Continental Soldiers in the Revolutionary War

Soldiers who served in the Continental Army fought on behalf of the 13 colonies in the Revolutionary War.

These soldiers were young and inexperienced, especially in comparison with the formidable British army, but they were highly motivated to win because the freedom of the colonies was at stake.

The following are some facts about Continental soldiers in the Revolutionary War:

How Many Continental Soldiers Served in the Revolutionary War?

In total, around 230,000 soldiers served in the Continental Army, though never more than 48,000 soldiers at one time.

Soldiers of the Continental Army, sketch by French army officer, circa 1781

Soldiers of the Continental Army, sketch by French army officer, circa 1781

The Continental Army was supplemented by about 145,000 militiamen.

How many Continental Soldiers Died in the Revolutionary War?

Around 8,000 Continental soldiers were killed in battle and 25,000 were wounded. Around 16,000 soldiers died from starvation or illness.

How Much Were Continental Soldiers Paid?

Privates in the Continental army earned about $6.25 a month. To entice soldiers to join the army, Congress, states and towns offered a bounty, which was a one-time payment of money or a grant of land, upon enlistment.

The amount of the bounty varied greatly depending on who was paying it and where the soldier enlisted, among other things.

Although Continental soldiers made a decent amount of money, they also paid a lot in deductions, according to America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army:

“Moreover, military pay was subject to deductions over which the soldier had little control. Deductions for costs to replace uniforms, arms,and equipment lost or destroyed on the march or battlefield reduced monthly wages as well. Paymasters simply introduced what was called a ‘stoppage’ in a soldier’s pay. A private who was owed seventy-two dollars yearly often received only about twelve dollars per year after deductions for arms, clothes, family support, and fines.”

What Did Soldiers in the Continental Army Wear?

Uniforms of the Continental Army varied greatly in the first few years of the war. Then, in 1779, George Washington standardized the army’s uniforms by ordering all soldiers to wear white or off-white breeches, white waistcoats and long blue jackets with facings of varying colors, depending on the regiment.

Uniforms and weapons of the Continental Army, lithograph by Henry Alexander Ogden

Uniforms and weapons of the Continental Army, lithograph by Henry Alexander Ogden

Each state regiment wore different colors for the facings, lining and buttons, with white facings for New England state regiments, buff facings for New York and New Jersey state regiments, red facings for the middle state regiments as well as Virginia and blue facings for Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina state regiments.

Later on, in 1782, blue coats with red facings became the standard for all Continental uniforms.

How Old Were Continental Soldiers?

The official enlistment age for the Continental Army was 16, (15 with parental consent) but soldiers could sign on up to the age of 55.

The majority of Continental soldiers were young men, usually around 17 or 18 years old. Older soldiers had more responsibilities at home, such as families to raise and farms to tend to, so they usually joined the local militias instead because the militia was a part-time commitment that worked locally and didn’t have to march off to war like the Continental Army did.

What Did Soldiers in the Continental Army Eat?

Each soldier in the Continental Army was given a daily ration of one pound of beef/fish or three-quarters of a pound of pork, a pound of bread, three pints of dried vegetables, a pint of milk and a quart of spruce beer of cider or a gill of whiskey.

Where Were Most of the Continental Soldiers From?

When the Continental Army was first formed in 1775, about 16,449 of the 37,363 soldiers were from Massachusetts. This is not all that surprising though seeing that the American Revolution started in Massachusetts and the British army occupied the area since the beginning.

However, Massachusetts soldiers continued to make up the bulk of the Continental Army in almost every year of the Revolutionary War, except for 1779 and 1780 when the ranks were mostly Pennsylvania soldiers.

African-American Soldiers in the Continental Army:

It is estimated that around 5,000 African-Americans served as soldiers in the Revolutionary War.

Although the Continental Congress voted to ban African-Americans from joining the army on November 24, 1775 and informed existing black soldiers that they would not be allowed to re-enlist, they soon reversed this decision and allowed the existing black soldiers to re-enlist but refused to allow new black soldiers to join.

As the war continued, this policy was abandoned primarily because states had trouble recruiting enough soldiers to meet their quotas and realized they needed all the soldiers they could get, regardless of race.

The black soldiers served alongside white soldiers, making the Continental Army a desegregated, integrated army, which would it would not be again until 1948.

The only all-black regiment in the Continental Army was the First Rhode Island Regiment, which officially began recruiting African-Americans and Native-Americans in February of 1778 after the Rhode Island General Assembly voted to allow the enlistment of black men and natives.

Some notable African-American soldiers in the Continental Army were:

♦ Pomp Jackson, served in Capt. Jeremiah Hill company of Col. Edmund Phinney’s Regiment.
♦ Peter Salem, first served in Captain Simon Edgell’s militia company, then enlisted in Capt. Drury company of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment, reenlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, reenlisted again in the 6th Massachusetts Regiment, reenlisted again in Captain  Claye’s Company of Colonel Nixon’s Regiment.
♦ Felix Cuff of Waltham, Massachusetts
♦ Cato Prince, served in Capt. Ebenzer Smith’s company of the 8th Massachusetts Regiment
♦ Pelatiah McGoldsmith of Palmer, Massachusetts
♦ Primus Jackall, served in Capt. Jonathan Maynard’s company, Capt. Nathaniel C, Allen’s company, Capt. Francis’s company which are all in Lieutenant Col. John Brooke’s regiment.

Women Soldiers in the Continental Army:

The exact number of women who served in the Continental Army is unknown but is considered to be small in comparison to the hundreds of women who fought in the American Civil War, according to Linda Grant De Pauw in her book Battle Cries and Lullabies:

“Still, when all is said and done, the numbers are surprisingly small. There are two possible explanations. One is that despite the high visibility of Washington’s army in the history books, most of the fighting during the American Revolution was small scale and local; women who had patriotic motives for military activity did not have to join the Continental Army to take part. The other explanation is that America did not have a social class as impoverished as that which provided soldiers for European armies. In the seventeenth century, after the end of the Thirty Years War, professionalized royal regiments came into existence. Joining these, soldiers lost their individuality. They were no longer free to select their own uniforms, for instance, and they were put under such firm discipline that Keegan describes it as a ‘military slave system.’ The attraction for recruits was the security military life offered. Kings and Queens were always waging wars, so lifetime employment was guaranteed. The Continental Army, by contrast, was mustered for an emergency; Americans continued to be hostile to standing armies and expected to demobilize when peace came. Thus there was little economic incentive for women to enlist.”

Since women were not allowed to join the army or state militias at the time, these women soldiers disguised themselves as men by cutting their hair, binding their breasts, wearing men’s clothing and adopting masculine aliases.

Some of the women were discovered while in service but their names are unknown because military officials declined to provide them in the official papers and records, possibly to protect their identity when they returned to civilian life.

Some of the other women were identified either because their identity was discovered after they were killed in battle or because they later applied for military pensions.

Others, such as Margaret Corbin, never even disguised her identity and served openly as a woman when she took up arms in the heat of a battle.

The women who survived the war and did not seek military pensions are completely untraceable and we will never know who or how many there were.

Some notable women soldiers in the Continental Army were:

Deborah Sampson alias Robert Shurtliff, served in Capt. George Webb’s Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment. Later received a military pension and wrote a memoir about her military service.
♦ Ann (or Nancy) Bailey, alias Samuel Gay, served in Capt. Abraham Hunt’s Company of the 1st Massachusetts Regiment. Her identity was discovered and she was brought to trial, fined and sent to prison for a brief sentence.
♦ Ann Marie Lane, served in the Virginia Light Dragoons until 1781. Later received a military pension.
♦ Elizabeth Gilmore, a private who served in an unidentified regiment.
♦ Margaret Corbin, camp follower who manned her husband’s cannon after he was killed in the Battle of Fort Washington, later joined the Corps of Invalids after she was injured in the same battle.
♦ An unidentified woman who served in the 1st New Jersey Regiment, her gender was discovered in 1777 and she was discharged.
♦ Sally St. Clair, served in an unidentified South Carolina regiment that is rumored to be the Sgt. Jasper of Marion’s Brigade, identity was discovered after she was killed in battle.
♦ Two unidentified women who served in the 2nd South Carolina Regiment.

Sources:
Grant De Pauw, Linda. Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present. University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War: A Compilation from the Archives, Prepared and Published by the Secretary of the Commonwealth. Wright & Potter Printing Co, 1904. 17 vols.
Goold, Nathan. History of the Colonel Edmund Phinney’s Eighteen Continental Regiment. Press of the Thurston Print, 1898.
Nell, William Cooper. Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. With Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons. Robert F. Walcutt, 1855.
Wienkop, Marjy. “Women Soldiers in the American Revolution.” Continental Line, Marjy Wienkop, www.continentalline.org/articles/0002/000202.htm
Poirer, Noel. B. “Brave and Gallant Soldiers: African-Americans and the Continental Army.” Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site, www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume5/october06/soldiers.cfm
“Recruiting African-Americans Into the Continental Army.” Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/amrev/homefrnt/recruit.html
“Blacks Barred from the Continental Army.” African American Registry, www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/blacks-barred-continental-army
Fleming, Thomas. “African-Americans in the American Revolution.” Journal of the American Revolution, 6 May. 2013, allthingsliberty.com/2013/05/revolution-in-black/
Covart, Liz. “The Revolutionaries Army.” Ben Franklin’s World Podcast, www.benfranklinsworld.com/episode-158-revolutionaries-army/
Covart, Liz. “The Revolution’s African-American Soldiers.” Ben Franklin’s World Podcast, www.benfranklinsworld.com/episode-157-revolutions-african-american-soldiers/
“Life of a Private.” Historyisfun.org, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, www.historyisfun.org/pdf/tea-overboard/Lifeofaprivate.pdf
Barbieri, Michael. “The Worth of a Continental.” Journal of the American Revolution, 21 March. 2014,
allthingsliberty.com/2014/03/the-worth-of-a-continental/
Neimeyer, Charles Patrick. America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army. New York University Press,1996.
“The Fighting Man of the Continental Army.” Civil War Trust, www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/fighting-man-continental-army
“American Revolution – FAQS.” Civil War Trust, www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/american-revolution-faqs
“America’s First Soldiers – 12 Remarkable Facts About the Continental Army.” Military History Now, 4 July. 2014,
militaryhistorynow.com/2014/07/04/americas-first-soldiers-12-amazing-facts-about-the-continental-army/

Continental Soldiers in the Revolutionary War

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the writer and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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