Life in the Rebel Camp During the American Revolutionary War

Morristown, New Jersey military camp

Contrary to general belief, the term ‘rebel’ was not used solely when referring to Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War. It was first commonly applied to Americans who fought for independence from Great Britain during the American Revolutionary War. The British often referred to the rebellious rabble that formed a new government and army to defend itself as rebels.

In 1775, military decorum and assigned duties within the ‘rebel’ units gradually improved from a collection of militia farmers and yeomen to the beginnings of a coordinated and effective fighting force.  Officers of the Continental Army, former merchants, planters, lawyers, farmers, and legislatures realized the need for organized camp life. If a regiment learned to adhere to a strict routine of duties while in camp, then field and armament drills in preparation for battle would be a natural spinoff.  Discipline, routine, and respect for the pecking order of command were the ingredients that over time, would mold a country’s citizenry into an army of resistance.

Therefore the soldier’s life was not allowed to be passed in idleness.  Uniforms and arms required daily attention before the hour for parade, and the endless duties connected with cooking, obtaining fuel, and caring for the camp provided endless work for all.  Day in camp began at sunrise with the beating of the reveille, or earlier when some important movement was to be executed.  Not infrequently, the exact moment of dawn was unknown and the tired men were called from their bunks in the dark.  Day was said to have begun when a sentry could see clearly a thousand yards around him “and not before.” [1]

Farmers’ sons who were unaccustomed to shaving frequently, were routinely ordered to shave in the evening that they might be ready for parade in the morning.  Canteens were to be filled at night whenever there was reason to expect an early departure from camp or an attack.[2]     Early in the war there were few uniforms in the Continental army.  No matter, men were ordered to brush their clothes and rags as a constant regard for personal appearance.

Camp was not devoted wholly to drill, picket duty or cooking.  Many more needs kept the soldiers’ busy: cutting wood, building fires, repairing huts, cleaning arms, waiting upon officers (discontinued by general orders at Valley Forge), digging new necessaries (outhouses), tramping a road through the brush to facilitate the hauling of firewood, serving in the grass guard to watch and protect the horses while feeding, or making cartridges.[3]

To the American soldier, the construction of earthworks whenever the army moved became a never ending chore.  Temporary field-works were not in favor in Europe.  They were held to be unmilitary and to foster cowardice.  But the defenses thrown up at Bunker Hill in one night proved effective in checking the British advance.  The firelock behind loose earth weighed heavily against disciplined troops, and the lesson once learned, the Continental army entered more and more into the construction of such works.

The lines were first marked on the ground in angular forms.  The gabions (stakes interwoven with twisted bundles of switches, like baskets without bottoms) were set on the lines, three or four deep, and earth dug up alongside was thrown in.  Fascines (bundles of sticks or switches about six feet long) were held in place by stakes, four feet long, driven down through them.  More fascines were laid on top of the gabions and the whole was then covered with earth and sod.  In the space between the foot of the outer slope and the ditch or fosse, wooden pickets were frequently planted.  This was the case at Bunker Hill.  Redoubts (larger – flattened and reinforced fortifications normally to house cannon) sometimes had as additional works half-moon structures or trances.  Farmers accustomed to handle the spade soon grew experienced in this form of labor.[4]

In the expedition to Crown Point under General Arnold, all hands were divided into squads and employed in necessary duties.  Some baked bread, some went in search of game, others were sent out to fish the many streams and Lake Champlain.  Others were detached to cut logs to provide timber to construct huts and reinforce mounted cannon.


Continental camp

A soldier would steal time whenever he could to forage for food.  Though the daily and weekly supply of food to a company of troops was well laid out, it was rare that the soldier saw even a small share of what was supposed to be provided.  Joseph Plumb Martin tells of the trepidations one may come across when coming across what at first seemed good luck:  “Being pinched with hunger, I one day strolled to a place, where sometime before, some cattle had been slaughtered; here I had the good luck (or rather bad luck, as it turned out in the end) to find an ox’s milt, which had escaped the hogs and dogs.  With this prize, I steered off to my tent, threw it upon the fire and broiled it, and then sat down to eat it, without either bread or salt.  I had not had it long in my stomach before it began to make strong remonstrance and to manifest a great inclination to be set at liberty again.”[5]

A diet of root crops or crushed corn gathered from local fields as they passed while heading to guard duty or between encampments became what could be called a staple diet.  Time was also spent bartering with the locals.  “…we began to think about cooking some of our fat beef; one of the men proposed to the landlady to sell her a shirt for some sauce; she very readily took the shirt, which was worth a dollar at least…”[6]  Many soldiers would use what small leisure time allowed to hire themselves out to local farmers in exchange for food.  “One day, after roll-call, one of my messmates with me, sat off upon a little jaunt into the country to get some sauce of some kind or other.  We soon came to a field of English turnips; but the owner was there, and we could not get any of them without paying for them in some way or other.  We soon agreed with the man to pull and cut off the tops of the turnips at the halves, until we got as many as we needed…”[7]  Much of the soldier’s time was involved in guard and sentry duty; however that will be discussed in another article.

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Bancroft, George.  History of the American Revolution, Volume II.  1852:  Richard Bentley, London, UK.

Bolton, Charles Knowles.  The Private Soldier Under Washington.  1902:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY.

Ford, Worthington, Chauncey.  Correspondence and Journals of Samuel Blachley Webb Vol. 4 New York: Wickersham Press, 1893

Henshaw, William – Notes by Charles Smith.  The Orderly Book of Colonel William Henshaw of the American Army April 20 – Sept. 26, 1775.  1877:  Press of John Wilson & Son, Boston, MA.


[1]  Henshaw, pg. 53

[2]  Ford, Vol. 4 pg. 219

[3]  Bolton, pg. 152

[4]  Ibid. pg. 153

[5]  Martin, pg. 65

[6]  Ibid, pg. 91

[7]  Ibid, pg. 46

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