Diary Of Sergeant John Smith, First Rhode Island Regiment

The manuscript on which this transcription is based is quite typical of Continental Army diaries with regard to format, sentence structure, punctuation, capitalization and , in particular, spelling. Upon first exposure to the diary’s content which follows, a present-day reader might conclude that, 1) John Smith was barely literate, and 2) the text is therefore exceedingly difficult to comprehend. While not discounting that the eighteenth-century diary genre is somewhat unusual per modern standards, both those initial reactions would, however, be incorrect.

Based on his manuscript, Sergeant Smith would certainly qualify as “somewhat above-average” among Continental Army enlisted men as to literary capabilities. Firstly, an unknown but certainly significant proportion of the army’s rank and file personnel were, in fact, illiterate. Within surviving manuscript company and regimental documents which required the men’s signatures, it is the nearly unbroken rule not the exception to find “his X mark” indicating those individuals unable to even sign their name. More definitively, Smith’s rank as a sergeant as well as evidence within certain diary entries both demonstrate that one of his duties was official record-keeping. The typical Continental Army regiment generated a great deal of “paper work”, including monthly muster rolls and pay rolls, clothing returns, inspection reports, and the recording of courts-martial proceedings.

In addition, each company maintained an “orderly book” on a daily basis to record all orders for that day, beginning with those of General Washington and continuing down the chain of command through the department, division, brigade and regimental levels. Although the majority of Continental Army orderly books are anonymous as to authorship, those few which are signed on a flyleaf or elsewhere demonstrate that this significant daily transcription task was most frequently fulfilled by non-commissioned officers, usually by company sergeants. As eighteenth-century “gentlemen,” commissioned officers did not function as clerks. Given that many regimental officers had their own “waiters” (enlisted men of the regiment essentially functioning as servants), such officers were certainly not prone to spend several hours per day copying orders or filling out mundane forms.

Two entries within Sergeant Smith’s diary also clearly demonstrate that he performed such clerical duties as part of his service within the First Rhode Island Regiment:

The entry for September 19, 1777 cites the appointment of a particular provost martial and notes that he is “ be obey[ed] as such.” The diary entry then reports that “... no Non Commissioned officer or soldier shall Pass the Creek...” south of the camp without official approval, and closes with reference to general orders for that day having set “...the prices of washing and Tayloring....” Those three topics are reported and phrased in the identical manner in several surviving orderly books’ entries for that date among the general orders of Major General Israel Putnam, commanding officer at Peekskill, New York. It is almost a certainty, therefore, that Sergeant Smith was maintaining his company’s orderly book at the time.

In his diary entry for November 18, 1777, Smith described that he had been “...imployd all Day at Capt. Arnold’s Tent writing....”

The point, of course, is that company and regimental personnel who were assigned the duties of transcribing orderly books and maintaining essential records were selected on the basis of their being able to demonstrate at least average, if not above-average, literacy and competency.

The more relevant of the two potential initial reactions noted earlier is the second one, that relating to the ease or difficulty of comprehension by the reader. There is no question that Sergeant Smith’s diary requires some acclimation; his style needs “some getting used to.” The primary goal of this discussion of the transcription criteria which have been employed, therefore, is to assist the present-day reader to more easily and accurately “hear” Sergeant Smith tell his story.

1. Format:

As is often found to be the case within Continental Army diaries, the Smith manuscript was written as an almost continuous narrative without consistent and clearly recognizable separation of one day’s entry from the next. While many entries were obviously written on the day being described, there are also sections which demonstrate that Smith at times chronicled two or three days retrospectively, as indicated by references such as “...and the next morning we....” Additionally, while Smith dated most entries, some are undated, the latter needing to be deduced by “the next day” references. Finally, there are two occasions when Sergeant Smith apparently “lost track” of and misidentified the date of the month.

In the transcription, each daily entry is presented as a paragraph, which, if undated by Smith, is identified by the date appearing within brackets. In those instances when a sentence spans over one night and the following morning, that sentence has been split via a bracket and continuation dots. Erroneous dates have been corrected within brackets following Smith’s manuscript reference.

2. Sentence Structure And Punctuation

As is also the case in other Continental Army diaries, Sergeant Smith’s manuscript was written basically devoid of “normal” sentences due to the virtual total absence of punctuation. Throughout the entirety of the 1777 diary, there are only two or three instances of a period being used to close a sentence. When combined with the nearly random usage of capital versus lower-case letters to initiate words, Smith’s manuscript entries resultantly often appear to be continuous “run-on” sentences. A careful reading of the manuscript, however, reveals the intended content of sentences, with few, if any, instances in which alternative interpretation would be possible.

In the transcription, Sergeant Smith’s sentences have been separated by two dashes. Beyond this addition, the only remaining “punctuation” which appears with any degree of frequency is the ampersand, which Smith was remarkably fond of using. While there is a large number of ampersands appearing in the manuscript, Smith wrote “and” less than a dozen times.

3. Capitalization

Sergeant Smith’s use of capitalization has been transcribed, to the fullest extent interpretable, per his intent and habit. The present-day reader is apt to be immediately amused and mystified by the virtually random employment of capitalization. The usage of capital letters within a sentence for seemingly no logical reason was extremely prevalent in eighteenth-century writing, regardless of other evidence of the literary capabilities of the writer. (In reality, there was more rationale than appearance might suggest in that the standards of the time were typically to capitalize all nouns regardless of their place of appearance within a sentence.) Virtually all of Washington’s letters, for example, demonstrate such mid-sentence capitalizations which, per current usage standards, would be incorrect. Sergeant Smith’s habits were just slightly more erratic than the norm, in that he, for example, would sometimes capitalize a person’s title or given name but not capitalize the surname, such as “General washington”, or would elect for the converse, such as “william Telley.”

4. Spelling

Without question, the characteristic of Sergeant Smith’s diary which the reader will find at times to be challenging but, hopefully, also somewhat entertaining, is his spelling. As with capitalization, the manuscript is highly typical of other Continental Army diaries. Per the standards of his day, Smith, that is, could be described as “about average” in his spelling abilities and eccentricities. The following comments and examples are intended to assist the reader to begin to easily “interpret” the transcription of his diary.

There is an element of phonetic spelling in Smith’s writing, but where words are readily interpretable and his intent is obvious, no clarification has been considered necessary. Examples of such spelling variants would include:

fritened,.....meen while,.....opposet,.....privats, .....valuabel.

In those cases in which Smith’s spelling and/or his use of an unusual word or phrasing has suggested that clarification would be helpful, such has been added to the transcript within brackets.

Sergeant Smith regularly abbreviated the past tense of verbs by eliminating the “e”, but only occasionally inserted an apostrophe to indicate the contraction. Examples of this habitual practice which appear throughout the diary include:


Ironically, in some instances when he did utilize “ed” for a past tense word ending, he continued to abbreviate somewhat by dropping an internal vowel of the present tense stem word, thus yielding odd results such as:


Smith chronically reversed the “ie” pairing, as seen in:

(Cannon, therefore, are referred to as “feild peces.”)

A further reflection of the “ei” issue is Smith’s nearly habitual spelling of “there” as “their”, and his variant treatment of “where” as “wheir” or, occasionally, as “whear.”

The past tense of certain words as written by Sergeant Smith eliminated the “ed” challenge entirely by adding “t” to the present tense form:

keept (for kept),.....sleept (for slept.)

References to certain daily activities within the army take on somewhat unusual appearance through Sergeant Smith’s pen:

The morning meal can be “breakfast”, “brakefast” or “brakfast.”

The midday meal is “diner”; having completed it, one has “dind.”

The evening meal, logically then, is “super”, and after having completed it one has “supt.”

Relatedly, the word “ate” was not within Smith’s written vocabulary, it being spelled “eat” or “eate” regardless of referring to the present or past tense. In all cases, the context of its usage easily provides the reader with discrimination of the tense and, therefore, the word being used. (Since the diary entries are usually written in the past tense, “eat”/“eate” in most instances signifies “ate.”)

Sergeant Smith’s bread was made from “flower”, while the meat most often issued to the troops was “beaf.” (While still on the hoof, the source of the latter were “beavs.”)

Alcohol, either rum or whiskey, was issued in a “gill” or “jill” per Smith’s interchangeable spelling. (A gill, the correct spelling of that one-quarter pint volume, is, nonetheless, pronounced as if spelled “jill.”)

When the troops “marchd” in wet or freezing weather, Smith would comment on the poor conditions of the “rhoad” or “rhode”, those variants also being alternatively applied to the name of his home state

And, when the troops rested during the day or “turnd” in for the night, they either “taried” (sometimes “tareyd”) or, more frequently, “loged” (i.e., lodged.)

Finally, a few additional spelling issues which appear with frequency include:

Smith more often than not spelled the surname of Colonel Christopher Greene of the First Rhode Island Regiment as “Green”, and consistently referred to Colonel Israel Angell of the Second Rhode Island Regiment as “Angel.” These names have been corrected within brackets at only their first appearance.

The word “take”, in its entire range of usage forms, is spelled with an internal “ea”:.... “teake”,.....”teaking”,.....”teaken.”

The troops’ muskets are most often referred to as their “armes” or “arms”, but occasionally as “musquets.” The German enemies against whom they were fired during the defense of Fort Mercer were “Hesians.” Nearby Fort Mifflin in Smith’s interpretation becomes “Miffilin.”

The word “very” consistently appears as “verey”, while “before” consistently becomes “befor.”

5. Final Criteria

As was not uncommon among Continental diarists, Sergeant Smith consistently spelled “off” as “of.” To avoid the repetitious use of “of[f]” in the transcript, the final letter has been silently added to the word when it appears.

Penslips of repeated words, such as “... we march’d to to ...” have been silently corrected, again to avoid the substantively meaningless use of “[sic]” in such a case.

Place names have been specified as to state only within entries when a day’s march has crossed over a state line.

Lastly, in several instances, Smith left a gap within a line when the name of a person, place or a sermon’s scriptural selection was unknown to him at the time of writing. These are indicated within the transcript via “[blank].”

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