Honoring the service and sacrifice of our Fallen
The passage of time should not diminish our gratitude
for service and sacrifice to our country
The American Revolution
1775 – 1783
Soldiers serving in the Continental Army fought on behalf of 13 colonies in the Revolutionary War. They were young and inexperienced, especially in comparison with the formidable British army, but were highly motivated to win, as the freedom of the colonies was at stake.
In total, around 230,000 soldiers served, though never more than 48,000 at the time, and the Army was supplemented by approximately 145,000 militiamen. It’s considered 6.5% of the population participated during the Revolutionary War, although probably too low a figure but higher than any American war since WWII. All in all, the numbers are sizable for the population of any country fighting a war.
A Common American Soldier
Professor Emeritus, Bowling Green State University
What sort of soldier stood in the Continental Army? Historians have pieced together a composite portrait, using, among other evidence, muster rolls, and veterans’ pension applications posted in the 1820s and 1830s.
Like many soldiers in America’s conflicts, the common Continental was, on average, quite young. One historian found that in nine New Jersey towns nearly 75 percent of boys who were fifteen and sixteen at the onset of hostilities served in the army or the militia. Martin was fifteen when he enlisted, artilleryman Jeremiah Levering entered the service at twelve or thirteen, and hundreds more under the legal age of sixteen served in all services. Thousands more were under twenty.
One source of Continental Army troops was a more marginalized group than most. About 5,000 free black men and slaves served. Many more filled such supporting billets as wagoners, drovers, and laborers. Early in the Revolution, many freemen and a few slaves came from the New England states, especially Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
The Bay State declared slaves and free blacks eligible to enlist in 1777. At the beginning of 1778, nearly 10 percent of Washington’s effective force was African-American. Later in the war southern slaves gradually gained the opportunity to enroll, although South Carolina and Georgia generally resisted such enlistments.
Some masters enticed slaves to serve as their substitutes, offering freedom at the end of the conflict, sometimes coupled with a small monetary reward. In general, slave recruits were required to serve for the duration, and they acquitted themselves well. A French officer said that the Second Rhode Island Regiment, 75 percent black, was “the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuver.”
But do the descriptions of general characteristics bring us nearer to knowing the common soldier of the Revolution? It’s doubtful. Best estimates are that 175,000 men served under arms in some manner, and there must be thousands of individual exceptions to any composite portrait. We know that men from all walks of life fought, from the very wealthy to the most indigent.
Substantial numbers of troops were drawn from ethnic groups and immigrants, most notably the Irish and Germans. Combatants represented the states’ religious denominations, including a few whose doctrines were pacifist.
There can be no perfect portrait of the Revolution’s common soldier. But we can be certain that, whoever he was, the common soldier did, as Lincoln said, leave us “a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received.”
Of the men under arms in the Revolution, more than 25,500 perished in battle, or as prisoners, or from diseases in camp. More than 8,000 others survived serious wounds, and nearly 1,500 disappeared. Nearly one out of five of all soldiers were casualties—killed, wounded, or missing in action—the rate, about one of every three among the regulars of the Continental Army. The Union Army in the War between the States sustained about 13 percent casualties.
It may not be possible to perfectly describe the common Revolutionary soldier, but one thing is certain.
We remain in his debt.
In Memory of Sacrifice for Freedom and Independence
Ode of Remembrance
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” – 1914