Magazine article VFW Magazine

'Band of Brothers'

Magazine article VFW Magazine

'Band of Brothers'

Article excerpt

Despite being fought by soldiers mostly indifferent to the Revolution's loftier ideals, a core of Continentals dedicated themselves to the cause. But even these veterans had to struggle for benefits befitting their sacrifices.

t news of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783, members of Maryland's General Assembly, national, state and local dignitaries and citizens of Annapolis celebrated a day of "public rejoicing." Against the backdrop of 13 firing cannons, the following was one of 13 toasts to the Revolutionary warriors:

"The generals, officers and soldiers of our army-may their services be remembered, and generously rewarded by a grateful people."

Fifty years passed before that reward was realized with congressional creation, in 1833, of the Bureau of Pensions-the first administrative unit dedicated solely to the relief of veterans.

During and after the war, compensation for Revolutionary War veterans progressed slowly in a series of fits and starts, acknowledging English traditions handed down from the Acte for the Reliefe of Souldiours and the necessity of attracting enlistees and rewarding service. Estimates of Americans who fought in the war at one time or another from 1775-1783 range between 200,000 and 232,000 (including reenlistments)-almost 10 percent of a total population of 2.5 million when the war began.

Of those, 6,824 were killed in action and 8,445 were wounded in action. Also, there were 18,500 deaths due to non-hostile causes such as disease. Dr. Benjamin Rush, then surgeon general of the Continental Army, sadly admitted that disease and hospitals "robbed the United States of more citizens than the sword." Perhaps as many as 8,500 men died as POWs of the British by the time Congress disbanded the Continental Army in November 1783.

Public sentiment was initially sympathetic to those who had borne the rigors of battle, secured freedom for the nation and who soon demanded due compensation. Many Americans' feelings were echoed by Gen. George Washington:

"We must give gratitude to those men who have rescued us from the `jaws of danger' and brought us to the honor of independence and peace."

Still, that gratitude was not always forthcoming from the Continental Congress. It defaulted on the promise of three months' pay. Soldiers left with only their muskets and equipment, and perhaps chevrons on their sleeves to mark terms of good service.

"Most of them [veterans], however, left `without the settlement of their accounts or a farthing of money in their pockets.' They straggled home in groups, ragged and dirty, hungry, tired, and sick, begging meals at taverns and farmhouses or stealing a chicken here and there," wrote Joseph P. Cullen in The Concise Illustrated History of the American Revolution.

"It was a bitter homecoming, and yet these veterans generally were not bitter. They were rugged individuals as well as individualists, and from their diaries and letters it appears they were genuine patriots, well aware of what they had been fighting and dying for, with the astounding patience and fortitude to suffer through unbelievable hardship." Question of Public Ziitue' Despite recognition of the assumed colonial male militia obligation, and its function as a manpower reservoir for emergencies, filling its ranks was a continual problem. Most Americans exhibited a marked reluctance to serve, except for home defense or personal gain.

Appeals to patriotism and civic virtue failed to produce a steady stream of recruits once the fervor of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill had subsided. Consequently, states were forced to turn to the poor and disenfranchised to meet militia and Continental manpower needs. The historical portrayal of resolute, long-suffering Continental regulars, such as at Valley Forge, has its origins more in myth than reality. The uneducated and those of limited means, including the sons of unmarried farmers and artisans, laborers, vagrants and newly freed convicts and indentured servants, were economically forced into military service. …

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