Distractions & Passing the Time in the Continental Army

About the author

Edward St. Germain.
Edward St. Germain

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The book contains fascinating letters and notes written by soldiers during the war, which you may find contain some outdated spellings of certain words compared to modern English.


Rumors of victory or defeat lent a pleasant excitement to the lives of the rank and file. A story of the patriot campaign in Canada was passed on, together with official dispatches, from one post-rider to another along the almost impassable river-routes of Maine, over the stony roads of Massachusetts and Connecticut, through the Tory settlements of New York, and so southward to the Congress at Philadelphia; the dispatches reached their destination unchanged except for a coating of grime and wet, but the verbal story grew with each retelling until the last post-rider had news to astonish those about the camp-fires. The official news was printed upon handbills, which were given out to the men.1

The effect of good tidings is shown in a somewhat famous scene. When the stores from the captured ship Nancy arrived in the camp near Boston, there were demonstrations of joy. The scene as pictured by Colonel Moylan is somewhat startling: “Old Put [General Putnam] was mounted on the mortar, with a bottle of rum in his hand, standing parson to christen, while godfather Mifflin gave it the name of Congress.”2

Bands of prisoners of war and captive Tories, passing through the camp, awakened patriotic enthusiasm, which found expression in shouts from the men; and the coming of well-known or curious visitors – delegates from Congress, sent to inspect the army, or Indian chiefs and their followers helped to while away the hours. The impression made by such events is illustrated in the record in a soldier’s diary that “the King of the Ingans with five of his Nobles to attend him come to Head Quarters to Congratulate with his exelency.”3

For many years June 4th, the King’s birthday, had been celebrated in America; and when the day was allowed to pass in camp with no festivity and no mirth, even the rebel in arms could not but notice this sorry end of a time-honored custom.4 When September 22d, the King’s coronation day, was referred to as the King’s “Damnation day,” war had indeed come.5

The great day was the Fourth of July, commonly called the anniversary “of our Independency.” Few diaries fail to mention with some detail the usual ceremonies of the occasion. The whole army was drawn up under arms at one o’clock, with detachments of artillery interspersed and thirteen pieces at the right. The celebration began with a discharge of thirteen shots for the States, followed by a running fire of musketry and cannon from right to left through the front ranks, and then from left to right through the second line, repeated three times. A speech sometimes followed, and then three cheers from the entire army.6 Games and an extra allowance of rum closed the day. On the British prison-ships, where all the horrors of starvation, suffocation, and disease were rife, the day brought a speech or a feeble cheer.7

Another favorite anniversary was that of the day of Burgoyne’s surrender, which was celebrated by the firing of cannon, the throwing of skyrockets into the air (“skilokets, in the are”), and much merrymaking.8 When the welcome news was received that France had declared for the United States, the delighted troops cheered for the King of France, the “Friendly powers” of Europe, and the thirteen States; every Continental soldier under arrest in Washington’s army was set at liberty to enjoy the day.9 On more than one occasion a soldier under sentence of death profited by the news that the French King had shown his friendship for the Colonies or that a distant battle had been won.

But the successes of the British bore hard upon the men in the patriot army; and sometimes even those in captivity were made to know that their captors had won a victory. Major Griffith Williams, in command of the detachment of Royal Artillery with Burgoyne, ordered that the American prisoners be drawn up in the rear of the British lines, to hear the “feu de joye” given in honor of Burgoyne’s victories. Some, it is said, were stung by the insult, while others threw up their caps with the British and were roughly handled by their more loyal comrades.10

The customary holidays were not forgotten; Christmas and Thanksgiving Day brought greater liberties and an extra allowance of liquor.11 Even St. Patrick’s Day produced a noticeable change in camp;12 the Irishmen who had been born in America or had settled in the country before the war began were reenforced in some regiments by deserters from the British lines.13 The widow Izard, a prominent lady in the South, honored the name of St. Patrick in 1782 by a gift of a gill of spirits to each soldier in General Greene’s army. A little later the same army celebrated May Day with May-poles and festivities, although this was declared to be “something extraordinary,” as indeed it must have been.14

Victories and anniversaries brought merriment and noise, with their accompaniment of drinking and cursing. Congress occasionally showed an interest in these celebrations and sent the inevitable present of rum; thirty hogsheads were consumed by the gallant survivors of the battle of the Brandywine.15

But there were other forms of amusement in camp. The men played ball or cards, and now and then were allowed a “rifle frolic” – a contest in marksmanship in which the vanquished was bound to treat his more skilful adversary to liquor.16 A form of relaxation, not so clearly understood is mentioned by private Samuel Haws as “an old fudg fairyouwell my friends.”17 During the winter of 1775-76, which was bitterly cold at the north, men enjoyed skating on the rivers and ponds;18 and in summer they bathed whenever it was possible.19 They sometimes were able to get away into the country to fish, hunt, and to gather nuts,20 but these privileges were more often granted to officers.21

Nothing so depressed the spirits of the soldiers as the inactive life of a camp far removed from the enemy. A spice of danger was always welcome. To train the raw recruits to be fearless under fire a trifling reward was offered for bringing to head-quarters each cannon-ball which was thrown from the enemy’s batteries. It was found, however, that the younger men failed to gauge properly the force and weight of a ball that ricochetted slowly along the uneven ground; several soldiers in using their feet to bring a ball to a stop were knocked down or crippled. This plan had to be given up.22 When the shells from Boston fell into the camp at Roxbury, shrieking like “a flock of geese,” they did more, said an observer, “to exhilarate the spirits of our people than 200 gallons of our New England rum.” Each shell as soon as it burst was surrounded by a throng of men, eager for mementoes.23

Funerals, someone has said, must be counted with amusements in a description of uneventful country life. The chastisement of wrong-doers may likewise fall into line with the diversions of camp-life, without great impropriety; for the curious modes of punishment in vogue at the time afforded some relaxation, if they did not convey the obvious lesson. The moral to be taken to heart by the onlookers was weakened by the frequent reprieve of the culprit; and this misfortune was only too well understood by the officers.24 One hundred lashes – the limit of corporal punishment allowed – made little impression upon the spirit of a sullen and wilful transgressor.25 To give a hundred lashes their proper value and importance, standing, as they did, for the penalty next to death itself, many serious crimes that needed severe treatment had to be met with inadequate punishment. The result as it worked out in practice was that the death penalty was too often imposed, and this led to reprieves. Another unfortunate outcome of the system was the invention of new punishments, more or less cruel or savage, when officers became exasperated by desertions and mutiny.26

A corporal and two privates were making their escape from the First Pennsylvania Regiment when they were overtaken and captured. After they had been secured a dispute arose; some of the captors wished to kill all three on the spot, without trial and without authority; others counselled delay. It was agreed finally to kill one of the three deserters immediately; the three luckless fellows drew lots and fate selected the corporal, whose head was at once cut off and placed upon a pole. This grewsome object was carried into camp by the surviving captives, to be placed over the camp gallows as a warning to all.27

If there can be any excuse for such savagery it is to be found in the jeopardy of a great cause by desertions from an already inadequate army. Washington once wrote: “Our army is shamefully reduced by desertion, and except the people in the country can be forced to give information when deserters return to their old neighborhoods, we shall be obliged to detach one half the army to bring back the other.”28

In the country about New York many of the inhabitants were from principle or interest trimmers in those uncertain times. Men when drafted were slow to respond to the call, and many, after enduring the hardships of camp-life for a time, returned home to aid a sick or impoverished household. They had perhaps begged in vain for an honorable discharge, telling, as others did throughout the Colonies, of little ones without food or firewood;29 and when they appeared in town again the neighbors beheld the deserters with tolerance or with half-kindly eyes. In a letter written at Rhinebeck, September 16, 1776, John White said: “I suppose there are not less in this and Northeast Precinct than thirty [deserters], who keep in the woods, and are supported by their friends.”30

Ebenezer Wild in his Revolutionary journal refers frequently to punishments, and it is evident that they interested him by their variety and terrible reality. Upon one occasion the culprits marched to the place of execution to the strains of the “Dead March,” each one with his coffin borne before him. The brigade was then paraded, with the guilty men in front where they could be seen; after this their death sentences were read in a loud voice. Their graves were dug, the coffins were laid beside them, and each man was commanded to kneel beside his future resting-place in mother earth while the executioners received their orders to load, take aim and ___

At this critical moment a messenger appeared with a reprieve which was read aloud.31 This last all-important act in the series was omitted often enough to strain the nerves of everyone present, by leaving the result in doubt until the last instant.

The whip was in some cases serviceable, although it had little effect upon the hardened offender, tied to a tree or post, who ground his teeth into a piece of lead and received the stinging blows in silence. When the prescribed number of stripes was administered in instalments, the flesh of the victim had time to become inflamed or to heal partially before the full penalty had been inflicted.32

Corporal punishment was carried out by the drummers and fifers under the eyes of the drum-major, who was required to be present.33 Seventy-eight lashes were considered proper for a deserter and thirty-nine for a thief – a survival of the Mosaic number – but there was no invariable rule.34 For writing “an infamous letter” against Colonel Brewer a soldier was sentenced to stand in the pillory for an hour where his comrades might witness his humiliation and suffering; in less than an hour he fainted.35 Mr. Wild, our faithful chronicler, describes another scene – a soldier marching from the guard-house to the gallows with a halter about his neck, and from there running the gauntlet naked through the brigade.36 Usually the brigade was drawn up in two lines to form a narrow lane (sometimes half a mile in length), through which the culprit had to pass to receive the lashing from switches held by the men. If he was unpopular he fared ill; if he was liked by his comrades and was fleet of foot he suffered but little. To make the gauntlet a serious penalty a soldier was ordered to point his bayonet at the guilty man’s breast and back slowly down between the lines so that progress could not be too rapid for adequate punishment.37 This ingenious device served to lay the victim on his bed for days.38 At Ticonderoga a band of mutinous sailors ran a species of maritime gauntlet; they were sentenced to receive seventy-eight lashes each, “the criminals to be whip’d from vessell to vessell receiving Part of their Punishment on Board of each.”39 A more cruel punishment than most of those just mentioned was that of riding the wooden horse, which so injured the man that some officers refused to make use of it.40

But there were penalties that afforded real amusement, as in the case of Bowen, sentenced to wear “a clogg chained at his legg” three days,41 or in that of Griffith, guilty of selling Major Carnes’s cordage, “to wear a clog four days with his coat turn’d rong side outwards.”42


  1. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 6, p. 65.
  2. Quoted in The Military journals of Two Private Soldiers, 1758-75, p. 83.
  3. David How’s Diary, p. 12.
  4. Lieutenant Isaac Bangs’s Journal, p. 39.
  5. Daniel McCurtin’s Journal; in T. Balch’s Papers (1857), p. 17.
  6. Henry Dearborn’s Journals, p. 18; Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 7, p. 482; Feltman’s Journal, p. 6; T. Blake’s Journal, p. 43.
  7. Martyrs of the Revolution in British Prison-ships, p. 20.
  8. Elijah Fisher’s Journal, p. 10.
  9. Ibid., p. 8; also T. Blake’s journal, in Kidder’s First New Hampshire Regiment, p. 41.
  10. Hadden’s Journal, p. 102. Hadden did not approve of Major Williams’s treatment of American prisoners.
  11. H. Dearborn’s Journals, 1776-83, p. 25.
  12. Ebenezer Wild’s Diary; in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, October, 1890, p. 133.
  13. Kemble’s Journal (New York Historical Society Collections, 1883) mentions Irish deserters from both armies.
  14. W. McDowell’s Journal; in Pennsylvania Archives, 2d series, vol. 15, pp. 314, 321.
  15. Journals of Congress, September 12, 1777.
  16. Military journals of Two Private Soldiers, p. 77.
  17. Ibid., p. 80.
  18. Ibid., p. 90.
  19. Colonel W. Henshaw’s Orderly Book, p. 72.
  20. Military Journals of Two Private Soldiers, p. 77.
  21. A. Lewis’s Orderly Book (Richmond, 1860), p. 65 also Feltman’s journal.
  22. John Trumbull’s Autobiography (1841), p. 19.
  23. Jabez Fitch’s Diary; in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, May, 1894, p. 45.
  24. The articles of war were approved by the Continental Congress June 30 and November 7, 1775. Article LI. reads: That no persons shall be sentenced by a court-martial to suffer death, except in the cases expressly mentioned in the foregoing articles; nor shall any punishment be inflicted at the discretion of a court-martial, other than degrading, cashiering, drumming out of the army, whipping not exceeding thirty-nine lashes, fine not exceeding two months’ pay of the offender, imprisonment not exceeding one month.The articles approved for the army September 20, 1776, directed in Section XVIII., Article 3, that corporal punishment should not exceed 100 lashes.
  25. One hundred lashes could be made very effective, as in the case of one Burris, who received fifty lashes a day for two successive days, and then was well washed with salt and water. – Washington’s Revolutionary Orders, edited by Whiting, March 25, 1778.
  26. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 9, p. 128. The British army regulations of to-day do not permit more than twenty-five strokes at a time. See Wyndham’s Queen’s Service, pp. 243, 245.
  27. William Irvine to Wayne, July 10, 1779; in Philips’s Historic Letters.
  28. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol . 5, p. 211.
  29. American Historical Review, July, 1900, p. 721.
  30. American Archives V., vol. 2, col. 352.
  31. E. Wild’s Journal; in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, October, 1890, p. 119.
  32. James Thacher’s Military journal, p. 223.
  33. Ibid., p. 222; also Heath’s General Orders, June 11, 1777.
  34. St. Paul said: Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one – II. Corinthians xi. 24.
  35. Paul Lunt’s Diary, p. 13.
  36. E. Wild’s Journal; in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, October, 1890, p. 122.
  37. Rev. William Rogers’s Journal, p. 123; James Thacher’s Military Journal, p. 223.
  38. E. Hitchcock’s Diary; in Rhode Island Historical Society Publications, January, 1900, p. 211.
  39. Orderly Book of the Northern Army at Ticonderoga, p. 59.
  40. Paul Lunt’s Diary, p. 10; How’s Diary, p. 32; A. M. Earle’s Curious Punishments, p. 128.
  41. Essex Institute Collections, vol. 14, p. 67 .
  42. Ibid., p. 195.

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