Thompson's Rifle Battalion

David L. Valuska, Ph.D., Von Heers Provost Corps, "Marechausse"

This is the second article in a series dealing with the Pennsylvania Germans and the American War for Independence.

In that critical period of 1774-1775 Pennsylvania found itself in a predicament unlike her sister colonies, she did not have an active militia system. As a result of the Quaker legacy the colony, and later commonwealth, did not have legislation to provide for troops to serve in the approaching resistance to their perceived British tyranny. There was no method available to impose mandatory service on the eligible male inhabitants. To answer the immediate needs Pennsylvania called upon the tried and tested method of calling for companies of Associatiors.

These voluntary associations were a banding of citizens, for the common defense, acknowledged by the government, but in no way subsidized by the government. Benjamin Franklin drafted the first Articles of Association and it called for a company of 50 to 100 men each company electing their own officers consisting of: a captain, lieutenant and an ensign. The companies from each county were to form a regiment which was to elect their own colonel, lieutenant colonel and major. Each soldier was to supply himself with a firelock (flintlock), cartouche box (cartridge box) and a minimum of 12 rounds of powder and ball, and if you could afford it, a good sword or cutlass. If you were going to join a rifle company the cost was even higher as every officer and every private in a rifle company was required to have a good long rifle, powder horn, charger, bullet screw, twelve flints, pouch to hold four pounds of ball or a "possibles" bag, knife and other accoutrements needed by the rifleman. A cost of about 20 to 30 English pounds, and one that kept many from joining the musket companies of the Associators and even more so the rifle companies.

The Associator companies were community based, and as a result the companies reflected the ethnic make-up of that locality. From 1770 to 1775 there were nearly 85,000 German immigrants settling primarily in the colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, with the greatest population density in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. German immigrants tended to settle in ethnic communities centering around the church. It is not surprising that many of the Pennsylvania Associator companies had a high percentage of Pennsylvania Germans in their ranks.

Throughout the Colony of Pennsylvania there was a reaction to Parliamentary and Crown policies, and as a result many communities began organizing volunteer military units. On June 14, 1775 (two days before the battle at Bunker/ Breed's Hill and a day before the appointment of George Washington as Commander-in-Chief, Continental Congress passed a resolution authorizing the raising of six companies of riflemen in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland and two in Virginia .. By a resolution dated June 22, 1775, the Colony of Pennsylvania was authorized to raise two more companies and with the original six form a rifle battalion. On July 11, 1775 Congress was informed that Lancaster County had exceeded their allotment and had raised two companies instead of one, and accordingly Congress resolved that all nine companies form a battalion and be taken into Continental service. The men enlisting had to sign the following oath "I have this day voluntarily enlisted myself as a soldier in the American Continental Army for one year, unless sooner discharged, and do bind myself to conform in all instances to such rules and regulations as are or shall be established for the government of said army."

Each company was to consist of one captain, three lieutenants, four sergeants, four corporals, a drummer, or trumpeter, and sixty eight privates. Over one third of the company commanders were Pennsylvania German and Pennsylvania German soldiers could be found in all the companies. The companies of Captain George Nagle of Berks County, Captain James Ross of Lancaster County, and Captain Abraham Miller of Northampton County had nearly 100% Pennsylvania Dutch., while the companies of Captain John Lowdon of Northumberland County and Captain Michael Doudel of York (Adams) County had a high percentage of Pennsylvania Germans.

The remaining companies commanded by Captain James Chambers of Cumberland County (now Franklin), Captain William Hendricks of Cumberland County, Captain Matthew Smith of Lancaster (now Dauphin) County and Captain Robert Cluggage of Bedford County all had some Pennsylvania Dutch in their ranks. The two Maryland companies were commanded by Thomas Price and Thomas Cresap and they contained a high percentage of Germans.. The Virginia companies were commanded by Captain Ericson and Captain Daniel Morgan., and they too were composed of a high percentage of Germans. The rifle companies were formed into a battalion commanded by Colonel William Thompson.

By June/July of 1775, the companies of Colonel Thompson's battalion began marching towards Massachusetts to assist their fellow compatriots. The companies did not march as a battalion, but each company marched independent of the others as they hurried to Cambridge. Most Pennsylvania companies passed through Bethlehem, PA where they were hosted by the German religious community of Moravians. The various accounts of the routes taken by the rifle companies are sketchy, but enough exists to give some idea of their route of march, and it is important to note that only thirty-four days after Congress had authorized the battalion they had formed and were in camp around Cambridge, MA.

The following is a brief description of the rifle battalion as recorded by Dr. James Thatcher in his MILITARY JOURNAL OF THE REVOLUTION:

"They are remarkably stout and hardy men; many of them exceeding six feet in height. They are dressed in white frocks or rifle shirts and round hats. These men are remarkable for the accuracy of their aim; striking a mark with great certainty at two hundred yards distance."

The battalion carried a deep green flag with a crimson square in the center, containing the image of a tiger ensnared in a net engaged in battle against a hunter clad in white and holding a spear striking at the tiger. The motto on the flag was "DOMARI NOLO" (I refuse to be subjugated).

The service of Thompson's Rifle Battalion was a mixed record of duty and misconduct. They were camped on Prospect Hill and saw limited action against the English. One company from York County was engaged in a mutinous action rebelling against punishment being meted out to their comrades, the mutiny was suppressed and the mutineers were fined for their actions. Two of the companies (Hendricks and Smith) marched north to Canada with Benedict Arnold, and the remainder stayed in and around Cambridge.

On March 11, 1776 the battalion received orders to march to New York and here many re-enlisted into Continental service. On July1, 1776 the unit was officially designated The First Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Line. The newly designated regiment was to be heavily tested at the Battle of Long Island which we will discuss in a later episode.

Copyright © 2006 David L. Valuska. All rights reserved.