We will first endeavor to give the reader some idea of the men who were imprisoned in New York in the fall and winter of 1776, It was in the summer of that year that Congress ordered a regiment of riflemen to be raised in Maryland and Virginia. These, with the so-called "Flying Camp" of Pennsylvania, made the bulk of the soldiers taken prisoners at Fort Washington on the fatal 16th of November. Washington had already proved to his own satisfaction the value of such soldiers; not only by his experience with them in the French and Indian wars, but also during the siege of Boston in 1775-6.
These hardy young riflemen were at first called by the British "regulars," "a rabble in calico petticoats," as a term of contempt. Their uniform consisted of tow linen or homespun hunting shirts, buckskin breeches, leggings and moccasins. They wore round felt hats, looped on one side and ornamented with a buck tail. They carried long rifles, shot pouches, tomahawks, and scalping knives.
They soon proved themselves of great value for their superior marksmanship, and the British, who began by scoffing at them, ended by fearing and hating them as they feared and hated no other troops. The many accounts of the skill of these riflemen are interesting, and some of them shall be given here.
One of the first companies that marched to the aid of Washington when he was at Cambridge in 1775 was that of Captain Michael Cresap, which was raised partly in Maryland and partly in the western part of Virginia. This gallant young officer died in New York in the fall of 1775, a year before the surrender of Fort Washington, yet his company may be taken as a fair sample of what the riflemen of the frontiers of our country were, and of what they could do. We will therefore give the words of an eyewitness of their performances. This account is taken from the _Pennsylvania Journal_ of August 23rd, 1775.
"On Friday evening last arrived at Lancaster, Pa., on their way to the American camp, Captain Cresap's Company of Riflemen, consisting of one hundred and thirty active, brave young fellows, many of whom have been in the late expedition under Lord Dunmore against the Indians. They bear in their bodies visible marks of their prowess, and show scars and wounds which would do honour to Homer's Iliad. They show you, to use the poet's words:
"'Where the gor'd battle bled at ev'ry vein!'
"One of these warriors in particular shows the cicatrices of four bullet holes through his body.
"These men have been bred in the woods to hardships and dangers since their infancy. They appear as if they were entirely unacquainted with, and had never felt the passion of fear. With their rifles in their hands, they assume a kind of omnipotence over their enemies. One cannot much wonder at this when we mention a fact which can be fully attested by several of the reputable persons who were eye-witnesses of it. Two brothers in the company took a piece of board five inches broad, and seven inches long, with a bit of white paper, the size of a dollar, nailed in the centre, and while one of them supported this board perpendicularly between his knees, the other at the distance of upwards of sixty yards, and without any kind of rest, shot eight bullets through it successively, and spared a brother's thigh!
"Another of the company held a barrel stave perpendicularly in his hands, with one edge close to his side, while one of his comrades, at the same distance, and in the manner before mentioned, shot several bullets through it, without any apprehension of danger on either side.
"The spectators appearing to be amazed at these feats, were told that there were upwards of fifty persons in the same company who could do the same thing; that there was not one who could not 'plug nineteen bullets out of twenty,' as they termed it, within an inch of the head of a ten-penny nail.
"In short, to evince the confidence they possessed in these kind of arms, some of them proposed to stand with apples on their heads, while others at the same distance undertook to shoot them off, but the people who saw the other experiments declined to be witnesses of this.
"At night a great fire was kindled around a pole planted in the Court House Square, where the company with the Captain at their head, all naked to the waist and painted like savages (except the Captain, who was in an Indian shirt), indulged a vast concourse of people with a perfect exhibition of a war-dance and all the manoeuvres of Indians; holding council, going to war; circumventing their enemies by defiles; ambuscades; attacking; scalping, etc. It is said by those who are judges that no representation could possibly come nearer the original. The Captain's expertness and agility, in particular, in these experiments, astonished every beholder. This morning they will set out on their march for Cambridge."
From the _Virginia Gazette_ of July 22nd, 1775, we make the following extract: "A correspondent informs us that one of the gentlemen appointed to command a company of riflemen to be raised in one of the frontier counties of Pennsylvania had so many applications from the people in his neighborhood, to be enrolled in the service, that a greater number presented themselves than his instructions permitted him to engage, and being unwilling to give offence to any he thought of the following expedient: He, with a piece of chalk, drew on a board the figure of a nose of the common size, which he placed at the distance of 150 yards, declaring that those who came nearest the mark should be enlisted. Sixty odd hit the object.--General Gage, take care of your nose!"
From the _Pennsylvania Journal_, July 25th, 1775: "Captain Dowdle with his company of riflemen from Yorktown, Pa., arrived at Cambridge about one o'clock today, and since has made proposals to General Washington to attack the transport stationed at Charles River. He will engage to take her with thirty men. The General thinks it best to decline at present, but at the same time commends the spirit of Captain Dowdle and his brave men, who, though they just came a very long march, offered to execute the plan immediately."
In the third volume of American Archives, is an extract from a letter to a gentleman in Philadelphia, dated Frederick Town, Maryland, August 1st, 1775, which speaks of the same company of riflemen whose wonderful marksmanship we have already noted. The writer says:
"Notwithstanding the urgency of my business I have been detained here three days by a circumstance truly agreeable. I have had the happiness of seeing Captain Michael Cresap marching at the head of a formidable company of upwards of one hundred and thirty men from the mountains and backwoods; painted like Indians; armed with tomahawks and rifles; dressed in hunting shirts and moccasins; and, tho' some of them had travelled hundreds of miles from the banks of the Ohio, they seemed to walk light and easy, and not with less spirit than at the first hour of their march.
"I was favored by being constantly in Captain Cresap's company, and watched the behavior of his men and the manner in which he treated them, for is seems that all who go out to war under him do not only pay the most willing obedience to him as their commander, but in every instance of distress look up to him as their friend and father. A great part of his time was spent in listening to and relieving their wants, without any apparent sense of fatigue and trouble. When complaints were before him he determined with kindness and spirit, and on every occasion condescended to please without losing dignity.
"Yesterday, July 31st, the company were supplied with a small quantity of powder, from the magazine, which wanted airing, and was not in good order for rifles: in the evening, however, they were drawn out to show the gentlemen of the town their dexterity in shooting. A clap board with a mark the size of a dollar was put up; they began to fire offhand, and the bystanders were surprised. Few shots were made that were not close to, or into, the paper. When they had shot some time in this way, some lay on their backs, some on their breasts or sides, others ran twenty or thirty steps, and, firing as they ran, appeared to be equally certain of the mark. With this performance the company were more than satisfied, when a young man took up the board in his hand, and not by the end, but by the side, and, holding it up, his brother walked to the distance, and coolly shot into the white. Laying down his rifle he took the board, and holding it as it was held before, the second brother shot as the former had done.
"By this exhibition I was more astonished than pleased, but will you believe me when I tell you that one of the men took the board, and placing it between his legs, stood with his back to a tree, while another drove the centre?
"What would a regular army of considerable strength in the forests of America do with one thousand of these men, who want nothing to preserve their health but water from the spring; with a little parched corn (with what they can easily procure by hunting); and who, wrapped in their blankets in the dead of night, would choose the shade of a tree for their covering, and the earth for their bed?"
The descriptions we have quoted apply to the rifle companies of 1775, but they are a good general description of the abilities of the riflemen raised in the succeeding years of the war, many indeed being the same men who first volunteered in 1775. In the possession of one of his descendants is a letter from one of these men written many years after the Revolution to the son of an old comrade in arms, giving an account of that comrade's experiences during a part of the war. The letter was written by Major Henry Bedinger of Berkeley County, Virginia, to a son of General Samuel Finley.
Henry Bedinger was descended from an old German family. His grandfather had emigrated to America from Alsace in 1737 to escape persecution for his religious beliefs. The highest rank that Bedinger attained in the War of the Revolution was that of captain. He was a Knight of the Order of the Cincinnati, and he was, after the war, a major of the militia of Berkeley County. The document in possession of one of his descendants is undated, and appears to have been a rough copy or draught of the original, which may now be in the keeping of some one of the descendants of General Finley. We will give it almost entire. Such family letters are, we need scarcely say, of great value to all who are interested in historical research, supplying, as they do, the necessary details which fill out and amplify the bare facts of history, giving us a living picture of the times and events that they describe.