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The Continental Army, Chapter VII

Comte de Rochambeau
JEAN-BAPTISTE-DONATIEN DE VIMEUR, COMTE DE ROCHAMBEAU (1725-1807) commanded the French expeditionary corps which served in North America under Washington from 1780 to 1782. The tact and skill of this professional soldier contributed directly to the success of the Yorktown campaign and the Franco-American alliance. (Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1782.)

York City. Although French naval, financial, and military aid had played a major role in achieving the final victory at Yorktown, Washington had every reason to be proud of the Continentals’ battlefield prowess and superior mobility. It was not long, however, before he had to deal with new problems caused by a shrinking military force.

The Road to Newburgh

During the last two years of the Revolution, the Continental Army did not engage in any major battle. Lack of French naval support prevented assaults on the remaining British strongholds, and changed political conditions in England made it clear that a negotiated peace would come in time. Congress and the American people, weary of a long war, increased the pressure on the military establishment to reduce expenses. Washington’s role in gradually dismantling the Continental Army became one of his most important contributions to the new nation.

Washington’s conferences with Congress during the winter of 1781-82 quickly established that the delegates wanted to trim expenses. The latter placed a limit for the first time on the number of general officers on active duty and began reviewing staff organizations to reduce expenditures. A committee recommended cutting the number of infantry regiments and the proportion of officers since “the Class of Men who are willing to become Soldiers is much diminished by the War and therefore the Difficulties of raising an Army equal to former Establishments have increased and will continue to increase.”41 Washington countered that since 1777 the Army had proportionately reduced the number of its regiments faster than the British Army in America had, that captured documents indicated that the British Army had more Loyalists on its rolls than he had Continentals, and that combat experience had made clear that the

41. Burnett, Letters, 6:177-79.


GENERAL RETURN, MAIN ARMY, 27 OCTOBER 1781. Adj. Gen. Edward Hand compiled this return of Continental infantry present at Yorktown under Washington eight days after Cornwallis’ surrender. The return reflects the actual strength of each of the six brigades in Virginia and accounts for various absences.


ROBERT MORRIS (1734-1806), the financial wizard of the Revolution, served during and after the war in various political roles. As a delegate in the Continental Congress he led the nationalist faction which strongly supported Washington, and as Superintendent of Finance, he contributed directly to the success of the Yorktown campaign. (Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1782.)

ratio of Continental officers to men was already too low. He won his case for the time being, but on 23 April 1782 Congress overturned one of the important features of the October 1780 reorganization. In the interest of economy, the delegates ordered that three lieutenants be eliminated from each regiment and that company officers be assigned to carry out the functions of adjutant, quartermaster, and recruiter.42

Continuing its drive for economy, Congress concentrated in 1782 on reducing the Army’s support structure. It used the permanent executive ministers which replaced standing committees as the primary means for making these changes. Robert Morris, who had become Superintendent of Finance on 20 February 1781, played a major role, just as he had in the logistical effort for the Yorktown campaign. Even more important in this effort was Benjamin Lincoln, who had become Secretary at War on 30 October 1781. Although Lincoln’s statutory functions were quite similar to those of the Board of War and his English counterpart, he acted in practice as Washington’s liaison with Congress and Morris. Under Lincoln, the War Office consisted of an assistant, a secretary, and two clerks. They were able to reduce the size of most staff agencies, and they replaced many remaining officials with line officers acting in a part-time capacity. When Congress insisted on eliminating many positions concerned with direct support to the field armies, Washington protested that the changes particularly impaired the Army’s mobility.43

Washington arrived at Newburgh, New York, on 31 March 1782 and formally resumed command in the north four days later. A private’s letter home written at that time reflects the conditions he found: “Time are very dubros [sic] at present for there

42. JCC, 21:791, 1127, 1179-81, 1163-65, 1182-83; 22:211-12, 381-82; Burnett, Letters, 6:270-80; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 23:29-32, 452-56, 498-99; 24:391-92. The final return (27 April 1784) of officers forced to retire by this “reform” is in Record Group 360, National Archives.
43. JCC, 19:126-28, 180; 20:662-67; 21:1030, 1087, 1173, 1186-87; 22:30-33, 36-37, 40-41, 129-31, 177-79, 216, 235, 244-45, 381, 408-15, 425-27; 23:683-86; Burnett, Letters, 6:11-12, 190-91, 230-31; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 23:410-12, 452-56; 24:98-99; 25:72-73; 26:84.


MONTHLY RETURN, MAIN ARMY, JUNE 1782. This monthly return for Washington’s force at Newburgh, New York, in June 1782 is typical of the comprehensiveness of the Army’s recordkeeping by the end of the war. It accounts for all officers and men of the infantry, artillery, 2d Legionary Corps, sappers and miners, and invalids.


is no news of Peace as yet. But the armies are all well diciplined [sic] and in wonderful good spirits and draw very good provisions.”44 By the Continental Army’s standards conditions were good. Yorktown had raised morale, and the Highlands area offered long-established depots and housing as well as training programs. The Army included a high proportion of hardened veterans who knew how to make the most of their circumstances.

In June Washington and Steuben began a series of comprehensive monthly brigade inspections. They judged appearance, paperwork, maneuvers, and marksmanship. Washington approved the overall performance and competitive spirit of the exercises but warned the men that “it is the effect of the shot not the report of the Gun that can discomfort the Enemy and if a bad habit is acquired at exercise it will prevail in real Action.”45 This rigorous training program culminated on 31 August when Washington moved the Main Army down the Hudson River from Newburgh to Verplanck’s Point to simplify subsistence. In the process he tested the feasibility of an amphibious attack on New York City. Five infantry brigades made the move by water, Pith baggage following in other boats. The individual units were assigned to boats in a manner which kept elements intact, and the flotilla maintained strict parade-ground alignment. These factors enabled the regiments to deploy promptly into line of battle as soon as the boats beached on Verplanck’s Point. The experiment was a striking success. Indeed, if de Grasse’s warships had been available for a real assault, Washington’s veterans, with the aid of French troops, probably would have been able to seize Manhattan.46

Washington also established an honor system in 1782 to improve morale. He authorized a chevron worn on the left arm of the uniform coat for all enlisted men who “served more than three years with bravery, fidelity and good conduct.” Two chevrons represented six years of good service. The Badge of Military Merit, a heart of purple silk edged with narrow lace bindings and worn over the left lapel, was a special decoration. Washington proudly proclaimed that “the road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all.”47 Only three of these badges were ever granted. Sgt. William Brown (formerly of the 5th Connecticut Regiment), Sgt. Elijah Churchill of the 2d Legionary Corps, and Sgt. Daniel Bissel, Jr., of the 2d Connecticut Regiment each received one in 1783.48

In August 1782, when Washington practiced the amphibious landing on Verplanck’s Point, his force in the northern half of the nation included eight brigades, Hazen’s regiment, two artillery regiments, a legionary corps, and a variety of smaller specialist units. The infantry contingent amounted to 67 field, 475 company, and 119 staff officers; 813 sergeants; 448 drummers and fifers; and 9,210 rank and file. These figures were roughly two-thirds of the authorized full strength; Washington lacked 114 officers, 283 sergeants, 78 drummers and fifers, and 5,154 rank and file. The two artillery regiments contained 100 officers and 907 men; the Corps of Invalids, 27 offi-

44. Sylvia J. Sherman, led., Dubros Times: Selected Depositions of Maine Revolutionary War Veterans (Augusta: Maine State Archives, 1975), p. 9. Also see Fitzpatrick, Writings, 24:101.
45. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 24:322.
46. Ibid., 24:303,309-10, 334, 358-59,459-60; 25:93-96,121.
47. Ibid., 24:488.
48. Ibid., 24:487-88; 25:142; 26:363-64, 481; see J. Hammond Trumbull, ea., The Memorial History of Hartford County, Connecticut, 1623-1884, 2 vols. (Boston: Edward L. Osgood, 1886),2:514-15, for Bissel.


cers and 337 men; and the sappers and miners, 5 officers and 77 men. Sheldon’s 2d Legionary Corps and the Marechaussee contributed 30 officers and 355 men, giving Washington a strength of about 800 officers and 12,000 men.49

Because of the consistent failure to secure enough recruits, Washington bowed to Congress’ desire to reduce the whole Continental Army still further. On 7 August Congress ordered all states to reduce their lines by 1 January 1783 to complete regiments containing not less than 500 rank and file. Washington’s suggestion that junior regiments disband and furnish men to other units became the basic method of achieving this end. On 1 January 1783 New York retained its 2 full regiments. Connecticut reduced its line to 3 regiments and Massachusetts reduced its regiments to 8; all then contained at least 500 rank and file. Because the regiments of Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New Hampshire all came close to the minimum strength, Washington obtained special permission from Congress for those states to delay their reorganization until 1 March. Ironically, they then complained that they would have to furnish a disproportionate part of the Army, and they failed to secure the necessary recruits. On 1 March the 2d New Hampshire and 2d New Jersey Regiments reduced to battalion strength. Each had four companies, two field officers, an adjutant, a quartermaster, a paymaster, and either a surgeon or mate. On 19 November 1782 Congress had restored the regimental adjutant and quartermaster positions to full staff status. The Rhode Island Regiment reorganized as a battalion with six companies.50

Greene faced greater problems than Washington during 1782, although the British evacuated Savannah on 11 July and Charleston on 14 December. The Southern Army only engaged in skirmishes, but the provisional regiments, less stable than Washington’s units, deteriorated. Washington directed Greene to rebuild the lines allotted to the Carolinas and Georgia, but he stopped the movement of replacements from Pennsylvania and Maryland. Greene reorganized his remaining Pennsylvanians as a single provisional regiment under Lt. Col. Josiah Harmar on 4 November 1782. On 1 January Congress reduced the Pennsylvania line on paper from six to three regiments; the latter remained depot cadres in contrast to Harmar’s crack combat unit. Greene handled the Maryland regiments differently. He disbanded the 3d and 4th Maryland Regiments and transferred all personnel to the 1st and 2d Regiments as of 1 January 1783. The last two companies of the Delaware Regiment went home at the end of 1782. The men received extended furlough when they reached Christiana Bridge, Delaware, on 17 January 1783.51

In the case of the short-term Virginia troops, Greene simply released them as their enlistments expired. The state’s permanent regiments reorganized on 1 January 1783. All but two disbanded; the arrangement retained officers in proportion to the number of enlisted men remaining from the old regiments. The 1st Virginia Regiment re-

49. RG 93, National Archives (Monthly Return, Main Army, August 1782); Lesser, Sinews, pp. 232-33, prints a variant of this return.
50. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 24:352-55; 25:286-87, 312-13, 376, 425-26, 439-40, 456, 460-61; 26:3-4, 22, 140-42, 172; JCC, 22:451-53; 23:710-11, 736-39, 837; Burnett, Letters, 6:431-32, 537-38; 7:1-2, 11-13.
51. RG 360, National Archives (Wayne to Greene, 12 Jul 82; Greene to congress, 13 Aug 82); JCC, 23:549, 560, 837; Burnett, Letters, 6:446-47, 469-70, 480-81; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 24:409-10; 25:100, 110-11, 162-63, 193-94, 283-84, 328; 26:238; Archives of Maryland, 18:476-82; Seymour, Journal, pp. 40-42; Steuben Papers (southern Army Returns for 9 Jan and 2 Apt 83); Southern Department Orderly Book (Greene’s General Orders for 14 Sep and 2, 3, and 4 Nov 82), New-York Historical Society. A detachment of new Maryland recruits served with the Main Army in 1782 under Maj. Thomas Landsdale.


formed at the Winchester, Virginia, replacement depot. The 2d, only partially filled, contained the Virginia men on duty at Fort Pitt. Virginia’s portion of the 1st Continental Artillery became a single overstrength company with Greene under Capt. William Pierce; the Maryland portion remained a single company, also with Greene. The 1st and 3d Legionary Corps formally consolidated as the 1st Legionary Corps, with five troops.52

Stabilized conditions in 1782 allowed North Carolina to begin raising 1,500 men for an enlistment period of eighteen months. Greene first formed them into two temporary regiments and on 2 November permanently organized them as a regiment and a battalion. The South Carolina legislature decided to reorganize two regiments, but even after the evacuation of Charleston, it made no progress. Georgia planned to form a single regiment in 1782, and on 29 July it decided to mount two of the companies. Maj. John Habersham recruited some pardoned Loyalists, but Congress took no formal action in regard to the regiment since the regiment never reached operational strength.53

The first months of 1783 turned into a critical period in the Revolution. As the war moved to an end, pressure mounted in Congress to reduce expenditures by dismantling the Continental Army. One group of delegates made this demand in the hope of restoring the states to the central position of government. Another element wanted a stronger central government and saw the military as an ally in their efforts to get Congress to adopt a taxation program devised by Robert Morris. At the same time, the Army, both at the officer and enlisted levels, realized that it had to secure action from Congress on its own bread-and-butter issues, particularly arrears in pay, before the war came to an end. Discontent began to mount in the Main Army’s winter quarters at Newburgh, New York. Washington sympathized, but he had real fears that the troops might become rebellious. He warned Congress that he would remain in camp and “try like a careful physician to prevent if possible the disorders getting to an incurable height.”54

Hints that Congress might renounce the promise of half-pay made earlier in the war led General McDougall, accompanied by Col. John Brooks and Col. Matthias Ogden, to carry a petition to Philadelphia in January. Unlike earlier officer protests, this petition spoke for the entire Army. Washington privately wrote to several delegates, who favored stronger central government, that the petitioners had valid claims. A committee reported favorably on the petition, but Congress defeated a resolution offering the officers a sum equal to five years’ pay as commutation for their pensions. A generation that had matured listening to rhetoric about the dangers of a “standing

52. JCC, 24 275-76; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 26:98, 101, 206; J. D. Eggleston, Officers of the Virginia Line at Winchester, 1783,’, William and Mary Quarterly, 2d ser. 7 (1927):61; Katherine Glass Greene, Winchester. Virginia, and Its Beginnings, 1743-1814 (Strasburg: Shenandoah Publishing House, 1926), pp. 24144; Archives of Maryland, 18:477, see, 596-97; Southern Department Orderly Rook (Greene’s General Orders for 2 and 3 Nov 82); Palmer, Calendar of Virginia State Papers, 2:335.
53. Burnett, Letters, 6:537-38; Allen D. Candler, Revolutionary Records, 3:57, 79-80, 157, 161-63; RG 360, National Archives (Wayne to Greene, 12 Jul 82; Greene to Congress, 13 Aug 82); Steuben Papers (“Abstract of Musters for the Southern Army,” 1 Apr-19 Sep 82; Francis Mentges to Steuben, 9 Jan and 2 Apr 83).
54. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 25:269-70. Basic sources for this section discussion are the following: Headers son, Party Politics, pp. 318, 332-3s; Richard H. Kohn, “The Inside History of the Newburgh Conspiracy: America and the coup d’Etat,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser. 27 (1970):187-220; and Mintz, Gouveneur Morris, pp. 156-61.