quickly found the source cited: John Smith, Jr. Journal of the American Revolution, Feb. 2015. This is a reputable journal. The article is online at the site All Things Liberty,  it’s called “How the Revolutionary War was Paid For,” and it tells a different story. Smith gives six ways the U.S. tried to pay for all of the expenses of the war, including soldiers’ and officers’ pay: Congress and the states printing money, we got loans from Europe, and just as during WWI and WWII, wealthy Americans bought war bonds.

But the other ways to try to pay were debt certificates:

3 // The 13 States Issued Their Own Debt Certificates (14%): Most of these were like state-issued war bonds. Also called “bills of credit,” they were “interest bearing certificates” with the buyer putting up their land as collateral. The patriotic buyer would then (or so they were told) get their principal back plus interest – assuming America won the war! As support for the common defense, states would also issue these as “requisition certificates” to vendors or suppliers to pay for food and supplies if the Continental Army happened to be camped in their state.

4 // Congress Issued Its Own Debt Certificates (10%): These certificates were also called (in politically correct verbiage of its time) “involuntary credit extensions” because they paid no interest and their value, tied to the Continental dollar, dropped like lead daily. These were mostly given out by the Continental Army quartermaster corps to citizens when buying or confiscating materials. In the last two years of the war, the Continental Army soldiers were also paid in these, so you can see why there was much grumbling – and mutiny. Some discharged soldiers sold their certificates to investors for literally pennies on the dollar.

In fact, what we call IOUs or debt certificates were common in colonial America, and most often called “bills of credit,” as Smith points out. There was very little cash money in the colonial world. Americans exchanged/bartered goods and services in 9 out of 10 transactions. Bills of credit were IOUs—if you needed something that couldn’t be traded for, or you didn’t have enough to trade, you gave a bill of credit to the merchant, with an agreed-upon time when he would call in the payment.

So no American would have been outraged or confused by being given a bill of credit. The problem was that men enlisting as soldiers were leaving their families with fewer goods and services to trade, since their labor was missing to create goods and perform services. So they would have much preferred it if the Continental Congress could have given their families the bills of credit, to use to get food and other necessaries, or if they could have been paid in food and cloth, directly going to their families.

The problem was not the IOU, it was the fact that it was for cash, which already had a limited value in the colonial world. On top of that, the cash value was low—almost worthless—because the dollar was so unstable. Printing money to use in most transactions was unheard of. Each colony minted its own coins, and during the war printed its own money. Money printed in Maryland could not be used in Virginia. The federal government’s dollars were new to all the colonies, of course, and not trusted. So paying soldiers in cash, and a new kind of printed “dollar”, would have been a problem even in the best of times.

But the Continental Congress could hardly come up with cloth and food for all of its soldiers’ families—it would have to mandate that the new states provide these, but it did not have the power to do so. And none of the states could do it, in part because because both food and cloth would have to come in large part from the people who should have been receiving it—soldiers’ families—and in part because the state governments were notoriously opposed to spending one (not yet existent) dime on the war.

Smith continues:

…In July 1777, a Continental dollar had already dropped two-thirds of its value. …By 1780, Congress revalued its dollar as officially only one-third of its 1775 value. But the new and improved dollar still plummeted to the point where, by 1781, it took 167 dollars to equal the previous one dollar. So what did Congress do? They couldn’t tax, so they printed even more dollars to be able to buy an ever-shrinking amount of goods and services. Prices were skyrocketing with severe depreciation and hyperinflation happening everywhere. States were still demanding that taxes be paid. It was a crisis, which threatened the existence of the new republic.

By 1781 and in desperation, Congress put strong-willed financier and Congressman Robert Morris into the new office of Superintendent of Finance. Some of the first emergency actions Morris took were to devalue the dollar, and then he squeezed about $2 million in specie from the states. But in a very controversial move, he suspended pay to the Continental Army enlisted soldiers and officers. Instead, he decreed that the army be paid in debt certificates or land grants until the peace treaty was signed. In 1782, the new consolidated national debt was so enormous that Morris suggested Congress only pay the interest on the debt, saying (this may sound familiar in today’s world) “… leave posterity to pay the principle.”

So we see that it was not just enlisted men but also officers whose pay was suspended in 1781. Long before then, soldiers had told their families that it was up to them to keep them supplied, and those families did so. They traveled to winter camps to bring supplies, and often stayed with their men as camp-followers over the winter, when there was no farm work. Martha Washington was one of the women who banded together to do washing and cooking for the enlisted men in winter camp, including at Valley Forge.

To say, as this episode does, that Washington deliberately lied to/bribed men to enlist when he knew they would not be paid is ludicrous. On a completely practical level, Washington didn’t recruit anyone. He was head of the army. On the moral and truthful level, he had no way of knowing how those IOUs would fare. He didn’t know his own pay would be cut off when the dollar sank.

More importantly, to insist that men enlisted in the CA strictly for the money is not only ridiculous but provably untrue.

Men enlisting in the Continental Army early on did so for a few reasons—the same mix of reasons that still moves people to enlist in the armed forces. They wanted adventure. They wanted to defend their country (even if, to them, that was just their state). Their friends and relatives enlisted, and they wanted to be there with them. They didn’t want to be cowards. They thought it would end quickly.

When the war did not end quickly, and winter dragged on, most men left the CA when their one-year or six-month term of service was through. But even at the time, they were condemned for it. In December 1776, Thomas Paine called them out in The Crisis:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

Those summer soldiers and sunshine patriots did not sign up to get rich. They signed up for patriotism, glory, and adventure. Even mercenary soldiers at that time did not get rich in military service.

Patriotic men were recruited not by George Washington in a bar but created years before 1775, by men they respected and honored all their lives: ministers.  New Englanders had been primed with local patriotism for a century before 1775, and specifically primed to resist and, if necessary, to fight British attacks on their long-held liberties for about a decade before actual fighting broke out in 1775. In 1774, during the hardships brought on New England by the Intolerable Acts, the minister at Wethersfield, Connecticut added this to his sermon on Matthew 10:28:

I say Unto you, my friends, be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that, have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom you shall fear: fear him, which after he hath killed hath the power to cast into hell, yea I say unto you fear him.

…In this day of our public trouble when we are threatened with being deprived of those immunities and Liberties with which God & the Constitution have made us free. Let us not be so afraid of man that killeth the body & hath no more that he can do as to offend God by tamely giving up any part of that freedom with which he has blest & intrusted us as a talent improvable to the happiest purposes. But may we obey God rather than man & stand fast in the Liberty wherewith he has made us free. May we account no exertions, no Self-denials, no Sacrifice too great upon this occasion. And whilst we are taking the most probable & vigorous methods to preserve our freedom may we diligently seek after and cultivate that fear & trust in God… We shall see our desire upon our enemies & experience his Salvation.

In New England, patriotism as defined by the willingness to oppose any law or action from Britain that interfered with inherited political processes and liberties was alive and well long before 1775, and this—not “getting paid”—did inspire many men to enlist.
In “Why the Patriots Really Fought,” Justin Ewers includes another pastor in his analysis: “Life, for my Country and the Cause of Freedom,” wrote Nathaniel Niles, a pastor in Norwich, Conn., in 1775, “Is but a Trifle for a Worm to part with.”

Over 30,000 men enlisted in Washington’s army in the first year. That’s an enormous number that could never have been recruited in bars. They were there not for the money and clothes they were promised, but because they were patriotic. The problem is they were not professional soldiers.

When those men’s year or half-year of fighting was up, most went home, which seems at odds with their patriotism. But we have to remember that these were not professional soldiers, and more than that, there was no understanding of how long the war would go on—no one, on either side, would have guessed seven more years—and serving for one year was indeed a real sacrifice of time, labor, family safety, and, crucially, health. “Just one year” is easy for us to say. But one year in a colonial army was a lifetime.

A side note is that the men who enlisted in the first year were well aware that, in 1776, the fighting was all in New England, and mostly in Massachusetts, and their families were suffering. They could continue to fight at home by providing food and shelter when the British were doing their best to destroy both, and by defending their towns from British attacks.

This is when Washington wrote the words ARE quotes about grieving over a lack of patriotism, in a letter written during the winter of 1776/7, after his inexperienced army had for the most part fought bravely as it was pushed out of New York and into New Jersey.  As Ewers describes it,

During the long retreat, Washington learned a hard lesson about the staying power of patriotic soldier-farmers. “These men,” he wrote, “are not to be depended upon for more than a few days, as they soon get tired, grow impatient and ungovernable, and of course leave the Service.” From a high of 31,000 troops, by year’s end, Washington’s force had dwindled to fewer than 3,000. Many of the men had enlisted for six-month terms. When their contracts expired, they went home.

That winter, Washington pleaded with Congress for a real army, one that wouldn’t rely on farmers’ idealism to survive. “When men are irritated, & the Passions inflamed,” he had written to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, “they fly hastily, and chearfully to Arms, but after the first emotions are over to expect that they are influenced by any other principles than those of Interest, is to look for what never did, & I fear never will happen.”

Washington knew militiamen had their reasons for keeping their service short, of course. They had farms and businesses to run and families to feed. Still, when the states began to struggle to re-enlist enough soldiers to keep the war going, Washington was disappointed. “No Troops were ever better provided or higher paid, yet their Backwardness to inlist for another Year is amazing,” Washington wrote. “It grieves me to see so little of that patriotick Spirit, which I was taught to believe was Charackteristick of this people.”

The point is that Washington did not grieve over the lack of patriotism of men at the start of the war, as ARE says. He wasn’t complaining that men would not enlist to fight. He was made aware a year later, during winter camp in NJ, that the men who “flew hastily, and cheerfully to Arms” because of their “emotions”—i.e., patriotism—were not willing to actually, permanently sacrifice their families and their livelihoods for their country. Their patriotism was too shallow. It was easy to promise to fight in 1774; in 1776, after tough fighting, it was easy to say “I kept my promise to fight; now I’m going home.” Few men were like Washington—willing to stay and fight as long as it took to win or die trying.

And note this important item: Washington’s assessment of a lack of true patriotism, that is willing to sacrifice all, came after a year of fighting, in 1776—not at the start of the war, when the army was first formed, as ARE argues.

As the first recruits left, the make-up of the army changed. As Ewers says,

…after the first year of fighting, the nascent Continental Army was forced to leave its now mythic origins behind. The high-minded middle-class farmers went home, and a new army was formed, made up mostly of poor, propertyless laborers, unmarried men in their early 20s who took up arms not to defend some abstract ideal but because they were offered money and land. The militias would supplement this core of increasingly professional soldiers throughout the war, but the Army would never again look the way it did on the road to Boston. By 1778, the average Continental soldier was 21 years old; half the men in the Army were not even of English descent. “The folks who made the long-term commitment,” says James Kirby Martin, a professor of history at the University of Houston and coauthor of A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763 – 1789, “were the folks who didn’t have another alternative.”

If ARE wanted to jab at the Continental Army for being full of “rubes” and drunks and mercenaries, he should have focused on the later army, not the first recruits.

To sum up:

  1. ARE mis-uses the Smith article, which never a) accused Washington of criminality, and b) points out that many attempts were made to pay the soldiers, but the weakness of the Continental Congress, which was forbidden to raise taxes, made that impossible.
  2. ARE mis-uses and perhaps misunderstands the Washington quote.
  3. The first recruits were indeed starry-eyed patriots who had been prepping for this war for many years in New England.
  4. The show does not understand the financial world of colonial America, nor
  5. the real reason why soldiers did not get paid as they should have been after the war.

We’ve gone on at length here so we’ll stop, but if 45 seconds of video from ART can provoke this much correction, we fear for our next posts. But we’ll keep on, because we want ART to know that myth-busting is important.

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Revolutionary Myth #3: the Revolution happened quickly

Posted on June 4, 2009. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , |

We look back and tend to see a constant boil of activity in the 1770s that led to revolution. But here in part 3 of my series of 5 Myths about the Revolutionary War, we will see this is not really so.

When you study colonial town or precinct records, you see that towns, villages, and precincts met once a year (“town meeting”) to set policy, settle debates, take actions, and elect officers. Reading the record books, it seems like discussions took years–meet in April 1737 to debate the town border, meet in April 1738 to debate the town border, April 1739, etc.  While discussions must have taken place between meetings, official actions, committees, and decisions took place only at town meeting. Sometimes an emergency meeting was called to expedite things, but not always.

So with the Revolution. While history books and narratives compress events, leading you to feel like the timespan between the first punitive Act (the Sugar Act) and Lexington and Concord was about 1-2 years, it all unfolded much more slowly. The Sugar Act was imposed in April 1764. The Stamp Act was imposed in March 1765. Patrick Henry gave his famous “if this be treason” speech about the Stamp Act that same year. The Townshend Act came two years later, in 1767. The Boston Massacre was three years later, in 1770.

Usually the Boston Massacre is presented as the tipping point, after which Revolution happened with lightning speed. Many people, if quizzed, think the Boston Massacre must have been in 1775. But it was a good five years before the fighting began. Between the Massacre and Lexington and Concord was the Boston Tea Party, in December 1773. The “Intolerable Acts” were put in place the next year, 1774.  The first Continental Congress met in fall 1774, issuing a declaration of principles…

…but still it was not until April 1775 that the war began. Why did things move so slowly?

First, of course, was communications. It took weeks to months for the Sugar Act or Townshend Acts to take full effect throughout the colonies. Thus it took that long for indignation to build amongst Americans. South Carolina would have heard about the March 1770 Boston Massacre in the spring of 1771. And they only heard about it through the determined letter writing of men like Samuel Adams; newspapers from Boston that published the story would have had it picked up by newspapers in neighboring colonies, like Connecticut and New York, and from there it might have been picked up in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, but beyond that point the story as a newspaper story would have died. It had to be disseminated by individuals’ letters, whether private or public.

There was also the winter. Winter made travel much more slow—sometimes impossible—and this meant not only that newspapers and letters traveled far more slowly, but also that all actions were on hold until the spring. Just as armies made winter camp in December and did not fight at all until April or May, so protests and meetings were on hiatus over the snowy months.

Finally, of course, there was peoples’ reluctance to go to war. Each event—Act, riot, shooting, speech—was endured or taken in and then made sense of in a way that would allow people to avoid the terror of war. Each time something happened, Americans hoped it was the last time something dangerous would happen, and that the troubles would die down and life could go back to normal. No people want to endure a war. So there was a great deal of effort expended on diplomacy and peaceful efforts to turn things around.

So really, there was no sustained fever of revolutionary activity in the 1770s, not even in Boston. Events hit people in the spring and summer, went into hibernation through the winter, and were superseded by less inflammatory, daily events the next spring—for which people were understandably grateful. It was really not until March 1774, when the Port Act went into effect against Boston, that events hit rapidly, and even then the winter of 1774-5 was quiet, with Paul Revere’s ride coming the following April 1775.

It is only when we look back and compress events from the Sugar Act to the North Bridge that it seems like a frenzy of revolution. In reality, it took 11 years, from the 1764 Sugar Act to the 1775 shootouts in Lexington, Concord, and especially Menotomy, for the Revolution to begin.

Next: Myth 4: All was well before the war

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