immigrants were the backbone of the revolutionary army -- 9/05/17

Today's selection -- from Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick. The American Revolutionary army, the army that contested the British in the Battle of Brandywine and suffered through the bitter winter at Valley Forge, was composed primarily of immigrants:

"By that winter, the famed 'Spirit of 1776' had long since passed. Now that the Revolution had become a long-term war, most American males had decided to leave the job of fighting for their nation's liberty to others. A quota system had been instituted by which each of the states was responsible for providing a designated number of soldiers to the Continental army. In Connecticut, for example, the militiamen in a community were divided into groups (known as squads) according to how much taxable property they owned, with each squad responsible for providing a soldier to the army. A very rich person might have a squad of his own while three less wealthy citizens might make up another squad. If, as was usually the case, no one in the squad was willing to serve in the army, they hired a substitute, which was how [fifteen-year-old] Joseph Plumb Martin ended up back in the army.

"As it turned out, Martin, having been born in America, was the exception. After the Battle of Brandywine, a British officer listed the na­tionality of the rebel prisoners. If this list is any indication, most of the soldiers in Washington's army had been born not in America but in England, Ireland, and Germany, with only 82 of the 315 prisoners (ap­proximately 25 percent) listed as native born. This meant that while the vast majority of the country's citizens stayed at home, the War for Inde­pendence was being waged, in large part, by newly arrived immigrants. Those native-born Americans who by mid-1777 were serving in the army tended to be either African Americans, Native Americans, or what one historian has called 'free white men on the move,' such as Joseph Plumb Martin.

Painting depicting George Washington leading the Continental Army to Valley Forge in 1777.

"They did not have the education and social standing of the zealous patriots who had served during the early years of the Revolution, but they would become the battle-hardened backbone of the Continental army. They would also earn their commander's unwavering respect and even affection. Like Washington, they were in this war until the end.

"On December 18 Washington ordered his army to begin building 'soldiers' huts' in the hill-surrounded hollow of Valley Forge. Just sixteen by fourteen feet, with log walls that were six feet high and with a single wooden fireplace in the back, each structure was to house twelve men. But building accommodations was the least of his army's problems. By the end of December, Washington had no way to feed his men. 'Unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place,' he wrote, his army of approximately twelve thousand men 'must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things: starve, dissolve, or disperse.'

"Due, in large part, to the neglect of Congress (not to mention the apathetic performance of the outgoing quartermaster, Thomas Mifflin), the army's support system had been allowed to collapse. The steady sup­ply of meat and other provisions that was to have flowed into Valley Forge on a daily basis had stopped almost completely. Regiment after regiment took up the call of 'NO MEAT! NO MEAT!' as officers wor­ried that they might soon have a full-scale mutiny on their hands.

"The needless suffering of the army at Valley Forge prompted Wash­ington to address Congress with uncharacteristic candor and emotion. 'I can assure those gentlemen,' he wrote to President Henry Laurens, 'that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fireside than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and snow. ... Although they seem to have little feeling for the naked and distressed soldier, I feel superabundantly for them, and from my soul pity those miseries, which it is neither in my power to re­lieve or prevent.'"



Nathaniel Philbrick


Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution


Penguin Books


Copyright 2016 by Nathaniel Philbrick


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment