Friday, October 20, 2023

Comparing Revolutionary War and WWI Soldiers' Experiences


Since America’s beginning, we have been defended by both militia forces as well as regular military, but the sharpest contrast between fighters of the Revolutionary War and those of the First World War is made by comparing the militiamen of the War of Independence with the soldiers of World War I. This paper compares the experiences of those two types of warriors, examines the reasons for entering WWI, and how the history of that war and its veterans were erased.

The Militia Experience

The militia predates the independence of the United Stated by more than a century. It was a tradition that came along as part of being colonies of the British Empire, but the militias of the New World rapidly evolved into a distinct, uniquely American, institution. The primary opponent of the militias were the Indians, who conducted raids and ambushes by operating in small, mobile war parties. From Millet, et. al. (2012):

“Warriors would move stealthily, spread out over a considerable distance to avoid being ambushed themselves, and rapidly concentrate for a whirling attack—often at night, during storms, or in dense fog so as to catch their adversaries off guard and confuse them. Then the Indians would vanish into the wilderness.”
The militias, meanwhile, were still practicing European-style battlefield tactics such as close-order formations, loading their muskets using a fifty-six step process, then firing those muskets in unaimed mass volleys. The Indians easily defeated them, as “it was as easy to hit them as to hit a house.” (Millet, et. al, p.34).

The militias were slow to adapt, but adapt they did, for natural selection is a hard teacher. Commanders such as Benjamin Church (c. 1639 – 1718) began incorporating Indians into the ranks, learning from them, emulating them, and soon it was the militias that were using cover and concealment, attacking the enemy’s weakest spots, targeting and firing at individual enemies, conducting hit-and-run raids and ambushes, and avoiding tight formations. In general, the militias were practicing what would later be called the DOCA loop – disperse, orient, concentrate, act – as described by William S. Lind (Lind & Thiele, 2015, p.73).

It wasn’t just the fighting tactics that made the Colonial and Revolutionary War militias unique – the militia was a local institution, organized for local defense, and at least partially self-funded. It evolved naturally from a light infantry (not line infantry) institution to include cavalry and (later) naval components as needs and opportunities presented themselves.

The psychology of militiamen can be inferred from this quote (Millet, et. al., p.30):

“From whatever social class they came, once enlisted for an expedition the men who filled the ranks believed they had a legal contract with the provincial government that could not be breached without the mutual consent of both parties… Once authorities broke the contract, the troops felt no compunction against staging a mutiny or deserting in mass, even in the midst of a campaign. To the colonial soldiers these actions were legal and sensible, but to British regulars serving alongside the provincials during the colonial wars, such violations of military discipline were intolerable.”
Indeed, the attitude of the British regulars was exemplified by British Major General James Abercrombie who described the militiamen as the “rif-raf of the continent” (Millet, et. al., p.30), and to this imperious attitude and sense of entitlement one can only expect the average militiaman to respond, “rif-raf and proud!” Abercrombie’s point is salient, however, and this is one of the reasons the regular Army existed.

Cooperation between regular Army forces and the militia continued past the War of Independence. For example, at the Battle of New Orleans at the conclusion of the War of 1812, the Americans were commanded by a militiaman (Andrew Jackson was a major general in the Tennessee militia) and the American forces were a combination of the Army, Marines, and militias from several states. During the Civil War, militia-like (partisan) warfare was used by both sides, and John Mosby’s Raiders coordinated attacks and performed reconnaissance with the needs of local Army commanders in mind.

Reasons for America’s Entry into World War I

In the run-up to the war, Americans attempted to separate German culture from Prussian militarism, but we also felt kindred for the Allied nations (Neiberg, 2014). German actions soon forced us into the camp of Entente Powers.

First, American banks and businesses made massive loans to the Allied nations. If they didn’t win the war, those loans would not be repaid.

Germany invaded Belgium in 1914, and rumors of German atrocities against civilians began to circulate. This atrocity propaganda swept the U.S. leading to anti-German sentiment.

In 1915, Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic Ocean, and one of the vessels the U-boats sank was the Lusitania, which caused the death of over one thousand people including 123 Americans. Several American cargo vessels were sunk in 1917.

In January 1917, the British intercepted a telegram sent from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman to the German diplomat to Mexico. In this telegram, Zimmerman proposed an alliance between Germany and Mexico, and if Germany were to win, Mexico would be able to annex Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. The British passed the telegram to the Americans, and it was publicized by the press on March 1st. The United States declared war on Germany on April 6th.

Comparing Wartime Experiences

The most obvious difference between the Revolutionary War and WWI were the weapons and fighting techniques. There was no Revolutionary War equivalent to mustard gas and trench warfare.

The militiamen and WWI soldiers had different views of their respective enemies. For militiamen, the enemy Indians could be depersonalized by race and culture, and the Redcoats could be depersonalized by political philosophy. The enemy of American WWI soldiers was different in language but were of the same race and similar culture. This explains why the American people attempted to separate German education, culture, and industry from the “imperial and military” Prussian state in the American run-up to entry in WWI (Neiberg, 2014).

The circumstances and reasons for hostilities during the colonial era and the Revolutionary War were completely different from those during WWI. For the militiamen, the stakes in the conflict were extremely personal and local, and they were vested in the outcome as the stakes were the militiaman’s home and family. The same cannot be said for the WWI soldiers – the war was distant and the causes were partially economic. Further, America entered the war with little national self-interest, which means the individual soldiers needn’t have any rational value for participating, and the same can be said for individual soldiers of other countries. Although America didn’t participate in them, this explains the Christmas frontline truces on the Western Front during Christmas 1914 as recounted by Wilfred Ewart (Ewart, 1920). These kinds of truces would never have occurred during the colonial era or the Revolutionary War.

There is the level of freedom of militiamen compared to WWI soldiers. The militiamen operated under well-circumscribed contracts, whereas the men under the military were under obligation for “the duration.” There was less local service and more service overseas. There was less local control (or even no local control) and more federal control.

Further, federal control included control over industries and manufacturing, with businesses and factories being nationalized. The economic subtext of the war was not lost on the populace, as American banks and businesses made huge loans to the Allies and thus they had financial interest in victory.

There was also resistance to America’s participation in WWI. To tramp down those protesting involvement, the Wilson administration resorted to propaganda - creating the Committee on Public Information (CPI) and the Creel Committee to fill all communication channels with pro-war and anti-German agitprop. The committee's output was targeted not at the enemy but rather against Americans, and when this propaganda wasn't sufficient, the 1918 Sedition Act was “[e]nforced enthusiastically by Justice Department agents” and “the Sedition Act gave the 1918 mobilization a vicious edge.” (Millet, et. al, p.410).

Operating in the background was the rise of Progressivism and Taylorism which minimized the importance of the individual in everything they touched. From the standpoint of a fighter during the Revolutionary War, this would be completely alien and anathema to the American spirit and tradition of freedom. Militiamen were the machine; WWI soldiers were cogs in the machine.

Most important, perhaps, is the sense of completion in their respective battles. If a militiaman survived a battle, he was sure to see not only the end of it but also the end of the campaign and the war as a whole. The same cannot be said for the American soldier in WWI, due in part to our late entry.

The Lost Generation

Gertrude Stein referred to American expatriate writers living in Paris as “a lost generation,” but the term soon expanded to refer to the entire generation of people that came of age during the First World War. The phrase was memorialized at the start of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, and the literature of that era projected hedonism, a disconnection from the previous generation’s values, and a recognition of the inflation that the price of achieving the American Dream was undergoing.

Three of the major authors of that period – Ernest Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, and John Dos Passos – were ambulance drivers during the war, and their works describe not only their wartime experiences (almost to the point of being autobiographical) but also include strong anti-war sentiments. An excellent example of this is found in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Given the parallels between Hemingway's life (serious drinker, American ambulance driver in the Italian army during WWI, met the love of his life after being injured) and the life of the narrator of A Farewell to Arms (serious drinker, American ambulance driver in the Italian army during WWI, met the love of his life after being injured), we must interpret the following quote from that novel as representing Hemingway's true outlook on the war:

“I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” (Hemingway, 1929)
The novel included several harrowing descriptions of what ambulance drivers must have experienced but notice that this quote is a rejection of not only the mechanics of warfare, but of the jingoism that surrounds the war-making process. This anti-war sentiment extended beyond ambulance drivers to the writings of American combat veterans (e.g., William March’s Company K) and to writers from other countries (such as the German Erich Maria Remarque in his All Quiet on the Western Front).

Erasing the Lost Generation

In the time between the end of the First World War and now, the history of the war was belatedly recognized, or the soldier's trust was betrayed, or its history has been outright erased and diluted. For example, no WWI memorial appeared in Washington D.C. until 1931, and that memorial was small in comparison to the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, built in 1926, which commemorated the same war. An elaborate upgrade is planned to the D.C. memorial for 2024.

Something that must have soured veterans of the Great War was the conclusion of the 1932 Bonus March. The Bonus March was a protest on Washington, D.C., in which thousands of WWI veterans and their families demanded early payment for the bonus certificates that were issued to them in 1924 but could not be redeemed until 1945. President Herbert Hoover ordered the U.S. Army to clear the protesters’ campsites, and the list of participants in this operation reads like a who’s who of World War II leadership. Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur had George S. Patton’s 3rd Cavalry advance on the protesters. The Bonus Marchers cheered the troops, believing that they were marching in their honor. The troops turned on their brothers-in-arms and responded with tanks, bayonets, and tear gas. The Bonus Marchers were thus evicted, their camps burned. The official Army incident report was authored by Dwight Eisenhower, then a military aide to MacArthur, and that report endorsed the whole affair. (Dickson & Allen, 2020)

An example of the erasure of WWI history is the story of how Armistice Day became Memorial Day in 1954, as recounted and analyzed by Kurt Vonnegut:

“When I was a boy... all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

“It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

“Armistice Day has become Veterans' Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans' Day is not.” (Vonnegut, 1973)

Erected in 1921 and completed in 1931, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery was to be the final resting place for the remains of an unidentified WWI service member, and so in a sense it was a WWI memorial. The purpose of this memorial has been diluted since that time, however.

In 1956, President Eisenhower (of Bonus March fame) approved the addition of the remains of two additional unknown soldiers to the Tomb, and in 1958 the unknown WWI soldier was joined by the remains of unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War. (Arlington National Cemetery, n.d.) The Arlington National Cemetery began plans to recognize a Vietnam War unknown even before the end of that war, but by 1984 only one set of American remains from Vietnam had not been identified. President Reagan presided over the internment ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but the remains were exhumed in 1998 and DNA testing was used to provide a positive identification. To this day, the crypt dedicated to the Vietnam War Unknown is empty, and in 1999 it was rededicated to honor all missing service members from that war. (Arlington National Cemetery, n.d.)

In the span of under 80 years, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier changed from being the resting place of one unknown WWI service member to the resting place of a total of three unknown service members as well as missing service members from the Vietnam War. Its focus has changed to be a “distinctive, multigenerational shrine.” (Arlington National Cemetery History Office, p.207)


The militiamen of the Revolutionary War and the soldiers of World War I were different in fighting techniques, spirit, and relation to the government as a whole. One way they were similar was that both the WWI soldiers and the militiamen had their histories erased. This was described above for WWI soldiers. For the militia, it was the Dick Act of 1903: the Act created the National Guard which assimilated the militia’s symbolism (such as American Revolution Statuary) and the date of formation (according to their website, the National Guard’s official birth date isn’t 1903 but instead is December 13, 1636, when the Massachusetts colonial legislature organized militia regiments). The National Guard didn’t adopt the militia’s maneuver warfare or self-funding model, and most importantly the militia’s independent ethos was completely rejected.


Arlington National Cemetery. (n.d.). Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Retrieved from:

Arlington National Cemetery History Office. (n.d.). A Century of Honor: A Commemorative Guide to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Retrieved from:

Dickson, P. & Allen, T. (2020). The Bonus army: An American Epic. Dover Publications.

Ewart, W. (1920). Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War: Personal Accounts of the Christmas Frontline Truces. Harper’s Magazine. Retrieved from:

Hemingway, E. (1929). A Farewell to Arms. Scribner.

Lind, W. S. & Thiele, G. A. (2015). 4th Generation Warfare Handbook. Castalia House.

Millett, A. R., Maslowski, P., & Feis, W. B. (2012). For the Common Defense: A Military History of the Unites States from 1607 to 2012 (3rd ed.). Free Press.

Neiberg, M. (2014). Blinking Eyes Began to Open: Legacies from America's Road to the Great War, 1914-1917. Diplomatic History, 38(4). Retrieved from: t=true&db=31h&AN=98052986&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Vonnegut, K. (1973). Breakfast of Champions: A Novel. Dial Press.

Civil War Revenge Porn

In August of this year, I was taking a class in American Military History. One of the assignments was to write about Sherman's March to the Sea, in which William Tecumseh Sherman led his troops from Atlanta to Savannah in November and December 1864, pillaging and plundering, destroying military and civilian properties indiscriminately in a way not seen again until the George Floyd riots fiery but mostly peaceful protests. I originally thought the assignment was to cover how the Union justified Sherman’s March, so I wrote about revisions to the Union Army’s rules of conduct.

Upon rereading the assignment, what was required was a fictional account, from the point of view of a soldier in the Sherman’s Army of Tennessee. Thus, I wrote some fiction. Here are both parts of my submission.


The atrocities committed by the Union throughout the Civil War in general, and Sherman's March to the Sea in particular, were not the unsanctioned actions of individual soldiers but "came from above" through national policy.

Possible justifications for unleashing total war (war against both an enemy's military and civilians) include:

  • Collapse of the distinction between military and civilians
  • Use of total war to quickly end the war.

Both justifications were used by the Union, even early in the Civil War.

General Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan from the start of the war involved a general blockade of Confederate ports and disruption of commerce along the Mississippi River. The Confederacy was to be deprived not only military supplies (weapons and munitions) but also supplies used by the general population, like food and medicines. The Anaconda Plan was abandoned because it was not producing quick results.

Grant, in an 1862 letter to Sherman, explicitly equivocates civilians with military personnel when he states that "we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people and we must make old and young, rich and poor feel the hard hand of war."

Subsequently, new rules for the Union Army's conduct were codified in 1863 in the Lieber Code. This military law replaced time-tested laws of war coming from Emer de Vattel and Hugo Grotius. Among the articles of the Lieber Code was Article 21: "The citizen or native of a hostile country is thus an enemy, as one of the constituents of the hostile state or nation, and as such is subjected to the hardships of the war."

Article 15 reads in part "Military necessity... allows of all destruction of property, and obstruction of the ways and channels of traffic, travel, or communication, and of all withholding of sustenance or means of life from the enemy." Raiding of Confederate farms is also covered in that same article which continues "the appropriation of whatever an enemy's country affords necessary for the subsistence and safety of the army."

The use of total war tactics to quickly end a war is explicitly permitted in the Lieber Code under Article 29: "...The more vigorously wars are pursued, the better it is for humanity. Sharp wars are brief."

While total war was advocated from above, implementation during the March to the Sea was carried out by Sherman's soldiers, earning those who looted, vandalized, and destroyed Southern civilian infrastructure the moniker "Sherman's Bummers."

The Indemnity Act of 1863 (amended in 1866) shielded Union officials against charges of violating habeas corpus, which is the legal recourse victims would use to seek restitution. This proves that the concept of "CYA" existed even during the Civil War.

For all the destruction that the March to the Sea caused in Georgia (the South's breadbasket), Sherman felt that it was justified, writing that for the South "to whine and complain of the natural and necessary results is beneath contempt."


Since the start of this accursed war, my brother and I have argued over its causes and how Lincoln gathered and wielded power supposedly forbidden to him by the Constitution. We’re both hunters, and we’ve defended our homes against Indian raiders, and we have no problem fighting for what is right. He once told me that “fighting does not merely sate bloodlust, but rather it enriches the soul, for conflict brings out the very best of us - courage, valor, and honor” and I must agree with that. Where we disagree is when he says that “conscription has no place in the land of the free.” I disagree even more when he says that “if Lincoln’s cause be wrong, our obedience to him does not wipe the crime of it out of us.”

When conscription came to central Pennsylvania, we took different paths. I joined and then later transferred south to serve under General Grant. My brother resisted actively, not like Mark Twain, and was in the gunfight at Bloody Knox in Graham County, the skirmish where Tom Adams was killed. One thing my brother doesn’t believe in is proportionate response, and while no one ever said that he took the scalps of the enforcement officers, no one ever said that he didn’t. Last I heard, he was working with draft resisters in Texas, fighting with the unholy terror of a man who wishes only to be left alone, certainly adding to his scalp collection.

I believed in Mr. Lincoln’s war, but when I saw what Sherman’s Bummers did, my convictions were rattled. When Confederate Lieutenant General Wade Hampton complained to Sherman about his Bummers, Sherman replied that he was keeping 1000 Confederate prisoners of war specifically to “dispose of” when the Grays defended themselves against the Bummers. But that Confederate general was correct, that while the wartime right to forage upon the enemy is as old as history, “there is a right older, even, than this, and one more inalienable--the right that every man has to defend his home and to protect those who are dependent on him; and from my heart I wish that every old man and boy in my country who can fire a gun would shoot down, as he would a wild beast, the men who are desolating their land, burning their homes, and insulting their women.”

The Bummers are like the Vikings of yore, defiling and eviscerating their victims, and not necessarily in that order. Considering that they and I are both of the same army, and that they act with impunity, I knew that I was on the wrong side, and my continued participation would be a crime that can never be erased from my soul.

Last night, I freed three of Sherman’s prisoners (hostages) and saw to it that they escaped from camp. Today, I caught my first two Bummers, looting the farmhouse of an aged couple. After they looted it, they set it ablaze. Too late for the farmhouse, I “disposed of” those Bummers, and acquired my first two scalps.

I thought desertion was an action taken only by cowards and would be a difficult thing, but it wasn’t after seeing that Sherman not only permitted his men to act as vandals, but that he encouraged such shameful behavior. All that hunting my brother and I did allows me to live off the land and not to raid civilians’ homes and businesses. If I need something that can’t be hunted, I will deal honorably with the civilians, either purchasing what I need or trading my services.

My brother and I started out with opposing views, but now are on the same side - we are now the left and right hands of Vengeance. When this war is over, I will meet my brother in Pennsylvania, and we will compare stories and our collection of scalps. Who will have the larger collection? I don’t know, but he has an early start, and I must make up for lost time.