The Continental Army of 1775
This article presents four eyewitness accounts on the condition and general attitude of the American Forces in the summer of 1775. It concludes with six of George Washington’s commentaries on the situation of the army at that time and his personal frustrations. After the battles of Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775) and the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 21, 1775), which were fought on the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts, the various militias throughout New England formed into what was being called the Army of the United Provinces of North America. Because England’s army was positioned in Boston, the militias remained close by and were beginning to be supported by militias from other colonies.
June 15th, 1775, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia chooses one of their own representatives from Virginia to command the main army around Boston (another smaller army in northern New York was commanded by General Phillip Schuyler). General George Washington, the new commander-in-chief of America’s armed forces, soon leaves Philadelphia for Cambridge, Massachusetts. After the two major actions with England’s forces, twenty thousand colonials under Artemas Ward lay siege to the British under Supreme Commander General Gage. On the way north, Washington is wined and dined by local dignitaries as word travels before His Excellency. People line the route and peek out windows to get a look at this tall Virginian on his way to take the helm of their army.
July 3rd, 1775, Washington arrives and sets up headquarters at an exquisite mansion on north Brattle Street. It had been abandoned the previous year by Tory John Vassalls’ and his family. That same day he rides before the troops gathered at Cambridge Common, draws his sword, and formally takes command of the Continental Army. What he found was not an army in any sense of the word. Soldiers were not soldiers, but a haphazard collection of volunteers skillful with the family musket or rifle, but almost totally without experience or training. He found the men disrespectful of officers, fiercely resentful of discipline, ignorant of the rules of hygiene, wasteful and disorderly. It was remarked by many that when arriving in camp, the first thing noticed was the stench of the tombs (18th century term for latrines). The army was a mismatch of militia forces still technically under the control of individual provinces. Everything was needed: muskets, powder, lead, blankets, tents, medicine, entrenching tools, uniforms which were nonexistent, and there was no money to be had for supplies or paying the troops.
On July 28th,1775, General George Washington wrote to his friend General Philip Schuyler on the condition of his new command, stating that “confusion and disorder reigned in every department,” and that “we mend every day.” After all the pomp and ceremony during his ride from Philadelphia, dismay by what he saw could be considered an understatement. The condition of the American army surrounding Boston at the time of Washington’s arrival can best be described by those who visited the camps, albeit, British & loyalist observations are understandably biased and more vehement.
An anonymous British officer and surgeon from one of His Majesty’s ship’s used the privilege of his medical profession and former friendship to some of the American officers to appease his curiosity by visiting the American camps. He comments in a letter dated May 26, 1775, that the camps are “supplied with all sorts of provisions…” and goes on to emphasize the quantity of alcohol available, “for without New England rum, a New England army could not be kept together, they could neither fight…” He writes that “the army, which you will hear so much said… is truly nothing but a drunken, canting, lying, praying, hypocritical rabble, without order, subjection, discipline, or cleanliness, and must fall to pieces of itself in the course of three months, notwithstanding every endeavor of their leaders… though [the leaders] are the most canting, hypocritical, lying scoundrels that this or any other country ever afforded.”
The next eyewitness account comes from the Reverend William Emerson who has given history one of the best accounts of Concord during this period. He writes to his wife on July 17, 1775. “Tis very diverting to walk among the camps… every tent is portraiture of the temper and taste of the persons that encamp in it. Some are made of boards, some of sailcloth, and some partly of one and partly of the other. Others… of stone, and turf… others of birch and others brush. Some are thrown up in a hurry and look as if they could not help it – mere necessity – others are curiously wrought with doors and windows done with wreaths and withes in the manner of a basket.” He then makes comment on the Rhode-Islanders who have tents and marquees, appearing like the regular camp of the British enemy. “… the Rhode-Islanders, who are furnished with tent equipage from among ourselves and every thing in the most exact English taste.” He interjects what could be considered a passion towards the American cause: “However I think that the great variety of the American camp is, upon the whole, rather a beauty than a blemish to the army…”
Reverend Emerson also comments on the changes he sees apparent, giving credit to Generals Washington and Lee. “There is a great overturning in camp as to order and regularity. New lords new laws. The Generals Washington and Lee are upon the lines every day.” He references the General Orders of the Day that Washington initiated on July 4, 1775, the day after he took over command of the army. “New orders from His Excellency are read to the respective regiments every morning after prayers. The strictest government is taking place, and great distinction is made between officers and soldiers. Everyone is made to know his place and keep it, or be tied up and receive not 1,000, but thirty or forty lashes according to his crime.” He observes the military doctrine of keeping a soldier busy will install discipline and take his mind off his condition. “Thousands are at work every day from four till eleven o’clock in the morning. It is surprising how much work has been done.”
The next is written by Benjamin Thompson of Woburn, Massachusetts and Concord, New Hampshire. It is extensive and one of the more damning commentaries on the American Army however, one of the more comprehensive. Prior to open hostilities between British and colonial forces, Thompson had been a major in the New Hampshire Provincial Regiment; his commission was granted at the young age of twenty by Governor Wentworth. When hostilities seemed apparent, he had wavered between the patriot and the British cause. He decided to remain loyal to the crown, no doubt he was offered better terms; his regiment did much damage to the Americans on Long Island and later during the southern campaigns. After the war, he lived his life overseas as Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire.
In a memo he wrote on November 4, 1775, he describes the Americans as being dirty, nasty, insubordinate, and quarrelsome. “… The army in general is not very badly accoutered, but most wretchedly clothed, and as dirty a set of mortals as ever disgraced the name of a soldier.” He comments further on camp conditions. “They have no women in the camp to do washing for the men, and they in general not being used to doing things of this sort, and thinking it rather a disparagement to them, choose rather to let their linen, etc., rot upon their backs than to beat the trouble of cleaning ‘em themselves.” He turns to their diet; “… And to this nasty way of life, and to the change of their diet from milk, vegetables, etc., to living almost entirely upon flesh, must be attributed those putrid, malignant and infectious disorders which broke out among them soon after their taking the field, and which have prevailed with unabating fury during the whole summer.”
Thompson suspects the officers are hiding conditions from the public. “The leading men among them (with their usual art and cunning) have been indefatigable in their endeavors to conceal the real state of the army in this respect, and to convince the world that the soldiers were tolerably healthy.” He makes reference to the army’s general health. “… so great was the prevalence of these disorders [referring to illnesses] in the month of July that out of 4,207 men… stationed upon Prospect Hill, no more than 2,227 were returned to duty.” He makes note of the reduced number of men per regiment; “The mortality among them must have been very great, and to this is a great measure must be attributed the present weakness of their regiments; many of which were much stronger when they came into the field. But the number of soldiers that have died in the camp is comparatively small to those vast numbers that have gone off in the interior parts of the country.” He stresses the sick were carried off and now spread pestilence among their communities. “… for immediately taken down with these disorders they have in general been carried back into the country of their own homes, where they have… died [or] spreading the infection among their relatives and friends…”
Thompson is convinced the American Army is doomed and comments on representatives from Congress meeting with Washington. In Sept., a congressional committee in which Benjamin Franklin was a member, visited the camp and adopted a plan to raise an army of 26 regiments of infantry of 728 men each, plus a regiment of riflemen and one of artillerymen. He writes; “The soldiers in general are most heartily sick of the service… The Continental Congress are very sensible of this, and have lately sent a committee to the camp to consult with the general officers upon some method of raising the necessary forces to serve during the winter season…” He believes that by “cunning and artifice, and as their political existence depends upon the existence of the army, they will leave no stone unturned…” in persuading the army to reenlist by the end of the year.
He doubts that such “inferior officers” will be successful in their attempts at discipline and subordination when dealing with the rank and file. “… the doctrines of independence and levellism have been so effectually sown throughout the country, and so universally imbibed by all ranks of men, that I apprehend it will be with the greatest difficulty that the inferior officers and soldiers will be ever brought to any tolerable degree of subjection to the commands of their superiors.” He stresses “that very spirit which induced the common people to take up arms and resist the authority of Great Britain, should induce them to resist the authority of their own officers… [preventing] them from making good soldiers.”
Thompson takes a stab at a colonial’s station in life as being “impossible to introduce a proper degree of subordination in the rebel army…” blaming, “… the great degree of equality as to birth, fortune and education that universally prevails among them… For men cannot bear to be commanded by others that are their superiors in nothing but in having the good fortune to get a superior commission…” Here he is comparing the American Army’s habit of producing officers by recognizing their abilities and merit, as compared to the European system of officers paying for their commissions, thereby keeping the reins of power in the hands of the wealthy and aristocracy. “… the officers and men are not only in general very nearly upon a par as to birth, fortune, etc., but in particular regiments, are most commonly neighbors and acquaintances, and as such can with less patience, submit to that degree of absolute submission… necessary to form a well-disciplined corps.”
He points out the jalousies between the troops and colonies as “… Another reason why the army can never be well united and regulated….” Washington’s motives and partiality is questioned. “The Massachusetts forces already complain very loudly of the General to the Virginians, and have even gone so far as to tax him and taking pleasure in bringing their officers to court martials, and having them cashiered that he may fill their places with his friends from that quarter.” He turns to the southern soldiers’ objections. “… The gentlemen from the Southern Colonies, in their turn, complain of the enormous proportion of New England officers in the army… and say, as the cause has now become a common one [that] they ought to have an equal chance for command with their neighbors.” He believes that these “jealousies and uneasiness… cannot fail to increase and grow every day… and if they do not finally destroy the very existence of the army… [it will] render it much less formidable than it other ways might have been.”
He questions the famed colonial and backwoods riflemen, describing them as not worth their pay or reputation. “Of all the sets of men that ever encumbered an army, surely the boasted riflemen are certainly the most so. [In camp] they had every liberty and indulgence allowed them that they could possibly wish for… more pay than any other soldiers; did no duty; were under no restraint from the commands of their officers, but went when and where they pleased… in every respect whatever.” He attacks their marksmanship. “… For instead of being the best marksmen in the world, and picking off every regular that was to be seen, there is scarcely a regiment in camp but can produce men that can beat them at shooting.” He comments on the effectiveness of the American siege of Boston. “… and the army [American] is now universally convinced that the continual fire which they kept up by the week and month together has had no other effect than to waste their ammunition and convince the King’s troops that they are not really so formidable adversaries as they would wish to be thought…”
Written by Jesse Lukens of Colonel William Thompson’s Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion to John Shaw, this letter illustrates some of Washington’s difficulties dealing with the Pennsylvania and Virginia riflemen. Basically good men, it became apparent that they were better suited to the wilds of frontier warfare than the discipline of an army camp. Lukens wrote about an incident involving thirty two riflemen from Captain Ross’s company that was raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His letter first makes reference to the disrespectful behavior of his fellow riflemen. “… Our camp is separate from all others about 100 yards – all courts martial and duty was separate – we were excused from all working parties, camp guards, and camp duty. This indulgence, together with the remissness of discipline and care in our young officers, had rendered the men rather insolent for good soldiers.” There were several occasions in which riflemen broke out their companions from the guardhouse and were abusive to their officers, “openly damned them and behaved with great insolence.”
Lukens explains what amounted to an armed mutiny that required over five hundred soldiers fully armed and Washington’s presence to quell. A dispute arose in which a sergeant was confined for neglect of duty and a crowd of rifleman “threatened to take him out [of confinement]. The adjunct… seized the principal mutineer and put him in also… [officers] had just sat down to dinner and were alarmed by a huzzaing and upon going out, found they had broke open the guard house and taken the man out.” Colonel Thompson seized the principal mutineer and this time had him escorted to the Main Guard at Cambridge. There was no initial interference, “…but in about twenty minutes, 32 of Capt. Ross’s company with their loaded rifles swore by God they would go to the Main Guard and release the man or lose their lives, and set off as hard as they could run.”
Word was sent to Washington. He feared the mutiny might spread throughout the battalion and “… reinforced the guard to 500 men with fixed bayonets and loaded pieces. Col. Hitchcock’s regiment [camped next to the riflemen] was ordered under arms and some part of General Green’s brigade.” The mutineers soon got cold feet. “Generals Washington, Lee and Green came immediately, and our 32 mutineers who had gone about half a mile towards Cambridge and taken possession of a hill and woods, beginning to be frightened at their proceedings, were not so hardened but upon the General’s [Washington] ordering them to ground their arms, they did it immediately.” Another rifle battalion under Captain Nagles surrounded the mutinous men. Two ring leaders were bound. Six were taken to the Main Guard at Cambridge and the rest to the Quarter Guard; the guardhouse within camp.
Washington was embarrassed before his New England colleagues as the First Brigade was made up of riflemen from Pennsylvania, but also a company each from Maryland and Virginia. “… the General is chagrined that only one regiment should come from the south and that set so infamous an example…” A court martial was convened the next day, Colonel Nixon of Massachusetts presiding, and the men were charged with ‘disobedience and mutinous behavior.’ The mutineers were ordered to pay 20 shilling apiece as penalty, a far cry different than future treatment of mutineers in which ring leaders often lost their lives. One, John Leaman [Lukins spells his name incorrectly in his letter] of Capt. Nagel’s company, was held six days in the guardhouse. Lukens comments that the penalty was “too small a punishment for so base a crime and mitigated no doubt on account of their having come so far to serve the cause…”
Lukens places the blame on the shoulders of the officers, “… This will, I hope, awaken the attention of our officers to their duty, for to their remissness, I charge our whole disgrace, and the men being employed will yet no doubt do honor to their provinces…” Sadly, before the year ended, Jesse Lukens died on Dec. 25, 1775 of wounds he received on Dec. 22, during Doctor and militia commander Colonel Plunkett’s attempt to remove Connecticut settlers from the Wyoming Valley of northeast Pennsylvania. This unauthorized attack by Plunkett and over seven hundred Pennsylvania riflemen, arose from a dispute going back to King James the 1st dated Nov. 3, 1620, which granted tracts of Pennsylvania to Connecticut.
Correspondence by George Washington. Next are letters General Washington wrote to his cousin, a Congressional delegate from Virginia, the President of Congress, and three letters to his secretary who was in Philadelphia at that time. He paints a gloomy picture of what he faces outside Boston in 1775 while also commenting on his personal feelings and fears.
On August 20, 1775, Washington writes to Lund Washington, a distant cousin who was overseeing improvements made to the supreme commander’s home, Mt. Vernon, “… The people of this government… by no means deserve their officers [who] are the most indifferent kind of people I ever saw. I have already broke one colonel and five captains for cowardice and for drawing more pay and provisions than they had men in their companies…” He gives a brief description of his rank and file, “… I dare say the men would fight very well if properly officered, although they are an exceeding dirty and nasty people…”
He writes to Richard Henry Lee (Virginia statesman and future president of Congress) on August 29, 1775, “… an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people which, believe me, prevails but too generally among the officers of the Massachusetts part of the Army…” He goes on to write, “There has been so many great, and capital errors, and abuses to rectify… that my life has been nothing else, since I came here, but one continued round of annoyance and fatigue…”
Washington writes to the President of Congress, John Hancock, on September 21, 1775. “…. It give me great pain to be obliged to solicit the attention of the Hon. Congress to the State of the Army… my situation is inexpressibly distressing to see the winter fast approaching upon a naked Army…” Naked, in the 18th century sense of the word, meant clothing in tatters or very poorly dressed, not completely disrobed as it does today. Washington then refers to money, or lack of, “… Added to this the military chest is totally exhausted. The paymaster has not a single dollar in hand. The commissary general assures me he has strained his credit to the utmost for the subsistence of the army.” He fears men’s reactions to their condition, “… the greater part of the army [is] in a state not far from mutiny.” He concludes with a bleak omen, “… if the evil is not immediately remedied and more punctuality observed in the future, the army must absolutely break up.”
Washington writes to Joseph Reed on November 28, 1775. By then he had been in command for a little more than four months. During that time, he had struggled to gain order as he molded a hodgepodge of farmers and merchants into an effective army. While doing so, he continued to press Congress for more money. “What an astonishing thing it is that those who are employed to sign the Continental bills should not be able, or inclined, to do it as fast as they are wanted. They will prove the destruction of the army…” As the end of the year fast approached, in which the army’s enlistments were up, many of the men spoke openly about returning home. “The Connecticut troops will not be prevailed upon to stay longer than their term…” [Connecticut contributed the most men and made up the bulk of the army] “… and such a dirty, mercenary spirit pervades the whole, that I should not be at all surprised at any disaster that may happen…” Washington is fearful of having to turn to militias to fill the ranks, “… our lines will be so weakened, that the minutemen and militia must be called in for their defense; these, being under no kind of government themselves, will destroy the little subordination I have been laboring to establish, and run me into one evil whilst I am endeavoring to avoid another; but the lesser must be chosen.” He concludes by second guessing having taken command. “Could I have foreseen what I have, and am likely to experience, no consideration upon earth should have induced me to accept this command.”
The new year arrives and Washington’s letters to Reed turn more inward. On January 4, 1776, he writes to his secretary, “… It is easier to conceive than to describe the situation of my mind for some time past, and my feelings under our present circumstances. Search the vast volumes of history through, and I must question whether a case similar to ours is to be found; to wit, to maintain a post against the flower of the British troops for six months together, without – and at the end of them to have one army disbanded and another to raise within the same distance of a reinforced enemy. It is too much to attempt… Thus it is that for more than two months past, I have scarcely emerged from one difficulty before I have plunged into another. How it will end, God in his great goodness will direct… I have been told so many things which have never come to pass, that I distrust everything…”
On February 10, 1776, Washington’s frustration comes to a head when he laments to Reed some of his inner-most thoughts. “I know the unhappy predicament I stand in; I know that much is expected of me; I know, that without men, without arms, without ammunition, without anything fit for the accommodation of a soldier, little is to be done; and, which is mortifying, I know, that I cannot stand justified to the world without exposing my own weakness, and injuring the cause, yet declaring my wants, which I am determined not to do, further than unavoidable necessity brings every man acquainted with them.”
The new commander of His Majesty’s Ministerial Forces in America, General William Howe, has, by the time Washington penned the above letter to Reed, already decided to depart Boston for Halifax where he planned to regroup a portion of his army and wait for the promised fleet that will bring considerate reinforcements. Washington will hasten the British on their way when he positions cannon on Dorchester Heights, making the British position in Boston undefendable. By the summer of 1776, the war moved to New York City where Washington got his first real test of an army he had spent months frantically piecing together.
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