Riflemen of 1775
- Dear List,
I know I'm a bit late to the discussion of unruly riflemen, but I wanted to share a few period observations from my research on the topic. As it has already been pointed out, categorizing riflemen as unruly or disciplined is highly dependent on a couple of factors such as the actual period of the war and location of the riflemen being described AND the origins of the riflemen. The way I see it, the original twelve continental rifle companies of 1775 were pretty rough and unruly, (see below), but after the big PA rifle company mutiny in Sept. 1775, General Washington decided to "crack the whip" and bring the riflemen into line.
Ifound Bob's post very interesting because Gen. Thomas was describingriflemen in 1776 in the Canadian campaign. Those were Pennsylvanianstoo.... The attitude that General Thomas described was also expressedby Gen. Charles Lee in April 1776 concerning the rifle companiesattached to the VA continental regiments.
These rifle companies claimed that they did not have to do normal camp duties because they were special, "light infantry" troops. Here is General Lee's response:
The idea hatched by some of the Rifle Companies that they are notsubject to every duty of soldiers, is really a curious one, more especially,when we consider that more than one half of the Virginian Troops are composedof Riflemen; at this rate, the Musqueteers would have a blessed time of it, tomake the system consistent and compleat, the latter ought to black the former’sshoes, and wash their shirts.16
16 “CharlesLee to Major Spotswood, 15 April, 1776, The LeePapers, Vol. 1, 423
I could go on and on about the riflemen, especially how officers like Colonel Daniel Morgan brought them into line and expected them to act like continental soldiers, but I want to focus this post on the independent rifle companies of 1775 and let period observers speak for themselves. Below is an account of the independent rifle companies march and arrival to Boston in 1775. I think the comments below support the view that the riflemen of 1775 at Boston were indeed unruly. Please note, however, General Washington's response to the September rifle mutiny at the end of this passage.
Mike Cecere 7th VA
Source: They Are Indeed a Very Useful Corps: Riflemen: American Riflemen in the Revolutionary War
By mid July the rifle companies were en route toBoston and were warmly received along the march. People marveled at their appearance andmarksmanship. A resident of Frederick,Maryland noted that,
Capt. Morgan, from Virginia, with his company ofriflemen (all chosen), marched through this place on their way to Boston. Their appearance was truly martial; theirspirits amazingly elated; breathing nothing but a desire to join the American armyand to engage the enemies of American liberties. They were met a mile out of town by threecompanies, viz: Capt. Price’s company of riflemen and…[two] companies of militia, and escorted a fewmiles out of town, amidst the acclamation of all the inhabitants that attendedthem. And yesterday Capt. Price with hiscompany also marched, and surely never were two finer companies raised in anycountry more determined to conquer or die than those two companies are.9
Henry Bedinger, of Captain Stephenson’s company, recalled that theriflemen were frequently greeted with cheers and kindness:
We were Met by a Number of Men and Women out of the Country who Broughtus churns of Beer, Cyder, and Buttermilk, apples, cheries, etc, etc. We honoured them by firing at our parting.10
Captain Michael Cresap’s company of Maryland riflemenalso drew a lot attention, especially for their attire. One admirer wrote that,
I have had thehappiness of seeing Captain Michael Cresap marching at the head of a formidablecompany of upward of one hundred and thirty men from the mountains andbackwoods, painted like Indians, armed with tomahawks and rifles, dressed inhunting-shirts and moccasins; and though some of them had traveled hundreds ofmiles from the banks of the Ohio, they seemed to walk light and easy, and notwith less spirit than at the first hour of their march. Health and vigor, after what they hadundergone, declared them to be intimate with hardship and familiar withdanger. Joy and satisfaction werevisible in the crowd that met them.11
Cresep’s men dazzled spectators withtheir marksmenship.
A clap-board with a mark the sizeof a dollar was put up; they began to fire off-hand, and the by standers weresurprised, few shots being made that were not close or into the paper. When they had shot for some time in this way,some lay on their backs, some on their breasts or sides; others ran twenty orthirty steps and, firing as they ran, appeared to be equally certain of themark. With this performance the companywere more than satisfied, when a young man took up the board in his hand, notby the end but by the side, and holding it up, his brother walked to thedistance and coolly shot into the white; laying down his rifle, he took theboard, and holding it as it was before, the second brother shot as the formerhad done. By this exhibition I was more astonished than pleased. But will you believe me when I tell you thatone of the men took the board, and placing it between his legs, stood with hisback to the tree while another drove the center.12
The excitement generated by the riflemendid not subside when they reached Boston in late July. The New England troops also gave them anenthusiastic reception. One unidentifiedAmerican officer noted the high regard shown the riflemen:
You will think me vain should I tell you how much the Riflemen areesteemed. Their dress, their arms, theirsize, strength and activity, but above all their eagerness to attack the enemy,entitle them to the first rank. Thehunting shirt is like a full suit at St. James’s. A Rifleman in his dress may pass sentinelsand go almost where he pleases, while officers of other Regiments are stopped.13
Surgeon’s Mate James Thacher, of Massachusetts, was alsoimpressed by the southern troops:
[The riflemen are] remarkably stout and hardy men; many of themexceeding six feet in height. They aredressed in white frocks, or rifle-shirts, and round hats. These men are remarkable for the accuracy oftheir aim; striking a mark with great certainty at two hundred yardsdistance. At a review, a company ofthem, while on a quick advance, fired their balls into objects of seven inchesdiameter, at a distance of two hundred and fifty yards. They are now stationed on our lines, andtheir shot have frequently proved fatal to British officers and soldiers whoexpose themselves to view, even at more than double the distance of commonmusket-shot.14
Over time,such acclaim heightened the already inflated egos of the riflemen. They were excused from most duty and wereonly lightly reprimanded for military infractions. Jesse Lukins, a rifle officer fromPennsylvania, noted that such treatment undermined discipline:
Our camp is separate fromall others about 100 yards -- all our courts martial and duty was separate --we were excused from all working parties, camp guards, and camp duty. Thisindulgence, together with the remissness of discipline and care in our youngofficers, had rendered the men rather insolent for good soldiers. Theyhad twice before broke open our guard house and released their companions whowere confined there for small crimes, and once when an offender was brought tothe post to be whipped, it was with the utmost difficulty they were kept fromrescuing him in the presence of all their officers -- they openly damned themand behaved with great insolence. However the colonel was pleased topardon the man and all remained quiet.15
Thelenient treatment and lack of discipline eventually created seriousproblems. In September, an attempt bythe officers to exercise their authority caused some of the Pennsylvaniariflemen to mutiny. Lukins recounted theincident:
OnSunday last, the adjutant having confined a serjeant for neglect of duty andmurmuring, the men began again and threatened to take him out. Theadjutant, being a man of spirit, seized the principal mutineer and put him inalso, and coming to report the matter to the colonel, where we, all sittingdown after dinner, were alarmed with a huzzaing and upon going out found theyhad broke open the guard house and taken the man out. The colonel andlieutenant colonel with several of the officers and friends seized the fellowfrom amongst them and ordered a guard to take him to Cambridge at the MainGuard, which was done without any violent opposition, but in about 20 minutes32 of Capt. Ross's company with their loaded rifles swore by God they would goto the Main Guard and release the man or lose their lives, and set off as hardas they could run -- it was in vain to attempt stopping them.
Westayed in camp and kept the others quiet -- sent word to General Washington, who reinforced the guard to 500 men with fixedbayonets and loaded pieces. Col. Hitchcock's regiment (being the one nextto us) was ordered under arms and some part of General Green's brigade (as the generals were determined to subdueby force the mutineers and did not know how far it might spread in ourbattalion). Generals Washington, Lee, and Green came immediately, and our32 mutineers who had gone about half a mile towards Cambridge and takenpossession of a hill and woods, beginning to be frightened by the proceedings,were not so hardened but upon the General's ordering them to ground their armsthey did it immediately. The General then ordered another of our company's(Capt. Nagles) to surround them with their loaded guns, which was immediatelydone and…he ordered two of the ring leaders to be bound. I was glad tofind our men all true and ready to do their duty except these 32 rascals -- 26were convenyed to the Quarter Guard on Prospect Hill and 6 of the principals tothe Main Guard.
Youcannot conceive what disgrace we are all in and how much the General ischagrined that only one regiment should come from the South and that set soinfamous an example: and in order that idleness shall not be a further bane tous, the general orders on Monday were "That Col. Thompson's regiment shall be upon all parties of fatigue [work parties] and do allother camp duty with any other regiment.” 16
General Washington, perhaps out of gratitude to the Pennsylvanians forcoming to Boston, was surprisingly lenient on the mutineers and only fined them20 shillings each.17 Lukins noted thatfurther punishment was unnecessary.
Themen are returned to their camp, seem exceedingly sorry for their misbehaviorand promise amendment.18
Lukins hoped that theshameful incident would prompt the officers to amend their own behavior aswell:
This will, I hopeawaken the attention of our officers to their duty (for to their remissness Icharge our whole disgrace) and the men being employed will yet no doubt dohonor to their provinces, for this much I can say for them: that upon everyalarm it was impossible for men to behave with more readiness or attend betterto their duty; it is only in the camp that we cut a poor figure.19
General Washington’s decree that thePennsylvania riflemen do their share of fatigue and guard duty extended to theMaryland and Virginia riflemen, too. This policy helped restore discipline among the men and fewerinfractions were reported. The improvedconduct of the riflemen did not erase all of Washington’s concerns, however. In late September he complained to hisbrother Samuel that,
The Riflemen havehad very little opportunity of shewing their skill, or their ignorance, forsome of them, especially from Pennsylvania, know no more of a Rifle than myhorse, being new Imported Irish many of whom have deserted to the Enemy.20
Washington’s disillusionment with theriflemen was only temporary. Theirimproved conduct at Boston, coupled with their exemplary conduct at Quebec,eventually reaffirmed his high regard of them.
( Hence the title of the book is a quote from General Washington to Congress in April 1776 about the rifle companies -- who were scheduled to disband in a couple of months).
10 Ibid. 100
11 My Tripto the Barbecue, 68
13 B. Floyd Flickinger, “Captain Morgan and His Riflemen,” Winchester-Frederick CountyHistorical Society Journal, Vol. 14(2002), 58-59
14 JamesThacher, M.D., Military Journal of the American Revolution, (Gansevoort, New York:Corner House Historical Publications, 1998), 31
15 Henry S. Commager and Richard B. Morris, The Spirit ofSeventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Its Participants,(NY: Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 1967), 156-157
20 PhilanderD. Chase, “General Washington to Samuel Washington, 30 September, 1775,” ThePapers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 2, (Charlottesville: University of Press of Virginia, 1987), 73
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