Camp Duties in the Continental Army

About the author

Edward St. Germain.
Edward St. Germain

Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.

Editor’s note

The following is a chapter from the book “The Private Soldier Under Washington” written by Charles Knowles Bolton in 1902. The book helps to explain the conditions that Continental soldiers experienced during the American Revolution.

The book contains fascinating letters and notes written by soldiers during the war, which you may find contain some outdated spellings of certain words compared to modern English.


The soldier’s life was not passed in idleness. Uniforms and arms required daily attention before the hour for parade, and the endless duties connected with cooking, obtaining fuel, and caring for the camp provided work for all. Day in camp began at sunrise with the beating of the reveille, or earlier when some important movement was to be executed. Not infrequently the exact moment of dawn was unknown and the tired men were called from their beds in the dark. Day was said, however, to have begun when a sentry could see clearly a thousand yards around him, “and not before.”1 To farmers’ sons, unaccustomed to shave frequently, to put powder upon their hair, or to brush their clothes, a constant regard for personal appearance became at once oppressive. During the period of late sunrise the men were instructed to shave in the evening that they might be ready for parade in the morning;2 and their canteens were to be filled at night whenever there was reason to expect an early departure from camp or an attack.3

In the opening years of the war many pickets, from ignorance of military life or from carelessness, brought trouble upon themselves; some went back to their quarters to get provisions, leaving their posts unprotected,4 others sat down in comfort under trees, and, as just stated, were so negligent that their guns were stolen from their keeping.5 Colonel Crafts at one time threatened to punish those who persisted in relieving themselves from duty without the presence of a corporal.6 In September, 1775, the following description of military duty appears in a letter written by a Southern rifleman at Prospect Hill: “On Thursday at firing the morning Gun we were ordered to Plow’d Hill, where we lay all that day – I took my paper & Ink along as you once desired I would, but found so much to do beside writing, that you had only a few lines manufactured (in the face of 18 battering Cannon);…there was too much noise for writing & the Generals appearing in sight I tho’t it not quite so decent a Posture of a SOLDIER, thrust my writing materials under an old Blanket, Shouldered my firelock, and strutted with all the parade of a careful Lad.”7

As the autumn of 1775 wore on the men became accustomed to the routine and were more alert, although some failed to remember the proper password or countersign, since it was changed every night. A single sentinel demanded the countersign only, but the sentry next to the guard, upon hearing someone approach, demanded, “Who goes there?” and if many were in view he called to the sergeant of the guard, who ordered out his men under arms. When officers made the grand round the sergeant demanded the parole – a watchword not known to the guard – which he repeated to his captain. If the parole was given correctly he cried, “Grand round pass.”8 General Ward’s selection of the parole and countersign was intended to impress wisdom upon the lonely sentinel, who was forced to remember the words if he was unwilling to accept their lesson. The parole Industry was given with the countersign Wealth, Neatness with Gentility, Inoculation with Health. In time of danger the parole Look out with the countersign Sharp must have suggested to the sentinel the path of duty.9

At Valley Forge there was a chain of sentinels which surrounded the camp at the distance of a mile; the men were relieved daily.10 The following entry in Sergeant Wild’s journal while at Warwick, R. I., illustrates very well the performance of guard duty. “At sundown,” he writes, “I carried my men to roll call. After the rolls were called I mounted guard with sixteen men under my command. I marched with my men about 2 miles towards the Point, where I left my guard. At 11 o’clk I sent a corporal and four men out as a patrolling party, which went down to the Point and all round the shore. They discovered nothing remarkable. Came in again about 1 o’clk, at which time I sent out another party, which went the rounds as before and came in about three o’clk; at which time I sent another party, which went the rounds as usual and came in between 4 & 5 o’clk, and then I sent another party, which patrolled till daylight and then came in with the other corporal and four men from the Point. I went to the commissary’s, and got a gill of rum pr man. After I gave it to them I dismissed them.”11

Guard service in all kinds of weather, and sometimes in places of great danger, was not the least trying part of the soldier’s routine, following, as it often did, days of great bodily exertion and fatigue. He who fell asleep while on duty was punished by twenty lashes on the bare back, or more if the enemy was near enough to make the crime a dangerous one.12 The hardships which were endured called occasionally for a recommendation of clemency by a court-martial, as, for instance, in the case of George Cook, who was tried in 1777 for sleeping at his post. Cook had been ill of a fever for several days and unable to sleep; the fresh air of his lonely vigil brought relief, and he was found fast asleep, standing at his place of duty.13 When a sentinel deserted to the enemy he became the subject of comment; “64 old countrymen,” as the soldiers of foreign birth were called, never quite gained the confidence of the army, and if a man who was reported as “gone over to the enemy” was known to be an old countryman the fact was emphasized among the rank and file after the evening roll-call.14

Washington preferred “natives” for sentinels, and later he chose from them his body-guard.15 He insisted that officers should place as sentinels at the outposts those whose characters were thoroughly known. “He therefore orders that for the future, no man shall be appointed to those important stations who is not a native of this country, or who has a wife or family in it, to whom he is known to be attached.”16 Washington was driven to prefer Americans for officers, also, when the tide of adventurers from across the sea set in so strongly that it threatened to carry Congress with it and drive the native officers into retirement. Lafayette, however, he continued to treat with an affection very like that of a father for his son.

Honor and kindness, while by no means unknown in war time, were not as common in the Revolution as the best military standards demand. Cases might be mentioned which did no credit to royalist or colonist. “About 8 o’clock,” wrote John Clunes in March, 1779, “the Rebels sent in a Flagg of truse to us [the British], but Gen. Powell would not see [it] and ordered us to fire on them which we did and Out Of 5 killed 3.”17

British treatment of the enemy’s outposts was sometimes cruel and uncalled for. The following note by Lieutenant Eld, of the Coldstream Guards, describes an experience of his in New Jersey: “I was sent forward with 60 Light Infantry to attack a rebel Picquet on the right of the main body of the rebels who were advantageously posted & fortified in a Church Yard at a place called Paramus. The Picqt was placed at the edge of a wood with a plain of half an mile in the rear, – I surprised the Picqt which instantly fled & the most famous chase over the plain ensued – we were in at the death of seven. – I had given orders that my Party should not fire but use their Bayonets.”18

After reading these words it may be well to recall an incident which is recorded in Simcoe’s Journal, for it shows that all the inhumanity was not confined to King George’s men: “The rebels continually fired at night on the centinels…A figure was dressed up with a blanket coat, and posted in the road by which the enemy would probably advance, and fires resembling a piquet were placed at the customary distance; at midnight the rebels arrived, and fired twenty or thirty shot at the effigy…The next day an officer happening to come in with a flag of truce, he was shown the figure and was made sensible of the inhumanity of firing at a sentinel when nothing farther was intended.”19 This was not an isolated case, for David How’s Diary, under date of October 28, 1776, states that riflemen fired at the sentries of the regulars while the British army lay in sight, at or near White Plains.20

The danger which a sentry encountered came almost wholly from the sabre and the musket ball, but a curious exception recorded by the Rev. Benjamin Boardman should be noticed here. On Monday night, July 31, 1775, the enemy opened fire upon the Continentals from their works in Roxbury, and a cannon-ball came through the air so close to a sentinel that the man was set to whirling like a top. He soon fell to the ground, but was found to be only slightly injured.21 A month earlier a soldier died from the “wind of a ball,” as it was called.22

Camp life was not devoted wholly to drill or picket duty or cooking, although idleness was discouraged. Cutting wood, building fires, repairing huts, cleaning arms, waiting upon officers, tramping a road through the brush to facilitate the hauling of firewood,23 serving in the “grass guard” to watch and protect the horses while feeding,24 or making cartridges,25 were useful services which kept the privates out of mischief. The construction of earthworks, building of whale-boats,26 and other occupations incident to a campaign, filled the men’s time while in more active service. In the expedition to Crown Point under Arnold, all hands were employed on occasion in necessary work; men were divided into squads, some to bake bread, some to go in search of game or to spend their time in fishing, others to cut timber or mount cannon.27 In South Carolina seines were provided for the Continental troops that were detailed to fish.28

Temporary field-works of earth were not in favor in Europe a century and more ago; they were held to be unmilitary and to foster cowardice. But the defences thrown up at Bunker Hill in a night proved effective in checking the British advance; the firelock behind loose earth weighed heavily against disciplined bravery, and the lesson once learned, the Continentals entered more and more into the construction of such works.29 The lines were first marked on the ground in the angular forms so often shown in illustrated histories covering this period. The gabions (“stakes interwoven with twisted bundles of switches, like baskets without bottoms”) were then set on the lines, three or four deep, and earth dug up alongside was thrown in. Fascines (“bundles of switches about six feet long”) were then piled up on the outside and inside, and were held in place by stakes, four feet long, driven down through them; more fascines were laid on top of the gabions, and the whole was then covered with earth, and with sod. In the space between the foot of the outer slope and the ditch or fosse, which was a customary part of the works, wooden pickets were frequently planted, as was the case at Bunker Hill in October, 1775. Redoubts sometimes had as additional works half-moon structures or transes, as at Prospect Hill.30 Farmers accustomed to handle the spade soon grew experienced in this form of labor.

Expert artisans were called upon to make paper for bank-notes,31 print proclamations, and provide many articles in constant demand. These men were usually excused from all other duties, and found it to their advantage to exhibit their ability when called upon.32 The dearth of skilled artisans in America is well illustrated by the petition presented to Congress in 1776, in which sundry paper-makers prayed that Nathan Sellers of Colonel Paschall’s battalion might be ordered home “to make and prepare moulds, washers and utensils for carrying on the paper manufactory.”33 The “gunbarrel-maker,” the saltpetre-maker, and he of the “nailer’s business” were in such demand that they could hardly be spared for military service.34 Forges had been set up all over the Colonies, giving employment to iron-workers and gunsmiths. The latter were not numerous, and a few of these accepted the bait or bribe of high wages in England, offered by leading royalists, and left the country.35 Some of the soldiers were ordered to act as servants to their officers; but as this kept many able-bodied men from active service and led to abuses, it was discontinued by general orders at Valley Forge in 1778.36

Knowledge of music was also in demand. In the Boston campaign, the drums and fifes of each regiment were reguarly instructed by the regimental drum-major and fife-major, and their music stirred the men as martial music does today.37 When drums were not to be had, French horns were used.38 In the campaign of 1779 against the Six Nations two men were cut down by the Indians’ tomahawks; later Colonel Proctor ordered his musicians, in passing the spot, to play the touching air of Roslin Castle, “the soft and moving notes” of which cast a hush upon the regiment and awakened pity for their comrades.39 The Pioneers March was another tune used at the time.40 The memory of one master of the drum should be kept green, for he helped to while away many tedious hours during the Northern campaign of 1776. Tibbals was his name, and as the boatmen sang at their oars – they were upon the lake – he would give one touch upon the drum which seemed to bring every voice into harmony.41 The soldiers, half-covered with water as they lay in the boats, forgot the loneliness and gloom of the darkening night; the music lingered in each man’s memory long after the voices and drums were still. It is probable that Yankee Doodle had little or no vogue in the army, and the statement by Anburey that the lively air was “a favorite of favorites…the lover’s spell, the nurse’s lullaby” is open to serious question.42 At funerals the impressive tune Funeral Thoughts, with its drum-beat at the end of each line, was sometimes played.43

Washington made use of the artisan in the army whenever it was possible, but there were many occasions when capable hands were able to turn a penny after the soldier’s day had closed. Early in the war, barter and private labor prevailed among the thrifty to a surprising degree; men worked at their trades during the hours between the Retreat, which beat at sunset, and the Tattoo, which was sounded at eight or nine o’clock.44 The makers of shoes, leather breeches, or caps earned money, and by their work aided to some extent the efforts of the Colonies to clothe the army.

David How, a private at the siege of Boston, bought and sold cider, chestnuts, arms, and clothing. A few lines from his diary will show the busy life that a soldier might lead when not on duty:

25 day [January, 1776]. 1 Bought 7 Bushels of Chesnuts & give 4 pisterens per bushel.

30 We have Sold Nuts and Cyder Every Day this Weak.

31 I Bought 4 Bushels of Apels and gave 12s. pr Bushel for them.

22 [February]. PETER GAGE Staid Hear Last Night and I Bought 3 pare of Shoes of him @ 5/6 per pare. I Bought a pare of Stocking And give 5/4 for them.

23 1 Sold a pare of Shoes for 6/8.

26 1 Sold my Cateridge box For 4/6 Lawfull money

At the time he carried on this trading he was quartered in one of the buildings at Harvard College, and did his share of fatigue, made cartridges, ran ball, and even served his turn as cook for the company.45

A curious agreement, made between a soldier and a land-owner near camp, stipulated that the former was to clear a certain tract of land fit for mowing, and was to receive $100 paper currency, but if head-quarters moved before he had finished the work, he was to receive payment for what he had done.46

Among the many duties incident to army life the observance of Sunday as a day for religious teaching was not forgotten. Washington himself impressed upon the men under his command the value of Christian character, and his own example must have aided the chaplains in their difficult labors.

Public prayers were a part of the daily or Sunday routine, followed by the reading of orders, and usually the roll-call.47 Washington’s attitude toward religion in the army was unmistakably set forth when he said: “To the distinguished character of a Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of a Christian.”48 And Congress, ready to promote the same ideals, voted September 11, 1777, to import twenty thousand Bibles; it is curious to notice that all the members from New England were in favor of the measure, and all those from the Southern States, except Georgia, were recorded as against it, although Lee of Virginia and Laurens of South Carolina were with the North.

A chaplain, who, it is said, “prayed and sang with the brigade,” has described the preparation made for services: “The music march up and the drummers lay their drums in a very neat style in two rows, one above the other; it always takes five, and often the rows are very long; occasionally they make a platform for me to stand upon, and raise their drums a number of tier.”49 The sermon on Sunday, usually at eleven, was often of a practical nature; it referred to the hardships and the duties of a soldier; it urged upon him temperance and vigilance, cleanliness and honesty. In many cases, as in those cited herewith, the minister altered the text to suit his need. Rev. John Gano, who was attached to Clinton’s division of the expedition against the Six Nations in 1779, was asked to preach to the troops at Canajoharie, and was requested “to dwell a little more on politics” than he usually did. He preached from the words of Moses: “Come, go thou with us, and we will do thee good; for he that seeketh my life, seeketh thy life, but with us thou shalt be in safeguard.”50

Rev. Mr. Kirtland preached September 15, 1776, to the New Jersey troops at Fort Schuyler from the text, “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me, scattereth abroad.”51 Upon the 4th of July, Mr. Gano took for his text these words: “This day shall be a memorial unto you throughout your generations.”52 But these suggestive sermons did not always attract the men, and even when they were present discipline was not maintained as rigidly as would be the case to-day. To increase the audience a penalty was once imposed for absence from worship: a few hours spent in digging out stumps in a New York woodland proved effective.53 It should be said in defence of the men that the preaching was not always worth a hearing. Mr. Bliss, said a fellow clergyman, preached at Cambridge August 20, 1775, “from those words in Deut. 23, 9-14, and had he have digested his subject might have done well, but attempting to extemporize, it was as it was.”54 The critic himself, however, rather outdid Mr. Bliss on the following Sunday, when, as he records, he preached the entire day; but perhaps he had relays of listeners, and not one weary throng as might be inferred.55

Rev. Mr. Gano was a serviceable preacher. When he was informed that many of the soldiers before whom he was to preach on a certain Sunday were six and nine months men, whose departure from the army would be unfortunate, he told his listeners that “he could aver of the truth that our Lord and Saviour approved of all those who had engaged in His service for the whole warfare.” The rank and file were much amused, and those who had “engaged for the whole war ” forced many short-term men by their jesting to re-enlist.

But the laugh was not always on the ministers’ side. During the winter at Valley Forge many parsons were at home, as the men were too poorly clad to stand in the cold and listen to preaching. Mr. Gano was away on leave; when he returned to camp he asked a soldier how his commander and the men had fared. The soldier replied gravely that they had suffered all winter without hearing the Word of God. Mr. Gano explained that it was their comfort he had had in mind.

“True,” said the soldier,” but it would have been consoling to have had such a good man near us.” Deeply touched, Mr. Gano told General van Cortlandt of his encounter. Van Cortlandt, a little later, asked to have the soldier pointed out to him, and was surprised to see the worst reprobate in the regiment.56


  1. Colonel William Henshaw’s Orderly Book, p. 53.
  2. Orderly Book of the Northern Army at Ticonderoga, p. 26.
  3. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 4, p. 219.
  4. Colonel William Henshaw’s Orderly Book, p. 47.
  5. A. Lewis’s Orderly Book, p. 77.
  6. Essex Institute Collections, vol. 14, p. 64.
  7. Letter of Jesse Lukens; in Boston Public Library, Historical Manuscripts, No. I, p. 26.
  8. Major Ennion Williams’s Journal, Pennsylvania Archives, 2d series, vol. 15, p. 19
  9. Colonel I. Hutchinson’s Orderly Book; in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, October, 1878, p. 340 et seq.
  10. T. Blake’s Journal, in Kidder’s First New Hampshire Regiment, p. 40.
  11. E. Wild’s Journal, in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, October, 1890, p. 121.
  12. Orderly Book of the Northern Army at Ticonderoga, p. 56.
  13. Putnam’s General Orders, August 10, 1777 (p. 52).
  14. E. Wild’s journal; in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, October, 1890, p. 96.
  15. Washington’s Revolutionary Orders (Whiting), p. 35.
  16. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 3, p. 6.
  17. Note to G. Pausch’s journal (1886), p. 151.
  18. Boston Public Library Bulletin, January, 1897, p. 314.
  19. J. G. Simcoe’s Military journal, p. 173.
  20. How’s Diary, p. 35. See also Heath’s Memoirs (1798), pp. 62, 6 3.
  21. Boardman’s Diary, in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, May, 1892, p. 400. See also Boston Public Library, Historical Manuscripts, No. 1, p. 28; the wind from a twenty-four-pounder knocked down a man and horse.
  22. John Trumbull’s Autobiography, New York, 1841, p. 21.
  23. E. Wild’s journal, December 27, 1778; in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, October, 1890.
  24. A. Lewis’s Orderly Book, p. 10.
  25. Essex Institute Collections, vol. 14, p. 190; also Lewis’s Orderly Book, p. 48.
  26. Colonel Hutchinson’s Orderly Book, p. 23.
  27. B. Arnold’s Regimental Memorandum Book, June 14, 1775.
  28. Captain B. Elliott’s Diary, in Charleston Year Book, 1889, p. 231.
  29. C. F. Adams’s Bunker Hill; in American Historical Review, vol. I, pp. 411 412.
  30. Major Ennion Williams’s Journal; in Pennsylvania Archives, 2d series, vol. 15, pp. 16-19. At White Plains General Heath made three serviceable redoubts of earth and cornstalks. (Memoirs, 1798, p. 82.)
  31. Washington’s Orderly Book kept at Valley Forge (Griffin) p. 5.
  32. A. Lewis’s Orderly Book, p. 19.
  33. Journals of Congress, August 26, 1776.
  34. American Archives V., vol. I, col. 1062.
  35. Weeden’s Economic and Social History, vol. 2, p. 795.
  36. Washington’s Revolutionary Orders (Whiting), p. 91.
  37. Colonel Hutchinson’s Orderly Book; in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, October, 1878, p. 347.
  38. Captain B. Elliott’s Diary, in Charleston Year Book, 1889, p. 241.
  39. Rev. William Rogers’s Journal, p. 35.
  40. A. Lewis’s Orderly Book, p. 12.
  41. Rev. A. R. Robbins’s Journal, pp. 18, 43.
  42. T. Anburey’s Travels, vol. 2, p. 50. Thacher’s Military Journal, p. 128.
  43. Rev. B. Boardman’s Diary, in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, May, 1892, p. 411.
  44. At the same time British soldiers earned money by working for the inhabitants of Boston, although this was contrary to orders. (Diary of S. Kemble, Lieutenant- Colonel Sixtieth Foot; in New York Historical Society Collections, 1883, p. 72.) Private work is still carried on where one might least expect to see it, by sailors on British men-of-war. (F. T. Bullen, in the Spectator, September 9, 1899.)
  45. David How’s Diary, p. 4 et seq.
  46. Elijah Fisher’s Journal, p. 11.
  47. Rev. William Emerson, in Washington’s Writings (Sparks), vol. 3, p. 491.
  48. Washington’s Revolutionary Orders (Whiting), p. 75.
  49. Rev. A. R. Robbins’s Journal, p. 37.
  50. A practical adaptation from I Samuel xxii. 23.
  51. Lieutenant E. Elmer’s Journal; New Jersey Historical Society Proceedings, vol. 3 (1849), p. 25. The reading in Matthew xii. 30, “with me,” was changed by the minister to “for me,” perhaps to strengthen his text.
  52. From Exodus xii. 14.
  53. Rev. John Gano’s Biographical Memoirs (New York, 1806); also Historical Magazine, vol. 5, p. 332.
  54. Rev. B. Boardman’s Diary; Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, May, 1892, p. 403.
  55. Ibid., p. 404.
  56. P. van Cortlandt’s Autobiography; in Magazine of American History, May, 1878, p. 296.

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