Men enlist for many reasons, not all of them heroic. For those cases, there’s what’s known as “military justice,” which was invented for reasons demonstrated early in the nation’s history on the Main Line.
At issue were the bad boys of the 4th Georgia, a battalion formed to help George Washington defend Philadelphia. But they mostly terrorized local residents. Two soldiers even robbed their colonel.
“From the first day of their incamping, they began to show their aversion for all law, divine or human,” complained 36 leading property owners in a 1777 letter to Thomas Wharton Jr., president of Pennsylvania’s executive council.
The 4th Georgia was soon sent back south.
The battalion’s misbehavior was born of necessity. The Continental Army needed men, and perhaps hadn’t paid sufficient attention to how it got them. At the onset of the revolution, colonial forces were made up of local militia. The militia comprised mostly farmers who came when needed and had less discipline than soldiers.
“To place any dependence upon militia is, assuredly, resting upon a broken staff,” Washington wrote to John Hancock in September 1776. “Men just dragged from the tender scenes of domestic life—unaccustomed to the din of arms—totally unacquainted with every kind of military skill, which … makes them timid and ready to fly from their own shadows.”
The rest of Washington’s officer corps had similar expectations of the miltia. As late as 1781, Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan built failures of the militia into his battle plans. On the night before the Battle of Cowpens that January, Morgan went from one campfire to the next, explaining to his men what he wanted them to do the next day: “Remember, boys,” he said, “just hold up your heads, give them two fires (volleys) and you’re free [to run].”
By the late summer of 1776, the officer corps—and Congress—had come to believe that the American cause needed a standing army with a three-year enlistment. The country, wrote John Adams, needed a “regular Army … with the most masterly discipline, because without these we cannot hope to be a powerful, a prosperous or a free people.”
In September, congress passed its “88 battalion resolve,” providing for a regular army of 88 regiments and setting expectations of how many regiments each state would provide. States with larger populations, like New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, were assigned larger quotas—as many as 15 regiments each. Smaller states like Delaware and Georgia would only be expected to produce one regiment each.
Delaware’s population during the revolution was estimated at 45,000, and giving up one regiment was a bargain. Delaware was surrounded by larger states in more-or-less similar situations that would help defend it in a common cause.
That wasn’t the case for Georgia, which was newly settled. Massachusetts had been settled for more than 150 years, and Pennsylvania for more than a century. Georgia only got its start in 1732, when prison reformer James Oglethorpe proposed stocking the unincorporated land between South Carolina and Spanish Florida with those imprisoned for comparatively minor offenses.
By 1776, Georgia had about 55,000 people, of whom roughly a third were slaves. Nearly all were clustered within 50 miles of its Atlantic coast and the Savannah River, Georgia’s border with South Carolina. The interior was occupied by 18 tribes of Native Americans. To the south, Florida had been ceded to the British, and the British had since built a highway north from St. Augustine, only 139 miles from Savannah.
Moreover, Georgians weren’t united. Christ Church Parish in Savannah was dominated by wealthy, conservative plantation owners who had no interest in revolution. Rural St. John Parish, located further south, was more radical. Because of this division, Georgia was unable to send a delegation to the Continental Congress until 1775, when St. John Parish sent Lyman Hall.
With the division, Georgians felt vulnerable to Native Americans, the British, their slaves and—perhaps especially—each other. And they were not eager to enlist for duty.
By early 1777, however, Georgia managed to produce one battalion, the 1st Georgia, with 538 infantrymen, two artillery companies totaling 40 men, and a cavalry regiment of 300. The 1st Georgia was used against the British at St. Augustine, and it was of no use to Washington. It was only about a quarter of the manpower Georgia owed, and not much existed in the way of plans to raise the other three battalions.
Washington’s generals in the Southern Department were frustrated by Georgia’s factionalism and inertia. “The people here are if possible more harum skarum than their sister colony,” wrote Richard Henry Lee, president of the Continental Congress, to Gen. John Armstrong, a Pennsylvania brigadier sent south to organize the defense of Charleston, S.C. “They will propose anything, and after they have propos’d it, discover that they are incapable of performing the least.”
Lee described proposals to patrol the frontier with cavalry which, when approved, were followed by admissions that there were no horses. Proposals for coast guard of small armed boats to harass any British ships that ventured into Georgia’s waters were followed by the admission that no such boats existed.
“Upon the whole,” said Lee, “I should not be surprised if they were to propose mounting a body of mermaids on alligators.”
To fill the 2nd and 3rd Georgia battalions, the state enlisted men from the Carolinas and Virginia. For the 4th Georgia, out-of-staters and a few Georgians helped fill the ranks, but authorities turned to another source of manpower: prisoners and British Army deserters.
“It was the custom of the day, on land and sea, to take prisoners and install them into crews and field units to serve in some capacity,” says Mike Malsbary, a Paoli historian who has researched the 4th. “British and American sailors, after capture, were pressed into enemy crews.”
Routine or not, the practice made officials wary. For that reason, notes Malsbary, officers were powered to execute “on the spot” prisoners who misbehaved in the ranks.
Commanded by Col. John White, the 4th Georgia arrived in Philadelphia just in time for the city’s second July 4 celebrations. There, it announced itself with a celebratory firing of weapons outside City Tavern. Indiscriminate or unauthorized shooting was a court martial offense.
The 4th Georgia was soon ordered out of the city to guard traffic coming and going on the Lancaster Road. The unit camped near Mile Marker 7 in what is now Lower Merion, at the intersection of Old Lancaster and Levering Mill roads.
Complaints soon followed. Lower Merion property owners accused the men of “robbing the neighbourhood of everything they could lay their hands on, pillaging their dwelling houses, spring houses and barns, burning their fence rails, cutting down their timber, robbing orchards and gardens, stealing their pigs, poultry and lambs, and sometimes killing them through wantonness or bravado. And when complaints were made, they, with the most unparalleled impudence, would threaten the lives of the complainants or their houses with fire, frequently damning the Congress and swearing they will never fight against King George, etc.”
White’s superiors ordered the 4th Georgia further west to Lancaster, where, in August, a couple members of the unit set their eyes on their commanding officer. “A great stir this morning in town occasioned by some of Col. White of the Georgia regiment robbing of him last night,” wrote Christopher Marshall, an official of the Continental Congress, then in Lancaster. “They were pursued and taken; part of the cash was recovered but his trunk with all his papers, more money, his commission, etc., was not to be found.”
In September, a court at Lancaster heard the case of the two men accused of robbing White. “This afternoon, the two thieves who stole Col. White’s cash and trunk were marched about a mile and a half out of town, in order, it’s said, to be hanged,” Marshall wrote in his diary. “But upon the Colonel’s lady’s intercession, it’s said, they were pardoned from death, but received two or three hundred lashes each, well laid on their backs and buttocks.”
By October, the 4th Georgia had been pointed home, but got in trouble while marching through Maryland. This time, Congress passed a resolution ordering White to rejoin and supervise the unit all the way south. It also asked the governor of Maryland for a list of damages to be deducted from the soldiers’ pay.
Before the unit departed, however, a Georgia delegate to Congress proposed that Washington use the 4th Georgia as a sort of isolation ward, stocking it with British deserters from other army units, then sending the whole lot to the far reaches of Georgia.
“I have been informed that there are a considerable number now in the grand army,” wrote George Walton, “and these I conceive might be more safely and better employed at a distance from the army from which they deserted.”
Because, again, no one knows why another man enlists.
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