© Don Troiani
A Brief Profile of the Continental Army
© 1999 -- 2008 - John K. Robertson and Bob McDonald
THE ARMY OF 1776
© Don Troiani
Beginning as early as one week following his arrival at Cambridge in July 1775, General Washington began to submit recommendations to the Congress for the improvement of the structure and operations of the army. Given that the enlistments of a very large majority of the troops were scheduled to expire on December 31, it was imperative that the most essential of these modifications be in place prior to that time. For the campaign year of 1776, it was hoped that the army could indeed be converted to a truly “united” and “national” force, as representative of the Continental Congress, moreso than an aggregation of individual colonies’ military forces. Thus, among those earliest recommendations was to aggressively and systematically recruit components of the army beyond the four New England colonies, and to create battalions containing companies and officers from multiple colonies. Beyond the very obvious political importance of expanding the rebellion beyond its appearance as solely a “Yankee” venture, experienced and notably superior candidates for the army’s command structure residing beyond the New England colonies would become essential if the British were to fully commit to war with America. Washington’s virtually immediate call for the Congress’s active involvement in the development of an improved army for 1776 came none too early, for it was not until mid-October that the designated committee began to approve the proposed modifications, with the full Congress not formally accepting the redesign until early November.
The Commander and his primary general officers suggested a new army structure to number not less than 20,000 men, composed of 27 infantry battalions and supportive artillery units and rifle companies.
Each infantry battalion was, in theory, to contain 728 officers and men distributed across eight companies.
In spite of Washington having to abandon his desire to integrate officers from various colonies within each regiment due to strong resistance to the concept from Congress and the colonies, the new units would be designated “Continental” regiments rather than being nominally referenced by the name of their respective colony.
Each of the infantry regiments would be numbered to reflect the seniority, based on commission date, of its colonel. For example, New Hampshire’s three regiments of 1775 became the 2d, 5th and 8th Continental Regiments of 1776, reflecting the respective seniority levels of their Colonels Reed, Stark and Poor, respectively.
Rhode Island’s contribution to the 1776 establishment would be two of the infantry units, to be designated the 9th and 11th Continental Regiments.
Connecticut’s quota for 1776 was five infantry units, designated the 10th, 17th, 19th, 20th and 22d Continental Regiments.
Massachusetts continued, by far, to be responsible for the majority of the army’s manpower, its quota for the new year being set at sixteen infantry regiments. When defined by the respective colonels’ seniority levels, these would become the 3d, 4th, 6th, 7th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 18th, 21st, 23d, 24th, 25th, 26th and 27th Continental Regiments.
The remaining infantry unit, redesignated as the 1st Continental Regiment, was the single group of non-New England troops within the main army manning the lines around Boston, this being composed of what had been the Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment of 1775 with the addition of four associated rifle companies of Marylanders and Virginians.
In two respects, the developmental transition of the main army for the 1776 campaign fell short of plans and expectations. At the beginning of the new year, the army continued to very predominately be a New England establishment. Excepting for the small number of Pennsylvanians, Marylanders and Virginians composing the rifle unit, and the New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey regiments operating within their home colonies and in Canada, the army would remain very notably “Yankee” until the mid-summer expansion of resources created by the enormous needs of the New York Campaign.
The second shortfall exposed by the transition between the two years’ forces was much more serious than geographic concentration and was a harbinger of what would become a chronic and highly troublesome issue for General Washington. Although apparently reliable numbers of troop commitments had been made by the colonies in late 1775, none of them was successful in delivering its quota of manpower during the transition period. In fact, with the scheduled departure of the 1775 enlistees and the notable lag in the raising and filling out of the 1776 Continental regiments, Washington faced a serious and dangerous crisis condition which he described to the Congress via the following:
"It is not in the pages of History perhaps to furnish a case like ours. To maintain a post within musket shot of the Enemy ... and at the same time disband one Army and recruit another within that distance of twenty odd British regiments, is more than probably ever was attempted..."
Here was the cold, hard collision of the realities of the maintenance of an army with the philosophical social mores distrustful of enlistment periods extending beyond one year. Although, after the loss of the entirety of Manhattan and its surrounding islands and New Jersey “suburbs” to British invasion in the Fall of 1776, the Congress finally relented somewhat to Washington’s continuing pleas for longer enlistments, the last days of December and the first days of January during most of the remaining years of the war would continue to be minimally troublesome and, at times, periods of crisis for the army. Fortunate it was that the British in Boston that first winter were unaware that the total number of American forces encircling them had dropped to a low of 12,000 officers and men during the disbanding of one army and the recruiting of the next. During the December-January transitions of several following years, secrecy and events would be far less favorable and often far more dangerous for the Continentals and, in particular, the repetition of this clearly ineffective annual disbanding-recruitment practice would, at the close of 1776, find the fortunes of an independent United States hanging by a thread.
While the main army directly under Washington’s command continued to be predominantly composed of New Englanders, the remaining colonies, of course, had recruited to fill their own troop quotas assigned by the Congress and had played their own roles in what had already become a widely dispersed war. Between mid-1775 and mid-1776, New Jersey’s first three battalions and Pennsylvania’s first seven, like the New York forces, were assigned to duty within their own colony or, of particular strategic importance, had been key elements in the invasion of Canada. Throughout nearly the entire first half of 1776, the garrison of the critically positioned Fort Ticonderoga and its surrounding region was composed of New Jersey and Pennsylvania Continentals. Concurrently, the Southern Department was manned by six Virginia battalions, six from North Carolina, and one from Georgia. These Continentals, as well, were far from unoccupied as the city of Charleston, South Carolina had become an early British target, culminating in a major siege led by Sir Henry Clinton, which ended with his defeat and the raising of that siege in June of 1776.
By year’s end, with independence having been declared and the enormous number of British and allied German troops having uncontested control of “metropolitan” New York, the stage was set and the need was unquestionable for a truly “national” Continental Army capable of serving for what was now clearly going to be a long and extraordinarily difficult war.