© Don Troiani
Private, Posey's Light Infantry Battalion, 1779

A Brief Profile of the Continental Army

© 1999 -- 2021 - John K. Robertson and Bob McDonald


© Don Troiani
Sergeant, Greaton's 24th (MA) Continental Regiment, 1776

This section is provided to more fully explain the approach used by the compilers of this Index as to unit definitions. It is important to note that, at least to some extent, the precise organization of the army is open to slightly differing interpretations. It need always be recalled that the historical record is not fully complete. While the existent archives provide invaluable resources, the entire and precisely accurate profiling of the revolutionary military forces will likely never be possible.

Within each of the major sections of the Orderly Book Index grid — such as a state's infantry units, a branch other than infantry, or a higher headquarters level — the primary emphasis is placed on what might be termed “unit lineage” or “unit duration of service.” The result of this focus is summarized for each Index section at the top of its corresponding page, the respective synopsis providing a year-by-year profile of the state’s or branch’s organizational table. As a conveniently brief and uncomplicated example, the following replicates the introductory summary for the Rhode Island Index page, detailing the state’s troops for each of the army’s “establishment” periods:

1st RI Regt.      2d RI Regt.      3d RI Regt.
9th Continental Regt.      11th Continental Regt.
1st RI Regt.      2d RI Regt.
The RI Regt.
The RI Bn.
RI State Regts.

Militia w/ Continental Army       Militia on Home Defense

The preceding summarized profiling of Rhode Island units for each of the “establishments”, or reorganizations, of the army is highly typical of all states although, unsurprisingly, larger ones such as Massachusetts become considerably more complex, with up to sixteen regiments in the field during a given time period. Nevertheless, the concept is the same for each of the states and each non-infantry branch.

Where the Index categorization system provides its particularly unique and beneficial perspective is in the definition of the “duration units” that track a given organization from one establishment to the succeeding ones. To the compilers’ knowledge, such an integrative view of the Continental Army has never before been presented in this manner. Each duration unit, to clarify, represents a single “building block” in the development of the army’s profile. Most importantly, these integrated duration units define the core basis upon which the orderly books are categorized, each being identified by a unique “M&R” designation. In addition to this Index being the sole source for aggregating all Continental Army orderly books, it is also the only to-date attempt to provide a specific and logical catalog numbering of the army’s entire organization. For both purposes, the “M&R” numbering system provides the key tool. For continuity of example, the following illustrates one M&R duration unit from the Rhode Island Line:

1st (Varnum's) Rhode Island Regiment [1775]  - [A]
9th (Varnum's) Continental Regiment [1776]  - [B]
1st (Varnum's/Greene's) Rhode Island Regiment [1777-1780]  - [C]
The (Greene's/Olney's) Rhode Island Regiment [1781-1782]  - [D]
The (Olney's) Rhode Island Battalion [1783]  - [E]
Furloughed Jun. 1783; Disbanded Dec. 1783

The above example requires, as first commentary, the immediate noting that other students of the Continental Army, almost assuredly, will have differing interpretations as to the issue of “lineage.” With each successive reorganization, a given unit might have continued to be staffed exactly as it had been during the prior period, or it may have been consolidated with another unit, or it could have ceased to exist as a distinct unit. At times, a unit would be divided, several companies being joined with another unit, the remaining companies being consolidated with a completely separate new unit. Thus, there are unquestionably “gray areas” in which judgment is required, and in which “best guesses” are appropriate. Additionally, the Index compilers have felt it beneficial to make certain tradeoffs of minute details for improved clarity and greater simplicity. Thus, the present structure of unit and orderly book definitions as designated by the M&R numbering system is expected to be of some degree of debate. The compilers will welcome any and all suggestions and documentation supporting modifications and will make such changes if these are felt to add validity without inordinate complexity.

To achieve clarity and comfort with the current system, several additional comments are felt appropriate:

Within a given state, the M&R duration unit numbers progress based on the numeric designation or colonel’s seniority of the origin year of the first "component unit," whether that be in 1775, 1776, or 1777. The preceding definition of duration unit RI-01 shows it to have had five sequential component units, designated "A" through "E."

Successive component unit designations change on the basis of the year of the army reorganization that brought about the unit’s re-designation. For reference, the army’s major reorganizations took place on the first day of January 1776, 1777, 1781, 1782, and 1783.

Each component unit of a duration unit is titled as most commonly referred to within the army at the time. Thus, the Massachusetts regiments of 1775, while having numeric designations, were almost always referred to based on the names of their colonels or commandants. This practice has been adopted by the Index.

Each component unit is also further specified by the name(s) of its commanding officer(s) being shown in parentheses.

Shown within brackets at the end of each component unit is the year or years during which that designation was in use for the overall duration unit. (For benefit of simplicity, minor variations, as when a component unit was not organized until, for example, the spring of a given year, have not been specifically noted.)

Lastly, and perhaps of greatest importance to the interpretation of the M&R unit and orderly book cataloging system, is the series of suffix letters associated with the several component units of an overall duration unit. In the above example, the unit operating in 1775 as the 1st Rhode Island Regiment is referenced as RI-01A. Any and all 1775 orderly books for this 1st Rhode Island Regiment carry this suffix letter, with multiple books being presented based on the chronological order of their first entry date, such as would be indicated by: RI-01A-01, RI-01A-02, RI-01A-03, etc. Continuing this example, when the 1775 unit was, on January 1, 1776, re-designated to be the 9th Continental Regiment, its reference in the M&R cataloging shifts to the unit suffix RI-01B. Orderly books associated with this component unit would, as suggested by the above, progress per RI-01B-01, RI-01B-02, and so on. Thereafter, the unit designation and the catalog numbering of respective orderly books for this duration unit proceed through the remaining component units via the corresponding suffixes “C”, “D” and “E.”

While somewhat complex upon first exposure, this unit and orderly book cataloging system is, in reality, the most intelligible and straightforward presentation mode possible given the necessity for the recognition of successive component units and the possibility of multiple books per each component unit. This system, in fact, is the optimal model and the reader may have already anticipated its one shortcoming. Although the orderly book database initially followed this mode, the later addition of orderly books not yet accounted for disrupted the chronological numbering system as soon as an earlier book was found and added. Thus, within certain state units and in future ongoing updates of the book database, it is fully possible that the books of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment of 1777-1780 may, by necessity, appear chronologically as RI-01C-04, RI-01C-01, RI-01C-02, and RI-01C-03. Various alternatives to avoid this cosmetic problem, such as the addition of a second alphabetic suffix (pertaining to the book) or the addition of a decimal suffix, have all been considered and rejected as taking the system “over the edge” of complexity.

All factors considered, the M&R cataloging system is considered to be a significant contribution as to both referencing specific unit development within the Continental Army and the collection of orderly books cataloged by this Index. For whatever purposes students and researchers might apply it, the system yields, via the first five characters, a numeric “table of organization” for the army at any point in time. Further, to the extent that it is adopted by manuscript-holding libraries and other institutions, it obviously provides a clear and recognizable basis for the referencing of a specific book or the ordering of digitized downloadable or microfilm copies.

M&R NUMBERS [This page]

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