"Politeness","Mirth" and "Vocal Musick":
Sidelights of General John Sullivan's Indian Campaign of 1779

by John U. Rees

Many histories of the American Revolution dwell on the larger aspects of the war, dealing mainly with politics, leaders, campaigns and battles. The following anecdotes show the human side of the war, particularly regarding interaction among the soldiery, both officers and rank and file.

The first passage relates to the period when various regiments and detachments under General John Sullivan prepared for an expedition against the Iroquois in northern Pennsylvania and New York.

[Spencer's Additional] Regtl. Orders 28th June [1779]
The Comdg. Officer is under the disagreeable necessity of informing his Soldiers of that which in his Opinion their own good sence and time of Service ought long before this to have Convinc'd them of the unpropriety of...their noisy unsoldierlike conduct when in their Tents ... seems to encrease daily to such a degree as to render the situation of their Officers verry disagreeable & expose themselves to the illnatured observations of the Soldiers of Other Regiments in their passage thro' the Camp. He therefore expects that they will behave with more propriety for the future, and moderate their Mirth so as to render the situation of those whose duty Obliges them to be near not so disagreeable as it has hitherto been, he has not the least Inclination to lay them under any restrictions that will check their Mirth provided it is kept within due bounds but on the contrary would rather incourage it as far as it is consistent with good order & Military discipline.1

The desire and need of soldiers for some entertainment as a relief from their duties is understandable. Despite the formal language of the orders, the spirit of the men is evident, as is their disrespect for the army's officers. In this they were not much different from mischievous adolescents, which some soldiers were in fact.

Immediately following the above observation, under the same date, is another comment about the common soldiers' behavior towards their officers.

[The commanding officer] has for this some time past observ'd so great an inattention & want of politeness from his Soldiers in general to the Officers ... and as that line of conduct if continued will render them despicable in the eyes of every good Soldier, he expects they will alter their behaviour and never presume hereafter to pass their Officers with their Hatts on, for there needs no greater proof of a good Soldier than a respectfull & polite attention to their superiors, as an example for the line of Conduct which he must insist upon their adopting ...2

It is interesting to note the manner in which these comments were written, reflecting more the paternal advice given a wayward son than the orders of an officer to his subordinates. It seems this particular commander was erring towards the mild side of discipline; one wonders whether he was successful in this case.

The next examples illustrate one of the rare opportunities the army had for celebration. The event which set off this revelry was that "of Spain Declaring war against Great Britain and of the late generous Resolution of Congress of raising the Subsistence of Officers & soldiers of the Army." Lieutenant Samuel Shute of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment described for his colonel the festivities which took place on 25 September 1779:

... In consequence of the agreeable News Recd. by ... Yr. Express The Army Yesterday drew a Quantity of Rum and whiskey [and] One of the best Oxen for the Officers of each Brigade, And at 5 OClock P.M. the Army fired a feiw D Joy, after which the field Officers of the Army were invited to headquarters, [and] the Inferior Officers Assembled in their Respective Brigades to destroy their Rum, whiskey &c, which I sincerely believe they did, pleasing countenances were to be seen in every person, Drums beating, Fifes Playing & Vocal Musick were to be heard till after Midnight.3

The officers did most of the carousing, the private soldiers' share in the entertainment being limited to "one Gill of Whiskey" and participation in the feu de joie.4 A lieutenant in the 4th Pennsylvania noted further details of the day.

... at 5 oClock the troops was drawn up in a single line with the field Pieces on the Right the Feu De Joy began with 13 discharges of cannon and then a running fire of the Musqitry from the right to the left of the line Intermixed with Field pieces but it did not please the General and he made the musquitry fire again, afterwards the officers of each Brigade assembled and Supped together (excepting Gen. Poors) on their ox and five gallons of spirits and spent the evening very agreeable. The officers of our brigade assembled at a large bower made for that purpose Iluminated with 13 pine [k]not fires round and each officer atended with his bread knife and plate and set on the ground Genl. Hand at the head & Col. Proctor at the foot as his officers suped with us in this manner we suped very hearty and then went to drinking our spirits, and the following toasts were given by Genl. Hand [beginning with] The 13 Sisters and their sponsors ... [and ending with the sentiment] May the Enemies of America be Metamorphised in Pack horses and sent on a Western Expedition - afterwards there was two or three Indian Dances led down by Genl. Hand and performed by the rest midling well then each officer returned to their Qrs. ...5

So much for the dignified composure of the army's commanders.

Officers, drinking, and dancing seem to have been a minor theme throughout the war. Lieutenant Shute's journal entry recording the 25 September celebration noted "the greatest sociability & mirth Buck & Indian dances throughout the camp." He recorded a less spectacular instance on 23 July 1779. "We marched to Shawney flatts (near Wyoming, Pennsylvania), got a little dinner, took a sociable buck dance, then proceeded to the falls ... At 8.P.M. took a bite of beef & bread a drink of grog and retired to rest. Colo. [William] DeHart, Genl. Hand & myself slept together in the open air, but with a canteen of spirits at our head." At West Point the following year a private in the 15th Massachusetts Regiment noted matter-of-factly, "Cloudy Rany wether / the sargeants Drawd swords ... the oficers are Drunk and Dancing on the table ... September storm / A remarkable site of Black Birds." Both officers and birds must indeed have been a "remarkable site."6

Recognizing that history revolves around ordinary humans with all their foibles and idiosyncracies, not merely dates and dry facts, makes it all the more interesting. Besides which, including a bit of humanity and humor in any undertaking, whether academic or otherwise, is hardly out of place and contributes to a greater understanding of times past than some would like to admit.

  1. General orders, 28 June 1779, Orderly book of Col. Oliver Spencer's Regt., June 1779 - 24 July 1779, Early American Orderly Books, 1748-1817, Collections of the New York Historical Society, microfilm edition (Woodbridge, N.J., 1977), reel 7, item 86.
  2. General orders, 28 June 1779, ibid.. For some insight into the problem of authority and discipline in the Continental Army see, Charles Patrick Neimeyer, America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army (New York and London, 1996).
  3. Samuel Shute to Israel Shreve, from "Camp Fort Reed", 26 September 1779, Israel Shreve Papers, Buxton Collection, Prescott Memorial Library, Louisiana Tech University.
  4. Journal of Lieutenant William McKendry, 6th Massachusetts Regiment, 25 September 1779, Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan Against the Six Nations of Indians in 1779 (Glendale, N.Y., 1970), p. 207.
  5. Journal of Lieutenant Erkuries Beatty, 4th Pennsylvania Regiment, 25 September 1779, ibid., p. 34.
  6. Journal of Lieutenant Samuel Shute, 2nd New Jersey Regiment, 23 July, 25 September 1779, ibid., pp. 268-269, 273. 2 September 1780 entry, Journal of Nahum Parker, six months service in the 15th Massachusetts Regiment, July-December 1780, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty - Land - Warrant Application Files, National Archives Microfilm Publication M804, reel 1874.

Copyright © 1999 John U. Rees. All rights reserved.