The Continental Regiments of 1776:
Boston and Quebec
In 1775 the four New England colonies had raised their own armies in the aftermath of Lexington, and New York followed suit with encouragement from the Continental Congress. Lack of centralized direction allowed each colony to base its regimental organization on its own particular experience in the earlier Imperial Wars. Congress accepted responsibility for the troops in June when it established the Continental Army. The enlistments of most of the soldiers composing the field armies besieging the British strongholds of Boston and Quebec expired on the last day of December. Congress, George Washington, and his senior officers used the reenlistment of those troops as a vehicle for transforming the Continental Army into a unified national force. In the process they emphasized lessons derived from the French and Indian War.
Washington’s first concern was the weakness of so many of the Massachusetts regiments. Calling out militia to supplement the Main Army did not appear to be a viable policy. The generals unanimously agreed “that no Dependence can be put on the Militia for a continuance in Camp, or Regularity and Discipline during the short time they may stay.”1 Washington attempted to fill the strength deficiencies locally, but he privately doubted that he would succeed, and as early as 10 July he suggested to Congress that it recruit in areas outside New England. In time Washington decided that some incompetent officers also were undermining the quality of his army. He blamed this problem on defects in the methods of selecting officers used by Massachusetts and urged Congress to retain sole control over commissions. This policy would have the additional advantage of broadening the geographical base of the officer corps. In addition, he complained that the differences in the New England regimental organizations hampered efficient operations.2
1. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 3:327.
2. Ibid., pp. 320-31, 390-400, 433, 450-54, 456-57, 505-13. On 10 July, the date Washington submitted his first report to Congress, he began a policy of sending personal letters to individual members of Congress. He used these letters to express opinions which would have been impolitic in official dispatches and to solicit the recipients to act as his agents in securing legislation he desired.
Washington prepared for these meetings by collecting written opinions from his generals and the heads of the staff departments; he also held a Council of War on 8 October. The consensus reached at this meeting reflected Washington’s personal views. The officers wanted the new Main Army to consist of at least 20,000 men organized in 26 standard infantry regiments and separate units of riflemen and artillery. Each regiment was to be reduced from ten to eight companies. Each company was to have a captain, 2 lieutenants, an ensign, 4 sergeants, 4 corporals, a fifer, a drummer, and 76 privates. Each regiment would then have a total strength of 728 officers and men. Eight companies lent themselves to better tactical deployment than ten companies in linear warfare. The new organizations would have stronger companies than those of most of the existing regiments and would save money. The generals avoided the question of how to select the officers because of its “delicacy.”4
These findings and the written staff reports formed the basis for frank discussions with the congressional committee and New England civil leaders from 18 to 24 October. The committee promised Washington that his Main Army would be reinforced before it was made responsible for the defense of New York City, and the committee (exceeding its authority) allowed him to begin reenlisting his men, for a year ending on 31 December 1776. Congress began debating the committee’s report on 2 November and completed the reorganization in a month. It was clearly impressed by the unanimity reported by the committee, and it approved the recommendations of
3. JCC, 3:265-67, 270-72; Smith, Letters of Delegates, 2:26-27, 64-65, 79-86, 112-13. For a general discussion of Congress’ role in the 1776 reorganization, see the following: Burnett, The Continental Congress, pp. 101-8; Donald John Proctor, “From Insurrection to Independence: The Continental Congress and the Military Launching of the American Revolution” (Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 1965), pp. 141-43, 151-83.
4. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 4:7-13; Force, American Archives, 4th ser., 3:1039-44. Other topics discussed included pay, rations, terms of enlistment, regulations, and enlistment of Negroes.
On 4 November Congress approved the reorganization of the infantry into 26 regiments, each with the structure recommended by the generals. (Chart 2) It also accepted their plan for implementing the reorganization.6 Congress ordered that uniforms were to include brown coats with different colored facings (collar, lapels, cuffs, and inside lining of the coattails) to distinguish the regiments, a system borrowed from the red-coated British Army. Each regiment contained 3 field officers (who could not be generals or captains), a small staff, and 8 companies. Each company had 4 officers and 2 musicians, plus 8 noncommissioned officers and 76 privates evenly divided into 4 squads.7 At full strength the regiment deployed 640 privates and corporals—the soldiers who stood in the ranks with muskets—or 88 percent of its total of 728. The 32 officers and 32 sergeants provided a favorable ratio of one supervisor to ten rank and file for maintaining company-level control.
A comparison of this Continental regiment with its British counterpart reveals
5. Force, American Archives, 4th ser., 1155-67; Smith. Letters of Delegates, 2:233-38 243-44. 298 337-38; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 4:22-23, 45-47, JCC, 3:313-14, 318.
6. JCC, 3:321-25, 399. Compared to the regimental structure established in October for units from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the new structure added a lieutenant, a lifer, a drummer, and eight privates to each company: ibid., pp. 285-86, 291.
7. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 4:213-14.
The British companies all had the same basic organization: 3 officers, 3 sergeants, 3 corporals, 2 drummers (actually a fifer and drummer), and 56 privates. Both flank companies had two lieutenants rather than a lieutenant and an ensign. Three of the line companies lacked a captain since the field officers commanding them nominally
8. Headquarters Papers of the British Army in America, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, nos. 27-29 (Sec at War Barrington to Gage, 31 Aug 75, with enclosure); 206 (Barrington, Circular to Colonels, 26 Aug 75); 288 (Barrington to Howe, 10 Jun and 18 Oct 76); 660 (See of State Germain to Howe, 1 Sep 77): 3181-82 (Sec at War Jenkinson to Clinton, 5 Dec 80); 3343 (Clinton, General Orders, 26 Oct 80); Edward E. Curtis, Organization of the British Army in the American Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926), pp. 1-4, 23-24; Eric Robson, “The Raising of a Regiment in the War of American Independence,” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 27 (1949):107-15.
Although a common heritage produced many apparent similarities in the eight-company battle formations of the Continental and British battalions, Washington planned to make his much more powerful. The American battalion contained nearly 50 percent more musketmen (640 to 448) without sacrificing any control. The British had a similar theoretical ratio of roughly one supervisor (21 company officers and 24 sergeants) for every ten fighters, but Washington normally enjoyed a higher ratio of officers to men than his opponents because so many British officers were absent.9 Shortages of enlisted men plagued both armies, but the additional problems of transatlantic communications made the procurement of replacements particularly troublesome for the British.10
The differences in British and American regimental organizations reflected deliberate doctrinal differences. Britain, influenced by Frederick the Great and its own experience in the Seven Years’ War, produced a regiment tailored to formal European battle. It deployed its battalion companies in three ranks to achieve the density needed for a bayonet charge.11 The Continentals turned instead to their colonial tradition of aimed fire and to the lessons of the French and Indian War for inspiration. They adopted a formation using only two ranks, with a frontage more than twice the size of that of a British battalion (320 men to 150). In the American volley all 640 shots counted. The fire of a third rank was so ineffective that a British volley only hoped for 300 shots.
The regimental staff expanded during 1776. Original plans assumed that it would consist of a chaplain, a surgeon, and a surgeon’s mate, with the functions of adjutant and quartermaster being additional duties for subalterns. Congress formally approved the surgeon’s position on 8 December 1775 and the mate’s on 30 March 1776. The hospital staff screened all candidates since Washington considered it “a matter of too much importance, to intrust the Wounds and Lives of Officers, and Soldiers, to unskilled Surgeons.”12 At Washington’s request Congress added five specialists on 16 July.
9. British Headquarters Papers, nos. 371 (Germain to Howe, 14 Jan 77); 411 (Barrington to Howe, 24 Feb 77); 552 (Howe to Barrington, 1 Jun 77).
10. Ibid., nos. 496, 530, 660 (Germain to Howe, 19 Apr. 18 May, and 3 Sep 77); 1031 (Germain to Clinton, 21 Mar 78); 2993, 3181 (Jenkinson to Clinton, 5 Sep 80 and 5 Dec 81).
11. Ibid., no. 1999 (Clinton to Germain, 14 May 79); Glover, Peninsular Preparation; pp. 112-22; J. F. C. Fuller, British Light Infantry in the Eighteenth Century (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1925), pp. 79-92 124-57, 193; Sir William Howe, General Sir William Howe’s Orderly Book at Charlestown, Boston, and Halifax. 17 June 1775, to 26 May 1776, ed. Benjamin Franklin Stevens (1890; reprint ed., Port Washing. ton, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1970), pp. 132, 145-46, 294. By 1778 the British shifted to two ranks to compensate for endemic shortages and a lack of firepower: William B. Willcox, ed., The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns. 1775-1782 With an Appendix of Original Documents (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), p. 95n.
12. Fitzpatrick, 4:345.