Saturday, July 22, 2017


 (Rifles & Riflemen in the Revolution Part 6)

Boston Besieged: 1775

At the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, the rebels’  siege of British-held Boston had already lasted nearly three months by the time the frontier riflemen began to arrive even though, as we have seen, they covered vast distances in a surprisingly short time. During that period the pickets and outposts of both the British and American armies had settled down opposite each other just out of musket range. Even the cannon dueled sparingly.
          Unknown to the British, as it was perhaps Washington’s most closely guarded secret, the Continental Army was woefully short of gunpowder. Even after the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and Henry Knox’s Herculean journey dragging 59 cannon through the wilderness to Boston, the Americans still lacked the powder to put their new artillery to work. Though a call went out through the Colonies for whatever powder was available, such shortages would haunt the Continental Army throughout the war. At one point during the Siege of Boston, Washington had only enough powder to issue nine rounds per man, while a British soldier’s basic issue was 36 paper-wrapped cartridges.
          Now, however, General Washington could unleash the riflemen upon the cooped-up British garrison while burning only a tiny fraction of the powder an artillery bombardment would. Long-range sniping could only inflict a relatively small total of casualties when it came to actual numbers in the grand scheme of things but, perhaps even more important, it could wage a form of psychological warfare upon the enemy’s confidence and morale, both in Boston itself and even back home in England.
            On August 5th, at Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge, the canny general arranged for a deliberate demonstration of skill by the frontier riflemen at an event attended by several units of New England militiamen and a large crowd of public spectators which, Washington knew full well, would include a few Loyalist spies who would pass along what they witnessed to the British in Boston. Washington’s Surgeon General, Dr. Thacher, noted in his journal, “At a review, a company of them [riflemen], while on a quick advance, fired their balls into objects of seven inches diameter, at the distance of two hundred and fifty yards.” Against this trick of cutting down 7-inch wooden posts at 250 yards, recall again that even the most expert marksman had a less than 50/50 chance of hitting a man at 100 yards with the conventional smoothbore military musket of the era.
Initially, the sniping of the frontier riflemen proved to be a great success. Unsuspecting British soldiers who had formerly been safe in exposing themselves in their fieldworks little more than a stone’s throw away from the rebel positions were suddenly falling at the echo of distant rifle shots. Sentries, reconnaissance parties, and officers in particular were singled out by the riflemen.
Captain James Chambers of the Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment wrote from Cambridge on August 13, 1775 that as soon as his company arrived on the 7th they had immediately gone to view the British lines. “Whilst I was standing there, some of our riflemen slipped down the hill, about a gun-shot to the left of us, and began firing. The regulars returned it without hurting our men. We thought we saw one of the red coats fall. Since the riflemen came here, by the latest accounts from Boston, there have been forty-two killed and thirty-eight prisoners taken at the light-house, twelve of the latter tories. Amongst the killed are four captains, one of them a son of a lord, and worth £40,000 a year, whose name I cannot recollect. The riflemen go where they please, and keep the regulars in continual hot water.”
On August 18th, a letter from a rifle company officer at Cambridge appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal saying: “The riflemen from York County have annoyed the regulars very much. By a gentleman who left Boston yesterday, we hear that Captains Percival and Sabine, of the marines, Captain Johnson of the royal Irish, and Captain Le Moine of the Train, were killed on Monday. Captain Chetwyn, son of Lord Chetwyn, is mortally wounded. The number of privates killed this week we have not heard. The regulars have thrown up a breastwork across the neck at the foot of Bunker’s Hill, to secure their sentries and advanced guards. Yesterday Captain Morgan arrived from Virginia with his company of riflemen; but they are grown so terrible to the mercenaries that nothing is to be seen from their breastworks but a hat.”
Soon to be Colonel Robert Magaw wrote on August 13, 1775: “It was diverting some days ago to stand on our Ramparts on Prospect Hills & see Half a Dozen Rifle Men go down to the Water side, & from Behind Stone Walls, Chimneys, etc., pop at their floating batteries, at about 300 yards distance—‘tis said we killed several. A few Shots from the Rifles always brought on a fire from the floating Batteries & Bunker’s Hill, where the enemy are entrenched, but without any other effect than to afford us amusement, as they seldom knew where to fire, & when they did their great Guns threw the balls so wild and uncertain that there is very little Danger.”
Although the artillery of the day could indeed slash great swathes of casualties through closely-ranked infantry formations, especially with grapeshot and canister, against individual “skulkers” sniping from under concealment and behind cover the cannon tended to roar futilely. Since the riflemen fired from well beyond musket range, however, only the big guns had enough range to reach them, and a great deal of British powder and shot was wasted in trying to silence them.
As the siege of Boston dragged on and supplies within the city began to run low, on November 9th the British decided to mount an amphibious hit-and-run raid to capture a herd of beef cattle being kept by the American Army at a farm on a grassy spit of land called Lechmere Point; the point actually became an island at high tide. A company of red-coated light infantry attempted to row ashore in approximately twenty open long boats, covered by long-range cannon fire from three separate shore batteries as well as the guns of a Royal Navy frigate hovering only 300 yards offshore. Only six American riflemen were guarding the stock on Lechmere Point when the British appeared, but Colonel Thompson raced to the scene with his Pennsylvania Riflemen, encamped nearby.
Lieutenant Colonel Hand participated in the action and wrote a first-hand account of it in a letter to his wife dated November 10, 1775:
"I give you the particulars of the fun our regiment had yesterday. About one, p. m., a number of regulars, taking advantage of a high tide, landed from twenty boats on Lechmere Point to carry off some cattle. Six men of our regiment were on the point to take care of our horses; they did their utmost, and partly effected it. One poor fellow was taken; he was of Capt. Ross' company. I think his name was Burke. When the alarm was given, Col. Thompson was at Cambridge. I had gone to Watertown to receive the regiment's pay, but thanks to good horses, we arrived in time to march our regiment, which was the first ready, though the most distant of our brigade. Col. Thompson, who arrived before we had crossed the water, with
thirteen men only of Ross' company, but not being supported by the musqueteers, before I could get up with the remainder of our regiment of duty, returned, and met Major Magaw and myself on the causeway; the whole then passed with the utmost diligence, up to our middles in water. David Ziegler, who acts as adjutant, tumbled over the bridge into ten or twelve feet water; he got out safe, with the damage of his rifle only. As
soon as the battalion had passed the defile, we divided them into two parties, part of Capt. Chambers,' Capt. Miller's, and Lowdon's, with Major Magaw and Col. Thompson, marched to the right of the hill, with part of Cluggage's, Nagel's, and Ross.' I took the left, as the enemy had the superiority of numbers, and the advantage of rising ground, with a stone wall in front,
and a large barn on their right and flank, aided by a heavy fire of large grape-shot from their shipping and batteries. We had reason to expect a warm reception; but to the disgrace of British arms, be it spoken, by the time we had gained the top of the hill, they had gained their boats, and rowed off. We had but one man wounded, I believe mortally, by a swivel ball,
Alexander Creighton, of Ross' company.”
According to another account, the British managed to capture only ten beeves at a cost of 17 men killed and an unknown number wounded. In addition to Creighton being killed, the Americans also lost one man captured, one of the original six guards. At least some reports allege that the sole POW in question had been heavily imbibing in strong drink at the time (i.e. was drunk off his ass) and was thus rather easy for the light infantrymen to catch.
Accounts of the martial prowess of the frontier riflemen had continued to grow rapidly long before the skirmish on Lechmere Point. On August 6, 1776, the Pennsylvania Gazette reported, “…the riflemen picked off ten men in one day, three of whom were Field-Officers, that were reconnoitering; one of them was killed at the distance of 250 yards.” When the Pennsylvania Packet ran the same story, the editor embellished it a bit, claiming that the officer was killed at 250 yards, “when only half of his head was seen.”
The tales continued to grow, each editor adding a bit to the original report, until some of them became rather improbable. A few days later, the Pennsylvania Gazette ran a story claiming that the frontier riflemen had, “…killed three men on board a ship at Charlestown ferry, at the distance of full half a mile.” Later, some writers even attributed this feat entirely to the work of a single rifleman.
A half a mile equates to 880 yards. Assuming an initial muzzle velocity of 1,600 feet per second, at such ranges a typical .45-caliber round ball projectile would be traveling around 200 feet per second and delivering roughly the equivalent of a modern .177-caliber air rifle in foot-pounds of striking energy. If the rifle was zeroed at a hundred yards, as was typical, the rifleman would have needed to aim 440 feet high to hit such a distant target.
Regardless the newspapers' tall tales, embellishments or outright fabrications (which the media proudly continues to use to this very day) to the rank-and-file British soldier in Boston, armed with a Brown Bess smoothbore musket that was only moderately accurate to 75 yards, seeing his commanders and comrades fall to single rifle balls delivered from 200-300 yards was a rather disheartening and unnerving experience. After the initial surprise and spate of casualties, the furor over riflemen soon began to die down as the British fighting men in Boston simply kept their heads down and didn’t expose themselves from behind their breastworks, and actual casualties from rifle fire became fewer and fewer. As early as September 11th, a letter from an American rifleman at Cambridge appeared in Gaine’s Mercury complaining that, “There has not a random shot of a rifleman done any execution lately, worth mentioning.”
The psychological and propaganda damage, however, was not so readily negated. No less than the Boston garrison’s commander General Lord Howe complained back to London about the “terrible guns of the rebels” during the siege, and another British officer referred to American rifles as “cursed twisted guns, the most fatal window-and-orphan makers in the world.”
Soon, even the heavy British casualties at Bunker Hill were being blamed on the riflemen, although none of them had even been present at that particular battle. One British officer went so far as to claim that each rifleman was attended by two other men who did nothing but reload for him so that the marksman had only to aim and fire as fast as a weapon could be put into his hand: “…and this is the real cause of so many of our brave officers falling, they being singled out by these murderers, as they must appear to be in the eyes of every thinking man.”

 A rather inaccurate depiction of the dreaded American riflemen from a period British newspaper...the media has a long and proud tradition of just making things up when they lack anything so trivial as facts and information.

A Philadelphia printer wrote to an English publisher a letter which appeared in the London Chronicle of 17 August 1775. “This province has raised 1000 riflemen, the worst of whom will put a ball into a man’s head at the distance of 150 or 200 yards; therefore advise your officers who shall hereafter come out to America to settle their affairs in England before their departure.”
In Great Britain, American riflemen were even being openly discussed in the halls of the English Parliament, with one legislator inquiring, “…about those strange rifled arms used with such deadly certainty by several regiments of the American army.” Edmund Burke, the eloquent if sometimes long-winded champion of the American colonies, delivered a particularly scalding invective, mentioning Generals Washington, Lee and Putnam and exclaiming, “These men know much more of your army than your return can give them. They coop it up, besiege it, destroy it, crush it. Your officers are swept off by the rifles if they show their noses!”
When a thousand British Army reinforcements bound for America were reviewed by the King at Wimbleton common on March 19, 1776, The Scots Magazine observed, “The officers and soldiers were dressed in the same uniforms; as ‘tis said, all the officers serving in America are to be dressed, because the riflemen take aim at officers.”
In December 1775, the British government finalized the first treaty that would allow them to “contract” auxiliary troops from the various allied German States of the Holy Roman Empire. More than 30,000 German troops would eventually serve with the British Army in America during the Revolutionary War. Since the first and the largest number of these auxiliaries came from Hessen-Kassel, the Americans would come to universally refer to all German troops as “Hessians.”
From the German princes the British government sought to employ as many Jägers or Chasseurs as possible. These were woodsmen, armed with Jäger rifles and specially trained in skirmishing. One English Parliamentarian explained, “The settlers from the backwoods of America used their hunting rifles with so much effect that the only effective rejoinder was to pit rifle against rifle; for this purpose Jägers were recruited on the Continent."
An account in the Constitutional Gazette in May of 1776 said: “Government have sent over to Germany to engage 1,000 men called Jagers, people brought up to the use of the rifle barrel guns in boar hunting. They are amazingly expert. Every petty prince who hath forests, keeps a number of them, and they are allowed to take apprentices, by which means they are a numerous body of people. These men are intended to act in the next campaign in America, and our ministry plume themselves much in the thought of their being a complete match for the American riflemen.”
Like the frontiersmen, the Jägers’ rifles lacked bayonets so they were issued a small, straight hunting sword called a Hirshfanger with a 14-inch blade and an overall length of two feet. The Jägers were also, however, trained in conventional line tactics as well as skirmishing and, according to the diaries of Jäger Captain Johann Ewald, usually operated in close conjunction with a company of grenadiers with muskets and bayonets.
As will later be examined, the British Army would adopt some rifles of its own. A thousand Pattern 76 rifles would eventually serve in America. These were conventional Jäger-influenced muzzle-loading rifles designed to shoot a patched .615-inch carbine ball and were issued only to a few small, specialized units and to the ten best marksmen in each line regiment.
The other British rifle, the Ferguson, was an innovative breech-loader that had the potential to be a real “game-changer” but never saw much service primarily because the manufacturing technology of the era made its production extremely slow and very expensive. This was the handiwork of Captain Patrick Ferguson, whose knowledge of and abilities with rifles surpassed even George Hanger’s expertise. While muzzle-loading rifles and muskets pretty much had to be loaded in the standing position, the breech-loading Ferguson rifle could be loaded in any position and could easily achieve a then unheard of firing rate of six rounds per minute.  
In the meantime, back in the Colonies, another much darker side of the frontier riflemen was being revealed in the Continental Army bivouacs around Cambridge. The rifle companies had their own separate camps, were paid more than the ordinary militiamen, and, as elite units, were excused from the more tedious aspects of military service, such as working parties and guard duty. This special treatment soon bred resentment among the rank and file soldiers and militiamen of the other army units encamped nearby.
The churlish behavior of many of the riflemen themselves hurt their own cause as well. Skirmishes against the enemy had become few and far between, and a lack of targets led snipers to attempt ridiculously long shots that proved utterly ineffective and, in the long run, began to negate British fear of the rifle. Their egos bloated by all the media hype about their prowess, some of the enlisted men grew bored, sullen and insolent, becoming in some cases almost as petulant as children. Even George Washington himself complained that, “there is no restraining men’s tongues, or pens, when charged with a little vanity, as in the accounts given of, or rather by, the riflemen.”
Restraint and discipline, whether self or military induced, had never been a strong point amongst the frontiersmen in general and the Scotch-Irish in particular. Theodore Roosevelt in The Winning of the West noted that when such men gathered to fight Indians on the frontier, not even their own officers could truly “command” their independent charges.
“There was everywhere a rude military organization, which included all the able-bodied men of the community. Every settlement had its colonels
and captains; but these officers, both in their training and in the authority they exercised, corresponded much more nearly to Indian chiefs than
to the regular army men whose titles they bore. They had no means whatever of enforcing their orders, and their tumultuous and disorderly levies of sinewy riflemen were hardly as well disciplined as the Indians themselves. The superior officer could advise, entreat, lead, and influence his men, but he could not command them, or, if he did, the men obeyed him only just so far as it suited them. If an officer planned a scout or campaign, those who thought proper accompanied him, and the others stayed at home, and even those who went out came back if the fit seized them, or perchance followed the lead of an insubordinate junior officer whom they liked better than they did his superior.”

Riflemen "recreating" in bivouac at Cambridge, 1775: Some things never change in the infantry.

By September, the reputation of the frontier riflemen had grown almost sinister in the Colonial Army camps. Tempted by rich bounties the British were offering for turncoats who would bring with them their rifled barreled guns, some even deserted to the enemy. Virginia riflemen under Colonel William Thompson twice broke into the guardhouse to release friends being held on minor disciplinary charges. One Sunday, the adjutant clapped a popular sergeant in the guardhouse for neglect of duty and, when another malcontent riflemen began stirring up the other men to break the sergeant out, he too was clapped in irons and confined as well. After dinner that evening, a mob of riflemen broke the two men out of the guardhouse. The colonel and several officers arrested the ring-leader again and escorted him to the Continental Army’s Main Guard at Cambridge. In less than a half an hour, more than thirty riflemen with loaded weapons had gathered in a mob and were threatening to break into the Main Guard by force.
After reinforcing the guardhouse’s contingent heavily with nearly five hundred militiamen bearing loaded muskets with fixed bayonets, Generals Washington and Knox personally confronted the mutineers directly, berating and shaming them into dispersing. Considering that mutiny could be punishable by death, Washington handed down rather lenient punishment when the ring-leaders of this mob were court-martialed; mainly short jail terms and fines. The real punishment came from the shame and disgust of their comrades and peers as even Charles Lee damned them and General Washington himself exclaimed he wished they had never come. The riflemens' special status as a whole was revoked along with their exemption from fatigue details and camp duties.
Frontier riflemen were obviously never going to be spit-and-polish garrison troops fit to perform dog and pony shows in front of visiting foreign dignitaries. It also should have been obvious that with their slow-loading rifles and lack of bayonets, they would not fare well in set-piece close-order conventional European-style battles against British regulars. That lesson, however, would have to be learned the hard way…and more than once…before it finally became obvious to the fledgling American Army’s leadership.

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Well, this has been bugging me a little since our trip to Europe. Can anyone tell me why exactly the AMERICAN taxpayer, via the UNITED STATES Fish & Wildlife Service, is helping to fund exhibits for AFRICAN and INDIAN elephants in ZURICH Switzerland? There's plenty of shit they could and/or should be working on right here in the US where they're getting paid to do it.