Drunkenness, Desertion and Dueling

February 28th, 2011

A soldier on the frontier rarely got paid on time, his clothes were ragged, his rations sometimes barely edible, and his living quarters cold, dark and damp. Many escaped the miserable conditions through desertion and drunkenness. During the march through Pennsylvania, and leading up to the the disastrous St. Clair expedition in November 1791, 15 percent of the force deserted. Under General Anthony Wayne, 52 percent of courts martial cases were related to desertion. Drunkenness was another way to escape the drudgery. Whiskey was part of the daily ration and it was the prescribed medication for the sick. Paydays were particularly boisterous times, with soldiers sometimes remaining drunk for days after getting paid. General Wayne considered  drunkenness and desertion such a problem that he eventually moved his Legions out of Pittsburgh and further down the Ohio River to  a place called Legionville.   This apparently wasn’t enough to stem another problem- violence in the officer ranks.  In this  report to Henry Knox, following the first winter encampment, Wayne describes a duel,  resulting in the death of an Ensign.

Reference: Edward M. Coffman, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898. New York: Oxford University Press. 1986.

Punishing Deserters

February 21st, 2011

In 1792 President George Washington recalled Revolutionary War hero General “Mad Anthony” Wayne from civilian life to lead an expedition against the Western Indian Confederacy which heretofore had twice achieved major victories over American forces. Wayne was placed in command of a newly formed army called the “Legion of the United States” and began the enormous task of training and supplying his troops. In a lengthy letter written to Secretary of War Henry Knox in August 1792, Wayne discusses some of the problems he encountered as he went about the business of organizing and training his army. A major concern had to do with desertions which he viewed as “frequent and alarming.” He described an incident in which he had formed his troops for action in response to a report that a large body of Indians was nearby. His men were ordered to maintain their posts “at every expence of blood” until he had gained the enemy’s rear with mounted dragoons. But, in Wayne’s words, “such was the defect of the human heart” from an “excess of cowardice” that one-third of the sentries deserted from their stations. In order to prevent such behavior from becoming “infectuous” he was determined to make an example of these deserters and informs Knox of the punishments which he was considering. He says that if any of them attempted to escape, he would “put them to instantaneous death.” Otherwise he was contemplating “a brand with the word coward to stamp upon the forehead” and to “divest them of every military insignia” and “cause them to be constantly employ’d in the most menial services about camp.” Wayne had a reputation as an effective commander and harsh disciplinarian but it is not known whether he actually implemented his plan to brand deserters. Perhaps the mere threat of such a punishment would have been enough to eliminate the problem of desertions. In any case, this is additional evidence that the sobriquet “Mad Anthony” was entirely appropriate.

Frontier Militia versus American Indians

February 17th, 2011

One of the major points of contention between the American colonists and the British government in the aftermath of the French & Indian War had been Parliament’s ban on western settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains – known by history as the Proclamation of 1763. Though far from being the only grievance — Parliament’s interference in other colonial affairs such as taxation, currency, and civil liberties were arguably more contentious — the ban on western settlement undoubtedly irked both elite land speculators and common yeoman farmers alike who dreamed of expanding west.

Not surprisingly, in the immediate decades following the Revolution, frontier settlers eagerly pushed further west. Inevitably, they would run into conflict with the American Indians there who had inhabited the region for centuries. On some occasions, Indians preemptively attacked the new settlements, but in other cases, the new settlers intentionally provoked conflict by attacking otherwise friendly, native villages.

Such was the case on the Georgia frontier in May 1794. Acting completely independently of the War Department, a group of 150 militia commanded by Major Adams violently attacked a camp of Creek Indians who were on friendly terms with the Georgia government and Governor George Mathews. The militia was frustrated with the Georgia government’s supposed appeasement of the Creeks and were said to be “irritated beyond all reconciliation.” The Georgia militia also insisted that they were retaliating against the natives for the death of Lieutenant Hay, allegedly killed by the Creeks.

The War Department and Georgia government were outraged by the unwarranted behavior of the rogue militia, and quickly condemned it. Although the War Department was undoubtedly involved in some attacks on western Indians, particularly in the Northwestern Territory, in many cases the department had an intrinsic interest in maintaining peace between the natives and new settlers. The French and British still had a significant presence on the continent and the United States could not allow an alliance between the Indians and Europeans against the newly independent American states.

Ultimately the rogue settlers and conniving land speculators won the day — and by the 1830s there was little to no trace of the former Indian presence in Georgia and in other states across the Southwest. The United States was “destined” to expand across the entire continent and would resort to virtually anything to ensure that the American Indians did not stand in their way. Even if that meant violating the very property rights and individual liberties that the Revolution so brilliantly articulated just a few decades prior.


February 14th, 2011

State and federal games of chance have existed in some form since the birth of the United States.  Public and private lotteries existed to do anything from raise funds that financed settlement of debts  or to purchase cannons for the Revolutionary War effort.  Documents within the Papers of the War Department archive contain discussion of odds and the purchase of tickets to mundane references about the safe transport and arrival of purchased tickets.  Several documents mention a land lottery.

Exploring external primary sources, it was found that in 1735, the state of Pennsylvania held a land lottery for 100,000 acres.  In order to increase interest in the purchase of tickets the lottery was billed as a way to ensure rightful ownership to property, buildings, and crops already established by the squatter settlers.  Other such lotteries took place later in the century.  Land lottery was also used as part of an incentive package for enlisted soldiers during the Revolutionary War.  The military land lottery discussed by Issac Craig and Samuel Hodgdon on March 7, 1800 could refer to the land put up by the State of Pennsylvania in 200, 250, 350, 500 acre parcels which were auctioned off periodically over the course of 30 years.  The lottery benefited both the ticket holder and the state.  Newly minted American citizens received large tracts of land at a relatively small cost, and the state and federal government ensured the land was settled by citizens who would participate in the civilization of U.S. land, the production of goods and crops, and would purchase supplies to develop their property.