Spare a Thought for Veterans of the American Revolution

Detail of The March to Valley Forge by William Trego, 1883 (Wikimedia)
Many didn’t get paid, and the new United States took them for granted.

Another Veterans Day has come and gone. I wonder if just one day is really enough. Between the Revolutionary War and the First Gulf War, nearly 42 million Americans have served during combat, and nearly 700,000 lost their lives in combat. Each war was unique, as were the hardships that soldiers faced in each one.

While we often overlook it these days, the Revolutionary War was a very hard conflict for the soldiers. And the brave souls who were the first to fight for our nation deserve a special remembrance.

There have been only three American wars in which the major field of combat was on United States soil: the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Fortunately for the United States, most of the victories in the War of 1812 were defensive, so the casualties and damage from that conflict were relatively limited, with less than 1 percent of soldiers dying in combat. We all know that the Civil War was a brutal conflict, in no small part because military tactics had not yet caught up to military technology. As a consequence, more than 6 percent of Union soldiers (about 100,00) and almost as many Confederate soldiers were killed in combat, and a great many more than that died of disease, starvation, dysentery, heat stroke, and other battle-related causes. Historians estimate that the death total was more than 625,000.

The Revolutionary War, while not nearly as deadly as the Civil War, was still vicious. Two percent of American soldiers were killed in combat, a greater percentage than in World War I, World War II, Korea, or Vietnam.

There were other unique hardships during the Revolutionary War. Because the conflict was fought on the North American continent, the civilian population suffered enormously, especially in the South. Both Charleston and Savannah were held under siege, and some of the most brutal battles occurred in North Carolina and Virginia. The turncoat Benedict Arnold raided Richmond in January 1781, which prompted Thomas Jefferson, then the governor, to flee (a decision that haunted his political career thereafter).

Moreover, the country did not have the means to properly equip soldiers, and it certainly lacked a central government capable of carrying out such a task. Supplies were always hard to come by, and pay for soldiers was often not forthcoming. One can see this strikingly in The March to Valley Forge, by William Trego. At first glance, your eye will be drawn to George Washington — undaunted and resolute. But take a closer look at the soldiers. They are limping, wounded, and, worst of all, underdressed.

The failure of the government to take care of its soldiers is a main reason that Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison were all such staunch nationalists after the war was over. They had seen how incapable the government was and knew that if this experiment in self-government was to endure, a stronger central authority had to be established. The first victims of government incompetence were the soldiers.

The first victims of government incompetence were the soldiers.

But this was not the final indignity that the Revolutionary War veterans had to suffer. After the war, the national government did not have the cash to pay the troops, because it lacked the power to tax. It was dependent on requisitions from the states, which were not forthcoming. The soldiers were therefore paid in debt certificates, commonly known as Pierce Notes. The problem was that nobody really believed that the government would ever actually pay back the Pierce Notes in hard currency. Lacking a taxing power, how could it? So veterans, desperately in need of cash, began selling their certificates in 1784. This created a glut of certificates, which drove the value down to less than 20 cents on the dollar, and the certificates tended to migrate into the hands of a relatively small number of eastern speculators.

Fast forward to 1790. The new Constitution was established, the government had implemented a national tax, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was ready to make provisions for repayment of the national debt. Who was to benefit? Not the soldiers who had sold their certificates, at least not under Hamilton’s scheme. Instead, most of the bounty went to the speculators who had bought the certificates and now stood to reap a windfall profit.

Madison, who had not served in combat, was outraged by this. It was the first moment he and Hamilton really broke on an important matter of public policy. He proposed to split the repayment equally between the speculators and the veterans. Unfortunately, this was totally impractical — the government lacked the resources to figure out who should be paid what. Moreover, imposing such a massive haircut on public creditors would have had extremely bad effects on the economy.

Madison’s proposal went down to a lopsided defeat, and rightly so. But the fact remains that the Revolutionary War veterans never got the support they deserved. Forget about the Veterans Affairs Administration — that did not exist. Forget about the kinds of pensions that the Civil War veterans enjoyed — they reaped no such bounty. In fact, the Revolutionary War veterans did not even get paid the salary they were promised. Granted, some of them were taken care of by their states, including with generous options on land in the West. But compared with today’s veterans, Revolutionary War veterans were simply taken for granted.

While there are many veterans to think of during Veterans Day remembrances, I like to spare a thought for the Revolutionary War veterans, who, as Madison put it, suffered a “singular hardship” that “can never be forgotten.”


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