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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Friday, March 10, 2017

“Washington’s Riflemen” in Cambridge, 16 Mar.

On Thursday, 16 March, I’ll speak at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge. This is the latest in a series of annual talks about some aspect of Gen. George Washington’s work there in 1775 and 1776.

This year my topic will be “Washington’s Riflemen: Heroes or Headaches”:
Soon after Gen. George Washington came to Cambridge in 1775, a new kind of Continental soldier started to arrive: the rifleman. Recruited in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland, the rifle companies did more than signal how those colonies were committed to New England’s war. They were touted as deadly marksmen, the key to quickly driving the British out of Boston. But those newcomers were also frontiersmen, many recent immigrants, far from home and rebellious. Soon Gen. Washington realized the riflemen were not his biggest weapon but one of his biggest problems to solve.
To show what sort of high expectations those riflemen engendered, here’s part of a letter that appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette on 16 Aug 1775. It came from a gentleman visiting Frederick, Maryland, at the start of that month, who had watched the company commanded by Capt. Michael Cresap put on a shooting demonstration:
Yesterday the Company were supplied with a small Quantity of Powder from the Magazine, which wanted airing, and was not in good Order for Rifles; in the Evening, however, they were drawn out to show the Gentlemen of the Town their Dexterity in shooting;

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 Shot 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 20 or 30 Steps and firing, appeared to be equally certain of their 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 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 1000 of these Men…?
Of course, not everyone was equally impressed. A correspondent to Alexander Purdie’s Virginia Gazette on 15 November noted that report from Maryland and responded, “it is no more than what has been frequently done by the Virginia riflemen.” (As John Adams was fond of saying, “Virginian geese are always swan.”) One company of the Virginian riflemen was commanded by Capt. Daniel Morgan, shown above.

This talk is scheduled to start at 6:30 P.M., after on-street parking becomes available nearby. It is free and open to the public.

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