“Our officers…cared but little, if anything at all, about us.”

Our posts exploring officers’ duties have drawn from heavily from the work of Inspector General Continental Army, Fredrich Wilhelm von Steuben. His treatise on the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States lays out the duties and responsibilities of each rank, invariably charging each officer to act with compassion for his men. Von Steuben’s words present an obvious question: did he mean it?

One answer comes from Joseph Plumb Martin, whose diary of wartime service is one of the few by an enlisted man. Martin described, with characteristic sarcasm, meeting Von Steuben in 1780. Martin and his comrades had been building fortifications in sweltering heat, with little water or rest:

After we have been two or three days at this invigorating business, the troops were inspected by General Steuben. When he found out our situation, he ordered us [to stop work] immediately. “You might as well knock those men on the head,” said he, “as keep them there; they will die if kept there much longer.”

Martin concluded: “He had more sense than our officers, [who] did not feel the hardships which we had to undergo, and of course cared but little, if anything at all, about us.” [1]

The reason that von Steuben’s ideal officers were hard to find was that virtually all of the officer corps was drawn from the gentry, while many enlisted men were of a much lower class, including indentured servants, poor immigrants, and unskilled laborers. Consequently, the officers often viewed their men with great contempt. By contrast, von Steuben was renowned for his willingness to personally train and drill with ordinary soldiers. [2]

The power that officers had over their men—harsh corporal punishment, and shockingly free hands to execute supposed “mutineers”—fostered resentment, especially among men who had volunteered their service, and were fighting for liberty.

So too did the highly favorable living conditions for the officers. Martin’s unit nearly mutinied in January 1779, in the face of another long winter of little food, poor shelter, and no pay. Their goal, wrote Martin, was “to raise more provisions, if not, at least raise [some] dust.” [3] It was a stark contrast, for example to the “rather lazy life” young Virginia officer Joseph Nourse led during the winter of 1776-1777, which he passed reading Homer.

A more mundane incident perhaps better captures many privates’ feelings about their officers (as well as the boredom so common, even in the middle of war). Some of Martin’s fellow soldiers conspired to fill their captain’s canteen with gunpowder and detonate it, giving him “a bit of a hoist.” Martin, by now a sergeant, prevented the prank, noting “I verily believe, I saved the old man’s [the captain] life, although I do not think that they meant anything more than to frighten him. But the men hated him, and did not much care what happened to him.” [4]

There is not a lot of information about relations between Maryland’s officers and men. One clue is that Maryland’s officers were frequently heralded as excellent battlefield commanders, which could mean that they were at least well respected enough by their men to follow them into some of the war’s most ferocious fighting.

With few first-hand accounts, it is difficult to do more than generalize about how officers treated their men, and how they were viewed by their subordinates. Indeed, even Martin wrote movingly about one of his lieutenants who cared for him while his was gravely ill, although the passage stands out as one of the few times an officer showed much interest in his men. From the evidence available, though, it seems that von Steuben’s ideals were not quite reached. [5]

Notes:

  1. Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle: Being A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier (1830; reprint, George F. Scheer, ed., 1962), 193.
  2. “General von Steuben.” Valley Forge National Historic Park.
  3. Martin, 152.
  4. Martin, 263.
  5. Martin, 201-203.
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One Response to “Our officers…cared but little, if anything at all, about us.”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Interesting discussion about the ways in which different social classes perceived, and lived, the Revolution.

    Like

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