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The book contains fascinating letters and notes written by soldiers during the war, which you may find contain some outdated spellings of certain words compared to modern English.


It is difficult to ascertain just what Washington thought of the private soldiers. When by a disgraceful retreat, as once happened, he was left in imminent danger of capture, he was incensed at the cowardice of his men; when he saw them enlist where they were offered the largest bounty, he scorned their avarice; but when they suffered and were patient, were tested and proved loyal and courageous, he loved and praised them. He put his trust in the native rank and file, and chose for his bodyguard only those born in America or those who were bound to the land by the strongest ties of blood.1 The privates bore hardships such as, in his opinion, would have broken the spirit of foreign soldiers. In the spring of 1778 he wrote from Valley Forge: “To see men, without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lie on, without shoes by which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet, and almost as often without provisions as with them, marching through the frost and snow, and at Christmas taking up their winter quarters within a day’s march of the enemy without a house or hut to cover them, till they could be built, and submitting to it without a murmur, is a proof of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralleled.”2 Colonel John Laurens, a young officer at head-quarters, shows in his letters a frank affection for the men whom he desired to command. “I would cherish,” he said, “those dear, ragged Continentals, whose patience will be the admiration of future ages, and [I] glory in bleeding with them.”3 From the words of Washington and of Laurens it is reasonable to suppose that the rank and file were kindly remembered in the deliberations of those who formed the Commander’s official family.

Washington knew the trials of the men who served under him; his kindly heart tempered the course of justice because he could measure the strength of their temptations. But officers were not always men of character – or, to use the old word, men of true quality – and the private, reasonably patient under almost unheard-of privation and suffering, chafed beneath the yoke of militarism. At the South the owner of a plantation, having large opportunities for culture by means of his great wealth, commanded respect, and having many servants he grew to exercise the voice of authority. At the North there was none of this, and a distinction between officer and man did not prevail in the rural militia of New England.4 This was due, in part at least, to the levelling influence of small farms. The private’s company officers were not infrequently his intimate friends or even his inferiors, men who had devoted their time to the local militia organization and had become familiar with drill and tactics while he, perhaps, was busy with other matters. The private could not understand why he should salute such neighbors because they were in camp, or why he should ask of them permission to go beyond the lines. When the men gathered at the siege of Boston they were at first allowed much liberty; a soldier, wishing to go home for a few days, wrote a letter to a friend or relative and asked him to come to camp as a substitute.5 Before many Weeks had passed the men noticed the increasing rigor of army discipline. Even a man of superior education, Rev. William Emerson, commented upon the “great distinction made between officers and soldiers,” where everyone was made to know his place and keep in it, on pain of receiving thirty or forty lashes.6

Intelligent opinion was, on the whole, against the popular social philosophy of the day, when applied to army life. Joseph Reed, writing to his wife October 11, 1776, remarks: “Where the principles of democracy so universally prevail, where so great an equality and so thorough a levelling spirit predominates, either no discipline can be established, or he who attempts it must become odious and detestable, a position which no one will choose. You may form some notion of it when I tell you that yesterday morning a captain of horse, who attends the General from Connecticut, was seen shaving one of his men on the parade near the house.”7 The same impression was gained by James Wilkinson, who noticed in the camp at Boston but little distinction between colonel and private.8 Graydon is another witness; he recalls the story of Colonel Putnam, chief engineer of the army, who was seen with a large piece of meat in his hand. “What,” said a friend, “carrying home your rations yourself, Colonel?” “Yes,” he replied, “and I do it to set the officers a good example.” And Graydon adds that if Putnam had seen any aristocratic tendencies in the army they must have been of very recent origin and due to southern contamination.

It was not at all uncommon for company or even regimental officers to give to their sons or younger brothers positions which were below commissioned rank.9 But rank came to be more jealously guarded as time went on. In 1779, at a brigade court-martial, Captain Dexter, for behavior unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman in frequently associating with the wagon-master of the brigade, was sentenced to be discharged the service.10 Earlier in the war Lieutenant Whitney, “for infamous conduct in degrading himself by voluntarily doing the duty of an orderly sergeant,” was sentenced to be severely reprimanded.”11 Among a rural people at the North the lieutenant’s act of kindness could hardly have merited severity, except as it injured discipline in other regiments. In the South more was expected; Captain Barnard Elliott’s Diary has this entry: “The Lieut. Col. cannot think the Major could so far have overlooked the officers’ command and authority as to order Shepherd (a private) to take a power only due to an officer; he assures the regiment that in future if an officer suffers his prerogative to be trampled upon which he ought to support, he will be considered by him as a man wanting in that essential which constitutes the officer.”12 The practical results of the doctrine of equality, when put in force, were occasionally made evident by disorder and mutiny.13

While the lack of a proper difference in pay for the officer and the private may have justified in the mind of the private this attitude of equality, it could not have been the dominating influence among the troops from New England, if it was among those from the middle and southern colonies. Washington calls it “one great source of familiarity.”14 But the farmer of to-day is more jealous of his right of familiarity with the rich than with the poor, and more watchful as his neighbor prospers. To his reasoning a larger income brings no enlarged prerogative in social affairs. Where social distinctions were closely observed, as in the South, a marked difference in pay was more essential to the management of the rank and file. But the difficulty existed, and Washington wrote to the president of Congress, September 24, 1776: “While those men consider and treat him [an officer] as an equal, and, in the character of an officer regard him no more than a broomstick, being mixed together as one common herd, no order nor discipline can prevail.”15

What was the governing cause of this trouble? Many have answered the question in much the same words. Captain John Chester, of Connecticut, soon after the experience at Bunker Hill, commented upon the fear of all officers, “from the Capt General to a corporal,” that the people would brook no exercise of authority, and added the significant words: “The most of the companies of this Province [meaning Massachusetts Bay] are commanded by a most Despicable set of officers.”16

One explanation needs no proof to convince us of its truth. Where officers depended for their commissions upon their ability to raise companies or to persuade companies to serve under them, the test was of popularity and not of military skill. It proved impossible in Massachusetts for many men to play the double role of recruiting officer and disciplinarian before the same body of soldiers with success. Several officers who would have made excellent privates or officials in civil employment were turned out of the army in disgrace before the war was fairly begun.

If discipline depends upon those in command, what could be expected at Bunker Hill of a company whose captain ordered the men to march into battle, promising to “overtake them directly,” and never appearing until the next day?17 “I have,” said Washington, “already broke one Colo. and five Captains for Cowardice, or for drawing more Pay & Provisions than they had Men in their Companies.”18 General Lee and Captain Chester both speak of the absence of officers from Bunker Hill, of lack of discipline, and of readiness to retreat among many companies of privates who had not so much as a corporal to command them.19

Men who had had little or no discipline at home needed a strong hand in camp, but a hand that they could respect. As to the materials (I mean the private men),” wrote Charles Lee, “they are admirable – young, stout, healthy, zealous, and good humor’d and sober.”20 “But,” to quote Joseph Hawley, “there is much more cause for fear that the officers will fail in a day of trial than the privates.”21 It was the officers who failed in their duty (if failure there was) at Bunker Hill;22 they were the drill-masters on the green, but when the best stuff of the town was put under them and they were no longer merely drill-masters but leaders, they could not fill the measure. They were not always gentlemen, in so far as that term implies leadership in thought and action. Some were petty, mercenary, overbearing, and themselves ill-trained to obey their official superiors.” These N. England men,” said Lee, the professional soldier, “are so defective in materials for officers, that it must require time to make a real good army out of ’em.”23 The same sentiment was voiced in almost the same words by another famous general of the war, Nathanael Greene. “We want nothing,” he said, “but good officers to constitute as good an army as ever marched into the field. Our men are much better than the officers.”24 It would not be well to condemn many for the failings which were too evident in a few; but the testimony of men like Lee and Greene suggests that when the private fell short in discipline and obedience, as frequently happened, he was not alone at fault.

The charge was once made that the rank and file served for money, while the liberties of America were preserved by the patriotism of officers. In this connection a half-serious remark of Washington’s, reported by an officer at Valley Forge, seems applicable. “So many resignations of officers,” said he, “that his Excellency expressed fears of being left alone with the soldiers.”25 These resignations, if we may believe Colonel Reed, were sometimes prompted by cowardice. “I am sorry to say,” he writes in 1776, “too many officers from all parts leave the army when danger approaches. It is of the most ruinous consequences.”26 A failing among officers which was happily much less common than mediocrity or even cowardice was that of theft or embezzlement. The soldiery were nearly helpless in the hands of those who withheld the pay of their men from month to month until mustered out of service or brought to book by a court-martial.27 The New Hampshire committee of safety – to mention a single case – voted August 6, 1776, that Lieutenant Gilman pay over to his men the coat – money which he had the previous year received for them and had declined to deliver.28 It would be unfair, perhaps, to assume that these malpractices were more evident in the revolutionary army than in any other army of volunteers; and it should be said that the self-sacrifice and heroism shown by officers all over the Colonies did much to put spirit into the rank and file.

An officer’s ability to command carries with it a presumption that there is good discipline and obedience in the ranks. John Adams complained that soldiers loitered along the country roads and idled in the taverns.29 In camp also, from time to time, there was a lack of discipline; soldiers were known to be on friendly terms with the enemy,30 and careless sentries allowed their guns to be stolen while they were on duty.31 The practice of hiring one’s duties done by another did not sweeten the lot of the poorer soldier,32 although this could hardly have been of frequent occurrence. Refusing to do duty, or threatening to leave the army,33 were not uncommon breaches of discipline, brought about often by the unreasonable conduct of officers. Timothy Burnham, corporal, for keeping “Seymore” on sentry from six o’clock in the evening until seven the next morning, was reduced to the ranks.34 Moses Pickett “for disobedience of orders and damning his officer” was sentenced to receive thirty lashes and afterward to be drummed out of the regiment.35 The firing of guns in and about the camp was a constant annoyance that could not be stopped, and during the siege of Boston, British soldiers, hearing frequent reports followed by no casualties, came to ridicule American marksmanship.36 Many of these acts of insubordination, however, are common to all armies.

In the winter of 1780-81, the mutiny of the Pennsylvania line, consisting at that time of six regiments, was one of the serious events of the war. The men were in huts near Morristown under the command of General Wayne; many of them had been engaged for the ambiguous term of “three years or the war,” and now feared that they might be pressed to serve beyond the three-year period of their enlistment. At a time when recruits were receiving large bounties for short service, their own pay was already many months in arrears, their food was poor and insufficient, and their ragged clothes were filthy. Reports were current that officers had used the men cruelly, but these carried little or no weight. The first day of the new year was celebrated with an undue allowance of spirits, and soon the men were ready to be stirred to rebellion by the picture of their sufferings artfully drawn by demagogues. Between nine and ten o’clock of the same evening the mutiny broke out under the lead of Sergeant Williams, a deserter, poor, and fond of drink. A number of officers were killed or injured in a futile attempt to restore order, and the men with six pieces of artillery set off for Princeton. They marched with “an astonishing regularity and discipline,” allowing General Wayne and two of his officers to accompany them. On the second day Wayne asked for a conference with one man chosen by the soldiery from each regiment, hoping, as he said, “soon to return to camp with all his brother soldiers who took a little tour last evening”;37 but the rank and file would not listen to his proposals, and the mutineers marched again on the 4th. Washington, meantime, apprised of events, was using every effort to bring about an agreement; he asked of the States a suit of clothes for each man and three months pay. Clinton, of the British army, was not idle; he sent a message, addressed “To the person appointed by the Pennsylvania line to lead them in their present struggle for their liberty and rights,” in which he offered to protect them, pardon any of their number for past offences, pay them what was due from Congress, and leave them free to give up military service if they wished. These were generous terms offered by the mother-country to her sons in rebellion. As they recalled their privations, and the uncertainty of their fate when they should again be in the power of Congress, they could hardly be expected to disappoint Clinton. Yet, as they put it, they preferred not “to turn Arnolds.”38 The Committee of Congress and Governor Reed, for the Council of Pennsylvania, offered terms which the mutineers accepted. The men who had enlisted indefinitely for three years or for the war were to be discharged unless they had voluntarily reenlisted, and where the original papers were not to be had the oath of the soldier was to be sufficient evidence. Certificates for the depreciation on their, pay were to be given, and arrearages were to be made up as soon as possible. Clothing – a pair of shoes, overalls, and a shirt – was to be furnished as indicated in the proposals. Finally, no man was to be brought to trial or censured, but the past was to be buried in oblivion.39 When these negotiations were completed the British spies were given up and executed. Many of the men, according to Washington’s letter to Steuben, dated February 6, 1781, took the oath before the proper papers could be procured, and by pejury got out of the service.40 The New Jersey Gazette, in a discussion of the revolt, remarks that the satisfactory conclusion “will teach General Clinton that, though he could bribe such a mean toad-eater as Arnold, it is not in his power to bribe an American soldier.”41 The unfortunate affair was not without other lessons, for men who could not be bribed needed the best efforts of the commissary department in their behalf The restless element wanted a firm hand, also, if the loyal majority was to remain obedient.

A few months later, at Yorktown, twelve plotters stepped out before the regiments and persuaded the men to refuse to march because the promises made to them had not been kept. Wayne then addressed them earnestly and called upon a platoon of soldiers to fire either upon him, who, with his officers, had been humiliated by the former disgrace, or upon the instigators of this fresh mutiny. At the word of command they presented and fired, killing six of the twelve leading rioters. One of the remaining six was badly maimed, and Wayne ordered a soldier to use his bayonet. This the man refused to do, claiming that the mutineer was his comrade. The general instantly drew his pistol, and would have shot the soldier had he refused longer to carry out the order. General Wayne then marched the regiments about the lifeless bodies, and ordered the five remaining mutineers to be hanged.42

In a recent work on the French army, Decle’s “Trooper 3809,” there is evidence of much friction between company officers and men. While something of the kind was suggested as the cause of the mutiny of the Pennsylvania line, this rumor never gained credence; the want of clothing and food was too evident a source of discontent.

The following order of General John Rutledge of South Carolina, in 1776, bears upon the relations between officers and their men, and it has the right spirit; it reads: “Any officer that shall strike a soldier at any time hereafter, whatsoever the provocation may be, such act of striking shall be imputed as an act of cowardice, save the Major and Adjutant [do it] and that tenderly and in the way of their particular duty.”43


  1. Historical Magazine, vol. 2, p. 131.
  2. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 6, p. 487.
  3. Army Correspondence of Colonel John Laurens, p. 136.
  4. See also Franklin’s Works (Bigelow), vol. 4, p. 245.
  5. Green’s Groton During the Revolution, p. 8.
  6. Washington’s Writings (Sparks), vol. 3, p. 491.
  7. Joseph Reed’s Life and Correspondence (1847), vol. 1, p. 243; also American Archives V., vol. 2, col. 994.
  8. J. Wilkinson’s Memoirs (1816), vol. I, p. 16.
  9. Graydon’s Memoirs, p. 147.
  10. Colonel Israel Angell’s Diary, p. 37, note.
  11. General Orders, Ticonderoga, October 3, 1776. In American Archives V., vol. 2, col. 1082.
  12. Charleston Year Book, 1889, p. 256.
  13. Case cited by Colonel Weissenfels, July 6, 1776. In American Archives V., vol. 1, col. 41.
  14. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 3, p. 141.
  15. Ibid., vol. 4, p. 443.
  16. Boston in 1775 (Ford), p. 15..
  17. Ibid., p. 14.
  18. Ibid., p. 29.
  19. Boston in 1775 (Ford), pp. 14, 23.
  20. Lee to S. Deane, July 20, 1775. In Boston in 1775 (Ford), p. 21.
  21. Hawley to Washington. In Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 3, p. 18.
  22. Washington, July 21, 1775. In Ibid., vol. 3, p. 32. See also Dr. Belknap’s opinion, in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, June, 1875, p. 92.
  23. Lee to R. Morris, quoted in Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 3, p. 215. Ebenezer Huntington held a similar opinion; see a letter dated June 29, 1775, in American Historical Review, July, 1900, p. 705. Graydon, in a rather unpleasant spirit, emphasizes the lack of men of the world and those of “decent breeding” among New England officers. (Memoirs, p. 157.)
  24. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 4, p. 441.
  25. Dr. A. Waldo’s Diary; in Historical Magazine, June, 1861, p. 169.
  26. American Archives V., vol. 2, col. 1036.
  27. Ibid., vol. 2, col. 1128. The case of Captain Byers (col. 1278) is typical.
  28. American Archives V., vol. I, col. 609.
  29. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 4, p. 438.
  30. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 26. Also Army Correspondence of Colonel John Laurens, p. 70.
  31. Orderly Book of the Northern Army at Ticonderoga, p. 108.
  32. Essex Institute Collections, vol. 14, p. 63 .
  33. Colonel William Henshaw’s Orderly Book, p. 58,
  34. Essex Institute Collections, vol. 14, p. 206.
  35. Colonel William Henshaw’s Orderly Book, p. 81.
  36. Ibid., p. 63.
  37. Stille’s Wayne, p. 252.
  38. Wayne. Quoted in Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 9, p. 97.
  39. Stille’s Wayne, p. 257.
  40. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 9, p. 123. See Hazard’s Register of Pennsylvania, vol. 2; Marshall’s Life of Washington (1805), vol. 4, p. 393; Remembrancer, vol. II, p. 148.
  41. Gazette, January 17, 1781. In F. Moore’s Diary, vol. 2, p. 374.
  42. Livingston to Colonel Webb. In Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 9, p. 267.
  43. Captain B. Elliott’s Diary; in Charleston Year Book, 1889, p. 209.

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