Historians Michael McDonnell and Michael Blaakman discuss the increasingly generous incentives the Continental Army offered colonists to get them to fight for the Patriots during the Revolutionary War.
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ED: Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Ed Ayers.
JOANNE: I’m Joanne Freeman.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Each week on podcast, Ed, Joanne, our colleague Nathan Connolly, and yours truly explore the history of a topic that’s been in the news. This week we’re marking Memorial Day, our national holiday that honors those who’ve died while serving in the military. So today, we’re going to look at some of the reasons people have enlisted in the US armed forces.
Let’s go back to the winter of 1781, that was the middle of the Revolutionary War. The conflict was in its sixth year, and things didn’t look good for the patriot cause. British troops had invaded Virginia, and burned Richmond. Historian Michael McDonnell says that by this point, Patriots struggled to find colonists who were willing to enlist, or even to keep fighting.
MICHAEL MCDONNELL: There Is a real problem of morale. So even as the British were invading, in some places in the state, people were rioting against their own local officials, and saying, we’ve had enough.
BRIAN: Virginia and other states tried to enforce conscription, but as the war ground on, McDonnell says, many colonists simply refused. Thousands of young men had already either served their time in the Continental Army, or had fought with local militias against the British.
MICHAEL MCDONNELL: There were many, many people who were, by this point, tired of the demands of the war. The initial flush of enthusiasm had worn off. And of course for a lot of people, who would have been just as happy to have stayed within the British Empire. Increasingly, during the war years, and it really comes to a head in Virginia. Particularly in the midst of the British invasion, there were uprisings, riots, rebellions in counties, in places like Virginia and elsewhere against conscription.
MICHAEL BLAAKMAN: The enlistment has become really a massive problem.
BRIAN: This is historian Michael Blaakman, he says state governments and the Continental Congress scramble to find a solution. They began to roll out more enticing incentives to attract soldiers.
MICHAEL BLAAKMAN: Whether it’s offering people higher pay, some states start thinking about offering slaves as forms of payment.
BRIAN: Blaakman says the Continental Army’s regular inducements, money, food, and shelter, just weren’t enough.
MICHAEL BLAAKMAN: These governments are terribly short on all kinds of material. They’re short on munitions, they’re short on uniforms, they’re super short on money, but land seems abundant, land seems almost infinite.
ED: Yeah, you heard that right– land. States and Congress began to hand out land bounties. These were essentially IOUs that offered soldiers parcels of land in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio, in exchange for military service. Of course, this land wasn’t vacant. It had been occupied for millennia by American Indians. Blaakman says the founders had been planning to seize this territory from those native populations anyway, and these bounties served multiple purposes.
MICHAEL BLAAKMAN: A land bounty system promises to, after the war, plant a bunch of battle hardened veterans on the frontier, right? They’ll bring their families with them, they’ll set up farms and build houses. And in doing so, they will assert US claims to these regions that are still heavily contested between the United States and native peoples, whose homelands these are.
ED: Blaakman says these land grants served another purpose, they kept the colonists from switching sides to the British, and that was a real threat.
MICHAEL BLAAKMAN: Loyalty during the American Revolution was paper thin. I mean you had people who might switch sides, from patriot to loyalist numerous times throughout the war, based on shifting momentum, based on their own personal circumstances. So one of the things that a land bounty does, is it binds a soldier’s loyalty to the patriot cause. It says, yeah, we’ll pay you with this promise to get land, but you only get that land if we win.
ED: Now as we all know, the patriots did win. But most of the promises of free land were broken. After the war, speculators bought up many of the land bounties from soldiers who needed cash. So, that hoped-for class of landholding veterans on the frontier never materialized. The land bounties didn’t even solve the Continental Army’s enlistment problems. Historian Michael McDonnell says that no one incentive would be adequate to attract enough soldiers to the patriot cause. And yet, over the course of the war, enough men found enough reasons to keep on fighting.
MICHAEL MCDONNELL: Often, economic reasons, often because the army or the armed services promises the kind of a future for people who may not be sure about what they want to do. And of course is patriotism always. And we often see that at the beginning of wars, that there’s a flush of enthusiasm and patriotism. And then as wars grind on, and become bloodier, and become a little bit more complicated, and there’s a lot more light shown on the issues around the war, then there’s a backlash. And there’s a rethinking of why and how people would get involved.
ED: The American Revolution is often portrayed as a straightforward conflict between American patriots and colonists loyal to the British. But McDonnell’s research presents a much more complicated picture, one in which soldiers had multiple motives for enlisting. That makes sense, the choice for citizens to serve, and possibly die for their country, is often the most consequential decision that one can make.
JOANNE: So today on the show, we’re looking at the history of military enlistment. Focusing on the reasons individual men and women sign up. We’ll hear why young American men join militias, rather than the US Army in the 18th and early 19th century.
NATHAN CONNOLLY: We’ll also learn why the American military actively recruited Filipino soldiers to serve in the American Navy. And we’ll hear from our listeners about why they chose to enlist.