American Life During the Revolution

Colonial Armed Forces

At the start of the Revolutionary War, the 13 colonies lacked a professional army, relying on locally sponsored militias.

Learning Objectives

Examine the evolution of the colonial armed forces

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Minutemen were teams of mostly younger militia men that formed a highly mobile, rapidly deployable force, allowing the colonies to respond immediately to war threats.
  • The Continental Congress established a regular army on June 14, 1775, and appointed George Washington as its commander-in-chief.
  • The Continental Army regulars received European-style military training later in the American Revolutionary War, whereas most militias lacked training and discipline. Nevertheless, their numbers were effective in overwhelming smaller British forces.

Key Terms

  • minutemen: Members of teams of mostly younger militia men that formed a highly mobile, rapidly deployable force, allowing the colonies to respond immediately to war threats during the American Revolutionary War.
  • Continental Army: Formed by the colonies after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War; George Washington served as commander-in-chief.
  • militia: An army of trained civilians, which may be an official reserve army, called upon in time of need; the national police force of a country; the entire able-bodied population of a state; or a private force, not under government control.

The Development of the Continental Army

When the Revolutionary War began, the 13 colonies lacked a professional army or navy. Each colony sponsored a local militia. Militiamen were lightly armed, had little training, and usually did not have uniforms. Their units served for only a few weeks or months at a time, were reluctant to travel far from home, and thus were unavailable for extended operations. Furthermore, they lacked the training and discipline of soldiers with more experience.

Seeking to coordinate military efforts, the Continental Congress established a regular army on June 14, 1775, and appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief. On July 18, 1774, Congress requested that all colonies form militias of able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 50. Due to the lack of requirements for parental consent in many colonies, it was not uncommon for men younger than 16 to enlist. Soldiers in the Continental Army were unpaid volunteers and enlistment periods varied from one to three years. Typically, enlistment periods were shorter during the beginning of the Revolutionary War due to the Continental Congress’ fear of the Continental Army evolving into a permanent standing army. Yet over time, as turnover increased, longer enlistments were approved.

The development of the Continental Army was always a work in progress, and Washington used both his regulars and state militia throughout the war. Sometimes militias operated independently of the Continental Army, but for the most part, they were used to augment and support the army regulars during campaigns. Approximately 250,000 men served as regulars or as militiamen for the revolutionary cause in the eight years of the war, but there were never more than 90,000 men under arms at one time.


George Washington, by Rembrandt Peale, ca. 1850: Portrait of General George Washington, who was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army on June 15, 1775.

Minutemen were members of teams of select men from the American colonial partisan militia during the American Revolutionary War. They provided a highly mobile, rapidly deployed force that allowed the colonies to respond immediately to war threats, hence the name. The minutemen constituted about a quarter of the entire militia.


Minutemen: The Battle of Lexington, April 19th, 1775. Blue-coated militiamen in the foreground flee from the volley of gunshots from the red-coated British Army line in the background. These American militias were an important supplement to the Continental Army.

The success of minutemen at Lexington and Concord is offset by the long history of failures of the colonial militia. George Washington is well-known for his scathing opinion of the shortcomings of militia forces. However, the minuteman model for militia mobilization, married with a very professional, small standing army, was the primary model for the land forces of the United States up until 1916 when the National Guard was established.

Equipment, Training, and Tactics

Most colonial militia units were not provided weapons or uniforms and were required to equip themselves. Many simply wore their own farmer's or workman's clothes, and in some cases, they wore cloth hunting frocks. Most used fowling pieces, though rifles were sometimes used where available. Neither fowling pieces nor rifles had bayonets. Ammunition and supplies were scarce and were constantly being seized by British patrols. As a precaution, these items were often hidden or left behind by minutemen in fields, wooded areas, or private residences. Some colonies purchased muskets, cartridge boxes, and bayonets from England, and maintained armories within the colony.

The Continental Army was troubled by poor logistics, inadequate training, short enlistments, interstate rivalries, and Congress’s inability to compel the states to finance or equip its troops with food and supplies. Through its many trials and errors, army leadership was crucial to preserving unity and discipline throughout the war. In the winter of 1777–1778, with the addition of Prussian Baron von Steuben, army regulars began to receive European-style military training, which vastly improved training and discipline. Members of the militias, however, were not included in this new mode of training. Rather than fight formal battles in the traditional dense lines and columns, militiamen proved a better resource when used as irregulars, primarily as skirmishers and sharpshooters.

Their experience suited irregular warfare. Most were familiar with frontier hunting. The Indian Wars, and especially the recent French and Indian War, had taught both the men and officers the value of irregular warfare, while many English troops fresh from Europe were less familiar with this type of combat. The long rifle was also well suited to this role. The rifling (grooves inside the barrel) gave it a much greater range than the smooth-bore musket, although it took much longer to load. Because of the lower rate of fire, rifles were not used by regular infantry, but were preferred for hunting. When performing as skirmishers, the militia could fire and fall back behind cover or other troops before the British could get into range. The wilderness terrain that lay just beyond many colonial towns, very familiar to the local minuteman, favored this style of combat. In time, however, loyalists like John Butler and Robert Rogers mustered equally capable irregular forces. In addition, many British commanders learned from experience and effectively modified their light infantry tactics and battle dress to suit conditions in North America.

Through the remainder of the revolution, militias moved to adopt the minuteman model for rapid mobilization. With this rapid mustering of forces, the militia proved its value by augmenting the Continental Army on a temporary basis. This was seen at the Battles of Hubbardton and Bennington in the north and at Camden and Cowpens in the south.


Continental Army: This illustration depicts uniforms and weapons used during a period (1779–1783) of the American Revolution. These soldiers would have been a part of the Continental Army rather than militiamen.


Smallpox broke out in army camps in 1775, during an epidemic that lasted for most of the war.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the impact of the smallpox epidemic during the American Revolution

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Between 1775 and 1782, as the Revolutionary War raged on, smallpox spread across most of the North American continent.
  • By 1775, smallpox was ravaging British-occupied Boston, affecting both Continental and British camps.
  • The epidemic spread deep into the South, Mexico, and west, ravaging Native American tribes.
  • By its end, the smallpox epidemic had reached as far west as the Pacific Coast and as far north as Alaska, infecting virtually all of the vast continent of North America and killing an estimated 145,000 people.

Key Terms

  • smallpox: A fatal, infectious disease that causes fever, a rash, and often death.
  • North American smallpox epidemic: The rapid spread of smallpox that took place between 1775 and 1782, infecting virtually all of North America and killing an estimated 145,000 people.

The North American smallpox epidemic of 1775–1782, when the fatal infectious disease spread across the continent, coincided with the American Revolutionary War. It is not known how or where the outbreak began, but by 1775, it was raging through British-occupied Boston. During Washington's siege of the city, the disease broke out among both Continental and British camps. At the same time, smallpox was also rampant in the Continental Armies that had invaded Canada.


16th-century smallpox: This 16th-century Aztec drawing depicts smallpox victims. A new epidemic of smallpox would ravage North America during the Revolutionary War.

The epidemic was not limited to the colonies on the Eastern seaboard, nor to the areas affected by hostilities. The outbreak spread deep into the South; many escaped slaves who had fled to the British lines in the South contracted the virus and died. From 1778 to 1779, New Orleans was hit especially hard due to its densely populated urban areas. By 1779, the disease had spread to Mexico, where it would cause the deaths of tens of thousands.

The epidemic then spread through the Great Plains, likely due to the travels of the Shoshone Indian tribes. By 1780, it had reached the Pueblos of the territory comprising present-day New Mexico. It also showed up in the interior trading posts of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1782. It is estimated to have killed nearly 11,000 Native Americans in the western lands of present-day Washington, reducing the population from 37,000 to 26,000 in just seven years.

By its end, the smallpox epidemic had reached as far west as the Pacific Coast and as far north as Alaska, infecting virtually every part of the vast continent of North America. Though no certain statistics exist, it is estimated to have killed more than 145,000 people.


Evacuating Boston: In 1775, American militias surrounded Boston, forcing British troops to evacuate the city. British troops evacuated in 1776 (depicted here) in part because of smallpox outbreaks within the city.

Women in the Revolution

During the Revolutionary War, colonial women supported the revolution by boycotting British goods and raising money.

Learning Objectives

Explain how women contributed to the Revolutionary War efforts and were affected by them

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In response to British taxes on tea, women who sided with the Patriot cause boycotted tea. They also refused to buy imported fabrics like silk and satin, which were subject to British import restrictions.
  • Women began spinning and weaving their own cloth at home using American materials. They also rationed their household budgets so they could contribute more to the war effort.
  • Women formed associations to raise money for the war effort.

Key Terms

  • nonimportation: A policy of refusing to import goods.
  • non-consumption: An act of resistance by the colonists through boycotting British clothing and other imports during the Revolutionary War.
  • boycott: To abstain, either as an individual or group, from using, buying, or dealing with someone or some organization as an expression of protest.

Patriot Women

In the Revolutionary Era, women were responsible for managing the domain of the household. Nonimportation and nonconsumption became major weapons in the arsenal of the American resistance movement against British taxation without representation. Women played a major role in this method of defiance by denouncing silks, satin, and other imported luxuries in favor of homespun clothing, generally made in spinning and quilting bees. This sent a strong message of unity against British oppression. As a result of nonimportation, many rural communities that were previously only peripherally involved in the political movements of the day were brought "into the growing community of resistance" because of the appeal "to the traditional values" of rural life. In 1769, Christopher Gadsden made a direct appeal to colonial women, saying, "our political salvation, at this crisis, depends altogether upon the strictest economy, that the women could, with propriety, have the principal management thereof."

Housewives did their part to support the Patriot cause by refusing to purchase British manufactured goods. The tea boycott is one example of how Patriot women identified themselves as part of the war effort. In fact, Patriot women were boycotting tea for years before the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773. After the Boston Tea Party, a group of women in North Carolina decided to make their boycott official. A total of 51 women in Edenton, North Carolina, signed an agreement promising to boycott tea and other English products and sent it to British newspapers. The Edenton Tea Party was one of the first coordinated and publicized political actions by women in the colonies. Similar boycotts extended to a variety of British goods with women opting to purchase or make American goods instead. Even though these "nonconsumption boycotts" depended on national policy (formulated by men), it was women who enacted them in households.

Several of the women have pretensions to extreme high fashion (with small caps perched on huge

Edenton boycott: A British cartoon satirizing the Edenton Tea Party participants. The Edenton Tea Party was a women-led boycott of British products. Because women ran the household, their purchasing power was vital; boycotts such as this supported the war effort.

The Homespun Movement

As part of their boycott of British goods, Patriot women participated in the "Homespun Movement." Instead of purchasing clothing made of imported British materials, these women practiced the long tradition of weaving and spinning their own cloth. They used this cloth to make clothing for their families, as well as blankets and clothing for the Continental Army.

The practices of the Homespun Movement extended beyond cloth goods. For example, Benjamin Franklin 's youngest sister, Jane Mecom, was called on for her soap recipe and instructions on how to build soap-making forms. While male suppliers of such services were exempted from military service in exchange for their goods, women providing the same services received no compensation. Spinning, weaving, and sewing were seen as ways women could contribute to the Patriot cause.

The image is of an engraving showing a colonial kitchen. A woman is spinning while a small child plays nearby on the floor.

Colonial era spinning: Many women supported the war effort by producing homespun clothing.

Women actively engaged in the economy in other ways as well. In 1778, a group of women marched down to a warehouse, where it was rumored that a merchant was hoarding coffee. The women opened the warehouse and confiscated the coffee. Women also used frugality (a longtime feminine virtue ) as a political statement as households were asked to contribute to the wartime efforts. Women were also asked to put their homes into public service by quartering American soldiers and legislators as the republic took shape.

The Republican Motherhood

During the Revolutionary Era, women were increasingly placed in positions to educate future generations in the ways of republicanism. The “Republican Motherhood” came to encompass the concept that women played a role in instilling civil values and morality in their husbands and children. The concept borrowed from Christian teachings that women should pass down religious values and morality to their children. In this way, the Republican Motherhood, though still relegating women’s contributions to the domestic sphere, raised the importance of women’s civic contributions on a national level and allowed them greater influence in the public sphere. The belief also encouraged increasing access to education for women to ensure their abilities to instruct their children. In the longer term, the Republican Motherhood contributed to women’s involvement in abolitionism and women’s rights.

Women's Organizations

Women further helped the Patriot cause by creating organizations such as the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, which was founded by Esther de Berdt, wife of the Pennsylvania governor. The organization recognized the capacity of every woman to contribute to the war effort. The Association went door-to-door, collecting funds to assist in the war effort, which Martha Washington then took directly to her husband, General George Washington. Other states subsequently followed the example set by de Berdt Reed and Sarah Franklin Bache (daughter of Benjamin Franklin), an active member and leader in the organization. In 1780, in the midst of the war, the colonies raised over $300,000 through these female-run organizations.

Women in the Army

A handful of women felt so strongly about the Revolution, they hid their gender and enlisted in the Continental Army. These women included Hannah Snell, Sally St. Claire, and Deborah Samson, who was discovered after 17 months of service and honorably discharged. Some years later, Samson was awarded a veteran’s pension for her service. Other women involved themselves in military activities by concealing and delivering dispatches and letters through enemy territory for the Continental Army. Notable Patriots who served in this manner include Deborah Champion, Sara Decker Haligowski, Harriet Prudence Patterson Hall, and Lydia Darraugh. Regardless of how they served, women who fought or otherwise involved themselves in military activities were met with a range of responses, from admiration, to ambivalence, to contempt.

Loyalist Women

Many Loyalist women actually left the country during the Revolutionary War rather than stay to live among those they viewed as enemies. For some women, this was a personal choice and done in defiance of their husbands or other male family members. For others who remained loyal to their husbands and families, and their political allegiances, there was a constant risk of falling victim to mobs or vigilante groups that deemed them guilty of treason by association. Of those women who left their communities, many did so without any of their personal or family possessions.

Others actively contributed to the Loyalist cause by engaging in acts of resistance. Many were vocal about their refusal to swear loyalty to the new colonial government and encouraged others to resist as well. Some of these women also aided Loyalist soldiers or hid their male family members from authorities seeking traitors. Others hid important papers, supplies, and even money from the authorities.

American Indian Women

The Revolutionary period was an intensely disruptive one for indigenous women. In many indigenous societies in North America, women were responsible for farming and trading, making wartime destruction particularly devastating for them and their ways of life. Following the Revolutionary War, the American government took an active role in prescribing new roles for American Indian men and women, encouraging women to work in textiles and forcing men to engage in agricultural tasks and trade. The disruption of gender roles caused severe problems within American Indian communities and marked a major break with their previous cultural customs.

The Revolution and Churches

Religion offered a moral sanction for opposing the British in the colonies. Nonetheless, the Revolution split some denominations.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the role that religious leaders played in the American Revolution

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Revolution had the greatest impact on the Church of England because the monarch is the head of the church.
  • The Revolution also strengthened the belief of many Americans that God intended a special destiny for America to fulfill.
  • Religious ideas influenced the Revolution, weakening religious institutions in some respects, while strengthening them in others.

Key Terms

  • Episcopal Church: The Episcopal Church has its origins in the Church of England, stresses its continuity with the early universal Western church, and maintains apostolic succession. The first parish was founded in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 under the charter of the Virginia Company of London.
  • millennialist: Millennialism is a belief held by some Christian denominations that there will be a Golden Age or Paradise on Earth in which "Christ will reign" for 1,000 years prior to the final judgment and future eternal state (the "World to Come" of the New Heavens and New Earth).

Religious Justification

Religion played a major role in the American Revolution by offering a moral sanction for opposition to the British—an assurance to the average American that revolution was justified in the sight of God. As a recent scholar has observed, "by turning colonial resistance into a righteous cause, and by crying the message to all ranks in all parts of the colonies, ministers did the work of secular radicalism and did it better."

The image on the seal shows Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reach to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. The motto,

"Obedience to God": This is an interpretation of the proposed design for the first seal of the United States. Benjamin Franklin suggested it, but it was ultimately not used. The caption reads: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Religious beliefs were often used to justify colonial rebellion.

Ministers served the American cause in many capacities during the Revolution—as military chaplains; as scribes for committees of correspondence; and as members of state legislatures, constitutional conventions, and the Continental Congress. Some even took up arms, leading Continental Army troops in battle. The Revolution split some denominations, notably the Church of England, whose ministers were bound by oath to support the king; and the Quakers, who were traditionally pacifists. Religious practice suffered in certain places because of the absence of ministers and the destruction of churches, but in other areas, religion flourished.

The Revolution strengthened millennialist strains in American theology. At the beginning of the war, some ministers were persuaded that, with God's help, America might become "the principal Seat of the glorious Kingdom which Christ shall erect upon Earth in the latter Days." Victory over the British was taken as a sign of God's partiality for America and stimulated an outpouring of millennialist expectations—the conviction that Christ would rule on earth for 1,000 years. This attitude, combined with a groundswell of secular optimism about the future of America, helped to create the buoyant mood of the new nation that became so evident after Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801.

Church of England

The Revolution inflicted deeper wounds on the Church of England in America than on any other denomination. This was because the English monarch was the head of the church. As a result, Church of England priests swore allegiance to the British crown at their ordination. The Book of Common Prayer offered prayers for the monarch, beseeching God "to be his defender and keeper, giving him victory over all his enemies." In 1776, these enemies were American soldiers, as well as friends and neighbors of American parishioners of the Church of England. Furthermore, loyalty to the church and to its head could be construed as treason to the American cause.

Patriotic American members of the Church of England, loathing to discard so fundamental a component of their faith as The Book of Common Prayer, revised it to conform to the political realities of the time. After the Treaty of Paris (1783) documented British recognition of American independence, the church split. The Anglican Communion was created, allowing a separated Episcopal Church of the United States that would still be in communion with the Church of England.

Portrait of Jonathan Mayhew

Jonathan Mayhew: Jonathan Mayhew was a noted American minister at Old West Church, Boston, Massachusetts. He is credited with coining the phrase, "No taxation without representation." Ministers were often supporters of the Patriot's cause during the Revolution.

Economic Impacts of the Revolution

Congress and the individual colonies encountered difficulties financing the Revolutionary War.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the impact of the Revolutionary War on the American economy

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The 13 American states flourished economically at the beginning of the war due to decreased restrictions on trade.
  • As the war went on, America's economic prosperity began to fade due to British warships preying on American merchant ships, increasing foreign debt, and inflation from the printing of paper money.
  • Congress financed the war by relying on volunteer support, delaying payments, issuing paper money, establishing more efficient procedures for Continental government finance, and seeking foreign aid, particularly from France.
  • At the end of the war, the central government's war debt stood at $37 million, with another $114 million owed by the states.
  • The United States finally solved its debt problems under the leadership of Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris during the 1780s and the first U.S. Secretary of Treasury, James Madison during the 1790s.

Key Terms

  • inflation: An increase in the general level of prices or in the cost of living.
  • specie: Money, especially in the form of coins made from precious metal, that has an intrinsic value; coinage.
  • paper money: Cash in the form of banknotes.

Financing the American Revolution

Congress and the individual American colonies encountered difficulties when financing the Revolutionary War. In 1775, there was at most $12 million in gold in the colonies, not nearly enough to cover current transactions, let alone a major war. At the start of the war, neither the colonies nor the Continental Congress had an established method of raising revenue through taxation. The British made the situation worse by imposing a tight blockade on every American port, which cut off almost all imports and exports. As a result, the Continental government had to devise a number of means for financing the war.

During the Revolution

The 13 American states flourished economically at the beginning of the war. The colonies could trade freely with the West Indies and other European nations instead of just Britain. Due to the abolition of the British Navigation Acts, American merchants could now transport their goods in European and American ships rather than only British ships. British taxes on expensive wares such as tea, glass, lead, and paper were forfeited, and other taxes became cheaper. Plus, American privateering raids on British merchant ships provided more wealth for the Continental Army.

As the war went on, however, America's economic prosperity began to falter. British warships began to prey on American shipping and the increasing upkeep costs of the Continental Army meant that wealth from merchant ships decreased. The government began to rely on volunteer support from militiamen and donations from patriotic citizens. The Continental Congress also delayed payments, paid soldiers and suppliers in depreciated currency, and promised to make good on payments in arrears after the war. Indeed, in 1783, soldiers and officers were given land grants to cover the wages they had earned but had not been paid during the war.

As cash flow continued to decline, the United States had to rely on European loans to maintain the war effort; France, Spain, and the Netherlands lent the U.S. over $10 million during the war, causing major debt problems for the fledgling nation. Coin circulation also began to wane. Because of this, the U.S. began to print paper money and bills of credit to raise income. This proved unsuccessful—inflation skyrocketed and the new paper money's value diminished.

The declining value of Continental currencies hit soldiers, the poor, and individuals on fixed incomes the hardest because their wages bought less. Soldiers, for example, were already being paid in arrears due to the difficulty Congress was having financing the war, and their wages were rapidly declining in value every month. This contributed to the hardships experienced by soldiers’ families and weakened morale. Ninety percent of Americans, however, were farmers and not directly affected by inflation. Debtors also benefited from the economic situation since they were able to pay off their debts with the depreciated paper money, amounting to a discount on their previous balances.

Starting in 1776, Congress sought to raise money with loans from wealthy individuals, promising to redeem the bonds after the war. The bonds were in fact redeemed in 1791 at face value, but the scheme raised little money because Americans had little specie, and many rich merchants were supporters of the Crown. Starting in 1776, the French secretly supplied the Americans with money, gunpowder, and munitions in order to weaken their common enemy, Great Britain. When France officially entered the war in 1778, the subsidies continued, and the French government, as well as bankers in Paris and Amsterdam, loaned large sums to the American war effort. These loans were repaid in full in the 1790s.

Beginning in 1777, Congress repeatedly asked the states to provide money. But the states had no system of taxation and were of little help. By 1780, Congress was making requisitions for specific supplies of corn, beef, pork, and other necessities—an inefficient system that barely kept the army alive.


The national debt after the American Revolution fell into three categories. The first was the $12 million owed to foreigners—mostly money borrowed from France. There was general agreement to pay the foreign debts at full value. The national government owed $40 million and state governments owed $25 million to Americans who had sold food, horses, and supplies to the revolutionary forces. There were also other debts that consisted of promissory notes issued during the Revolutionary War to soldiers, merchants, and farmers who accepted these payments on the premise that the new Constitution would create a government that would pay these debts eventually.

By 1780, the United States Congress had issued over $400 million in paper money to troops. Eventually, Congress tried to stop the inflation by imposing economic reforms. These failed and only further devalued the American currency. Late in the war, Congress asked individual colonies to equip their own troops and pay upkeep for their own soldiers in the Continental Army. When the war ended, the United States had spent $37 million at the national level and $114 million at the state level.

Not until 1781, when Robert Morris was named U.S. superintendent of finance, did the national government have a strong leader in financial matters. Morris used a French loan in 1782 to set up the private Bank of North America to finance the cost of the war. Seeking greater efficiency, Morris reduced the civil list, saved money by using competitive bidding for contracts, tightened accounting procedures, and demanded the federal government's full share of money and supplies from the states. The U.S. finally solved its debt problems in the 1790s, when Alexander Hamilton established the First Bank of the United States.


Alexander Hamilton: Portrait of Alexander Hamilton, who was a key player at the Constitutional Convention and established the First Bank of the United States in the 1790s.


Robert Morris: Portrait of Robert Morris, who in 1781 was named superintendent of finance of the United States, giving the national government a strong leader in financial matters.

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