Despite great examples of their military prowess, New England soldiers by manners and customs could appear unmilitary to the soldiers of other colonies early in the Revolutionary War.
Today in the United States broad regional differences are part of the national character, but in the early years of the Revolutionary War regional differences were far more acute. As thirteen unique colonies allied together for their mutual independence, soldiers from these colonies, and eventually states, were often like foreigners brought together in the same army. Perhaps no greater divide existed than between soldiers from New England states and soldiers of other states. Even for officers considered today regionally part of the northeast, their diaries and correspondence are filled with concerns and complaints about New England soldiers. Many complained of the unmilitary appearance, character, and quality of New England soldiers. For gentlemen officers from elsewhere, the lack of a social distinction between officers and men from New England was a grave concern, one worthy of contempt and even violence.
Alexander Graydon, a captain with the 3rd Pennsylvania Battalion mustered with the rest of the Pennsylvania troops in New York City in the spring of 1776. He was dismayed by his first encounters with New England soldiers, but willing to give them the benefit of the doubt as he wrote in his memoires.
We surveyed these men with all the respect that was due to the great military reputation of their country; but, we were obliged to confess, that they did not entirely come up to the ideas we had formed of the heroes of Lexington and Bunker’s hill. This, we took to be a militia corps, from the circumstance of its not being a whit superior, in any visible respect, to the worst of ours. However, thought we, these may nevertheless have some knack at fighting, which only discloses itself in the moment of action.
Many Pennsylvania officers were not all that socially different from their men in civilian life, but many considered social distance between officers and men in the army part of order and discipline.
Fellow Pennsylvania officer, Captain Persifor Frasier of the 4th Pennsylvania Battalion was much less open-minded in his impressions of New Englanders while encamped below the walls of Fort Ticonderoga. In a letter to his wife back home on July 15, 1776 wrote, “There is not that dependence on New England men that I expected. They make a most wretched appearance away from home as they are not able to endure hardships equal to other American troops. Above three fourths of them are no unfit for service by what I can learn.” Ten days later, he had not yet found any love for his New England neighbors at the Ticonderoga camp. He elaborated on his dislike of his New England, or ‘Yankee’ soldiers in a subsequent letter to his wife on July 25th.
The miserable appearance and whit is worse the miserable behavior of the Yankees is sufficient enough to make one sick of the service. They are by no means fit to endure hardships; among them there is the strangest mixture of Negroes, Indians and Whites with old men and children which together with a nasty lousy appearance makes a most shocking spectacle. No man was ever more disappointed than I have been in respect to them.
Lieutenant Colonel Richard Varrick, aide to General Phillip Schuyler echoed Frasier’s criticism in his testimony defending General Arthur Saint Clair in his 1778 court martial. Varrick would say of the New England soldiers defending Ticonderoga under the command of General Saint Clair in 1777, “There was a number of boys, old men and negroes. I dismissed at the muster 50, as positively unfit for any kind of service, and would have more, had you not desired me to be very tender as you had so few troops in the garrison.”
Pennsylvanians were not without critique. Simeon Bloodgood, first ran into Pennsylvania soldiers while serving as a teamster with the Northern Department commissary on his way to Canada. He was not impressed.
They were the most quarrelsome, and I regret to say, profligate set of men I had ever seen together. They had plenty of money with them and spent it profusely. The vices of insubordination, gambling and rioting, marked their battalia, and we our selves had great trouble with them, not withstanding our pacific character.
Yet as much as this New Yorker did not care for Pennsylvania soldiers, they might well have agreed on their assessment of New Englanders. When New Yorkers joined Connecticut solders for the invasion Canada in 1775 there was an immediate culture shock. Upon arriving at Ticonderoga, Colonel Rudolphus Ritzema of the 1st New York regiment wrote of his disdain for the Connecticut troops.
–Embarked at South Bay & arrived safe in the Evening at Ticonderoga—here everything bore an unmilitary Appearance—the Fortifications in Ruins & not repairing—the N.E soldiers without order or discipline—Milites Rustici indeed!
Despite a long campaign season primarily of dangerous sieges in miserable weather, Colonel Ritzema’s concerns over these New England farmers-turned-soldiers or, “Milites Rustici,” remained. On February 14th, 1776 Colonel Ritzema arrived in Philadelphia to deliver dispatches and a report from General Schuyler to the Continental Congress. His report detailed the dire state of the Army in Canada, and Schuyler’s recommendations rectify problems. Schuyler expressed deep concerns about a proposal to merge remaining soldiers and recruits into two battalions.
–that I conceived it impracticable to form these Men into two Battalions, agreeable to a late Resolution of the Congress, as they are composed of the Remnant of the different Troops of New York, Jersey, Connecticut & the Bay, & of too opposite Characters to ever form a useful Corps.
Schuyler maintained his disdain for New England soldiers through 1776, making his displeasure with them evident. In his memoires, Alexander Graydon recalled an incident he witnessed between General Schuyler and a New England officer in the spring of 1776. Having delivered pay for the Northern Department, then Captain Graydon of the 3rd Pennsylvania Battalion dined in the quarters of General Schuyler at FortGeorge. Captain Graydon recalled:
But that he should have been displeasing to the Yankees I am not at all surprised: he certainly was at no pains to conceal the extreme contempt he felt for a set of officers, who were both a disgrace to their stations and the cause in which they acted! Being yet a stranger to the character of these men, and the constitution of that part of our military force which in Pennsylvania was considered as the bulwark of the nation, I must confess my surprise at an incident which took place while at dinner. Besides the General, the members of this family and ourselves, there were at a table a lady and gentleman from Montreal. A New England Captain came in upon some business, with that abject servility of manner, which belongs to persons of the meanest rank: he was neither asked to sit or take a glass of wine, and after announcing his wants, was dismissed with that peevishness of tone we apply to a low and vexatious intruder. This man, in his proper sphere, might have been entitled to better treatment; but when presuming to thrust himself into a situation, in which, far other qualifications than his were required, and upon an occasion too which involved some of the most important human interests, I am scarcely prepared to say, it was unmerited.
The lack of social distinction between officers and men among New England soldiers seems to have concerned Pennsylvania officers like Graydon, as it threatened military discipline. This is not to say that there had to be huge class distinction between officers and men. Indeed, within Graydon’s own company his 2nd lieutenant, “served his apprenticeship to an Apothecary in Philadelphia,” making him a tradesmen, albeit a somewhat genteel one. Alexander Graydon in his memoires, points to gentility of manner and bearing rather than birth as essential. To him, acting with the polish of an officer was as essential to leadership as the rank or any uniform distinctions.
The materials which the eastern battalions were composed were apparently the same as those of which I had seen so unpromising a specimen at Lake George. I speak particularly of the officers, who were in no respect distinguishable from their men, other than in the coloured cockades, which, for this very purpose, had been prescribed in general orders; a different colour being assigned to the officers of each grade. So far from aiming at a deportment which might raise them above their privates, and thence prompt them to due respect and obedience to their commands, the object was, by humility, to preserve the existing blessings of equality:
Looking back from 2014 it can be difficult to imagine its utility, but separate, private quarters and private meals, were part of keeping the respect of enlisted soldiers.
New England soldiers were hardly oblivious to this critique. James Thatcher, a private soldier in Colonel Asa Whitcomb’s Massachusetts regiment served at Ticonderoga in the summer of 1776. His regiment was brigaded with the Pennsylvania regiments posted to guard and fortify the French Lines. In his military journal from September 20, 1776, Thatcher lamented the inability to Pennsylvanians, who were considered southerners, to understand and appreciate the New England custom of equality.
There is another evil of a very serious complexion which has manifested itself in our camp. Since the troops from the Southern states have been incorporated and associated in military duty with those from New England, a strong prejudice has assumed its unhappy influence, and drawn a line of distinction between them. Many of the officers from the South are gentlemen of education, and unaccustomed to the equality which prevails in New England: and however desirable, it could scarcely be expected that people from distant colonies, differing in manners and prejudices, could at once harmonize in friendly intercourse. Hence we too frequently hear the burlesque epithet of Yankee from one party, and that of Buckskin, by way of retort, from the other.
It is difficult to imagine today, just how close enlisted quarters could be. Everything, from cooking pots, to tents, bunks, and even blankets were shared within messes of 5-6 soldiers.
The lack of a social distinction between New England officers and soldiers wasn’t simply about leadership and discipline. Pennsylvania officers like Alexander Graydon may have perceived that the common nature of New England officers potentially undermined their commitment to the cause for which the army served. To Graydon a gentleman, by education and by financial security, could focus his efforts on the idealistic cause at hand with devotion purely to military duty. An officer who was a common working man would still have his own financial interests ahead of his patriotic goals and military occupation. In his memoirs, Gradyon elaborated on an encounter where he saw a New England Colonel told to carry his own rations from the commissary, by Connecticut General, Israel Putnam.
But if any aristocratic tendencies had been really discovered by the Colonel among his countrymen, requiring this wholesome example, they must have been of recent origin, and the effect of southern contamination, since I have been credibly informed, that it was no unusual thing in the army before Boston, for a Colonel to make drummers and fifers of his sons, thereby, not only enabled to form a very snug, economical mess, but to aid also considerably the revenue of the family chest. In short, it appeared that the sordid sprit of gain was the vital principle of the greater part of the army.
This suspicion about the motivations of New England officers perceived by Pennsylvanians clarifies, though does not excuse a violent incident inside Fort Ticonderoga in December of 1776. By December of 1776, the threat of British invasion from Canada had lifted and most of the American northern army had departed to reinforce Washington’s army or to be disbanded back home. A handful of regiments remained at the Ticonderoga camp, among them the 4th Pennsylvania Battalion and Asa Whitcomb’s Massachusetts regiment. Consolidated from huts all over the Ticonderoga camp down to the Fort and adjacent area, these two regiments were in close proximity. Lieutenant Colonel Church served as commander of the 4th Pennsylvania Battalion. Previously, he had the honor and distinction of commanding the rifle company of the regiment, a distinction that required a financial commitment to be the first company recruited as well as the esteem of his superior Pennsylvanian officers. Colonel Asa Whitcomb was a consummate Massachusetts officer who had served with the Massachusetts grand army in 1775. James Thatcher of his regiment recorded in his journal the riot between the two regiments on December 26, 1776.
A singular kind of riot took place in our barracks last evening, attended by some unpleasant consequences. Colonel A. W. of Massachusetts, made choice of his two sons, who were soldiers in his regiment, to discharge the menial duties of waiters, and one of them having been brought up a shoe maker, the Colonel was so inconsiderate as to allow him to work on his bench in the same room with himself. This ridiculous conduct has for some time drawn on the good old man the contemptuous sneers of the gentlemen officers, especially those from Pennsylvania. Lieutenant Colonel C. of Wayne’s regiment, being warmed with wine, took on himself the task of reprehending the “Yankee” Colonel for thus degrading his rank. With this view he rushed into the room in the evening and soon dispatched the shoe makers’s bench, after which, he made an assault on the Colonel’s person, and bruised him severely. The noise and confusion soon collected a number of officers and soldiers, and it was a considerable time before the rioters could be quelled. Some of the soldiers of Colonel Wayne’s regiment actually took to their arms and dared the Yankees, and then proceeded to the extremity of firing their guns. About thirty or forty rounds were aimed at the soldiers of our regiment, who were driven from their huts and barracks, and several were severely wounded.
A shoe makers bench run by colonel’s son may seem innocent. Imagine someone running a side business at their 9-5 job. This simple act tapped into many misgivings about the motivations of some New England officers.
A simple shoe bench in use by Colonel Whitcomb’s son inside his quarters was more than just a means to repair shoes. This bench served as clear tangible evidence not only that the Colonel and his family were common men just like the enlisted soldiers of the regiment, but also as a reminder that Colonel Whitcomb had his own financial interests in mind while serving as an officer. He messed with his sons, using his colonel’s rations, which included portions for extra servants to feed his sons, allowing potentially for the sale of the extra rations. Whitcomb’s son’s shoemaking tools and bench had to be transported with his baggage, baggage intended to meet the military needs of his duty as a senior officer and gentlemen. This shoe bench was an obvious symbol of business competing with military duty. Perhaps fueled by wine, ColonelChurch saw himself casting out the money changers from his own temple of military service. The December 26, 1776 riot is interesting not simply because of attitudes and differences that lead up to it. It is interesting that the cultural gulf between New Englanders and others was generally overcome in the service of their united cause. Benedict Arnold’s fleet was crewed largely by a draft of soldiers from all four brigades of the Army at Ticonderoga. As brigades mixed together soldiers from different states so too the close quarters of these boats brought them even closer. On October 29, 1776, the day after the whole Ticonderoga camp was alarmed by the approach of British scouts, General Horatio Gates congratulated his army for their vigorous response. In particular he noted:
The Gen. returns his Thanks to the Officers and Soldiers of the whole Army for the Alert and spirited manner with which they Propos’d to face the Enemy Yesterday, and particularly to the Regts of Reeds, Poors, and Greatons, for the Despatch they made in Crossing the Lake immediately upon being Order’d to reinforce the Redoubts and French Lines.
Indeed, these three regiments, two from Massachusetts and one from New Hampshire, rushed to their boats to help out their fellow Pennsylvanians up at the French Lines. In that alarm, the division between Yankees and Buckskins was set aside as they prepared to defend Ticonderoga together. Deep seated regional differences among soldiers in the army at Ticonderoga only serve to make their cooperation together all the more impressive.