Rank and File

Without a Murmur

fife and drum

On April 11, 1783, news arrived of the official end of hostilities with Britain. The Treaty of Paris in which “His Britannic Majesty acknowledges the said United States . . . to be free Sovereign and independent States,” was signed September 3. Envoys John Adams, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin had wrung for America terms better than most had dared hope for.

It was time for the troops to go home. Many felt the pangs of parting from friends with whom they had shared so much, whom they had come to love. “We were young men and had warm hearts,” one of them later remembered. They knew their lives would never again be illuminated by such a noble cause, nor would their minds crackle with such intensity.

General von Steuben planned a final, triumphant ceremony to precede the soldiers’ dismissal. It was not to be. The troops, as part of the agreement that ended the Newburgh Conspiracy, had been promised three months’ wages, a down payment on the back pay owed them. Congress could not find the money. Not for three months’, not even for one month’s pay. Only IOUs, and those of scant value.

There would be no parade. The high command judged it imprudent to dismiss the men as a body–they might join together and pillage the country. Instead, most regiments were marched to their home states, then released under the fiction of a furlough so as to keep them under military discipline.

The men who had “suffered and bled without a murmur,” Washington wrote, were dismissed “without a settlement of their accounts or a farthing of money in their pockets.”

Destitute Maryland Continentals, having distinguished themselves again and again during the war, had to make their own way home from the deep South. Many resorted to begging. Joseph Plumb Martin, who had fought in the ranks since the beginning of the conflict and would leave behind one of the most vivid memoirs of the war, had to take a job on a farm in New York in order to earn traveling money to reach his home in Connecticut. He said of his fellow soldiers, “When the country had drained the last drop of service it could screw out of the poor soldiers, they were turned adrift like old worn-out horses, and nothing said about land to pasture them upon.”

Washington, Steuben, and Knox all pleaded with Congress to maintain a small army. Knox preached the need for an academy, perhaps near the still- important base at West Point, to train officers, engineers, and artillerymen in the science of war. Congress would not hear of it. “Standing army” was a dirty word. The Continental Army would immediately shrink to seven hundred men stationed at a few scattered posts on the frontier.

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