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The Continental Army, Chapter VII

Concluding Remarks

America’s victory in the War of American Independence surprised many European observers. One Frenchman attributed it to a frontier mystique: “It may be asserted that North-America is entirely military, and inured to war, and that new levies may continually be made without making new soldiers.”73 Loyalist and some British observers suggested instead that the British did more to lose the war than the Americans did to win it.74 Many modern historians feel that the British faced insurmountable logistical obstacles and suffered from bad leadership, particularly on the political level. Others see the militia, either as a guerrilla force or as the enforcement arm of Revolutionary government, as the most important military institution of the time since it limited

70. JCC, 24:337, 492-94, 501n; 25:548-49, 722-45; 26:54-55, 201-7; 27:432-37, 486-88, 499-502, 51224, 530-31, Burnett, Letters, 7:166-69 189-91, 540-43, 546-47, 550-53, 572-73, 587-88, 604-5; Hamilton, Papers, 3:211, 378-97; Fitzpatrick Writings, 27:140-44, 202-4; “Thomson Papers,” pp. 177-79.
71. The regiment s infantry contingent is perpetuated by the 3d Infantry, a parent regiment under the Combat Arms Regimental System, with active battalions in the Regular Army and Army Reserve; the artillery, by the 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery.
72. Lyle D. Brundage, “The Organization, Administration, and Training of the United States Ordinary and Volunteer Militia, 1792-1861” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1959), pp. 340-93; Jeffrey Kimhall, “The Battle of Chippewa: Infantry Tactics in the war of 1812,” Military Affairs 31 (1967):169-86.
73. Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North-America, in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782, 2 vols. (London: G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1787), 1:19. Also see Orville Theodore Murphy, Jr., “French contemporary Opinion of the American Revolutionary Army” (Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1957).
74. See, for example, C[harles] Stedman, The History of the Origin, Progress and Termination of the American War, 2 vols. (Dublin: privately printed, 1794), 2:499.


British authority to those areas physically occupied by troops. As the war became a global struggle, Britain’s manpower reserves proved incapable of sustaining the effort.75

It is true that the militia played a very important role in the War of American Independence. Its political functions probably were indispensable, and as a military institution, supported by state troops, it continued to meets its traditional colonial responsibilities for local defense and for providing a general emergency reserve. On the other hand, it could not effectively operate as a main battle force at any distance from home or for an extended period. Congress recognized the militia’s limitations from the beginning of the war and turned to full-time regular troops, the Continentals. As long as a field army of Continentals remained nearby, a British commander had to concentrate on it and leave the militia unmolested.

Britain’s defeat cannot be explained by the problems of a 3,000-mile line of communications. The mother country sustained a war effort for eight years, five of them after North America became a secondary theater in a global conflict. The distance was a handicap, particularly insofar as it increased the time between a casualty and the arrival of a replacement, yet the British consistently provided their commanders with more regulars and military supplies than Washington and his subordinates had. British seapower was superior, but Washington’s forces offset this advantage with better organization of land transport. American commanders used this tactical mobility to outmaneuver their opponents. When forced to flee, as in Washington’s retreat through New Jersey or Greene’s race to the Dan, they could always escape to a secure area and reorganize. The American ability to outdistance pursuit also robbed British battlefield victories of decisive impact. Washington’s influence made American units more efficient, at least on paper, than British or German ones, particularly between 1776-78 and 1781-83. Greater line combat strength, higher ratios of officers and noncommissioned officers, and a developed regimental staff produced a powerful and responsive regiment. The British, moreover, never developed an effective echelon to match the Continental Army’s permanent brigade instituted in 1777. The Continental Army’s organizational concepts allowed greater control, even in semidispersed formations; the two-rank battle formation enhanced the advantages of the Army’s emphasis on infantry marksmanship. Benefiting from the doctrine of aimed fire and target practice, the Continentals often inflicted heavy casualties on the British in a battle and normally dominated skirmishes.76

Knox’s artillerymen also had a better organization and doctrine than the British. They concentrated fire on infantry targets, while the British used the more traditional and less effective counterbattery fire. As at Monmouth, tactical use of regimental headquarters as an intervening echelon of command enabled Knox to mass guns for a specific mission. More importantly, assigning a company of artillery to each permanent infantry brigade developed close teamwork between the arms. Rotating companies be-

75. For examples of some of the most recent interpretations of the Revolution, see Stanley J. Underdal, ea., Military History of the ‘American Revolution: The Proceedings of the 6th Military History Symposium, United States Air Force Academy, 10-11 October 1974 (Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1976), and Don Higginbotham, ea., Reconsiderations on the Revolutionary War: Selected Essays (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1978).
76. Baurmeister, Revolution in America, pp. 348-56; Charlotte S. J. Epping, trans., Journal of Du Roi the Elder, Lieutenant and Adjutant in the Service of the Duke of Brunswick, 1776-1778 (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1911), pp. 107-8.


tween garrison, general support, and direct support assignments maintained training and ensured that every company could perform any mission in an emergency. Once the Army overcame early procurement problems, Knox also tailored the armament of each company to its specific task.

The mounted arm never had the opportunity to develop into a battlefield force, although Lt. Col. William Washington’s troopers gave a fine account of themselves in the later phases of southern operations. On the other hand, it did perform well in its original mission of reconnaissance. Theoretical development and practical necessity combined to produce the 1781 legion, an excellent configuration for carrying out this role in the prevailing conditions. The partisan corps, a European concept, developed into an excellent independent, long-range force that could stiffen local irregulars.

A well-rounded group of support troops backed the combat units. Unlike the British Army, the Continental Army had specialized units to perform ordnance, maintenance, quartermaster, and military police functions. Highly trained engineers, both officers and units, functioned well in offensive and defensive assignments after 1777. Combat and support units, presided over by a competent general staff, functioned by 1782 as a team equal in quality to that of any European army of the day.

The officers of the Continental Army had been selected originally on the basis of political rather than military credentials. Experience nurtured latent talents and produced a competent group of commanders, although few individual members could be called “great captains.” Once trusted subordinates (Greene, Heath, Sullivan, Stirling, Lincoln, and McDougall) became commanders of territorial departments, Washington assumed a more active role in general policy. His practice of consulting with his subordinates, usually in a council of war, has frequently been misinterpreted to mean that the Army was ruled by committee. This conclusion misjudges Washington’s desire to encourage each officer to state his opinions and to feel that he was participating in the war effort. Washington was Commander in Chief in every respect. He alone carried that burden, and to him is due the credit.77

Tradition in the United States depicts the Continental Army as a hardy group of yeoman farmers and middle-class tradesmen under amateur officers who defeated a European army of lower class troops commanded by aristocrats. Recent studies indicate that after 1776 the Continental Army did not fit this image. The long-term Continentals tended to come from the poorer, rootless elements of American society to whom the Army, despite its problems, offered greater opportunity than did civilian life. Enlisted men were young (over half were under twenty-two when they enlisted) and mostly common laborers so poor as to be virtually tax-exempt. A sizable minority were hired substitutes or not native to the place where they had enlisted.

The Continental officer corps, on the other hand, came from the upper social strata. In the deferential society of eighteenth-century America, members of the leading families naturally assumed leadership in the regular forces just as they did in the militia, in politics and law, in the church, and in business. Although it was possible for an enlisted man to become an officer, particularly during the reorganizations of 1776 and 1777, Washington’s desire to maintain a distance between officers and men as a disciplinary tool kept most of the latter from rising far. In small colonies, such as New

77. “Washington’s Opinion of His General Officers,” Magazine of American History 3 (1879):81-88; Stedman, American War, 2:448.


SIZE ROLL. Size rolls, such as this one of the 2d Continental Light Dragoon Regiment which that unit maintained throughout the war, differ from either muster or pay rolls. Size rolls contain much more personal information about a unit’s officers and men because these rolls were for the unit commander’s use rather than for the Army staff’s. A commander recorded each member’s name, rank, physical description, trade, home town, and enlistment data and updated the rolls throughout the war. If a man deserted, the commander could use the information on the rolls to track the offender. Notice that Cpl. Gideon Hawley ultimately received a commission as a cornet.


Jersey, a single family, reinforced by cousins, in-laws, political allies, or business associates, could dominate entire regiments.

In a force of this nature discipline posed a problem. Desertion rates were high, although few went over to the British. Washington coped by developing, in conjunction with his judge advocates, a system that adapted British military justice to the conditions of American society in the 1770’s. His approach was mild by contemporary standards and extremely sophisticated. Washington did execute a few for particularly serious crimes. He preferred, however, to produce the same psychological effect on the Army by using last-second reprieves.

Washington led the Continental Army to victory in the longest war in American history before Vietnam, overcoming physical and psychological obstacles which at times appeared insurmountable. The fact that Washington not only held the Army together but also molded it into a tough professional fighting force is a tribute to his inspirational leadership and judgment. That he then disbanded this force without incident when economic considerations forced him to do so was to accomplish the nearly unthinkable in the view of his contemporaries.