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Washington was not a professional soldier, though he had seen the realities of war and had moved in military society. Perhaps it was an advantage that he had not received the rigid training of a regular, for he faced conditions which required an elastic mind. The force besieging Boston consisted at first chiefly of New England militia, with companies of minute-men, so called because of their supposed readiness to fight at a minute's notice. Washington had been told that he should find 20,000 men under his command; he found, in fact, a nominal army of 17,000, with probably not more than 14,000 effective, and the number tended to decline as the men went away to their homes after the first vivid interest gave way to the humdrum of military life.
The extensive camp before Boston, as Washington now saw it, expressed the varied character of his strange command. Cambridge, the seat of Harvard College, was still only a village with a few large houses and park-like grounds set among fields of grain, now trodden down by the soldiers. Here was placed in haphazard style the motley housing of a military camp. The occupants had followed their own taste in building. One could see structures covered with turf, looking like lumps of mother earth, tents made of sail cloth, huts of bare boards, huts of brick and stone, some having doors and windows of wattled basketwork. There were not enough huts to house the army nor camp-kettles for cooking. Blankets were so few that many of the men were without covering at night. In the warm summer weather this did not much matter but bleak autumn and harsh winter would bring bitter privation. The sick in particular suffered severely, for the hospitals were badly equipped.
A deep conviction inspired many of the volunteers. They regarded as brutal tyranny the tax on tea, considered in England as a mild expedient for raising needed revenue for defense in the colonies. The men of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, meeting in September, 1774, had declared in high-flown terms that the proposed tax came from a parricide who held a dagger at their bosoms and that those who resisted him would earn praises to eternity. From nearly every colony came similar utterances, and flaming resentment at injustice filled the volunteer army. Many a soldier would not touch a cup of tea because tea had been the ruin of his country. Some wore pinned to their hats or coats the words "Liberty or Death" and talked of resisting tyranny until "time shall be no more." It was a dark day for the motherland when so many of her sons believed that she was the enemy of liberty. The iron of this conviction entered into the soul of the American nation; at Gettysburg, nearly a century later, Abraham Lincoln, in a noble utterance which touched the heart of humanity, could appeal to the days of the Revolution, when "our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty." The colonists believed that they were fighting for something of import to all mankind, and the nation which they created believes it still.
An age of war furnishes, however, occasion for the exercise of baser impulses. The New Englander was a trader by instinct. An army had come suddenly together and there was golden promise of contracts for supplies at fat profits. The leader from Virginia, untutored in such things, was astounded at the greedy scramble. Before the year 1775 ended Washington wrote to his friend Lee that he prayed God he might never again have to witness such lack of public spirit, such jobbing and self-seeking, such "fertility in all the low arts," as now he found at Cambridge. He declared that if he could have foreseen all this nothing would have induced him to take the command. Later, the young La Fayette, who had left behind him in France wealth and luxury in order to fight a hard fight in America, was shocked at the slackness and indifference among the supposed patriots for whose cause he was making sacrifices so heavy. In the backward parts of the colonies the population was densely ignorant and had little grasp of the deeper meaning of the patriot cause.
The army was, as Washington himself said, "a mixed multitude." There was every variety of dress. Old uniforms, treasured from the days of the last French wars, had been dug out. A military coat or a cocked hat was the only semblance of uniform possessed by some of the officers. Rank was often indicated by ribbons of different colors tied on the arm. Lads from the farms had come in their usual dress; a good many of these were hunters from the frontier wearing the buckskin of the deer they had slain. Sometimes there was clothing of grimmer material. Later in the war in American officer recorded that his men had skinned two dead Indians "from their hips down, for bootlegs, one pair for the Major, the other for myself." The volunteers varied greatly in age. There were bearded veterans of sixty and a sprinkling of lads of sixteen. An observer laughed at the boys and the "great great grandfathers" who marched side by side in the army before Boston. Occasionally a black face was seen in the ranks. One of Washington's tasks was to reduce the disparity of years and especially to secure men who could shoot. In the first enthusiasm of 1775 so many men volunteered in Virginia that a selection was made on the basis of accuracy in shooting. The men fired at a range of one hundred and fifty yards at an outline of a man's nose in chalk on a board. Each man had a single shot and the first men shot the nose entirely away.
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Washington and his Comrades in Arms -by- George Wrong