In his book “Almost a Miracle”, historian John Ferling writes that “the forlorn
conditions under which America’s soldiers were made to live and campaign was a national
disgrace. That the army did not implode in a frenzy of mutinies long before 1781
was little short of miraculous.” Professor Ferling is correct. Never in modern military
history has an army been so cruelly abused by its political masters.
It was bad enough that these citizen soldiers had to face the formidable force of
the professional British army. What was worse was that they faced the harrowing
experiences of eighteenth century warfare – the agony of long marches, the debilitating
illnesses, the appalling casualties - without the proper weapons, often without
boots, winter coats or food.
The memoir of Private Joseph Plumb Martin, who left his grandfather’s Connecticut
farm in 1775 and served for eight years in the Continental army, has left us a grim,
vivid description of how bad conditions truly were. In January 1780, for example,
his unit took up a position in Westfield, New York prior to mounting an attack on
a British fort on Staten Island. Private Martin writes: “we…took up our abode for
the night upon a bleak hill, in full rake of the northwest wind, with no covering
or shelter than the canopy of the heavens and no fuel
but some old rotten nails
which we dug up through the snow which was two or three feet deep… we were absolutely,
literally starved…I saw several of the men roast their old shoes and eat them.”
He added: “Here was the army starving and naked, and there their country sitting
still and expecting the army to do notable things while fainting from sheer starvation.”
The reason why Private Martin and his comrades were starving and unprotected against
the bitter winter cold was the outrageous corruption and profiteering surrounding
the army’s supply chain which Congress failed to address throughout the war.
George Washington was acutely aware of the suffering endured by his troops. The
Commander in Chief was, of course, a strict and sometimes ruthless disciplinarian.
He had to be. But Washington was also a compassionate military manager deeply devoted
to the well-being of his enlisted men. If you read his papers, you come away impressed
by the almost superhuman energy he devoted to improving the health and welfare of
his troops and to lobbying Congress and the States for the food and other supplies
they had promised him. No detail was ever too small for him to attend to if it improved
the life of an enlisted man.