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
- 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.”
- 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: “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  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.”
- 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.” 
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.’”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
Wounded in battle
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
And then the terrifying health issues (watch video below)…
 Harry Rogers, “Pennsylvania Pensioners of the Revolution,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 42, No. 4 (1918), 350.
 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.
 Harry Rogers and A.H. Lane, “Pennsylvania Pensioners of the Revolution,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 41, No. 4 (1917), 468.
 Harry Rogers and A.H. Lane, “Pennsylvania Pensioners of the Revolution,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 42, No. 3 (1918), 261.
 Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 41/4, 482.
 Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 41/4, 481.
 Harry Rogers and A.H. Lane, “Pennsylvania Pensioners of the Revolution,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 42, No. 2 (1918), 157.
 Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/3, 264.
 Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/3, 267.
 Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/3, 268.
 Harry Rogers and A.H. Lane, “Pennsylvania Pensioners of the Revolution,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 42, No. 1 (1918), 30.
 Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/3, 263.
 Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/1, 45.
 Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/2, 163.
 Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/2, 164-5.
 Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/2, 163.
 Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/2, 159.
 Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/1, 33.
 Rogers, Pensioners, 42/4, 348.
 Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/1, 42.
 Rogers and Lane, Pensioners, 42/3, 267.