The Fate of the Regulars

The American Soldier, 1781. Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History
The American Soldier, 1781. Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History
The American Soldier, 1781. Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History

Instead of working out plans for a peacetime army, in 1783 Congress ordered General George Washington to discharge the remaining regiments in the service, retaining only token garrisons at Fort Pitt to guard the western frontier and West Point, where the army’s artillery and ammunition were stored. This was an extremely unwise decision; the British had yet to turn over the northern and western forts they had promised to evacuate under the terms of the peace treaty.

With no army to make the British think twice about ignoring the peace treaty, the forts would remain in enemy hands for another decade, enabling His Majesty’s soldiers to retain strongholds from which London would arm the Indians and do their best to sabotage the American union.

General Washington decided to make the discharge of the rest of the Continental Army an occasion for a final goodbye, not only to men being sent home but to all the soldiers who had served in the long war “however widely dispersed” they might now be. He entitled the message “Farewell Orders to the Armies of United States.”

Before the general took his “final leave of those he holds most dear,” he asked their permission to make a “slight review of the past.” Their victory should inspire in every heart and mind “astonishment and gratitude.”  Recalling their frequently “feeble condition,” he attributed their triumph to “the singular interpositions” of Providence and the “unparalleled perseverance of the armies of the U. States through almost every possible suffering and discouragement.” Their achievement against such daunting odds was “little short of a standing miracle.” Men from all parts of the continent had become “one patriotic band of brothers” — another miracle.

Washington claimed he was sure they could make the transition from soldiers to citizens by maintaining the “steady and decent…behavior” that had distinguished their military character.  As they parted, Washington wanted to profess one more time his “inviolable attachment and friendship.” He hoped their country would do “ample justice” to them. For his part, he could only reiterate his recommendations to pay them what they deserved. No one else had secured by their courage and devotion such “innumerable blessings for others.”

Among the army’s officers, this praise fell on angry, all but deaf ears. They were infuriated by a Congress and a nation that was reneging on the solemn promise of half pay they had made to these men when the United States was in desperate need of them at Valley Forge. Unfortunately, the officers’ anger collided with a growing mood — even a movement — to denigrate the Continental Army and challenge their claim that their devotion to duty had rescued the Revolution.

In August, Brigadier General Ebenezer Huntington of Connecticut, who had worked closely with General Henry Knox to create the Society of the Cincinnati, told his brother that newspapers were calling the officers “harpies and locusts.”  In his home state, and throughout the rest of New England and satellite states such as New Jersey, half pay was seen as an attempt to create a privileged class in America.

The Massachusetts legislature, in a scorching reply to Congress’s letter urging a tariff to raise money to pay for these pensions called them an attempt to “exalt some citizens to wealth and granduer (sic) to the injury and oppression of others.” They warned if Congress persisted, the Bay State would secede from the Union.

In Connecticut town meetings addressed the legislature, reminding them that America had revolted against Great Britain in no small part because the mother country sought tax money to support swarms of pensioners. An impromptu convention met in Middletown and sent the legislature a petition denouncing “the gratuity made by the honorable Congress to officers of the army for duty not to be performed.”

Local Connecticutians carried this swelling prejudice to extremes. One ex-captain who lived near Litchfield reported that he had become “obnoxious to the mass of the people.” When he fell ill, his neighbors told him they hoped he would die. One man said they planned to skin his corpse for a drum head and “drum other officers out of town.”

Feeding into this wrath was suspicion of the Society of the Cincinnati. In a ferocious pamphlet, Judge Aedanus Burke of South Carolina claimed the officers planned to use the Society to create a hereditary nobility with pretensions to running the country. Widely reprinted, Burke’s diatribe convinced many people that the Society was a menace. Congressman Thomas Jefferson, whose paranoid streak was almost as wide as Burke’s, began spreading a spurious story that the officers had tried to persuade Washington to become king with their backing.

Before long, this wrath against the officers spread to a dislike of the entire Continental Army. A puzzled Washington County, Virginia, official reported “Some how there is a general disgust taken place for what bears the name of a Regular.”

It would take several decades for the nation to recover from this disease of the public mind.

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  • Did anyone else have the following thoughts while reading this article?

    History has an uncanny habit of repeating itself.

    The plight of the Vietnam Vet (albeit for different reasons).

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