The Army of Immigrants
Records of men who camped at Valley Forge, expose the myth of farmers throwing down their plows to fight for land they’d owned for generations.
Enlisted ranks were largely landless men in their teens or early twenties, unmarried and poor. The army offered steady wage, food, whiskey, and clothes, so patriotism was not often the driving factor of their enlistment. A study of 710 New Jersey Continentals showed almost all came from lower economic classes and only a small number had a profession at all.
In addition to being landless, most were not American-born. Before the revolution, over 300,000 Irish had immigrated to North America, and their bitterness of British oppression helped lead the drive for independence. In most New England Continental regiments, 10-20% of the men had Irish surnames, and in middle states that percentage was consistently higher. Units from Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware were usually around 45% Irish. In The First Pennsylvania, 315 of 660 men were Irish-born and another 215 listed “America” as their place of birth, likely second-generation immigrants.
After the Irish, German-born men held the second-largest percentage, making up somewhere from 10-20% of the rank-and-file soldiers at Valley Forge. They were the largest ethnic group in the United States at the time, mostly settled in New York and Pennsylvania.
Additionally, almost 10% of Washington’s army, camped at Valley Forge, was made up of African or African American soldiers. Many enlisted voluntarily, but it’s true that some were given as bounty for their masters to avoid enlistment. And, many served through to the end of the war, finding better treatment among enlisted ranks as ‘brother soldiers’.
info from: “No Meat, No Soldier: Race, Class and Ethnicity in the Continental Army” Charles P. Neimeyer