Grade 5 – To Join, or Not to Join, George Washington’s Army

Revolutionary War
The Role of Connecticut in U.S. History
Norwich, Statewide
Related Search Terms
American Revolution, Continental Army, Black Soldiers, Recruitment Posters, Equality, Valley Forge
Social Studies Frameworks
Grade 5 – Early United States History

 Why do people enlist in the military?

  • How did the Continental army get recruits to join?
  • Why would a young man want to enlist in the Continental army?
  • How might an enslaved man feel about serving in the Continental army?

Things you will need to teach this lesson.

Recruitment poster for George Washington’s Continental army
Recruitment poster for George Washington’s Continental army – Connecticut Historical Society

This poster uses much hyperbole, including a “truly liberal and generous…bounty of TWELVE dollars, a fully sufficient supply of good and handsome clothing, a large and ample ration of provisions” and the chance for one to “embrace this opportunity of spending a few happy years in viewing…this beautiful continent,…return with pockets FULL of money and his head COVERED with laurels.” (Note: students may need to be told or reminded that many 18th-century documents used the “long s,” which looks like an “f,” at the beginning or in the middle of words in place of the familiar “s.”)

Slave Backus Fox enlistment document, 1781
Slave Backus Fox enlistment document, 1781 – Connecticut Historical Society

Certification that Beriah Bill purchased a slave named Backus Fox and enlisted him in the Continental Service in Norwich, Connecticut. Note that “enlisted for a class” means that Backus counted towards the town’s quota of soldiers they were required to provide to the army. Sometimes enslaved men who enlisted were allowed by their owners to keep a portion or all of their wages earned, but this document makes no reference to any such agreement. This is a hand-written, notarized statement.

Slave Backus Fox enlistment document, 1781 – Transcriptionpage

Transcription of the above document for students who may have difficulty deciphering the 18th-century handwriting.


Start by showing students the recruitment poster and asking them (as a group, individually, or with a partner) to generate observations and questions about it. Have students share their observations and questions.

Some questions that might be addressed include:

  • What is the purpose of the poster?
  • Who is the target audience for this poster?
  • What words, phrases, or images does the poster use to persuade recruits to join?

Next, show or distribute the Backus Fox document (and transcription) and ask students to share or note down:

  • What facts they know for sure from the document
  • What guesses they can make based on the evidence in the document
  • What questions they have

Some questions for discussion might include:

  • Why would the author of the document enlist an enslaved man in the Continental army?
  • How were the quotas for each town determined? What was the quota for our town? How can we find out?
  • How might the enslaved man feel about serving in the army?

Wrap up with a class discussion of the differences in perspective of free recruits and enslaved soldiers.


Students can write historical fiction letters home from the war from the point of view of either a free or enslaved recruit about enlisting in the Continental army, researching historically accurate details. Students should explore motivations and expectations that led to their enlistment. They may also choose to write from the point of view of someone who paid a substitute to serve in his place, writing to explain his decision. If you wish to display the letters, final copies could be written on parchment-type paper.

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