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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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.