In A Nutshell
Most young Americans are taught that the Revolutionary War was decided when middle-class colonial farmers grabbed their hunting rifles from above the fireplace and rushed to meet the British on the battlefield. And on that battlefield, the Americans fought for liberty, while the Redcoats fought for imperialism, taxes, and monocles. Of course, on the battlefield of reality, American independence was won with the blood of its poorest inhabitants, who were pressed into service.
The Whole Bushel
The impoverished, the disenfranchised, and the “filth” (Washington’s words not ours), fought for and won all the lofty freedoms conceived of in town halls, alehouses, and eventually Philadelphia. That didn’t just happen at random, either. That’s exactly how America’s wealthier colonists planned it.
When the war became reality, there was a remarkable dearth of ardent patriots willing to stop a musket ball for “liberty.” Overwhelmingly, colonists of any means whatsoever paid drifters and vagabonds to take their place in the fight against the British. Or, if they had them available, a wealthy colonist might order a slave or servant to join the army. Is there anything nobler than risking the life of another for your ideals? Apparently not, since it wasn’t just the powdered wig wearers who bought the military service of the poor. Middle and lower-class colonists alike often pooled their monies together to hire a “down and outer” for three years’ service. When all else failed, colonies (especially the southern ones) released convicts and enrolled them in the army.
Men fighting for liberty were in the extreme minority—like black-guy-in-rural-Idaho levels of extreme minority. Those who served in the Continental Army were fighting for a couple bucks and maybe a meal. Yet, it’s only because of them that there was an army at all. But, what about those men who spent most of the war running from anything red—the unduly celebrated militia?
Despite the self-pleasing fantasies of right-wingers and The Patriot, even the militia was made up of the destitute. American elites spent a great deal of time revising colonial laws so even the burden of fighting in local militias eventually fell to men who had nothing to protect. By the time the Revolution began, estate owners, property holders, and overseers were all exempt from service. All those poor, oppressed, small business owners and farmers the British taxed mercilessly were usually nowhere near the battlefield if they could help it.
It’s a good thing then, that over 5,000 black soldiers helped fill the American ranks. As Washington himself said (in between racial epithets), victory depended on “which side can arm the negroes faster.” At their decisive victory of Yorktown, Rochambeau noted about 25 percent of his American allies were “confident and sturdy negroes” (it was 1781, that was tolerant).
So, the next time you see depictions of a pristine British Army facing down an American Army clothed in rags and other, bloodier rags, know this: A) Many of the soldiers would have been wearing French uniforms, B) A large number would have been black men, and C) The founding fathers wouldn’t have had it any other way.