Back In the Day We Were a Punk Rock People
Today we pass the dubious milestone of 1800 American soldiers killed in Iraq.
You know, there was a time when Americans didn't take crap from incompetent and duplicitous leaders.
To the Massachusetts provincial soldiers huddled against the cold in huts near Stillwater, New York, the year 1758 dawned bleakly, and not only because they remembered the previous summer's defeats. The eighty men of Captain Ebenezer Learned's company had come to think of their enemies not so much as the Indians and French as cold weather, short rations, and their own British superiors. Learned's provincials -- farmers, laborers, and artisans from central and western Massachusetts -- had enlisted in the spring of 1757 to serve for a campaign that they understood would last only until November 30. Because their notions of military obligation were no less contractual than those of New Englanders generally, it had come as "a greate & unexpected disappointment" to learn, as their tour of duty was about to end, that Lord Loudoun had ordered them to remain in service until Candlemas (February 2, 1758).
Loudoun had extended the enlistments of Learned's and three other Massachusetts companies because he needed men to garrison the blockhouses and forts north of Albany. The fall of Fort William Henry had laid the region open to enemy raids, and in September he had asked the assemblies of New York, New Jersey, and the New England colonies to recruit rangers to defend it over the winter. Nobody questioned the need -- had anyone done so, the French and Indian destruction of German Flats in early November, a raid that resulted in the deaths of 50 settlers and the seizure of 150 more, would have made it undeniable -- and despite their lack of enthusiasm for the additional expenditure, most of the assemblies acceded to Loudoun's demand. But Massachusetts, unlike the other colonies, garrisoned a chain of forts and blockhouses along its own frontier, and its general court refused to raise the men Loudoun asked because the province was already carrying more than its share of the burden. With the German Flats incident on his mind, Lord Loudoun found this even more exasperating than the usual colonial obstinacy and so dealt with it directly. On November 18, as the provincials were disbanding, he detained 360 Massachusetts soldiers, advanced them two months' pay from his own funds, and ordered them to remain in service -- or suffer the consequences.
Captain Learned's men had acquiesced but among themselves agreed not to serve beyond the time for which they had been paid. Learned had returned to Massachusetts on sick leave, and when he returned in early January his men told him that they planned to march for home on February 3. Rather than upbraiding them for their lack of loyalty or warning them of the consequences of desertion, Learned offered to represent their case to Captain Philip Skene, the regular who commanded at Stillwater. If Skene refused to make some reasonable accommodation, Learned said, he would lead the "retreat" himself. In the meantime his men continued to save food out of their rations to provision the journey home and improved their leisure hours by making snowshoes. According to a nineteen-year-old private in the company, Rufus Putnam, when Candlemas ("the day. . . that we wished for") arrived,
we were all ordered into the Fort whe[re] Capt. Skean read a part of a letter to us, that Major General Abercrombie sent to him, the contents of which was this. You are hereby required to persuade the Massachusetts [men] that are under your care to tarry a few days longer, till I shall hear from their government, to know what the government intends to do with them. To these orders, there was answer made by some of our Company, that they looked upon him to be a good soldier that tarried till his time was out; and that the Province had no business to detain us any longer; neither would we be detained any longer by any power that they could raise. He told us that if any man had been duly enlisted into His Majesty's service and should leave the same, without a Regular Discharge, he should Suffer Death. We told him we did not value that, for according to our Enlistment, neither they nor the Province could hold us any longer, and that we did not break the Court Act by going off.
At three o'clock the next morning, leaving behind only a second lieutenant to care for ten men who were too sick to walk, Ebenezer Learned's company -- with its captain and first lieutenant in the lead -- marched for home. Seven days later, half-starved, frostbitten, and minus their mascot ("a large dog" they had eaten two days earlier) they staggered into Hawks's Fort in Charlemont, Massachusetts. The garrison received them "very Kindly," offering the deserters food and a place to rest before sending them on their way. No one at the fort seems to have thought that Learned's men had done anything wrong. Indeed, the hospitality they offered gives us every reason to believe that the provincials at Charlemont admired the deserters' willingness to brave the winter woods rather than remain at Stillwater without enlistment contracts to protect them from enslavement.
"He is a good Soldier that Serves his time out" was a maxim as transparently true to the soldiers of the Bay Colony as it was unmeaning and pernicious to Captain Philip Skene and his fellow regular officers in America, adherents of a military system based on the gospel of subordination and discipline, men with neither time nor sympathy for contractualist sophistry. That whole companies of soldiers, together with their officers, would defy the king's officers in the name of a supposed principle, was a fact significant in ways Lord Loudoun never quite grasped. Soon, however, he would discover that soldiers who defied his authority to preserve what they called their rights were the least of his problems.
The small saga of Ebenezer Learned's company bears retelling because it illuminates the larger pattern of resistance to imperial authority that was emerging in New England at the beginning of 1758. Even as Learned's men floundered through the snowdrifts of the Green Mountains, politicians in the Massachusetts Assembly were gathering their resolve to challenge Lord Loudoun on issues that went to the very heart of his power as commander in chief.
From Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 by Fred Anderson, pp. 219-221.