© Don Troiani
Private, Phinney's 18th (MA) Regiment, 1776

A Brief Profile of the Continental Army

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


© Don Troiani
Private, 10th Massachusetts Regiment, 1777

From the very beginning of the War for American Independence in April 1775, the development of an effective revolutionary army was both a major challenge and an ongoing process of nearly constant innovation and adaptation. During the century and one-half preceding Lexington and Concord, each colony, as it was founded, had maintained its own compulsory militia system to provide defensive resources for that colony. During the French and Indian War nearly two decades before, several colonies’ militia forces had provided supplementation for the primary British army operating in North America. Prior to 1775, however, there had never been a need for coordination of American military resources across all of the thirteen colonies. Now, as the small British force that had been sent to Concord to collect and destroy secreted provincial munitions fought its way back to the haven of Boston on that evening of April 19th, the first elements of what would become the Continental Army gathered to encamp on the heights surrounding the city.

It was, however, a notably uncoordinated and amateur military force that night. It would, in fact, require more than three years to sufficiently develop the organizational structure and the operational capabilities to reliably challenge the combat prowess of its enemy. In spite of the hurdles of a widespread American cultural distrust of a “regular” (or “standing”) army, of being often handicapped by the inexperience and periodic incompetence of the Continental Congress, of being harried by numerous and chronic personal jealousies and petty feuds among some of its own officers, and of needing to cope with the waning enthusiasm of the initially zealous public to support a lengthy and costly war, that three-year organizational development process nevertheless succeeded and the objective of a “national” army was attained. By mid-1778, and certainly by 1779, Commander-In-Chief General George Washington would begin to have, and would thereafter continue improving upon, that which he most desired, “a respectable army.” It was, though, a thoroughly complex and often highly frustrating experience to achieve that goal. When the first British volley of musketry flew across Lexington Common, the most acutely fervent American revolutionaries were emotionally ready for a fight; they were, however, grossly ill-prepared for what was to become an eight-year war with the militarily most powerful nation on earth.

During those first few days following the Lexington and Concord skirmishes, the “rebel” forces surrounding the King’s army in Boston expanded to a remarkably large number of New England militia companies. While the preceding two years had been free of open military confrontation, the “underground” leaders of the American revolutionary movement had been far from inactive. Militia units were expanded and drilled with greater frequency. Arms, ammunition, and much other necessary military equipage were acquired and carefully hidden in storage. Committees of correspondence increased their inter-colonial communications and contingency planning. Thus, by the night of April 18, 1775, when the British army contingent of only about 700 men first embarked afloat and then began its march from Boston toward Concord, the stage was fully set to field more than 4,000 colonial militia in response to it and the follow-up British emergency support column of 1,200 additional regulars. By the following evening, such militia units had marched from virtually all the surrounding Massachusetts counties. Within a very few days, companies from New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut had already arrived in the camps surrounding Boston. As a somewhat odd linguistic means to avoid admitting the reality of a state of war existing, these forces were termed the “armies of observation” of the several New England colonies.

All such verbal positioning became moot on June 14 when, in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress essentially “adopted” these several New England colonial military forces and created “the American continental army”, its primary purpose being defined as “ the defence of the United Colonies.” The following day, the Congress unanimously elected George Washington to command all present and future military forces of those United Colonies, and within less than ten days, the commander-in-chief was en route to Boston. Aside from the welcome and rather amazing fact that the colonials under arms, encircling the British garrison “bottled up” on the Boston peninsula, now numbered nearly 20,000 men, little else that General Washington found upon his arrival was particularly encouraging.

From his years as a Virginia militia officer and those spent in the colony’s House of Burgesses, Washington was, and was fully committed to be, an extraordinarily disciplined English gentleman. (While, until July 1776, the conflict with the British military continued to be rationalized as a schism with Parliament, not with the King, virtually all American colonists certainly continued to regard themselves as being Englishmen and members of the British Empire.) When Washington arrived in New England, he was entering a virtually foreign land. For, in actuality, only in the new title were the American colonies in any way “united.” In reality, large and significant cultural, political, philosophic, and religious differences made, in particular, New England a literally “different world” from Virginia’s Tidewater, let alone from the colonies further to the south. While Virginia was strongly and clearly socially hierarchical, New England had, to a quite substantial extent, embraced what Washington would refer to as “the leveling principle.” Strikingly, and to his dismay, this “leveling” of social positions made its appearance throughout the Boston camps in numerous ways. To his amazement, the new commanding general found that commissioned officers who had been barbers in private life were now shaving and cutting the hair of enlisted men. Similarly, a junior officer who had previously been a cobbler might be found operating a “sideline business” of “tapping” (i.e., resoling) enlisted men’s worn shoes. Certainly worse as to the long-term functioning of the army, a few New England companies carried the concept of equality to the extreme of potential officer candidates of a given company or regiment needing to campaign for the votes of enlisted men in their pursuit of literal election to an officer’s rank.

From this non-coordinated array of various counties’ and colonies’ amateurish militia companies encircling Boston during the summer of 1775 would develop, within four years, an army equal in professionalism and esprit with that of any major European power. The process through which this development took place was neither uniformly progressive nor consistently linear. It occurred through a series of army reorganizations created by regimental designations, re-designations, and consolidations, which collectively yielded a sequence of phases in the progression of the Continental Army. Added to the complexity of these several sequential phases of the main army’s development, the entirety of the American military was composed of the Congress’s “continental” army as well as the component states’ military systems. The development of and coordination among the Continental “line regulars”, the state troops, and local militia components, that is, has made it a thoroughly challenging objective to accurately profile and follow over time the structure of the American army throughout the duration of the war. In this introductory section, these developmental factors will, hopefully, be at least initially clarified, the sequential phases of the military “establishments” specified, and, most directly to the point, the manner in which this Orderly Book Index has been constructed to account for these issues will be explained.


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