Revolutionary War Olympics: The Games Our Founders Played

August 8, 2016
by Joshua Shepherd Also by this Author


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They may not have enjoyed major league baseball, college football, or competitive ice dancing, but the Revolutionary generation was unquestionably an athletic bunch.  Colonial sportsmen practiced a number of obscure games that have largely lost currency in America, including cricket, shinny, and whirl, but also participated in contests that would look more familiar, such as shooting matches, races, and various ball games.  Even a notorious curmudgeon like John Adams confessed that in his younger days he was so fond of “driving hoops, playing marbles, playing Quoits, Wrestling, Swimming, Skaiting and above all shooting” that he alarmed his father.[1]

For common soldiers plagued with hours of camp boredom, sports could offer much needed diversion.  Connecticut’s Nathan Hale, long before he attained the status of a legendary martyr, recorded that on one particularly uneventful November day in 1775 he cleaned his gun, then “pld some football, & some checuers.”[2]  Even on the far reaches of the frontier, sporting events that reinforced the warrior ethos – such as shooting matches and a particularly brutal forerunner of lacrosse – were a deeply ingrained cultural fixture.  Hessian Capt. Johann Hinrichs described Cherokee warriors at Savannah who were remarkably proficient at tomahawk throwing.  “The skill which they exhibit when making use of this instrument,” recorded Hinrichs, “is almost inconceivable, for they hit the smallest mark with the point of the keen-edged hatchet at a distance of twenty and more paces.”[3]

For the armies that fought in the primary theater of war on the eastern seaboard, physical conditioning was imperative to the marching abilities and fighting readiness of the troops.  “Improve all the leizure time your Brigade may have from their Duties,” Washington instructed his officers, “in Manouvring & teaching the Men the use of their Legs, which is of infinitely more importance than learning them the Manual Exercise.”  Although Washington regarded gambling as “the foundation of evil & the cause of many Gallant & Brave Officers Ruin”, keeping the men in good shape was another matter.  “Games of exercise for amusement,” Washington instructed, “may not only be permitted but encouraged.”[4]

But if there’s one certainty for sporting events as well as military operations, it’s that nothing can be expected to go according to plan.  In the realm of grand strategy, Washington once referred to such unpredictable happenstance as “the strangest vicissitudes that perhaps ever attended any contest since the creation.”[5]  On the personal level – whether in the camp or on the battlefield – the troops of the Revolutionary era could occasionally perform unexpected, astounding, or downright quirky feats that almost pass as athletic achievements fit for an Olympian.

High Jump

There’s no better way to celebrate a victory than with a thirteen shot salvo from a six-pounder, but the celebratory fireworks following the American capture of Vincennes on February 25, 1779 unfortunately went horribly awry.  Due to unexplained “mismanagement,” a stockpile of twenty-six cannon cartridges caught fire and exploded.  Fort Sackville’s stockade was rocked out of position and several men were badly injured, including American captains Joseph Bowman and Edward Worthington.

One particularly acrobatic French militiaman, however, escaped the tragedy without a scratch.  The force of the blast launched the hapless soldier headlong over the palisade, where he fell another ten feet and miraculously landed, entirely unhurt, upright on his feet.  Like any good athlete, the militiaman was ecstatic that he had flawlessly stuck his landing, and, recorded an amused British Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton, the Frenchman immediately “ran to his Officer and boasted of his alertness.”[6]

Shot Put

Sports injuries are, unfortunately, an inherent risk for athletes in any century, a lesson ruefully learned by John Robert Shaw of the 33rd Regiment of Foot.  Subsequent to his desertion from Crown forces in March of 1781, Shaw idled in the area of Lancaster, Pennsylvania among a motley set of iron workers, deserters, and prisoners of war.  They were men, said Shaw, of “diabolical principles and practices” who favored drinking, carousing, and sporting amusements “no matter what day of the week, though the Sabbath was the more frequently chosen for such practices.”  One ill-fated Sunday morning Shaw and his unsavory companions gathered near a “Dutch meetinghouse” for a drink and a game of long-bullets, a popular distance-throwing game which utilized cannon balls.  Shaw was chosen as something of a referee and apparently assumed his position downrange of the competitors.

It is, of course, a good idea to be extremely attentive when cast iron spheres are hurtling in your direction, but Shaw, perhaps influenced by the bitters he had imbibed, lost his focus.  “On a sudden,” he explained, “one of the bullets struck me on the head, and knocked me down, where I lay, to the great consternation of all, for some time before the company could tell what was best to be done with me.”  When Shaw regained consciousness he was carried to a nearby tavern; he rallied, but the results of the accident were anything but funny.  Shaw suffered a fractured skull which plagued him for the remainder of his life, particularly, he explained, “if I drank spirituous liquors, a temporary frenzy was produced which caused me to conduct in a most extravagant and outrageous manner.”[7]

Synchronized Swimming

When George Washington assumed command of the nascent Continental Army during the summer of 1775, the patrician Virginian had his hands full in bringing order to the disparate New England outfits that largely made up his army.  As the warm summer months progressed, an annoying disciplinary issue arose from the swimming practices of the troops.  Washington was generally favorable to his men taking a dip so long as it was reasonably done in a secluded area, but by the middle of August things had gotten entirely out of hand.  The troops, who were none too modest in their choice of swimwear, were swarming around the bridge at Cambridge, prompting indignant Massachusetts civilians to lodge complaints over blatant exhibitionism.  The practice had, no doubt, become something of a joke to the enlisted men.

Washington was clearly disgusted by the entire affair, and sought to shame his men into better behavior.  In his general orders for August 22, the general observed that “many Men, lost to all sense of decency and common modesty, are running about naked upon the Bridge, whilst Passengers, and even Ladies of the first fashion in the neighbourhood, are passing over it, as if they meant to glory in their shame.”   Although Washington made clear that he did “not mean to discourage the practice of bathing, whilst the weather is warm enough to continue it,” the juvenile public spectacle at Cambridge wouldn’t be tolerated.  “The Guards and Centries at the Bridge,” ordered Washington, “are to put a stop to this practice for the future.”[8]


Soldiers and civilians were frequently at odds during the course of the Revolution over foraging for supplies and outright obnoxious behavior, but the complaint that George Washington received on August 9, 1777, was particularly disturbing.  Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council lodged an indignant protest over the behavior of Maj. Charles Simms of the 12th Virginia Regiment, who seems to have gotten a little carried away over housing for his troops.  Simms became embroiled in an nasty spat with Dr. William McIlvain of Bucks County, Pennsylvania – a politically connected legislator – over the quartering of sixty troops in a stable on the latter’s property.  When a bystander suggested a perfectly suitable alternative building that could comfortably quarter 100 men, an intractable Simms barked “By God Sir where my troops are there they shall stay.”  McIlvain protested that it was an imposition to be “burthend with troops,” and Simms shot back “What do you mean, it is no imposition.”  Clearly getting hot under the collar, McIlvain angrily snarled “By God it is an Imposition You have no right to lay on any Subject.”

With that, things got out of control rather quickly.  Simms reached down from his horse and with “a menacing air” attempted to wring the doctor’s nose.  McIlvain parried the attempt and jumped back, crying out “Don’t insult a naked Man.”  By this point uncontrollably infuriated, Simms leapt from his horse, decked McIlvain, and commenced an ugly fistfight – witnesses simply testified that “a Fray ensued.”  Simms got the better of the doctor and knocked him to the ground, but the fracas wasn’t over.  According to the depositions forwarded to Washington, fellow officers then formed a circle around the combatants and “desired Sims to kick and abuse the Doctor, holding up their side arms” to prevent McIlvain’s rescue.

Washington promised to have the matter investigated but nothing appears to have come of it.  If McIlvain’s version of events is accurate, his own stinging assessment of the hideous melee comes close to the truth.  Simms, he said, had given up “both the Carracter of a Citizen & a Soldier, setting at defiance both the civil and Military Powers.”[9]

400 Yard Rifle, Prone

Although Maj. George Hanger, an Englishman serving as an officer in a Loyalist cavalry regiment,  considered units of American riflemen as tactically “feeble” compared to bayonet-wielding line infantry, he readily acknowledged that it was a little less than pleasant if one were on the wrong end of an American rifle’s muzzle.  Hanger later recorded an action in the Carolinas during which he and Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton were targeted by a single backcountry militiaman.  The two officers rode their mounts a few yards out of a wood in order to reconnoiter rebel positions, when Hanger noticed an American rifleman run out into the open, lay down on his belly, and take “deliberate and cool” aim.

When Hanger saw what he took to be the flash of powder from the rifleman’s gun, he remarked that it might be a good idea to back off a bit; the two British officers, who were mounted side by side, presented far too tempting a target.  The words were barely out of his mouth when the shot passed between himself and Tarleton, striking and killing another mount behind them.  “The horse staggered, fell down, and died”, said Hanger.  The major later walked over the ground and was positive the shot had been taken from a “full four hundred yards.”  Although the rifleman had narrowly missed his mark, the shot was no mean feat from a muzzleloading rifle fitted with iron sights.  “I never in my life saw better rifles,” admitted Hanger, “(or men who shot better) than those made in America.”[10]


It seems that little went well for young Nicholas Cresswell, who, to be fair, appears to have been a glass-is-half-empty kind of guy.  To begin with, his timing was atrocious.  The twenty-four-year-old Englishman and staunch Loyalist arrived in America in 1774, just as conflict between the colonies and the mother country was really getting unpleasant.  His plans to make his fortune as a planter in Virginia, and then Illinois, proved a disappointing chimera.  By the evening of June 17, 1775, he was in a muddy camp on the banks of the Ohio River and in the depths of despair.  Adding insult to injury, he had lost his most prized American souvenir: the fossilized tooth of an ancient beast. “A D__d Irish rascal has broken a piece of my elephant tooth,” a devastated Cresswell scribbled in his diary, “put me in a violent passion, can write no more.”[11]

Things perked up a bit two days later.  While his party sat eating lunch, two buffalo bulls – massive animals which could be notoriously difficult to kill – entered the river from the opposite bank.[12]  When the buffalo were midstream, Cresswell and several other hunters pushed off in a canoe.  They were in for a unique ride.  The men shot one bull eight times but made little impression; the hunter in the front of the canoe then took a notion to grasp the animal by the tail.  Cresswell recorded that the buffalo, serving as something of an impromptu outboard motor, “towed us about the River for half an hour.”  They eventually let the animal go, but their hungry companions on foot, who had been forced to thrash through the underbrush while the men in the canoe enjoyed a pleasant regatta, were not amused.  “Our comrades ashore very angry with us,” wrote Cresswell, “and they have a right to be so.”[13]

Pole Vault

The honor of capturing enemy artillery was considered one of the highest military distinctions in the eighteenth century, and led one junior officer to perform a particularly memorable athletic feat in the midst of horrific combat.  Following the collapse of British forces at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, Lt. Col. John Eager Howard led his battalion of Continental troops in an unexpected counterattack that shattered enemy resistance.  As his line swept forward, Howard noticed two British field pieces and shouted for Lt. James Ewing to seize them.  Capt. Richard Anderson of the 1st Maryland Company overheard the order and likewise dashed off for the guns.  Something of a footrace ensued, claimed Howard, both officers “being emulous for the prize.”

According to Howard’s account, the men remained neck and neck as they neared the guns, when Anderson, carrying an espontoon – a blade-tipped staff held by officers as a symbol of rank – was struck with a notion of athletic inspiration.  “Anderson,” explained Howard, “by putting the end of his espanton forward into the ground, made a long leap, which brought him upon the gun and gave him the honor of the prize.”[14]


Idle young men traditionally exhibit a remarkable knack for entertaining themselves, a mischievous tendency that often leads to trouble.  That was the case in the spring of 1779 when Connecticut’s Joseph Plumb Martin, along with several companions, grew restless with camp boredom.  The men started rooting around their ramshackle barracks in search of diversion, and eventually four or five of them decided to carry a large old wagon wheel perhaps 200 yards up the side of a hill behind the barracks.  “After considerable trouble and fatigue,” wrote Martin – and clearly without much thought to the consequences – they rolled the wheel back downhill with “the liberty to shift for itself.”

Things went well enough until the wheel happened to strike an unknown object that threw it off course.  Martin and his friends watched in terror as the wheel, gathering speed and momentum, careened directly for the unsuspecting soldiers who could be heard obliviously laughing and talking inside the barracks.  The cabin’s siding was composed of a single layer of rotten old boards, and Martin expected the wheel to crash through both lumber and men.  “We all stood breathless,” he said.  Only fifteen feet from disaster, the wheel miraculously struck another unidentified object and, “with the motion almost of a cannon-ball,” it launched twenty or thirty feet in the air, cleared the barracks, and crashed on the other side.  “The reader may rest satisfied,” said Martin, “that this last circumstance did not cause many tears of grief to fall.”[15]


When it comes to sportsmen of the Revolutionary era, one can’t help but give a tip of the cocked hat to old George himself.  He was, after all, far from a dissipated and overindulged Tidewater planter.  By all accounts he was a hardworking manager; in the saddle before dawn and inured to physical exertion.  He was also gifted with a frame and constitution that rendered him remarkably athletic.  George Washington Parke Custis observed that Washington’s powers “were chiefly in his limbs: they were long, large, and sinewy,” and the general was perfectly built for such vigorous pursuits as riding, shooting, and … ahem … chopping down trees.  He may never have chopped down that tree, but as a middling planter’s son reared in eighteenth century Virginia, he almost certainly knew how to handle an axe.

In other words, he was a pretty strong guy.  Artist Charles Willson Peale, who painted several portraits of Washington, left an amusing anecdote of one of his visits to Mount Vernon prior to the Revolution.  Peale recalled that one afternoon he and several other young men, stripped to their shirtsleeves, were occupying themselves with “pitching the bar,” a throwing contest utilizing an iron rod, when Washington showed up and asked “to be shown the pegs that marked the bounds of our efforts.”  Washington, who didn’t even bother to take off his jacket, reportedly flashed a smile and gave the bar a heave.  The rod, said Peale, “whizzed through the air, striking the ground far, very far, beyond our utmost limits.”  While the young men stood dumbfounded, Washington simply sauntered off and quipped “When you beat my pitch, young gentlemen, I’ll try again.”[16]


[1] John Adams autobiography, Part 1, “John Adams,” through 1776, sheet 2 of 53 [electronic edition].  Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive.  Massachusetts Historical Society.

[2] Henry Phelps Johnston, Nathan Hale 1776, Biography and Memorials (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914), 246.

[3] Bernhard A. Uhlendorf, ed., The Siege of Charleston, with an Account of the Province of South Carolina: Diaries and Letters of Hessian Officers from the Von Jungkenn Papers in the William L. Clements Library (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1938), 157.

[4] “Circular Instructions to the Brigade Commanders, May 26, 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016,

[5] George Washington to Brig. Gen. Thomas Nelson, Jr., 20 August 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[6] John D. Barnhart, ed., Henry Hamilton and George Rogers Clark in the American Revolution with the Unpublished Journal of Lieut. Gov. Henry Hamilton (Crawfordsville, Indiana: R.E. Banta, 1951), 187.

[7] Narrative of John Robert Shaw, as quoted in Don N. Hagist, British Soldiers, American War (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2012), 46-47.

[8] “General Orders, 22 August 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[9] See especially note 1, Washington from Thomas Wharton, August 8, 1777, Founders Online, National Archives,

[10] George Hanger, General George Hanger to All Sportsmen, Farmers, and Gamekeepers (London: J.J. Stockdale, 1814), 122.

[11] Cresswell was referring to either a mastodon or mammoth; the bones of both animals were to be found in Kentucky.

[12] For zoological purists, it should be noted that although the animals in question are, technically speaking, “bison;” a good number of eighteenth century writers, including Nicholas Cresswell (and for that matter George Washington), generally favored the vernacular term “buffalo”.

[13] Nicholas Cresswell, The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774-1777 (New York: The Dial Press, 1924), 88-89.

[14] J. Thomas Scharf, History of Maryland from the Earliest Period to the Present Day (Baltimore: John B. Piet, 1879), 2:406.  One anonymous nineteenth century account claimed that after Anderson made his “spring,” he then killed an artilleryman who was in the act of firing the gun.  Niles Weekly Register 32 (March-September 1827), 200.

[15] Joseph Plumb Martin, A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier (New York: Signet Classics, 2001), 140.

[16] George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860), 483-484, 519.  The same account is also available online at “[Diary entry: 28 December 1773],” Founders Online, National Archives,

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