Historical Markers
Thompson's Rifle Battalion Historical Marker
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Thompson's Rifle Battalion

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
E. South St. at Old Graveyard

Dedication Date:
November 11, 1986

Behind the Marker

In 1786 painter John Trumbull memorialized the unsuccessful but heroic American invasion of Canada in <i>The Death of General Montgomery at the Attack on Quebec, December 31, 1775</i>.  On the right side of the canvas, Colonel William Thompson, dressed in the brown coat of his Pennsylvania riflemen, gazes at the dying Montgomery.
The Death of General Montgomery at the Attack on Quebec, by John Trumbull,...

The Continental Army was a hybrid organization from the very beginning. Founded by Congress in June of 1775, the core of the Continental Army was composed of Massachusetts" "Minute Men" and the other local militia units who chased the Redcoats from the small villages of Lexington and Concord back to Boston two months earlier. Some Congressmen saw the creation of a national army as an essential step toward Independence. Others emphasized the need to restore order in New England and prevent any subsequent provocations that might destroy the dwindling possibility of negotiating a truce with Britain. On June 14, 1775, Congress decided to take charge of the army and transform it into a national institution. They made Virginian George Washington its commander in chief, and recruited soldiers from the states at large.
German colored engraving of American sharpshooter and Pennsylvania infantryman
German colored engraving of American sharpshooter and Pennsylvania infantryman

Pennsylvanians were reluctant to join the army and had far less experienced in military affairs than many other colonists, but they still surpassed Congress's authorization to raise six companies of soldiers by three. These nine companies were commanded by Col. William Thompson of Carlisle, a surveyor and early activist in the resistance against Britain.

The men who volunteered for Thompson's "Rifle Battalion" represented "a general cross section of the Pennsylvania frontier's ethnic population." Most of them were Scots-Irish and Germans from the counties west of the Susquehanna River, although some came from as far east as markerReading. Most, too, were single, eighteen-to-twenty-five-year-old farmers whose families held farmsteads of less than 100 acres. This profile makes the early Pennsylvania troops comparable to those which most other states raised early in the Revolution. As the war dragged on, Continental privates tended to be poorer and younger.

The companies of Thompson's Battalion marched separately from their areas of origin on the Pennsylvania frontier to New England. They arrived near Washington's headquarters at Cambridge, Massachusetts, between late July and late August of 1775. These first Pennsylvania troops were similar to the New England soldiers that composed the nucleus of the early Continental Army, men whom Washington found "an exceedingly dirty and nasty people." The patriotism that inspired men to enlist was no substitute for the discipline that would only come with experience and the sifting out of unqualified individuals. The Pennsylvania companies showed early signs of being undisciplined and, in several cases, blatantly mutinous.
Appointment certificate of Thompson
William Thompson's appointment as a colonel
While the new Continental Army maintained a siege at Boston, two of the Pennsylvania companies in late 1775 participated in Benedict Arnold's heroic but disastrous winter march across the wilderness of Maine to the St. Lawrence River, and the unsuccessful assault on Quebec.

Other companies moved with the main army to New York City in August of 1776, where they experienced the demoralizing reversal of fortune that led to their retreat across New Jersey into Pennsylvania. This was the time that, in Thomas Paine's vivid words, "tried men's souls." A few of them probably participated in the crossing of the Delaware River on December 25, 1776, and the successful defeat of a Hessian garrison at Trenton. After 1776, Pennsylvania's military units were reorganized, along with the Continental Army as a whole. General Washington, and a reluctant, often divided Congress, tried to balance the ideas and principles that had precipitated the Revolution, with the military realities of the day by creating a force that could secure independence without threatening the liberty of citizens.
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