When the Wild West came to Boston

American rifleman, circa 1780

A circa 1780 depiction of an American rifleman, an example of some of the images created in England to satisfy British curiosity about American soldiers and the war in America. From the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

In the days and weeks following the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the British forces in Boston found themselves under siege.  The town was quickly surrounded by thousands of local militiamen who had come from numerous villages in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. As the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in May, it struggled to find a way to create an effective army from this mass of inexperienced civilians.  The delegates also were aware that to mount a truly unified response to the British military it would be necessary to include soldiers from all of the colonies, especially from the south.

Accordingly, on June 14 Congress voted to raise ten companies of riflemen from western Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.  So impatient were they to join the fight, Captain Daniel Morgan’s Virginia riflemen traveled 600 miles in only three weeks to join George Washington and his fledgling army surrounding Boston.  In all, about 1,400 riflemen answered the call to volunteer – far more than the 840 men authorized by the Congress! The local New Englanders were astonished when these frontiersmen began arriving, wearing strange clothing and carrying even stranger weapons.  These “Shirtmen” – so called because of their long, fringed hunting shirts made of canvas – were armed with rifles instead of the more usual smoothbore fowlers or muskets carried by most farmers from the northeastern colonies.

The rifled gun was largely unknown in New England in 1775, and these western frontiersmen and their guns quickly became objects of curiosity to the local “Yankees.”  Both John Adams of Massachusetts and Silas Dean of Connecticut wrote to their wives trying to describe these rather wild, exotic men, their dress, and their long-barreled rifles.  Deane wrote that their dress was “hard to describe,” and he was impressed by the tomahawks they carried.  Some of these rifle units apparently put on shooting demonstrations and shows involving dressing up like Indians whenever they passed through sizeable towns.  It soon became apparent that despite its amazing accuracy, the rifle, which was basically a civilian hunting gun, was not as effective as the musket in battle.  Because they took a relatively long time to reload and were not fixed with a bayonet, rifles would prove to be of limited value as infantry weapons given the military tactics of the 18th century.

Nevertheless, the presence of these oddly garbed sharpshooters created much fear and anxiety among the British and German soldiers in Boston who soon learned not to expose themselves carelessly.  The officer corps became especially wary of snipers who were on the lookout for shiny gorgets or fancy uniforms.  According to the Virginia Gazette, by October 1775 British General Gage had instructed his officers to dress as “common soldiers” to avoid attracting sniper fire.  One American noted that the German troops had become so wary that nothing was to be seen from their lines but an occasional hat.  Although the riflemen initially amazed the men from New England with their expert marksmanship, they quickly became a disciplinary problem for George Washington because of their unruly behavior and overly independent attitude.  Not used to siege warfare and with few duties to occupy their time, the bored frontiersmen were the most troublesome units in the army, even starting a brief mutiny in September 1775.  One Loyalist noted that these men “were under no restraint. … and did almost intirely as they pleased in every respect whatever.”

Eventually the Continental Army learned how to make the greatest use of these unruly frontiersmen, who were effective in special operations like scouting and skirmishing.  Daniel Morgan’s rifle corps played a key role in the Saratoga Campaign of 1777.  Although they were slower to accept the need for rifle units, by the end of the Revolution every British battalion had a rifle company.

Learn about the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, opening in late 2016.


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