The Continental Army:
Washington and the Continental Congress
Formation of a New England army in the first months after Lexington marked the first phase in the military struggle with England, but even as the regional army gathered before Boston, a significant step in the creation of a national force was being taken in Philadelphia. The Continental Congress convened there on 10 May 1775 to resume its coordination of the thirteen colonies’ efforts to secure British recognition of American rights. It faced the fact that four colonies were already in a state of war. News arrived a week later that Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold had captured Fort Ticonderoga, an event which expanded the dimensions of the conflict and largely ended hopes of a swift reconciliation with Britain. The Continental Congress reluctantly moved to assume direction of the military effort. Thus far the organization of forces had followed colonial precedents, but to establish an army representing all thirteen colonies. Congress had to break new ground.
The first step in this direction came on 15 May when James Duane of New York introduced a letter from the New York City Committee of One Hundred. That body, concerned with a rumor that British troops were on their way to the city, requested congressional advice. Congress recommended that the British regulars be left alone as long as they committed no overt actions, but it urged the New Yorkers to prevent the troops from erecting fortifications and to defend themselves if attacked. Congress used
1. Edmund C. Burnett, The Continental Congress (New York: Macmillan Co., 1941), pp. 64-75; Jonathan Gregory Rossie, The Politics of Command in the American Revolution (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1975), pp. 2-15; H. James Henderson, Party Politics in the Continental Congress (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1974), pp. 34-54, 72-89, 102-8.
On the next day Congress formed itself into a Committee of the Whole to “take into consideration the State of America.”3 This important parliamentary maneuver reflected the fact that Congress although unsure of its objectives, was absolutely convinced of the importance of presenting an appearance of unanimity to the world. As the Committee of the Whole, the delegates could freely debate in secret and arrive at a consensus without placing any disagreements into the record.4 Congress successfully used this formula for the next month.
The first business brought before the Committee of the Whole was a motion on 16 May by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia that Congress raise an army. The motion received some support from all elements of the political spectrum, but it also faced opposition. The delegates knew of the Massachusetts plan for a regional army, but they assumed that the force at Boston amounted to only nine or ten thousand men. Although no action was taken on Lee’s motion at this time, it was clear that there was congressional support for a defensive military posture.5
The impact of the capture of Fort Ticonderoga was evident in the deliberations on 18 May. Information from Ticonderoga now led Congress to assume that the British planned to use troops stationed in Canada against the colonies. Congress instructed the local committees in Albany and New York City to move military supplies to safety and to call on New England for assistance in defending Ticonderoga.6 On the next day the report of the study committee that had been established following Duane’s motion was referred to the Committee of the Whole for considerations On 21 May John Adams referred to the fact that many delegates had become convinced that the British were hostile when he wrote to colleagues in Massachusetts, “I can guess that an Army will be posted in New York, and another in Massachusetts, at the Continental Expense.”8 Other delegates also expected formal action to confirm “Continental” or “American” armies for Boston and New York.
On 25 May the Committee of the Whole delivered a report on three specific measures to be recommended to New York. Two currently undefended strategic points needed fortification: King’s Bridge, which linked Manhattan to the mainland, and the Hudson Highlands, a zone some forty miles above New York City where the Hudson River narrowed between hills. The committee also recommended that the colony’s militia be brought to a state of readiness and that the New York Provincial Congress raise up to 3,000 men to serve, under terms similar to those of the men at Boston, until 31 December 1775. They would garrison Ticonderoga and the other posts. Congress unanimously approved these recommendations on 26 May after adding a preamble
2. Worthington C. Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 34 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904-37), 2:49-53 (hereafter cited as JCC); Smith, Letters of Delegates, 1:351, 353.
3. JCC, 2:53-54.
4. Smith, Letters of Delegates, 1:465.
5. Ibid., pp. 351, 356, 366-69.
6. Ibid., pp. 356, 358, 362-63, 369-70; JCC, 2:55-56.
7. JCC, 2:57. On 1 June another committee, established on 27 May (including Washington, Philip Schuyler, and Thomas Mifflin), reported on ways and means to procure arms: ibid., pp. 67, 74.
8. Smith, Letters of Delegates, pp. 364, see also pp. 442-43, 445-46, 464-65.
emphasizing that Congress hoped for reconciliation but had to defend the colonies. Actually, the only debate came over the size of the New York force.9
On 31 May Congress received a report from Benedict Arnold that indicated British forces were massing at St. John’s (St. Jean, Quebec) at the northern end of Lake Champlain. Congress asked Connecticut to send troops to help defend Ticonderoga from them. The delegates deliberately left vague the number of men to allow freedom of action to the Connecticut authorities, who were closer to the scene. In actuality, this request amounted to Congressional approval for movement of the 4th Connecticut Regiment (approximately 1,000 men). The delegates felt the need to act swiftly. Connecticut’s men were already organized; the New York Provincial Congress, on the other hand, had not yet raised its troops.10
Decisive action came on 14 June when Congress adopted “the American continental army” after reaching a consensus position in the Committee of the Whole. This procedure and the desire for secrecy account for the sparseness of the official journal entries for the day. The record indicates only that Congress undertook to raise ten companies of riflemen, approved an enlistment form for them, and appointed a committee (including Washington and Schuyler) to draft rules and regulations “for the government of the army.”11 The delegates’ correspondence, diaries, and subsequent actions make it clear that they really did much more. They also accepted responsibility for the existing New England troops and the forces requested for the defense of the various points in New York. The former were believed to total 10,000 men; the latter, both New Yorkers and Connecticut men, another 5,000.12
9. JCC, 2:59-61, 64-66; Smith, Letters of Delegates, 1:407, 409-10.
10. JCC, 2:73-74; Smith, Letters of Delegates, 1:422-24, 429-31, 449-50.
11. JCC, 2:89-90; Smith, Letters of Delegates, 1:488-90, 503-4, 507-8, 515-16, 526-27.
12. JCC, 2:95, 99; Smith, Letters of Delegates, pp. 486-90, 498-500, 502-4, 507-8, 515-16, 519-21, 526-27, 539-40.
At least some members of Congress assumed from the beginning that this force would be expanded. That expansion, in the form of increased troop ceilings at Boston, came very rapidly as better information arrived regarding the actual numbers of New England troops. By the third week in June delegates were referring to 15,000 at Boston.13 When on 19 June Congress requested the governments of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire to forward to Boston “such of the forces as are already embodied, towards their quotas of the troops agreed to be raised by the New England Colonies,” it gave a clear indication of its intent to adopt the regional army.14 Discussions the next day indicated that Congress was prepared to support a force at Boston twice the size of the British garrison, and that it was unwilling to order any existing units to be disbanded. By the first week in July delegates were referring to a total at Boston that was edging toward 20,000.15 Maximum strengths for the forces both in Massachusetts and New York were finally established on 21 and 22 July, when solid information was on hand. These were set, respectively, at 22,000 and 5,000 men, a total nearly double that envisioned on 14 June.16
The “expert riflemen” authorized on 14 June were the first units raised directly as Continentals. Congress intended to have the ten companies serve as a light infantry force for the Boston siege. At the same time it symbolically extended military participation beyond New England by allocating 6 of the companies to Pennsylvania, 2 to Maryland, and 2 to Virginia. Each company would have a captain, 3 lieutenants, 4 sergeants, 4 corporals, a drummer (or horn player), and 68 privates. The enlistment period was set at one year, the norm for the earlier Provincials, a period that would expire on 1 July 1776.17
13. Smith, Letters of Delegates, 1:515-17, 543-44.
14. JCC, 2:99; see also Smith, Letters of Delegates, 1:518-22, 539-40.
15. JCC, 2:100-101; Smith, Letters of Delegates, 1:561 ,569, 585-86.
16. JCC, 2:202, 207; Smith, Letters of Delegates, 1:662-64.
17. JCC, 2:89-90; Smith, Letters of Delegates, 1:313-15. On 12 June 1776 the organization of a rifle company was amended to include both a drummer and a fifer: JCC, 5:432.
Congress clearly respected Washington, for it granted him extensive powers which combined functions of a regular British commander with the military responsibilities of a colonial governor. His instructions on 20 June told him to proceed to Massachusetts, “take charge of the army of the united colonies,” and capture or destroy all armed enemies. His was also to prepare and to send to Congress an accurate strength return of that army. On the other hand, instructions to keep the army obedient, diligent, and disciplined were rather vague. The Commander in Chief’s right to make strategic and tactical decisions on purely military grounds was limited only by a requirement to listen to the advice of a council of war. Within a set troop maximum, including volunteers, Washington had the right to determine how many men to retain, and he had the power to fill temporarily any vacancies below the rank of colonel. Permanent promotions and appointments were reserved for the colonial governments to make.21
Although sectional politics were involved in Washington’s selection, in strictly military terms, he was in fact the best-qualified native American. He had begun his
18. JCC, 2:103-4, 173; Pennsylvania Archives, 9 series (Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852-1925), 2d ser., 10:3-43; Smith, Letters of Delegates, 1:491-92, 598-99, 621-25.
19. JCC, 2:91.
20. Smith, Letters of Delegates, 1:416-17, 486-99, 507-9, 515-17; Henderson, Party Politics, pp. 53-54; JCC, 2:91-93, 96-97.
21. JCC, 2:92-93, 96-97, 100- 101.
On 16 June, the day after Washington’s appointment, Congress authorized a variety of other senior officers for its new army. Details were again settled by the Committee of the Whole. Positions for five major staff officers were established: an Adjutant General, a Commissary of Musters, a Paymaster General, a Commissary General, and a Quartermaster General. These officers were expected to assist the Commander in Chief with the administration of the “grand army.” The forces allocated to New York already were considered a separate department and were authorized their own deputy quartermaster general and deputy paymaster general. A military secretary and 3 aides for Washington, a secretary for the separate department, and 6 engineers (3 for each force) completed the staff. Congress also created the ranks of major general and brigadier general. The number of generals remained uncertain for several days as Congress debated. Between 17 and 22 June it finally decided on 4 major generals, each having 2 aides, and 8 brigadier generals. These totals allowed each colony raising troops to have a share of the patronage. Congress then took steps for issuing paper money to finance the army, and on 30 June it adopted the Articles of War.23
Selection of the subordinate generals and senior staff officers led to political maneuvering as delegates sought appointments for favorite sons. On 17 June Congress elected Artemas Ward and Charles Lee as the first and second major generals and Horatio Gates as the Adjutant General. Ward received seniority because he was in command at Boston and because Massachusetts had furnished the largest contingent of troops. Ward was a Harvard graduate with many years of political experience. After two years of active duty as a field officer in the French and Indian War, he had compiled an excellent record as a militia administrator. Lee and Gates were professional English officers in their forties who were living in Virginia on the half-pay (inactive) list. Both had served in the French and Indian War and were associates of politicians in England and America who opposed British policies. Lee had also seen service in Portugal and in the Polish Army. Gates had ended the Seven Years’ War as a major in the Caribbean. His appointment as Adjutant General (with the rank of brigadier
22. In addition to the standard biographies, the following works provide key insights into Washington’s military background: George Washington, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, 39 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1931-44) 1:148-50, 331-36, 466-71, 490-91; 2:6-19, 295-98 (hereafter cited as Fitzpatrick, Writings); Oliver L. Spaulding, Jr., “The Military Studies of George Washington,” American Historical Review 29 (1924):675-80.
23. JCC, 2:93-94, 97, 99, 102-4, 106, 111-22; Smith, Letters of Delegates, 1:503, 509, 518-22, 525-30, 533, 535-36, 539-42, 547-48; Henderson, Party Politics, pp. 53-54.