Polearms in the Continental Army

Today, we have another post by one of our Washington College partners. Simon Belcher gives us an education about some of the bladed weapons that were used by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

During the Battle of Brooklyn, one of the most terrifying forces that attacked the American forces were the Hessian soldiers with their cruel bayonets. As an English officer wrote, “it was a fine sight to see with what alacrity they dispatched the rebels with their Bayonets, after we had surrounded them so that they could not resist.” [1] A Hessian colonel went on to say that the American “riflemen were mostly spitted on the trees with bayonets. These people deserve pity rather than fear.” [2]

The bayonet was a weapon specifically made to fit military muskets. Without a bayonet, a musket was merely a club after being fired. However, with a bayonet, a musket was a devastating weapon no matter the range at which it was used. It was the bayonet that won the Battle of Bunker Hill for the British in 1775 after the Americans ran out of ammunition. After Bunker Hill, Samuel Webster wrote to the New Hampshire Council of Safety asking them to arm the Americans with bayonets, saying “tis barbarous to let men be obliged to oppose bayonets with only gun barrels.” [3]

British soldiers advancing up hill during the Battle of Bunker Hill. Note their readied bayonets. E. Percy Moran, Battle of Bunker Hill, 1909. Library of Congress.

The bayonet was the weapon of the professional soldier, and the Americans did not have much experience using them or the ability to fight against them. However, they did recognize the power of the bayonet and made efforts to arm themselves with them. But that was more easily said than done. During the war, all sorts of supplies were in high demand and scarce supply. Prices skyrocketed, and it was a constant struggle to adequately arm and equip the Continental Army.

Blades from American pikes and trench-spears. From Harold L. Peterson, Arms and Armor in Colonial America 1526-1783.

Therefore, the Americans’ response to bayonets in close combat was a class of weapon known as polearms, because they were mounted on poles. The bayonet was originally developed to replace the pike in military formations. So, the Americans simply started to use pikes and spears. These weapons were cheaper and easier to make than anything else. They were issued to the American troops during the siege of Boston in the fall of 1775, and were still being used by the Battle of White Plains in October of 1776. [4] In fact, spear-like polearms had yet to become completely obsolete by the time of the American Revolution and were still commonly used in certain situations, mostly during close combat on ships or when assaulting fortifications with trench spears.

When American troops attacked Quebec in 1775, they delayed until they could make enough spears to adequately arm the men. [5] While in Cambridge in 1775, Washington ordered that “Every colonel will appoint thirty men that are bold, active, and resolute, to use the spears in defense of the lines instead of guns; to form in the center of the rear of the regiments and to stand ready to push the enemy off the breastworks.” [6] When American General Charles Lee put an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, asking for volunteers in order to form a company of light dragoons, he asked that they be armed with a “short rifled carbine, a light pike, of eight feet long, and a tomhawk.” [7] In 1777, Washington was also concerned for Morgan’s Riflemen. Bayonets could not be affixed to rifles, so Morgan’s men were vulnerable in hand-to-hand fighting. Washington was especially concerned about horsemen catching the riflemen in the open. So, he commissioned special spears to be constructed for Morgan’s Rifles. There were 500 ordered by July. They had a folding joint in the haft and a sling to make them easier to carry, plates eighteen inches long at the base of the spearhead to protect the haft, and a spike at the end of the spear to fix them into the ground. [8]

Another widely used polearm was the spontoon, also called the half-pike. A spontoon was shorter than a pike or spear. The pikes issued to the soldiers in Boston were made to be about thirteen feet long, however, while Lee wanted his dragoons to carry pikes only eight feet long. By contrast, the spontoon was about six and a half feet long. Spontoons were cheap and easy to make, so they could be supplied easily. They featured a blade with a rounded or bulbous base that then straightened to a single point, and a crossbar beneath the head. The spontoon had been traditionally carried by officers in almost all European armies as a badge of rank. [9] However, by the time of the Revolution their use had become less common, and during the war the British forces stopped issuing them to their officers altogether.

Hessian soldiers with spontoons and bayonets. These spontoons appear to be much taller than the six-foot American weapons.

The Americans, on the other hand, continued to use them until the end of the war, since most officers in the American forces did not have access to swords. In order to ensure that the officers did not enter the battlefield entirely unarmed or indistinguishable for the common soldiers, they carried spontoons. [10] George Washington ordered that officers should always carry the weapon when on duty in front of the men. Washington favored the spontoon because he had been trying to create a proper hierarchy in the Continental Army and an officer should not have been using a musket alongside his men. Washington wrote that officers with “fire-arms, when made use of, withdrawing their attention too much from their men” should not therefore use those firearms. However, for the officers to be completely unarmed weakened the army and had a “very awkward and unofficer-like appearance.” [11] The Americans therefore used spontoons until the end of the war.

They were not simply symbols of rank, however. Before the attack on Stony Point in 1779, Brigadier General Anthony Wayne would write to Washington stating that his officers had no way of fighting in close quarters and requested that spontoons be sent so that they could train in their use before the battle. Fifty spontoons were sent and Wayne himself would carry one during the attack. [12] Hezekiah Foard, a veteran of the Battle of Brooklyn, used his spontoon to save himself at the Battle of Camden in 1780. As his obituary recounted: Foard

was attacked hand to hand by a stout athletic Englishman; others were advancing on them [the Continentals]–in the scuffle [Foard] threw [the British soldier], the enemy holding [Foard] by his hair; [Foard] having nothing but his long espontoon he shortened the handle and pinned [the British soldier] to the sand; as the Englishman relaxed his hold he extricated himself, and finding his weapon fast beyond recovery, he fled without it. [13]

The Continental Army in the American Revolution faced many challenges throughout the war and often needed to use unconventional methods in order to succeed. The use of polearms was not unheard of in this period, and was standard in earlier periods. However, as other armies moved away from spears and spontoons, the dire economic straits of the Continental Army pushed the Americans to embrace polearms as a reliable means of waging war.

-Simon Belcher, Washington College

Notes:

1. Quoted in David Hackett Fischer Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 97

2. Quoted in Fisher, 97.

3. Harold L. Peterson, The Book of the Continental Soldier: Being a Complete Account of the Uniforms, Weapons, and Equipment with which He Lived and Fought (Harrisburg: The Stockpole Company, 1968), 84.

4. Peterson, 100.

5. Peterson, 102.

6. Quoted in Peterson, 101.

7. Purdie’s Virginia Gazette, 3 May 1776.

8. Peterson, 102.

9. Peterson, 98.

10. Bashford Dean, “On American Polearms, Especially those in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” The Journal of the American Military Foundation 1: 4 (1937), 177-185.

11. Quoted in Peterson, 99.

12. Peterson, 100.

13. “Deaths,” Salem Gazette (MA), 1 March 1833.

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