Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The Bicentennial’s focus on pageantry and commemoration has given us a clear image of what the Pennsyl­vania Continental soldier looked like – at least, at his best. But who was this keen-eyed, square-jawed stalwart, dressed in fringed hunting shirt and leggings, or sporting smart blue regimentals with red facings and gleaming white small-clothes? Where did he come from? What was his economic, social, and educational background? How representative was he of the population at large? Although existing records are sparse and incomplete, they do provide at least some hints at the answers to such questions. Perhaps those answers, sketchy as they may be, can contribute to a better comprehension not only of the men in the ranks but also of the war itself.

As a first step toward understanding who and what the Continental soldier was, it is essential to distinguish be­tween him and the militiaman.

Before the Revolution, most American colonies maintained a militia structure. Details varied from one colony to the next; but in general, membership was mandatory for all men in specified categories defined in terms of age, occupa­tion, and race. Militiamen could be called to active service in time of emergency, but only for brief periods of time, usually sixty or ninety days. In most cases, also, they could not be required to serve outside their particular colony. The militia, therefore, was essentially an organization of temporarily conscripted men forming a defensive “home guard.”

Pennsylvania provided an exception to the general rule, having never had a militia in the strict sense of the term. On June 30, 1775, however, the Provincial Assembly revived a device previously used in the French and Indian War by authorizing the formation of volunteer battalions of “Associators.” These were to perform the traditional militia role, but as membership was voluntary rather than compul­sory, were not technically “militia.” Some fifty-three Associator battalions were organized, at least on paper. A number of these performed tours of active duty during the summer and fall of 1776, and some of them took part in the attacks on Trenton and Princeton, in New Jersey, in late December of 1776 and early January of 1777.

The Associator system, however, was inadequate to the need, and on March 17, 1777, the Pennsylvania Assembly enacted a militia law. This law required the enrollment of all white males between the ages of 18 and 53, except for clergymen, certain civil officials, college teachers, and apprentices or bound boys. Each of the eleven counties then existing was to form eight militia battalions.

Throughout the remainder of the war, Pennsylvania militia units were periodically called to active duty for 60-day tours. During these, they occasionally augmented the Continentals in formal campaigns, sometimes they operated independently against Indians on the northern and western frontiers of the State, and still more frequently they rendered mundane but valuable service by providing guards over stores or prisoners.

The basic point to remember is that despite the numerous exemptions and the acceptance of hired substitutes, militia service applied at least theoretically to virtually all white Pennsylvania men within the prescribed age brackets. A militia unit, in essence, was a cross-section of the com­munity in which it was formed.

The Continentals differed from the militia in several significant respects. Being in the service of all the colonies as a whole, Continental units operated wherever they were needed. Until comparatively late in the war, all Continental soldiers were volunteers. Finally, for the duration of their enlistments – fixed by 1777 at three years – they were full-time rather than part-time soldiers, and consequently were able to achieve higher standards of discipline and training.

At its peak strength in units (February, 1778). Pennsylvania’s contribution to the Continental Army consisted of thirteen and a half regiments of infantry, one of artillery, one of light dragoons, and one of “artificers” (a type of ordnance repair and fabrication organization). Stated in slightly different terms, the infantry regiments amounted to about 155 separately-raised companies. Of these, the geographic, or county, origin of 134 can be established with at least a reasonable degree of assurance. Grouping the counties somewhat arbitrarily into “easter,” “central,” and “frontier” regions, It develops that 66 companies (49.3 per cent of the total, or an average of 16.5 companies per county) were raised in the “eastern” region made up of Berks, Bucks, and Chester counties and Philadelphia City and County; 37 (27.6 per cent of the total, or an average of 12.3 companies per county) came from the “central” region, comprising Cumberland, Lan­caster, and York counties; and 31 (23.1 per cent, or an average of 7.8 companies per county) from the “frontier” region – Bedford, Northampton, Northumberland, and Westmoreland counties.

Considering the distribution of population in Pennsyl­vania at the time, with density declining from east to west, the regional differences in the average number of companies raised in each county is to be expected. What is perhaps surprising is that the sparsely populated “frontier” region raised so many, and the much more densely populated “eastern” region, on a comparative basis, did not raise more. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that the mem­bers of the 4th Continental Artillery and the 4th Continental Light Dragoons, which are not included in the company totals cited, were drawn in large measure from residents of the eastern part of the State. It is also true that pacifist, loyalist, and neutralist sentiments were considerably stronger in the “eastern” region than in either of the others.

In terms of absolute numbers, however, these figures show that the Pennsylvania Continental soldier was about twice as likely to have enlisted from Philadelphia or one of the counties of the “eastern” region as from either the “central” or “frontier” area. Furthermore, considering the progress that had been made in pushing settlement westward, the odds are better than three out of four that this soldier was a townsman or came from a well-established farm. Thus, although the frontiersman with his rifle certainly existed in Pennsylvania Continental regiments and predominated in specific companies, he cannot be considered to typify the Pennsylvania Continental soldier. On the contrary, that soldier came from a settled, stable part of the State and did his fighting with a musket.

Aside from information about the Pennsylvania Continental which can be deduced from the units to which he belonged, some specific details concerning individuals are available. Of course, exact figures on the number of men who served in the Pennsylvania Continental Line do not exist. Such totals as have been advanced include officers as well as enlisted men (see, for example, page 691 of Francis B. Heitman’s Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army). Also, each enlistment is treated as if it actually represented a separate individual, whereas in fact, given the short-term enlistments of the first few years of the war, many men enlisted more than once – some as many as four times. Allowing for these inflationary effects, a reasonable estimate would be that about 15,000 men served at one time or another in the ranks of the Penn­sylvania Continental regiments. While data on specific attributes are available on only a fraction of these men, the existing information is remarkably consistent from regi­ment to regiment. It seems justifiable to conclude that the figure which emerges, at least in general outline, represents a reasonably accurate profile.

To begin with, as is to be expected, the typical soldier was a relatively young man. Of 1,068 soldiers for whom such a record exists, the average age at the time of enlistment was 25 years and 4 months. Older men would be more likely to have ties of family and occupation which they could not conveniently abandon to join the Army. Even so, some 7 per cent of the total were 40 years of age or older, and one man enlisted at age 73. It is worth noting, however, that most of the older men did not enter the service until 1780, a fact which reflects the shortage of man­power and the need to fill gaps created by the expiration of the three-year enlistments of men belonging to the large number of regiments organized at the beginning of 1777.

At the other extreme, over 11 per cent of the Penn­sylvania troops were 17 years old or younger at the time of their enlistments. Several, indeed, were only 10 years old, and more than 3 per cent were only 14 years old or less. Many of these young boys served as drummers or fifers, but the bulk are shown on the muster rolls as ordinary infantry privates.

National origin is another variable, and is given for 582 individual enlisted men. Despite the small size of the sample, it gains validity from the fact that the same pattern is found in every regiment for which this information is available. What may be surprising is that barely one-third of the men making up the sample were native-born Americans. Of the remaining two-thirds, over half were born in Ireland – so far as existing records show, in fact, there were more Irish-born than American-born soldiers in the Pennsylvania Continental Line. To the extent that names can be accepted as a guide, these men were Scotch-Irish rather than Southern Irish. Men born in Germany ranked next in numbers, providing 15 per cent of the total. They were closely followed by Englishmen, with a scattering of Scots. In addition, one man was French, one Spanish, and one Swiss.

So far as other groups are concerned, the Pennsylvania Archives show two of the Pennsylvania soldiers as American Indians, one of them being described as a “Shawanese” and the other as a “Mohac.” There were also at least 40 blacks.

The difficulty in establishing the number of black soldiers more precisely is that the muster rolls seldom iden­tified them as such. Edward Hector, for example, who distinguished himself by his heroism as a driver in Procter’s Pennsylvania Artillery (the 4th Continental Artillery Regiment) at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, is known to have been a black only because his obituary in 1834 described him as “a colored man”; his name on the regimental roster bears no such identification. Similarly, John Francis, who was permanently crippled by wounds at Brandywine, is listed simply by his name on the muster roll of the 3rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, and is known to be a black only because of the statement to that effect on his application for a pension. Two black soldiers, by contrast, are specifically so described on the muster rolls. They are Drummer Polydore Redman, who appears to have been captured at Fort Washington, New York, on Novem­ber 16, 1776, and Private Stacey Williams, who was wounded at Brandywine but continued in the service for the duration of the war.

The only other information on this subject stems from a special, apparently one-time strength return, dated August 24, 1778, which is reproduced on page 362, Volume I of History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880, by George W. Williams. This return lists the number of black soldiers in each infantry brigade then serving directly under George Washington. It shows that in Anthony Wayne’s Pennsylvania Brigade, consisting of the 1st, 2nd, 7th, and 10th Pennsylvania regiments, there were only two black soldiers; however, in the Second Pennsylvania Brigade, made up of the 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 9th Pennsylvania regiments, there were 35. One of these presumably was Stacey Williams, but the other black Pennsylvania soldiers known by name were not involved – John Francis was already incapacitated, Polydore Redman was still a prisoner, and Edward Hector’s regiment, being artillery, was not included. No figures are available on black soldiers who may have belonged to the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment, then serving on the New York frontier, or the 8th Pennsylvania, stationed at Fort Pitt, which also were omitted from this return.

Total enlisted strength of the two Pennsylvania brigades directly under Washington in August, 1778, was 2,480, which puts the black representation at just under 1.5 per cent. The best available information on Pennsylvania’s population at the time, which is given on page 80 of Robert V. Wells’s The Population of the British Colonies of America before 1776, is John Penn’s 1775 estimate of 300,000 whites and 2,000 blacks. Thus, while the white soldiers in the two Pennsylvania brigades represented only eight-tenths of one per cent of the white population, the black soldiers In those same units represented 1.85 per cent of the black population. A safe conclusion would seem to be that while the absolute number of black soldiers in Pennsylvania organizations was small, their proportional representation, given the limited number of blacks in Pennsylvania, was substantial.

Still another characteristic recorded for Pennsylvania Continental soldiers is height. Many of these soldiers fell far short of minimum enlisted standards of the present day – one enlisted man, tor example, is shown as standing a mere four feet, three inches. Only two men are reported to have been six feet tall or more. Yet, despite the fact that the stature of American men has increased markedly over the decades, the average height of the Pennsylvania Continental soldier was five feet, five and three-quarters inches. What is surprising about this figure is that it is only a quarter of an inch below the average height of the draftees of World War I. The typical Pennsylvania Con­tinental, therefore, was probably somewhat taller than his civilian contemporary.

The final item of information on this man for which records exist concerns his pre-war occupation. Contrary to what might be assumed, he was twice as likely to be a craftsman or tradesman as he was to be a farmer, although there were more farmers than members of any other single occupation. This fact reinforces the earlier finding that comparatively few men were drawn from the less settled regions. At the same time, the number of enlisted men shown as having followed what might be called “educated” pursuits was limited to one schoolmaster and one clerk. The rest were smiths, weavers, millers, carpenters, watchmakers, and the like – overwhelmingly, men who worked with their hands.

Summing up, the profile of the “typical” Pennsylvania Continental soldier shows us a man in his mid-twenties more likely to be an immigrant than native-born, and more likely to have come from Ireland than from any other country. He had enlisted from one of the eastern counties. He was about five and a half feet tall. Prior to his enlistment, he had worked at a skilled or semi-skilled craft. We do not know how literate he was, but we can surmise that he probably had not yet taken on the responsibility of a wife and family.

So much, then, for what might be called the “external” characteristics of this soldier. Due to the fact that, literate or not, he was inarticulate, it is virtually impossible to document, let alone quantify, his “internal” features – the motives which chiefly influenced some 15,000 of these men to join the Army. Conclusions on that question can only be deduced.

Generally speaking, men enlist voluntarily in wartime for one or a combination of a variety of reasons – patriotism, the hope of adventure, to “join with the crowd” of their fellows, social pressure, belief in a cause, or perhaps in the hope of material gain.

During the Revolution, material gain could hardly have been an incentive. A Continental infantry private’s pay was less than seven dollars a month, and even at that was usually months in arrears. Patriotism, at least as we under­stand it In a national sense, was probably not even com­prehended by the Continental soldier until after he had shared service in a common effort with men of all the colonies: he would have thought of himself as a Virginian or a Massachusetts man or a Pennsylvanian – and In the case of the latter, as we have seen, he was more often than not a Pennsylvanian by adoption. As for taking part in a mass activity, this may have been a factor for the age­-group that was chiefly involved, but for the population at large it is clear that only a small fraction of the men in Pennsylvania or any other State actually joined the Continental Army. The same point can be made with regard to social pressure, which would have been as divided as was the popular sentiment concerning the war itself. The men who enlisted in 1775 and 1776 may have been moved by a desire for adventure, but the bulk of the Pennsylvania soldiers did not enter the Army until 1777; by that time it must have been unmistakably clear that soldiering in that war was far more a matter of exposure, disease, rags, and near-starvation than it was of excitement and color.

It may be doubted that the typical soldier had a clear idea of the finer points of abstract political philosophy which were at issue. Studies of the Continental soldiers of other states have found that the men in the ranks tended to be drawn from the “have-not” classes. The data cited concerning the pre-war occupations of Pennsylvania Con­tinentals indicate that these men were largely from the laboring and artisan classes. Perhaps they perceived the Revolution as a means of bettering their economic lot. If so, this raises questions concerning the traditional interpretation of the American Revolution as merely an effort to establish political independence from Britain while essentially preserving the economic and social status quo. Such questions, however, are far beyond the scope of this article.

Whatever speculating we may do concerning the Con­tinental soldier’s motives, we are on firm ground in judging him by the deeds he performed and the results he achieved. He proved himself ready to forego the comforts, limited as they may have been, of civilian life on the farm or in the towns and accept the rigors and dangers of military service, risking his health and his survival. Usually inadequately equipped and much of the time poorly trained, he stood prepared to brave the fire of veteran professional soldiers and the even more lethal hazards of the nightmare winter encampments. However he may have perceived the cause for which he fought, he served it steadfastly, devotedly, and in the end, victoriously.


Colonel John B. B. Trussell, Jr. has been a historian on the staff of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission since his 1972 retirement from the U.S. Army after 30 years’ service. He is the author of Birthplace of an Army: A Study of the Valley Forge Encampment, recently published by the PHMC; his book, The Pennsylvania Line: Regimental Organization and Operations, 1775-1783, is scheduled for release in the near future.