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The Continental Army in The American Revolution
Part 1: A brief history of the Continental Army
On both sides of the Atlantic, the abiding images of the American Revolutionary War remain the embattled farmer, leaving hearth and home, to risk all for liberty, and the eagle-eyed sharp-shooting patriot running rings round King George’s “paid hirelings”. In reality, the brunt of the struggle for independence was borne not by the militia but by “Continentals” – regular soldiers who were drilled, disciplined and fought in the same linear manner as their enemies.
On September 2, 1776, after the defeat at Long Island that almost destroyed his army, Washington wrote to Congress:
“……no dependence could be in a Militia or other troops than those enlisted and embodied for a longer period than our regulations have heretofore prescribed. I am persuaded……that our Liberties must of necessity be greatly hazarded, If not entirely lost, If their defence is left to any but a permanent standing Army……”
On September 15, 1780, he wrote again to Congress:
“……no Militia will ever acquire the habits necessary to resist a regular force. Even those nearest the seat of War are only valuable as light Troops to be scattered in the woods and plague rather than do serious injury to the Enemy. The firmness requisite for the real business of fighting is only to be attained by a constant course of discipline and service.”
The first of this three-part series of articles looks at the operational and structural development of the Continental Army (its combat history has been omitted, as this is can be found in most histories of the War). Part two will cover the organisation and uniforms of the infantry, and part three will discuss the organisation and uniforms of the artillery, the cavalry, the supporting arms, and the senior officers and general staff. 1775: The Continental Army was “born” in June 1775, when Congress adopted the “Army of Observation” besieging Boston, and the “Separate Army” invading Canada. At the same time, it authorised the first “Continental” unit – ten companies of “expert riflemen” from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia – and appointed a Virginian, George Washington, commander-in-chief to encourage Southern participation in the War. Congress and Washington then planned a regular force of 26 infantry regiments, or battalions, numbering over 20,000 men, plus one artillery regiment and one rifle regiment (cavalry units were considered an unnecessary luxury at that time), with a further nine infantry regiments eventually assigned to Canada. Except for the rifle unit, all personnel came from New England or New York, with each regiment drawn from one colony, despite attempts to create a “national” identity by merging detachments from several. Unfortunately, recruitment was slow and Washington found himself with only 6,000 recruits by mid-December with the enlistments of the “Army of Observation” due to expire at the end of 1775. By calling out the militia and using the onset of winter to hide his weaknesses, he averted calamity, but short-term enlistments would plague him again in 1776.
1776: The establishment of regular armed forces in the South and their gradual adoption by Congress from late 1775 on, raised command issues, which Congress dealt with by creating territorial departments – Canada and New York (later merged into a Northern Department); Eastern (New England); Middle (lower New York to Maryland) and Southern (Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia). Two more were added later: the Highlands Department guarded the only part of the Hudson defensible against warships and the Western Department protecting the Virginia-Maryland-Pennsylvania frontier. Each was commanded by a major-general and two brigadier-generals, but as the Main Army occupied New York City, Washington also took command of the Middle Department. Steps were also taken to improve the army’s “tail”, with the establishment of hospitals and medical services, artificers, a corps of engineers (named officers assigned to a department) and a permanent Congressional committee to oversee administration.
When the New York campaign exposed the army’s numerical weakness, Congress initially turned to the militia rather than recruit more Continentals – a move derided by modern historians, but which was based on sound ideological and logistical reasons. The militia could take the field immediately, in large numbers and in formed units; and in what was increasingly seen as a “popular” war, it was more representative of the people. However, few colonies met their quotas and the inclusion of travel to and from the theatre of operations within the enlistment period, meant many contingents stayed only long enough to consume provisions and ammunition, and avoided any fighting. However, despite the defeats and problems, the year ended on a high note: the victories at Trenton and Princeton may not have stimulated recruitment or re-enlistment to the extent Washington had hoped, but they did arouse interest in Europe.
1777-1779: By autumn 1776, Congress was forced to accept Washington’s idea of long-term service. A major reorganisation included three-year enlistments; the “eighty-eight battalion resolve” which also created the 13 “State Lines” with quotas based on population; and a revised Articles of War, providing stiffer penalties for indiscipline and misbehaviour. Aftr Trenton, the army’s eventual strength was set at 110 infantry regiments, three artillery regiments and four of light dragoons (for intelligence-gathering and outpost duty, rather than shock action). The infantry included 16 “additional” regiments not assigned to any State Line (though recruited from specific areas) and six “extra” regiments directly raised by Congress, three of which were re-assigned to State Lines, or counted against their quotas. Including support units, there would be over 90,000 officers and men – on paper!
At the same time, large quantities of the 1763 model Charleville musket arrived from France (having been replaced in French service by a newer model). Washington’s tactics emphasised firepower over shock action – ie the bayonet – and this 0.69 calibre weapon, firing a one-ounce ball, had greater range and durability than British muskets. From 1777, the Continental Army’s musketry was often more destructive than that of its opponents.
The Trenton campaign also prompted a shift from regiments to brigades as the main tactical units (only two of the seven at Trenton having exceeded regimental strength). For 1777, Washington proposed brigades of three regiments and three brigades (6,600 men) to a division, but manpower limited him to ten permanent brigades of four or five regiments (usually from one colony). Nevertheless, he now had permanent formations that could quickly move to reinforce other theatres, as illustrated by the Saratoga campaign and later in the South.
Permanent regiments meant that colonies now only had to find replacements and not constantly raise new units, but the number of infantry regiments diluted resources and cadres, and created competition for recruits (some colonies offered “top-ups” to the Congressional enlistment bounty, much against Washington’s wishes). Also, experienced staff officers were taken to command the “additional” regiments and the cavalry. However, the army was now on a sound footing and the campaigns of 1777 in New York and Pennsylvania showed it could fight.
In January 1778: the 1st Rhode Island Regiment transferred its enlisted men to the 2nd and refilled its ranks with free and enslaved blacks, promising emancipation after the War. A similar proposal was rejected by South Carolina, but a return from August 1778 showed that most State Lines had between 5% and 10% black personnel. Other changes proposed in May 1778 included adding a light company to each infantry regiment, and “converging” those in the Main Army to form a corps of light infantry (a practice hitherto confined to providing support for riflemen, who took longer to load and did not have bayonets – viz. Morgan’s and Dearborn’s commands during the Saratoga campaign). Finally, four brass 3- or 6-pounders were permanently attached to each infantry brigade, while individual companies were rotated between field, park and garrison service, to broaden their experience. By now, captured British and “home made” equipment was so widely available that a plan to introduce the versatile French 4-pounder as the standard field piece had to be abandoned.
Since early 1777, there had been an influx of foreign “advisors” – many were impostors, or lacked the talent to progress in their own countries and several caused arguments with “native” officers by demanding major commands. However, a few – such as the engineers Duportail and Kosciuszko, or Pulaski who briefly commanded the four cavalry regiments – proved their worth, especially in developing the supporting arms, such as the engineers. Among the most influential was “Baron” von Steuben, who became the Continental Army’s drill master and transformed it tactically, by combining the best elements of British, Prussian and French military theory and practice.
The 1778 campaign began before all of these changes had completely taken effect, but enough had happened to make Washington more confident of meeting the enemy in open battle and while the only major action saw him fail to destroy the British rear-guard at Monmouth, every element of the army performed well. The lack of major actions through to July 1779 allowed the organisational changes of May 1778 to be fully implemented throughout the army. As manpower was still a problem, the State Lines first absorbed the “additional” and “extra” regiments and then gradually reduced the number of regiments in their establishments. The need to disperse the cavalry that autumn, due to lack of forage, and the resignation of Pulaski as Commander of Horse with no suitable replacement, meant that the regiments never served together again and reverted totally to reconnaissance, outpost and escort duties, as Washington had originally envisaged.
1780-1781: Congress, dissuaded by Washington from implementing a national draft (ie conscription) settled for encouraging the individual colonies to do so (which several did) and set new quotas for 1780 amounting to 35,000 men, including 21,000 infantry, 2,000 artillery and 1,000 cavalry. By January 1780, the Continental Army had all but reached those targets and this encouraged Washington to plan an attack on New York City, with French support; unfortunately, the voyage across the Atlantic left Rochambeau’s corps incapable of active duty for some time.
In fact, all round, 1780 was not a good year for the Continental Army – the capture of Charleston (its heaviest defeat of the War) and the defeat at Waxhaws, saw the loss of Virginia Line; that of Maryland was badly cut up in the retreat at Camden; and the mass expiry of the 1777 three-year enlistments loomed large. In addition, recruiting was down, not least in the South, due to the loss of Georgia in 1779, the need for more home defence units to oppose the “tobacco raids” in Virginia, and the growing number of British and Loyalist outposts in the Carolinas.
Congress finally acknowledged reality and from January 1, 1781, it reduced the establishment to 50 infantry regiments, four artillery regiments, an artificer regiment, four legionary corps (essentially the light dragoon regiments with two of their six troops dismounted) and two partisan corps. Of these, all but one infantry regiment and the two partisan corps were assigned to a single colony for re-supply and replacements, while the supporting arms were all “continental”, except the artificers, who were assigned to Pennsylvania. All other regiments were disbanded, with the enlisted men sent to other units of their State Line; Washington was given carte blanche as to which officers he retained or retired, which left him with a pool of senior officers able to handle independent commands. Brigades now had three regiments and most were composed of troops from one colony (or region, with the New England contingent), although the New York and New Jersey brigades were both a regiment short.
Unfortunately, the reorganisation and the ambiguous wording of the three-year enlistments, sparked a mutiny among the Pennsylvanian and New Jersey Lines. The mutiny was put down, but a commission into the men’s grievances led to over 1,300 being discharged and almost 1,200 furloughed, effectively disbanding both Pennsylvania brigades. By June, the Main Army had 10,000 men – almost 7,000 short of establishment; however, it had 5,000 French in support, all from regiments that had participated in the important 1778 war games. In the light of Yorktown, it is hard to believe that 1781 began with the Continental Army in turmoil and a widespread belief that the cause was on the verge of collapse!
1782-1783: After Yorktown, Congress looked for still more economies, proposing further cuts in both regiments and personnel (especially officers – including, for the first time, “surplus” generals). When Washington produced evidence that the British had made much smaller reductions in their forces, that there were now more long-service veterans in the Loyalist regiments than in his own, and that the ratio of officers to men was already dangerously low, Congress relented, but cut the supporting arms and agencies instead.
In June 1782, Washington and Steuben instituted monthly inspections of each brigade for appearance, administration, drill and marksmanship; Washington also authorised the first awards for good conduct and a special “Badge of Military Merit” in the form of a purple heart. Efficiency and professionalism grew apace: in August, as the Main Army moved down the Hudson River to ease supply problems, five infantry brigades performed a well executed mock amphibious assault on New York City.
By 1783, the War was clearly over and Congress looked to the future. Washington proposed a small regular army, backed up by a well-trained militia, a system of arsenals, and a military academy for artillery and engineer officers. On November 2, Washington issued his Farewell Order to all personnel being discharged and on December 4, said goodbye to his staff. Two weeks after he resigned his commission, Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the War. The Continental Army was reduced to 80 men at Fort Pitt and West Point and a peacetime establishment agreed. The 700 men – in eight infantry and two artillery companies, drawn from Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey – would serve for one year. This was the 1st American Regiment, the first permanent unit of the US Army.
THE RAW MATERIAL: THE MEN. A typical recruit was in his early twenties (more than half were under 22 on enlistment), barely – if at all – literate or numerate, unskilled, unemployed, penniless, landless and single. He rarely enlisted in the town of his birth, or even his place of abode, and his contribution to the “quota” often represented his only perceived value to the community. Enlistments varied from six months, or to the end of the year (July 1, 1776 for the riflemen), in 1775, to one year from January 1, 1776, and then “three years or the duration of the War” – which Congress interpreted as “whichever was longer” and the men (who left in droves at the start of 1780) as “whichever was shorter”!
Despite contemporary propaganda, he was as much a “paid hireling” as his British or German opponent, receiving a bounty from Congress (and often from his colony), the promise of land (and freedom in the case of blacks) and more money if he was a “substitute”. Some were genuine patriots, but most saw military service as a simple contract for the hire of labour and as events in January 1781 proved, if Congress dodged its obligations, they considered themselves discharged from theirs. In battle, the Continental soldier fought for personal reasons – survival, self-esteem, peer pressure – rather than abstract concepts, such as liberty, duty, or country. As the war progressed, it became increasingly rare for Continental regiments to fail in action and while the stand of the Marylanders at Brooklyn was exceptional in 1776, that of their counterparts at Camden was very much the norm for the latter half of the War.
THE RAW MATERIAL: THE OFFICERS. The officer corps was not dissimilar to its British counterpart, being largely each colony’s socio-political elite (including the odd aristocrat!). It shared European defects: the idea that all officers were gentleman (and thus equal) requiring orders to be phrased more tactfully than some of the rougher officers could manage; seniority became a major issue, prompting resignations (such as Stark’s) and even defections (Arnold was by no means unique); and the commanders of the numerous independent corps often refused to take orders from anyone but the commander of the army to which they were attached!
The egalitarian approach of the men electing company officers, who in turn elected the field officers, appears to have produced equal numbers of “popular” (ie lax) leaders and French and Indian War veterans. The former generated an astonishing snobbery, especially between northern and southern troops, such as the mass brawl between Massachusetts and Pennsylvania troops at Fort Ticonderoga, when a Massachusetts officer (a cobbler in civilian life) offered to mend his men’s shoes! A rare “plus” from the enforced reorganizations of 1775 and 1776 was the chance to remove such officers (though any with political influence did not go without a struggle).
As with the enlisted men, it is difficult to establish how “patriotic” the officers were, as many had a financial and/or political agenda (eg tax avoidance, the rise of Abolitionism, religion, or simply hatred of their neighbours). As the war progressed, competence certainly increased, although the lack of action in the North after 1778, and the small size of the Southern Army, makes it difficult to assess the senior officers (ironically, Gates was the only commander to win a major field action; Washington achieved few tactical successes, but was sufficiently strategically aware to avoid committing his men to battle after New York and spotted the opportunity to corner Cornwallis).
CONCLUSION: Over the course of the War, Washington (and, it should not be forgotten, Congress) built an army that thwarted British plans to halt the rebellion. Both the infantry and the artillery adapted European tactical doctrines to North American conditions and permanent brigade structures made the army extremely flexible. The cavalry, and later the legionary and partisan corps, became adept at reconnaissance and could both operate independently and stiffen local irregular groups. Led by extremely competent European mercenaries, the Corps of Engineers gave Washington an advantage over his opponents, who also lacked the specialist ordnance, quartermaster and military police units that he possessed. Above all, the Continental Army was the USA’s first truly “national” organisation, possessing a comradeship that transcended colonial boundaries for the first time: Washington called his veterans a “patriotic band of brothers” and urged them to preserve the sentiment in civilian life.
While the Continentals did not actually win the war for Congress (the final victory owed far more to the intervention of the 18th Century’s “superpowers” – France and Spain), they staved off a defeat that the militia could never have avoided. In doing so, they not only proved worthy opponents of the British Army, but also came as close – possibly closer – to the stereotyped image most people have of the 18thcentury soldier. Ironically, they shared a similar reward – indifference, unemployment, poverty and ingratitude.
After the War, Henry Knox compiled a report for Congress on the annual strength of the army. The figures are not accurate (Knox himself admitted that some men were counted twice, others not at all) but they generally tie in with surviving strength returns and other correspondence.