20 Terrifying Revolutionary War Soldier Experiences

A soldier’s life in the eighteenth century was surely difficult. Most people think only of the total war that raged on, where troops marched towards uncertainty and possible death in battle lines, firing volleys at one another. But it wasn’t always about facing the enemy; military life was full of its own dangers even while no battles raged. Machines did not exist to do even menial tasks and camp life was full of all sorts of manual labor (much of it repetitive).

Even moving from one camp to another involved countless jobs for the soldier that would test his physical and mental acuity. From building huts in the brutal cold, to having to do picket duty in the heavy snow (or in the humid summer heat), crossing river rapids to move supplies and tackling treacherous roads, these poor soldiers pressed on. This doesn’t even account for the disease which plagued the soldier’s tent community; poor food rations and being ill-equipped and barely clothed played a huge part in the high mortality rates of the Pennsylvania Continental Line.

Those who survived did not always leave the service as they entered. Some men suffered a little bit more than others and lived to tell their tales to pension boards during and after the war. You think you’re having a tough day? It is quite probable that these poor men had it far worse than you. Some of them received some bizarre and terrible wounds in the defense of their country while others just made mistakes while soldiering off the battlefield.

Here are some of the more troubling (or terrifying) accounts of Pennsylvania soldiers who came out of the Revolution scarred and scathed.

Accidentally soldiered too hard

  1. I’d like to know how this happens; what do you have to be doing to lose your sight? “John Carney, late a private soldier in the Ninth Pennsylvania Regiment aged thirty five years, made appear to this Court that he lost his eye sight by reason of severe duty and hardship he underwent in the army of the United States.”[1]
  1. Handling a firearm for most of these soldiers was something they were doing for the first time when they enlisted; people were shot by themselves or their comrades in arms enough times that it warranted attention from Washington:[2] “The petition of Simon Gore was read setting forth That the Petitioner has been a Private in Capt’n Thomas Palmers Company of Rifle Militia of this City; last summer [1776] Campaigne—That by the accidental discharge of a Rifle, the Ball and Wiper thereof, passed thro both the Petitioners Thighs and most Terribly shattered the Bone of one.”[3]
  1. Frostbite: “To Michael Tuder late a Soldier in the [blank] Pennsylvania Reg’t Commanded by [blank] Cap’t [blank] Company, That he lost his feet by the Severity of the Winter, on the lines in 1777, under Col: Morgan.” [4]
  1. Probably one of those sad fellows without a blanket: “To John Thompson, late a Serjeant of Captain Dalberts Company in the second Pennsylvania Regiment aged about fifty years—that he was transferred from his said regiment, to the Regiment of Invalids, and discharged from the same as unfit for further duty either in the Garrison or in the field, on account of his disability occasioned by a frost, in laying out in Camp in the hard Winter whereby he is rendered incapable of getting a Livelihood by labor.”[5]
  1. Don’t play with sharp objects: “To Christopher Barrace late a Private in the Tenth Pennsylvania Regiment, and from thence transferred to the regiment of Invalids, aged about [blank] years—that he was discharged the same Regiment of Invalids on account of a Wound received by a stroke of a Broad Axe, which he received in the year 1778, in the Service of the United States.”[6]
  1. Bet this lad wished they had ergonomic lifting practices back in the eighteenth century: “To George Parker late a Private of the Sixth Pennsylvania Regiment, aged about twenty four Years, that he received a hurt in his Leg in erecting huts at James’s Island in South Carolina, in the Service of the United States.”[7]
  1. Disease and unsanitary conditions caused incidents like this to occur more frequently than you’d probably like to know: “The Petition of William Maris was read Setting forth. ‘That the Petitioner was a private Soldier in the Second Battalion of Militia, Commanded by John Bayard Esq’r in the latter end of the year 1776. That the Petitioner while on actual Service at that period contracted a most violent Cold in his head which concentrated in his right eye and obliged him to leave Camp which was then at Bristol and return to the City of Philadelphia in Order to be cured, That after undergoing a Variety of Medical treatment by several eminent Surgeons at a great expence he was at last obliged to Suffer the Operation of having his eye taken out.’”[8]
  1. Chopping wood; it’s serious business. What happened next was just tragic: “To Abraham Bate, late a Corporal in the Tenth Pennsylvania Regiment, wounded in the leg by an Ax Cutting Wood, afterwards wounded in the other leg the day of the Battle of Brandywine.”[9]
  1. What did he do to irritate the horse? That is what I want to know: “To John Fitler, of 10th Regiment, Commanded by Col:Humpton, enlisted by Captain Dawson, drafted as a Blacksmith to the Artificers (aged Thirty three years), Bruised in the breast in Shoeing a Continental Horse.”[10]
  1. I wonder if there was booze involved during this accident at this Fourth of July celebration: “To John Smith, late a Non Commissioned Officer of the eleventh Pennsylvania Regiment, aged about forty-five years—that on the fourth of July in the year 1780, he was disabled by the Rammer of a Cannon, at a rejoicing fire at Sunbury in the County of Northumberland.”[11]

Wounded in battle

  1. Wrong place at the wrong time: “To Hugh McSwaine late a Marine in the Galley Service of this State, William Brown Captain, aged about Sixty years, that he was Wounded in the Loines by a Splinter of Wood Occationed by a Shot from Augusta Ship of War the day she was Blown up in the River Delaware in October 1777, which renders him incapable of giting a Support by Labour.”[12]
  1. Ouch! “The Court having examined and Considered the Case of James Brannon, late a Private in the Second Pennsylvania Regiment, aged about thirty five years—find that he was wounded in the Groin in an Attack on the Block house in Bergen County in July 1780, in the Service of the United States.”[13]
  1. That’s just not right: “To Thomas Carraghan late a Private of the Seventh Battalion of Chester County Militia, aged about sixty one years—that he was wounded the Night before the Battle of Brandywine while on Detachment, by the Enemy’s Light horse, and as he fell was trampled under the Horses feet, and brused all over in the Service of the United States.”[14]
  1. Sometimes it’s the littlest things that can cause the most damage: “To William Ritchie late a Matross of Artillery belonging to the floating Batteries, Commanded by Captain William Brown, that he was blinded by the Powder springing in his Eyes from a Cannon on the twenty seventh of November 1777 in the Service of the United States.”[15]
  1. Ironically, this man was named after an interpreter of divine omens; he didn’t see this coming: “To Harmenius Thornton late a Private in Colonel Proctors Regiment of Artillery aged about forty years—that he was hurt at the Battle of Germantown by a Cannon run over him in the Service of the United States.”[16]
  1. One wound that is mentioned a lot in pension depositions was the loss of an arm: “To James Gallant late a Private of the twelfth Pennsylvania Regiment, aged about thirty four Years, that he was wounded at the Battle of Germantown on the fourth of October 1777, whereby he lost his Arm in the Service of the United States.”[17]
  1. Wounded in three places: “To John McGill late a Private of the eighth Pennsylvania Regiment, and from thence transferred to the Regiment of Invalids aged about forty-five years—that he was discharged from the said Invalid Regiment on the first day of November 1783 as unfit for further duty &c on Account of Wounds received in both his hands and one Leg in the Service of the United States.”[18]
  1. Like in the (mostly inaccurate) portrayal of battles in the movie The Patriot, cannon balls could take off a limb or two: “Samuel Smith, late a private soldier in Captain John Harris’s company of the Eleventh Pennsylvania Rigment, aged thirty-two years, made it appear to this court that he received a wound by a Cannon Ball at the Battle of Brandywine, that shot his left thigh whereby he lost his leg and thigh.”[19]
  1. Another example of “cannon ball versus leg”: “To Abraham Best, late a Private in the Sixth Pennsylvania Regiment, aged about thirty years—that on the fourth day of October in the year 1777 he lost his Leg by Cannon Ball in the Action at Germantown in the Service of the United States.”[20]
  1. This poor guy was wounded four times in one battle: “To Edward Killen a Soldier in the fifth Pennsylvania Battalion, Commanded by Colonel Robert McGaw, Captain Nathaniel Vansant’s Company, wounded at the Capture of Fort Washington in the thigh, the hand, the right Foot and in the Testicles.”[21]

And then the terrifying health issues (watch video below)…


[1] Harry Rogers, “Pennsylvania Pensioners of the Revolution,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 42, No. 4 (1918), 350.

[2] According to one contemporary account, “An unhappy accident happened on Monday last, at a review of some of the military companies of this city; as they were exercising, a man in the rear rank happened to have a gun which, unknown to him, was loaded with small shot, and went off; whereby two men, one in the center, the other in the front rank, were hurt, and others in the field narrowly escaped.” The Pennsylvania Packet, October 23, 1775, 3. Indeed, as Washington wrote, “The constant firing in the Camp, notwithstanding repeated Orders to the contrary, is very scandalous, and seldom a day passes but some persons are shot by their friends.” General Orders, August 30, 1776; Peter Force, American Archives (Washington, D.C., 1837–53), Ser. 5, V1:1248.

[3] Harry Rogers and A.H. Lane, “Pennsylvania Pensioners of the Revolution,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 41, No. 4 (1917), 468.

[4] Harry Rogers and A.H. Lane, “Pennsylvania Pensioners of the Revolution,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 42, No. 3 (1918), 261.

[5] Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 41/4, 482.

[6] Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 41/4, 481.

[7] Harry Rogers and A.H. Lane, “Pennsylvania Pensioners of the Revolution,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 42, No. 2 (1918), 157.

[8] Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/3, 264.

[9] Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/3, 267.

[10] Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/3, 268.

[11] Harry Rogers and A.H. Lane, “Pennsylvania Pensioners of the Revolution,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 42, No. 1 (1918), 30.

[12] Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/3, 263.

[13] Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/1, 45.

[14] Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/2, 163.

[15] Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/2, 164-5.

[16] Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/2, 163.

[17] Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/2, 159.

[18] Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/1, 33.

[19] Rogers, Pensioners, 42/4, 348.

[20] Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/1, 42.

[21] Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/3, 267.

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19 Comments

  • My ancestor, a Soldier in the King’s American Regiment, lost the sight in one eye during the Revolutionary war.

  • Add to these terrifying experiences the fear and reality of capture and imprisonment on a hulk. Being a wartime prisoner virtually guaranteed malnutrition, disease and ill treatment by guards, less for officers than the common soldier. Word of mouth from escapees and released prisoners probably encouraged ‘fighting to the last extremity.” Very enjoyable..

  • A great article, the only issue that I have with it is the author seems to make lite of the sacrifices that those men made in the service they gave to form this country by the flippant comment that he made about their wounds they received. I can only wonder if he would say the same thing if he were to read a casualty list from a more modern war? Those men, and countless women laid it all on the line when it mattered the most, and the country we have here today is the result, would they be pleased? One has to wonder about that, but it is what it is. I personally had 16 ancestors that fought in that war, on both sides of the conflict and I am very proud of every single one of them and their contributions and their beliefs that they fought, and some gave their lives for.

    • Rusty,

      I also had at least a dozen ancestors who fought in the Revolution. One was nearly killed at the Battle of Nescopeck Creek (the Sugarloaf Massacre) and was later injured in another tour. Two were at Brandywine and another at Germantown (though it is doubtful they saw any fighting). One served as both a member of the Committee of Observation in the country of his birth and also as a Colonel of Associators. At least one ancestor was ambushed by the 17th Light Dragoons along the road, with his militia detachment, on his way back from General Lacey’s camp in Bucks County in 1778. I’m very proud of my ancestry. =)

    • Rusty, I agree 100% on his comments, let him lose a leg hand or his eyes serving your country and see how funny that is. VERY POOR TASTE!!

    • The editorial staff at Journal of the American Revolution offers sincere apologies for any offensive tone that may be perceived in this article. In pursuing our mission of making history approachable, we encourage our authors to adopt an engaging and relaxed tone; it is a challenge to writers and editors alike to maintain this “business casual” tone without downplaying the seriousness of the subject matter. We may cross the line now and then, but please trust that we have the greatest respect for the individuals at all levels who were involved in the events that we love to study. Each and every one of them deserves to have their stories preserved in a factual, engaging and exciting manner – we’ll continue to try our best to do so.

  • The video makes many great points, but a couple of things warrant further clarification lest they be misunderstood:

    While the specific mechanisms of disease transmission were in general not known during the Revolutionary War, the connection between cleanliness and health was very well understood. Military textbooks are filled with information about the importance of keeping camps and cantonments clean, including details like frequently replacing straw used for bedding, getting fresh air into buildings and tents, disposing of waste only in designated locations, and a host of other measures. Soldiers were encouraged to bathe frequently when weather and other factors permitted. Clothing and bedding were changed and laundered when possible. But getting soldiers to follow these recommendations, especially inexperienced soldiers in the hastily-raised American army, was quite a challenge. Disease broke out not because there were no standards for cleanliness, but because those standards were difficult to maintain.

    Among British soldiers, scurvy was uncommon specifically because the dangers it posed were well known. As Tabitha Marshall explains, spruce beer was brewed and consumed widely; sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) was also consumed widely by British troops in America, being an antiscorbutic that could be prepared in Great Britain and shipped to America with little danger of spoilage. Because these measures were well-understood and in place, few British soldiers actually suffered from scurvy.

    In short, even though officers with military training and experience knew how to inhibit many of the health issues that faced armies of the era, outbreaks sometimes occurred in spite of their best efforts.

    • Don,

      I will just briefly add that the quality of physician care varied immensely from place to place. I plan to develop this in a future article, but will just say now that there were a good many hacks in the doctor ranks and who obtained their positions because of favoritism. They lobbied as a group against the educated physicians and caused significant discord and delay in the delivery of health care to the wounded, sick, etc. Their great fear was being forced out of their cozy situation and they did all they could to obstruct the legitimate doctors.

      Additionally, there were further, and wholly unnecessary, wranglings between the centralized general hospital and the many brigade hospitals which all competed for scarce medical resources (and which found their way onto a black market). Many died because of these administrative conflicts and disagreements and it is another aspect of the harm the soldiers feared in their becoming sick or injured.

      In short, no soldier in his right mind wanted to have anything to do with doctors.

    • Tom,
      Thank you for the reference, pretty scary stuff. The same kind of thing was going on around Boston in 1775-76 and at Ft. Ticonderoga in the fall of 1776; it tears your heart out to read the sufferings these men went through.

  • I happened to read the article on terrifying Revolutionary War experiences just after revising my transcription of the pension application of Samuel Allen S6484 (revwarapps.org/s6484.pdf). Here is his terrifying experience:
    “in consequence of his exposure when worn out with hunger & fatigue he laid himself down on the ground with his head on a log, to take a short repose at which time a Worm got into his Ear & penetrated far into his head which produced much pain & severe injury, worse indeed than death itself – so much so as nearly to deprive him of his sences & had it not been for the United skill and attention of Doct’rs. Gittel – Ramsey – Clemmen & Barnett – would certainly have deprived him of life – they after much exertion got it extracted on the 6th day – this happened in October 1781 – which not only nearly deprived him of his hearing but threw him into a spell of sickness – he was placed in the Hospital where he continued with severe illness & extreme suffering for three months – For his services & great suffering he has never yet received one Cent of pay”

  • Tom. The list of causes that could explain why a soldier became blind in one eye could be very long. Nevertheless, I’ve always wondered if the type of guns used could represent a risk for this kind of event. Would overloading a gun with powder produce such a result? I don’t know anything about the guns used during the Rev War. Of course, since 4 times more soldiers died of diseases than of gunshots, diseases cannot be ruled out. But, it could simply be because of a stupid accident not related to the war itself.

  • Here are a couple of additions from the infamous Massacre at the Waxhaws that I remembered from Professor Piecuch’s book, “Blood Be Upon Your Head”:

    “He was in the Battle of Blufords Defeat at the Hanging rock South Carolina where he was taken prisoner and received fore wounds, one by a bayonet through his arm one in his head and right reast [wrist] boath by a sword, in a few days was peroled signed by Colo. Benjamin Tarlton.” Pension App of Richard Cains

    Also:

    “He got no discharge, having been wounded in nine different places at the battle of Blueford, and was left there unable to travel.” Pension App of John Felkins

    Yet another man indicated being wounded in the left arm, stabbed in the right side, and “cut in the face by a sword” Pension App of Jonathan Burnside

    And this item that I first ran across in my mother’s genealogy files:


    General Lincoln made an attack upon the British fort at Savannah and were repulsed on the 9th Nov 1779. Applicant states that in this attack he received three wounds. one by a ball through the right shoulder and through the right hip and one which broke two of his left ribs, in consequence of which wounds he was so much disabled that he was ever afterwards unfit for duty. After receiving his wounds he was taken by water to Charleston where he remained in the hospital until a short time before Christmas when he went with three wagons to Augusta where his regiment was stationed. At Augusta applicant remained with his regiment until some time in February when his regiment was ordered to Charleston and he being totally disabled by the wounds which he had received was discharged by Col Parker and returned to Shenandoah County where he states that he enlisted for two years but in consequence of his wounds he could not do service and was discharged a short time before the two years had entirely expired” Pension App of William Tipton – He later also admits to having been left to lay upon the field between the armies overnight before a truce could be arranged to pick them up. Took place in the assault upon Spring Hill, among the bloodiest events of the war.

  • Apologizing for an inferred slight is the only offensive thing I’ve found here. Kudos to Mr. Verenna for the informative and engaging article, and thank heavens we didn’t have to rely on such delicate snowflakes for our independence.

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