“They are remarkably stout and hardy men,” thought army surgeon James Thacher, “Dressed in white frocks, or rifle shirts, and round hats.” The robust constitutions and rugged appearance of the reinforcements that arrived at Boston in the summer of 1775 occasioned no small stir in the army camps ringing Boston. Dressed in a curious amalgam of European and Indian clothing, they appeared almost savage by New England standards. The newcomers, however, were valued not for their unorthodox dress but for the weapons they carried—the longrifle of the American frontier. “These men,” Thacher reported hopefully, “are remarkable for the accuracy of their aim.”
The saga of the Revolution’s riflemen is a uniquely American tale. When Congress made plans to organize a Continental Army during June 1775, one of its first acts was to authorize the enlistment of ten companies of “expert riflemen,” to be recruited from the backcountry of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland.From the outset, the rifle companies were never intended as a substitute for regular line infantry. They were organized specifically for service as “light infantry”, and as such would be expected to perform scouting, skirmishing, and screening duties.
A rarity in New England, the rifle was far more prevalent in the backcountry of the southern colonies largely due to the gunsmiths of Pennsylvania and Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. While most Continental regiments, as well as militia units, were armed with smoothbore muskets, the frontier newcomers came equipped with state-of-the-art eighteenth-century arms technology.
Although standard smoothbore firelocks were far easier to load and could accommodate a socket bayonet, the American longrifle possessed a specialized barrel; spiral “lands and grooves” were cut inside the barrel during manufacture. When fired from such a rifle, a tight-fitting load consisting of a round lead ball and a greased patch would engage the rifling, emerge spinning from the muzzle, and maintain stability in flight for longer distances.
Although short-barreled rifles were known in Europe, particularly in the German states, the longer variant of the American frontier was considered superior. British Maj. George Hanger, who was an experienced sportsman and firearms afficionado in his own right, would have some unpleasant experiences with enemy riflemen. By Hanger’s reckoning, most American riflemen “were generally sure of splitting a man’s head at two hundred yards . . . I never in my life saw better rifles (or men who shot better) than those made in America.”
When the riflemen began arriving around Boston by the end of July, they achieved something of a celebrity status. They were the first troops from outside of New England to reinforce the Continental Army, and their appearance constituted a much-needed show of tangible support from the southern colonies. Even John Adams, an austere soul who was generally sparing of compliments, was nonetheless effusive in his praise for the riflemen. “I hope they will have Justice done them,” Adams wrote, “and Respect shewn them by our People of every rank and order. I hope also that our People will learn from them the Use of that excellent weapon a Rifled barrell’d Gun.”
Despite some level of exaggeration regarding the skills of the southerners, the rifle companies almost certainly contained some excellent marksmen. According to surgeon Thacher, the riflemen could strike marks “with certainty at two hundred yards distance.” Although the tactical efficacy of units armed with rifles would be increasingly questioned as the war progressed, a rifle, in the right hands, was unquestionably superior to the musket for consistently delivering accurate long-range fire. On battlefields from Saratoga to Cowpens, riflemen would prove their worth at that task.
But at Boston, the relationship between rifle-armed citizen soldiers and the army’s high command got off to a rocky start. Pennsylvania’s rifle companies, formed into a battalion under the command of Col. William Thompson, were eventually stationed at Prospect Hill, a vital piece of high ground that was key to the American fortifications ringing British-occupied city. Maryland rifleman Daniel McCurtin described the position as “About one and a half miles from Cambridge lays Prospect Hill where there is a fine large Fort containing several pieces of fine cannon.”
The riflemen, initially perceived as elite troops, seem to have received too much special treatment. Jesse Lukens, a gentleman volunteer serving with the Pennsylvanians, recorded that their camp sat about 100 yards from the nearest troops. “All our Courts Martial and duty was separate, we were excused from all working parties, Camp Guards, & Camp duty.” Even Lukens admitted that the riflemen had been spoiled by the special treatment they received and had grown a bit arrogant in the process. The lax atmosphere and exemption from work details, Lukens thought, “together with the remissness of discipline and care in our young officers, has rendered the men rather insolent for good soldiers.”
For the backcountry volunteers, submission to military discipline, perhaps the most vital prerequisite for good soldiers, didn’t come naturally. A number of primary sources indicate that the men chafed at the structure of army life. Drunkenness, desertion, and insubordination seem to have been far too common. Several officers would cast most of the blame for disciplinary infractions on “foreigners,” or newly-arrived immigrants. General William Heath would later explain that “The Riflemen So much Boasted of by many before their arrival, have been Guilty of as many Disorders as any Corps in Camp, and there has been more Desertions to the Enemy from them, then from the whole Army Besides, perhaps Double.”
The riflemens’ disdain for discipline only worsened, resulting in open insubordination bordering on mutiny. Lukens reported that on two occasions, the men had forced their way into the guard house at Prospect Hill and “released their Companions who were confined there for small crimes.” The reported jail breakings were not isolated incidents. On August 24, rifleman Aaron Wright recorded that his outfit had marched through Litchfield, Connecticut, where, for reasons unrecorded, “the men took a girl out of jail.”
Another incident was the harbinger of a coming storm. Lukens reported that “once when an Offender was brought to the Post to be whipped,” the men were barely restrained from releasing him. The riflemen “openly Damn’d” their officers and “behaved with great insolence.” In an effort to appease his men and keep the situation from boiling over, Colonel Thompson “was pleased to pardon the man & all remained quiet.”
On September 10, the riflemens’ penchant for insubordination finally spiraled out of control. Although there are few known details describing the initial trouble, battalion adjutant Lt. David Zeigler had a run-in with a recalcitrant sergeant and placed him under arrest for “neglect of duty and murmering.” The sergeant was placed in the guardhouse at Prospect Hill, but his incarceration only inflamed the riflemen. Some of the men engaged in an ugly argument with Zeigler and threatened to release the sergeant. Zeigler, described as a “a man of spirit,” wasn’t about to be trifled with. Rather than back down, the adjutant grabbed the “principal mutineer” and proceeded to throw him into the guardhouse as well.
Zeigler, however, realized that it wouldn’t be the end of the trouble, and immediately went to report the matter to Colonel Thompson. Zeigler found the colonel and a group of his senior officers right after dinner, but their conversation was interrupted when they were “alarmed with a huzzaing.” Going out to investigate the ruckus, the officers found that the men had indeed broken into the guardhouse and released at least one of the prisoners.
Thompson, along with Lt. Col. Edward Hand and a few other officers, worked quickly to restore order. The colonel seized the released prisoner and immediately sent him to the army’s main guard house in Cambridge. The riflemen had sullenly watched it all “without any violent opposition,” but were clearly chafing under the discipline.
Brigadier General Nathanael Greene was apprehensive that something ugly was brewing, and penned a note to Washington informing him of the situation. “The Rifflers seems very sulky,” wrote Greene, “and I am informd threatens to rescue their mates to night.” Despite the unrest, Greene didn’t seem terribly concerned over the matter. The guard placed over the prisoners was “very Strong” and in case backup was needed “the Regiment are all ready at a moments warning to turn out.”
But trouble had been brewing. By Lukens’ reckoning, it took little more than a half hour for the seething riflemen to get completely out of control. Some thirty-two men, armed with loaded rifles, “swore by God they would go to the main guard and release the man or lose their lives.” The men took off at a run for Cambridge, while Thompson and his officers watched helplessly. “It was in vain to attempt stopping them,” explained Lukens, “We stayed in camp and kept the others quiet.”
They did, however, send word to army headquarters that an outright mutiny was afoot. Washington acted quickly, reinforcing the main guard house at Cambridge to five hundred men “with fixed bayonets and loaded pieces.” Col. Daniel Hitchcock’s 2nd Rhode Island Regiment, which was stationed on Prospect Hill adjacent to Thompson’s Battalion, was placed on alert. “The generals,” explained Lukens, “were determined to subdue by force the mutineers, and did not know how far it might spread in our battalion.”
The riflemen ran about a half mile toward Cambridge when they stopped and took “possession of a hill and woods.” It was here that Washington, accompanied by generals Charles Lee and Nathanael Greene, caught up with them. Washington, who could be a thunderous stickler for discipline when needed, cowed the riflemen into submission in short order.
Lukens recalled that “the General,” presumably Washington, barked orders for the mutineers to ground their arms, which they did immediately. He then ordered Capt. George Nagel’s company from Thompson’s Battalion, rifles loaded, to surround the malcontents. They were backed up by elements of Hitchcock’s Rhode Islanders and Col. Moses Little’s Massachusetts Regiment, firelocks loaded and bayonets fixed. The mutineers were all arrested. Six ringleaders were taken to the main guard at Cambridge, the remaining men were incarcerated at the guard house on Prospect Hill. “I was glad to find our men all true and ready to do their duty,” wrote Lukens, “except these thirty-two rascals.”
News of the mutiny spread fast. Benjamin Crafts, a lieutenant in Mansfield’s Massachusetts Regiment, recorded in his diary on the evening of September 11 that “A number of riflemen have been confined for mutiny and some of them sent to the main guard in irons.” Not surprisingly, one of the Pennsylvania riflemen had a different perspective on the day’s events. Aaron Wright cast blame for the trouble on Zeigler, writing that there had been a “Great commotion on Prospect Hill among the riflemen” caused by “the unreasonable confinement of a sergeant by the adjutant of Thompson’s regiment.”
For Washington, there was no doubt about who was to blame. On September 11, he ordered a court-martial to convene the following day to try the mutinous riflemen. And he immediately put a stop to the special treatment that the riflemen had hitherto enjoyed. “Col. Thompson’s Battalion of Rifle-men posted upon Prospect-hill, to take their share of all duty of Guard and Fatigue, with the Brigade they encamp with.”
The verdict of the court-martial was something of a foregone conclusion, but the punishment which the men received was remarkably lenient. Although found guilty of “disobedient and mutinous Behaviour,” the thirty-three men received a simple fine amounting to twenty shillings. Only one man, John Leamon, was specifically identified in the records or singled out for special punishment. In addition to the fine, Leamon was sentenced to six days of imprisonment.
In the wake of the embarrassing mutiny, the once-vaunted riflemen fell out of favor. “You cannot conceive what disgrace we are all in,” Jesse Lukens wrote in a letter home, “& how much the General is chagrined that only one Regiment should come from the Southward & that set so infamous an example.” The entire affair left the Continental Army’s high command not a little annoyed. “They do not boast so much of the Riflemen as heretofore,” wrote General Artemas Ward, “Genl. Washington has said he wished they had never come. Genl. Lee has damned them and wished them all in Boston.”
General William Heath was more charitable in his assessment. In a letter to John Adams, Heath described the chaos ensuing from the ill-disciplined riflemen. To be fair, however, Heath explained that most of the infractions had been due to a few “foreigners” or “Irish” in the ranks. As for the bulk of the rifle battalion, Heath thought that “there is in that Corps as Faithfull and Brave Officers and Soldiers as in any Other. It would be Ungenerous to Characterize the Troops of any Colony, from the Conduct of a few Scounderels.”
John Thomas, the affable Massachusetts physician-turned-general, was hesitant to say anything ugly, but did anyway. “I would avoid all Reflection, or any thing that may Tend to give Umbridge,” he informed John Adams, “but there is in this Camp, from the Southward, A Number Called Riflemen, who are as Indifferent men as I ever Served with.” There were some “Likely men” amongst the officers, but the enlisted men had proven themselves a parcel of mutinous deserters, “Unwilling for Duty of any kind, Exceedingly Vicious, And I think the Army here would be as well without as with them.”
Publicly, George Washington put the best face possible on the presence of the riflemen in his army. But in a private letter to his brother Samuel, Washington dismissed them as somewhat overrated. “The Riflemen,” Washington lamented, “have had very little oppertunity of shewing their skill, or their ignorance, for some of them, especially from Pensylvania, know no more of a Rifle than my horse.”
John Adams to James Warren, July 6, 1775,”Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-03-02-0038.
William Heath to Adams, October 23, 1775,”Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-03-02-0118.
“Nathanael Greene to George Washington, September 10, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0341.
General Orders, September 11, 1775,”Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0344.
General Orders, September 13, 1775,”Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0353.
Artemas Ward to Adams, October 23, 1775,”Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-03-02-0120.
Heath to Adams, October 23, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-03-02-0118.
John Thomas to Adams, October 24, 1775,”Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-03-02-0123.
George Washington to Samuel Washington, September 30, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0067.