The Revolution Remembered

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Shortly before the fighting began in 1775 a British officer based in Boston watched the local militia stumble through its paces and wrote home about it. “It is a Masquerade Scene,” he said, “to see grave sober Citizens, Barbers and Tailors, who never looked fierce before in their Lives, but at their Wives, Children or Apprentices, strutting about in their Sunday wigs in stiff Buckles with their Muskets on their Shoulders, struggling to put on a Martial Countenance. If ever you saw a Goose assume an Air of Consequence, you may catch some idea of the foolish, awkward, puffed-up stare of our Tradesmen.”

His scorn was understandable, for in his time the profession of soldiering called for training every bit as refined and rigorous as that given, say, a watchmaker. The idea of a citizen army was entirely new and more than a little ludicrous.

Yet just such an army would win the war that was to come, and no documents demonstrate the qualities of its amateur soldiers more vividly than the extraordinary, never-before-published reminiscences on the following pages.

In 1832, Congress passed the first comprehensive Pension Act for veterans of the Revolution. It offered a yearly stipend to any man (or his widow) who could prove service of more than six months in the struggle for independence. Most of the thousands of elderly veterans who applied could offer little documentary evidence of having fought: discharge papers had been lost (or never issued); pay certificates had been sold or thrown away; comrades-in-arms who would have remembered them were long since dead. Their only recourse was to submit what the enabling legislation called “a very full account” of their service and have it sworn to in a court of law.

Accordingly, the old men made their way to the local courthouse and told their stories to a clerk or court reporter. Pension agents sought out others, recorded their memories, and filled out applications for a fee. The narratives thus collected—the results of one of the first and largest oral-history projects ever undertaken anywhere—are recorded on 898 reels of microfilm at the National Archives in Washington. Most have never before been published. Now, Professor John C. Dann of the University of Michigan has performed the mind-numbing task of deciphering them all, and has chosen seventy-nine to include in his book, The Revolution Remembered , to be published soon by the University of Chicago Press. We, in turn, have selected portions of sixteen narratives to present here.

These are the voices of ordinary men and women—farmers, mainly, but servants, too, and a slave and a shoemaker and a laundress—and their stories are told, for the most part, in the plainest possible language. Some veterans were terse, others garrulous, and here and there a date is muddled or a detail embroidered; it had, after all, been just under half a century since the shooting stopped. But almost all of them retained a fierce—and justifiable—pride in what they had done.

Sylvanus Wood, a shoemaker of Wobum, Massachusetts, was a minuteman when the war came.

I was then established at my trade two miles east of Lexington meetinghouse, on west border of Woburn, and on the nineteenth morn of April, 1775, Robert Douglass and myself heard Lexington bell about one hour before day. We concluded that trouble was near.

We waited for no man but hastened and joined Captain Barker’s company at the breaking of the day. Douglass and myself stood together in the center of said company when the enemy first fired. The English soon were on their march for Concord. I helped carry six dead into the meetinghouse and then set out after the enemy and had not an armed man to go with me, but before I arrived at Concord, I see one of the grenadiers standing sentinel. I cocked my piece and run up to him, seized his gun with my left hand. He surrendered his armor, one gun and bayonet, a large cutlass and brass fender, one box over the shoulder with twenty-two rounds, one box round the waist with eighteen rounds. This was the first prisoner that was known to be taken that day.

 

Ten-year-old Israel Trask of Essex County, Massachusetts, was a regimental cook and messenger in 1776 when he first saw General Washington in the rebel encampment at Cambridge.

A day or two preceding the incident I am about to relate, a rifle corps had come into camp from Virginia, made up of recruits from the backwoods and mountains of that state, in a uniform dress totally different from that of the regiments raised on the seaboard and interior of New England. Their white linen frocks, ruffled and fringed, excited the curiosity of the whole army, particularly … the Marblehead regiment, who were always full of fun and mischief. [They] looked with scorn on such an rustic uniform when compared to their own round jackets and fishers’ trousers, [and they] directly confronted from fifty to an hundred of the riflemen who were viewing the college buildings. Their first manifestations were ridicule and derision, which the riflemen bore with more patience than their wont, but resort being made to snow, which then covered the ground, these soft missives were interchanged but a few minutes before both parties closed, and a fierce struggle commenced with biting and gouging on the one part, and knockdown on the other part with as much apparent fury as the most deadly enmity could create. Reinforced by their friends, in less than five minutes, more than a thousand combatants were on the field, struggling for the mastery.