Certain Continental Army facts are implanted in the minds of U.S. schoolchildren at a young age: How patriot farmers dropped their plows and picked up their muskets to fight. How soldiers suffered during the harsh winter at Valley Forge. How Washington took command of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775. Or how the British wore red and the patriots wore blue-and-buff uniforms.
But other, little-known Continental Army facts tell us more about the real American Revolution than the U.S. textbook – and certainly the Hollywood — version.
For example, officers had a code of etiquette, even if they fought on opposite sides. After George Washington’s defeat at the Battle of Germantown, he returned British general William Howe’s dog to him. The fox terrier had strayed into the patriots’ camp, and he had Howe’s name on his collar. Washington sent the pup back with a nice note, probably written by his aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton. (Read it here.)
So here, then, are seven Continental Army facts that you may not have known.
1. Continental Army, 10% Black
Black soldiers made up as much as a tenth of the Continental Army. In 1775, the New England states enlisted 200 black soldiers, but Washington put an end to that practice. A Pennsylvania captain explained why. He wrote that African-American soldiers ‘had a ‘disagreeable, degrading effect’ on the army.
However, the Continental Army had such a shortage of men that Washington gave in. He said the New England states could recruit the enslaved, promise them freedom and pay their masters. Rhode Island started its own black regiment, but with white officers. A French officer called them ‘merry, confident, sturdy,’ and ‘the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuvers.’
2. Second Thoughts
One-fifth of the Army deserted. After the initial excitement of the shot heard ‘round the world, the merchants and farmers who eagerly signed up began to realize that military life wasn’t for them. At first, soldiers enlisted for one year, which meant Washington had to rebuild his army every winter. By 1777, the states began to draft soldiers for three-year-terms.
Those who couldn’t get out of the draft tended to be men on the fringes of society: apprentices, transients, beggars, drunks, indentured immigrants, even loyalists who preferred the Continental Army to the continental prison. But many couldn’t or wouldn’t endure the danger, low pay, hunger, disease, cold and fatigue. So they deserted. Some even mutinied.
3. Rations Included Beer
Soldiers got beer or spirits as part of their daily rations. Every day they were also supposed to receive a pound of bread, a pound of beef and/or pork, a pint of milk, a gill of peas or beans and six ounces of butter. One day a week they had salt fish instead of meat and a pint of vinegar to ward off scurvy.
That, at least, was what they got in theory. In practice, the food had often turned rancid. Soldiers frequently went without bread or meat. Even more frequently, they lacked vinegar and vegetables. The meat diet, wrote Washington, ‘untempered by vegetables or vinegar, or by any kind of drink but water, and eating indifferent bread … are to be ascribed the many putrid diseases incident to the army.’
4. Intolerable Smells
Soldiers could get whipped for failing to use the privy. When they arrived at Valley Forge, some men relieved themselves wherever they felt like it. They left the carcasses of horses to rot where they fell. Washington, concerned about disease and disgusted by ‘intolerable smells,’ ordered five lashes for anyone who did not use ‘a proper Necessary.’ He also ordered two windows cut in every hut to let in fresh air.
5. Rifle Dress
Those blue-and-buff uniforms didn’t arrive until later in the war, and then only a few states had those colors. In the early days, Washington suggested the ‘rifle dress.’ It included a fringed hunting shirt (a long loose coat usually made of homespun) and long pants with gaiters or leggings dyed the color of a dry leaf. The soldier topped off his rifle dress with a round dark hat turned up once or three times with a cockade or sprig of green. He also had a white belt for the cartouche box and a black cloth around the neck.
Washington liked the rifle dress because of its practicality and because it scared the British soldiers, who thought only sharpshooters wore it. “It is a dress which is justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person a complete marksman,” wrote Washington.
6. Remember the Ladies
One of the little-known Continental Army facts is that women were part of it. And not just a few women, like Deborah Sampson, who dressed up as men and served. Thousands of women followed their husbands and boyfriends in the Continental Army. So did loyalist women.
Known as camp followers, the armies couldn’t function without them. They did laundry, they tended cattle, they cared for the sick and they guarded baggage. In many ways the army treated them as soldiers. Like soldiers, they could be punished for misbehavior, they received rations and they were ordered what to do.
In 1778, for example, British Gen. Henry Clinton ordered “The Women of the Army are constantly to march upon the flanks of the Baggage of their respective Corps.”
More patriots died in British prisons than in battle. A total of 6,800 died in action, while another 6,100 were wounded. But 20,000 were taken prisoner, and of those as many as 12,000 died while prisoners.
With thanks to ‘American Revolution: A Continental History‘ by Alan Taylor for some of our Continental Army facts. This story was updated in 2022.