The army was obliged to resort to impressment: the commandeering of private property. It was a bitter irony that the revolution against the British was triggered, in part, by England’s practice of impressment. To throw off the yoke of British tyranny, the Americans were forced to use the very practice of the tyrants.
The Continental Army also needed to fill its ranks with conscripts. ‘Conscription’ refers to what became known as the ‘draft’ in later American history.
Historians John Maass writes:
Although North Carolina officials resorted to impressment early in the struggle for independence, the practice became more widespread once the British campaigned actively in the South beginning in December 1778. Seizure of supplies by civilian and military officials both angered and impoverished the citizenry. The practice did nothing to engender affection for the Revolutionary cause among enraged inhabitants, many of whom resisted impressment by hiding their produce, livestock, or goods. They often complained when, as was commonly the case, they were given depreciated currency or certificates of dubious worth for their property, which was frequently valued below the market price. Property owners were often given no certificates or payment at all, and had to strive for years to get redress from the state. Few things were exempt from confiscation during the war: authorities seized not only guns, wagons, and horses, but rum, sugar, coffee, paper, canvas, and salt as well. Moreover, many times impressment was used by men of all ranks as a cover for plundering local inhabitants, which could hardly have endeared the North Carolina government to its citizens.
Leaders in the Continental Army were well aware that the practice of impressment could undermine the much-needed popular support for the war.
Officers like General Nathanael Greene undertook efforts to eliminate the corruption and private profiteering which occurred among the men assigned by the army to impress property.
When private property was impressed, records were supposed to be kept, with the objective of postwar repayment to the owners. In many cases, however, either the records weren’t kept, or the postwar reimbursement never took place.
But the sincerity of the army’s efforts to eliminate corruption and the attachment of the populace to the cause of liberty were, if occasionally wavering, nonetheless sufficient to bring about the final victory.