Sunday, February 19, 2017


(Rifles and Riflemen in the Revolution Part 5) 

Once open conflict had broken out between Great Britain and the American Colonies in April of 1775, the need for a single, unified American Continental Army, as opposed to ad hoc combined forces consisting of various, separate Colonial Militias became apparent. Although all of the Colonies were in rebellion, the army surrounding Boston consisted entirely of militia units from New England.  Numerous political and military leaders, including George Washington himself, heartily endorsed the concept of raising units of frontier riflemen for said army.
Major General Charles Lee, for instance, wrote, “The frontier riflemen will make fine soldiers…their amazing hardihood, their methods of living so long in the woods without carrying provisions with them, the exceeding quickness with which they can march to distant parts, and, above all, the dexterity to which they have arrived in the use of the rifle gun. There is not one of these men who wish a distance less than 200 yards or greater object than an orange. Every shot is fatal.”
Such testimonies as well as the talk of his fellow Congressional delegates from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia led Massachusetts’ John Hancock, who’d never fired a rifle in his life, to exclaim to Joseph Warren, “These are the finest Marksmen in the world. They do Execution with their Rifle Guns at an Amazing Distance…they kill with great Exactness at 200 yards Distance.”
Consequently, on 14 June 1775, the Second Continental Congress: “Resolved, That six Companies of expert Riflemen be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia; that each Company consists of a Captain, three Lieutenants, four Sergeants, four Corporals, a Drummer or Trumpeter, and sixty-eight Privates.”
The following day, congress appointed George Washington as the chief officer of what would become the Continental Army. This is significantly considered the “birthday” of the United States Army.
If the embattled farmers turned militiamen from Massachusetts and Connecticut were familiar and proficient with their muskets, the back-country riflemen of the frontier were intimate and expert with their long rifles.

 A Captain at the beginning of the American Revolution and often described as eccentric, George Hanger, 4th Baron Coleraine, was one of the British Army's few true experts on the rifle during this period. He wrote many detailed descriptions of what he encountered on the receiving end of the Pennsylvania long rifle. 

British Major George Hanger, of course, weighed in on the subject: “The American back-woodsman has a much greater field to exercise his talents by practice, from living in a country cultivated only around his own log-wood hut, for a very short extent; has woods extensive and swamps impenetrable to every soul but to those, who, by daily practice, are well acquainted with its dreary and swampy obstacles, which contain various animals, such as the wild pig, the wolf, the bear, the panther (which the Americans call painter), the deer, the fox, both grey and brown, the beaver, the raccoon [sp] and the opossum.
“Not only their own cattle are shot with the rifle, but, when they go to the hunting grounds to kill the wild cattle for their tallow and skins, they use no other gun. The wild turkey is shot with a rifle; nay, even birds and squirrels, from the very top of the loftiest trees in the woods. No smallshot gun, during my residence of seven years of the war in America, was ever kept in the house of a back-woodsman. You will often see a boy, not above ten years of age, driving the cattle home, but not without a rifle on his shoulder: they never stir, out, on any business, nor on a journey, without their rifle; practice, from their infancy, teaches them all distances.”
An American minister of the Church of England wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth, “In this country, my lord, the boys, as soon as they can discharge a gun, frequently exercise themselves therewith, some a fowling and others a hunting. The great quantities of game, the many kinds and the great privileges of killing, making the Americans the best marksmen in the world, and thousands support their families principally by the same, particularly riflemen on the frontiers, whose objects are deer and turkeys. In marching through woods, one thousand of these riflemen would cut to pieces ten thousand of your best troops.”
Horace Kephart, who could perhaps be called our first “survivalist”, gave an eloquent if romanticized description of the backwoods riflemen, noting they were not just accustomed to hunting but also to frequent skirmishes with Native American tribes who quite naturally resented these white men encroaching into their homeland.
“But the men of the wilderness were always ready. Over every cabin door hung a well-made rifle, correctly sighted, and bright within from frequent wiping and oiling. Beside it were tomahawk and knife, a horn of good powder, and a pouch containing bullets, patches, spare flints, steel, tinder, whetstone, oil and tow for cleaning the rifle. A hunting-shirt, moccasins, and a blanket were near at hand. In case of alarm, the backwoodsman seized these things, put a few pounds of rockahominy and jerked venison into his wallet, and in five minutes was ready. It mattered not whether two men or two thousand were needed for war, they could assemble in a night, armed, accoutred, and provisioned for a campaign.”
“Incessant war with the Indians taught him to be his own general, to be ever on the alert, to keep his head and shoot straight under fire. Pitted against an enemy who gave no quarter, but tortured the living and scalped the dead, he became himself a stanch fighter who never surrendered. The wilderness bred men of iron, and probably contained a greater number of expert riflemen than could now be mustered in all America. It was the pick of these for which Congress asked.”
On the frontier, shooting matches were also popular forms of recreation and competition among the riflemen, and remained so until near the close of the 19th century. Daniel Boone, of course, was widely known from a fairly young age for his prowess in winning such shooting matches. Sometimes taverns would sponsor competitions and offer small prizes to attract customers while in a “beef shoot” marksmen paid a small fee to enter the match and the top scorer won a side of beef. Sometimes a few men met informally and shot for the fun of it and the “prize” of digging his opponents’ lead out of a tree stump to re-cast into new bullets.
The famous naturalist John James Audubon is most well known for his exquisitely detailed paintings of North American birds and wildlife. He was also a hunter who usually first shot and killed the subjects of his portraits so that he could examine them minutely and up close. In addition, he kept detailed journals of his travels, in which he included his observations on an afternoon spent squirrel hunting with Daniel Boone as well as the kind of marksmanship contests he observed in Kentucky in 1820.

 Frontier Long Hunters like Daniel Boone were famous for their marksmanship skills and often enjoyed competing against each other in shooting matches. 

“Having resided some years in Kentucky and having more than once been witness of rifle sport, I shall present you with the results of my observation, leaving you to judge how far rifle-shooting is understood in that State.
          “Several individuals who conceive themselves in the management of the gun are often seen to meet for the purpose of displaying their skill, and betting a trifling sum, put up a target, in the centre of which a common-sized nail is hammered for about two-thirds of its length. The marksmen make choice of what they consider a proper distance, which may be forty paces. Each man cleans the interior of his tube, which is called wiping it, places a ball in the palm of his hand, pouring as much powder from his horn upon it as will cover it. This quantity is supposed to be sufficient for any distance within a hundred yards. A shot which comes very close to the nail is
considered as that of an indifferent marksman; the bending of the nail is, of course, somewhat better; but nothing less than hitting it right on the head is satisfactory. Well, kind reader, one out of three shots generally hits the nail, and should the shooters amount to half a dozen, two nails are frequently needed before each can have a shot. Those who drive the nail have a further trial amongst themselves, and the two best shots out of these generally settle the affair, when all the sportsmen adjourn to some house, and spend an hour or two in friendly intercourse, appointing, before they part, a day for another trial. This is technically termed driving the nail.”
The snuffing of a candle with a ball, I first had an opportunity of seeing near the banks of Green River, not far from a large Pigeon-roost to which I had previously made a visit. I heard many reports of guns during the early part of a dark night, and knowing them to be those of rifles, I went towards the spot to ascertain the cause. On reaching the place, I was welcomed by a dozen of tall stout men, who told me they were exercising, for the purpose of enabling them to shoot under night at the reflected light from the eyes of a Deer or Wolf, by torch light, of which I shall give you an account somewhere else. A fire was blazing near, the smoke of which rose curling among the thick foliage of the trees. At a distance which rendered it scarcely distinguishable, stood a burning candle, as if intended for an offering to the goddess of night, but which in reality was only fifty yards from the spot on which we all stood. One man was within a few yards of it, to watch the effects of the shots, as well as to light the candle should it chance to go out, or to replace it should the shot cut it across. Each marksman shot in his turn. Some never hit either the snuff or the candle, and were congratulated with a loud laugh; while others actually snuffed the candle without putting it out, and were recompensed for their dexterity by numerous hurrahs. One of them, who was particularly expert, was very fortunate, and snuffed the candle three times out of seven, whilst all the other shots either put out the candle or cut it immediately under by the light.
“Of the feats performed by the Kentuckians with the rifle, I could say more than might be expedient on the present occasion. In every thinly peopled portion of the State, it is rare to meet one without a gun of that description, as well as a tomahawk. By way of recreation, they often cut off a piece of the bark of a tree, make a target of it, using a little powder wetted with water or saliva, for the bull’s-eye, and shoot into the mark all the balls they have about them, picking them out of the wood again.
“After what I have said, imagine with what ease a Kentuckian procures game, or despatches an enemy, more especially when I tell you that every one in the State is accustomed to handle the rifle from the time when he is first able to shoulder it until near the close of his career. That murderous weapon is the means of procuring them subsistence during all their wild and extensive rambles, and is the source of their principal sports and pleasures.”
As word of the congressional resolution to raise rifle companies spread through the countryside in June of 1775, many frontier riflemen flocked to the colors. Some of the company captains were so flooded with volunteers that they had to hold impromptu shooting matches to determine which riflemen were the most proficient and “qualified” marksmen. A teacher at a plantation school on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Virginia observed how one captain tried to determine which men were qualified to join his company.
“He took a board of a foot square and with chalk drew the shape of a moderate nose in the center and nailed it up to a tree at one hundred and fifty yards distance, and those who came nighest the mark with a single ball was to go. But by the first forty or fifty that fired, the nose was all blown out of the board, and by the time his company was up, the board shared the same fate.” In reporting this incident, a correspondent for the Virginia Gazette concluded the article with the admonition, “General Gage, take care of your nose!”
Pennsylvania, in particular, was swamped by the sheer number of volunteer riflemen pouring into the counties along the Susquehanna River, so much so that on June 22nd, Congress raised that colony’s quota from six companies of riflemen to eight. By July 11th, they were informed that Lancaster County had raised two full companies of riflemen rather than one, so yet another company was added. These were to be formed into the independent Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment, under the command of Colonel William Thompson.
The frontier riflemen could indeed travel hard, light and fast. At the time, of course, there were few roads, and many of them were only rough wagon tracks through the forest. There were even fewer bridges beyond the borders of New England, and streams and rivers had to be forded as the riflemen marched, some of them for hundreds of miles, through the muggy mid-summer heat.
Even so, only four days after Congress issued its resolution the first company of frontier riflemen, Nagel’s Birks County “Dutchmen”, arrived in Cambridge. The Pennsylvanian Rifle Company from Cumberland County traveled 441 miles in twenty six days. From Frederick County in Maryland, Captain Michael Cresap’s company of riflemen arrived in Boston by 9 August 1775, their march covering 550 miles in 22 days. Winchester, Virginia lay some 600 miles away from Boston, and it was there that big, burly Captain Daniel Morgan quickly raised his company. “In a few days,” he later wrote, “I raised ninety-six men, and set out for Boston, reached that place in twenty one days from the time I marched, bad weather included, nor did I leave a man behind.” Within sixty days of the Congressional resolution asking for 810 riflemen, some 1,430 frontiersmen had answered the call and arrived in Boston.

 Captain Daniel Morgan raised a company of Virginia riflemen; you will see his name again.

The accuracy and range the frontiersmen were capable of with their vaunted rifle-guns amazed the local New Englanders who knew only the smoothbore musket and fowling piece. Captain Cresap’s Marylanders, in particular, stopped to give public demonstrations of their shooting prowess in Fredericktown, Maryland and Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Numerous accounts and letters exist of their marksmanship feats; many such narratives were run in local newspapers, and later reprinted in others. Typical of the accounts of the frontier riflemen and their skill is this description from an unknown author to a friend in Philadelphia.
"A clapboard, with a mark the size of a dollar, was put up; they began to fire off-hand, and the bystanders were surprised, few shots being made that were not close to or in the paper. When they had shot for a time in this way, some lay on their backs, some on their breast or side, others ran twenty or thirty steps, and firing, appeared to be equally certain of the mark. With this performance the company were more than satisfied, when a young man took up the board in his hand, not by the end, but by the side, and holding it up, his brother walked to the distance, and very coolly shot into the white; laying down his rifle, he took the board, and holding it as it was held before, the second brother shot as the former had done. By this exercise I was more astonished than pleased. But will you believe me, when I tell you that one of the men took the board, and placing it between his legs, stood with his back to the tree while another drove the center. What would a regular army of considerable strength in the forest of America do with one thousand of these men, who want nothing to preserve their health and courage but water from the spring, with a little parched corn, with what they can easily procure in hunting; and who, wrapped in their blankets, in the damp of night, would choose the shade of a tree for their covering, and the earth for their bed."
Others commented upon the hardihood of the riflemen, Washington’s chief medical officer Dr. James Thacher noting, “They are remarkably stout and hardy men; many of them exceeding six feet in height.” A correspondent for the Pennsylvania Packet who met Captain Cresap’s “active, brave young fellows” in Lancaster wrote, “They bear in their bodies visible marks of their prowess, and show scars and wounds which would do honor to Homer’s Iliad, etc…These men have been bred in the woods to hardships and danger from their infancy. They appear as if they were entirely unacquainted with, and had never felt, the passion of fear. With their rifles in their hands they assume a kind of omnipotence.”
Many people were also impressed by the clothes of the backwoodsmen: “Their whole dress is very singular, and not very materially different from that of the Indians; being a hunting shirt, somewhat resembling a waggoner’s frock, ornamented with a great many fringes, tied round the middle with a broad belt, much decorated also, in which is fastened a tomahawk, an instrument that serves every purpose of defence and convenience; being a hammer at one side and a sharp hatchet at the other; the shot-bag and powder horn, carved with a variety of whimsical figures and devices, hang from their necks over one shoulder; and on their heads a flapped hat, of a reddish hue, proceeding from the intensely hot beams of the sun.”

 Artist Don Troiani's painting of a Revolutionary rifleman shows his hunting shirt and accoutrements in great detail.

“Thus habited and accoutred, with his rifle on his shoulder, or in his hand, a back-wood’s man is completely equipped for visiting, courtship, travel, hunting or war. According to the number and variety of the fringes on his hunting shirt, and the decorations on his powder horn, belt, and rifle, he estimates his finery. Their hunting or rifle shirts, they have also died in a variety of colours, some yellow, others red, some brown, and many wear them quite white.”
Teddy Roosevelt would later call, “…the fringed hunting-shirt, of homespun or buckskin, the most picturesque and distinctively national dress ever worn in America. It was a loose smock or tunic, reaching nearly to the knees, and held in at the waist by a broad belt, from which hung the tomahawk and scalping-knife.”
The new commanding officer of the Continental Army, General George Washington, very much liked the hunting shirt as well and wished to make it part of the American soldier’s uniform. At his headquarters in Cambridge, he wrote that he sought a, “Species of uniform both cheap & convenient” that would also, “have a happier Tendency to unite the Men, & abolish those Provincial Distinctions which lead to Jealousy &; Dissatisfaction.”
To the Continental Congress he wrote, “No Dress can be had cheaper, nor more convenient, as the Wearer may be cool in warm weather, and warm in cool weather by putting on under-Cloaths which will not change the outward dress, Winter or Summer—Besides which it is a dress justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person a complete marksman.” Like just about everything else he requested from the Continental Congress, from gunpowder to rations, Washington would find the supply of hunting shirts to be long on promise and short on towcloth.
Regardless, the riflemen had arrived and it was time to unleash them upon the British occupiers of Boston.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a fine article. It is a great reminder of our heritage as Americans and the travails which we as a nation have endured. The posterity of those men weighs heavy yet not as a burden but for the responsibility to bear to their honor.