"A Token of Surrender" or "One Mode of Attack:"
The Firelock Clubb'd
By Don Hagist
This article is reprinted, with permission, from "The Brigade Dispatch"
At the time of the American Revolution, a method for a soldier to show surrender or submission was to club the firelock, that is, to hold it shouldered but reversed, with the butt in the air and the muzzle down. Although this position was not included in contemporary manuals, having no value as a formal position of arms, it did appear in many earlier military works which were still popular during the Revolution.
The extensively reprinted work, A Treatise of Military Discipline, by Humphrey Bland1, describes clubbing thus, commencing from the Rest position:
your Firelocks. 4 Motions.
Keep the Firelock firm in your left Hand, and cast it about with the right, bringing up the right Foot at the same time, and taking hold of the Firelock with your right Hand as low as you can reach without Constraint, placing the Guard opposite to your Eyes, the Muzzle and left Thumb downwards, and the Lock from you; tell 1, 2, let go the left Hand, and raise the Firelock with your right opposite to the left Shoulder, seizing it at the same time with the left Hand within an Inch of the Muzzle, keeping your Arms stretched out, and the Firelock in a perpendicular Line, with the Butt upwards; tell 1, 2, and bring it to your left Shoulder with the Lock upwards, keeping your Elbows square. Then tell 1, 2, and quit the Firelock with your right Hand, bringing it down nimbly to your right Side, and letting your left Elbow fall down at the same time; observing the same Position of Body as is directed in shoulder'd Arms."
The return to the Rest position is done in the exact opposite manner. This position is to be used when companies march off of the parade for dismissal. Notice that this explanation implies that the counting between movements is to be done out loud.
In 1757, another manual was published which described a somewhat different variation of the same movement. The New Highland Military Discipline by George Grant2, states:
the Shoulder, Club your Firelock — 5 Motions.
Your first come to a Rest, which is the most sure Way, as you turn her with the Left-hand, seize her with the Right, under the Left-hand against your Chin, your Piece in a straight Line in the Center of your Body, your Left-knee a little bended as you change the Left-hand under the Right, straight the Knee with the Piece, in a Line with the Left-shoulder. Then Shoulder.
From Clubing, Rest your Firelocks — 3 Motions.
Seize it with the Right-hand against the Left-shoulder, as you bring it from the Shoulder, seize it with the Left-hand Back-handed against your Face, and so turn the Cock into the Hollow of your Right-side; in all this Kind of Rest you must observe the But-end of your Piece to lay close up and down your Right-thigh, your Right-elbow square, this will make all the Barrels be in a Line."
Two years later, William Windham's A Plan of Discipline, Composed for the use of the Militia of the County of Norfolk3 gives yet another variation. It is important to note that this book was being sold in Boston immediately prior to the outbreak of the Revolution, and so is a likely candidate for use by American soldiers in the early part of the war4. It describes clubbing from the Shoulder:
"VII. Club your Firelock — 3 Motions
VIII. Shoulder — 3 Motions
"Explanation the 6th," Shoulder, from Rest, differs slightly from the 1764 Manual Exercise. To "explanation the 7th", this footnote is added:
"As the position of being shouldered, though easy and graceful, becomes tiresome if long continued; when the men are to march to a considerable distance, or are dismissed, they are to club: they then are supposed free from constraint, and may carry their arms in the manner they find most convenient; carrying a piece clubbed being one of the easiest manners of doing it. We think that the ease and shortness of our method of clubbing, from the shoulder, which may be done marching, must strike every body with the difference between it, and the manner in which the regular troops perform it."
This clarifies that the method is calculated to be different from the usual practice, presumably as described in Bland, and also gives some insight into the use of the position. Windham, in his instructions for teaching the movements, suggests giving attention to this point:
In clubbing, to cause the men to bring the barrel of the firelock forward, drawing the butt under their left arm so as to bring it between them and their left-hand man. The same precaution to be used in shouldering from a club; without which they will be apt to hit and hurt one another, which they never will, by observing this rule.
The next manual of arms issued to the British army, popularly known as the 1764 manual5, does not include clubbing. Timothy Pickering's popular work, An Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia6, explains this in its invaluable criticisms of the various popular manuals of the day. Pickering says this about clubbing:
"I have already observed, that clubbing the firelock is omitted in the present exercise of the army, as useless and inconvenient; though it is continued in the Norfolk discipline; according to which, the only design of it is to ease the men on a long march, or when they are dismissed, by shifting from the shouldered to the clubbed firelock... [Here Pickering quotes the above footnote from Windham.] 'Tis very true that the firelock clubbed is an easy position, if carried horizontally, or level upon the shoulder, and balanced as each man pleases: but this would be totally beside the method of carrying it prescribed in the Norfolk exercise, where it is to be held nearly perpendicular, against, not upon the shoulder, and with the lock to the front; than which I do not know a more uneasy position. But by sloping the firelock, as practiced by the army, and described in the following exercise, it may lie upon the shoulder, and be balanced and carried with the greatest ease; whereby the clumsy, difficult action of clubbing will be avoided.— I am inclined to think that clubbing the firelock was at first used as one mode of attack or defence, and not for carriage. Formerly as soon as the musketeers had fired, and the grenadiers thrown their granadoes, the latter fixed their daggers (or bayonets) in their firelocks, and with them charged the enemy; and the former (having no bayonets) clubbed their muskets and fell on, with a huzza! using the butts of their muskets as clubs."
Pickering cites as a reference for this last item, "Abridgement of the English military discipline ordered by King James II in 1685."
Pickering's writings reveal to us the importance of seeking information from many sources; the 1764 Manual Exercise does not mention sloping, but Pickering makes it clear that it was indeed practiced by the army at the time. Pickering is per- haps too hard on Windham, since Windham implies that clubbing was intended as a leisurely position; once the firelocks were clubbed, the soldiers may not have been obliged to keep them vertical, but were "supposed free from constraint." Also, Windham's manual was written before the 1764 Manual Exercise, even though it was still being printed in 1774.
None of these writings give the least indication that clubbing was a signal for quarter. The writings of soldiers, however, make it clear that it was recognized as such, as in the following extract:
"At this time we saw a deserter from the enemy come out of the wood with his musket clubed and crossed the field to our army." [Journal of Jacob Nagle, sixteen-year-old soldier with Proctor's Artillery, 16 September 1777, describing events following the Battle of Brandywine; from The Nagle Journal - A Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841, J. C. Dann, ed., New York, 1988.]
We can see from this that the deserter knew how to signal his intentions. Another surrendering soldier found that these intentions were not immediately recognized:
"...we clubbed our fusees in token of surrender, and continued to advance towards them. They either did not or would not take the signal; and though there were but two of us, from whom they could not possibly expect a design to attack, they did not cease firing at us. I may venture to say, that not less than ten guns were discharged with their muzzles towards us, within the distance of forty or fifty yards; and I might be nearer the truth in saying, that some were let off within twenty. Luckily for us, it was not our rifle men to whom we were targets; and it is astonishing how even these blunt shooters could have missed us. But as we were ascending a considerable hill, they shot over us. I observed they took no aim, and that the moment of presenting and firing, was the same. As I had full leisure for reflection, and was perfectly collected, though fearful that their design was to give no quarter, I took off my hat with such a sweep of the arm as could not but be observed, without ceasing however to advance. This had the intended effect: A loud voice proceeded from the breastwork, and the firing immediately ceased." [Captain Alexander Graydon of the 3rd Pennsylvania Battalion, approaching the 42d Regiment of Foot during the Battle of Fort Washington, November 1776; in Memoirs of a Life, Chiefly passed in Pennsylvania, within the last sixty years..., Harrisburg, 1811.]
Presumably, clubbing one's firelock was expected to result in quarter, mercy, and generally civilized treatment as a prisoner of war. With the position's recent heritage as a standard part of the manual of arms, and the lineage to a means of attack, it is scarcely surprising that it didn't always work out that way. The following extracts show that clubbed arms were sometimes misconstrued, overlooked, or ignored.
"Count Pulaski with a few Horse (I have heard) attacked a party of about thirty of the Enemy's Infantry, who clubbed their firelocks as a token they were willing to Surrender but the Count (it is said) not understanding what they meant by it, & thinking I presume that they intended to knock his Horses brains out, fired his pistol at them on which imagining they were to receive no quarters they presented their firelocks, fired & routed our Small party of Horse." [Public Papers of George Clinton (Albany, 1900): Anonymous description of the Battle of Germantown, dated 5 October 1777.]
Notice that Pulaskis' troopers' interpretation of the clubbed firelocks harkens back to the historical use of the position described by Pickering. The next extract describes another experience with cavalry:
"A little distance below and east of White Plains they were overtaken by a party of British horse, seventy or eighty in number, said to belong to Colonel Delancey's corps. The horse came upon the party full speed and were in the midst of the cattle and horses before the party could move through the drove, calling out, "Surrender, you damned rebels, surrender!" Several of the party were struck down, when he (the said applicant) presented his musket to surrender. Instead of receiving it, he was struck down to the ground, his skull fractured, and cut through the bone for four inches or more and, while lying on the ground, was rode over and struck four strokes in the head and several in the body with a cutlass." [Deposition of Jonathan Nickerson, Connecticut militia, describing events in New York, 1780 or 1781; in The Revolution Remembered, J. C. Dann, ed., Chicago, 1980.]
There were hazards not only for the soldier attempting to surrender, but for the party making the capture. Cunning soldiers could take advantage of the politeness associated with 18th Century warfare to use the symbol of surrender as a ruse. The following accounts show us that such deception was used by both sides.
"I had not gone above two hundred yards, when a Highlander made his appearance in the edge of a wood. I instantly presented, as did some of those with me. The fellow clubbed his firelock and begged for quarter. I had hardly time to assure him of it, when I found him to be a decoy sent from a party of Highlanders, within fifty yards of our right. I immediately jumped forward, ordering the party to follow, taking with me the Highlander's musket, which I had, fortunately for me, deprived him of. We received in our flight the fire of this party, and sundry others through which we were obliged to run for near two miles." [Journal of Colonel Samuel J. Atlee, Pennsylvania Line, describing events at the Battle of Long Island, August 1776; in Memoirs of the Long Island Historical Society, Vol. II (1869).]
"During the battle the Americans were guilty of such a breach of all military rules, as could not fail to exasperate our soldiers. The action was chiefly in woods, interspersed with a few open fields. Two companies of grenadiers, who were stationed in the skirts of the wood, close to one of these fields, to watch that the enemy did not outflank the 24th regiment, observed a number of the Americans, to the amount of near sixty, coming across the field, with their arms clubbed, which is always considered to be a surrender as prisoners of war. The grenadiers were restrained from firing, commanded to stand with their arms, and shew no intention of hostility: when the Americans had got within ten yards, they in an instant turned round their musquets, fired upon the grenadiers, and run as fast as they could into the woods..." [Lt. Thomas Anbury, 29th Regiment of Foot, describing events at the Battle of Hubbarton, July 1777; Travels through the Interior Parts of America, T. Anbury, Boston, 1923.]
Don Hagist is a member of the 22nd Regiment of Foot, a past commander and principal researcher for that organization. He offers for sale a number of books concerning the Revolutionary War, including diaries and journals, period cookbooks, and other primary and secondary source materials. Request a complete list from: Don N. Hagist, 905 Slocum Rd., Saunderstown, RI 02874.