Why the Patriots Really Fought

Many soldiers were not necessarily driven by the cause of liberty

The British won the Battle of Bunker Hill but suffered their greatest losses of the war.

The British won the Battle of Bunker Hill but suffered their greatest losses of the war.

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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, president 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."