Continental Army facts

Portrait of George Washington
General George Washington, was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army on June 15, 1775

The Continental Army was the unified command structure of the thirteen colonies fighting Great Britain during the American Revolutionary War. The Army was created by a resolution of the Continental Congress on June 14, 1775. Most of the Continental Army was disbanded on November 3, 1783 after the Treaty of Paris. A small residual force remained at West Point and some frontier outposts, until Congress created the United States Army by their resolution of June 3, 1784.

Creation, organization and reorganization

Infantry, Continental Army, 1779-1783
Illustration depicting uniforms and weapons used during the 1779 to 1783 period of the American Revolution by showing four soldiers standing in an informal group

On June 7 the Continental Congress decided to proceed with the establishment of a Continental Army for purposes of comon defense. Referring to themselves as "the twelve United Colonies", (Georgia was not yet represented), the congress adopted forces already in place in Cambridge, Massachusetts as the first units of the Continental Army. They then elected, by unanimous vote, George Washington, on June 15, as commander-in-chief. Washington accepted the position without any compensation, except reimbursement of his expenses.

Four major-generals (Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, Philip Schuyler, and Israel Putnam) and eight brigadier-generals (Seth Pomeroy, Richard Montgomery, David Wooster, William Heath, Joseph Spencer, John Thomas, John Sullivan, and Nathanael Greene) were appointed in the course of a few days.

As the Continental Congress increasingly accepted the responsibilities and posture of a legislature for a sovereign state, the role of the Continental Army was the subject of considerable debate. There was a general aversion to maintaining a standing army among the Americans; but, on the other hand, the requirements of the war against the British required the discipline and organization of a modern military. As a result, the army went through several distinct phases, characterized by official dissolution and reorganization of units.

Broadly speaking, Continental forces consisted of several successive armies, or "establishments":

  • The Continental Army of 1775, comprising the initial New England army, organized by Washington into three divisions. Also Major General Philip Schuyler's ten regiments sent to invade Canada.
  • The Continental Army of 1776, reorganized after the initial enlistment period of the soldiers in the 1775 army had expired. Washington had submitted recommendations to the Continental Congress almost immediately after he had accepted the position of commander-in-chief, but these took time to consider and implement. Although attempts to broaden the recruiting base beyond New England, the 1776 army remained skewed toward the Northeast both in terms of its composition and geographical focus.
  • The Continental Army of 1777 - 1780 was a result of several critical reforms and political decisions that came about when it was apparent that the British were sending massive forces to put an end to the American revolution. The Continental Congress passed the Eighty-eight battalion resolution, ordering each state to contribute forces in proportion to their population, and Washington was given authority to raise additional 15 battalions. Also, enlistment terms were extended to three years or "the length of the war" to avoid the year-end crises that depleted forces.
  • The Continental Army of 1781 - 1782 saw the greatest crisis on the American side in the war. Congress was for all intents and purposes bankrupt, making it very difficult to replenish the soldiers whose three-year terms had expired. Popular support for the war was at its all-time low, and Washington had to put down mutinies both in the Pennsylvania Line and New Jersey Line. Congress voted to cut funding for the army, but Washington managed nevertheless to secure important strategic victories.
  • The Continental Army of 1783 - 1784, which was succeeded by the United States Army, which persists to this day. As peace was closed with the British, most of the regiments were disbanded in an orderly fashion, though several had already been diminished.

In addition, a number of militia units, raised and funded by individual colonies/states, participated in battles.

The financial responsibility for providing pay, food, shelter, clothing, arms, and other equipment to specific units was assigned to states as part of the establishment of these units. States differed in how well they lived up these obligations. There were constant funding issues on the one hand and morale problems on the other as the war continued.

The emergence of combat capabilities

The American Soldier - Continental Army
The American Soldier - Continental Army

Under the command of Artemas Ward, the army at Cambridge in June of 1775 numbered about sixteen thousand men from New England. In addition to Ward, John Thomas acted as executive officer, Richard Gridley commanded the artillery corps and was chief engineer.

The British force in Boston was increasing by fresh arrivals. It numbered then about ten thousand men. Maj. Generals Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne had arrived late in May, and joined General Gage in forming and executing plans for dispersing the rebels. Feeling strong with these veteran officers and soldiers around him, and the presence of several ships-of-war under Admiral Graves, the governor issued a proclamation, declaring martial law, branding the entire Continental Army and supporters as "rebels" and "parricides of the Constitution." Amnesty was offered to those who gave up their allegiance to the Continental Army and Congress in favor of the British authorities, though Samuel Adams and John Hancock were still wanted for high treason. This proclamation only served to strengthen the resolve of the congress and army.

Throughout its existence, the army was troubled by poor logistics, spotty training, short-term enlistments, interstate rivalries, and Congress's inability to compel the states to provide food, money or supplies. In the beginning, soldiers enlisted for a year, largely motivated by patriotism; but as the war dragged on, bounties and other incentives became more commonplace. Two major mutinies diminished drastically two of the main units, and there were constant discipline problems.

The army increased its effectiveness and success rate through a series of trials and errors, often at great human cost. General Washington, along with other distinguished officers, were instrumental leaders in preserving unity, learning and adapting, and ensuring discipline throughout the eight years of war. Washington always viewed the army as a temporary measure and strove to maintain civilian control of the military.

Washington resigned his post when the Treaty of Paris was signed with the British in 1783, ending the war and confirming American independence. His willing yielding of power, at a time when many would have given him a crown, was crucial in averting a military dictatorship in the United States, and helped ensure that democracy would take root.

After the war, the officers of the Continental Line formed the Society of the Cincinnati in May of 1783. They elected General George Washington as President of the Society, and he served as President until his death in 1799. The Society has remained active since its formation in 1783, and is represented by the descendants of the officers of the respective State lines, as well as of France.

Major battles

Images


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