The Elusive Peter Hunter

On November 4, 1844, Stephen Thomas of rural West Fairlee, Vermont, wrote to Dr. Ira Davis, an old friend, then in Connecticut. Thomas explained that the widow of a Revolutionary War soldier named Peter Hunter had approached him, seeking his help in securing a widow’s pension. In 1832 Congress had passed an act providing pensions to nearly all surviving soldiers of the Revolutionary War. Tens of thousands of men had qualified and received annual pension payments. In the years that followed, Congress extended those benefits to the widows of Revolutionary War soldiers—first to women who were married to soldiers during the war, and later to any widow whose husband had borne arms in the war, so long as she had not remarried.

Peter Hunter had served in a Connecticut regiment, and Thomas asked Davis to make inquiries in Hartford to secure the evidence Mrs. Hunter needed to document her pension claim. Thomas explained that Peter Hunter had “enlisted at Farmington Ct in 1776, was waiter to Genl Putnam during part of his service, & belonging to Col Meigs Regt. She does not recollect the Capt name but the Lieuts names were Saml Mix & _____ Wilson & was at West Point at the time Andre was executed & stood guard over him. [He] was with Genl Wayne she thinks part of the time.”

Thomas added: “Hunter was a Colored man.”

This made documenting his service, which had ended more than sixty years earlier, a challenge. His case, and many more like it, challenge us today. We need to overcome that challenge so we can take the full measure of the heroic participation of African-Americans in our Revolutionary War. That war was not fought to perpetuate slavery. It was fought to establish American independence and create a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal—a proposition we are struggling to realize in the lives of men and women of our own time.

Despite the passage of so many years, Mrs. Hunter’s brief account of her husband’s service makes perfect sense. Free blacks were widely employed as servants in the first years of the Revolution, which is consistent with her recollection that her late husband began as a servant to Israel Putnam. So does her account of his later service in a Connecticut regiment, at a time when chronic manpower shortages had eroded opposition to the service of black troops. The regiment she described was the Sixth Regiment of the Connecticut Continental Line, commanded by R. Jonathan Meigs. The light infantry of the regiment participated in Anthony Wayne’s successful attack on the British fort at Stony Point in 1779. The regiment was stationed at West Point and was there in the fall of 1780 when British major John André was imprisoned and executed for his role in Benedict Arnold’s treason.

Ira Davis was probably struck by the widow’s recollection that her husband had stood guard over André at West Point, because his own father, Moses Davis, had served at West Point and had also stood guard over André. We know this because we have a pension file for Moses Davis, documenting his service in the Lexington Alarm, his participation in the Siege of Boston and his later service in the Continental Army.

No such pension file for Peter Hunter survives, probably because documentation of his service consistent with pension regulations could not be produced. Based on his widow’s recollections, Thomas would have been able to draft a declaration, but Connecticut officials would have been hard pressed to confirm his service.

Fourteen or fifteen African-American men from Farmington served in the war. Among them, as Davis may have learned, was one listed simply as “Peter” with the notation “Negro.” Connecticut officials would probably have hesitated to confirm that this man was Peter Hunter, whose widow was living in Vermont. She was unlikely to have been able to direct Thomas to living witnesses who could corroborate her declaration, and finally, pension examiners might have rejected her application for inadequate proof of her marriage to Hunter, since black marriages were not as well documented as white marriages.

The evidence is too thin to know what happened to her case. Perhaps she died before submitting a pension application. Perhaps Thomas, as her agent, advised her that they lacked the documentation needed for a successful application, and she gave up. Compiling the evidence required to secure a pension was daunting to most veterans, and even more difficult for widows. It was far more challenging for African-American veterans and their widows, who were required to produce the same kinds of official evidence as their white peers, but for whom such evidence was often unavailable or very difficult to secure.

The challenges were not insurmountable. Black veterans and their widows did manage to secure pensions. Chatham Freeman, another African-American veteran of the Sixth Connecticut, secured a pension under the Pension Act of 1818. But many others were turned away in frustration. Their loss is our loss as well, because it deprives us of the rich documentation of their service that their pension declarations and the supporting documents would otherwise provide. We learn just enough about Peter Hunter—about his relationship with Israel Putnam, the likelihood that he served in the storming of Stony Point and his role in the trial and execution of John André—to feel that loss.

We can make out the shadows of what might have been, realizing that we may never know his full story. On the eve of the Revolution there were about 3,000 black males over the age of sixteen living in Connecticut, and at least 820 of them served in the war. Peter Hunter was one of them. After the war he moved to Vermont, which undoubtedly appealed to him because the Vermont constitution of 1777 had abolished the enslavement of men over twenty-one and women over eighteen, though it left younger slaves in bondage. Slavery persisted in Vermont, much diminished, for another generation, but it was more receptive to free blacks than most of New England.

Hunter was not the only black veteran to move to Vermont. “Hearing flattering accounts of the new state of Vermont,” black veteran Jeffrey Brace left Connecticut shortly after the war and settled in Vermont, where the emancipated slave supported himself as a farm laborer, working for wages for the first time. “Here I enjoyed the pleasures of a freeman; my food was sweet, my labor pleasure: and one bright gleam of life seemed to shine upon me.”

We can only hope that the same “bright gleam of life” shined on Peter Hunter in Vermont. He is one of thousands of African-American veterans whose full story eludes us. Something like nine thousand African-Americans served in or with the armed forces that won American independence—in the Continental Army and Navy, in the militia, on privateers, and as teamsters, servants to officers and in other roles. They thus made up over four percent of the men in the armed forces during the war, but their average term of service, typically four years or more, was much longer than that of white soldiers and sailors, who typically served less than a year. Thus at any one time, black soldiers, sailors and support personnel probably accounted for between fifteen and twenty percent of the effective strength of the armed forces. They were particularly conspicuous during the latter stages of the war, when white recruitment slowed considerably.

By the 1840s the memory of African-American veterans of the Revolutionary War had faded. “Of the services and sufferings of the Colored Soldiers of the Revolution,” the poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in 1847, “no attempt has, to our knowledge, been made to preserve a record. They have had no historian. With here and there an exception, they have all passed away, and only some faint traditions linger among their descendants. Yet enough is known to show that the free colored men of the United States bore their full proportion of the sacrifices and trials of the Revolutionary War.”

Neither Peter Hunter nor his widow—whose name we do not even know—ever collected a pension for his service in the Revolutionary War. We can now only pay our debt to him, and thousands like him, by struggling to recover the memory of their service and by assembling and interpreting the evidence, faint and forgotten as it may be, of their courage and commitment to the cause of freedom.


The image above is a detail from Don Troiani’s painting, Soldier of the Sixth Connecticut Regiment (2019). Mr. Troiani’s depictions of uniforms and equipment are scrupulously documented. His depiction of the Sixth Connecticut’s distinctive leather helmet with the initials “GW” is based on his latest research. The image is used here by special permission of Mr. Troiani.

The story of Peter Hunter is one of many accounts of the post-war experience of Revolutionary War soldiers included in America’s First Veterans, the companion book to our exhibition on the veterans of the Revolutionary War.

For the experience of another black soldier who endured enslavement and fought for his freedom, read The Heroic Jeffrey Brace.

Read the letter from Stephen Thomas to Dr. Ira Davis, November 4, 1844, in the American Revolution Institute Digital Library.

For the experience of another African-American widow with the pension system, see Damani Davis,The Rejection of Elizabeth Mason: The Case of a ‘Free Colored’ Revolutionary War Widow,” originally published in Prologue Magazine in 2011.


Why We Honor George Washington

We honor George Washington more than any other American.  A state and dozens of cities, towns, and counties are named for him, as are mountains, parks, universities, bridges, highways, and streets. His home, lovingly maintained for more than 160 years by private citizens rather than the government, is a national treasure attracting nearly a million visitors each year. Hundreds of statues and dozens of monuments are dedicated to his memory. The greatest is an obelisk —the tallest monumental column in the world—in the heart of the capital city we named in his honor during his lifetime.

As we celebrate our national independence at a time of crisis in our cultural life, we should reflect on what he did to merit such honor.

George Washington was born into a world ruled by kings, where no one was truly free. Slavery and servitude were common. The right to participate in public life was limited to men of property. People were subjects, not citizens. No one was secure in the right to speak or worship freely. Women were subordinated to men — their talents stifled, their natural rights ignored, and their civil rights denied. It was a world of grotesque injustice, repellent to the modern mind.

Washington was born into privilege and grew to manhood in that world. At forty-three, having secured wealth and influence, he risked everything to command an army to secure the liberty and independence of the United States. It was an army of ordinary men—farmers and tradesmen, young and old, from every part of the new country. He forged them into an army of free men. He led that army through trials few could have endured.

After eight years of war, they won the independence of the first great republic of modern times—a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—a nation dedicated, not to the interests of kings and aristocrats, but to the interests of ordinary people. Nothing like it had ever existed.

Washington worked to perfect our nation. He worked to cement the fragile union so the country might survive in a world of predatory powers. He called on Americans to sacrifice their selfish interests for the public good, and spent his life in public service, neglecting his private affairs while devoting his days and nights to the business of the United States.

It was an imperfect nation. Grotesque injustices remained. Yet with each year those injustices became harder to rationalize.

No sooner had the revolutionary generation declared that all men are created equal than the injustice of slavery became a subject of national debate that did not end until slavery was extinguished. No sooner had the revolutionaries declared that all men are created equal than women began to assert that same equality, and to demand the same inalienable rights so proudly asserted as the rights of men.

George Washington was not perfect, but he worked to build a more perfect union. He and the women and men who struggled with him laid the foundation of our freedom in a time of darkness and oppression. They did not finish demolishing the vast framework of injustice they inherited. That has been the task of subsequent generations, including our own. It has been the work of many hands and many minds — of all races, of both sexes — of men and women from many lands, who have come to this great republic to find freedom, and of men and women of our own land, denied freedom, who have followed Washington and fought for liberty.

We ask all Americans to join us in honoring him and those who stood with him, remembering the words of President Obama’s first Inaugural Address: “Let us mark this day with remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At the moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words to be read to the people: ‘Let it be told to the future world . . . that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive . . . that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.’”

Wherever men and women fight for liberty, they fight in the spirit of George Washington. Wherever men and women are oppressed—wherever tyrants rule, and wherever people, young and old, are victims of ignorance and bigotry, of racism or sexism—wherever their liberties are denied, trampled or ignored, and people rise up, defiant and proud to demand their inalienable rights—the spirit of George Washington is with them. We should honor him as long as our love of freedom endures.


Above: Washington’s Birthday by Charles Baugniet, 1878, Indianapolis Museum of Art

We encourage all our visitors to read Why the American Revolution Matters, our basic statement about the importance of the American Revolution. It outlines what every American should understand about the central event in American history. It will take you less than five minutes to read—and a few seconds to send the link to your friends, family, and colleagues so they can read it, too.

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Philip Schuyler: An Appreciation

The mayor of Albany, New York, has ordered a statue of Revolutionary War General Philip Schuyler removed from the front of city hall, where it has been on view since 1925. Before it’s gone, we should consider why Schuyler still deserves to be honored.

Read our president general’s appeal to Mayor Sheehan to reconsider her order here.


The success of the American Revolution was made possible by an unlikely alliance of Americans, including farmers, tradesmen, urban working people, men and women pushing the frontiers of American settlement into the valleys beyond the Appalachians, free blacks for whom Revolutionary ideals of liberty were deeply and personally meaningful, and Virginia planters for whom the war risked family fortunes built over generations. Few moments in our history have brought together such a wide range of people in a single cause.

All modern Americans benefit from their sacrifices, but in enjoying the freedom they won, we have grown forgetful and ungrateful about what they have done for us. At this time in our history, many of our countrymen find it difficult or impossible to acknowledge our debt to people from our shared past who did not share all our values. The revolutionaries were not like us. They were born into a world in which freedom as we understand it was barely an aspiration. They fought to create a republic—a government organized to promote the interests of ordinary people—and began the task of pushing back the darkness of centuries. We are all their heirs and successors. We owe them honor and respect.

Philip Schuyler of New York is now among the least appreciated and, sadly, the most dishonored. He was among the most interesting and the most unexpected of our revolutionaries. He was a privileged member of one of the most prominent landed families in the Hudson River Valley. The Schuylers were major Hudson Valley landowners before New York was New York. A family of Dutch patroons, the Schuylers and their network of relatives, allies and clients dominated the Hudson Valley as completely as any group of landowning patricians in colonial North America.

British America had no native aristocracy—no class of hereditary landed aristocrats who lived on rents and enjoyed the drawing room leisure so ably portrayed in the novels of Jane Austen—but the Schuylers and their peers along the Hudson came as close to it as anyone in Britain’s American colonies. The southern planters may have longed for the leisure of British aristocrats, but they were, in fact, market farmers whose fortunes rose and fell with prices of the crops produced on their plantations. Hudson Valley patroons like the Schuylers owned vast estates and had tenants—uncommon in the colonies where land seemed inexhaustible and most colonists aspired to own their own farms.

We used to say that the American Revolution was the inevitable result of the social and economic development of the colonies, which, the argument went, was making them continuously more egalitarian, more democratic and less British. But in important ways, the colonies were becoming more like Britain in the last generation before the American Revolution. The first stubborn pockets of urban poverty were appearing, as was a middling sort that was defining itself through consumption—drinking tea, wearing imported fabrics, imitating European fashions and reading the latest British books. And an aristocracy, comparable in style and influence to its much more powerful British model, was starting to form. In important ways, America was becoming more British, not less, on the eve of the Revolution. This was the thesis of the late John Murrin, one of his generation’s most creative historians, who died a few weeks ago from COVID-19.

Philip Schuyler embodied the colony’s increasingly British character. Born in 1733, he was the heir to fortune and privilege. He expected to exercise privilege and pass it on. That he became a revolutionary is extraordinary. He had everything to lose from the Revolution, and the possibility of gain was hardly sufficient to justify the risk he took. If money and social standing alone had defined him, he would have stood beside the DeLanceys and the other loyalist families of New York.

As the eldest son, Philip Schuyler inherited the landed estate of his late father in 1754, and divided it with his siblings. His own holdings, stretching along the Hudson and the Mohawk, were princely. Among them his estate at Saratoga was the most valuable. He owned and built mills at the falls of creeks and acquired a schooner and sloops to trade on the Hudson. But it was the development of his own estates by encouraging emigration from Europe that occupied much of his attention. In the last years before the Revolution, Schuyler was looking forward to making his estates something like the estates of Britain’s landed aristocracy, peopled by tenants paying rents to support a way of life to which few Americans could aspire.

Like George Washington, Schuyler was a veteran of the French and Indian War, an innovator and an energetic entrepreneur. Both men were interested in canals and other improvements to facilitate commerce. Washington saw that tobacco had little future and in 1769 he abandoned tobacco and planted wheat, setting off on decades of creative farming. Schuyler decided to grow flax, and in 1767 built a flax mill to make linen, the first of its kind in America.

In that same year Schuyler was elected to the New York Assembly. He was no radical, but a firm supporter of colonial rights, both in the growing dispute with Britain and at home. In the spring of 1769 he proposed a bill to provide for religious toleration, “to encourage the worship of God,” he wrote, “upon generous principles of equal indulgence to loyal Protestants of every persuasions,” and—ever practical—to make it possible for all Protestant denominations to own real estate for the support of their churches. But practical as he was, he was a man of principle. When patriots denounced a scheme to provide funding to support the king’s troops in the colony, Schuyler was the only member of the assembly who took their side.

News of the fighting at Lexington, characterized as a massacre, reached Schuyler on April 29, 1775. That evening he shared his reaction in a letter to a friend. “I know there are difficulties in the way,” Schuyler wrote. “The loyal and the timid in this province are many, yet I believe that when the question is fairly put, as it is really put by this massacre in Massachusetts Bay, whether we shall be ruled by a military despotism, or fight for right and freedom? the great majority of the people will choose the latter.” Unless Britain chose a course of wisdom and conciliation, he predicted, war was inevitable. “It is now actually begun,” he added grimly, “and in the spirit of Joshua I say, I care not what others may do, ‘as for me and my house,’ we will serve our country.”

He might have remained comfortably at home on his Hudson River estates, but principle led him away. On May 9, 1775, Schuyler set off for Philadelphia as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. Within six weeks he had been named a major general in the Continental Army. Schuyler rode north with George Washington as far as New York City, then turned north toward Albany to take command of the army’s Northern Department (known at first as the New York Department)—a largely autonomous post in which he was responsible for defending the colonies from an attack down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor connecting the seaboard colonies with Canada.

The corridor had been fought over by Britain and France in a succession of wars that consumed much of the eighteenth century and was dotted with forts. The most important, Fort Ticonderoga, dominated the southern end of Lake Champlain and controlled the portage between Lake Champlain and Lake George. The latter stretched thirty-two miles south and connects to a narrow portage to the Hudson River about fifty miles north of Albany. The rivers and lakes in the corridor provided a nearly continuous water route from the Hudson to the St. Lawrence, and was the natural route for the colonists to use to conquer Canada or for the British to follow to take control of the Hudson Valley and cut New England off from the colonies to the south and west.

Establishing military control of this region was a desperate challenge. To the west of Albany, in the Mohawk River Valley and northward to the Great Lakes was the land of the Iroquois, a confederacy of powerful, warlike Indian tribes more likely to fight with the British than the Americans because they knew that the British, at least for the moment, valued their trade more than their land, which the Americans coveted. To the east, in the mountain valleys between New York and New Hampshire was a region—what would become Vermont—claimed by both colonies and peopled by New Englanders who seemed as likely to take up arms against New Yorkers as to fight the British. To the south, along the Hudson all the way to Manhattan, New Yorkers were divided between patriots and loyalists. The British on the St. Lawrence River were, in the summer of 1775, among the least of Philip Schuyler’s worries.

To take control of this critical, complex and confusing region, Schuyler had only a fragment of the armed strength of the colonies. Most of the available manpower was dedicated to Washington’s army confronting the British outside Boston. Schuyler had Continental troops raised in New York and other units, mostly militia, from New York and adjacent parts of Connecticut and western Massachusetts. They were barely sufficient to man the outposts spread across a wide arc from the hazy borderlands of Vermont to the Mohawk River Valley. Adding to his difficulties was the distrust many New Englanders felt for New Yorkers, and their resistance to being placed under the command of New York officers, including Schuyler himself. Arms and gunpowder were in desperately short supply, and providing his men with food, clothing and other necessities was a continuous challenge. To make matters worse, a drought made it impossible to feed what livestock he could gather.

At Ticonderoga, Schuyler found the troops there undisciplined and inattentive, but he thought he could get them into shape. “The officers and men are all good looking people,” he wrote to Washington “and decent in their deportment, and I really believe will make good soldiers as soon as I can get the better of this non-chalance of theirs. Bravery I believe they are far from wanting.” Washington responded in kind about the troops at Cambridge, but assured his new friend that “patience and perseverance” would turn their men into soldiers.

In late September Schuyler wrote to Washington from Fort Ticonderoga, admitting “the Vexation of Spirit under which I labour.” His health (“a Barbarous Complication of Disorders,” he called it) had not been good for years, and only grew worse under the pressures of his assignment. He was constantly anxious that “the Army should starve” despite his constant efforts and frustrated by the “scandalous Want of Subordination and Inattention to my Orders” by the officers scattered through his widely dispersed command. “If Job had been a General in my Situation,” Schuyler concluded, “his Memory had not been so famous for Patience—But the Glorious End we have in View & which I have a Confidential Hope will be attained will attone for all.”

By the end of November Schuyler had had enough, and considered resigning. “Our Army requires to be put on quite a different Footing,” he wrote to Washington. “Gentlemen in Command, find It very disagreeable to Coax, wheedle and even to Lye, to carry on the Service. Habituated to Order, I cannot without the most extreme Pain, see that Disregard of Discipline, Confusion & Inattention which reigns so General in this Quarter.”

Despite his frustrations, Schuyler remained at his post. His health made it impossible for him to accompany American troops on the Canadian expedition, but he funneled men and supplies north. When the campaign failed, he organized a strategic retreat down the Lake Champlain corridor that helped prevent an effective British counteroffensive from reaching the Hudson in the fall of 1776, which would have been disastrous for the American cause.

The next year Schuyler met British General John Burgoyne’s offensive south from Canada with skillfully executed delaying tactics. British maneuvers forced Schuyler’s army to evacuate Fort Ticonderoga—an enormous blow to American morale—but Schuyler delayed Burgoyne’s overland march to the Hudson by having his men fell trees in the narrow road, slowing the British pace while he gathered troops for a showdown with Burgoyne on ground of his own choosing.

George Washington—among the most perceptive spectators to the Saratoga campaign—believed that “Burgoyne’s army will meet, sooner or later an effectual check” and that his success in penetrating so far south “will precipitate his ruin.” Washington believed that by detaching troops to gather supplies, Burgoyne was pursuing a “line of conduct . . . most favorable to us,” offering the opportunity to defeat him in detail. In late July 1777 Schuyler suggested to Washington that if he brought the main army north to Albany, together they might cut Burgoyne’s overextended army to pieces.

Washington could not risk the maneuver. Schuyler was left to operate with his small army. At the beginning of August he stationed his troops near Stillwater, beside the Hudson a few miles south of his own Saratoga estate. Burgoyne’s troops destroyed Schuyler’s house and mills as they passed. Schuyler’s army was plagued by desertion and illness, but he explained to Washington that “if we by any Means could be put in a Situation of attacking the Enemy and giving them a Repulse, their Retreat would be so extremely difficult that in all probability, they would lose the greater part of their Army.”

Schuyler was not to command that attack. Congress, frightened by the evacuation of Ticonderoga and worried that Schuyler would lose Albany without a fight, relieved him and turned the Northern Army over to Horatio Gates, who had spent weeks in Philadelphia criticizing Schuyler and angling for the command. “We shall never hold a post until we shoot a general,” John Adams wrote to Gates. Losing his command was humiliating to Schuyler, but he remained to offer whatever assistance he could as the armies prepared for battle on his own home ground.

We will never know whether the sprawling, month-long series of battles and maneuvers remembered as the Battle of Saratoga would have resulted in the same dramatic victory if Philip Schuyler had been left in command. Certainly Gates did not distinguish himself as a commander at Saratoga. The battles that sealed the American victory were directed by subordinates who would have acted with as much courage and energy for Schuyler as they did under Gates, who did not know the ground as well as Schuyler and who remained far behind the lines while the victory was won.

Although Schuyler stayed with the army, Gates studiously avoided him. Burgoyne’s surrender made Gates a hero. Congress voted to present him with a gold medal to commemorate his victory, and Gates spent months maneuvering to replace Washington as commander-in-chief. That effort failed, and his subsequent defeat at Camden, South Carolina, and his headlong flight from that battlefield revealed Gates’ true character as a field commander.

Schuyler expressed no bitterness about the opportunity that had been denied him. Although deprived of his army, Schuyler continued to serve selflessly for the rest of the war—first as Continental Indian commissioner, and later as a member of Congress, promoting effective relations between Congress and the army. He never lost Washington’s respect and esteem.

An original member of the New York State Society of the Cincinnati, United States senator and leading citizen of New York, Philip Schuyler was honored in the early years of the republic. Reviewing the war decades later, Daniel Webster concluded that Schuyler was “second only to Washington in the services he rendered to the country in the war of the Revolution” under “difficulties which would have paralyzed the efforts of most men.” Webster overlooked Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox and Baron Steuben, but his assessment was not too far off.

“He was one of those men,” an early biographer wrote, “who often work noiselessly but efficiently; whose labors form the bases of great performances.” A builder, not given to heroics, Schuyler was “indifferent to that popular applause which follows the enunciation of startling opinions, or performance of brilliant services.” For sustained devotion to the American cause and perseverance in the face of extraordinary obstacles, few officers of the war were his equal. We became, and remain, an independent people thanks to that kind of devotion, and owe Schuyler the honor he richly deserves.

Philip Schuyler came as close as any American of his time to living like a British aristocrat, but fought and helped to win a revolution that ended the possibility of an American aristocracy. We dishonor Schuyler and other heroes of the Revolution when we hold them to modern standards, forgetting that what they created—the first great republic of modern times, based on principles of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and citizenship—is what makes it possible for us to hold those standards, and is the foundation of our own ideas of freedom.


Above: Philip Schuyler by John Trumbull, 1792, Yale University Art Gallery.


Lessons from a Revolutionary Epidemic

This painting death coming for Revolutionary War sailors is a reminder that epidemic disease killed more soldiers and sailors in the Revolution than bullets.

George Washington’s aggressive response to epidemic disease during the Revolutionary War offers lessons for today. That war was fought not just against British forces, but against an enemy far more dangerous—smallpox.

Smallpox was one of the most dreaded diseases of the eighteenth century. A viral illness, smallpox caused high fever, severe headaches, vomiting, pains in the loins and back, and the eruptions that gave the disease its name. Smallpox was extraordinarily virulent; individuals exposed to the virus, which passed by contact, were almost certain to be infected.  One attack usually conferred immunity to future infection. Smallpox was endemic in eighteenth-century Britain; the island was rarely free of the disease. It was almost constantly present in London and often ravaged the countryside. In Britain death seems to have claimed between fifteen and twenty percent of those infected. Smallpox was among the most common causes of death in eighteenth-century London. Ten percent of deaths in the city between 1731 and 1765 (which averaged about 23,300 total each year) were attributed to the disease. The number reached an all-time high in 1751, when some 3,538 Londoners died from smallpox—most of them children under five.

Smallpox was far less common in North America. It passed through the colonies in epidemic waves that typically began in the port cities and spread outward. The disease appeared sporadically in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, and passed into the surrounding areas before gradually fading. A smallpox epidemic was no less virulent in North America, but the low density of the population—early America’s version of “social distancing”—discouraged its transmission. Smallpox was consequently less likely to reach epidemic proportions in the Chesapeake, the Carolinas or Georgia, where the population was dispersed and towns were few and small. Ships trading along the tidewater rivers sometimes transmitted the illness to particular plantations, but such outbreaks tended to be localized. Annapolis and Williamsburg were infected occasionally, but even in those towns epidemics were typically short.

Smallpox infection in Britain’s mainland colonies in North America seems to have been distributed more or less evenly across the age spectrum, because the North American population contained a much larger percentage of non-immune adults. Adults were better able to endure the ravages of the disease than children, so the mortality rate among colonists was lower than in Britain. About ten percent of infected colonials seem to have died. But American epidemics seemed particularly bad to contemporaries, because the large percentage of non-immunes meant that outbreaks tended to involve a much higher percentage of the people in any community than would be infected in a comparable English population. This fact led some to speculate that Americans were somehow intrinsically more susceptible to the disease.

The Revolutionary War occurred during one of the worst smallpox epidemics in American history, which ultimately reached from maritime Canada to Central America (and brilliantly documented by Elizabeth Fenn in her book, Pox Americana—winner of the 2004 Society of the Cincinnati Prize). Its spread has been traced from colonies on the Atlantic seaboard all the way to the Indians living on the Pacific coast. Unlike today’s virus, which spread from continent to continent in days and weeks, and infected people around the world within a few months, the smallpox epidemic that paralleled our Revolution took years to reach the farthest parts of the continent, passing from traders to Indians and from Indian to Indian across the West. This was possible because the smallpox virus, unlike SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), remains stable and capable of infecting victims for long periods outside a human host. The coronavirus needs a host, and dies within hours on most surfaces.

When the Revolutionary War began, most of the young men who would serve in the Continental Army and the militia had never been exposed to smallpox. A much larger proportion of the British and Hessian soldiers who came to America had been exposed to it, and were immune. This put the Continental Army, which was always short of manpower, at a considerable disadvantage.

Eighteenth-century people had very little understanding of disease transmission, and incorrectly attributed many diseases caused by pathogens to environmental conditions like bad air, foul smells and damp weather. But they understood that smallpox passed from one person to another and that contact with the sores and scabs of an infected person was almost certain to infect a non-immune. The close quarters of an army camp was ideal for spreading the epidemic disease.

George Washington understood how debilitating smallpox could be to a young man. The disease had barely touched Virginia in his youth, but he contracted it in 1751 when he went to Barbados with his brother Lawrence. Smallpox was endemic to Barbados, kept alive there by the constant arrival of non-immune, recently enslaved Africans. The Washington brothers undoubtedly encountered the virus shortly after they arrived, at the home of one of their hosts, where the children were sick with the disease. Lawrence, who had been to boarding school in England, was undoubtedly immune. Nineteen-year-old George was not.

Young George might have encountered an infected child face-to-face, inhaling small infectious droplets or carrying the virus to his mouth or nose on his hands. But since the infectious nature of smallpox was understood, it seems unlikely that George risked direct personal contact with an infected person. He probably kept his distance, but he could have picked up the virus in another way. The virus can be present in scabs and dried-out bodily secretions, and desiccated but still dangerous particles can circulate in the air or be carried to a new host on inanimate objects. Someone changing bed linen, sweeping floors or even opening the window in a sickroom might have swirled infectious material into the air and ultimately into George Washington’s lungs.

That was on November 4. The disease has a two-week incubation period, and like clockwork George fell ill on November 17, later recording in his diary that on that day he had been “strongly attacked with the small Pox.” He was confined to the brothers’ rented house until December 12.  He suffered, but that suffering conveyed immunity that protected him during the Revolutionary War.

Smallpox was already present in Massachusetts when Washington arrived to take command of the Continental Army in the summer of 1775. He took steps to isolate the soldiers from infected townspeople and contain the unfortunates who had already contracted the disease. Daily inspections were instituted to check men for symptoms, and immune troops were placed on the front lines. Washington established a dedicated smallpox hospital. These steps undoubtedly flattened the curve of infection, slowing the spread of the disease, but could not stop it. New recruits, many of whom came from areas where smallpox was rare, contracted the disease after arriving at the crowded camps. Washington knew that nothing would kill the patriotic spirit of the new recruits converging in Cambridge faster than a smallpox epidemic in the army.

While Washington’s precautions—similar to the self-quarantines and social-distancing policies of the moment—were based on the best science of his time, there was only one proven solution: inoculation. Vaccination was unknown. Inoculation had been introduced to Boston by Cotton Mather during the 1721 smallpox outbreak. This risky procedure involved making a cut in the skin of a healthy person and inserting the virus, usually in the form of pus from the skin eruptions of an infected person. Inoculation, in most cases, conveyed a mild case of the dreaded sickness. The pox were typically limited to the area around the incision, and the associated fever and other symptoms less severe than those originating from an infection that began in the lungs.

The procedure was dangerous. Patients under inoculation could develop a full blown case of the disease and die, and they were as contagious as other smallpox sufferers and had to be isolated until recovery. The risk of inoculation accidentally spreading the disease made it a highly controversial procedure. Without proper regulation and supervision, inoculation might destroy the army and spread the disease to civilians.

The cost of failing to act became clear during the invasion of Canada in the winter of 1775-1776. American forces were devastated by smallpox during the Siege of Quebec. After interacting with infected locals (purportedly sent into American lines by the British army), the epidemic spread quickly through the American army. Disorganized attempts at inoculation left the whole army contagious and suffering. The spread of the virus and lack of supplies made their position untenable. The army withdrew from Canada in defeat. Everyone knew—the British, Congress, even deserters—that sickness had been the invading army’s downfall.

Washington decided that inoculation was a risk he had to take to build up the army’s immunity. Washington listened to the advice of doctors and became convinced that inoculating troops before they entered active duty was the most effective strategy. By January 1777, this became army policy. “The Small Pox by inoculation,” the commander-in-chief wrote to his brother John Augustine, “appears to me to be nothing.” He ordered all of his slaves inoculated and reported that they “are likely to get well through the disorder.” If he were a member of the House of Burgesses, Washington wrote, he would “move for a Law to compel the Masters of Families to inoculate every Child born within a certain limited time under severe Penalties.”

Ensuring the health of the troops was a key to a successful Revolution. The Board of War asked Dr. Benjamin Rush to write a pamphlet about keeping soldiers healthy for the use of the Continental Army officers. “Fatal experience,” Rush wrote, “has taught the people of America that a greater proportion of men have perished with sickness in our armies than have fallen by the sword.” Rush prescribed proper dress and diet as well as exercise, personal hygiene and orderly, clean encampments providing proper sanitation and access to good water. Lack of uniforms, tents and adequate food often made following Rush’s guidelines impossible for the young officers responsible for carrying them out. They did their best, which blunted the force of disease and helped keep the Continental Army in the field. Their best efforts, and the best efforts of the officers of the Continental Navy and of the French army and navy, could not stop the ravages of epidemic disease. Contagious illnesses claimed thousands more lives than battle.

There was no glory in it. Artists celebrated men giving their lives in battle rather than those who suffered and died in a struggle with one of the war’s more dangerous enemies—smallpox, dysentery, measles, influenza and typhus among them. Only once, it seems, did a contemporary artist grasp the deadly importance of disease to the war and depict it on canvas.

The subject of the painting, which is among the treasures in our collections, is Thomas François Lenormand de Victot, a French naval officer who served under Admiral d’Estaing and later, Admiral de Grasse. Wounded at Grenada in 1779, he was denied a glorious death in battle. He died at Martinique in 1782 from an epidemic of fever that swept through the French fleet. In the painting—undoubtedly commissioned by his family—Lenormand is dead in the foreground, but his risen spirit confronts Death, protecting his stricken sailors, facing the war’s great killer with courage and dignity.

Epidemic diseases wracked the armies and navies of the Revolution, but Washington’s energetic, proactive response flattened the curve—it slowed the spread of disease and helped the Continental Army prevail in a war that demanded much more than tactical skill or courage in battle. After the disaster at Quebec, smallpox never overcame an American army.  Washington and his senior officers worked ceaselessly to prevent the spread of disease among their troops. There was no glory in it, but it saved lives, and ultimately saved the Revolution.

Our republic was founded by people who committed themselves to the greater good. We are called to do the same. Washington protected his troops and we are called to protect ours. The soldiers on our front lines include grocery clerks, medical professionals, delivery men on scooters, sanitation workers and the thousands of others risking exposure while working to maintain essential services.  We are protecting the republic Washington and his generation fought to create. Like Washington, we need to act before the disease decimates us. Washington learned from experience. We should learn from his example.

Kathleen Higgins


We encourage all our visitors to read Why the American Revolution Matters, our basic statement about the importance of the American Revolution. It outlines what every American should understand about the central event in American history. It will take you less than five minutes to read—and a few seconds to send the link to your friends, family, and colleagues so they can read it, too.

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For more on the efforts to prevent the spread of disease in the Continental Army, read Benjamin Rush’s 1778 Directions for Preserving the Health of Soldiers, in our Digital Library of the American Revolution.

Joseph Plumb Martin, Everyman

It’s not every man who can play Everyman, but Joseph Plumb Martin pulled it off with what looks like effortless ease. His Narrative of some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier is one of the most insightful, passionate and carefully crafted first-hand accounts of the Revolutionary War—and the most successful. You can hardly pick up a book about the Revolutionary War written in the last forty years without bumping into Joseph Plumb Martin. He’s the most quotable, and most quoted, common soldier of the Revolution. But he’s more than that, and more interesting.

Martin’s Narrative was rescued from over a century of obscurity by George Scheer, a frequent contributor to American Heritage magazine, who discovered a copy of the first and only edition of the book, published in 1830, in the library of Morristown National Historical Park. He transcribed it, added an introduction and gave it to the world as Private Yankee Doodle, published by Little, Brown in 1962. It took off, appealing to patriots and cynics in equal measure, and has never gone out of print.

The book has been packaged and repackaged under titles including The Diary of Joseph Plumb Martin, A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier and Ordinary Courage. Paperback versions are commonly assigned in college courses. Selections from the Narrative appear in anthologies on the Revolution and on the experience of war, including one assembled by John McCain. A version for children is available as A Young Patriot: The American Revolution as Experienced by One Boy and another as Yankee Doodle Boy. Martin has shown up in the PBS series Liberty’s Kids. Passages of the Narrative enrich documentaries. His name rolls by in the credits of nearly every miniseries and feature film on the Revolutionary War. The National Park Service named the hiking trail circling Valley Forge the Joseph Plumb Martin Trail. He’s become one of our best-known revolutionaries. He’s everywhere.

Given the book’s history, its modern popularity is a surprise. Martin was a seventy-year-old veteran when his account of nearly eight years in Washington’s army was published by Franklin Glazier in Hallowell, Maine, a town on the Kennebec just below Augusta. Glazier printed almanacs, sermons, schoolbooks, statutes, law reports and a little church music. Martin’s Narrative was an outlier, and it seems unlikely that Glazier printed more than a few hundred copies. Martin explained that he wrote the book to satisfy his friends and did not expect it to “reach beyond the pale of my own neighborhood.” Surviving copies are rare, and the fact that George Scheer stumbled onto one in the late 1950s is remarkable.

It was not the first autobiographical narrative of a common soldier, but it is an early one. Memoirs of generals were common fare in Britain from the late seventeenth century, as were moralizing tracts and fantastic tales retailed as the work of ordinary soldiers, but genuine accounts of military service written by enlisted men and junior officers were something new in the early nineteenth century, made possible by the declining cost of printing and improvements in book marketing that made it practical, if not very profitable, for little printers like Glazier to publish them.

Martin was born in Massachusetts in 1760 and raised by his maternal grandparents in Connecticut. The family valued education—his father, the Reverend Ebenezer Martin, had graduated from Yale. Joseph’s youth was interrupted by the Revolutionary War and he never attended college. He joined the Connecticut militia in 1776 and served in the defense of New York City. Discharged at the end of 1776, he enlisted as a private in the Connecticut Continental Line in April 1777 and served for the duration of the war. He was assigned to the light infantry in 1778 and promoted to corporal, and in 1780 he was transferred to the new Corps of Sappers and Miners and promoted to sergeant. He fought in several of the major engagements, including Brooklyn, Kip’s Bay, Harlem Heights, White Plains, Germantown, Fort Mifflin, Monmouth and Yorktown, and was among the last Continental soldiers discharged in 1783.

More than forty years passed before Martin began writing his narrative of the war. It’s an old man’s book, based on memories filtered through decades of ordinary struggles and striving, successes and disappointments. Yet it’s often a young man’s voice we hear when we read it, which suggests a clever old man did the writing. The narrator is contrived for effect—not a fiction, but not quite the author himself.

That the narrator is an invention is signaled by Martin’s insistence that the book consists of nothing but “the common transactions of one of the lowest in station in an army, a private soldier.” In truth, Martin wasn’t a private for long. His assignment to the light infantry placed him among the army’s elite troops, and his quick promotion to corporal and later sergeant suggests that he stood out, despite his youth. Literate in an army filled with barely literate soldiers, he must also have been industrious and reliable. The son of a Yale-trained minister, he probably read in his spare time and wrote letters home.

He wants us to imagine young Private Martin as just another one of the boys. “I never studied grammar an hour in my life,” he says, “when I should have been doing that, I was forced to be studying the rules and articles of war”—the strained “forced to be studying” has the deliberate, country-rube cadence of an invention like Huck Finn or Brer Rabbit.

He drops the Everyman pose to tell us in his own voice: “I never learned the rules of punctuation farther than just to assist in fixing a comma to the British depredations in the state of New York; a semicolon in New Jersey; a colon in Pennsylvania, and a final period in Virginia,” ending with “a note of interrogation, why we were made to suffer so much in so good and just a cause.” A man who invents puns about punctuation was probably never one of the boys.

Martin’s alter ego is a somewhat roguish fellow, a joker and a trickster, whose place near the bottom of the social scale provides him with a perspective on the seedier side of the Revolution. He really sees history from the bottom up, a vantage point from which hypocrisy, deceit, greed and corruption are in plain view. The rest of us see what’s happening above. He sees what’s really happening from below, a not-so-innocent young man adrift in an war filled with chicanery, selfish opportunism, abused authority and hopeless bumbling.

His Narrative is a tale of needless suffering and exploitation. “Almost every one has heard of the soldiers of the Revolution being tracked by the blood of their feet on the frozen ground,” he wrote. “This is literally true; and the thousandth part of their sufferings has not, nor ever will be told.” Americans had the means to support the war, he says, but too many of them were content to let others do the fighting while they raked in the spoils, from petty swindlers taking advantage of hungry soldiers, to embezzlers, cheats and war profiteers. Continental officers, he complained, were too often cruel, vindictive and unfeeling.

Enlisted men had won the war, yet in the end they had been “turned adrift like old worn-out horses.” For decades veterans were disappointed by the government’s unfulfilled promises of land grants, back pay and compensation for the collapse of the Continental dollar. “The country was rigorous in exacting my compliance to my engagements,” Martin wrote, “but equally careless in performing her contracts with me; and why so? One reason was, because she had all the power in her hands, and I had none. Such things ought not to be.”

Much of the modern popularity of Martin’s Narrative lies in his raw critique of the selfishness and vice he witnessed. Yet for all his cynicism and frustration, he was a patriot who confessed he felt “a secret pride swell my heart” at Yorktown, “when I saw the ‘star-spangled banner’ waving majestically in the very faces of our implacable adversaries.”

Few men wrote about our Revolutionary War with such unsentimental clarity or condemned its corruption and failures more bluntly. Yet he was amazed that men “starved and naked, and suffering every thing short of death . . . should be able to persevere through an eight years’ war, and come off conquerers at last!” The Revolution, for all its vices, astonished him. It should astonish us, too.


Joseph Plumb Martin is one of many remarkable veterans of the Revolutionary War featured in our current exhibition, America’s First Veterans, on view at the headquarters of the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati through January 31, 2021.