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The Continental Army, Chapter IV

An important innovation occurred on 29 June 1776 when Washington organized a provisional artificer regiment. It was placed under the command of Col. Jonathan Brewer, the barrackmaster, and Deputy Quartermaster General John Parke. The regiment’s hired or enlisted craftsmen continued to perform maintenance and construction duties, but they were now assembled into twelve companies for emergency combat duty. Each of the fifty-man companies was given a temporary captain and two lieutenants, mostly former enlisted men or civilians. Seven companies were composed of carpenters, three of smiths, and one of special nautical carpenters. The final company acted as a general maintenance organization. The regiment was dissolved in November.53

Although Congress attempted to provide each territorial department with competent military engineers, men with special skills remained rare. Washington brought only Rufus Putnam and Jeduthan Baldwin with him to New York. Putnam served as the Main Army’s chief engineer, with assistants merely detailed from the line regiments. Baldwin went to the Northern Department where he operated at Ticonderoga under similar conditions. Both men were rewarded with the rank of engineer colonel, but the lack of special skill at designing fortifications which came only through formal education created weaknesses in the defenses at New York and Ticonderoga. Energy and resources were wasted on works too extensive to be manned adequately by the available forces.54

As a capstone to the creation of the larger Continental Army, Congress created a special standing committee to oversee the Army’s administration and to make recommendations to Congress. On 24 January 1776 Edward Rutledge, echoing Washington’s own concerns, suggested that a war office, similar to Britain’s, be established. Washington’s pressure and the sheer volume of military business led Congress to establish the Board of War and Ordnance on 12 June. Five delegates, assisted by a permanent secretary, Richard Peters, assumed responsibility for compiling a master roster of all Continental Army officers; for monitoring returns of all troops, arms, and equipment; for maintaining correspondence files; and for securing prisoners of war. The title reflected Congress’ deliberate decision to reject the British practice of separating the artillery and engineers from the rest of their troops. The office began functioning on 21 June.55 Washington heralded this action as “an Event of great importance [which] will be recorded as such in the Historic Page.”56

The original plans worked out by Congress, Washington, and Schuyler in 1775 projected a small Continental Army for 1776. Twenty-six infantry, one rifle, and one artillery regiment were allocated to the Main Army and another nine infantry regiments to the Canada-New York army. Standard tables of organization ensured that the regiments would be uniform. When Great Britain committed major forces to North America and expanded the range of the conflict, however, Congress and the individ-

53. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 5:197, 270; Force, American Archives, 5th ser., 1:765-66.
54. JCC, 5:630, 732; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 5:5, 11, 108, 412; Baldwin, Revolutionary Journal, pp. 17-34, 62-63; Smith, Letters of Delegates, 3:38, 274, 471-72.
55. JCC, 4:85, 215; 5:434, 438; Smith, Letters of Delegates, 3:148. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 5:128-29, 200-201.
56. Fitzpatrick, Writings, p. 159.

ual colonies reacted by adding units beyond the number required by the initial, modest plan.

This haphazard growth eventually produced a national military institution in a geographical sense. Congress set up a network of territorial departments and added general officers and staff personnel to provide a coordinated command organization. Although many of the new regiments adopted the standard Continental regimental structure, differences in other units reflected the individual factors which had prompted their creation. Bringing these units into conformity remained a major task if the Army were to become a national institution in every sense.

The units in the north, at Charleston, and at New York City during 1776 came from a wider range of colonies than those that had assembled at Boston and in Canada in 1775. Despite some loss of internal homogeneity, the major field armies in 1776 worked well together. The need to mix militia with the Continental regulars, however, created a new set of problems that became most evident during the defense of New York City against the major British attack that opened in late August.

The American army in Canada was repulsed, but the military situation in the north stabilized after the troops withdrew to Ticonderoga. The forces in the south easily defeated Britain’s small efforts to restore royal authority there. Washington’s Main Army forced the British out of Boston in March but ran into serious trouble in the defense of New York. General Howe, commanding the largest British army gathered at one place in America during the war, outmaneuvered Washington’s mixed force of continentals and militia, first on Long Island and then on Manhattan. The British landing at Kip’s Bay on 15 September, which scattered two militia brigades in a humiliating rout, marked the lowest point of this phase of the campaign.

The next day [September 16], however, a relatively minor skirmish at Harlem Heights began to restore morale. The aggressiveness of a recently formed provisional unit, Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton’s rangers, supported by the rifle companies of the 3d Virginia Regiment and later by other troops, drove off a British force which included the elite 42d Foot (Black Watch). Other skirmishes at Pelham and Mamaroneck contributed to a restoration of confidence, at least in the Continental units. But it was a temporary resurgence, and worse defeats were still to come. To Washington the major lesson of 1776 was simply that militia could not meet British and German regulars on equal terms. Still smarting from the loss of Long Island, he wrote to the President of Congress on 2 September 1776 that

no dependence could be in a Militia or other troops than those enlisted and embodied for a longer period than our regulations heretofore have prescribed. I am persuaded, and as fully convinced, as I am of any one fact that has happened, 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, I mean one to exist during the War.57

In this atmosphere Congress set out later that month to provide a new army to succeed the one whose enlistments expired at the end of the year.

57. Ibid., 6:5.