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WAR: 1775-1783

6. Fighting the War




The images at right depict war from a distance. An individual soldier is a vertical line among many, his identity irrelevant in the artist's attempt to evoke the reality of a battle, a march, a surrender. For the soldier, of course, reality was the comrade next to him—and the enemy he was to kill. "The eighteenth-century battlefield was, compared with the twentieth, an intimate theater," writes historian George Middlekauff. "The killing range of the musket, eighty to one hundred yards, enforced intimacy as did the reliance on the bayonet and the general ineffectiveness of artillery. Soldiers had to come to close quarters to kill; this fact reduced the mystery of battle though perhaps not its terrors."1 In this section we view the battlefield reality of Revolutionary War soldiers and their experiences as scouts, spies, aides, commissaries, guards, and prisoners.

    Pension narratives of Revolutionary War veterans PDF file
  • Pension narratives of Revolutionary War veterans, 1830s, selections. In 1832 Congress passed the last and most extensive pension act for Revolutionary War veterans, granting partial or full pay to every man who had served in the war for at least six months. Over 80,000 veterans submitted applications, often accompanied with dictated narratives and handwritten accounts of their wartime experiences. From these records, housed in the National Archives, historian John C. Dann published The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence (University of Chicago Press, 1980), from which these selections are presented. The passages may change your impression of the Revolutionary War, influenced by documentaries with static eighteenth-century illustrations and quaint fife-and-drum music. Unlike the Civil War, which is documented by gruesome photographs and on-scene drawings, we must envision Revolutionary War combat through such narratives as provided by these aging veterans fifty years after the war. (13 pp.)

  • Philip Freneau, The British Prison Ship PDF file
  • Philip Freneau, The British Prison Ship, poem, 1781, selection. Known as the Poet of the American Revolution, Philip Freneau wrote The British Prison Ship as the first-person account of a six-week ordeal on British prison ships, on which an estimated 11,500 Americans died during the war. Although some facts in the poem conflict with ships' records and Freneau's own prose account, it is likely that Freneau was describing his own experiences as a young civilian prisoner in his twenties.2 Presented here are the imprisonment sections of the first and least-known version, published only months after Freneau's release in summer 1780. He revised the poem six times over the next three decades, retaining the details of the prisoners' harsh treatment but removing his furied denunciations of Britain. Included in the sidebars are selections from Freneau's prose narrative, Some Account of the Capture of the Ship Aurora, written in 1780 and published in 1899. (10 pp.)

  • Pension narratives of Revolutionary War veterans PDF file
  • Boyrereau Brinch, enslaved black soldier in the American army, narrative selections. Captured in west Africa and sold in Barbados about 1758, Brinch fought on a British ship during the French and Indian War, after which he was taken to Connecticut and sold again. In 1777 he enlisted in the Connecticut militia and fought with an infantry regiment until the end of the war. In 1783 he was honorably discharged and, due to his military service, emancipated from slavery. In the early 1800s Brinch narrated his memoirs to an anti-slavery journalist, who published them as The Blind African Slave, from which we read Brinch's Revolutionary War experiences. How did Brinch relate to fighting in the white man's war for liberty? (5 pp.)

  • Boston King, fugitive slave in the British army, narrative selections. Enslaved in South Carolina, King fled a cruel slaveholder to "throw myself in the hands of the English" in Charleston. He served three British and Loyalist officers before being captured on a British warship and taken to New York City, where he worked and married. Later serving on an American whaleboat and fearing re-enslavement after an American victory, King managed to return to British-occupied New York City, where he was evacuated with black Loyalists to Nova Scotia, Canada. There he became a Methodist minister and, having moved to Sierra Leone in west Africa, published his memoir in 1798, from which this excerpt is taken. How did King recount the dangers and achievements of his war experience? How did he adjust to the varying levels of freedom he experienced after his escape? [4 pp., History Matters]

Discussion Questions

  1. Overall, what impressions do you get from these accounts of Revolutionary War soldiers' experiences?
  2. Which experiences occur in all wars, and which were unique to the Revolution? Why?
  3. From the selections, elucidate historian Robert Middlekauff's description of the "intimate theatre" of eighteenth-century warfare.
  4. To what extent have wars in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries resembled and differed from eighteenth-century wars?
  5. What factors have changed warfare since the 1700s?
  6. What factors have changed the individual soldier's experience?
  7. How do the pension narratives differ from the published war memoirs? What can be learned from each? What is obscured in each? (See Supplemental Sites for other online memoirs and journals.)
  8. Compare the war experiences of the two enslaved African Americans, Boyrereau Brinch and Boston King. What was their service? How did they relate to fighting in a white man's war? How did each achieve emancipation?
  9. How did Freneau use rhyme and meter, poetic devices, and figurative language in The British Prison Ship? (See the Poetry Glossary from the Academy of American Poets.)
  10. Compare the poem with Freneau's prose narrative of his captivity, Some Account of the Capture of the Ship Aurora (Internet Archive). Analyze them from the differing perspectives of a historian and a literary scholar. What do we expect from a poem? from a prose narrative?
  11. What do you learn of the Revolutionary soldier's experience from the civilian narratives in #7: Living in War? How does this amplify your impressions from the selections presented here?
  12. How would the women civilians relate to Sarah Osborn's decision to accompany her soldier-husband during the war?
  13. Create a dialogue between two persons in these selections. Select a core issue or question for their discussion. How will the dialogue conclude? (Consider introducing a third speaker at the end.) Possible pairings:
    –Edward Elley & Michael Graham soldiers fighting in American victory & defeat
    –Boston King & Richard Wallace soldier–messengers in enemy territory
    –John McCasland & Moses Hall soldiers taking enemy prisoners
    –Angus McCoy & John McCasland frontier soldiers in Indian warfare
    –Boyrereau Brinch & Boston King enslaved African American soldiers
    –Boston King & Jehu Grant enslaved African American soldiers
    –Garret Watts & Epaphroditus Champion combatant & non-combatant in the Continental Army
    –Philip Freneau & John Ingersoll captives on British prison ships
    –Joseph Rundel & John Ingersoll escapees from British prisons
    –Aaron and Sarah Osborne soldier & wife

Framing Questions

  • How did Patriot leadership—military, diplomatic, and governmental—promote and hinder the war effort?
  • How did the war affect Patriots, Loyalists, Indians, African Americans, and women? How were power relationships changed?
  • How were decisions by Britain and France critical to the outcome of the war?
  • Was victory the last achievement of the thirteen colonies or the first achievement of the new nation?


Veterans' pension narratives
Freneau, The British Prison Ship, poem
Narrative of Boyrereau Brinch
Narrative of Boston King
13 pp.
10 pp.
 5 pp.
 4 pp.
32 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Revolutionary War pensions enacted by Congress, 1776-1832, overview (VAGenSearch)

Pension applications of the Rankin brothers, New York (NYGenWeb)

Pension applications, veterans of Wilkes County, NC (USGenWeb)

[An Internet search on "revolution pension 1832" will compile numerous pension applications.]

Memoirs of Revolutionary War soldiers and sailors, excerpts in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York) Memoirs/letters of Revolutionary War soldiers, excerpts in From Revolution to Reconstruction (University of Groningen) Memoirs of Revolutionary War soldiers, full texts in Internet Archive, including Diary of Joseph Plumb Martin, Revolutionary War soldier, selections (Independence Hall Assn.)

Documenting the American South: Resources on the Revolutionary soldier's experience (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library) Boyrereau Brinch, overview in Seven Days (newspaper), Burlington, Vermont, 2005

Blacks in the Revolutionary War, in Africans in America (PBS/WGBH) Philip Freneau, overview (Cengage Learning)

Philip Freneau, Some Account of the Capture of the Ship Aurora (Internet Archive)

"Was the American Revolution Inevitable?," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)

Teaching the Revolution, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)

General Online Resources

1George Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 500.
2Mary Weatherspoon Bowden, "In Search of Freneau's Prison Ships," Early American Literature, 14:2 (Fall 1979), pp. 174-192.

– Amos Doolittle, A View of the South Part of Lexington, 1775 (detail), print #4 of series Battles of Lexington and Concord, colored etchings/engravings, 1775. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Digital ID 54390.
View of the Attack on Bunker's Hill, with the Burning of Charles Town, June 17, 1775, engraving by Lodge after the drawing by Millar, n.d., (detail). Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Digital ID 424089.
Reddition de l'Armée angloises commandée par Mylord Comte de Cornwallis . . . [Surrender of the English army commanded by Lord Cornwallis . . . ], hand-colored engraving, Paris, 1781 (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division, G3884.Y6S3 1781 .M6 Vault.

Banner image: John Trumbull, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, oil on canvas, 1820 (detail). Courtesy of the U.S. Capitol, Office of the Architect of the Capitol.

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