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Revolutionary War Records Overview


The Military Association, 1775-1777

At the beginning of 1775, Pennsylvania, founded under Quaker auspices, differed from other American colonies in being totally devoid of military organization. Early in that year, as tension mounted, there appeared spontaneously in certain localities volunteer companies of Associators patterned essentially upon groups which had existed briefly in 1747-1748 and again after Braddock's defeat in 1755. These volunteer companies made up the Military Association, a civilian reserve designed to repel invasion.

On June 30, 1775, the Provincial Assembly gave official recognition to the Associators and grouped their companies into battalions. Organization was territorial, so that normally a company consisted of men from a single township, while a battalion included all the Associators of several neighboring townships. Ages ranged from sixteen to sixty years. Provision was made for recruiting from the ranks of Associators in each county a small corps of Minute Men, on call for special duty at short notice, but no evidence of the existence of such a corps in Pennsylvania survives.

It is notable, however, that during the summer campaign of 1776, thousands of Pennsylvania Associators saw active service in New Jersey. During the winter of 1776-1777 the Association collapsed, and the Assembly replaced it with a militia system which, though imperfect, proved better adapted to Pennsylvania's needs. With no radical changes, the new militia system served the Commonwealth through war and peace until 1842.

An online listing of officers in the Bucks County Associators and a chart showing how the units were organized is available.


The Pennsylvania Militia, 1777-1783

The Pennsylvania Militia was organized under an act of March 7, 1777, which provided for compulsory enrollment by the constables of all able-bodied male whites between the ages of eighteen and fifty-three. Exemptions were extremely limited, and an estimated 60,000 men were enrolled. For purposes of administration and drill, Companies and Battalions of militia were set up on a geographical basis similar to the arrangement already familiar with the Associators.

In many instances, members of the militia gave no military service beyond occasional routine drill, and some escaped even that. Only in extreme cases was any individual militia man required to drill with his neighbors as many as twelve times each year, and at most he was called upon to perform during the entire course of the war, two or possibly three, short tours of active duty. Many men listed on company rosters never drilled, and tens of thousands enrolled in the militia never experienced a single day of active duty.

Avoiding militia calls was not difficult. A man who failed to report for drill merely paid an Exercise Fine. A militiaman called for active duty who found such duty inconvenient was permitted to hire a Substitute to march and fight in his stead. Frequently no substitute was furnished, but instead a Substitute Fine was paid. Militia fines became an important source of revenue.

Membership in the Associators differed greatly from membership the militia, for, technically, enrollment in the Associators was voluntary, while membership in the militia was strictly compulsory with the obligation legally defined.

An online listing of officers in the Pennsylvania Militia and a chart showing how the units were organized is available.

Pay for military service was often long delayed. Thousands of militiamen returned from tours of active duty unpaid, bearing only a slip signed by a commanding officer. General financial confusion and the collapse of wartime currencies made prompt payment impossible, but eventually, under an act of April 1, 1784, Pennsylvania compensated such payment for their active service and settled accounts with certain other public creditors by passing to them interesting bearing Certificates of the funded or Militia Debt. These certificates (bonds in the modern sense) were ultimately redeemed at face value. Unfortunately, when redemption came many of the original holders had long since sold their certificates at heavy discounts.


Line Troops and the Pennsylvania Line

From beginning to end during the Revolutionary War, the brunt of the fighting was borne by line troops, companies composed of men enlisted for not less than six months and frequently for the duration of the war. The Pennsylvania Line originated in 1775 was organized into thirteen regiments and several independent companies. Special battalions of line troops were recruited for the Flying Camp from among the Pennsylvania Associators who took part in the New Jersey campaign in 1776. For line troops, neither the type of service rendered nor the term of enlistment was uniform.

In certain counties there were recruited special troops called Rangers, who served long enlistments on the frontier against the Indians. Another form of line service was with the Corps of Invalids. Such men of the Pennsylvania Line as became disabled in service but were found capable of light garrison duty were transferred to this special continental regiment. Many of the Invalids were subsequently pensioned.

The financial difficulties of the new government, difficulties that lasted into the 1790's, complicated the payment of troops. Soldiers who served during the years 1777-1780, when the currency was depreciating, were paid in Continental bills of Credit, which quickly lost value. To make amends for such depreciation, each of these men who in 1781 yet remained in line service was awarded a substantial sum in Depreciation Pay Certificates, which were both interest bearing and negotiable, like bonds of the present day.

Somewhat similarly, at the end of the war arrearages and allowances due were met by issuing to each soldier still in the service a number of interest-bearing Final Settlements, also called Pierce's Certificates. To each of her line soldiers, who served to the end of the war, Pennsylvania granted Donation Land in certain western counties, land that remained free from taxation so long as the soldier lived and retained ownership. Contrary to common belief, none of the lands granted to veterans by the federal government were located in Pennsylvania.


The Pennsylvania Navy, 1775-1783

The Pennsylvania Navy was created in 1775 and, like the Pennsylvania Line, was filled by voluntary enlistment. In enrollment, it probably never numbered as many as one thousand men. Its main objective was the defense of Philadelphia and the protection of the Delaware river and bay of the outward and inward bound trade of the state. These two needs determined the form and six of her armed vessels and the character of their operations. Pennsylvania therefore adapted her fleet to shallow waters.

Only in a few instances did her armed vessels pass beyond the Capes of the Delaware into the Atlantic. To avoid capture, nearly all its vessels were sunk in the spring of 1778. Many members of the Pennsylvania Navy were entitled to and received Depreciation pay certificates, and, rather curiously, some were paid off with Certificates of the Funded or Militia Debt. Navy veterans were not eligible for grants of Donation Land.


Revolutionary War Records


Other Sources On Microfilm

  • Military Accounts, Associators, 1775-1777 (RG-4) (digitized roll 152)
  • Military Accounts, Line, 1775-1809 (RG-4) (digitized rolls 142-150)
  • Military Accounts, Militia, 1777-1794 (RG-4) (digitized rolls 153-189)
  • Military Accounts, Navy, 1775-1794 (RG-4) (digitized rolls 205-207, 150)
  • Revolutionary War Pension File, 1809-1893 (RG-2) (digitized rolls 20-22)
  • Revolutionary War Pension List Book, 1834-1837 (RG-28) (digitized roll 240)
  • Records of Pennsylvania's Revolutionary Governments (RG-27) (digitized rolls 689-741)
  • Miscellaneous Manuscripts of the Revolutionary War Era, 1771-1791 (MG-275) (digitized roll 2984)
  • Lyman Copeland Draper Papers, 1542-1916 (MG-262) (digitized rolls 1202-1239)
  • Sol Feinstone Collection of the American Revolution, 1739-1859 (MG-262) (digitized rolls 1290-1292)
  • Lieutenant General von Knyphausen, Report of the Battle of Brandywine to Court of Hesse-Kassel, September 11, 1777 (MG-262) (digitized roll 3003)
  • Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1789 (National Archives) (digitized rolls 1733-1738)
  • Donation and Depreciation Lands (RG-17) (digitized roll 3429)