A reconstruction of the battle of Pydna, by Peter Connolly, demonstrating how the broken ground disrupted the Macedonian phalanx, allowing the Romans to close with the phalangites and use their superior swordsmanship to good effect.
At various stages in its history the Roman army comprised a militia, citizen soldiers, mercenaries and professional troops, both conscripts and volunteers, although there was no clear linear development. The earliest Roman army will have consisted of the king, his retainers, nobles and whatever clan members could be organized to fight, largely in raids against neighbouring communities. This was a citizen militia habituated to seasonal warfare, in which we may guess that soldiers were motivated by ideas of survival, self-defense and patriotism. By protecting themselves, their families and their smallholdings, they also ensured the survival of the Roman state. Of course, peer pressure will also have been important, as they saw other small farmers in the ranks with them.
As Rome developed politically and militarily, the will of the upper classes usually prevailed in decisions on war and peace, and the government regularly conscripted its citizens, though preferring those who could equip themselves. This, however, did not mean that the Roman people were unwilling soldiers. On the contrary, they were apparently quite belligerent. The levy for Rome’s legionary army around the mid-third century BC suggests that a large proportion of eligible men with property (assidui) were enlisted. Citizens were apparently willing to serve in large numbers at least down to the mid-second century BC. In 225 BC perhaps about 17 per cent of the adult male citizens were in the army, rising to more than 25 per cent at the climax of the war with Hannibal. Furthermore, after 218 BC campaigns were no longer seasonal but could last all year. It is difficult to see how, even with the use of conscription, the senate could have pursued an active foreign policy without a significant measure of popular support and cooperation. The comic playwright Plautus, who was writing between c. 205 and 184 BC, certainly assumes that his audience is familiar with war. He often uses specifically Roman military metaphors, puts a famous battle narrative in a Roman context, and, in a stock feature of his work, the Prologues, commonly ends by wishing the audience well in war.
Roman warfare in this period was often brutal. The troops’ methods for dealing with captured cities caused the Greek historian Polybius, who had military experience, to comment that they were more violent than Hellenistic armies. Indeed, Roman fighting methods and the ferocity of Roman troops apparently intimidated Macedonian soldiers. It has been suggested that the Romans had a pronounced willingness to use violence against alien peoples, and `behaved somewhat more ferociously than most of the other politically advanced peoples of the Mediterranean world’. Perhaps therefore in a violent and warlike society men readily accepted the idea of going into battle to kill those whom they saw as enemies.
Nevertheless, hope of personal gain probably had greatest weight in encouraging men to serve. The introduction of a daily cash allowance in the early fourth century shows that the state itself recognized the need to recompense its soldiers for their service. Soldiers in a victorious army expected to acquire booty and slaves, and this is best illustrated by the increasing generosity of donatives distributed at triumphs. Soldiers might therefore have been attracted by the reputation of a previously successful general, under whose command they could expect victory and profit. Thus Scipio Aemilianus was able to raise 4000 volunteers for the siege of Numantia in 137 BC, relying on his prestige and popularity and clientela connections.
After c. 150 BC enthusiasm for military service declined. The long war in Spain was proving difficult and unpopular; there was little booty, and reports of frequent battles, high casualty rates and the courage of the enemy unnerved many men of military age. Consequently, there were attempts to evade the levy. Moreover, the slave war in Sicily and unprofitable garrison duty in Macedonia created more recruiting problems for the government. Indeed, the property qualification for service had been reduced in 214 and was reduced again in the second century. As men were required to serve for longer or were called up on more occasions, life became harder for small farmers without resources or powerful protectors. Six or more years’ continuous absence from Italy could bring the ruin of a farm, and all this was a disincentive to serve which the government would have to overcome or face a crisis of morale among its soldiers.
In 107 BC the consul C. Marius raised additional forces for the troublesome war in Africa against Jugurtha by accepting as volunteers men who did not possess the requisite amount of property (proletarii). Given the decline in the property qualification in previous years, it is likely that they were not markedly poorer than the kind of soldier recruited in earlier times, but potentially the way was open for the recruitment of more soldiers who had no land and no means of support other than military life. There was now a more mercenary element, in that eventually more soldiers sought a profitable military career, served for longer periods, and tended to be loyal to commanders who were successful and looked after their interests.
In the political turmoil of the late Republic there was no longer a single army of the Roman state, but individual armies serving under competing leaders. About 250,000 Italians, many of whom will have been conscripts, were under arms. Legions were also raised outside Italy from Roman citizens, and often from non-citizens. Julius Caesar enlisted the legion V Alaudae from Transalpine Gaul, while Pompey and Antony, too, were also active in this way. In addition, Caesar employed non-Romans as mercenary troops in a specialist capacity, notably Gallic and German cavalry. Military leaders probably took what they could get in the way of recruits, and the chief incentives to bravery in battle were donatives, booty, and the allure of individual generals whose record promised continued success. Julius Caesar was famous for his close personal relationship with his men, which he had built up over ten years’ successful and lucrative campaigning in Gaul. His troops’ loyalty and devotion were undiminished by military setbacks or harsh conditions, and it was said that Pompey, on seeing the bread made from herbs and grass that Caesar’s army was living on at the siege of Dyrrachium, ordered that it should be hidden from his men in case the enemy’s resolution undermined their own spirit. Soldiers such as these swore their oath of service personally to their commanders, and were in fact virtually mercenaries, supporting their paymaster leaders not because of the compulsion of the law but because of personal inducements, and fighting not against the enemies of Rome but against private adversaries and fellow-citizens. Military service was now a kind of financial package, involving long service in return for regular pay and other benefits. The Roman army therefore did not necessarily have any strong patriotic sentiments or political ideals, or a clear idea of loyalty to the senate or Rome. It had sharpened its skills in warfare against other Romans, and had developed a strong expectation of success. With a professional approach in military preparations, and a tradition of robust leadership from its officers, especially the centurions, it had also developed a strong sense of military community.
Here’s a short video of the KF41 at the recent NATO Brave Warrior exercises in Hungary, literally driving circles around the M2 Bradleys it might soon replace. The KF41, of which only one is currently in existence, was in Hungary where it had won a competition for 218 new infantry fighting vehicles.
The latest version of the M2 Bradley, the M2A3, 2018.
The U.S. Army’s next-generation infantry fighting vehicle could feature German DNA. German defense contractor Rheinmetall is teaming up with American defense contractor Raytheon to offer the company’s KF41 Lynx infantry fighting vehicle to the U.S. Army. The Army is looking to replace its thousands of M2 Bradley fighting vehicles with a newer design that is not only better in every way, but also has the ability to be remotely controlled on the battlefield.
The M2 Bradley was first used by the U.S. Army in the 1980s. The vehicle not only could carry infantry, but also offered enough protection to allow them to remain mounted during an attack. This preserved the momentum of an armored assault, ensuring that the attack did not slow down and that dismounted infantrymen didn’t need to be rounded up and board the vehicle to continue an offensive.
The Bradley first saw combat in the 1991 Gulf War, then the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2014 war against the Islamic State. Along the way the Bradley has gotten heavier with the introduction of new armor, electronics, and other systems that allowed the vehicle to pace battlefield threats.
After 30-plus years, however, the Army has decided it’s time to start over with a new vehicle that incorporates new tech from the ground up.
German defense contractor Rheinmetall, which developed the M256 gun on the M1A2 Abrams tank, is tossing its hat into the OMFV ring with the KF41 Lynx. KF41 is a tracked vehicle with a crew of three and the ability to carry eight infantrymen and women in the rear. Lynx is armed with a Lancer 2.0 turret incorporating a 35-millimeter autocannon, and the step up in caliber will allow Lynx to engage light armored vehicles and enemy troops at longer ranges at the expense of less onboard ammo.
The Rheinmetall LYNX KF41 (KF stands for “Kettenfahrzeug”, or tracked vehicle in German) is a German-made next-generation family of vehicles that offers state-of-the-art firepower, mobility and protection. The LYNX consists of a modular design that comes in two primary versions: the KF31 and KF41. Both versions have a driver in the hull and a two-man crew in the turret. The engine is in the front and the exhaust in the rear. Weighing up to 38 tonnes, LYNX KF31 can seat 3+6 soldiers.
LYNX KF41 is slightly larger and can carry 3+8 soldiers. Rheinmetall’s LANCE turret for the KF41can support a 30mm or 35mm cannon and the turret ammunition is separated from the crew for added protection. Both versions can be configured for IFV, C2 (command and control), reconnaissance, repair and recovery, and ambulance variants. The vehicle interior has a spall liner, decoupled seats, and mine and IED protection packages that can be exchanged in the field. The KF41 does not have a V shaped hull, but its mine protection is highly effective against heavy blast mines, explosively formed projectile mines and IEDs. The KF41 also has passive and reactive systems to defeat rocket-propelled grenades and antitank guided missiles and provides roof protection against cluster munitions. Rheinmetall’s SOLAR SIGMA Shield Mobile Camouflage System can also be fitted to the entire vehicle to reduce heat loading as well as thermal and IR signatures.
The KF41 weighs 44 tons, significantly more than the 30-ton Bradley. The KF41 is bigger but it’s also more agile, with a horsepower to weight ratio of 26 to 1. The Bradley’s, by contrast, is about 21 to 1.
The KF41 in U.S. Army service would probably look a little different than the vehicle seen in Hungary as the U.S. may want the turret to be equipped with two long range anti-tank missiles, giving OMFV the ability to take on tanks by itself. It may also want an active protection system capable of detecting and shooting down incoming rockets and anti-tank guided missiles. Lastly, KF41 may need the ability to be operated remotely.
Rheinmetall is competing for the Czech IFV contract with their LYNX vehicle that was first shown at Eurosatory in 2016. Two main variants are available: LYNX KF31 with three crew and six dismounts or LYNX KF41 with three crew and eight dismounts. Both are fitted with the Rheinmetall LANCE turret system. The turret will accommodate the MK30-2/ABM 30×173 mm cannon; it can also be fitted with a launcher for the Rafael SPIKE-LR missile system. The Czech Land Forces already use SPIKE-LR on their PANDUR II vehicles.
The new OMFV program will probably run into 2021, or even 2022. It may even fail, yet again, to produce a replacement for the Bradley. If the KF41 does win however it could produce a vehicle that will be the main heavy infantry carrier for the U.S. Army to 2050 and beyond.
In the battle of Eutaw Springs, South Carolina, the last major action of the Revolutionary War before Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, over 500 Americans were killed and wounded. Nathanael Greene had led some 2200 men into the Springs; his casualties thus represented almost one-fourth of his army. More men would die in battles in the next two years, and others would suffer terrible wounds. The statistics, although notoriously unreliable, show that the Revolution killed a higher percentage of those who served on the American side than any war in our history, always excepting the Civil War.
Why did those men—those who survived and those who died—fight? Why did they hold their ground, endure the strain of battle, with men dying about them and danger to themselves so obvious? Undoubtedly the reasons varied from battle to battle, but just as surely there was some experience common to all these battles—and fairly uniform reasons for the actions of the men who fought despite their deepest impulses, which must have been to run from the field in order to escape the danger.
Some men did run, throwing down their muskets and packs in order to speed their flight. American units broke in large actions and small, at Brooklyn, Kip’s Bay, White Plains, Brandywine, Germantown, Camden, and Hobkirk’s Hill, to cite the most important instances. Yet many men did not break and run even in the disasters to American arms. They held their ground until they were killed, and they fought tenaciously while pulling back.
In most actions the Continentals, the regulars, fought more bravely than the militia. We need to know why these men fought and why the American regulars performed better than the militia. The answers surely will help us to understand the Revolution, especially if we can discover whether what made men fight reflected what they believed—and felt—about the Revolution.
Several explanations of the willingness to fight and die, if necessary, may be dismissed at once. One is that soldiers on both sides fought out of fear of their officers, fearing them more than they did battle. Frederick the Great had described this condition as ideal, but it did not exist in ideal or practice in either the American or the British army. The British soldier usually possessed a more professional spirit than the American, an attitude compounded from confidence in his skill and pride in belonging to an old established institution. British regiments carried proud names—the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the Black Watch, the King’s Own—whose officers usually behaved extraordinarily bravely in battle and expected their men to follow their examples. British officers disciplined their men more harshly than American officers did and generally trained them more effectively in the movements of battle. But neither they nor American officers instilled the fear that Frederick found so desirable. Spirit, bravery, a reliance on the bayonet, were all expected of professional soldiers, but professionals acted out of pride—not out of fear of their officers.
Still, coercion and force were never absent from the life of either army. There were, however, limits on their use and their effectiveness. Fear of flogging might prevent a soldier from deserting camp, but it could not guarantee that he would remain steady under fire. Fear of ridicule may have aided in keeping some troops in place, however. Eighteenth-century infantry went into combat in fairly close lines and officers could keep an eye on many of their men. If the formation was tight enough officers might strike laggards and even order “skulkers,” Washington’s term for those who turned tail, shot down. Just before the move to Dorchester Heights in March 1776, the word went out that any American who ran from the action would be “fired down upon the spot.” The troops themselves approved of this threat, according to one of the chaplains.
Washington repeated the threat just before the Battle of Brooklyn later that year, though he seems not to have posted men behind the lines to carry it out. Daniel Morgan urged Nathanael Greene to place sharpshooters behind the militia, and Greene may have done so at Guilford Court House. No one thought that an entire army could be held in place against its will, and these commands to shoot soldiers who retired without orders were never widely issued.
A tactic that surely would have appealed to many soldiers would have been to send them into battle drunk. Undoubtedly some—on both sides—did enter combat with their senses deadened by rum. Both armies commonly issued an additional ration of rum on the eve of some extraordinary action—a long, difficult march, for example, or a battle, were two of the usual reasons. A common order on such occasions ran: “the troops should have an extraordinary allowance of rum,” usually a gill, four ounces of unknown alcoholic content, which if taken down at the propitious moment might dull fears and summon courage. At Camden no supply of rum existed; Gates or his staff substituted molasses, to no good effect, according to Otho Williams. The British fought brilliantly at Guilford Court House unaided by anything stronger than their own large spirits. In most actions soldiers went into battle with very little more than themselves and their comrades to lean upon.
Belief in the Holy Spirit surely sustained some in the American army, perhaps more than in the enemy’s. There are a good many references to the Divine or to Providence in the letters and diaries of ordinary soldiers. Often, however, these expressions are in the form of thanks to the Lord for permitting these soldiers to survive. There is little that suggests soldiers believed that faith rendered them invulnerable to the enemy’s bullets. Many did consider the glorious cause to be sacred; their war, as the ministers who sent them off to kill never tired of reminding them, was just and providential.
Others clearly saw more immediate advantages in the fight: the plunder of the enemy’s dead. At Monmouth Court House, where Clinton withdrew after dark, leaving the field strewn with British corpses, the plundering carried American soldiers into the houses of civilians who had fled to save themselves. The soldiers’ actions were so blatant and so unrestrained that Washington ordered their packs searched. And at Eutaw Springs, the Americans virtually gave up victory to the opportunity of ransacking British tents. Some died in their greed, shot down by an enemy given time to regroup while his camp was torn apart by men looking for something to carry off. But even these men probably fought for something besides plunder. When it beckoned they responded, but it had not drawn them to the field; nor had it kept them there in a savage struggle.
Inspired leadership helped soldiers face death, but they sometimes fought bravely even when their leaders let them down. Yet officers’ courage and the example of officers throwing off wounds to remain in the fight undoubtedly helped their men stick. Charles Stedman, the British general, remarked on Captain Maitland who, at Guilford Court House, was hit, dropped behind for a few minutes to get his wound dressed, then returned to the battle. Cornwallis obviously filled Sergeant Lamb with pride, struggling forward to press into the struggle after his horse was killed. Washington’s presence meant much at Princeton though his exposure to enemy fire may also have made his troops uneasy. His quiet exhortation as he passed among the men who were about to assault Trenton—”Soldiers, keep by your officers” remained in the mind of a Connecticut soldier until his death fifty years later. There was only one Washington, one Cornwallis, and their influence on men in battle, few of whom could have seen them, was of course slight. Junior and noncommissioned officers carried the burden of tactical direction; they had to show their troops what must be done and somehow persuade, cajole, or force them to do it. The praise ordinary soldiers lavished on sergeants and junior officers suggests that these leaders played important parts in their troops’ willingness to fight. Still, important as it was, their part does not really explain why men fought.
In suggesting this conclusion about military leadership, I do not wish to be understood as agreeing with Tolstoy’s scornful verdict on generals—that despite all their plans and orders they do not affect the results of battles at all. Tolstoy did not reserve all his scorn for generals—historians are also derided in War and Peace for finding a rational order in battles where only chaos existed. “The activity of a commander in chief does not at all resemble the activity we imagine to ourselves when we sit at ease in our studies examining some campaign on the map, with a certain number of troops on this and that side in a certain known locality, and begin our plans from a given moment. A commander in chief is never dealing with the beginning of any event—the position from which we always contemplate it. The commander in chief is always in the midst of a series of shifting events and so he never can at any moment consider the whole import of an event that is occurring.”
The full import of battle will as surely escape historians as participants. But we have to begin somewhere in trying to explain why men fought rather than ran from Revolutionary battlefields. The battlefield may indeed be the place to begin since we have dismissed leadership, fear of officers, religious belief, the power of drink, and the other possible explanations of why men fought and died.
The eighteenth-century battlefield was, compared with the twentieth, an intimate theater, especially intimate in the engagements of the Revolution which were usually small even by the standards of the day. The killing range of the musket, eighty to one hundred yards, enforced intimacy as did the reliance on the bayonet and the general ineffectiveness of artillery. Soldiers had to come to close quarters to kill; this fact reduced the mystery of battle though perhaps not its terrors. But at least the battlefield was less impersonal. In fact, in contrast to twentieth-century combat, in which the enemy usually remains unseen and the source of incoming fire unknown, in eighteenth-century battles the foe could be seen and sometimes even touched. Seeing one’s enemy may have aroused a singular intensity of feeling uncommon in modern battles. The assault with the bayonet—the most desired objective of infantry tactics—seems indeed to have evoked an emotional climax. Before it occurred, tension and anxiety built up as the troops marched from their column into a line of attack. The purpose of their movements was well understood by themselves and their enemies, who must have watched with feelings of dread and fascination. When the order came sending them forward, rage, even madness, replaced the attackers’ anxiety, while terror and desperation sometimes filled those receiving the charge. Surely it is revealing that the Americans who ran from battle did so most often at the moment they understood that their enemy had started forward with the bayonet. This happened to several units at Brandywine and to the militia at Camden and Guilford Court House. The loneliness, the sense of isolation, reported by modern soldiers was probably missing at such moments. All was clear—especially that glittering line of advancing steel.
Whether this awful clarity was harder to bear than losing sight of the enemy is problematical. American troops ran at Germantown after grappling with the British and then finding the field of battle covered by fog. At that time groping blindly, they and their enemy struggled over ground resembling a scene of modern combat. The enemy was hidden at a critical moment, and American fears were generated by not knowing what was happening—or about to happen. They could not see the enemy, and they could not see one another, an especially important fact. For, as S.L.A. Marshall, the twentieth-century military historian, has suggested in his book Men Against Fire, what sustains men in the extraordinary circumstances of battle may be their relationships with their comrades.
These men found that sustaining such relationships was possible in the intimacy of the American battlefield. And not just because the limited arena robbed battle of some of its mystery. More important, it permitted the troops to give one another moral or psychological support. The enemy could be seen, but so could one’s comrades; they could be seen and communicated with.
Eighteenth-century infantry tactics called for men to move and fire from tight formations which permitted them to talk and to give one another information—and reassurance and comfort. If properly done, marching and firing found infantrymen compressed into files in which their shoulders touched. In battle, physical contact with one’s comrades on either side must have helped men control their fears. Firing the musket from three compact lines, the English practice, also involved physical contact. The men of the front rank crouched on their right knees; the men of the center rank placed their left feet inside the right feet of the front; the rear rank did the same thing behind the center.
This stance was called—a revealing term—”locking.” The very density of this formation sometimes aroused criticism from officers who complained that it led to inaccurate fire. The front rank, conscious of the closeness of the center, might fire too low; the rear rank tended to “throw” its shots into the air, as firing too high was called; only the center rank took careful aim according to the critics. Whatever the truth of these charges about accuracy of fire, men in these dense formations compiled a fine record of holding their ground. And it is worth noting that the inaccuracy of men in the rear rank bespoke their concern for their fellows in front of them.
British and American soldiers in the Revolution often spoke of fighting with “spirit” and “behaving well” under fire. Sometimes these phrases referred to daring exploits under great danger, but more often they seem to have meant holding together, giving one another support, re-forming the lines when they were broken or fell into disorder, disorder such as overtook the Americans at Greenspring, Virginia, early in July 1781 when Cornwallis lured Anthony Wayne into crossing the James with a force that was heavily outnumbered. Wayne saw his mistake and decided to make the best of it, not by a hasty retreat from the ambush but by attacking. The odds against the Americans were formidable but, as an ordinary solider who was there saw it, the inspired conduct of the infantry saved them—“our troops behaved well, fighting with great spirit and bravery. The infantry were oft broke; but just as oft rallied and formed at a word.”
These troops had been spread out when the British surprised them, but they formed as quickly as possible. Here was a test of men’s spirits, a test they passed in part because of their disciplined formation. At Camden, where in contrast the militia collapsed as soon as the battle began, an open alignment may have contributed to their fear. Gates placed the Virginians on the far left apparently expecting them to cover more ground than their numbers allowed. At any rate they went into the battle in a single line with at least five feet between each man, a distance which intensified a feeling of isolation in the heat and noise of the firing. And to make such feelings worse, these men were especially exposed, stretched out at one end of the line with no supporters behind them.
Troops in tight lines consciously reassured one another in several ways. British troops usually talked and cheered—”huzzaing” whether standing their ground, running forward, or firing. The Americans may have done less talking and cheering, though there is evidence that they learned to imitate the enemy. Giving a cheer at the end of a successful engagement was standard practice. The British cheered at Lexington and then marched off to be shot down on the road running from Concord. The Americans shouted their joy at Harlem Heights, an understandable action and one for most of 1776 they rarely had opportunity to perform.
The most deplorable failures to stand and fight usually occurred among the American militia. Yet there were militia companies that performed with great success, remaining intact under the most deadly volleys. The New England companies at Bunker Hill held out under a fire that veteran British officers compared to the worst they had experienced in Europe. Lord Rawdon remarked on how unusual it was for defenders to stick around a redoubt.18 The New Englanders did it. They also held steady at Princeton—”They were the first who regularly formed” and stood up under the balls “which whistled their thousand different notes around our heads,” according to Charles Willson Peale, whose Philadelphia militia also proved its steadiness.
What was different about these companies? Why did they fight when others around them ran? The answer may lie in the relationships among their men. Men in the New England companies, in the Philadelphia militia, and in the other units that held together were neighbors. They knew one another; they had something to prove to one another; they had their “honor” to protect. Their active service in the Revolution may have been short, but they had been together in one way or another for a fairly long time—for several years in most cases. Their companies, after all, had been formed from towns and villages. Some, clearly, had known one another all their lives.
Elsewhere, especially in the thinly settled southern colonies, companies were usually composed of men—farmers, farmers’ sons, farm laborers, artisans, and new immigrants—who did not know one another. They were, to use a term much used in a later war, companies of “stragglers” without common attachments, with almost no knowledge of their fellows. For them, even bunched tightly in line, the battlefield was an empty, lonely place. Absence of personal bonds, and their own parochialism, coupled to inadequate training and imperfect discipline, often led to disintegration under fire.
According to conventional wisdom the nearer the American militia were to home the better they fought, fighting for their homes and no one else’s. Proximity to home, however, may have been a distraction which weakened resolve. For the irony of going into battle and perhaps to their deaths when home and safety lay close down the road could not have escaped many. Almost every senior American general commented on the propensity of the militia to desert—and if they were not deserting they seemed perpetually in transit between home and camp, usually without authorization.
Paradoxically, of all the Americans who fought, the militiamen best exemplified in themselves and in their behavior the ideals and purposes of the Revolution. They had enjoyed independence, or at least personal liberty, long before it was proclaimed in the Declaration. They instinctively felt their equality with others and in many places insisted upon demonstrating it by choosing their own officers. Their sense of their liberty permitted, even compelled, them to serve only for short enlistments, to leave camp when they liked, to scorn the orders of others—and especially those orders to fight when they preferred to flee. Their integration into their society drove them to resist military discipline; and their ethos of personal freedom stimulated hatred of the machine that served as the model for the army. They were not pieces of a machine, and they would serve it only reluctantly and skeptically. At their best, at Cowpens, for example, they fought well; at their worst, at Camden, they fought not at all. There, they were, as Greene said, “ungovernable.” What was lacking in the militia was a set of professional standards, requirements and rules which might regulate their conduct in battle. What was lacking was professional pride. Coming and going to camp as they liked, shooting their guns for the pleasure of the sound, the militia annoyed the Continentals, who soon learned that most could not be trusted.
The British regulars were at the opposite pole. They had been pulled out of society, carefully segregated from it, tightly disciplined and highly trained. Their values were the values of the army for the most part, no more and no less. To be sure, the officers were in certain respects very different from the men. They embodied the style and standards of gentlemen who believed in service to their king and who fought for honor and glory.
With these ideals and a mission of service to the king defining their calling, British officers held themselves as aloof as possible from the peculiar horrors of war. Not that they did not fight. They sought combat and danger, but by the conventions which shaped their understanding of battle, they insulated themselves as much as possible from the ghastly business of killing and dying. Thus the results of battle might be a long list of dead and wounded, but the results were also “honourable and glorious,” as Charles Stedman described Guilford Court House, or reflected “dishonour upon British arms,” as he described Cowpens. Actions and gunfire were “smart” and “brisk” and sometimes “hot,” and occasionally a “difficult piece of work.” They might also be described lightly—Harlem Heights was “this silly business” to Lord Rawdon. To their men, British officers spoke a clean, no nonsense language. Howe’s terse “look to your bayonets” summed up a tough professional’s expectations.
For all the distance between British officers and men, they gave remarkable support to one another in battle. They usually deployed carefully, keeping up their spirits with drum and fife. They talked and shouted and cheered, and coming on with their bayonets at the ready “huzzaing,” or coming on “firing and huzzaing” they must have sustained a sense of shared experience. Their ranks might be thinned by an American volley but on they came, exhorting one another to “push on! push on!” as at Bunker Hill and the battles that followed. Although terrible losses naturally dispirited them, they almost always maintained the integrity of their regiments as fighting units, and when they were defeated, or nearly so as at Guilford Court House, they recovered their pride and fought well thereafter. And there was no hint at Yorktown that the ranks wanted to surrender, even though they had suffered dreadfully.
The Continentals, the American regulars, lacked the polish of their British counterparts, but at least from Monmouth on, they showed a steadiness under fire almost as impressive as their enemy’s. And they demonstrated a brave endurance: defeated, they retired, pulled themselves together, and came back to try again. These qualities—patience and endurance—endeared them to many. For example, John Laurens, on Washington’s staff in 1778, wanted desperately to command them. In what amounted to a plea for command, Laurens wrote: “I would cherish those dear, ragged Continentals, whose patience will be the admiration of future ages, and glory in bleeding with them.” This statement was all the more extraordinary coming from Laurens, a South Carolina aristocrat. The soldiers he admired were anything but aristocratic. As the war dragged on they came increasingly from the poor and the propertyless. Most probably entered the army as substitutes for men who had rather pay than serve, or as the recipients of bounties and the promise of land. In time, some, perhaps many, assimilated the ideals of the Revolution. As Baron von Steuben observed in training them, they differed from European troops in at least one regard: they wanted to know why they were told to do certain things. Unlike European soldiers who did what they were told, the Continentals asked why.
Continental officers aped the style of their British counterparts. They aspired to gentility and, often failing to achieve it, betrayed their anxiety by an excessive concern for their honor. Not surprisingly, like their British counterparts, they also used the vocabulary of the gentleman in describing battle.
Their troops, innocent of such polish, spoke with words from their immediate experience of physical combat. They found few euphemisms for the horrors of battle. Thus Private David How, September 1776, in New York, noted in his diary: “Isaac Fowls had his head shot off with a cannon ball this morning.” And Sergeant Thomas McCarty reported an engagement between a British foraging party and American infantry near New Brunswick in February 1777: “We attacked the body, and bullets flew like hail. We stayed about 15 minutes and then retreated with loss.” After the battle, inspection of the field revealed that the British had killed the American wounded—”the men that was wounded in the thigh or leg, they dashed out their brains with their muskets and run them through with their bayonets, made them like sieves. This was barbarity to the utmost.” The pain of seeing his comrades mutilated by shot and shell at White Plains remained with Elisha Bostwick, a Connecticut soldier, all his life: A cannon ball “cut down Lt. Youngs platoon which was next to that of mine[;] the ball first took off the head of Smith, a Stout heavy man and dashed it open, then took Taylor across the Bowels, it then Struck Sergeant Garret of our Company on the hip [and] took off the point of the hip bone[.] Smith and Taylor were left on the spot. Sergeant Garret was carried but died the Same day now to think, oh! what a sight that was to see within a distance of six rods those men with their legs and arms and guns and packs all in a heap[.]”
The Continentals occupied the psychological and moral ground somewhere between the militia and the British professionals. From 1777 on their enlistments were for three years or the duration of the war. This long service allowed them to learn more of their craft and to become seasoned. That does not mean that on the battlefield they lost their fear. Experience in combat almost never leaves one indifferent to danger, unless after prolonged and extreme fatigue one comes to consider oneself already dead. Seasoned troops have simply learned to deal with their fear more effectively than raw troops, in part because they have come to realize that everyone feels it and that they can rely on their fellows.
By winter 1779–1780 the Continentals were beginning to believe that they had no one save themselves to lean on. Their soldierly qualifications so widely admired in America—their “habit of subordination,”28 their patience under fatigue, their ability to stand sufferings and privations of every kind—may in fact have led to a bitter resignation that saw them through a good deal of the fighting. At Morristown during this winter, they felt abandoned in their cold and hunger. They knew that in America food and clothing existed to keep them healthy and comfortable, and yet little of either came to the army. Understandably their dissatisfaction increased as they realized that once again the suffering had been left to them. Dissatisfaction in these months slowly turned into a feeling of martyrdom. They felt themselves to be martyrs to the “glorious cause.” They would fulfill the ideals of the Revolution and see things through to independence because the civilian population would not.
Thus the Continentals in the last four years of the active war, though less articulate and less independent than the militia, assimilated one part of the “cause” more fully. They had advanced further in making American purposes in the Revolution their own. They had in their sense of isolation and neglect probably come to be more nationalistic than the militia—though surely no more American.
Although these sources of the Continentals’ feeling seem curious, they served to reinforce the tough professional ethic these men also came to absorb. Set apart from the militia by the length of their service, by their officers’ esteem for them, and by their own contempt for part-time soldiers, the Continentals slowly developed resilience and pride. Their country might ignore them in camp, might allow their bellies to shrivel and their backs to freeze, might allow them to wear rags, but in battle they would not be ignored. And in battle they would support one another in the knowledge that their own moral and professional resources remained sure.
The meaning of these complex attitudes is not what it seems to be. At first sight the performance of militia and Continentals seems to suggest that the great principles of the Revolution made little difference on the battlefield. Or if principles did make a difference, say especially to the militia saturated with natural rights and a deep and persistent distrust of standing armies, they served not to strengthen the will to combat but to disable it. And the Continentals, recruited increasingly from the poor and dispossessed, apparently fought better as they came to resemble their professional and apolitical enemy, the British infantry.
These conclusions are in part askew. To be sure, there is truth—and paradox—in the fact that some Americans’ commitments to Revolutionary principles made them unreliable on the battlefield. Still, their devotion to their principles helped bring them there. George Washington, their commander in chief, never tired of reminding them that their cause arrayed free men against mercenaries. They were fighting for the “blessings of liberty,” he told them in 1776, and should they not acquit themselves like men, slavery would replace their freedom.30 The challenge to behave like men was not an empty one. Courage, honor, gallantry in the service of liberty, all those words calculated to bring a blush of embarrassment to jaded twentieth-century men, defined manhood for the eighteenth century. In battle those words gained an extraordinary resonance as they were embodied in the actions of brave men. Indeed it is likely that many Americans who developed a narrow professional spirit found battle broadly educative, forcing them to consider the purposes of their professional skill.
On one level those purposes had to be understood as having a remarkable importance if men were to fight—and die. For battle forced American soldiers into a situation which nothing in their usual experience had prepared them for. They were to kill other men in the expectation that even if they did they might be killed themselves. However defined, especially by a Revolution in the name of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, this situation was unnatural.
On another level, one which, perhaps, made the strain of battle endurable, the situation of American soldiers, though unusual, was not really foreign to them. For what battle presented in stark form was one of the classic problems free men face: choosing between the rival claims of public responsibility and private wishes, or in eighteenth-century terms, choosing between virtue—devotion to the public trust—and personal liberty. In battle, virtue demanded that men give up their liberties and perhaps even their lives for others. Each time they fought they had, in effect, to weigh the claims of society and liberty. Should they fight or run? They knew that the choice might mean life or death. For those American soldiers who were servants, apprentices, poor men substituting for men with money to hire them, the choice might not have seemed to involve moral decision. After all, they had never enjoyed much personal liberty. But not even in that contrivance of eighteenth-century authoritarianism in which they now found themselves, the professional army, could they avoid a moral decision. Compressed into dense formations, they were reminded by their nearness to their comrades that they too had an opportunity to uphold virtue. By standing firm they served their fellows and honor; by running, they served only themselves.
Thus battle tested the inner qualities of men, tried their souls, as Thomas Paine said. Many men died in the test that battle made of their spirits. Some soldiers called this trial cruel; others called it “glorious.” Perhaps this difference in perception suggests how difficult it was in the Revolution to be both a soldier and an American. Nor has it ever been easy since.
The first contact that a new recruit had with the army could only have left him with the need for reassurance. The army was a bewildering collection of men, strange rules, and new routines. The recruit, fresh, say, from a Maryland farm where he worked for wages and his keep, had enlisted after a good deal of persuasion by local officers who had a quota to fill. He signed up for three years in return for a ten-dollar bounty and the promise of one hundred acres at the end of his service.
When the recruit made it to camp near Annapolis, he was told that the Maryland line would soon set out for Pennsylvania where the main army lay, its officers busy speculating about General Howe’s intentions. Officers thought about such matters; enlisted men had other things to do. There were others to get to know. Some, the recruit learned, had entered the army for reasons very different from his own—and under very different terms. The army, in fact, consisted of several sorts of organized units: the militia, usually serving for a few months at most, owed its origins to the English Assize of Arms. More directly, long before the Revolution each colony had approved legislation requiring military service and depended upon towns and counties to supervise it. In actuality, not everyone served in local communities, but the principle of service was well established. And when Congress created the Continental Army in June 1775, the militia formed its core.
During the remainder of the war, after designating militia regiments from the New England states as Continentals, Congress relied on all the states to raise Continental units, as well as militia. Congress contracted to pay for the recruitment and service of Continentals while the states continued to meet expenses of local units. This system introduced competition for men—at the cost of corrupting soldiers and of impairing morale. Competition took the form of bidding for men, with bounties serving as bids. As the Congress and the states tried to exceed one another, bounty jumpers made their appearance, cheerfully collecting bounties for repeated enlistments. This practice disturbed honest men who, if they were unfortunate enough to enlist when bounties were low, felt somehow doubly betrayed.
When the Maryland recruit arrived, the veterans questioned him about the bounty he had received. His experience matched many others, and as the ante went up he found himself among the discontented. Washington attempted to soothe these men by urging Congress to add one hundred dollars to their pay as a one-time reward for early service. Congress delayed until 1779, when it passed the necessary legislation.
Not even the payment of inflated bounties filled the Continental and militia regiments. Congress created twenty-seven Continental regiments from militia already in service at the opening of 1776; in September, after the disaster on Long Island, it authorized the raising of eighty-eight battalions, adding another sixteen in December. None of these quotas was met, and in 1779 a major reorganization was approved calling for eighty regiments. The next year the number was reduced to fifty-eight.
The recruit knew little of these plans. Most of his fellows, he discovered, had been drafted, or “levied,” as conscription was sometimes called. The states appointed the conscription officers who worked through local authorities. Substitutes for those drafted were accepted, and the practice of hiring such men became common. Epping, New Hampshire, once met its entire quota by hiring substitutes from nearby towns. The result was, of course, that those on active service came increasingly to be drawn from the poor and propertyless.
Such men, including the Maryland recruit, probably did not expect much in the way of food, clothing, and pay from the army. They did not get much. Congress intended that they receive a generous ration of meat, vegetables, and bread every day. This good intention remained nothing more than an intention for most of the war, as men in the army went hungry and often nearly naked. The bloody tracks at Valley Forge made by men without shoes appeared in later campaigns as well. The hunger may have been worse at Morristown in winter 1779–80 than at Valley Forge. That winter was the coldest of the war and made Valley Forge look almost balmy by comparison. Early in the winter, Lt. Colonel Ebenezer Huntington wrote of the sufferers there—”Poor fellows, my heart bleeds for them, while I Damn my country as void of gratitude,” a curse that must have been repeated in January, when the cold and hunger were older.
There was not much money invested in medicine in the American colonies before the Revolution, and the practice of the art had not achieved either distinction or prestige. The lack of investment and low public regard may have discouraged Congress from giving much attention to problems of providing for the health of the soldiers. Whatever the reasons, it did not get around to establishing a hospital department until fully a month after it had created the army, late July 1775. Congressional neglect, however, did not preserve harmony in the department. Those commissioned by Congress to organize and run the service proved able to entangle themselves in controversy without external assistance—to the point of affecting adversely the care of sick and wounded soldiers.
In a sense Congress inherited its first director general and chief physician. He was Benjamin Church, and he ran the medical service of the New England army around Boston before Congress took over. Unfortunately he was also a traitor, having sold himself to General Gage several years before, apparently because he had grown fond of the fashionable and expensive life. No one in Congress knew of Church’s extracurricular activities in July when he was appointed, and no one learned until September. During the summer of 1775 Congress went about ignorant of medical organization, calling for regimental surgeons to work closely with line outfits and the general hospital to do something more.
Just exactly what the general hospital was to do was not altogether clear, and just exactly what the relation of the regimental surgeons was to it was no clearer. No clearer to outsiders, that is. Both the director general and the surgeons always maintained that they understood perfectly what Congress intended. They did not agree among themselves, however, on what their relation should be.
Before confusion grew into open disagreement, the army discovered Church’s treason and put him under arrest. That took place in September 1775, and in October Congress named John Morgan to succeed Church. Morgan did not reach Cambridge until the end of November.
Morgan did not take up his commission with many cards in his hand. Church had not done badly as director general, but he had not really done very much. In particular he had not begun to sort out the organizational lines soon to trap Morgan in struggles that distracted him from the main business—the health of soldiers. The regimental surgeons gave him his first taste of difficulty, and after he left the service in January 1777 they gave the same treatment to his successor William Shippen, who hung on until January 1781. John Cochran, the director who performed the best and who succeeded in asserting some control over the regiments, followed Shippen and served until the end of the war.
The regimental surgeons possessed a clear notion of how they should deal with the general hospital and its director—aloofly, except when they needed something. They wished to use the hospital as a supply house that would provide them with food, instruments, medicines, and bandages. They had a point; the troops preferred the regimental hospitals to the general hospital. The regiments’ facilities were always smaller, probably healthier, and nearer to comrades. And the regimental surgeon, who had usually been named by the colonel or the state assembly, was a known quantity.
The director general saw things differently. His situation may have been ambiguous, but Congress, from Morgan’s time on, had authorized him or his staff to inspect regimental hospitals and to transfer patients if conditions seemed to warrant such action. Washington had strengthened Morgan’s hand by giving him permission to determine the fitness of regimental surgeons and aides by examinations, which proved strenuous exercises. They so annoyed the surgeons of the regiments that when the army left Boston for New York, Morgan gave them up.
The strain between the regimental and general hospital surgeons did not really ease off until Cochran took charge. Morgan was relieved of his post by Congress at the beginning of 1777, and William Shippen, his successor, resigned early in 1781. Both men, and Samuel Stringer of the northern department, felt betrayed by Congress and the army. In fact, Shippen had connived shamelessly to get Morgan’s post, and Morgan, aided by Benjamin Rush, helped to force Shippen to resign. Shippen endured court-martial during his tenure and, though he was acquitted, his reputation was shattered.
These wars within the war contributed to years of shoddy medical services. Just how badly they undermined the health care of soldiers cannot be known, though the organizational weakness persisted until the end of the war. Had the institutional arrangements been first-rate by the standards of the day, the actual medical service provided soldiers would have left something to be desired, for America did not brim with physicians or medical knowledge. Recent estimates hold that there were some 3500 medical practitioners of various sorts in America when the war began. This figure probably includes quacks as well as reputable physicians and a great number of indifferently trained men who treated the sick and worked at other occupations as well. Probably fewer than four hundred had a medical degree.
Although generalizations about such a motley group cannot be reliable, it is unlikely that any theory of disease or therapy found wide acceptance among them. The physicians among them probably believed that sickness generally represented some variation from the normal patterns of the human system, an old idea which persisted through the eighteenth century. There were diseases identified as diseases, smallpox, syphilis, and tuberculosis, for example, but both theory and practice usually dealt with body conditions, such symptoms as fevers, fluxes, and dropsies. The assumption behind this practice was that a fever indicated that the state of the system was off, not that the body was afflicted by a disease. To be sure, some physicians had come to recognize that diseases were objectively real. While treating their patients, they had observed that a medicine might be effective against one set of symptoms but not another. From this experience they inferred that they faced two different diseases.
These physicians easily reconciled this inference with the ancient assumption that there was one basic cause of all disease. The most common theory held that the body’s humors were somehow awry, perhaps impure or out of balance, with one or more present in excessive or insufficient amounts. The treatment followed from the diagnosis, with bleeding, purging, and sweating all calculated to reduce excessive amounts, and diets and drugs intended to build up volume. Another basic cause of sickness, it was widely thought, might be a chemical imbalance, with body fluids showing an improper blend of acidity and alkalinity. The treatments in such cases often resembled those prescribed to restore humoral balance.
The ordinary soldier, of course, lived largely oblivious to theory, though he, his officers, and the regimental surgeons may have shared a good deal of common lore about health and medicine. Judging from the orders that came down from on high in every American camp, one belief they did not share was that cleanliness was next to godliness. Away from home, the American soldier did not mind the filth that piled up in crowded camps—or if he minded, refused nevertheless to follow rudimentary practices which would have kept them cleaner. Soldiers throughout the war apparently disdained use of the vaults, as latrine pits were called, preferring to void whenever taken by the urge. They also scattered food scraps, carrion, and garbage throughout the camps. They had to be forced to change the straw that served as bedding. And some had to be ordered to bathe. The British, professionals in this sort of thing as in all things pertaining to military life, kept clean camps and probably suffered less from disease.
Dysentery troubled the American army throughout the war. The filth the army created accounted for some of it and so did the low standards of cleanliness in cooking. Most of the time soldiers cooked for themselves, though there might be bakeries which served a brigade. Diets ran to fat meat and bread when they were available, but on the whole the army suffered more from a lack of food than an unbalanced diet.
Good officers did what they could to make camp life healthy. Washington set the standard with a flow of orders about sanitation, diet, bathing, all the concerns of a responsible commander who wanted to lead into battle men who were fit. At Valley Forge, for example, when the worst of winter had passed, he ordered renewed attention be paid to the cleanliness of troop quarters. Common opinion held that the air in each hut might be purified each day by burning the powder from a cartridge. A small amount of tar might be substituted if gunpowder were short. Tents were to be taken down daily and the ground around them scoured. Soldiers in Washington’s and Greene’s armies were encouraged to bathe—moderately. Immersion in water for too long a period might weaken the body, according to the folklore that made its way into regimental orders.
Good junior officers and noncommissioned officers could do much to protect the health of their charges. The memory of a Connecticut sergeant building a fire for his soldiers when they were cold and hungry stayed with one of his men for fifty years after the Revolution. No manual of leadership or of army medicine prescribed that sort of performance, but it undoubtedly contributed to the health of soldiers. Charles Willson Peale, serving as the captain of a Philadelphia militia company, found beef and potatoes for his company’s breakfast two days after the battle of Princeton. His men, so fatigued they could not look for food, had gone to bed without eating. Peale shook off his exhaustion and rambled from door to door at Somerset Court House until he had collected rations for his men. A few days later, Peale found that he had a sick Ensign, one Billy Haverstock, on his hands. Peale first got some sugar for Haverstock, a remedy that did not prove effective. Next he tried “a puke of Doctor Crochwin,” an emetic given to feverish patients. His final entry in his diary about the case described the use of an old standby, tartar emetic, a mixture of antimony and potassium nitrate, which he gave in a double dose. Haverstock apparently survived this treatment.
Had a physician treated Haverstock, he might still have recovered. Physicians followed just about the same lore as laymen, though they may have been more inventive in their uses of medicines. What made most of them so dangerous was their fondness for bleeding patients. When they did not bleed them, they often resorted to purging and sweating, techniques not certain to cure dysentery, malaria, typhus, typhoid, pneumonia, and smallpox, the diseases which afflicted American troops in their camps.
When surgeons were available they took care of the wounded. Bleeding the wounded sometimes served as treatment and not always with fatal results. Dr. James Thacher, who was taken into the medical department of the army as a surgeon’s mate, reported that one of his senior colleagues, a Dr. Eustis, once treated a “dangerous wound” of the shoulder and lungs by bleeding. While dilating the wound, Dr. Eustis “recommended repeated and liberal bloodletting, observing that in order to cure a wound through the lungs, you must bleed your patient to death.” Thacher reported that the wounded man recovered; the principal reason, Thacher believed, was the treatment he received.
Perhaps the best guide for surgeons, Plain, Concise, Practical Remarks on the Treatment of Wounds and Fractures by Dr. John Jones, advocated rather different procedures. Jones was a professor of surgery in King’s College, New York; he had received his medical degree from the University of Rheims in 1751 and shortly after served in the French and Indian War. The first concern in the case of a wound inflicted by a musket, he wrote, should be to extract the ball and, second, to stop the hemorrhaging. Jones’s manual divided wounds into categories; each sort required its own treatment. But in treating all kinds, Jones urged that care be used to clean the wound and to dress it carefully. He had a sense of the limits of surgery, noting, for example, the danger of amputation when the wounded man was reduced to a “low and weak state.”
Whatever the effects of Jones’s prescriptions, the treatment of wounds remained a most problematic enterprise. Soldiers who survived serious wounds doubtlessly did so through a mixture of luck and their own strong constitutions. Most surgeons tried to give their best to their patients. In the Continental army, chronically short of medicine, bandages, nurses, and food, the “best” often could not prevent death.
No disability from either wounds or illness caused more concern than smallpox. In fact smallpox frightened everyone in the eighteenth century. Battles left men wounded, sometimes disabled for life, and of course sometimes dead. Battles were frightful events, but in the Continental Army some soldiers probably feared smallpox even more.
A wound could be dressed and bandaged up; there was agreement about that. There was no such agreement about what to do about smallpox, which found quarantine and isolation of the afflicted competing with inoculation, itself a treatment that produced the disease. No one knew this better than General Washington.
Washington contracted smallpox in 1751 in Barbados while accompanying his brother Lawrence, who had traveled to the island in search of relief, if not a cure, for an ailment that was destroying his lungs. Lawrence Washington had what the eighteenth century called consumption; the modern name is tuberculosis. He died in 1752. George Washington of course survived his affliction, but he never forgot his own experience with smallpox and may have been especially sensitive to its rigors when he took command of the army in 1775 outside Boston. Smallpox lurked nearby in the city and in many of the surrounding towns. Some 13,000 civilians lived in Boston—several thousand had fled by early 1775, when the war broke out, and, cooped up by the siege, those remaining proved vulnerable to the spread of the disease.
Smallpox was an old and familiar visitor to the American colonies. New Englanders had attempted early in the eighteenth century to meet it head-on using a procedure called inoculation or variolation. In 1721, Cotton Mather, the great Puritan divine, persuaded Zabdiel Boylston, a medical practitioner in Boston, to inoculate those willing to undergo the operation. There was an epidemic in the town and the attempt to halt it with a method untried before in America kicked up an enormous storm. The reasons are not hard to understand. Inoculation entailed making an incision on the body, usually the arm but occasionally the hand, and inserting infected matter, pus, extracted from a pustule on a sufferer from the disease. The inoculated contracted the disease a few days afterward, but surprisingly, in a form less severe than usually experienced when the infection was transmitted naturally. The tumult over inoculation in 1721 was understandable, though Cotton Mather considered the bomb thrown through his window an extreme expression of discontent.
The years following Boston’s first experience with inoculation saw the practice slowly take hold. But it was frequently condemned, barred by law in cities and towns throughout the colonies. Americans learned more about the disease and about treating it in these years before the Revolution. To stop the incursion of smallpox from reaching epidemic proportions, communities resorted to quarantine, and some attempted a modified form of inoculation. Medical wisdom gradually came to the conclusion that inoculees should prepare themselves before allowing the infection to be inserted; preparation included a special diet (of doubtful value) and isolation from those free of the disease. That infected matter taken from a person who had smallpox contracted through inoculation produced illness less severe than that contracted from someone who had taken the disease naturally was recognized by mid-century. Still the use of inoculation remained controversial even when coupled with isolation and quarantine. It also sometimes proved dangerous. There is no evidence that Washington knew of Boston’s history with inoculation, but he must have heard of some parts of it.
Faced with smallpox in Boston in 1775, Washington pondered his choices, knowing that he would have to decide soon whether to use inoculation or depend upon isolation and quarantine. Most soldiers in Washington’s army had never had the disease, and he feared that if he ordered inoculation he would weaken his army temporarily to the extent of destroying its ability to maintain the siege. The inoculated were sometimes so sick as to be unable to fight. Done carefully and in stages, and without the enemy’s knowledge, inoculation would reduce the risk. Still the danger remained that one inoculee released from quarantine too early could disable troops bivouacked in tight lines around the city. In the end Washington decided against inoculation. He would quarantine troops who caught the disease naturally and civilians already infected who escaped Boston and entered his lines. Washington’s prudence paid off; most of his soldiers avoided the infection.
By January 1777, with his army at Morris Town, New Jersey, he had reason to make a different decision. Smallpox had struck his troops heavily, and other American forces as well, and he feared that it might render his army useless. He knew that inoculation would arouse opposition of the sort he had heard earlier. One example of such opposition had come to him in August of 1776, when he was told that the Governor of Connecticut, Jonathan Trumbull, had described inoculation as “pernicious” and predicted that “ ‘if it is not timely restrained it appears to me it must prove fatal to all our operations and may ruin the country.’ ”61 Washington saw ruin of another kind: an army overwhelmed by the disease. The orders therefore went out to begin immediately to inoculate soldiers who had not had the disease. He did not act recklessly but organized the process with care, making certain that the sick were isolated and that the newly inoculated were kept in quarantine.
Since recruits to his army usually came through Philadelphia, where the disease was common, the possibility was strong that they would arrive in Morris Town carrying the infection. Washington therefore issued a second set of orders instructing William Shippen, the director general and chief physician of the army, then in Philadelphia, to inoculate all recruits before sending them on to Morris Town. Soldiers who might be carriers of the disease were to be kept out of the city until they had received a change of clothes—new clothes “if possible,” and if none were available, the old clothes were to be “well washed, aired and smoaked.”
Once under way in 1777, inoculating the troops continued well into the next year when the army was in camp at Valley Forge. The medical committee of the Continental Congress gave its approval—an important action because Benjamin Rush, a medical doctor trained in Britain, chaired the group. Soon inoculations were being given wherever sizable numbers of troops were located. In many cases these soldiers were headed for the main encampment. In the year 1777, thousands were inoculated in at least three camps in Virginia, one in Maryland, two in New York, and one in Connecticut.
Unhappily, though Washington’s policy worked and almost all of those inoculated survived, a similar effort had to be undertaken again after the army settled in at Valley Forge. Washington estimated that some three or four thousand men needed protection against smallpox. The veterans had undergone the procedure, but more recently recruited troops had not, a fact that should not have occasioned surprise since the turnover rate in the army was disturbingly high. Life at Valley Forge was difficult even without inoculations, but smallpox was a serious threat in these winter quarters. By this time the army’s leadership felt confident of the efficacy of inoculation, and little time was lost before the medical branch swung into action. The troops survived the rigors of inoculation as they had every other sort at Valley Forge, and in the spring when their general ordered them into action against a British army then pulling up stakes and setting out for New York, they were ready.
Looked at from a later perspective, it is hard not to conclude that the attack on smallpox through inoculation saved the army from disintegration. The procedure seems harsh, and was, but in its absence, smallpox took many lives. With it, the army survived in fairly good shape and maintained a combat strength that would not have been possible without General Washington’s medical policy.
The armed forces of Rhodesia won virtually every battle and skirmish they ever fought against the guerrilla armies, yet they lost the war. In July 1977, Foreign Minister P K van der Byl said of white Rhodesians’ resolve never to live under a guerrilla regime: ‘We will contest every hill and every river, every village and every town, every crossroad and every bridge.’ Van der Byl’s penchant for Churchillian rhetoric was renowned, but his declaration epitomized the objectives of the Rhodesians’ war against the nationalists: never to surrender their political, social and economic power to black majority rule. Yet the war was lost, and in April 1980 the guerrillas grasped the reins of power for which they had fought so long.
The story of the Rhodesian armed forces during the civil war is one of tactical brilliance and strategic ineptitude. Rarely in military history have such thinly stretched troops, hampered by chronic manpower, training, equipment and financial constraints achieved such consistent successes against enemy forces which enjoyed the tactical and strategic initiative for most of the war, and often reached numerical parity in the field. But the Rhodesian obsession with successful tactics created a fatal blindness to the strategic imperatives of a protracted revolutionary war such as the guerrillas were waging.
The early stages of the war were fought with the armed forces much the same as they had been at the break-up of Federation. The rashness of the guerrillas’ early strategy and tactics required no expansion of the armed forces or mobilization of reserves much beyond peace-time levels. Until 1972 the brunt of the counterinsurgency operations was borne by the British South Africa Police, the RAR, the Rhodesian Light Infantry and the Royal Rhodesian Air Force (the ‘Royal’ was dropped in 1970 when Rhodesia became a republic). Reserve forces assisted from time to time, but did not assume the importance of later years.
The counter-insurgency operations were originally conceived of as a ‘police action’, with the army aiding the civil power against what were characterized as politically motivated criminals. Guerrillas were tried and convicted through the civil courts and were imprisoned or executed through the same machinery as common criminals. This preserved the fiction that the government was waging a campaign against violent criminal elements rather than an incipient civil war, but despite its political usefulness this attitude ignored the realities of the conflict. The police were responsible for the painstaking collection of evidence and the preparation of criminal dockets. It was only in 1978-9 that disaffected areas were placed under martial law and tribunals empowered to deal with captured guerrillas.
In a sense it was natural that the BSAP should be involved in counter-insurgency operations from the start. The unit (formed partly from the earlier British South Africa Company police) was raised in 1896 to combat the Shona and Ndebele insurgents, and in 1897 was almost solely responsible for mopping up the final stubborn pockets of resistance. The Rhodesian authorities liked to boast that, after 1897, the police did not shoot and kill a single African until 26 July 1960, during serious rioting in Bulawayo. The force was structured as a cavalry regiment and its military ethos remained with it until the 1980s. Although its functions became increasingly civil in succeeding decades after its foundation, it never entirely lost its paramilitary role nor its military spirit, signified by the force’s nickname, ‘The Regiment’, and its status as the ‘senior service’.
The regular police, numbering about 2,000 whites and 6,000 blacks at the height of the war, received long periods of counter-insurgency training during their recruit courses. Although most active policemen served in a civil capacity, most white junior ranks were required to serve periodic tours in the Police Anti-Terrorist Unit (PATU), otherwise essentially a reserve element.
As the war intensified, so the combat role of the regular police expanded. The Support Unit, nicknamed the ‘Black Boots’, was formed as a regular counterinsurgency unit and eventually expanded into a light infantry battalion of black constables officered by whites. The unit was highly successful and at times scored a higher kill rate than regular army formations. A widening war encouraged the proliferation of other specialist police units. The Special Branch, initially responsible for the investigation of political crime and undercover surveillance, diversified into the collection of field intelligence when it absorbed the police ‘Ground Coverage’ network of operatives and informers. A Special Branch section, the SB-Scouts, was a small unit of Special Branch agents, Selous Scouts and captured guerrillas which carried out more dangerous and esoteric intelligence-gathering, as well as conducting clandestine operations against the enemy’s political and military infrastructure. A Police Mounted Unit, formed in 1976, was an attempt to increase the mobility of police COIN forces, but it was a gimmicky formation which remained limited in size. The explosion of stock theft, which was part of the guerrilla strategy of undermining the white economy and its logistics system, brought the creation of specialized anti-stock theft teams. Their high mobility and ruthlessness in dealing with stock thieves, as well as a mandatory nine-year gaol sentence for cattle theft, were only partly successful in controlling this chronic problem for the white farming community. The spread of the war to the urban areas in the latter stages of the conflict was countered by the Urban Emergency unit, a ‘special weapons and tactics’ (SWAT) group, which was highly successful in rooting out and deterring urban terrorism.
Like all the armed forces, the police suffered from a shortage of quality manpower. This was partly alleviated by the allocation of part of the national service intakes for each year from 1973, and the greater responsibility of reserve units to assist in preventing and detecting crime in urban areas and the safer rural districts. Increasing reliance was also placed on black recruits, who made up the rank and file, and the stretching of white officers’ responsibilities.
The cutting edge of the Rhodesian security forces was provided by the regular units of the army, and they assumed the status of a strategic reserve-cum-shock force in the late 1970s. All the regular units expanded considerably during the war and came to absorb portions of the periodic national service intakes of white youths. In time these national servicemen formed the reserve elements of the regular units and were called up for tours of duty with them.
The Rhodesian African Rifles (which received white national service officers, but no other ranks) expanded from a pre-UDI strength of one battalion to four. The second was formed in 1974, the third in 1977 and the fourth began recruiting in 1978. Only the second enjoyed anything like the training and respect that white officers accorded the first, veteran battalion. The fourth battalion never really functioned properly, and by the end of the war the RAR training establishment was simply churning out vast numbers of black soldiers to meet the insatiable demands of the armed forces for some sort of trained manpower to plug the gaps in the security forces’ disintegrating control of the countryside. Raw black troops were integrated with white reserve units, which were dwindling through emigration, to bolster their strength and assimilate combat experience as quickly as possible. At that time some officers envisaged a future Rhodesian army in which virtually every white soldier was an officer or an NCO commanding vast numbers of black rank-and-file, but this did not come about before the war’s end.
The Rhodesian Light Infantry finally reached full battalion strength in the early Seventies after years of inadequate recruitment. It was boosted by foreign enlistment and national service conscripts in its commando (company-sized units) structure. The RLI achieved notoriety as a sort of southern African Foreign Legion to which mercenaries flocked from all over the world. Estimates of the total numbers of foreigners who had served in the Rhodesian forces ranged up to 2,000, but a figure of 1,400 is more likely. A large proportion of them was concentrated in No. 3 Commando of the RLI. Although the guerrillas were able to make a great deal of propaganda out of foreign recruitment as a measure of the moral, political and military depravity of the Rhodesian government, these men were more ideological soldiers of fortune than true mercenaries. Most enlisted out of political and racial conviction or purely for high adventure, since their pay and conditions of service were the same as those of white recruits of Rhodesian origin.
The Special Air Service also attracted foreigners, though its tough selection course kept the unit relatively small, with a high proportion of white Rhodesians in its ranks. Although Peter McAleese records that at one stage in the late 1970s, in ‘A’ Squadron, most of the 33 regulars were foreigners, this tally excluded the Rhodesians in the Territorial SAS. On external operations, the SAS often wore enemy uniforms, so that if an operator was killed, especially if he were a foreigner, he could officially be disowned by the authorities. The formation had languished after the dissolution of the Federation, its strength dropping to as low as 20, but by 1978 volunteers (including national servicemen) took it up to three-squadron strength. Rhodesia’s ‘C’ Squadron SAS had been formed to serve in Malaya alongside the British ‘A’and ‘B’Squadrons. (To this day, in the British SAS orbat, the ‘C’ Squadron remains vacant in honour of the lost Rhodesian element.) The Rhodesian SAS squadron later became 1 (Rhodesia) Special Air Service Regiment. A secret component was ‘D’ Squadron, made up of South African Special Forces Reconnaissance Commandos. Generally, the 40 South African operators preferred to work as a distinct unit, sometimes commanded by an SADF colonel, though they also fought alongside the Selous Scouts and Rhodesian SAS in external raids. They would sometimes fly to Salisbury on scheduled flights in civilian clothes, be met at the airport and then change into Rhodesian uniform. They were there to learn, as much as to help.
Two new units to emerge during the war were the Selous Scouts, which adopted the name relinquished by the Armoured Car Regiment, and the Grey’s Scouts. The Selous Scouts took its name from the well-known nineteenth-century hunter, Frederick Courteney Selous; Henry Rider Haggard is said to have based the character of Allan Quatermain on the same adventurer. The Selous Scouts were originally formed as a small specialist tracking unit (called the Tracker Combat Unit) to provide support for other units on COIN operations. Initially there were two groups, under 2 Brigade, based at Kariba and Bindura. But the unit’s functions multiplied, as did its size, to three troops, then a full battalion of 1,000 officers and men, most of whom were black. Selous Scouts conducted clandestine operations both inside and outside Rhodesia’s borders. Individuals were attached to the Rhodesian intelligence service to gather information from as far afield as Tanzania and Angola. One Selous Scout became the most distinguished, and decorated, Rhodesian soldier. Captain Chris Schulenburg, a South African known as Schulie, usually with just one black Scout, performed feats of long-range ground reconnaissance unparalleled in modern counter-insurgency. (The full story of this modest officer was told in The Selous Scouts: Top Secret War.) The Scouts’ Support Troop acted as assault infantry in raids into neighbouring countries, though it was never as effective as the SAS. (Most of the blunders of the Rhodesians on raids into Zambia were attributable to this formation acting on its own initiative or with too much licence granted by General Walls himself.) The unit’s notoriety for treachery and brutality was only partly deserved, for the bulk of its members were engaged on routine military tasks. But the Selous Scouts did field ‘pseudo-gangs’ to deceive the guerrillas and their supporters, and to carry out punitive atrocities against villages which collaborated with the guerrillas. Selous Scout pseudo operators were paid a Rh$100 bounty for every guerrilla killed or captured along with their weapons. This rose to Rh$150 a head if there were more than ten guerrillas. The formation’s penchant for secrecy (despite the wide publicity given to its existence and to its stringent selection tests), and the bogus cloak-and-dagger attitude of some of its ranks, helped the guerrillas to paint a picture of the battalion as a latter-day Waffen-SS. The undoubted efficiency and bravery of the soldiers in the unit, many of whom were national servicemen or reservists, and the extreme conditions under which they often operated, contributed to the images of ruthless shock troops promoted by the mass media around the world.
The Grey’s Scouts were a mounted infantry unit formed to exploit the mobility of horses for COIN operations. The formation had mixed success, but they attracted high quality volunteers, again including many foreigners, and established a reputation for aggressiveness. At times they operated purely as foot-soldiers, depending on operational conditions.
Apart from the Grey’s Scouts and the third and fourth battalions of the RAR, the regular units were increasingly deployed as military fire brigades within the country, and on external operations after 1976. The trend was to hand over routine, ground-covering patrols to reserve forces. Fire Force duties were allocated to the RLI, the RAR, the Support Company of the Selous Scouts and, less frequently, the SAS. Formations served two- to three-week tours as Fire Forces before being allocated to other operations. In consequence, most of their ranks received parachute training.
External operations were carried out almost exclusively by these regular formations. The SAS spent most of its time across the border. The Squadrons were deployed for months at a time in Mozambique, Zambia or Botswana on regular operations to harass guerrilla camps and lines of communication and to gather intelligence. Full-scale assaults on guerrilla bases, some involving combat paradrops from as low as 300 feet, were also a part of the unit’s responsibilities. The RAR, RLI and Selous Scouts deployed detachments of up to company strength into neighbouring states, though most operations were on a smaller scale.
Other combat formations were the Independent Companies made up of national servicemen, the Artillery and the Armoured Car Regiment. The Independent Companies had specific areas of responsibility (for example, 2 Indep. Coy was based at Kariba, 3 Indep. Coy at Inyanga) in which they constantly operated. Occasionally they were deployed on Fire Force duties and on external raids. Their quality was never very high as they were the residue of national service intakes after officer training, the regular units, the specialized arms and police had taken their pick of conscripts. One such unit, 7 Indep. Coy, was a cover for a unit of French recruits into the Rhodesian forces. Some were veterans of the Foreign Legion, but they were not successful in Rhodesian conditions and were disbanded.
The service corps were largely staffed by regular troops, though their deficiencies were also made up by drafts of national servicemen and reservists. The corps divisions of responsibility were roughly similar to those of the British army: the Corps of Engineers, the Corps of Signals, Army Services Corps, Army Medical Corps, Military Police, Army Pay Corps, Army Educational Corps and the Corps of Chaplains. There were also miscellaneous departments such as the Psychological Action Group (Psyac) and Military Intelligence to co-ordinate field and external intelligence data. The Military Intelligence department performed poorly partly because of the small size of its staff, of whom nearly all were reservists. A big exception, however, was the signallers in Military Intelligence who operated the Radio Intercept Services. A great deal of vital information was gleaned from radio interception of guerrillas and regular troops based in Mozambique and Zambia. A Special Investigations Branch was created to ensure the internal security of the army and to root out subversion and dissidence among troops.
The army’s ‘tail’ was remarkably lean, and the usual imbalance between combat and support units in modern armies was not a severe problem for the Rhodesian forces. Many functions of the ‘tail’ were carried out by cheap black auxiliary labour, so that little white manpower was allocated to trivial, but necessary, support functions. The emigration of skilled artisans from the country had serious repercussions for the armed forces. Motor vehicle mechanics were in chronically short supply, especially when the number of landmine and traffic incidents escalated alarmingly from 1976. The gaps in the security forces’ maintenance capabilities were filled to a great extent by private contractors and by calling up skilled personnel to serve in security forces’ workshops.
This illustration depicts the first muster of Massachusetts Bay Colony militia in the spring of 1637.
In the colonial era, the militia system was linked to fundamental concepts of American citizenship; militias were considered to be one of three pillars of society, along with the church and local government. Militarily, the colonial militia was the primary instrument of defense for the American colonies. By the latter part of the 17th century, the militia had become more complex, as local militias continued to function as local defense forces, while militia volunteers and draftees made up the provincial expeditionary forces for major campaigns. The structures and functions of local militias and expeditionary forces continued to evolve through the series of imperial wars of the 18th century.
Early Colonial Militias
The first English colonists found themselves in precarious circumstances. Potential attack from Native Americans and England’s European rivals compelled the colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth to immediately organize their defenses. For guidance, colonists turned to the English militia tradition, dating to the 12th-century Assize of Arms (1181), which obligated every able-bodied adult man in the community to provide military service for the common defense.
In Jamestown (settled in 1607), Capt. John Smith was one of several among the first colonists with professional military experience. Smith proved more forceful than most, however, and once he assumed responsibility for the defense of the colony he held every man responsible for militia duty. Facing the prospect of the colony’s starvation and total collapse, Smith declared martial law and organized reluctant settlers to raid corn supplies of local Native Americans. Smith’s authoritarian actions kept the colony alive without a formal militia structure. The founders of the first New England colony in Plymouth (1620) hired a military adviser, Miles Standish, to oversee the colony’s defenses. In the early years of both colonies, community defense fell to the entire male community.
After a decade of settlement, the militia structures of Virginia and New England diverged, reflecting differences in their societies and circumstances. In Virginia, the emergence of tobacco as a cash crop stimulated the entrepreneurial individualism that produced a rapid expansion of dispersed plantations. The isolated plantations, however, hindered militia organization and were vulnerable to attack; a 1622 attack by local Powhatans devastated the English colony. The royal government determined to establish an effective militia by mandating universal military service for every man between the ages of 17 and 60. Orders instructed planters to take their weapons with them to church and into the fields when they worked.
In contrast to Virginia’s dispersed settlement pattern, New Englanders settled closely around their meetinghouses, which enabled each town to maintain a militia company. In a total community effort, towns constructed fortifications that made each town an outpost and every freeman a soldier. The display of military prowess combined with competent diplomacy permitted New England to avoid major conflict during the early years of settlement.
17th-Century Militia Systems
Gradually over two decades, New England and Virginia transformed their ad hoc militias into formally structured militia systems. In New England, specialized “trained bands” received military training while the rest of the male population constituted a reserve. Between 1637 and 1676, New England’s military planners learned from repeated conflicts with Native Americans that their best chance for success depended on their ability to counterattack quickly and effectively. The Massachusetts militia adapted by creating special units of troops drawn from the trained bands based on particular skills, for example, tracking and marksmanship.
Their first major expedition during the Pequot War (1637) proved a tactical success but revealed shortcomings in command. As a remedy, New England colonies joined in a cooperative military establishment, the United Colonies of New England (1643). The confederation was formed expressly to provide mutual aid with both men and logistical support and to provide a central command. While imperfect, the New England regional coordinating council lasted for some 40 years.
By the time of King Philip’s War (1675-76), the colonial militia system had begun to take on two distinct forms: local militia and provincial expeditionary forces. After damaging surprise attacks by Native American warriors in 1675, New England towns contributed more than 1,000 militia troops for a retaliatory provincial expedition. The evolution of the militia- from a universal community obligation for local defense to a formalized military force-required provincial officials to negotiate soldiers’ pay rates and specify the destination and duration of service. Soldiers enlisted with the expectation that they were entering into a contract between equals. They insisted on electing the officers who would lead them, set the geographic limits of their service (often refusing to leave their own provinces), stipulated the rations and supplies to which they were entitled, and demanded discharge at the agreed expiration of their enlistment. As the scale and risks of expeditions grew, recruiters increasingly relied on enlistment bonuses to fill the ranks, and the social profiles of expedition soldiers shifted more toward young bachelors and the “lower sort” who were more likely to be enticed by economic incentives.
New England militias were subordinated to the selectmen of their towns; expedition forces reported to the provincial government. Operationally, local committees raised, equipped, and paid the militia, with the social composition of New England militia closely mirroring the community. In the local militia, the “better sort” of well-to-do and respectable men tended to be officers, while freeholders (property owners) filled the ranks; expeditionary forces relied more on the lower end of the social order for their rank and file.
During this same period, the evolution of the Virginia militia followed a different trajectory but arrived at a similar end. After quelling another Powhatan uprising in 1644, Virginia’s militia organization suffered from complacency and neglect. Militia duty was burdensome to busy tobacco planters. The lack of support from established planters pushed frontier settlers to organize their own vigilante militia. In 1676, they attacked bordering tribes, but then quickly turned their wrath on the colonial governor in a violent outburst known as Bacon’s Rebellion. After British regulars restored order, the royal government promptly restructured the Virginia militia, hiring professional soldiers for frontier duty and reserving future local militia service to the “better sort.”
18th-Century Militia Systems
From 1689 to 1763, the demands on the militia system shifted predominantly to providing expeditionary forces to support British wars with Spain and France. By the time of King William’s War (1689-97), provincial expeditionary forces were the primary unit for active duty, even though the militia remained the first line of defense for outlying towns. In the south at the turn of the century, the militia was only occasionally a viable force. When South Carolina experienced a Spanish attack in 1706, the militia rushed to defend the coastal capital Charleston, but during the Yamasee War (1715), militia turnout was dismal. Following the end of Queen Anne’s War in 1714, southern colonial militias declined in military readiness and became exclusively the preserve of white planters who were more worried about slave rebellion than Indian attacks.
By the time of the culminating phase of imperial wars in North America (King George’s War, 1744-48, to the French and Indian War, 1756-63), southern militias’ main function was community policing. When Britain called upon Virginia for troops to support a Caribbean expedition, the Virginia assembly hired or drafted transients, laborers, and other landless persons because propertied men refused to enlist for distant expeditions. Men of property remained active in the militia while it functioned as a policing force at home, but most landholders avoided active duty on the frontier or expeditions by paying a fine for nonservice. In contrast, New Englanders from across the entire social spectrum turned out for an offensive expedition against French Canada in 1745. The French and their Indian allies were a long-standing menace to the northern colonies, and past experiences of predations motivated some recruits. Others responded for army pay and the prospect of plunder, and still others for God and glory.
When the French and Indian War reignited hostilities, the British deployed a regular army to America and called on 30,000 colonial troops to support them. The war linked global imperial struggles to local frontier warfare, and New Englanders again joined the fray in considerable numbers. Because colonial militiamen in Massachusetts saw their military service as a contract, freely entered into and with stipulated limits, most joined voluntarily and were not disproportionately of the lower classes as was the case in Virginia.
As expeditionary forces increasingly fought the wars of empire, local militias became more important as social institutions than as military organizations. By the 18th century, militia training days were important community events in colonial society. Not only did the men come together to drill, the entire community joined in a civic holiday and a picnic, opened with a prayer by the minister of the congregation. Afterward, while the men drilled on the green, women cooked feasts and children socialized with other youngsters. Young women looked on as the young men fired their muskets and marched smartly on the training greens. Training day functioned as an initiation ritual for younger men entering into the world of adult manhood. It also was the stage upon which a community reconfirmed the ranks of citizenship and the social order. Those on the margins of the social proceedings at training days were the same people on the margins of full citizenship or prosperity-a diverse group that included servants, slaves, Native Americans, and transient laborers.
The Revolutionary Militia
The onset of the American Revolution inspired the last resurgence of colonial militia systems as effective military organizations. In 1775, the Minute Men were the American vanguard, as the larger part of the adult male population mustered for community defense. Once serious fighting began, however, the New England colonies reverted to the established model of the expeditionary forces in which recruits tended to be single young men able to handle the rigors of military life. When the war continued into another year, at Commander in Chief George Washington’s urging, the American Congress authorized establishment of a truly national army, much more similar to the European model of a professional army. The demands of a continental war required a national army that superseded the capacities of the colonial militia systems, and henceforth the militias functioned as auxiliaries and recruiting pools.
Bibliography Boucher, Ronald L. “The Colonial Militia as a Social Organization: Salem, Massachusetts, 1764-1775.” Military Affairs 37 (1973): 125-30. Cress, Lawrence Delbert. Citizens in Arms: The Army and the Militia in American Society to the War of 1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982. Leach, Douglas Edward. “The Military System of Plymouth Colony.” New England Quarterly (1951): 342-364. Shy, John. “A New Look at the Colonial Militia.” William and Mary Quarterly 20 (1963): 175-85. Whisker, James Biser. The Rise and Decline of the American Militia System. London: Associated University Press, 1999.
Further Reading Anderson, Fred. A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Gross, Robert. The Minutemen and Their World. New York: Hill & Wang, 1976. Leach, Douglas Edward. Roots of Conflict: British Armed Forces and Colonial Americans, 1677-1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. Main, Jackson Turner. The Social Structure of Revolutionary America. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. Millis, Walter. Arms and Men: A Study in American Military History. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1956.
The warrior women of Dahomey, an ancient kingdom in West Africa and present-day Benin, first came to the attention of European travelers in the latter half of the sixteenth century. A German book published in 1598, Vera Descriptio Regni Africani, describes an African royal court whose palace guard consisted of women, and similar royal formations occurred elsewhere in the world from ancient times, particularly in the East. The kings of ancient Persia had female bodyguards, as did a prince of Java.
As late as the nineteenth century, the king of Siam, now Thailand, was guarded by a battalion of four hundred women armed with spears. They were said to perform drills better than male soldiers and were crack spear-throwers. Women in general were regarded as more loyal and trustworthy bodyguards than men, because they were less likely to be bribed or suborned; many rulers chose female bodyguards for this reason.
But the women of Dahomey outclassed them all. More than 250 years after the first reference, we catch sight of them again in the high summer of the British Empire when the British general Sir Garnet Wolseley, in a report on his successful campaign against the Ashanti (1873–74), compared his energetic and disciplined Fanti female porters to the king of Dahomey’s “corps of Amazons.”
Eighteenth-century accounts of Dahomey by European merchants and slave traders—slavery was the basis of the kingdom’s wealth—paint a picture of a colorful feudal world whose kings were surrounded by hundreds of serving girls and guarded by armed women. One of Dahomey’s kings, Bossa Ahadee, would march in ceremonial procession accompanied by several hundred wives, surrounded by female messengers and slaves, and escorted by a guard of 120 men armed with blunderbusses and 90 armed women.
The presence of the armed women was, at this stage in Dahomey’s history, more a symbol than a real threat to Dahomey’s neighbors. The tables were turned, however, when one of them, the king of Oyo, took to the field against the Dahomeans with a raiding party of eight hundred women to enforce a claim of female tribute he had leveled against King Adahoonzou. It was left to the all-male Dahomean army to defeat the Oyan Amazons.
By the time of King Ghezo (1818–58), Dahomey’s royal court consisted of some eight thousand people, the majority of them women, many of whom existed in a minutely graded pyramid of concubinage, at the top of which were the so-called Wives of the Leopard, the women who bore the ruler’s children. One of the functions of the armed female element of the court, all of whom were recruited in their early teenage years, seems to have been the capture and execution of women from rival tribes. All the “Amazons” carried giant folding razors, with blades over two feet long, which were apparently used to decapitate female enemies and castrate male foes.
From the late 1830s Ghezo seems to have used members of his predominantly female court in battle against neighboring tribes. It is possible that he deployed four thousand female warriors in an army totaling sixteen thousand. When in 1851 he laid siege to the city of Abeokuta, the siege was repulsed with losses of some three thousand, of whom two thirds were women. A French account of the engagement describes their officers standing in the front line, “recognisable by the riches of their dress” and carrying themselves with “a proud and resolute air.” Nevertheless, these women warriors occupied an inferior and ambivalent position in the hierarchy of the Dahomean court and, significantly, referred to themselves as men in their war cries and battle chants.
Far from discouraging Ghezo, this setback spurred him on to include more women in his army. They seem to have been divided into a regular corps of well-trained and highly disciplined “Amazons” armed with muskets and machete-like swords, who also formed an elite personal bodyguard, and a rather less satisfactory reserve, armed with cutlasses, clubs, and bows and arrows, who were more interested in rum than rigorous military discipline. In peacetime the “Amazon” corps was wholly segregated from men, and outside the confines of the royal palace its approach was signaled by the ringing of bells, upon which civilians had to turn their backs and males had to move away.
There were several practical reasons for Ghezo’s use of women in battle. Dahomey was exceptionally warlike, and lost many men on campaign, while simultaneously depending for its wealth on a slave trade that favored the disposal to slavers of a large proportion of its able-bodied male population. At its peak strength in the early 1860s, the Dahomean army was approximately fifty thousand strong—one-fifth the total population—of which the female element numbered ten thousand, a quarter of their number consisting of the “Amazons.”
It has been suggested that many of the women, as well as some of the men in the Dahomean army, went to war as camp followers, much in the manner of the soldaderas who marched with Mexican armies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton, who saw them in 1863, likewise poured derision on “the fighting Amazons.” “Mostly elderly and all of them hideous,” he ruminated with all the authority of the European white male, “the officers decidedly chosen for the size of their bottoms…they manoeuvre with the precision of a flock of sheep.” But he also noted that this army, then some 2,500 strong, was well armed and effective in battle. Nor could all of them have been old and hideous, since all 2,500 were official wives of the king.
In spite of the dread in which they were held, the “Amazons” were no match for small but well-armed colonial armies. In a series of engagements in 1892, the male and female Dahomean warriors were defeated by a French army, and the kingdom became a colony of France. The victorious French commander commended the women warriors on their speed and boldness and installed a puppet ruler who was permitted a few token women in his bodyguard. A troupe of so-called Amazons from Dahomey formed part of a display at the recently erected Eiffel Tower, under which they danced and drilled.
Reference: Stanley B. Alpern, Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey, 1998.