Today on Veteran’s Day, we take a moment to consider Maryland’s Revolutionary War veterans. Our work has always centered on the soldiers themselves–before, during, and after their time in the army–rather than the battles and political events of the American Revolution. However, we have not talked very much about one key element of these soldiers’ experiences: their motivations for enlisting.
There are, of course, no simple answers to the question of why men signed on to fight in the Revolutionary War. Indeed, it’s unlikely that most soldiers enlisted for only one reason. Very few Maryland soldiers ever recorded their thoughts on the matter, and the statements that do exist were mostly written in the 1820s and 1830s, and are tinged with too much nostalgia to read very literally.
For many years, most historians assumed that the men who fought in the Revolution were virtuous, middling farmers, selflessly committed to the ideal of American independence. While that vision may have been true of some soldiers, over time historians came to find that people enlisted for a wide range of reasons, many far removed from ideology: for a chance to leave home, for adventure, to escape family or economic problems, prove themselves, or even simply to get a new job.
In addition, by examining actual records of recruits, rather than relying preconceived notions, historians discovered that many enlistees were not independent farmers. Instead, many came from the margins of society: the landless, immigrants, indentured servants, African Americans, unskilled laborers, and the like.
Still, the goal of American independence mattered. As historian Charles Royster has observed, “there were many more young, poor men” who did not enlist. Evidently, “they found in civilian life opportunities preferable to the hardship and disease” which characterized the military experience, “especially when the majority of those subject to the same socioeconomic motives did not become Continental soldiers.”
However, thinking about why soldiers joined the army in the first place is only part of the picture. As George Orwell, himself a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, wrote: “people forget that a soldier anywhere near the front line is usually too hungry, or frightened, or cold, or, above all, too tired to bother about the political origins of the war.”
Based on research about Napoleon’s Armee du Nord, another revolutionary army assembled at roughly the same time as the Continental Army, historian John Lynn described three types of motivation. Lynn differentiated between initial motivations (which move a soldier to enlist) from sustaining motivations (which keep soldiers in the army), and combat motivations (which impel men to fight).
Maryland’s soldiers clearly had strong sustaining motivation, as they reenlisted at high rates. Preliminary evidence suggests that more than fifty percent of the First Maryland Regiment’s soldiers reenlisted at the end of 1776, despite the terrible losses the unit took, and the miserable conditions the men endured. Most of them served through 1779, or beyond.
Similarly, the Marylanders’ record in battle shows that their combat motivation was strong as well. Retreat was a fact of life in eighteenth century combat, and all units broke ranks and fled the field at some point. However, time after time, the Maryland Line distinguished itself for holding its position, even in bad situations, like at Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Camden. We don’t know what specifically drove the Marylanders in battle, just as we can’t say for certain why they joined the army to begin with. However, we do, generally, what brought success on an eighteenth-century battlefield.
If a soldier had faith that the rest of his unit wouldn’t retreat and leave him alone against the enemy, he would probably stand his ground. But men who did not believe their comrades would hold firm were likely to run—no one wanted to be the last person to retreat. Success in combat meant unifying the dual goals of individual and unit survival. In order to motivate their men, officers appealed to soldiers’ personal bravery and their sense of community. Units were often drawn from a single geographic area, and officers reminded their men that they knew each other well, and could trust each other—and that signs of cowardice could bring shame to individuals or the unit.
Maryland’s soldiers were recruited in geographical groupings, at least initially; in 1776, the First Company came from Charles County, while the Fourth was from Harford, and the Ninth from Frederick and Washington counties, for example. Over the years, many of the men who first enlisted in early 1776 fought with each other for four years—or longer—during which they must have built a strong sense of trust and comradeship. Those factors provided a foundation of the Maryland Line’s success over the course of the Revolutionary War.
Still, for everything we can infer about the Marylanders’ successes, always remember: just four members of the First Maryland Regiment had seen combat before the Battle of Brooklyn, and none of them was on the field that day.