Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on July 20, 1975 · Page 61
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 61

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, July 20, 1975
Page 61
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Page 61 article text (OCR)

Baron von Steuben instills discipline in officer corps. Library of Congress painting. Washington's Rag-Tag Officer Corps By Dennis Montgomery The rank-and-file officers of the Continental Line scarcely met the standards of George Washington, their commander-in-chief. But they herded a band of yeoman to victory over the world's best soldiers. Washington said, "Gentlemen of fortune and reputable families generally make the most useful officers." Yet the officers in Washington's army were fashioned from cobblers, carpenters, innkeepers, surveys, teachers, iron workers, clerks, wagon builders, farmer, students, and Indian fighters. A few were gentlemen of fortune and repute, usually lawyers in civilian life. To Washington, an aristocratic Virginia planter who admired the professionalism of British officers, his officers seemed an unpromising lot. Eight dismal montns after accepting command of the rebel army at Boston, he commented in a letter to Congress: v^To bring men to be well acquainted with the duties of a soldier requires time. To bring them under proper discipline and subordination not only requires time, but it is work of great difficulty, and in this army, where there is so little distinction between officers and soldiers, requires an uncommon degree of attention." At West Point Military Academy, which wasn't founded until 1802, Col Roy K. Flint of the history department says: "The leadership of his officers was always his biggest problem. They were never as good as the men they led, job for job. The riflemen were always better riflemen than the lieutenants were lieutenants. He never really had as many good officers as he wanted. By and "large that remained true through the war." Aaron Wright, a Revolutionary War private from New Jersey, kept a journal of his experiences. His account of the day his company formed illustrates some of the kinks in the Continental chain of command. First the men were "sworn to be true and faithful soldiers of the Right Honorable Congress," Wright wrote. "After this we chose our officers. When on parade our first lieutenant came and told us he would be glad if we would excuse him from going, which we refused: but on consideration we concluded it was better to consent; after which he said he would go; but we said, 'You shall not command us, for he whose mind can change in an hour is not fit to command in the field where Liberty is contended for.' In the evening we chose a private in his place." In many units, junior officers served at the pleasure of the enlisted men. They could not be too officious and expect to keep their rank.- Clearly, Wright's new lieutenant knew who was in charge. That was sometimes more than Washington knew, especially in the beginning. There were few uniforms to distinguish officers from soldiers and in the New England ranks, where egalitarianism was important, provided few clues. The general's staff was appalled to learn one company counted its barber among its officers. Within six weeks of joining the army ringing Boston in the summer of 1775, the new commander- in-chief removed two colonels, a major and six captains for offenses ranging from cowardice to corruption. "I have made a pretty good slam among such kinds of officers as the Massachusetts government abound in," he wrote."... In short, I spare none, yet fear it will not all do, as these people seem to be too inattentive to everything but their own interest." Eventually, at Washington's insistence, Congress provided a new method of raising troops by asking the states to raise 88 regiments. But even reform brought difficulty. The states were entitled to commission whomever they wished. Poliitical appointments were not uncommon and Washington had no say in the selections. Like the soldiers they led, officers were generally men who could be spared on the home front. The best-educated, the most stable and the most mature were needed at home to develop the fledgling union's political and commercial infrastructure. European armies, on the other hand, were led by professional soldiers of the upper class, trained in military science. Washington, who had fought with the British against the French and the Indians, greatly admired the officers of the army he was now trying to defeat. "He wanted his men to be able to stand up to the British for their own self-respect and safety," Flint says. "And he was very interested in giving the impression of a viable military force." *But Washington's officers often were as dissatisfied with their lot as he was with them. Pay was niggardly, food humble and scanty, and clothing allowances often nonexistent. At Valley Forge some were reduced to rags and roast dog. Desertions were rare, but only because officers were free to resign their commissions and go home. Many-did. Some were sent home to enlist neighbors for their commands. For the unscrupulous, it was an opportunity to profit on enlistment bounties by inflating the rolls. And the same pockets were lined with the pay of dead men reported in active service long after their demise. .Washington threatened hanging for such offenses, but he was also philosophical. At home men who chose not to serve were profiting handsomely in the war trade and the men at the front knew it. Unless officers "could take pleasure in their situation," Washington warned Congress, they would soon be "an insipid mass incapable of acting with vigor..." At his insistence, they were awarded half-pay pensions for life, in the style of the European armies. During the enforced idleness of camp life they bickered over rank and seniority. Some even took their cases to Congress. John Adams wrote that he was "wearied to death by the Wrangles between military officers, high and low. They Quarrell like Cats and Dogs. They worry one another like Mastiffs Scrambling for Rank and Pay like Apes for nuts." *· Beyond slights real and imagined the work was dangerous -- on and off the battlefield. Disease probably claimed as many victims as 22m CHARLESTON, H'.'VX. bullets. And Washington discouraged his officers from using firearms. Reloading a musket was too much distraction from the men. He ordered them to carry spears instead. It fell to a German, Lt. Gen. Frederick William Henry Ferdinand Baron von Steuben, to instill discipline in the officers and hence in the troops. Recruited by America's delegation to France, von Steuben signed on as inspector general, but served as drill master. Adapting European military science to conditions here, he gave the army enough skill to effectively "muster its muskets. Slowly Washington's shoemakers and shinglers became professional officers. Take one Capt. Anderson who, bearing one of those spears at Cowpens, charged a cannon, stuck 'the shaft "forward into the ground," as a proud general reported, and "made a long leap which brought him upon the gun and gave him the honor of the prize." At war's end they were the men of Washington's inner circle -- Nathaniel Greene, once an iron-monger; Henry Knox, formerly an overweight bookseller; Alexander Hamilton, a bastard from the Indies. Among the accolades to their leadership of the American army, one from Baron von Closen, a gentleman officer from France, might have given Washington particular pleasure. "I admire the American troops tremendously," he wrote. "It is incredible that soldiers composed of men of every age, even children of fifteen, of whites and blacks, almost naked, unpaid and rather poorly fed, can march so well and withstand fire so steadfastly." July' 20, 15, Sunday 'G

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