Towards a Respectable Army


Continental Troops
Continental Troops

One of the enduring myths of the Revolution is that the Americans won by using superior tactics, using cover and concealment while the British fought in lines. Yet in reality, the Americans found that they had to create an army modeled on the European tradition that they were in fact struggling against: a permanent, standing army of disciplined troops. The Continental army also had to adopt the linear tactics used by their enemies, matching them at this to beat them. The source of this tradition may be traced to the early victories of the war at Lexington, Concord, and even Bunker Hill (an American loss, but at a dear price to General Gage), as well as later victories like Kings Mountain.

When the war began, there was unbounded enthusiasm for volunteering. Yet it soon became apparent that militia, with its varying levels of training and loose organizational structure, could not win a protracted war against the British military machine.

As the war progressed, Washington, among others, came to firmly believe that “I am persuaded, as I am of any fact that has happened, that our Liberties must of necessity be greatly hazarded, if not entirely lost, if their defense is left to any but a permanent standing Army.”

Throughout the war, Washington insisted that Congress create longer enlistments and support a permanent, standing army. Ironically, this was the very thing that the colonies were fighting against.

The British army was known for its harsh discipline. It enforced the rules of Parliament and royal governors. It was quartered at public expense in the colonies. It stood for everything the colonists were rebelling against.

Examples of the inefficient militia system abound. In June, 1776, the Continental Congress called up 3,400 Maryland Militia. While some were ready by August, by November they were still trickling in.   Between August and October, 1777, the Congress called for 17,000 Pennsylvania militia. Only 2,000 arrived by November.

Moreover, the Continental Army was a revolving door in 1775: units came and went. Seasoned regiments left, to be replaced by green troops. Washington wrote the next summer that, “The disadvantages … of the limited Inlistment of Troops is too easily apparent.”

The Continental Army went through two major revisions early in the conflict: the regiments organized in 1776, whose enlistments expired at the end of the year, followed by a new army recruited for 1777, to fight for three years or the duration of the war. Washington had gotten his wish: a permanent army with long term enlistments. It was not just the generals’ urgings that brought the needed change: multiple defeats and the loss of much territory reinforced the validity of his argument.

This newer version was intended to be a well-trained, professional force, though realties often fell short in the field. In the course of time, Continental army units gained a measure of experience, professionalism, and esprit de corps, all of which could match those of their British and German opponents. As Washington commented, it was “a respectable Army.”

Yet the belief persisted that the American Continental army was different from those of the old world. In 1775 and 1776 enthusiastic volunteers turned out in droves: farmers, shop owners, and common citizens. Yet by the last few years of the war the Continental army had to rely heavily on British deserters, freed slaves, foreign volunteers, conscripted men, and lower class members of society: men with no career or little property. By the time peace negotiations were underway, this force had been successfully molded into an effective and efficient combat army.

Yet the fear of standing armies and their power never dissipated. John Adams wrote to one officer, “We don’t chose to trust you Generals with too much power for too long a time.” His cousin Sam Adams agreed, noting, that, “Soldiers are apt to consider themselves as Body distinct from the rest of the Citizens. They have their Arms always in their hands. Their Rules and their Discipline is severe. They soon become attached to their officers and disposed to yield implicit obedience to their Commands. Such a Power should be watched with a Jealous Eye.”

One of the central issues that the Revolutionary generation struggled was the protection of freedom from corruption. From leaders to common citizens, the debate raged about the conduct of the war, about power, about how to have an effective but not corruptible military force, and civilian leadership.

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