Life in the Continental Army wasn’t all glory. Disease and abominable conditions, indifferent and sometimes ineffective leadership and flat out chaos were all part of a soldier’s life as America wrestled its freedom from Britain. Few soldiers left behind detailed memoirs. Lemuel Roberts of Canaan, Conn., did, however, and his Memoirs of Captain Lemuel Roberts, published in 1809, is a detailed account of a soldier’s life in the Revolutionary War.
From 1775 until 1778, Roberts was part of several regiments fighting in New England, New York, New Jersey and Canada, taking part in the siege of Boston and the Battle of Saratoga. Blunt, opinionated and strong (he began his working life as a lumberjack in northern Vermont), Lemuel Roberts’ story reads like an adventure novel.
While the officers dined in the better houses and had the best food and drink available, Roberts tells the story of the gritty side of army life during the Revolution, including battling diseases that took the lives of more American soldiers than the enemy did. In April of 1776, Roberts was serving in a regiment of the Massachusetts Line that had been dispatched to Quebec. His regiment was retreating when he contracted small pox.
Roberts and many others got themselves inoculated, which may have saved them from the worst effects of the disease, but not all. At first, Roberts failed to see just how devastating small pox could be.
The occurrences which ensued shocked me exceedingly; a group of exceeding pale faces appeared around me, on receipt of the news (to retreat), we were ordered to swing our packs immediately and join the Army. The symptoms of the small pox, or some other symptoms, operated too extensively to suit my feelings. One cried, ‘I cannot carry my pack,’ another, ‘I must leave clothes,’ etc. In short, all was bustle and confusion, and according to my conception the pale symptoms were rather more evident in the officers than among the men. I could not refrain from laughing at some, bantering others, and scolding at as many, to excite to motion.
There is seldom any considerable evil, however, without its attendant benefit, and it happened here with respect to myself.
Though I was somewhat weakened by dieting for the small pox, my pack was too valuable for me to abandon, and while I was preparing to swing it, our ensign offered me two good shirts if I would carry a third for him, and I packed them up; our captain, too, wanted me to take a pair of his shoes, and a pair of his son’s who waited on him, and I obliged him, and kept receiving from one and another, till my pack weighed about 70 pounds.
I used much persuasion induce others to follow my example, so far at least as to save their own clothes. Laughing some at their plea of inability, I swung my pack and started with them on our march for the bank of the river St. Lawrence, to join our retreating army.
Roberts would soon learn first-hand, however, that small pox was nothing to laugh at as he later reports:
I must mention the progress of my disorder. The pock had come out upon me very thick, especially upon my feet, legs and seat . . . before we reached Sorel, my pock had become so sore and troublesome, that my clothes stuck fast to my body, especially to my seat; and it became a severe trial to my fortitude, to bear my disorder and assist in managing the boat. Yet I was supported and carried through, and after being billeted out for a few days at Sorel, grew well fast while a great many of my companions were appointed unto death.
Yet Roberts would suffer more relapses, reporting later:
During this night I was so much out of order, and my head was so peculiarly affected, that I knew very little that passed; but the next day by taking a good dose of Bohea tea, and some other simple medicines of my own, I felt quite relieved, and was enabled to enjoy repose the night following, when we reached Chamblee.
The come and go nature of disease and sickness among the men also led to dissent, with at times those suffering a relapse being accused of malingering. And the disputes could extend beyond simply laughing. Roberts recounts one occasion where he was the accused rather than the accuser.
On the day this retreat commenced I was taken exceeding severely with the dysentery, and being on the rear guard, I was obliged to drop behind the whole, and was most severely put to it to regain my place. Endeavoring to do it, however, I came up to an imperious young officer, stationed in the rear. This man, feeling the importance of his commission, used me with very rough language, for straggling behind with intention, as he suggested, to be taken by the enemy.
I resented his insult with spirit, and he, furnishing himself with a heavy club, threatened me with loud sounding words and told me how he would serve me if I did not run. I told him I was unable to run, and he came at me with apparent fury, but having a Tomahawk in my hand with a long handle, which I had used as a staff, I stood my ground and he was careful not to come within my reach.