Masculinity in the Making: Exploring Manhood within the Continental Army

By Rachel Engl

The Colo Observing that the open and Abominable practice of Drunkness prevails in his Regt without the least Shame or Restraint to the Prejudice of Good order and Discipline he hereby Strictly forbids any Liquer to be Sold in the Hutts Belonging to the Regt.[1]

These orders for the Fourth New York regiment raise important questions about ideas of liberty and hierarchy within the Continental army. More importantly, the lack of self-restraint implied in these orders highlight some of the fundamental contours of a divide between enlisted men and officers regarding soldiers’ behavior amongst themselves and their overall comportment as men within the army.

The Continental army brought together men of all ages. Young boys from Massachusetts and old farmers from rural Virginia became brothers in arms, and in doing so, experienced what it was like to interact with a diverse group of individuals of the same sex for the first time.  This was unique both because it was the first time that many of them were living in a predominantly homosocial space and because the war itself accelerated emotions such as fear and friendship among them. In building these relationships, they established patterns and rituals that defined what it meant to be a man in the army.  As my research shows, officers and soldiers supported differing views of masculinity.  In particular, these many masculinities were explored and reinforced through sociability and friendship fostered within the Continental army.

Officers of the army insisted that they were inherently gentlemen, and so they instilled their military masculinity with a sense of hierarchy and rank in order to claim such a status. They often tried to distance themselves from their men symbolically and physically by planning their own social events and maintaining separate living quarters. In behavioral terms, they showed disdain for more “common” or ungentlemanly like behavior, such as drunkenness. Major General Arthur St. Clair defended this physical separation arguing that officers and soldiers “cannot be too frequently together” because as he explained, “it gives the Officers a Sense of the Dignity and Importance of their Stations.”[2] For officers, this “sense of dignity” was rooted primarily in the concept of honor. Honor not only prefigured as a dominant element in each officer’s sense of identity as men, but it also served as a “precondition for the intimacies of sentimental friendship.”[3] For them, sentimental friendship or relationships established upon an intense emotional bond were another way to distinguish themselves as men from their rank and file inferiors. Continental army officer James Wilkinson noted in his memoirs that he liked to associate with “men of elevated sentiment, ‘who worshipped honour as a real good.’”[4] Wilkinson’s remarks highlight this particular view of masculinity supported by colonial American gentlemen and adopted by George Washington and many of his officers.

By contrast, the soldiers’ sense of identity derived more from the relationship with their fellow comrades than from any prescribed ideas about elite masculinity or honor. As the orders for the Fourth New York regiment suggest, there were frequently gaps between officers’ expectations of their men and the reality of how men behaved. While the social festivities of officers followed the standards of civility and gentility, soldiers did not typically follow this example. Instead, they tended to favor less refined and more physically competitive versions of masculinity than did their commanding officers. For a soldier in the Continental army, the majority of time was not consumed by battle but rather consisted of free time in camp, and it was during this time that men not only cultivated their own sense of masculine identity but also formed close relationships with one another. Samuel Dewees, a soldier from Pennsylvania, explained how he and several other soldiers spent some of their free time. Stationed near West Point, these men used “a large round rock (flat upon the top) in the Hudson river” which they called their “Fort.” According to Dewees, “musicians and others of the younger soldiers would often make up companies, appoint … Captains and other officers, and repair to this rock to have sport in taking and retaking this Fort from each other.”[5]  This sort of physical contest exemplified the type of activities through which soldiers developed a sense of camaraderie.  However, such playful competition could at times be taken to extremes as the enlisted Massachusetts soldier, David How, noted in his diary. He described how a fight between two soldiers over the amount of alcohol they each could drink resulted in the death of one of the men.[6] This lack of moderation, exhibited through the physical competitiveness that soldiers often celebrated, highlights their particular articulation of masculinity.

Overall, by examining the experience of sociability and camaraderie among officers and soldiers, my study raises important questions about the negotiation of masculinity within the Continental army and offers a new perspective needed to understand the complexities of masculinity in early America.

Rachel Engl is a PhD candidate at Lehigh University, and she is currently the Society of the Cincinnati and Consortium Dissertation fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Her dissertation, “America’s First Band of Brothers: Friendship, Camaraderie, and Collusion within the Continental Army during the Revolutionary Era,” explores the lived experience of men who fought by uncovering the significance of personal connections they developed throughout the conflict. You can reach Rachel Engl at or on Twitter by following @RachelEngl.

Title image: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Continental Army, 18th Century.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed April 21, 2016.

[1] Regimental Orders, January 13, 1780 in Orderly Books of the Fourth New York Regiment, 1778-1780, The Second New York Regiment, 1780-1783, ed. Almon W. Lauber (Albany: The University of the State of New York, 1932), 221.

[2] Gen. Arthur St. Clair to George Washington, January 5, 1778, The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008).

[3] Sarah Knott, Sensibility and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 164; See also Joanne Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001) for further discussion about the culture of honor among men from the upper ranks of society.

[4] General James Wilkinson, Memoirs of My Own Times, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Abraham Small, 1816), 5.

[5] John Smith Hanna, ed., A History of the Life and Services of Captain Samuel Dewees: A Native of Pennsylvania, and Soldier of the Revolutionary and Last Wars (Baltimore: Robert Neilson, 1844), 206.

[6] February 7, 1776, Diary of David How: A Private in Colonel Paul Dudley Sargent’s Regiment of the Massachusetts Line, in the Army of the Army Revolution, eds. George Wingate Chase and Henry B. Dawson (Morrisania, NY: H. O. Houghton and Company, 1865), 5.

Further Reading:

Caroline Cox, A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington’s Army (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004)

Richard Godbeer, The Overflowing of Friendship: Love Between Men and the Creation of the American Republic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2009)

Jake Ruddiman, Becoming Men of Some Consequence: Youth and Military Service in the Revolutionary War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014)

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