Drum beats. The rhythm of order. The unifying riff on the battlefield that recalls to us our purpose for fighting. The steady cadence of the drum, that would usually signify the march of an army, was nowhere to be heard as the dusk of November 21st fell, bringing with it the first of the bitter winter nights that would encompass New England in the rapidly diminishing days of 1776. As if the landscape could be any bleaker, the first of the steady stream of ragged, sore, and dejected ranks filed past the townships and into the countryside. They hardly called themselves an ‘army’ any longer; just a miscellany of rebels; young idealists, old patriots, and foolish thrill seekers. The sun continued to sink beyond the horizon, and hearts were not much higher. “We had been an army earlier this summer”, reminisced one young Lieutenant by the name of Monroe, but then reality had set in along with the winter.
Just months earlier, after enjoying a streak of victorious skirmishes against their oppressive overlords, the 13 British Colonies of America had boldly stated their grievances to the unsympathetic monarch across the sea, and had declared independence. We felt invincible during those beautiful summer days, Monroe mused, independence at last, and with little consequence or cost! Monroe, along with so many other ‘patriots’ of that summer would be reminded that England prided herself in her colonies, and on all the subjugated populace that came with them. A willful people would always be suppressed by organized military strength.
Monroe was recalled from his nostalgia to the realization that night had come and now pressed in on all sides, cast off by the torches staggered up the column. The only sounds to be heard were the soft tramping of feet and the clinks of gun muzzles and bayonets accompanied by the squeak of un-greased wagon axles. A drummer trudging along side Monroe allowed his instrument to thump off his body with every step, beating the somber, unwritten tune of retreat. Drums were made for order, Monroe reflected as he again slipped into the thoughts of the past. The sound of the drum was meant to give soldiers order and inspire them as they marched into battle, united. But that heartening instrument had not been in use recently, not since the Declaration had been signed, and the wrath of the British empire had descended on the colonies in wave after wave of red coats. The British had retaken forts, river heads, ports, and yesterday, New York City.
The American retreat from the city continued into the heart of New Jersey, and as the colder days were met with increasingly inadequate supplies, days of despair stretched into weeks of depression. Many of the men, in whom the cause of freedom had beat so vividly months before, were leaving altogether. Of course independence had been supported in July, when all could afford to be patriotic without consequence, but now, as the Colonists desperately tried to garner support and rally people to their pitiful cause, the British watched smugly from the hearths of New York, reminded once again that their formula for control would inevitably win the day; willpower was no match for manpower, and England had plenty of soldiers. The height of these ‘Patriots’ ecstasy in July in contrast to the gloom of the band of soldiers now spelled only one thing to the British: The American cause would be dead by spring.
Monroe sat shivering near a dying fire. The instrument of his young drummer lay at his feet. It was the last fuel he had to burn, since the abundance of wood and paper goods had already been used up, reminiscent of how the energy and unity of their ‘glorious cause’ had disappeared soon after the first defeat. The drummer had died last week, causing the young lieutenant to reminisce about his sentiments that very summer: independence at little cost. He now realized the true value of a cause is not the ease to which victory is attained, but rather by the amount of sacrifice true patriots are willing to lend to it. As illuminating as Monroe’s revelation had been, it had come too late. Was victory just a forlorn dream? Determination gripped him. Summer comes every year, awaiting those who soldiered bravely through the winter. “So even if others will not unite, I must give my all to my convictions”, he said to himself. Monroe pledged that he would never surrender the cause, but would fight for it as long as he had breath. But one fact still remained. He knew as well as the British, one man cannot win a war. He looked down at the drum as he tossed it into the flames. The People needed unity, the rally and inspiration of a drumbeat to stir their hearts and remind them that the hopes of summer were coming once again.
He watched as the first flames licked at the wood. Suddenly, from behind him, a man lunged for the drum, plucking it from the flames. As he stood up to protest, he saw it was a man by the name of Thomas, one of General Greene’s aides. His face was beaming with inspiration. Thomas, privy to the Generals plans, knew the forthcoming, last-ditch attack, on December 25th, would fail without the backing of troop morale. He, too, had heard the call to unity, and he was to make his contribution to the cause now. With no other parchment available, Thomas scratched out his prose on the head of the war drum:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Thomas showed the words to Monroe. There was a silence.
The next day, December 24th, 1776, General Greene read aloud the simple paragraph to all the men. First there was silence. A few men left. A few more bowed their heads. The words read from the drum resonated with the men unlike any drum cadence ever could have. These men were not like the British soldiers, trained to follow only the fife and drum, these were men with a cause worth persevering for. There was a cheer. Then two. Then three. Monroe looked at Thomas. The drum was beating once more.
Though not an audible melody, that unifying drum now beat again in the hearts of all true patriots the next day, when the British and their allies were thoroughly defeated at the battle of Trenton.
This, one of the most shocking military victories in American history, was won not by the so called ‘summer soldiers’, who join the cause because of its strength, and inevitably abandon it at the first sign of injury, but was won by the patriots, young and old, whose courage lay not in their military strength, but in their perseverance and sacrifice for the cause which all true patriots believed in. While the ‘Sunshine patriots’ basked in the glow of fireplaces, it was the ‘winter soldiers’ who won the day.
Lieutenant Monroe would lead his men into action for the last time at Trenton. During the battle, he lost much of his shoulder to a musket ball. But true to his word, he would never abandon the cause, even when incapacitated. He is more commonly known as the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe.
Thomas’ poem became a sensation, which he expanded upon, with a collection of similar papers, published as “The American Crisis” By Thomas Paine.
We are familiar with the stirring paintings of the Battle of Bunker Hill, or the galant portrait of the British surrender at Yorktown, or the vast French fleets battling the Royal Navy off the American coast, but how often do we remember the winter soldiers of 1776? Hundreds of nameless faces, whose determination and immense sacrifice that winter saved the American cause. They are not truly forgotten, their legacy continues on, for deep in every American beats that unifying drum. The battle cry that united us in times past, can unite us today, if we are willing to sacrifice, to renounce the ‘sunshine patriot’, and be the winter soldiers. Because sometimes, a righteous cause doesn’t require anything more than a dedicated few who will stay with it through the summers and winters.