The army of the American colonies, of which George Washington had recently assumed command, was pathetic. The soldiers, for the most part, were armed with their own weapons and were without uniforms. They were ill prepared for the harsh realities of the winter of 1775-76. It was not unusual for sentries to freeze to death at their posts.
Most of the recruits at that time were from New England. Benjamin Thompson described those that came from there as “the most wretchedly clothed, and as dirty a set of mortals as ever disgraced the name of soldier. They would rather let their clothes rot upon their backs than be at the trouble of cleaning ‘em themselves.” This might have been attributed to the fact that most of the men considered washing clothes to be women’s work and refused to lower themselves to do it. One soldier recorded seeing a dead body so covered with lice that it was thought the lice alone had killed the man.
The men, for the most part, had no tents and devised shelter from the snow and cold using whatever they could scrounge. A clergyman described their various abodes: “Some are made of boards, some of sailcloth, and some partly of one and partly of the other. Others are made of stone and turf, and others again of brick and others of brush. Some are thrown up in a hurry and look as if they could not help it—mere necessity—others are curiously wrought with doors and windows.”
Some officers were appalled at the soldiers’ drunken carousing and the foul language. It was, however, an army of men accustomed to hard work. They were used to adversity and were adroit at using whatever was at hand to accomplish a task. Many had no trades and were drifters, the dregs of society. “But by and large they were good solid citizens—as worthy people as ever marched out of step.”
Keeping an army together was a daunting task. Money was scarce and the men were seldom paid on time. Many deserted. Others took leave to go home to see wives and children and to take care of the farm. They would come straggling back into camp when it suited them. “It was not that they had no heart for soldiering, or were wanting in spirit. They simply had little experience with other people telling them what to do every hour of the day. Having volunteered to fight, they failed to see the sense in a lot of fuss over rules and regulations.”
This ragtag army of the American colonies (it didn’t really have a name yet) had bottled up the British that winter in Boston--they fared only slightly better. British deserters would cross the lines at night half starved and disgruntled. Disease was rampant in their ranks. It was thought by some Americans that the British were sending their sick across the lines in order to infect the colonists with the smallpox, scurvy and other diseases that raged within their ranks.
Fortunately for the Americans the British did not know how desperate the colonists’ situation really was. Gunpowder was so scarce in Washington’s army that spears were issued to the men in the front lines in order to repel any attack that might materialize. They even dispensed with the morning ritual of firing off a gun. Wood was so scarce that many a meal was consumed without cooking it.
Christmas among the troops that winter was just like any other day. The men spent the day building earthen breastworks in order to ward off any attempt by the British to leave Boston by land.
So, if you were George Washington, how would you keep it all together in the face of such overwhelming odds? One way was to look and to act the part of a great leader. “A strapping man of commanding presence, Washington stood six feet two inches tall and weighed perhaps 190 pounds. His hair was reddish brown, his eyes gray-blue, and the bridge of his prominent nose unusually wide. He carried himself like a soldier and sat a horse like the perfect Virginia gentleman. It was the look and bearing of a man accustomed to respect and to being obeyed.”
On one occasion a snowball fight broke out among the soldiers that rapidly deteriorated into “biting and gouging… with as much apparent fury as the most deadly enmity could create.” Soon more than a thousand men had joined in the furious brawl. Then Washington arrived:
“I only saw him and his colored servant, both mounted. With the spring of a deer, he leaped from his saddle, threw the reins of his bridle into the hands of his servant, and rushed into the thickest of the melee, with an iron grip seized two tall, brawny, athletic, savage-looking riflemen by the throat, keeping them at arm’s length, alternating shaking and talking to them.
“Seeing this, the others took flight at the top of their speed in all directions from the scene of the conflict. The whole row, from start to finish, lasted all of fifteen minutes and nothing more came of it.”
Although Washington was always outwardly optimistic, he sometimes expressed his exasperation in writing to his closest friends—but he never gave up. He held the line that Christmas against the mightiest military force on earth at the time. Because he did so, we have the privilege of enjoying this Christmas season basking in the light of liberty and freedom.
Nathaniel Greene wrote “America must raise an empire of permanent duration, supported upon the grand pillars of Truth, Freedom, and Religion, encouraged by the smiles of Justice and defended by her own patriotic sons…”
Because Washington held firm that Christmas, this great nation was born and has withstood the harsh winters of opposition and adversity ever since. May it ever be so...
(Source: “1776” by David McCullough)