November 11, 2014

Hardships Unimaginable: Our First Veterans

By Brandon Marie Miller

Activity: Design a Recruiting Poster

Not surprisingly, in the early years of the American Revolution, George Washington had problems recruiting men. Many signed up for short enlistments, used up the army's meager supplies, and then headed home. He needed an army of long-term soldiers he could train into a disciplined force. The men who joined, the men who stayed, suffered unimaginable hardships and Washington ached for his men.

Joseph Martin, a hardened war veteran at age sixteen, contemplated his dinner. The year was 1777 and though, "pinched with hunger," all he had was a bit of rice and a tablespoon of vinegar. At the army's winter camp in Morristown, New Jersey a few years later Joseph wrote the soldiers were "absolutely, literally starved." He joined others who gnawed bark from sticks and devoured roasted shoe leather. Officers, who lived slightly better, killed a pet dog and ate it.

The soldiers of the American Revolution suffered most with hunger, but they also suffered from want of clothes. Their letters home pleaded for shirts and socks and most wore their clothing to rags.  At Valley Forge Washington had nearly 3,000 men unfit for duty "because they are barefoot and otherwise naked," he wrote. Did the American people think their soldiers were made of stones, he wondered, and wouldn't feel frost and cold? Some regiments "scandalous" appearance  brought jeers from their fellow citizens who taunted: "Ragged Lousey Naked regiment!" "Such treatment," wrote one officer, "is discouraging and dispiriting."

Their suffering angered soldiers, not only at their countrymen, but with Congress and the state governments who wouldn't send money to support the troops. Most soldiers, including officers, went months without pay. Ebenezer Huntington vented, "I despise my Countrymen...I am in Rags...and all this for my cowardly countrymen who hold their Purse Strings...rather than part with a Dollar to their Army."

Washington knew his men felt "goaded by a thousand stings" as he constantly pleaded with Congress for relief. In 1781 "The event, which I have long dreaded would be the consequence of keeping the Army without pay, Cloathing, and Provision, has at length come to pass," Washington wrote. Nearly 200 New Jersey troops mutinied.

At war's end, Joseph Martin summed up the feelings of many: "When the country had drained the last drop of service it could screw out of the poor soldiers, they were turned adrift like old worn-out horses."

Today, we celebrate, support and appreciate our veterans. As we do, give a thought to our first veterans who suffered so greatly giving birth to our nation.


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