Tag Archives: Continental Army

The Continental Army’s foreign-born bad boys

Lately we’ve looked at how film, TV, and fiction about the RevWar tend to portray the British as arrogant dipwads.  (That’s a technical social science term, is what that is.)

I think there’s a corollary to this stereotypical view of the men who led Britain’s armies in America, and it applies to the Continentals.

Think of the American officers who come across the worst in popular historiography, film, TV, and so on.  The list would probably include Benedict Arnold, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, and maybe Thomas Conway.  Arnold’s place on the list is obvious.  The others share something in common: all were foreign-born. Gates and Lee were both natives of England, while Conway was a French-educated Irishman.

Would we have such prominent collective memories of these men as haughty but ineffectual snots if they had been born in America?

It certainly wouldn’t have cancelled out the stigma of Gates’s performance at Camden, Lee’s ignominious capture and unseemly ambition, and Conway’s backbiting.  In other words, they were probably bound to end up on the wrong side of historical memory.  But I wonder if the fact that they were professional veterans of European armies helped the process along.

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Walking in Knox’s footsteps

Two guys from the magazine Patriots of the American Revolution are walking the entire 300-mile route along which Henry Knox hauled captured artillery from Ft. Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights.  I’d never be able to pull off something like this.  If I do a day hike at Cumberland Gap, I feel like I should get a medal afterwards.

National Archives

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“Generalissimo” Washington?

A post at American Creation directs our attention to some remarks on George Washington by the late Murray Rothbard, who lambasted the commander of the Continental Army for his attempts to “crush the individualistic and democratic spirit of the American forces.”

Rothbard was correct in noting that when Washington arrived to take command of the Continental Army, it was a relatively undisciplined and egalitarian organization, at least by the standards of most eighteenth-century armies.  He was also correct that Washington wanted to conform the army more closely to contemporary European models.  Rothbard argued that these measures were unwarranted and imperious:

To introduce a hierarchy of ruling caste, Washington insisted on distinctive decorations of dress in accordance with minute gradations of rank. As one observer phrased it: “New lords, new laws. … The strictest government is taking place, and great distinction is made between officers and soldier. Everyone is made to know his place and keep it.” Despite the great expense involved, he also tried to stamp out individuality in the army by forcing uniforms upon them; but the scarcity of cloth made this plan unfeasible.

At least as important as distinctions in decoration was the introduction of extensive inequality in pay. Led by Washington and the other aristocratic southern delegates, and over the objections of Massachusetts, the Congress insisted on fixing a pay scale for generals and other officers considerably higher than that of the rank and file.

In addition to imposing a web of hierarchy on the Continental Army, Washington crushed liberty within by replacing individual responsibility by iron despotism and coercion. Severe and brutal punishments were imposed upon those soldiers whose sense of altruism failed to override their instinct for self-preservation. Furloughs were curtailed and girlfriends of soldiers were expelled from camp; above all, lengthy floggings were introduced for all practices that Washington considered esthetically or morally offensive. He even had the temerity to urge Congress to raise the maximum number of strikes of the lash from 39 to the enormous number of 500; fortunately, Congress refused.

Distinctions of rank, uniformity of appearance, differentials in pay, the employment of coercion.  I don’t know about you, but to me this sounds like…an army.

The “yeah, so?” factor seems to be a recurring issue in libertarian-oriented historical polemics.  I’m reminded of Thomas DiLorenzo’s work on Lincoln.  There’s nothing really new or useful added to the mix in terms of what we know about the past.  The only original ingredient is the author’s opinion that the developments in question were for the worst.  It’s a sort of inverse Whig interpretation of history, a narrative of regression away from freedom and toward authoritarianism.

Rothbard was of the opinion that Washington should have left well enough alone and allowed the Americans to fight a people’s partisan war, since “they were not professional soldiers, and they were needed at their homes and jobs and on their farms. Had they been a frankly guerrilla army, there would have been no conflict between these roles.”  And yet there was a conflict between the roles of partisan warrior and civilian farmer.  We know this because the militia who fought without joining the regular Continental Army tried to balance these roles, and their inability to be in two places at once—embodied in the field and back at their homes—was one of the most important limitations on their effectiveness.

Could a people’s partisan army have won the war on its own?  Some contemporaries thought so, at least at first; Gen. Charles Lee, one of the army’s most controversial officers, advocated something like this approach.  But as time passed, it became increasingly apparent to many observers that a regular, embodied force was the critical component of the American war effort.  Undisciplined militiamen were indeed capable of achieving remarkable victories, but only under the proper conditions, when factors like terrain, the tactical situation, and timing coalesced in their favor (i.e., the retreat from Concord and King’s Mountain).  Irregular partisans also made critical contributions outside the bounds of large-scale engagements, especially in the South, where they cut up small enemy detachments and suppressed the Tories on whom the British depended for support.  But as Gen. Nathanael Greene pointed out, “the salvation of this Country don’t depend upon little strokes…Partizan strokes in war are like the garnish of a table, they give splendor to the Army…but they afford no substantial national security.”

Rothbard, I think, made the same mistake which contemporary advocates of a home-grown American genius for partisan warfare made.  The hardy frontier riflemen who could pick off British soldiers from a vast distance and then vanish into the woods played an indispensable part in the American victory, but they didn’t do so alone.  More importantly, they weren’t typical of the American population.  Revolutionary America needed a regular army to win the war, and that army had to be molded into a force capable of going multiple rounds with the British, something Washington and the other Continental commanders came to realize.  The measures they took to bring this about may have been restrictive and authoritarian, but if you value individualism above all else, then it’s unlikely that any hardened fighting force is going to be congenial to you.

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Out and about at Valley Forge

About two weeks ago we looked at a press release touting an effort to celebrate LGBT history in various publications.  I found it striking for the number of unsubstantiated assertions it contained.

Now, from the dark recesses of a Google News feed, comes Victoria Brownworth’s creation of a surprisingly gay-friendly George Washington. Personally, I’m not buying it, because I think she jumps to some unwarranted conclusions, but since it’s an interesting foray into historical matters I thought we might analyze it in some detail.

Washington’s letters state that he was less than thrilled with marital life (“not much fire between the sheets”) and preferred the company of men — particularly the young Alexander Hamilton, who he made his personal secretary —  to that of women, as his letters attest. His concern for his male colleagues clearly extended to their personal lives. This was especially true of Hamilton, who he brought with him to Valley Forge, giving Hamilton a cabin to share with his then-lover, John Laurens, to whom Hamilton had written passionate love letters which are still extant.

First of all, if dissatisfaction with married life and a preference for hanging out with the fellas means you’re tolerant of gays, then I think we can safely say that 99.999% of American men are homophobia-free.

As for the stuff about Hamilton and Laurens, it’s hard for me to take it too seriously.  It’s true that Hamilton and Laurens were very close, and that Hamilton’s letters to Laurens are incredibly affectionate and emotional.  Ron Chernow briefly discussed the intense and intimate nature of their correspondence in his biography of Hamilton.  But to state that Hamilton and Laurens were “lovers” is to commit the same historical fallacy that we saw in the article about Baron von Steuben.  The writer takes what is at best a dubious bit of theorizing and presents it as an outright fact.

Alexander Hamilton depicted as a young officer of the Continental Army. Painting by Alonzo Chappel, via Wikimedia Commons

For the life of me, I can’t understand why so many observers are unable to get their heads around the fact that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, intimate friends of the same sex would express intense emotions in their correspondence without having an actual romantic relationship.  It goes back to a point I keep laboring over and over—namely, that people who lived a long time ago were different from us.  For Hamilton to write Laurens that he wanted “to convince you that I love you,” as he put it on one occasion, didn’t necessarily have the same connotations that it has for us today.  In fact, the Marquis de Lafayette referred to Hamilton as a “man whom I love very much and about whom I have occasionally spoken to you” in a letter to his own wife.  If these terms of affection denoted a sexual attraction, why in the world were these guys writing to their wives about it?  (“Guess what, honey? I’ve got the hots for another man!  I knew you’d be happy for me.”)

Even more damning is the indisputable fact that Hamilton was an accomplished skirt-chaser.  It was precisely his inability to stay out of the undergarments of other men’s wives that got him into such trouble later in life, when the husband of his mistress blackmailed him and the whole thing blew up in public.

Hamilton also enjoyed an affectionate marriage.  Although he slept around behind his wife’s back, the two were close, and he managed to get her knocked up no less than eight times.  If Hamilton had a thing for guys, he apparently got over it.  (Laurens got married in England and fathered a child, but he sailed for America not long after the wedding and then died in the war without getting the chance to see his daughter.)

Moving on:

Renowned gay historian Randy Shilts makes the case for Washington’s ever-pragmatic as well as compassionate approach to same-sex relationships in Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military.

Shilts details how Washington merely signed the order for discharge of a soldier caught in flagrante with another soldier, and suggests that if Lt. Col. Aaron Burr had not forced the issue, the soldier might have remained at Valley Forge instead of being the first documented case of a discharge for homosexuality in the Continental Army on March 15, 1778 at Valley Forge.

The soldier was court-martialed by Burr, but that was the extent of it. Washington did not flog him, imprison him or as Jefferson had required as part of Virginia law as punishment for sodomy, have him castrated. Washington could also have had the soldier executed. He did none of these things. The soldier just walked away.

He didn’t exactly “just walk away,” though; he got drummed out of camp, which is not at all the same as a simple discharge.  This was a humiliating punishment in which the condemned was publicly marched out to music, formally stripped of rank, and exiled from the camp.  In an age when gentlemen jealously guarded their honor and reputations, this was no small matter.  Brownworth goes on to describe the ritual of drumming out, but doesn’t seem to understand its significance.

Randy Shilts did indeed discuss the Enslin case in Conduct Unbecoming, but he was far more cautious in drawing conclusions from it than Brownworth indicates.  Here’s an excerpt from his book:

Some observers have suggested that Enslin’s sentence is evidence that Washington held a lenient view of homosexuality, since such transgression could have been punishable by imprisonment or even death in the conventions of the day.  (Thomas Jefferson demonstrated his liberalism by proposing a year earlier that sodomy be punished by castration instead of death in the new penal code that would replace Virginia’s Colonial charter.)  This, however, remains speculation.  [Emphasis added.]

Brownworth’s contention that Washington would’ve let the whole thing slide had not Burr “forced the issue” is also rather specious. Signing off on the sentence was about all that Washington, as commanding general of the army, would be expected to do. I don’t think there’s any reason to assume that an officer of Washington’s rank would personally preside over an inquiry into a mere lieutenant’s sexual misconduct.  If anything, Washington seems to have enthusiastically supported Enslin’s expulsion. His general orders for March 14, 1778 betray not the slightest hint of reluctance:

His Excellency the Commander in Chief approves the sentence and with Abhorrence and Detestation of such Infamous Crimes orders Lieutt. Enslin to be drummed out of Camp tomorrow morning by all the Drummers and Fifers in the Army never to return; The Drummers and Fifers to attend on the Grand Parade at Guard mounting for that Purpose.

Brownworth also suggests that “Washington signed the order for discharge more because the case involved fraternization below rank.”  I wish she’d included some sort of citation for this statement, because I don’t see anything to substantiate it.  The court-martial convicted Enslin of sodomy and perjury, not fraternization.  The general orders quoted above make no mention of fraternization, and neither did Shilts in Conduct Unbecoming, at least as far as I could find.

Trotting out the rumors of Baron von Steuben’s homosexual dalliances and assuming that they were true, Brownworth then claims that the drillmaster, his assistant, Hamilton, and Laurens all constituted, in her words, “a gay foursome working directly with the leader of the Continental Army.”

Washington obviously considered morale in what was inarguably the most horrific battle station in U.S. military history, the winter at Valley Forge, needed to be upheld. Allowing men their one solace — each other — made sense from a general’s point of view. The less miserable the soldiers, the better they would fight. If keeping each other warm in the bone-crushing cold and abject misery (2,500 soldiers died at Valley Forge from starvation, disease and exposure) made life somewhat more bearable, then Washington had no issue with ignoring homosexuality in his ranks.

I repeat here what I stated with regard to the press release we examined two weeks ago: This whole thing is eerily reminiscent of the sort of historical shenanigans we’ve come to expect from Christian Nationalist writers.  We get poorly-substantiated inferences presented as rock-solid facts, quotes taken out of their proper historical contexts, and elaborate reconstructions of prominent figures’ beliefs and attitudes based on the most precarious foundations.  Still, I’ve got to admit that the idea of Washington willingly looking the other way while four members of his inner circle shacked up at Valley Forge sounds like an awesome premise for a sitcom.

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On the occasionally hirsute Revolutionary soldier

One of the interesting things about reenactors is that they have to devote extensive attention to questions that would never occur to the rest of us—even those of us who are fascinated with history.  Questions involving facial hair, for example.

For the eighteenth century, the answer would seem to be simple, at least at first glance. In depictions of gentlemen from this era, facial hair is practically unheard of.  Hence this admonition from a Rev War reenacting group:

18th century men did not wear beards, goatees, soul patches or long sideburns. (Yes, some German troops did sport waxed moustaches and Edward Teach, the infamous pirate wore a trademark black beard early in the century – but these are rare exceptions which had purpose in what they did.) Whatever you may have seen in movies – or even on reenactors – men simply didn’t wear beards during this era.

The German exception is an interesting one, and has always puzzled me.  Some Hessian units did indeed sport mustaches, and facial hair was also de rigueur in certain European hussar and grenadier units.  I’ve never understood why. Whenever I see a film clip or painting with Continentals going toe-to-toe against mercenaries with Super Mario Bros. mustaches, it always looks odd.

For most soldiers and civilians, however, going clean-shaven was the ideal.  But in terms of what actually happened on campaign, of course, things were probably quite a bit more complicated.  For one thing, the fact that officers were telling their men to shave regularly doesn’t mean the men were actually doing it.  If you look at Rev War orderly books, you’ll notice that commands regarding the troops’ appearance were repeated over and over again with ever-increasing tones of irritation, indicating that soldiers weren’t too compliant about this sort of thing.  Indeed, in his magnificent book on the Continental Army, Charles Royster states that “the most common of the soldiers’ signs of independence were hair and hats.”  This refers chiefly to the length of the hair on top of the head, but given this kind of independent streak there were probably a few oddballs in camp who were letting their chins get stubbly just to be ornery.

More importantly, and probably more commonly, the exigencies of warfare meant that soldiers were periodically unable to keep up their usual routines. In December 1776, as retreating American troops crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, Charles Wilson Peale remembered one soldier who approached him “in an old dirty blanket jacket, his beard long and his face full of sores,” and it turned out to be his own brother.  His appearance was so ragged that Peale didn’t recognize him at first—probably the most sobering testimony to the harsh conditions in Washington’s Army that I’ve ever read.

Of course, this sort of hairiness must have been unusual, or else Peale probably wouldn’t have noted it.  It was neither condoned nor typical, so Rev War reenactors are doubtless correct in discouraging facial hair for new recruits.

Still, this raises larger issues for reenactors that go beyond specific matters like facial hair to suggest some of the difficulties of trying to depict history as it was lived.  Do you try to portray the ideal soldier, or do you indicate some of the minor infractions and hardships that arose from time to time?  Should each member of the unit try to be as “typical” as possible, or should you try to suggest some of the diversity that must have been present?  And if you’re going to try for the latter, how much is too much?

Reenacting, when done properly, is therefore a difficult enterprise, fraught with unique and delicate challenges.  I think serious reenactors deserve the respect of anyone who researches or teaches history.

By the way, just a few days ago I ordered a used copy of Franklin and Mary Wickwire’s book on General Lord Cornwallis.  It still has a sticker from the “Cottonwood Senior High” library, wherever that is.  By a remarkable coincidence, it arrived today, as I was typing this post, and apparently some student at Cottonwood High thought eighteenth-century armies needed a little more facial hair, because this is what the cover looked like when I opened it:

Doesn’t look half bad, actually.

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A handy overview of America’s military beginnings

I recently picked up a copy of a book that’s worth recommending: A Respectable Army: The Military Origins Of The Republic, 1763-1789, by James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender.  This book is part of Harlan Davidson’s American History Series edited by John Hope Franklin and A.S. Eisenstadt, which offers concise guides to important periods and themes in U.S. history. 

This volume answers a question that’s central to an understanding of the Revolution: How did a republican rebellion started by a citizen militia, supported by a society terrified of standing armies, develop into a war conducted by professional soldiers?  The book also incorporates short summaries of the major campaigns, making it ideal for anyone needing a refresher on the course of the Revolution or instructors looking for a course supplement.  It’s a great introduction to the questions Revolutionary War historians have been asking and the answers they’ve found.

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