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The American Revolution

11e. The Revolution on the Home Front

Phyllis Wheatley
The African American poet Phyllis Wheatley was America's first published black poet and a patriot to boot.

Most Americans did not actively participate in the Revolution. Therefore, no study of the war would be complete without an examination of the home front.

During the war years, those Americans not involved in warfare were doing their best just trying to survive. Farmers continued to grow food, artisans continued to practice their trades, and merchants attempted to maintain their businesses. Despite efforts to maintain business as usual, the entire social landscape was changed.

War disrupts economies and brings tremendous population dislocations. Woe came to families or farmers who found themselves in the way of advancing armies. Despite stringent warnings against such behavior from officers on both sides, farms and homes were often plundered. Soldiers took grain, livestock, or whatever goods they needed.

Severe Consequences

There are recorded instances where officers from both the British and American military ordered the hanging of soldiers who stole from the general populace.

But, there are also instance from both armies where officers ordered their men to confiscate food, livestock, or goods during desperate times. The Americans, in particular, always promised to repay for what they took. The British, at times, also promised restitution.

Dwellings in cities that the British occupied also were subject to sticky fingers. Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia house served as the quarters for a British officer during the winter of 1777. The officer helped himself to some souvenirs of his time at Franklin's house.

If citizens were thought to be colluding with the American military, their homes might be burned. At times, the homes of revolutionary firebrands or officers were set afire by a vindictive British army.


The country which we lately traversed, about fifty miles in extent, is called neutral ground, but the miserable inhabitants who remain, are not much favored with the privileges which their neutrality ought to secure to them. They are continually exposed to the ravages and insults of infamous banditti, composed of royal refugees and tories .... There are within the British lines banditti consisting of lawless villains, who devote themselves to the most cruel pillage and robbery among the defenceless inhabitants between the lines, many of whom they carry off to New York, after plundering their houses and farms. These shameless marauders have received the names of Cow-boys and Skinners. By their atrocious deeds they have become a scourge and terror to the people. Numerous instances have been related of these miscreants subjecting defenceless persons to cruel torture, to compel them to deliver up their money, or to disclose the places where it has been secreted. It is not uncommon for them to hang a man by his neck till apparently dead, then restore him, and repeat the experiment, and leave him for dead.

– James Thatcher, MD, military journal entry describing conditions in Long Island (1780)


Economic Consequences

Nancy Hart
Louis S. Glanzman.
Was Nancy Hart simply a legend? Or was she a real-life patriot? When British troops came knocking at her door to demand a meal and shelter, they soon realized they came to the wrong house.

As the British entered major cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, many people fled to the countryside, looking for food and work. Traditional markets were disrupted. Farmers who one week sold their wares to their usual American customers might the next week be selling to an occupying British army.

The British blockade caused widespread unemployment. Almost anyone dependent on the foreign market was out of work, from shippers to merchants. Both armies were sometimes followed by men and women willing to work in any way for a hot meal. The Colonial economy was in shambles.

Some farmers and merchants hoped to profit from increased prices due to scarcity. Many sold their wares to the British army. Violence sometimes came in the wake of rising prices, and the Continental Congress enacted regulations to counter inflation throughout the Colonies.

Women

Quaker Meeting House in Long Island
When the men went off to fight in the war, American women, children, and elderly were frequently faced with the occupation of their houses, churches, and government buildings by British soldiers. This Quaker Meeting house in Long Island was set up as a hospital and a prison by the British.

Women stepped forth to fill holes left by fighting Continental soldiers. Women needed to perform tasks formerly reserved for their husbands (such as farming or running businesses).

These new and independent women of the house also had to stand up for themselves when confronted by both American and British armies. When militias appealed to the public for uniforms and food, homespun garments and farm crops came from patriotic women. And when British armies and soldiers appeared at homes being occupied by women, they did not always find a friendly face.

Some colonial women served as spies for Washington's army, passing valuable information about troop locations and movements. Many men would have returned to bankruptcy after the war had it not been for the efforts of their spouses.

Address to the Ladies

During wartime, women have historically been called upon to show their patriotism by scrimping and saving. In many cases, as in the Revolutionary War, food and resources were very scarce because the Colonies were still largely an agrarian economy and most men who worked in the fields were away fighting.

Young ladies in town, and those that live round,
Let a friend at this season advise you:
Since money's so scarce, and times growing worse,
Strange things may soon hap and surprize you;
First then, throw aside your high top knots of pride,
Wear none but your own country linnen,
Of Oeconomy boast, let your pride be the most
To show clothes of your own make and spinning.

What, if homespun they say is not quite so gay
As brocades, yet be not in a passion,
For when once it is known this is much wore in town,
One and all will cry out, 'tis the fashion!
And as one, all agree that you'll not married be
To such as will wear London Fact'ry:
But at first sight refuse, tell em such you do chuse
As encourage our own Manufact'ry

No more Ribbons wear, nor in rich dress appear,
Love your country much better than fine things,
Begin without passion, twill soon be the fashion
To grace your smooth locks with a twine string,
Throw aside your Bohea, and your green Hyson tea,
And all things with a new fashion duty;
Procure a good store of the choice Labradore,
For there'll soon be enough here to suit ye;

These do without fear and to all you'll appear
Fair, charming, true, lovely and cleaver;
Tho' the times remain darkish, young men may be sparkish
And love you much stronger than ever.

– "Young Ladies in Town," Boston Newsletter (1769)

Wars are not merely fought on the battlefield. Even in the 18th century, successful campaigns were the hallmark of a concerted effort. By 1783, the entire American population seemed battle weary, from the foot soldier to the farmer's wife. Their sacrifices helped secure freedoms for the generations that would follow.

On the Web
Liberty Medicine
Disease spread quickly through the mobile population of revolutionary soldiers. For example, smallpox was rampant. The first programs of mass inoculation were instituted to protect the Continental Army, but many communities were struck hard with the disease. Read about the other medical practices of the time and watch a QuickTime video. This webpage accompanies the PBS series Liberty! The American Revolution.
The Edenton Ladies Tea Party
This was not a traditional, proper tea party. The Edenton Ladies had their own agenda to support the pursuit of American independence.
The Recruiting Service
This report from a Continental Army recruiter is great reading for two reasons. It provides a glimpse into the practices of recruiters who plied their prospects with liquor and offers of bounty for enlisting. It also shows that many "common men" did not have the same patriotic zeal of the more educated colonists.
Deborah Sampson
A woman revolutionary soldier? Deborah Sampson, who was abandoned by her parents at a young age and an indentured servant for 10 years before becoming a schoolteacher, threw off her petticoats and donned a uniform. She fought beside the men for over a year before her sex was discovered. Read her incredible story at DistinguishedWomen.com, a website dedicated to identifying important women throughout history.
Despise the Mean Distinctions [these] Times Have Made
Quakers were one community that had difficulty choosing between the patriots and the Loyalists. Because of their religious beliefs, the Quakers refused to fight and tried to find a middle path to peace. They were often labeled as Loyalists because of this. This essay from the American Revolution website offers a glimpse of those fighting for sanity instead of bloodshed on the home front.
I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors ... -Abigail Adams, in a letter to her husband John (1776)
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Doctors during the American Revolution knew very little. The diseases were deadly back then, but the treatments could be much worse.
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How did Deborah Sampson impersonate a man in order to join the army and take part in combat?
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Many British soldiers acted in the theaters of British-held cities during the American Revolution.
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