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The Continental Army, Chapter V

on 1 June and instituted a brigade and division organization similar to the Main Army’s. By 5 August, despite numerous transfers to other departments, the Highlands force consisted of two divisions each with two brigades.65 Philip Schuyler’s Northern Department assembled brigades on the basis of Washington’s instructions, ultimately forming four brigades of Massachusetts regiments and one of New Hampshire regiments. A division organization was not necessary as long as the troops were tied to the defense of Ticonderoga.66

While the tactical organization of the field armies was perfected during the first part of 1777, Congress and Washington improved the Army’s administrative and support organizations as well. The expanded Army, dispersed over a broader area than before, made the Adjutant General’s role as the central administrative figure even more important. After Col. Joseph Reed resigned at the start of the year, Washington limped along with temporary appointments until he persuaded Col. Timothy Pickering to accept the job. Through perseverance, Pickering restored order to the strength reporting system by the fall.67 An expansion of the mustering department on 4 April assisted Pickering. A deputy was assigned to each territorial department, and a sufficient number of subordinate officials were appointed to muster every unit once a month.68 The cross-checks established by this system and Pickering’s program of separately prepared weekly and monthly returns eventually enabled Washington and Congress to have reliable and timely data on which to base their plans.

Washington reorganized his personal staff in 1777 largely as a result of personnel changes, but the new household group also assisted in improving administration. He conducted a search for influential young men with secretarial skills and a willingness to work as replacements for the aides lost to the additionals and dragoons. As a result, talented individuals such as Alexander Hamilton, Richard Kidder Meade, and John Laurens became aides during 1777.69 The new office of Commissary General of Prisoners, created by Congress on 27 December 1776, became part of the household. Its ostensible function was supervising prisoner of war compounds and ensuring that captured Americans received proper treatment. In fact, Washington used Commissary General Elias Boudinot to coordinate intelligence activities.70

Changes in the logistical structure during 1777 derived from two motives. One was a desire to improve efficiency through increased specialization. The other sought modifications to provide immediate support to the field armies. The Commissary Department split into the Department of the Commissary General of Purchases and the Department of the Commissary General of Issues on 10 June 1777. The first primarily procured items, while the latter stored them and handled some distribution func-

65. Israel Putnam, General Orders Issued by Major-General Israel Putnam, When in Command of the Highlands, in the Summer and Fall of 1777, ed. Worthington C. Ford (Brooklyn: Historical Printing Club, 1893), pp. 1, 11-12, 23-25, 46-47; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 7:354-55; 8:51, 234-35, 276-78, 450; 9:34-35.
66. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 7:485-86; Gates Papers (Hugh Hughes to Gates; Gates to Col Van Schaick, both 19 Aug 77).
67. JCC, 7:204, Sullivan, Letters and Papers, 1:418, 433; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 7:5, 67-78, 218, 336-37, 382; 8:114-16, 264.
68. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 7:381, 447-48; JCC, 7:221-22, 253, 322.
69. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 6:487; 7:41, 161, 218, 280; Douglas S. Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, 7 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948-57), 4:391-92.
70. JCC, 8:421-22; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 7:383, 417-18.

JOHN LAURENS (1754-82) was the son of South Carolina delegate and President of Congress Henry Laurens. He served as Washington’s aide and carried out many diplomatic assignments until he was killed in a minor skirmish outside Charleston near the end of the war. (Posthumous miniature by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1784.)

tions.71 The Quartermaster General’s Department reorganized on 14 May. The department formed specialized groups to handle transportation, quarters, forage, and baking; upgrading the Army’s transportation had the most immediate impact. The Quartermaster General remained directly responsible for the support of the Main Army; he had several assistants and a deputy for each division. Parallel structures were provided in each territorial department.72 The hospital service also reorganized to improve flexible support to the territorial departments and immediate service to the troops.73

Congress created one new logistical department on 27 December 1776. At Washington’s request, it assumed responsibility for furnishing uniforms to the troops and established a Clothier General’s Department under Philadelphia merchant James Mease. His department prepared estimates, purchased and stored clothing items, and issued them to the men through the regimental quartermasters. Washington hoped to eliminate the miscellaneous nature of the clothing that the Army had been using. Such clothing, he believed, was detrimental to discipline because it “has not only an ill appearance, but it creates much irregularity; for when a soldier is convinced, that he will be known by his dress to what Corps he belongs, he is hindered from committing many faults for fear of detection.”74 Within the clothier’s purview a Commissary of Hides and his subordinates turned raw hides produced by the Army’s consumption of beef into needed leather goods.75

71. JCC, 8:434-43, 452, 469-70, 610; Burnett, Letters, 3:3-5, 39-40; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 8:16, 25; 10:80-82, 183-88, 243-46.
72. JCC, 5:839-41; 6:1051-52; 7:323, 355-59; 19:159.
73. Ibid., 7: 161-64, 197-200, 231-37, 244-45, 253-54; 8:626-27; Sullivan, Letters and Papers, 1:346.
74. Fitzpatrick, Writings 7:422.
75. Ibid., 6:109, 381, 404, 492-93; 7:127, 148, 229-30, 247-49, 420-22; 10:45-46; JCC, 6:880-81, 1043.

ELIAS BOUDINOT (1740-1821) of New Jersey served in the Continental Army as the first commissary general of prisoners, a job which included intelligence responsibilities. He later became president of the Continental Congress. (Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1782.)

Logic indicated that the two main British armies in Canada and New York would cooperate in 1777 in a drive to capture Albany and to sever New England from the rest of the country. General Howe’s troops threatened also to advance through New Jersey and to take Philadelphia. The unfolding events of the campaign of 1777 tested Congress’ and Washington’s winter reorganizations.

As expected, the first blow fell on the Northern Department. General St. Clair’s garrison could not hold Ticonderoga against Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne’s British and German regulars, and it withdrew. Burgoyne’s poor transport organization and Schuyler’s systematic destruction of roads leading south prevented effective pursuit. The Northern Department’s forces regrouped and began receiving reinforcements from the south. Although Schuyler, with the assistance of local militia forces, developed plans that led to the defeat of British detachments at Fort Stanwix and Bennington, he had lost the confidence of most delegates in Congress. Schuyler was recalled on 31 July, and Gates was named as the new Northern Department commander on 4 August. Gate’s supporters claimed that his popularity in New England would allow him to attract more militia support than Schuyler could.76

In addition to Continental brigades from the Highlands Department, the reinforcements dispatched to the north included one very important unit from the Main Army. Washington formed a provisional rifle corps on 13 June 1777 under Col. Daniel Morgan of the 11th Virginia Regiment. The men, primarily from Virginia and Pennsylvania regiments, were selected for their marksmanship and woodcraft. Like Thomas Knowlton’s 1776 rangers, the corps served as a light infantry and skirmishing force. In the Northern Department Morgan worked closely with a provisional light infantry de-

76. JCC, 7:202-3, 362-64; 8:375; 590, 596, 604; Burnett, Letters, 2:209-12, 336-37, 351-52, 376-77, 382-86, 424-26, 429-30, 440-41, 445, 465; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 9:8-9; Gates Papers (Hancock to Gates, 25 Mar and 14 Aug 77; Gates to Hancock, 20 Aug 77).

HENRY DEARBORN (1751-1829) of New Hampshire had a career which represents the influence of the Continental Army on the subsequent United States Army. Dearborn rose from captain to lieutenant colonel and commanded the provisional light infantry battalion during the Saratoga campaign. After the Revolution he served as secretary of war (1801-1809) and eventually as the senior major general in the Army (1812-1815). (Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1796.)

tachment that Schuyler organized in August under Maj. Henry Dearborn; they quickly intimidated Burgoyne’s Indians and drastically reduced his ability to procure accurate intelligence.77

Gates inflicted two defeats on Burgoyne at Bemis Heights, cut him off from Ticonderoga, and forced “Gentleman Johnny” to surrender on 17 October. Saratoga was unquestionably the greatest victory yet won by the Continental Army in terms of prisoners and captured arms and equipment. Nearly 6,000 enemy soldiers were taken, along with 42 cannon and massive quantities of stores.78 By the time Burgoyne surrendered, Gates’ forces amounted to 1,698 officers and 20,652 men, exclusive of artificers, batteauxmen, and about 700 riflemen. Over 4,000 were absent, mostly stationed to cut off any British retreat toward Ticonderoga, and slightly more than 1,000 were sick.79

Over two-thirds of the Northern Department’s soldiers, including some artillery and cavalry troops, were militiamen from New England and New York. Only five of the thirteen brigades were Continental; these contained 3 New Hampshire, 15 Massachusetts, and 2 New York infantry regiments plus the 1st Canadian Regiment. Three of the Continental brigades also contained militia regiments. The total Continental infantry contingent, including Morgan’s riflemen and Dearborn’s light infantry, comprised 52 field, 457 company, and 72 staff officers; 526 sergeants; 262 drummers and fifers; and 7,644 rank and file. Only 5,000 rank and file were combat effectives.80

77. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 8:156, 236-37, 246; 9:70-71, 78; Henry Dearborn, Revolutionary War Journals of Henry Dearborn, 1775-1783, eds. Lloyd A. Brown and Howard H. Peckham (Chicago: Caxton Club, 1939), pp. 100-13; Gates Papers (to Washington, 22 Aug and 2 Nov 77; to Morgan, 29 Aug 77).
78. Gates Papers (state of British and state of German Troops Surrendered, both dated 17 Oct 77; James Wilkinson’s return of prisoners, 31 Oct 77; Ebenezer Stevens, return of captured stores, l Nov 77).
79. Ibid. (General Return, Northern Department, 16 Oct 77).
80. In addition to the General Return cited above, the following sources in the Gates Papers were used to arrive at correct figures: State of the Army at Saratoga, 17 Oct 77; Return of Continental Troops at van Schaick’s Island, 7 Sep 77; Brigade Returns for [Brig. Gen. John] Paterson’s, [Brig. Gen. John] Nixon’s, and [Col. William] Shepard’s [Glover’s] Brigades, 25-26 Oct 77; and Richard Varick to Gates, 10 Sep 77.

Part of the Northern Department’s strength had come from forces originally committed to the Hudson Highlands. When Putnam also sent three brigades to the Main Army during September, his department was left with only General Parsons’ 1st Connecticut Brigade as a mobile field force, and the 5th New York Regiment, part of Lamb’s artillery, and some New York militia as garrisons for the forts. Maj. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton took advantage of this weakness to attack, and on 6 October the main forts in the Highlands fell after a stubborn defense. Most of the garrisons escaped, and Clinton returned to New York when he learned of Burgoyne’s surrender.81

General Howe had chosen not to attack the Highlands nor to move across New Jersey. Instead, he sailed by way of the Chesapeake Bay to attack Philadelphia from the rear. By the time Howe was ready to advance from his base at Head of Elk, Maryland, Washington had organized a light force under General Maxwell to harass him. The corps consisted of two provisional light infantry companies from each brigade in the Main Army, detachments of light dragoons and local militia, and a partisan unit.82 Howe forced Washington back and defeated the continentals along Brandywine Creek, Pennsylvania, by outmaneuvering them. Washington prevented a catastrophe by shifting brigades from his unengaged flank with an adroitness that impressed professional German officers serving with Howe, and his army escaped under the cover of aggressive rearguard action.83

Howe moved on to capture Philadelphia on 26 September, but he had to fragment his army to hold open a supply route to the lower Delaware River. On the night of 34 October Washington counterattacked at Germantown, Pennsylvania. The intricate plan, similar to that used at Trenton, called for a dawn attack by concentric columns covered by diversionary attacks. Excellent march discipline and intelligence enabled the leading Continental brigades to overrun the British 2d Battalion of Light Infantry and drive back other units, leading one astonished German officer to exclaim that he had just seen “something I had never seen before, namely the English in full flight.”84 Confusion and the staunch British defense of the stone Chew House robbed the attack of its momentum, and Washington withdrew. The British spent the next month and a half dislodging the defenders of the fortifications on the Delaware River below Philadelphia.

By early November Washington’s Main Army contained a dozen Continental brigades: 4 from Virginia, 3 from Pennsylvania, 2 from Maryland, and one each from North Carolina, New Jersey, and Connecticut.85 The combined strength of 1,167 officers and 15,927 men, excluding cavalry and artillery, represented about half the Continental Army’s total force. There were 82 field grade officers, 865 company officers, and 220 regimental staff personnel. Sergeants accounted for 1,009 of the enlisted men, and drummers and fifers another 523, leaving 14,395 rank and file. Some 4,500 were sick, and another 2.100 were on command, mostly in defense of the river forts.

81. Wright, “Too Little, Too Late,” pp. 73-88; McDougall Papers (Transcript of the court of Inquiry Into Putnam’s Conduct, 5 Apr 78).
82. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 9:145, 148-49, 162-63, 172-73; John W. Wright, “The Corps of Light Infantry in the Continental Army,” American Historical Review 31 (1926):454-55.
83. Uhlendorf, Revolution in America, pp. 1-27; Kipping and Smith, At Howe’s Side, pp. 31-32; Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, ed. Robert E. Lee (New York: University Publishing Co., 1869), pp. 89-90.
84. Kipping and Smith, At Howe’s Side, pp. 38-39; see also Uhlendorf, Revolution in America, pp. 5-27, and John Eager Howard “Col. John Eager Howard’s Account of the Battle of Germantown,” ed. Justin Winsor, Maryland Historical Magazine 4 (1909):314-20.
85. RG 93, National Archives (Weekly Return, Main Army, 3 Nov 77).

Washington’s actual combat strength was probably about 10,000 men, too few to continue the campaign. After calling for reinforcements from Gates, he encamped at Valley Forge on 20 December.

The Continental Army that marched into Valley Forge in December 1777 was very different in organization than the one that had retreated through New Jersey one year earlier. The regiments were now on a permanent footing and formed a larger and more balanced force. The infantry regiments, both line and additional, the artillery, and the light dragoons all contained sizable veteran cadres. Added experience, and the fact that the basic regimental organization had remained the same, had enabled the Army to quickly incorporate the lessons of open warfare learned during the Trenton campaign. Experienced field officers of earlier years now commanded the permanent brigades, which were the most important innovation of 1777. These factors and the increasing sophistication of the staff explain how the varied field armies in the Northern, Highlands, and Middle Departments, containing regiments from every state except Georgia and South Carolina, survived the defeats and crises of 1777.

Better organization, additional staff officers with special skills, and increased emphasis on transportation made the Continental Army more mobile in 1777 than in 1776. Allowing brigades and divisions to undertake limited independent action was a basic concept that made it possible to shift strategic reserves rapidly enough to offset British control of the sea. While many of the battles of 1777 ended in defeat for the Continental Army, particularly for the Main Army, most of the defeats cannot be attributed to a lack of fighting ability of individual regiments. They came from errors in judgment by generals or from inadequate resources. Better training and doctrine were needed to improve the Army’s performance.

Washington was more optimistic on Christmas Day 1777 than he had been a year earlier.86 He knew that his Army could not only fight but also even beat the British under favorable conditions. Two major concerns were to ensure that the Army won consistently and to sustain the strength that Congress had authorized. For all practical purposes, the Continental Army reached its maximum size, in terms of units, in 1777. Hereafter the states’ role was not organizing new units but rather procuring individual replacements for existing regiments. This change reduced the influence of state governments and increased the military’s control over its own destiny. Duration or other long-term enlistments contributed to the shift in power. The large quotas of regiments remained a particular problem, for they were overly ambitious. Nominally the 119 regiments fielded in 1777 should have contained over 90,000 officers and men. The Continental Army never came close to that total, and beginning in 1778 it faced problems of retrenchment rather than expansion.

86. For the logistical situation, which was verging on total collapse, see Erna Risch, Supplying Washington’s Army (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1981).