The Frontier Riflemen

Gillespie Rifle

John has settled his affairs at home and is on his way to take up arms in the War for Independence. He has joined with his old acquaintance Captain Cresap, whose name the readers of John: The Making of a Long Hunter, and John: A Man of the Frontier will recognize. When Second Continental Congress established the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, they gave authorization to form ten companies of riflemen from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. One of the Maryland companies was assigned to Captain Cresap.

Riflemen were an important and controversial group in the War for Independence. The men in the rifle companies were mostly men of the frontier recruited because of their superior marksmanship. Colonel Washington was familiar with the rifle and the men who used them with near mythic abilities, from his participation in the French and Indian War. He was eager to have companies of these men because he reasoned they would be a powerful addition to the newly formed continental fighting forces. The rifle was not well known in battle and both the British and New England regulars were unaware of the accuracy and effective range. Up to that point the Brown Bess musket was the weapon used by both sides. The soldiers were not schooled in marksmanship, but rather the rapid deployment of their attacks through efficient and quick reloading and firing. The intent was to throw a curtain of lead at the opponent in hopes that they would run into it. With the arrival of the riflemen, men could be picked off from a great distance with little chance of retaliation.

Cresap’s company, as well as the other nine, consisted of frontier men; independent, eccentric, courageous hunters and explorers, highly proficient with their rifles. He marched his troop of men 550 miles in 22 days to join Washington and participated in the Battle of Cambridge in August 1775 as part of Morgan’s Riflemen.

At first the rifle brigades were treated as special units, not assigned regular duties, displaying their marksmanship in exhibitions, and causing a wave of terror amongst the enemy. The fact that they were killing British soldiers at long distances affected moral. The British figured out the range of the rifles and reset their lines, but even then, the threat was always there.

The rifle may have been well suited to the changing modes of battle, but the men wielding them were ill suited to military life. Used to independence, freedom to move, and a lifestyle of little regimented discipline, they became a source of disruption in the camps. After the first excitement and success, the novelty wore off and they chafed under military discipline. When assigned latrine duty, or guard duty, they would balk or merely leave. Their drinking and lack of discipline forced Washington to assign 500 regulars to keep them in check. It came to a point that Washington reportedly said he wished they had never come.

The Rifle Brigades and companies fought throughout the war, and made their contribution. In several of the battles, but their effectiveness, as in the French and Indian War, was when engaged in guerilla-style fighting.


For an interesting description, see: Harrington, Hugh T, 2002, Patriot Riflemen During the Ammunition Crisis at the Siege of Boston in 1775.


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