The gentleman in the picture above is one of the wonderful staff at Colonial Williamsburg. I did not catch his name but the “character” he played had an interesting evolution. He played his character at different points in time. Starting from when the trouble with Britain was beginning all the way to the end of the war. In this picture was a Continental soldier after the war trying to figure out was next for himself. Many like him thought they would have some sort of pension to lean on, here is part of that story.
First Pension Act
Pensions and land grants were two methods used to entice young men to join the Continental Army. As early as 1776 Congress passed the first of the pension laws which promised half-pay for a period of time to anyone that served in The Continental Army. With the caveat that the only men eligible were those that lost a limb or that were rendered unable to earn a living after the war. So a start.
In 1778 General Washington convinced Congress to amend that to include half-pay for 7 years to all officers that remained in the service until the end of the war. Enlisted men who stayed would be eligible for an $80 annuity after the war.
In 1780 Congress amended the act again to provide the half-pay for 7 years to the orphans and widows of Continental officers who died in service.
Later in 1780, it was amended again, once more at the insistence of Washington, to give officers half-pay for life.
After the near revolt of the officer corps at Newburgh, NY in March 1783, a new pension act was passed giving the officers full pay for 5 years payable in hard money or interest-bearing annuities. Officers could choose which they wanted
The pension laws would be changed another six times over the years. In 1828 Congress provided for full pay to surviving officers and enlisted men without any further requirement of disability or financial need. In 1832 they extended further, full pay for life for all officers and enlisted men who served at least 2 years in the Continental Line, the state troops or militia, the navy or marines. Men who served less than 2 years but at least 6 months were granted pensions of less than full pay.
100 Years and Still Tweaking
Fifty-six years after the start of the war everyone who fought was now eligible for a pension. The final actual pension legislation regarding the American Revolution was passed in 1878. This last one extended lifetime benefits to any widow whose husband served at least 14 days or participated in any engagement during the war.
The sad part is that many of the men and widows were never able to actually collect their pensions. That is a story for another time though.
The Shell Game
Picture someone firing a cannon. What do you picture coming out of the barrel? Probably a round ball, which would make sense because that is often how it’s portrayed. During the Civil War, the art of artillery, and of designing munitions entered a new age. The picture above is a collection of many of the different types of projectiles that were used during the war.
You had the solid round shot, which is what you were picturing. It was effective in knocking things down and were often heated in ovens until red-hot so that when the hit something, like a house, ship or fortification, it could set it on fire.
There was “canister” which turned your canon into a giant shotgun peppering the enemy with small round projectiles.
You had timed fuses for shells that could cause them to either burst in the air and rain shrapnel down on the enemy, or they could be set to detonate some time after hitting the ground effectively acting a type of land mine.
Then came the rifled projectiles (the ones that look like giant bullets). They could travel further and could be outfitted with fuses or set to explode on contact.
Every situation had a special shell that could be used. If you would like more information on each individual type of ammunition produced I would recommend this website, Civil War Artillery Projectiles. They break down the many different types well.
So the next time someone asks what a cannon fires, ask for more detail because there are many, many different options…
Another Side of General Washington
Hanging in the visitor center at Colonial Williamsburg is this 1799 portrait of General Washington that was pained by Charles Willson Peale. This painting is breathtaking in person and truly presents the General as a figure larger than life.
One of the most amazing things about Washington was how down to earth he was. Even during the Revolution, his legend was well on the way to mythic proportion. There were times when his words alone spurred his men to fight. His promises were enough to keep the army together. Even when there was no food, no pay, and no prospect of victory.
The time though that he proved the most worthy of being a myth and legend was the time when he showed his officers how human he was.
The British were defeated at Yorktown, but the war would continue for several more years and the Continental Army had to stay in the field. Many officers and soldiers had not been paid for six years and dissatisfaction was mounting. In January 1783 a group of officers asked Congress to consider the back wages it owed the army. Congress refused. Tensions between the army and Congress worsened to the point that calls came to march on the Congress and collect the payments by force.
In Newburgh, NY, the officers gathered to plan the coup. Faced with the disgruntled offers and a recalcitrant Congress, George Washington called his officers to a meeting. He explained that Congress was doing what they could, he promised to do everything possible to have the issues resolved. Washington was loved and admired by his men but not even he could divert them from the course they were on, mutiny seemed inevitable.
Sensing he was losing the room, Washington started reading a letter from a Congressman that supported the officers. A few words in Washington had to pause and put on a pair of reading glasses to continue. Apologizing for the delay Washington said, “I have already grown gray in the service of my country. I am now going blind.” The officers saw the personal sacrifice of their commander. This one simple remark reached into the hearts and minds of the assembled men and placed their struggle into perspective. Instead of preparing for a military coup, the men asked Washington to do all he could and the war continued.
A gesture, as simple as putting a pair of glasses, saved the Revolution from becoming a dictatorship. If not for that one personal, and embarrassing moment for Washington, who knows how the story would have ended.
The Governor’s Palace At Williamsburg
The picture above is the Virginia Governors Palace at Colonial Williamsburg. Construction on the original building started in 1705 and continued off and on until 1718. That year Governor Spotswood finally took up residence. It was not totally completed, however. Lack of funds and growing expenses dragged the construction out. A total of nine Governors would live in the “palace”. Including such men at Robert Dinwiddie, John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. In 1780 the capital moved to Richmond where it would stay.
The original palace burned down in 1781, and it pretty much stayed that way for a very long time. After the Revolution, the land was given over to the College of William & Mary and several instructional buildings took over the location. In 1928 The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation purchased the site and began an extensive archaeological survey of the site. During this survey, they were able to locate the original foundation and were able to get a good idea of the structure which for many had only ever existed in paintings of descriptions.
In 1929, armed with the results of the survey an extensive reconstruction of the original building started. In 1934 the restored building opened to the public and serves as a historic site and museum to this day.
Certainly one of the highlights of any trip to Williamsburg, there is no description that can possibly translate what it feels like to be standing on the top floor of that building and looking through the window, out over the town square and imagining what it was like in the days before the Revolution.
By the Ledger Book
What you see above is a ledger from a small colonial business in Virginia. If you looked close you would see all the normal debits and credits that you would expect in a ledger. Now imagine if instead of a wallet you carried your own personal ledger book? Not so far-fetched.
In a time before ATMs and banks hard currency was very hard to find and when you did find it parting with it was not something you enjoyed doing. In New England people used a sort of ledger system for most personal and business transactions, sort of like using Bitcoin. Here is how it worked.
Let’s say you were a young man who decided to do some work on your neighbors farm. You work ten hours. When the day was over you would both take out your ledger books, you would write down that Farmer John owed you for ten hours of work. Farmer John would write in his book that he owed you for ten hours of work. On the way home you stop at the butchers to buy some dinner and decide on a nice ham. The butcher may want to sell you the ham for $5 (just an example), well you don’t have any hard currency but you and the butcher agree that since Farmer John owes you for ten hours, the butcher can lay claim to five of those. You both makes the notes in your ledgers and you have dinner.
Sometime later the butcher needs help with rounding up sheep for the slaughter. He looks in his ledger and sees that now Farmer John owes him that five hours, so he goes and collects by having Farmer John help him for five hours. All accounts are square and not a single piece of copper or paper has actually changed hands.
Simpler? No, not really but when everyone is on the same page it can be effective.
A Gabion in the Hand…
The picture above is of a gabion, basically sticks woven together to form a rough barrel. These structures were originally used during the Middle Ages as a sort of mobile fortification. They were light weight and easily transported. Often various sizes would be made to fit within each other so they would stack like plastic cups.
When they arrived where they were intended to be used they would be filled with dirt, rocks, or anything. Suddenly they would transform into a strong fortification. They would be used to protect artillery and infantry positions and could even be found along the edges of the trench works during a siege. If they needed to be moved that would simply be emptied and moved. True mobility.
Used in conjunction with fascines and even bales of wool or cotton, these were commonly used in the Americas during the American Revolution up through the Civil War. In fact, in some places around the world gabions are still used to protect military bases. When used with a little imagination they could also be used to build actual structures. Small houses and even latrines!
Today the gabion is used in various forms for landscaping and erosion control. Whether still made of sticks and dirt, or hi tech plastic and metal, the gabion is still a fixture in the modern world.
The gabions you see above are from the model Continental Army camp at Colonial Williamsburg. Scattered throughout the camp are various examples of fortifications and battlefield accouterments from the period. We’ll see more of those later.
A Post About A Post
When people start shooting at you it is generally a good idea to find some sort of cover. Tree, fence, big hole in the ground, whatever works. Early in the Civil War the armies matched up in the Old World Style, line up shoulder to shoulder, get as close as you can and shoot in the general direction of the enemy.
Today we look at the paintings and read the descriptions of such battles and wonder what the heck they were thinking doing that. It is however the only way it would work. See guns at the time, for most of the “black powder” era, were incredibly in accurate. Mainly because they were smooth bore. Basically every time you fired it there was no way to tell where the shot would go. So your only hope of hitting anything was to have a lot of people shooting at it.
As the accuracy progressed and the armies started seeing more rifles (grooved barrels) the idea of standing in lines, getting close and shooting started to be a losing proposition for all sides. As such more fighting started being done from cover, this would eventually evolve into the precursor of trench warfare that made WWI such a joy.
The pic above is a fence post that has become a bullet catcher. In battles all over the country trees and fences absorbed more lead than a five-year old eating paint chips. Think for a second what it would have been like to be on the other side of the fence. Hearing it whittled down more and more with each shot. I count seven bullets, how many do you see?
Surgeon of the Civil War
The topic of Civil War medicine is one that there have been many, many books and museums dedicated to. This is just a brief look into the kit of a typical surgeon of the time.
The first thing you notice above and a preponderance of saws alongside the knives. While a grisly thing, such tools became a necessity . Without a doubt the number one most practiced procedure during the war was amputation. The Minie ball that was in use by both sides during the war was slow-moving and soft lead. When it impacted with the body it caused terrible wounds. If it connected with a bone it would often shatter it spread a grisly form of shrapnel inside the body.
During the fighting arms and legs took the majority of the hits. Most of the time due to the limited knowledge of the day amputation was the only way to save the soldier’s life. While a good surgeon could perform an amputation in ten minutes, bad ones would take much longer.
More Tools of the Surgeon
Among the knives and saws there are a number of probes and forceps. The surgeon used these to pull bullets out of the bodies when time permitted. In the back of the kit you will see a bottle of chloroform, the closest thing to a general anesthetic at the time.
Now that we have taken a look at the tools, in another post we will look at what it took to become an army surgeon. That will be almost more shocking than looking in your doctors kit and finding a half-dozen different saws…
Colonial Williamsburg is an interesting place. During the day you are treated to a series of events that take you back to the town during the era of the revolution. These events begin at the start of the day and continue to the end. As the day progresses the timeline progresses so that during the course of one visit you can actually see how events changed the people in the town and actually “live” the events as they happened.
To break the fourth wall for a minute I need to say this. I have studied Benedict Arnold and he was a complicated man. He is at the same time our greatest warrior and our basest traitor. I do not condone his actions and prefer to remember him for what he did prior than dwell on what he did after.
After switching sides Arnold was given a general’s commission in the British army. In Late 1780 and into 1781 he was tasked with leading raids through Virginia which led to the capture of Richmond and Williamsburg among other towns.
The picture above, from Colonial Williamsburg is of the event that portrays General Arnold taking control of Williamsburg. The gentleman playing Arnold knew his craft. He portrayed Arnold as an angry, haughty man, one that truly believed he had done the right thing. To the point that he, as Arnold, railed against the American Congress and suggested we should be glad if the British were to win, as they looked to save us from that corrupt body. In his mind he had reasons for what he did, and the actor was brilliant in his role.
It could not or at least should not have been easy. Arnold was a complicated man. Standing in the crowed, watching the event take place brought about the mixture of emotions that can only come from the study of such a complex man. Had he died of his wounds after the battles in Saratoga in October 1777, he would have been our greatest hero, second only to Washington. But his path lay down a darker road.
We Need More Men…
Prior to April 1861 the United States Army numbered around 16,000. Of the 197 companies that compromised that army 179 were posted on the frontier in the West, the remainder stood guard on the Mississippi River, the long border with Canada and along the east coast.
As tensions between the North and South started to rise things in the army got tense. Oddly enough no steps were taken to prepare for the war that was to come. Many people never believed that fighting would actually break out. Some thought that if it did it would be over quickly.
With Lincolns election and the secession of several Southern states, it seemed that the hopes for a peaceful resolution were fading. Along with the rest of the country the regular army was torn asunder. Enlisted men and officers returned home to prepare for what was to come.
On the heels of the secession movement, President Lincoln put out a call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the “insurrection”. These men would serve for three months. Unfortunately this call for troops drove most of the remaining border states to join the Confederacy. As the cold war turned hot and it was obvious the three-month enlistments would not suffice. Lincoln put out another call for volunteers. This time for three years or the duration of the war.
At first men flocked to the banner and filling the quotas was not difficult to do. Before long the volunteers dried up. Both sides would resort to drafts to the fill the massive manpower requirements. In the end almost 2.5 million men would serve in the army during the war. Over the course of the war almost 360,000 died and almost 300,000 wounded.