J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Fame of the Virginia Riflemen

As I discussed at an event last week, the Continental Congress voted to raise rifle companies for the Continental Army in June 1775 even before it chose a commander-in-chief.

The first plan called for two companies from Virginia, two from Maryland, and six from Pennsylvania. The response from western Pennsylvania was so strong that by the end of the month, the Congress added two more companies from that colony.

Thus, about two-thirds of the riflemen who came to Cambridge in the summer of 1775 were Pennsylvanians. That surprised me because I’d read so much about Virginia riflemen.

So I went to Google Book’s Ngram viewer to see if my impression was off. I searched for the frequency of the phrases “Virginia riflemen,” “Pennsylvania riflemen,” and “Maryland riflemen” in literature between 1775 and 1860, stopping the search then so it wouldn’t be confused by results from the U.S. Civil War.

As you can see from the results, “Pennsylvania riflemen” showed up more often soon after those companies were formed. But then “Virginia riflemen” took over. The next century brought a printing boom, and in the 1820s and from 1840 on those Virginian troops were marching far ahead of the men from the other two colonies.

I’m not sure what to make of that. Certainly the most successful and famous rifleman of the initial regiments was Gen. Daniel Morgan of Virginia. But Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was known for producing the actual rifles. Of course, John Adams would explain it by saying, “Virginian geese are always swan.”

In other riflemen research, at the Journal of the American Revolution Ian Saberton shared some sources about the marksmanship of those soldiers compared to British infantrymen. And here’s Hugh Harrington’s article on the work by David Rittenhouse and Charles Willson Peale to mount a telescopic sight on a rifle.


Dr. Sam Forman said...

John, a situation perhaps complicating the 1775 nomenclature of the frontier riflemen was the situation that Virginia claimed lands, and some settlers identified with that allegiance, in the Southwest corner of Pennsylvania. The western-most aspect of the Mason-Dixon line was not completed by Ellicott and Rittenhouse until 1784. The western Pennsylvanians could be a restive and fractious bunch as exempliified by the Whiskey Rebellion of 1793. I have wondered about potential involvement of the Pennsylvania and Virginia riflemen of Siege of Boston fame in the later disturbance.

J. L. Bell said...

The far-west Virginia riflemen evolved into the Kentucky riflemen, who got their own press in the early republic. But I don't think they would be much confused with the Pennsylvania riflemen despite the border disputes because men showed their allegiances to particular colonies by signing up in those companies. The Pennsylvania riflemen were officially Pennsylvanians, and we know the counties they came from.

It's possible that later in the war Virginians began to outnumber Pennsylvanians. But also by then the rifle companies were no longer being treated as so administratively separate from regular infantry.

Dr. Sam Forman said...

Thanks, John. Those frontier riflemen, be it the leader Morgan, or the rank and file certainly ranged far and wide over the Revolutionary era landscape. I suspect that some of the lesser known individuals have compelling stories yet to be told extending well into the Confederation and Early Republican times.