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Lives lost for freedom

IN 1776, 56 men pledged their ' lives," their " fortunes," and their "sacred honor" to the cause of American Independence. They also pledged the lives of 200,000 other Americans as well -- men of the Continental Army who volunteered to serve in one of longest and costliest wars in US history.

More than 25,000 soldiers died during the war. In proportion to the US population today, that number equates to more than 3 million dead. The number of soldiers wounded between 1775 and 1783 can only be guessed at, but it is certain that their numbers exceeded greatly the number of deaths. Soldiers who fought for our independence endured terrible hardships. Valley Forge is the most infamous purgatory, but there were many Valley Forges. It was a near miracle that this tattered, ill-fed and often neglected army was able to defeat Great Britain, the world's greatest super power.

For their service, privates were paid less than $7 a month -- that is, if they received it. Chronically impoverished Congress quickly resorted to paying soldiers in Continental script, which rampant inflation devalued until the term "not worth a Continental" became synonymous for worthless.

Disgruntled soldiers complained of their shabby treatment. Washington pleaded with Congress to address the soldiers' grievances. It did not, and on several occasions soldiers mutinied and threatened to march on the government. Despite sympathy for his soldiers, General George Washington remained faithful to the principle of civilian control over the military. He kept command and held the loyalty of the army. At one fateful moment on March 15, 1783, when his officers were planning action against Congress, Washington stood before them and reminded them, "I have been the constant companion and witness of your Distresses." He asked them to be patient. He would personally present their case to Congress.

Washington fulfilled his promise and appealed for justice to the Congress. Politically weak, financially bankrupt, and more interested in ending the war than aiding the army, Congress failed to act. When news of peace arrived, Congress discharged the Continental Army. Since it had no money to pay the veterans, Congress offered them interest-bearing certificates to be redeemed in the future. Many soldiers viewed the certificates as another empty promise. In desperate need of cash, they sold the certificates to speculators for a fraction of their face value. After ratification of the Constitution, the new federal government assumed the obligation of paying off these certificates. To establish the new government's "full faith and credit," Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury, insisted that the certificates be redeemed at their face value plus interest. Unfortunately, the payoffs more often went to greedy speculators than to needy veterans.

Once home, weary veterans found their neighbors were nearly as indifferent to their plight as Congress. According to Harrison Gray Otis, a young lawyer in Boston, they returned "to the bosom of their country, objects of jealousy, victims of neglect." Eight years of war had drained the nation. The "Spirit of 76" was dead.

Neighborly neglect was shameful enough, but some Americans even went so far as to suggest that by asking for compensation the veterans were betraying the republican principles for which they had fought. Our Revolution was a people's war, not a conflict won by regular troops. "We must all be soldiers," wrote John Adams. Citizen soldiers, however much they sacrificed, ought not to expect compensation for doing their duty. "Republican Ideals" and a fear of a military aristocracy fitted nicely with political parsimony to provide convenient excuses for the new nation to ignore the legitimate pleas of veterans.

Not until 1828 did Congress finally grant full pensions to Revolutionary War veterans. In 1864, when the nation that these soldiers had helped establish was being torn part by the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln spoke about the need "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." His words, although directed at those in service to the Union, pricked the nation's conscience and within days Congress recognized the 12 remaining veterans of the Revolution and granted them $100 -- "the parting benediction of a grateful people."

As we celebrate the "Glorious Fourth" today, we ought not to forget those who paid the toll for independence.

William M. Fowler is a professor of history at Northeastern University.