© Don Troiani
Private, Forman's Additional (NJ) Regiment, 1777

A Brief Profile of the Continental Army

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


© Don Troiani
Private, Webb's Additional (CT) Regiment,

The enormity of the British military and naval force that engulfed New York harbor in August of 1776 demonstrated to all Americans having any doubt of the matter that the King and the large majority of parliament had absolutely no hesitation in committing to “total war” in order to preserve control of the American colonies. Although the Congress moved with a speed somewhat atypical of its norm, the gaps in time between Congress’ decisions and their intended results remained operationally unavoidable. It was this delay in the resolution of the challenge of the expiring one-year enlistments of 1776 that created “the times which try men’s souls” as phrased by Thomas Paine in The American Crisis. When General Washington developed the plans for the Christmas night attack on the Hessian garrison of Trenton, New Jersey his choice of “victory or death” for the day’s password was certainly not figurative posturing. With a force shrunken to only 6,000 effectives, his choices were near to being that stark. And, little more than a week later, the night flank march along the frozen roads from Trenton to Princeton demonstrated that the American military had a commander who, when necessity required, would not hesitate to risk everything in order to reverse a significantly negative strategic and political crisis.

By literally holding the cause together during its darkest hours, Washington and the tattered remnants of the Continentals of 1776 secured the essential time necessary to facilitate the nascent development of an army of sufficient professionalism and reliability to engage a force representative of the most advanced European military establishment. Based on Congressional decisions made in September and early October of 1776, precisely as Washington’s army was being driven entirely from Manhattan into Westchester County, the fundamental nature of the Continental Army was defined for 1777 and, with minor modifications, for the remainder of the war. A critical effect of the New York defeats was to finally develop the virtually unanimous perception among the Congress that short-term enlistments were ineffective and untenable. So far had the concept of the “virtuous patriot” diminished as a reliable basis for contending with the Crown Forces that monetary and land bounties were accepted as being required for assuring necessary troop levels. By ironic coincidence, the new plan was adopted by the Congress on September 16, one day after a massive invasion force had pierced and rolled up the American lines at Kip’s Bay and, by nightfall, was in possession of the near entirety of Manhattan Island.

The reorganization plan was known as the eighty-eight battalion resolution, which based the states’ regimental quotas to be recruited on their comparative populations, with Massachusetts and Virginia each being called upon for fifteen infantry battalions, the quotas shrinking to only one battalion each for Delaware and Georgia. The goal of enlistment requirements was “for the war” commitments, although it became quite quickly apparent that lesser terms would be necessary. However, essentially all enlistments for the army of 1777 were initially for three years or “for the war.” The crippling practice of the end-of-year wholesale reorganizations would finally be at an end.

In addition to the September reorganization plan defining the basic nature and structure of the army for the remainder of the war, an additional component was created by one of the Congress’ last acts before fleeing the endangered Philadelphia for Baltimore in December. In one of the resolves temporarily entrusting General Washington with extraordinarily sweeping powers, the commander-in-chief was authorized to raise sixteen additional infantry battalions, three regiments of artillery, three thousand light horsemen, a corps of engineers and was granted the authority to appoint their commanding officers. Working directly with the respective states’ governors and legislatures, Washington took immediate advantage of this unprecedented step of the typically controlling Congress and began the creation of what would become known as the “additional regiments of 1777.”

A critically beneficial effect of the September redefinition of the army was its conversion from what had been quite predominately a New England force to one clearly defining a national commitment, the September plan bringing closer to reality the political announcement made to the world two months before. By the spring of 1777, for example, Virginia’s full quota of fifteen regiments had joined the main army at Morristown, New Jersey. As events developed, in fact, 1777 would be the year in which the force under Washington’s direct command would be most heavily “southern”. With the large proportion of the New England regiments being garrisoned at Fort Ticonderoga and Peekskill, New York, these forces would become the core of the defense against Burgoyne’s ill-fated invasion from Canada, shifting first to Albany and then to the remarkable victory fields of Saratoga. Concurrently, as Howe’s British and allied force invaded Pennsylvania, Washington’s main army became far more “fully American”, heavily staffed by Virginians, North Carolinians, Marylanders, and Pennsylvanians. Following Burgoyne’s Saratoga defeat, a significant portion of the Northern Department troops joined Washington, but too late to prevent the fall of Philadelphia to Howe’s forces. By the end of 1777, though, the composition of the main army was remarkably different from what it had been one year before. Although the Valley Forge winter would indeed bring an arduous challenge, the cause primarily lay with the supply services and the political shortcomings of both the Congress (again in exile, this time at York, Pennsylvania) and the state governments, not with a professionally deficient or inexperienced army. Given that neither South Carolina nor Georgia regiments ever served with Washington, it is illustrative indeed that of the remaining eleven states all had troops at Valley Forge or its extended detachment at Wilmington, Delaware.

Based on the long-term enlistments facilitated by the establishment of 1777, the mid-war lull following the cessation of a Canadian invasion threat, and the conclusion of the Philadelphia Campaign at the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778, the composition of the main army achieved an unprecedented degree of stability and resultant professionalism. For a brief period during the late summer and early fall of 1778, virtually the entire army was concentrated at the appropriately named “grand encampment” at White Plains, New York while the main British army had returned to its traditional concentration in and around Manhattan. It was with infinitely well-deserved pleasure that General Washington noted the irony of the two forces now occupying virtually the same positions that they had occupied two years before, but with their respective roles being essentially reversed. In the early fall of 1776, the British advance had proved irresistible, the raw and uncoordinated American army being scattered like chaff in a windstorm. Two years later, Washington had achieved his desired “respectable army” fully capable of constraining its enemy to one small foothold of America. With the predominately New England forces of the Highlands garrison joining the main army following its march from Monmouth, the “grand encampment” also represented the most inclusive concentration of the states’ forces, troops from eleven of the thirteen being present.

With the loss of two of the four senior British commanders -- Burgoyne to capture and Howe to resignation -- and with the crucial alliance of France with the American cause, it was evident to all that the strategy of the Crown Forces would require a major revision in focus. The primary differentiating asset to facilitate this shift was the continuing enormous advantage of the royal navy. Thus, the emerging British strategy shifted to two primary targets, each being based on the speed of sea-based troop transport from New York. The first, which brought the White Plains encampment of the Continentals to an early end, was the intensified siege of Newport, Rhode Island. The second, and much longer-term core strategy, was the shifting of the Crown Forces' main thrust, and, as it would turn out, the last gamble, to the southern states.

THE ARMY OF 1777 THROUGH 1780 [This page]

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