Stories passed down about the harsh Continental Army encampment at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78 often note the brutally cold, snowy weather and the under-equipped and hungry troops. Should we be surprised that some of the soldiers were "fond of strong liquor"?
That was one of the details that arose as Dr. Harold Selesky, author of the Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History and other publications and books related to the Revolutionary War, developed a Demographic Survey of the Continental Army that Wintered at Valley Forge.
The survey, compiled in 1987 and referenced on the Valley Forge National Historical Park's website, contains numerous details and trivia on the men who comprised the Continental Army. Due to the paucity of official demographic data on the soldiers, Dr. Selesky discovered that some of the best descriptions were to be found in newspaper listings of deserters. Of course, the historian also points out that since deserters represented such a small snapshot of the army, their profiles should not be brushed broadly across the entire army.
Still, what he turned up makes for interesting reading for history lovers, particularly those interested in the Revolutionary War.
The fullest description of a soldier often is found in newspaper advertisements for deserters. The combine information on ages and physical descriptions in ways that parallel descriptive muster rolls, and add comments about the soldier's morally degenerate state that are not available elsewhere. Set against these advantages are the very subjectivity that makes them so humanly appealing and the question, essentially unanswerable, of whether or not deserters were typical of their company, regiment, or state. I offer the following ten examples, all men who deserted Valley Forge:
10th Pennsylvania Regiment, in Pennsylvania Packet, May 13, 1778
1. John Goran, 24 year of age, 5 foot 10 inches high, a slender male, down-looking fellow, much pitted with the small pox, fond of strong liquor, and born in Virginia.
2. David Latta, about 20 years of age, 6 feet high, slender male, of a fair complexion, and born in Pennsylvania.
3. Hugh Reed, 30 years of age, a well-set fellow, 5 feet 8 inches high, of a ruddy complexion, sandy hair, very talkative, and was born in Ireland.
4. Anthony McManes, 23 years of age, 5 foot 7 inch high, short fair hair, somewhat pitted with small pox, and was born in Ireland.
5. James Burges, 44 years of age, 5 feet 6 inches high, short black hair, is fond of strong liquor, and was born in England.
5th Pennsylvania Regiment, in Pennsylvania Packet, May 23, 1778
6. Samuel Starrit, American born, 5 feet 10 inches high, short black hair, swarthy complexion, stoop shouldered, and fond of strong liquor.
7. James McAllister, born in Jersey and brought up in Virginia, a taylor (sic) by trade, has a sickly pale countenance, fair hair which he wears tied, about 5 feet 7 inches high ... and when in liquor boasts much of Burgoyne's campaign.
8. James Reiley, an Irishman, about 5 feet 81/2 inches high, dark complexion and black hair, has an extraordinary squint with his left eye, no enemy to strong liquor, and when brim full vomits oaths and blasphemy very liberally.
9. George James, a Virginian born, about 6 feet high, sandy hair, stoop shouldered, swarthy complexion, fond of liquor, and in company a pleasant and good natured fellow.
10. Samuel Marler, an Englishman born, about 5 feet 7 inches high, short fair hair tied, is a miner, very talkative and a tolerable scribe...and dearly loves company where liquor is plenty.
But Dr. Seleksy doesn't stop at only searching for profiles of Continental Army soldiers. He goes a step or two farther, comparing them to Civil War soldiers and finding the greatest difference is that by the 1860s most soldiers were fairer in complexion and hair color.
"For the moment, it is sufficient to note that relatively fewer Civil War soldiers had been engaged in outdoor agricultural pursuits," he writes. "Perhaps an active outdoor life made the complexions of the Continental soldiers appear darker than they actually were. Something like that made Indians look dark-skinned to Europeans, but whether it applies here is still a matter of speculation."
The historian also tells us that most New England soldiers who fought in the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars were born in what would become the United States, while soldiers who hailed from areas south of that region were more likely to have been foreign born.
Dr. Selesky also examines the livelihoods of soldiers in the Continental Army, and explores what they did after the war. While the paper rings in just three pages shy of 300, the text runs only 40 pages, with the rest composed of tables. You can find it here in the form of a 4MB pdf.