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Revolutionary War - The Continental Army

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.

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.

The Continental Army underwent a complex evolution which greatly affected the military, political, and social history of the Revolution. The basic concepts of military organization within units and in the larger realm of command and staff determine an army's capabilities. These concepts, for example, can insure that an army will be unable to cope with irregular opponents in difficult terrain. An army's doctrine - a theory on employing force which is taught to the army and is based on carefully worked out principles - in turn reveals how well that army's leaders understand their own organization and the situation in which they intend to fight.

The first two years of the War of American Independence witnessed the growth of the Continental Army from a nucleus of New England and New York units patterned after the Provincials of earlier wars into a force with men from every state as well as foreign volunteers. Through those volunteers, particularly Steuben and Duportail, European military theory and training merged with practical American experience.

Beginning at Valley Forge this blend led to a relatively sophisticated organization that was sufficient to meet most of the battlefield problems faced by the Continental Army.

The concern of the 27 May 1778 congressional reorganization to reduce expenses and adjust quotas to a realistic level became more acute in succeeding years. As British operations shifted emphasis to Virginia and states farther south, Washington and Congress transferred large elements of the Main Army to the Southern Department. By October 1780, when the three-year enlistments of 1777 were about to expire, the need to realign the existing military organization became intense.

Congress on 9 February 1780 decided to establish quotas to place 35,211 men in the field for the coming campaign. No regiments were disbanded. Of this force, aside from supporting troops, the Infantry was to have a combat strength of 21,000; the Artillery, 2,000; and the Cavalry, 1,000. In January 1780 the Continental Army actually contained approximately that number of officers and men.

By October 1780 the Continental Army had received a series of major blows: the fall of Charleston, the debacle at Camden, and the terrible shock of Benedict Arnold's treason. The economy still verged on the brink of total collapse, and the three-year enlistments of 1777 would expire during the coming winter.

The final plan specified that on 1 January 1781 "the regular army of the United States" was to consist of 49 infantry regiments, Moses Hazen's special Canadian infantry regiment, 4 artillery regiments, 4 legionary corps, 2 partisan corps, and a regiment of artificers. The heart of the reorganization was the realignment of the Infantry. Congress apportioned the forty-nine regiments on the basis of realistic estimates of the men available in each state, rather than total population. The plan would then provide for only 18,000 infantrymen. Washington said he needed 22,000: 18,000 for mobile field forces, 2,500 for garrisons in the Hudson Highlands, and 1,500 for service on the frontiers.

Although not mentioned in the legislation, the Corps of Engineers, the companies of sappers and miners, the Marechaussee, and the Corps of Invalids remained unchanged. All other units had to disband and transfer their enlisted men to the line regiments. Congress allotted every regiment, except Hazen's and the two partisan corps, to a single state to simplify subsistence and troop replacement. At Washington's request, it gave the Army rather than the state governments the power to decide which officers were to retire. Seniority would be the determining factor in resolving disputes.

During the final years of the Revolution a growing shortage of men and the general collapse of the American economy forced retrenchment. In time the Continental Army disappeared as a standing military force, but not before its triumph at Yorktown. When it disbanded, moreover, it did so in an orderly manner that reinforced the political stability of the new nation.

The reorganization caused a major crisis in the Pennsylvania line, which was camped for the winter at Morristown. On the evening of 1 January 1781, before the reorganization was actually implemented, the enlisted men mutinied over chronic shortages of food, clothing, and pay. The mutiny not only deprived Washington of two brigades of troops but also opened the door to future revolts.

On 20 January the New Jersey regiments mutinied in an effort to obtain similar concessions. Washington sent Maj. Gen. Robert Howe from the Highlands with a detachment of New Englanders and orders to "compel the mutineers to unconditional submission" and to execute "a few of the most active and most incendiary leaders." On 27 January 1781, Howe suppressed the mutiny and ordered two ringleaders to be shot, thereby checking the spread of unrest.

The careful plans of October 1780 for sixty-one regimental equivalents divided into two major commands thus did not materialize. Washington's Main Army and subsidiary commands in the north lost the services of the 2d Partisan Corps as well as Pennsylvania's legionary corps, artillery regiment, and 6 infantry regiments when these units moved to the badly depleted Southern Department. The latter never obtained the 7 infantry regiments projected for Georgia and the Carolinas, and it had the services of only 1 of 8 Virginia and 2 of 6 Maryland and Delaware infantry regiments.

On the other hand, the regiments serving in the Continental Army in 1781 contained very experienced cadres. The reorganization left only the most competent officers and produced units with very efficient organizations. During 1781 those troops would engage in the war's decisive campaigns.

The 1781 campaign conclusively demonstrated that the Continental Army had matured into a small but effective military force despite pay and supply problems. Washington and Greene wrested the strategic initiative from the British, adjusting their plans to take advantage of changing circumstances. With French military, naval, and financial support, they caused a major defect in British dispositions and then exploited it to the maximum.

The year's operations began in the Carolinas. General Cornwallis suffered a major setback at Cowpens on 17 January when his light troops under Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton engaged the Southern Department's light troops under Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan. Washington and Rochambeau joined forces at Dobbs Ferry, New York, on 6 July.

Washington and Rochambeau then decided to attack Cornwallis at Yorktown. Washington's shrewd use of deception obscured the change in plans from the British until they were powerless to intervene. The siege itself progressed rapidly and in accord with formal European procedures. Artillery fire crushed Cornwallis' defenses, and on 19 October his troops marched out of their works and laid down their arms. itself progressed rapidly and in accord with formal European procedures. Artillery fire crushed Cornwallis' defenses, and on 19 October his troops marched out of their works and laid down their arms.

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.

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.

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. 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. Greater line combat strength, higher ratios of officers and noncommissioned officers, and a developed regimental staff produced a powerful and responsive regiment. 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.

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.

The Newburgh Conspiracy threatened to destroy the nation before it began. Whether the events at Newburgh occurred at the nationalists' prompting or was actually a coup d’état planned by a few extreme members of the army led by Washington’s rival General Horatio Gates, remains uncertain.

The Newburgh Conspiracy was a plan by Continental Army officers to challenge the authority of the Confederation Congress, arising from their frustration with Congress's long-standing inability to meet its financial obligations to the military. By late 1782, many in the northern army encamped at Newburgh feared Congress would never would meet its obligations. Hoping to intimidate Congress into meeting those requirements, the nationalists in Philadelphia attempted to stoke the army's unrest.

By early 1783, widespread unrest had created an atmosphere ripe for mutiny. If Congress did not comply, the army should threaten to either disband—leaving the country unprotected—or refuse to disband after a peace treaty ending the war was signed. The latter option was a thinly veiled threat of a military takeover.

On 15 March, Washington defused the situation with an eloquent, personal plea to his officers to remain loyal to Congress, in the process saving the American Revolution.

The resolution of this matter and the news on 12 March of a preliminary peace treaty cleared the way for Congress to dismantle the Army. Congress ordered an end to hostilities on 11 April and approved the preliminary treaty four days later. Washington began the armistice at noon on 19 April - eight years to the day after the first shots at Lexington.

Under Josiah Harmer, the First American Regiment slowly organized and achieved permanent status as an infantry regiment of the new Regular Army. Led by Continental veterans, this small peacetime Regular Army gradually expanded over the next decade. It had inherited the rules, regulations, and traditions of the Continental Army. Steuben's Blue Book remained the official manual for the regulars, as well as for the militia of most states, until Winfield Scott in 1835 adapted the 1791 French Army Regulations for American use.

At Fallen Timbers in 1794 Maj. Gen. Anthony Wayne applied the techniques of wilderness operations perfected by Sullivan's 1779 expedition against the Iroquois. The integration of ax-Continentals into the militia, coupled with the passage in 1792 of a national militia bill, improved the military responsiveness of that institution until the veterans began to age.72

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.

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Page last modified: 05-02-2018 13:19:26 ZULU