By Thomas A. Rider II, University of Wisconsin – Madison, Military Historical Society of Massachusetts Short Term Fellow at the MHS
Tom is currently writing a PhD dissertation on the Continental Army’s evolving approach to petite guerre or partisan warfare during the American War for Independence. The Adams Family Papers at the MHS have provided important insights into a critical aspect of this evolution – the use of frontier riflemen in support of Washington’s army.
In the early stages of the Revolutionary War, no soldiers recruited in the American colonies generated greater anticipation than the frontier riflemen. Armed with the Pennsylvania rifle, a weapon that in the hands of a skilled marksman was far more accurate than the smoothbore muskets most 18th-century soldiers carried, and skilled in the Native-American way of war, the riflemen seemed to promise a valuable augmentation to George Washington’s nascent army besieging Boston. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that even before the Continental Congress authorized the creation of rifle companies from the Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia backcountries that these soldiers took on a mythological status. Congressional delegate John Adams had a role in making these myths and his correspondence offers a unique window into the naive expectations that he and others imagined for the riflemen. His correspondence also shows just how deceptive this mythology could be when the unruly and insubordinate frontiersmen dashed these expectations and instigated innumerable disruptions in Washington’s army.
In the summer of 1775, Adams undoubtedly viewed the riflemen as a godsend. Since the engagements at Lexington and Concord, New England had borne the brunt of the fighting against the British. Adams and other northern representatives in Congress were thus eager for southern troops to both reinforce the provincial army surrounding Boston and to demonstrate inter-colonial support for armed resistance. Adams was undoubtedly thrilled, therefore, to hear southern delegates tell of the exotic frontiersmen and their extraordinary shooting and Indian-fighting exploits. He soon convinced himself that the riflemen possessed all the martial prowess and civic virtue necessary to unite the colonies and defeat the ministerial troops in Boston and made his hopes known in a series of letters back to Massachusetts. To Elbridge Gerry, Adams described the riflemen as “exquisite marksmen,” able “to send sure destruction to great distances.” To James Warren, he lauded the backcountry soldiers as “Men of Property and Family, some of them of independent Fortunes, who go from the purest Motives of Patriotism and Benevolence into this service.” To his wife Abigail, he labeled them “an excellent Species of Light Infantry” and “the most accurate Marksmen in the World.”
Unfortunately, as the riflemen reached the Boston siege lines, they failed to live up to the myths that swilled around them. While the New England regiments had discipline problems of their own, the frontiersmen proved particularly unruly, insubordinate, and even dangerous to the good order of Washington’s developing army. They assumed for themselves a privileged status and refused to perform camp duties. They passed between the lines in defiance of orders to take ineffective pot shots at British sentries. In September, Pennsylvania riflemen staged a veritable mutiny in an effort to break a comrade out of confinement. This mutiny had to be suppressed at bayonet point.
Adams, who had wholeheartedly supported the riflemen, soon received a barrage of letters from New England officers dismayed by the frontiersmen’s conduct. From William Heath he learned that “the Riflemen so much Boasted of … before their arrival, have been Guilty of as many Disorders as any Corps in the Camp and there has been more Desertions to the Enemy from them than from the whole Army Besides, perhaps Double.” Heath tempered his criticism a bit by admitting that there were some good soldiers among the riflemen and that “it would be ungenerous to characterize the Troops of any colony from the conduct of a few Scoundrels.” John Thomas, an experienced veteran of the colonial wars, was less generous. In his opinion, the riflemen were “as Indifferent men as I ever served with, their Privates Mutinous & often Deserting to the Enemy, Unwilling for Duty of any Kind, Exceedingly Vicious, and I think the army here would be as well without as with them.”
Eventually, Washington and his fellow officers got the riflemen under control and developed something of an unwritten doctrine to make use of their unique capabilities. By 1777, Daniel Morgan’s Rifle Corps proved highly effective in reconnaissance and harassment missions against the British in both New Jersey and northern New York. The riflemen, however, never quite lived up to the myths that surrounded them in the summer of 1775 – myths that John Adams helped create.
 Among the New England congressional delegation, Adams was hardly alone in his enthusiasm for the riflemen. See, for example, Eliphalet Dyer to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., June 16, 1775 in Paul H. Smith, ed. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1976-2000), 1: 496; John Hancock to Elbridge Gerry, June 18, 1775 in ibid., 507; John Hancock to Joseph Warren, June 18, 1775 in ibid., 508.
 For the influence of southern delegates on Adams with regard to the riflemen see John Adams to James Warren, June 27, 1775 in ibid., 545; John Adams to James Warren, July 6, 1775 in ibid., 590.
 Historian Charles Royster has suggested that in the Revolution’s early stages, Americans believed that superior “virtue,” “benevolence,” “disinterestedness,” and “native courage” when combined with home-grown tactics, would compensate for deficiencies in military discipline and precision. In his letters, Adams seems to describe the riflemen in this context. See Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 11-12, 22-30, 33-35.
 John Adams to Elbridge Gerry, June 18, 1775 in Smith, ed. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1: 503.
 John Adams to James Warren, July 6, 1775 in ibid., 590.
 John Adams to Abigail Adams, June 17, 1775 in ibid., 497.
 For an excellent account of this mutiny see Jesse Lukens to John Shaw, Jr., in Lindsay Swift, ed. Historical Manuscripts in the Public Library of the City of Boston (Boston: Public Library of the City of Boston, 1900), 1: 23-25. Adams learned of the mutiny in a letter from James Warren. See James Warren to John Adams, September 11, 1775, Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
 William Heath to John Adams, October 23, 1775 in ibid.
 John Thomas to John Adams, October 24, 1775 in ibid.
 For the exploits of Morgan’s Rifle Corps during the 1777 campaigns see Albert Louis Zambone, Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2018), 109-155.