Watch CBSN Live

The Real Revolution

They are celebrated as the original American patriots--the reluctant citizen-soldiers who won the Revolutionary War. When some 700 British regulars were ordered into the Massachusetts countryside on April 19, 1775, to capture the colonists' military stores in Concord, a group of 70 militiamen assembled in nearby Lexington. They were yeoman farmers and shopkeepers, mostly in their 30s and 40s, who were putting their families and property at risk. Armed with hunting rifles and ancient muskets, they took the field against British tyranny.

As the redcoats marched into town, a shot rang out--from which side, no one was sure--and the British troops opened fire. Within minutes, eight colonists were dead. The British marched on to Concord, where they met another small group of Minutemen. When they turned back to Boston, they found themselves facing a countryside--and soon a country--buzzing with angry militias. From behind trees and stone fences, men with muskets attacked the British all the way back to Boston. When the redcoats finally limped into the city, they had suffered nearly 300 casualties.

This, in popular memory, is how the Revolutionary War was won--by a devoted band of middle-class farmers and militiamen who took up arms to defeat a professional army. It is the founding fable of an epic struggle that pitted paid mercenaries against civilians devoted to a cause. "Life, for my Country and the Cause of Freedom," wrote Nathaniel Niles, a pastor in Norwich, Conn., in 1775, "Is but a Trifle for a Worm to part with."

But as compelling as this version of the Revolution may be, it is not quite the whole story. Niles, for one, wasn't the only silver-tongued patriot who doesn't seem to have actually fought in the Revolution. Many of those legendary liberty-loving farmers didn't either, at least not for the duration. "We have so many national myths that are built on this idea," says Maj. Jason Palmer, an assistant professor of history at the United States Military Academy at West Point. "One of the primary jobs of Revolutionary historians has been to be mythbusters."

The truth is, historians say, after the first year of fighting, the nascent Continental Army was forced to leave its now mythic origins behind. The high-minded middle-class farmers went home, and a new army was formed, made up mostly of poor, propertyless laborers, unmarried men in their early 20s who took up arms not to defend some abstract ideal but because they were offered money and land. The militias would supplement this core of increasingly professional soldiers throughout the war, but the Army would never again look the way it did on the road to Boston. By 1778, the average Continental soldier was 21 years old; half the men in the Army were not even of English descent. "The folks who made the long-term commitment," says James Kirby Martin, a professor of history at the University of Houston and coauthor of A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789, "were the folks who didn't have another alternative."

Hard lessons. This new-model Army was born of necessity. The British, driven out of Boston, landed on Long Island in the summer of 1776, pushing George Washington's motley militias all the way across New Jersey. During the long retreat, Washington learned a hard lesson about the staying power of patriotic soldier-farmers. "These men," he wrote, "are not to be depended upon for more than a few days, as they soon get tired, grow impatient and ungovernable, and of course leave the Service." From a high of 31,000 troops, by year's end, Washington's force had dwindled to fewer than 3,000. Many of the men had enlisted for six-month terms. When their contracts expired, they went home.

That winter, Washington pleaded with Congress for a real army, one that wouldn't rely on farmers' idealism to survive. "When men are irritated, & the Passions inflamed," he had written to John Hancock, presiden of the Continental Congress, "they fly hastily, and chearfully to Arms, but after the first emotions are over to expect that they are influenced by any other principles than those of Interest, is to look for what never did, & I fear never will happen."

Washington knew militiamen had their reasons for keeping their service short, of course. They had farms and businesses to run and families to feed. Still, when the states began to struggle to re-enlist enough soldiers to keep the war going, Washington was disappointed. "No Troops were ever better provided or higher paid, yet their Backwardness to inlist for another Year is amazing," Washington wrote. "It grieves me to see so little of that patriotick Spirit, which I was taught to believe was Charackteristick of this people."

Waving the flag, it seemed, wasn't going to be enough to recruit an army, so Congress came up with a different solution: If it couldn't inspire an army into existence, it would buy one, instead. It dangled large cash bonuses and land grants in front of men who enlisted for "the duration." With Washington in retreat, enlistees were promised $20, a suit of clothes, and 100 acres. To middle-class farmers, this wasn't much. To the young and the poor, it was hard to pass up. Joseph Plumb Martin, a 15-year-old Connecticut farm laborer--and one of the few enlisted men to record his experience--walked away from the Army after a short-term enlistment in 1776. But he signed up for the duration the next year, drawn by the prospect of adventure, the lack of a good job, and, most of all, by the promised bounty. "I might as well endeavor to get as much for my skin as I could," he wrote.

Washington was happy to fill the ranks, no matter what his troops' motivations were. By 1778, militias were still being called up to provide support, but his new "regulars," men like Martin who could be relied on to stand and fight, were no longer middle-class farmers--or even necessarily red-blooded patriots. One recent study of the men recruited to fight in the Maryland State troops of Gen. William Smallwood found that the majority of his soldiers in 1782 weren't born in America. The Continental Army wasn't even overwhelmingly English: Pension records show the ranks were filled with hard-luck cases and the working class, from Irish immigrants and former Hessian prisoners to "liquor enlistees," who had been plied with booze and persuaded to sign up.

The first historians of the Revolution often obscured the role of these "down-and-outers," emphasizing the early patriotism of the militias instead. But scholars today have no doubt these men served as the Army's foundation for seven years of war. "This was a small handful of folks without all the advantages in life who did the dirty work," says James Kirby Martin. "We're remiss if we don't give them the credit they're due."

After the war, sadly, most Continental soldiers weren't treated as well as they might have expected. When the Army was disbanded, they were paid out with devalued colonial scrip. Many, without jobs or homes waiting, had to sell their land grants to speculators for pennies on the dollar. Still, some of them, including Joseph Plumb Martin, were proud of what they had done. He and his comrades may not have rallied to the flag as willingly as popular history remembers, but when Martin died in 1850, his tombstone celebrated his service, describing him simply as "Joseph P. Martin, A Soldier of the Revolution." Patriotism alone may not have won the Revolutionary War, but a handful of unlikely patriots did.

By Justin Ewers