British commanders leading regular army units against the American rebels invariably blasted their opponents as peasants, ragamuffins and rabble. This, I’ve learned, is essentially true.
Even esteemed historian David McCullough in his 1776 says American soldiers looked like “farmers in from the fields.” Whether in the north or south, whether early or late in the war, continental troops—aside from officers– seldom had uniforms. They were poorly equipped and often foraged for food. More than their British adversaries, American soldiers suffered from dysentery, lice, and typhoid.
Then there was the problem of money. A national currency did not exist. Individual states were responsible for paying soldiers and several states were broke. George Washington and his commanders spent inordinate time beseeching Congress for money and supplies, usually to no avail. At Philadelphia that Washington paid soldiers from his own account. Continental army soldiers typically received no pay, even though in the richer states they were entitled to $8 per month.
Two of my three-times great grandfathers were soldiers on the patriot side in the revolution. Surviving the conflict, both claimed the modest pensions doled out by Congress in 1818. Before that time pensions—typically $35 to $90 per year—were paid only to soldiers wounded in battle.
Great grandfather William Williams apparently could neither read nor write as he signed his 1832 pension application with an X. At age 25 in December 1780 he was drafted into the Virginia militia from his home in Botetourt County near the southern tip of the Shenandoah Valley.
The pension document reveals that Williams was a private soldier for 18 months, serving under General Nathanael Greene at the battles of Camden and Guilford Court House in the Carolinas. His service ended with the surrender of British General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, VA. Williams told the pension examiner that years earlier he had sold his discharge papers for five gallons of whiskey. His pension was approved.
Both my revolutionary forbears with their families migrated to Ohio soon after 1800. Under the Treaty of Paris that formalized the end of the war, Britain ceded to the Americans the territory it possessed beyond the Ohio River. It was a vast wilderness the size of France from which five new states would emerge. Ohio became a state in 1803.
As a result of the treaty, the American government became a huge land owner. To assure that the new territory would be settled in an orderly manner, Congress in 1787 passed the Northwest Ordinance that laid out conditions for governance. Slavery was forbidden and public education emphasized, and indeed required. The ordinance was a powerful incentive for war veterans and others to cross the mountains and homestead in the west.
My forbears settled in Gallia County situated on the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. First to arrive was the large family of William Loucks in 1805. The smaller Williams family arrived in 1817.
Loucks was born in Philadelphia in 1750 and became a soldier in the Pennsylvania militia fighting Indians in the northern part of the state even before the revolution. By September 1777 he had enlisted in the Continental Army as a teamster or wagoner transporting ammunition. He was part of General Washington’s force at Brandywine Creek, a daylong battle won by the British who pushed the retreating Americans back towards Philadelphia.
A few weeks later Loucks was at Germantown northwest of Philadelphia, which was another defeat for Washington’s army.
Loucks then left the army and like Williams settled in Botetourt County in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. He also was awarded a pension in August 1832 shortly after Congress codified pensions and extended some benefits to widows. Like Williams, Loucks crossed what is now West Virginia to settle in Gallia County, Ohio . Also like Williams, Loucks was apparently illiterate as he signed his 1834 will with an X.
1834 will of William Loucks, signed with an X
Gallia did not offer bounty lands free to veterans but the land was cheap, typically under $5 per acre.
David McCullough in The Pioneers, his 2019 book on settlers in the northwest territory, emphasizes the immense economic and financial disruption that followed the Revolutionary War:
Unprecedented financial panic had gripped the new nation since the end of the Revolutionary War. The credit and resources of the government were exhausted. Money, in the form of scrip issued by the government, was nearly worthless. The scrip the veterans received as compensation for their service was worth no more than ten cents on the dollar.
Hard times impacted the well-off officer class as well as draftees. Nathanael Greene, whom Washington called his finest general, grew up a strict Quaker in a wealthy Rhode Island trading family. Forced out of the church by a youthful indiscretion, Greene’s wealth was dissipated from the war. Heavily indebted, he accepted the gift of a 500-acre rice plantation—with slaves—offered by grateful citizens of Georgia. Moving south as a gentleman farmer, Greene died young at age 43 in 1786 at his Mulberry Plantation near Savannah.
Nathanael Greene portrait
What I’ve learned from a foray into Revolutionary War history is that even at the beginning there was huge income inequality in America. It was the wealthy elite who wrote the Declaration of Independence and led the revolt against the British. Ordinary soldiers—draftees– were mostly poor and uneducated.
The sacrifice of all Americans in the Revolution is appropriately remembered as heroic. Evidence is this 1933 plaque at the entrance to Mound Hill Cemetery in Gallipolis. It honors 40 Revolutionary War veterans, including my two great grandfathers, who died in Gallia County. #