By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
Some of our visitors here at Saratoga NHP are Revolutionary War re-enactors. Many consider the visit here as something of a pilgrimage to the Turning Point of the Revolutionary War, and who could disagree?
Occasionally, a re-enactor might grumble that the National Park Service does not permit battle re-enactments on lands it administers, arguing that these sham fights to “show how the battles were really fought”. Some re-enactors will expound such events and get a little carried away as to how “realistic” these events were and how they felt “they were really there”.
The problem with a re-enactment being “realistic” falls apart on many levels, the most important being that no one is to get hurt. Whatever else might be said about the hobby of re-enacting, most organizations and venues work hard to ensure the safety of the participants. Very few people want to leave the site of their hobby in an ambulance or a body bag. Re-enactors in a sham battle have a good notion that life and limb will be preserved.
In short, unlike the combatants of the past, re-enactors are not subjected to real fear.
Fear is perhaps one of the most basic of human emotions, and doubtlessly played a role in the survival of the human species. Of course, once we’d finished off major predators like saber-toothed cats and dire wolves, we found that the biggest threat to us was, well, us.
Yes, somewhere along the line war was invented, and unlike dealing with a saber-toothed cat that only made itself a nuisance when hungry, humans were happy to kill each other darned near anytime. Being humans, it wasn’t enough to dispatch someone with a nearby rock; killing methods were improved with pointed sticks, bows and arrows and eventually firearms. The applied human imagination made (and makes) war a scary proposition.
War also engendered organization for killing in the form of armies. Organizations have rules and a big one for armies was that its members are not to run away. For soldiers, the innate “fight or flight” is no longer their choice, which can make for enormous psychological strain.
It is true that the demands of modern warfare are often more intense than those of the Early Modern Period. Modern military planning calls for non-stop warfare, 24 hours 7 days a week with no bathroom breaks. By comparison, war in the 18th Century might see long periods of time without significant combat.
That is not to say that when combat was experienced that it was anything but unpleasant. Weapons employed during the Revolutionary War may not have had the broad spectrum killing abilities as today, but struck by a simple cannon shot or musket ball, a combatant is just as dead as if a high-tech Patriot missile came a callin’. Soldiers were certainly afraid and reacted in a variety of ways.
A man sufficiently frightened might act subconsciously to make it impossible to fight, as Joseph Plumb Martin related just before the Battle of Long Island in 1776:
“We were soon called upon to fall in and proceed. We had not gone far…when I heard one in the rear ask another where his musket was. I looked round and saw one of the soldiers stemming off without a gun, having left it where we last halted; he was inspecting his side as if undetermined whether he had it or not, he then fell out of the ranks to go in search of it. One of the company, who had brought it (wishing to see how far he would go before he missed it) gave it to him…”
Some troops might try to avoid combat en masse as Captain Johann Ewald of the Hessian Field-Jäger Corps discovered during a sudden American attack in Virginia in 1781:
“I reached the position of the picket [guard] and discovered to my astonishment that the entire opposite bank of the creek was occupied by the enemy, who directed his fire upon me…. I dashed into the wood, where a short distance away I came across the jägers posted behind trees. With sword in hand I drove them toward the causeway again, where they fought like heroes in spite of the most frightful fire.”
Others might blatantly avoid combat as Captain Georg Päusch of the Princely Regiment of Hessen-Hanau Artillery reported after the Battle of Freeman’s Farm:
“… [Surgeon’s mate] Unger…sought a safe place for himself and remained behind with his small bundle of bandages and wrappings. He grabbed a fellow carrying rum, and drank like a wild man and riff-raff in company with the English drummers.”
Some might even completely break down in the face of combat as Massachusetts militia soldier Samuel Bacon witnessed:
“One Elias Smith solicited to guard the packs but the Captain said he was a great stout young man could handle the axe to cut down the pickets and that I was to[o] small. Then Smith burst out a crying and I said let him stay I had as live [lief] go as not.”
Revolutionary War combat is usually pictured in terms of flags flying and the spectacle of armies maneuvering; there were more than a few episodes where death and injury could come from a sudden raid. This made sentinel duty not only onerous, but potentially hazardous as well. Small wonder that some soldiers found that noises in the dark could trigger panic as the young Massachusetts soldier Daniel Granger noted:
“[At Winter Hill, 1775] Here I had to stand two hours, and tramp around the old stump to keep me from freesing, and no other Sentinal in sight of me. And about eleven or twelve oclock the Sentinal that was placed above me, heard the Ice trickle down from the Rocks as the Tide fell off, which frightened him, I heard him hale at the Top of his voice “who comes there twice I beleave, and then fired off his Gun and ran off. [The Guard] talked with me some time, asked me, if I heard the Sentury fire? I told them that I heard him hale and fire, & his tramp on the Snow when he ran, but that I saw nothing & was determined not to fire until I did, they said “I was a brave fellow” and asked my age, & on being told it, expressed astonishment, that I should be there so young, and that the Sentinal who ran off his post was a cowardly fellow, & was immediately put under guard….”
Admitting or exhibiting fear earned censure from other soldiers. Doubtlessly, they were feeling some levels of fear, but group ethos, the youthful belief of immortality or a greater fear of ridicule would keep them from expressing it. Showing fear left an individual to scorn:
“…and ordered the Soldiers to take off their Packs & lay them down then marched the Regt a few paces forward of the Packs ordered them to load their Arms, and that if any were sick and not able to go into battle, they might go back and take care of the Baggage. Two only, out of the Regiment went back, one, an Old Man, & was very sick the other a robust well looking young Man, & trembling like an Aspen leaf, and he was hooted at, I then thought that I should rather be shot than to be in his place….”
Worse still, if it was an officer:
“While resting here, which was not more than twenty minutes or half an hour, the Americans and British were warmly engaged within sight of us. What were the feelings of most or all the young soldiers at the time, I know not, but I know what were mine. But let mine or theirs be what they might, I saw a lieutenant who appeared to have feelings not very enviable; whether he was actuated by fear or the canteen I cannot determine now. I thought it fear at the time, for he ran round among the men of his company, sniveling and blubbering, praying each one if he had aught against him, or if he had injured anyone that they would forgive him, declaring at the same time that he, from his heart, forgave them if they had offended him, and I gave him full credit for his assertion, for had he been at the gallows with a halter about his neck, he could not have shown more fear or penance. A fine soldier you are, I thought, a fine officer, an exemplary man for young soldiers! I would have suffered anything short of death rather than have made such an exhibition of myself…”
Joseph Plumb Martin
“During one of these scouting excursions occurred the only act of cowardice I knew in the army. In the confusion of one of these skirmishes, one of our lieutenants was found secreted safely behind a pile of logs. A complaint or an account of his position was immediately sent to General Gates, without his knowledge or his friends’, and as they well knew he would be tried, they advised him to go to general gates next morning and resign, before a complaint was made, get his discharge, and be off, which he accordingly did, found General Gates very kind, told him he wished no man to remain in the army who was so anxious to resign, wrote his discharge himself, with which the soldier returned to camp, well pleased, thanking his friends for their counsel, and hastening his departure with all possible speed, when one of the number asked him what he had written on the other side. When turning it over he beheld to his horror the account of his cowardice, with all the particulars handed the general the night before. The roar of laughter was more that the roar of the guns which the poor fellow had to contend with now; some advising him with Yankee ingenuity to tear it in two, and paste a paper on the back to preserve his discharge. I need not add he was soon off.”
Park Holland, Sergeant Major, Rufus Putnam’s Massachusetts Regiment
Even Benedict Arnold, noted for his near-suicidal courage in battle had limits. As a Brigadier in the British army in Virginia in 1781, one of Arnold’s positions was threatened by reportedly large enemy forces. Joahn Ewald tells us:
“General Arnold, the former American Hannibal, now stayed on horseback day and night, galloped constantly from the fortified windmill up to the blockhouse on the left and back, and had a dam constructed across Mill Point Creek to create a flood in front and to the right. Everyone, who knew only the English engineer and no other, continually asked him a question which he answered with another one, until a cold sweat broke out over him ‘What do you think of this fine works? By God! The French will not take it by assault! By God they cannot!’ As if there were no mortars and [artillery] pieces in the world!”
Later in his diary Ewald tartly notes: “…I found [Arnold] very restless on the day the Americans threatened to take Portsmouth with a coup de main. On that day he was not the ‘American Hannibal.”
Men certainly were afraid but the only ways to express it was either to most trusted loved ones, or in a diary.
Adjutant Nathaniel Bacheller of Colonel Drake’s Regiment of New Hampshire Militia confessed his moment of fear in a letter to his wife just after the Battle of Bemis Height:
“…soon a Very heavy fire Began Both with Cannon & Small Armes, such a seen my ears never were greeted with Before the Sun an hour & Half high you can not conceive…How men Looked & at First it appeared to me if orders came for us to march I could not do it….”
Ezra Tilden confided in his journal:
“…Capt. Wilder…told us to load and be ready for the enemy it was thought would be upon us very soon and when he gave orders to have us stand them if we thought we could, and if not to fire upon and retreat and by what they said it was expected that the enemy was not twenty rods off from us, I put up secret and fervent prayers, though short, to God, to preserve me, and also my family for I did not know but I might lose my life if I went into action which I then every moment expected. I prayed therefore to God the pardon of my sins which prayer I hope has been heard, and prayed likewise for the preservation he has hitherto granted me for which I desire to bless his holy name therefore and hope that the good impressions wrought upon me that day also will soon, if ever, be forgot by me. Per me, Ezra Tilden Camps at Stillwater 47 minutes after 10 O’clock A.M. Oct 6, 1777….”
Perhaps the starkest admission of fear from a soldier of the Revolutionary War comes from the pension claim of Garrett Watts whose moment of truth was at the American disaster at the Battle of Camden, SC in 1780:
“I can state on oath that I believe my gun was the first gun fired [at the battle of Camden, 1780], notwithstanding the orders, for we were close to the enemy, who appeared to maneuver in contempt of us, and I fired without thinking except that I might prevent the man opposite from killing me. The discharge and loud roar soon became general from one end of the lines to the other. Amongst other things, I confess I was amongst the first that fled. The cause of that I cannot tell, except that everyone I saw was about to do the same. It was instantaneous. There was no effort to rally, no encouragement to fight. Officers and men joined in the flight. I threw away my gun, and reflecting I might be punished for being found without arms, I picked up a drum, which gave forth such sounds when touched by twigs I cast it away….”
His giving into fear in 1780 apparently left him with a burden of guilt that lasted his lifetime.