Assembling an Army (1775–1776)
Assembling an Army (1775–1776)
Key political events occurring in the colonies in the summer of 1775 seemed contradictory. On the one hand, the Sec ond Continental Congress was making a last attempt to avoid a break with Great Britain by sending the Olive Branch Peti tion to King George III (1738–1820; reigned 1760–1820). At the same time, however, George Washington (1732–1799) was appointed commander in chief of a new Continental army, and he was making preparations for war.
Washington took the responsibilities of his new post very seriously. He bought every military book the Philadelphia bookshops had on hand (about five) and read them from cover to cover. He also held meetings to discuss how to go about feeding and supplying a large group of men and their depen dents. (This was not a simple matter in a time when everything had to be carried by horses, mules, or boats.) In addition, Washington assembled a network of spies (people who would watch the enemy secretly to obtain important information about their war plans) and gave them money from his own funds to start their work.
The generals who would serve under Washington were chosen by the Second Continental Congress. Washington took no part in the discussions in Congress, and he knew few of the men who were finally chosen as his generals. Delegates from each of the thirteen colonies fought to make sure their colony had its share of generals in the newly formed army. Founding father John Adams (1735–1826) was so annoyed over the petty fighting in Congress that he wrote: "Nothing has given me more torment than the scuffle we have had in appointing the general officers." When the debate was finally over, four major generals and nine brigadier generals had been named.
George Washington's generals
The most colorful of Washington's new generals was Charles Lee (1731–1782) of Virginia, known as a "soldier of fortune" because of his long history of serving in military campaigns both for profit and adventure. On one such campaign in the 1750s, he had been "adopted" by the Mohawk Indian tribe and had married the daughter of a Seneca Indian chief. The Seneca knew him as "Boiling Water" because of his fiery temper. Bold and forthright, Lee was unafraid to voice his opinions: he wrote to British leaders to inform them that they should make peace because America could not be conquered. This brave general's long experience as a soldier proved extremely valuable to Washington as plans for a Continental army were being implemented.
Artemas Ward (1727–1800) of Massachusetts was named major general (and second in command to General Washington). Ward was a stern, religious man who believed that the citizens of Massachusetts were God's chosen people. Ward and Washington did not get along. The friction between them probably began when Washington took over the command of Ward's soldiers in the Boston army (they formed the core of what would later be named the Continental army) and called them "the most indifferent people I ever saw … exceedingly dirty and nasty people."
Another general, Philip Schuyler (pronounced SKY-ler; 1733–1804) of New York, was a well-educated man of Dutch descent. His powerful family had connections by marriage to most of the other important families in New York. He had served in the French and Indian War (1754–63; see Chapter 1: The People of the New World) and was a brilliant soldier, but many considered him too proud and condescending (meaning he acted superior to others). Washington, however, found his patience, good judgment, and attention to the details of managing an army to be of great value to the American cause.
Washington met his fourth major general, Israel ("Old Put") Putnam (1718–1790), for the first time in Cambridge (near Boston) on July 2, 1775. The fifty-seven-year-old farmer and tavern owner could barely read or write, but the fantastic stories surrounding his past had already made him an American folk hero. Although he stood only five feet six inches tall, legend had it that he had once killed a large wolf in her den and survived shipwreck and burning at the stake by Indians. Washington would discover that the aged hero, while eager to serve, was not highly respected by the young soldiers under his command and practiced a form of warfare that had become outdated.
On July 3, 1775, Generals Washington, Putnam, and Lee rode to the outskirts of Boston to inspect their troops.
New England militiamen are incorporated into Continental army
European nations fought their wars and defended themselves with professional soldiers, but things were different in America. The geography of the place—its sheer size—did not make the typical European military organization practical. The colonists needed some way to defend themselves against angry Native Americans. The Indians were not hostile toward them at first but became so after more and more colonists arrived in the New World and threatened to destroy the Natives' land, culture, and traditions.
The colonists protected themselves by forming a colonial militia (pronounced muh-LISH-uh). It consisted of every able-bodied man in the community. Each man understood that it was his duty to turn out and fight to protect his family and community in case of an attack. Men served for as long as they were needed—Indian attacks usually did not last long— then they returned home. The militia system proved to be the most practical defense for the colonies and was far less expensive
than a professional army, especially since men brought their own weapons and supplies.
It was militia members from throughout New England who turned up at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775 and then forced the British to retreat to Boston. Somewhere between 16,000 and 17,000 militia men were encamped around Boston when George Washington assumed command in July. These men were ordinary citizens— many of them farmers or shopkeepers— and they were not used to fighting or handling weapons. They were loosely organized, without a high commander, and owed their loyalty only to the colony from which they came.
British warships were thick in Boston Harbor that summer, and three British generals—William Howe (1729–1814), Henry Clinton (1738–1795), and John Burgoyne (1722–1792)—had just arrived from England to assist General Thomas Gage (1721–1787). A group of soldiers accompanied them, bringing the total of British soldiers in Boston to 6,500.
Washington inspects his army
General Washington arrived in Boston nearly three weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill to take command of what would henceforth be known as the Continental army. The British then held Boston, Charlestown, and the harbor. They could attack American forces by water, or they could head back to England at any time. The Americans occupied several spots—trenches or "earthenworks"—throughout a "Cemi Circle of Eight or Nine Miles" around Boston, according to a letter Washington sent to his brother.
When he gazed upon his troops, Washington could not believe his eyes. To the wealthy, upper class Virginian, the army
he was supposed to lead was an unencouraging sight. The vol ume George Washington, Writings contains a letter Washington wrote to his cousin and plantation manager, Lund Washing ton. General Washington described his regular soldiers as "an exceeding dirty & nasty people." He also reported that some of his officers were dishonest, "drawing more Pay & [supplies] than they had Men in their Companies."
Most of the soldiers did not even recognize Washington and therefore did not show him the kind of respect he deserved. Some had ideas of democracy that struck him as most peculiar, one being the notion that soldiers and officers were equals. The men Washington was supposed to command wandered from place to place, either ignoring efforts to discipline them or threatening those who tried. Washington wrote that the sol diers "regard[ed] their officers no more than broomsticks."
The fact that this was an army without uniforms contributed to the problem—it was hard to tell who was an officer. Washington threw all of his energy into making a disciplined army from this ragtag bunch. Officers were given colored armbands or knots of ribbons called cockades for their hats. Their men were put to work strengthening fortifications and camp sites that had been put together in a hurry and were already falling apart. Those who refused to work or recognize authority were punished. Those who tried to run away were caught, stripped, and lashed with a whip before being officially dismissed from the army. In George Washington and the American Revolution Burke Davis notes that, within a mere three weeks, Washington concluded: "We mend every day and I flatter myself that in a little Time, we shall work up these raw Materials into good Stuff."
Washington's men thought he was harsh (he had a violent temper that he never fully mastered) but fair. The patriotic public came by the thousands to have a look at him and were reassured by his self-confidence and distinguished good looks. But there were others who tried to destroy his reputation by printing falsehoods about him. In the colonies, people who remained loyal to King George attacked George Washington in newspapers, claiming he was disloyal. In London, Gentleman's Magazine printed letters describing a supposed love affair between the happily married—and very busy—Washington and "pretty little Kate, the washerwoman's daughter."
At this point in time, with war undeclared, Washington, his generals, and many Americans believed the struggle with Great Britain would last no longer than six months. Surely by then King George would read their petitions, and, knowing that America was ready to fight for its rights, he would be ready to make a deal. By summer's end, though, some colonists grew weary of America's "unofficial" war; they began to complain that Washington should stop wasting time training his troops and get busy attacking the enemy.
The fall of '75
While Washington continued with his war preparations, Congress continued to wait for a response from King George regarding its petitions for peace. In September 1775, Washington complained to Congress that he had no money to pay his men; he feared that after all his hard work, his soldiers would desert (abandon military duty) and there would be no army. Indeed, thousands had already gone home after the Bat tle of Bunker Hill. Congress sent a committee headed by Ben jamin Franklin to discuss the situation. Steps were taken to provide money and supplies, and plans were made to build up an army of 20,000 men by calling on all the colonies for help. (Congress did not feel it had the authority to raise an army on its own.) The number of soldiers called ("quotas") depended on the population of the colony.
By mid-November, fewer than a thousand new men had enlisted. A month later, there were about 6,000 Conti nental ("regular") soldiers. Washington also had militiamen under his command, but he believed they were not reliable and could not be depended upon in battle. After their victory at Bunker Hill, the militiamen believed themselves to be out standing soldiers; all they had to do was grab their guns and shoot at the British. They overlooked the reality that at Bunker Hill, they were behind fortifications, while the British fought out in the open. In short, they were more pleased with them selves than Washington thought they had any right to be.
Washington's new men were hunters, Indian fighters, and backwoodsmen from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylva nia. They brought their own rifles and astounded everyone with their shooting skills. Their aim was so good they were put to work picking off British officers and soldiers who appeared in their line of fire. The British were outraged; they thought it was ungentlemanly for common soldiers to fire at officers. Despite their skills, though, the sharpshooters were a disor derly bunch, and, according to one source, Washington wished they had stayed at home.
During the early part of the war, the British stayed under cover for the most part, and Washington hesitated to attack. Throughout the fall, he had problems with his militia men, who were hostile toward his "regular" soldiers. Everyone, including the British soldiers in Boston, soon grew bored and irritable with inactivity. Washington hoped that the British would attack him and force his hand, but they continued to sit in Boston and do nothing.
Keeping the army together
In October 1775, although still short of the 20,000 men he thought he needed, Washington issued an order that barred free black men from joining the Continental army (see Chapter 8: Blacks and Native Americans in the American Revolution). Free blacks had already proven their courage at the Battle of Bunker Hill; two African Americans—Caeser Brown and Cuff Hayes—are believed to have died there. But Washington was a planter and slaveholder from Virginia, and slave unrest was making Southerners nervous. Slaveholders feared that arming free blacks would be an invitation to disaster. Washington bowed to the pressure from the South and issued his order; a little over a month later, though, he was forced to reverse the order when the number of white soldiers willing to serve fell short of the number he needed.
By November, Washington's troops were healthy, well fed, housed, and trained to fight. But he had a problem. The soldiers' terms of duty expired at the end of the year. The enthusiasm they had felt after Lexington and Concord was beginning to wear off. Some of them began to leave early, taking their guns with them. After all his hard work, Washington faced the prospect of training an army all over again. He worried about what would happen if the British heard about this state of affairs. In a letter to his military secretary, Joseph Reed (who was on a leave of absence), Washington wrote: "Could I have foreseen what I have, and am likely to experience, no consideration upon earth should have induced me to accept this command." Washington had his generals try to coax the men into staying. One Connecticut soldier, Simeon Lyman, recorded in his journal how General Lee went about doing this:
…[W]e was ordered to form a hollow square, and General Lee came in and the first words was "Men, I do not know what to call you; [you] are the worst of all creatures," and flung and curst and swore at us, and said if we would not stay he would order us to go on Bunker Hill [then held by the British] and if we would not go he would order the riflemen to fire at us.
To Washington's relief, nearly half of the men due to leave reenlisted, and new troops began to trickle in from the South. In January 1776, Washington had 10,000 men under his command. Throughout the course of the war, though, he nearly always operated with far fewer men than he would have liked. Bonuses and bounties (rewards) were offered to entice
recruits to sign on. And finally, because of manpower shortages and because victory seemed more important than the fears of slaveowners, the restrictions against black men serving in the army had to be reconsidered. By 1781, as the war drew to a close, it was estimated that as many as one-fourth of the Continental soldiers were black (see Chapter 8: Blacks and Native Americans in the American Revolution). But prejudice against blacks serving in the military was so strong that it would be another 200 years before the American army would again hold such a mix of black and white soldiers.
King George goes before Parliament
As Washington assembled his army around Boston, in London both the public and members of Parliament passionately debated British policies toward the colonies. The Bishop of Asaph warned Parliament and King George, "By enslaving your colonies you extinguish the fairest hopes of mankind." William Pitt the Elder, the Earl of Chatham (1708–1778), spoke before the House of Lords (the upper house of Parliament), declaring that "all attempts to impose servitude upon [Americans] … will be vain, will be fatal."
In vain were all the warnings; on October 26, 1775, King George spoke before Parliament. He said, in part: "To be a subject of Great Britain … is to be the freest member of any civil society in the known world…. The spirit of the Britishnation [is] too high," he added, "to give up so many colonies which she has planted with great industry, nursed with great tenderness, encouraged with many commercial [trade] advantages, and protected and defended at much expence of blood and treasure." Therefore, he said, he intended to put a "speedy end to these disorders" by enlarging his land and sea forces and by hiring foreign soldiers.
The debate in Parliament that followed this speech was long and spirited, but King George was unmoved. He set about raising an army, but his efforts were hampered by the fact that his cause was unpopular in England. His attempts to hire foreign soldiers were rejected in Russia and Holland, but the Germans obliged by selling the services of 30,000 soldiers. Most of them came from Hesse-Cassel (a region in southwestern Germany). Because of that, and because the three commanders in chief who led them through the war were from Hesse-Cassel, the men were called Hessians (pronounced HESH-uns). However, German mercenaries is a better description. Mercenaries (pronounced MER-suh-neh-reez; from the Latin word for "pay") are people who are hired for service in a foreign army.
The men from Hesse-Cassel, trained in the rigid European fighting style, were described by historian Burke Davis in George Washington and the American Revolution as "burly men with fierce mustaches and tarred queues [pronounced KYOOS; pigtails held in place with tar] who marched with the precision of marionettes." The Germans aroused both fear and anger among Americans, who could not believe that King George would hire soldiers to fight against his own subjects.
Common Sense convinces wavering Americans
In late 1775, with battles already fought at Lexington and Concord and at Bunker Hill, many Americans were still unwilling to make a final break with Great Britain. Many historians credit their change of heart to the publication of a pamphlet called Common Sense. Its author, Thomas Paine (1737–1809), was a self-taught champion of the common man who arrived in America from his native England in 1775 (see Chapter 3: Literature and the Arts in the Revolutionary Era). On January 10, 1776, Paine published his fifty-page pamphlet anonymously (without his name). Common Sense, "by an Englishman," included a number of statements that would make the British consider Paine a traitor, including his reference to King George III as "the Royal brute of Great Britain."
Paine wrote Common Sense in an easy-to-understand style. He emphasized the evil King George had done, citing instances of British misdeeds that were both true and fictitious (made-up). He wrote of murders of innocent women and children and of the burning of entire towns by the British—true incidents that had occurred at Falmouth, Massachusetts—in October 1775, and at Norfolk, Virginia, on January 1, 1776. Paine declared in Common Sense that 1) England was overtaxing Americans, 2) the English form of government with the king at its head was corrupt, 3) there was little sense in an island thousands of miles away governing the American continent, and 4) any colonist who was not prepared to fight had "the heart of a coward." On the topic of American independence, Paine wrote: "The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth."
Paine's pamphlet became America's first "bestseller"; according to the author's estimates, 120,000 copies were sold in three months. George Washington himself said it turned the tide in favor of independence, and he had it read to his troops. Washington noted: "I find Common Sense is working a powerful change in the minds of men."
The siege of Boston
In the aftermath of the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, more than half of Boston's citizens had fled the city. Thousands of bored British soldiers remained stationed there while fourteen hundred of their comrades lay in the hospital, recovering from wounds or the epidemics of smallpox and fever that swept through the region. Fuel was scarce, and so was food. Morale sank very low as each side waited for the other to make a move.
The only advantages to the situation were that Washington had time to train his army, and volunteer (later General) Henry Knox (1750–1806) had time to sneak away and perform a virtual miracle. At his own expense, and with considerable difficulty, Knox recovered and brought to Washington the cannons (they were pulled by oxen) won by Ethan Allen (1738–1789) at Fort Ticonderoga, New York (see Chapter 6: Lexington, Concord, and the Organization of Colonial Resistance).
The war of nerves finally ended when Washington attacked first. On March 2, 1776, his troops began to fire on Boston. British soldiers could not believe their eyes when they beheld the huge cannons Washington had pointed at them. The attack went on for five days until suddenly, on March 8, Howe sent word to Washington that he was abandoning the city. Howe told Washington that if the Americans held their fire, he and his British troops would leave Boston undamaged.
Delayed by bad weather, it was not until March 17 that more than thirteen thousand British soldiers, sailors, women, children, and Loyalists (people loyal to Great Britain) set sail for Canada. Washington then assumed control of the suffering city of Boston, which had been rid of the British presence once and for all. (He later received a gold medal from Congress for what was considered a great victory at Boston. Congress wrote to congratulate Washington for his outstanding achievement in turning "an undisciplined band of husbandmen [farmers]" into soldiers.)
Back in London, the abandonment of Boston was seen as a great disgrace to the British Empire. Now, having failed in their mission to crush the rebellion in Massachusetts, the British came up with another strategy. The new plan was to rest in Canada, await troops and supplies being sent from England, then move south to conquer major Loyalist centers. One such center was New York City. Whoever controlled New York's Hud son River would have a tremendous military advantage. Rivers were major transportation routes for soldiers and supplies.
Charleston, South Carolina, was another major Loyalist center. Author Paul Johnson estimated in A History of the American People that "fully half the nation," if they did not call themselves Loyalists, at least "declined to take an active part" in the Revolution. Using major American cities as bases, the British expected to isolate New Englanders—the most troublesome of Americans—from the rest of the colonies and, hopefully, crush the rebellion.
George Washington already suspected that the British were planning to take New York. News of the proposed attack, combined with the stirring sentiment of Common Sense and Washington's success at Boston, convinced members of Congress that a drastic step had to be taken.
Composition of the fighting forces
Historians like to discuss how the mighty British military organization was defeated by a motley bunch of rebel soldiers. The British relied on professional soldiers. According to historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski, George Washington himself had fought alongside those soldiers in the French and Indian War, and he had the highest respect for them. Washington distrusted militiamen; he thought they were not respectful and too likely to panic and desert when the going got rough. He often had to rely on them, though, because shortterm service in the militia was much more appealing to American men than long-term duty in a poorly equipped army.
Leadership roles in the British military went to officers, usually from the upper classes (often the younger sons of members of the nobility). These younger sons could never inherit the family money (it went to the oldest son), so they usually pursued careers in either the military or the church. Washington tried to mold his army into one just like the British model—officers, he said, should be "Gentlemen, and Men of Character"—but he was frequently disappointed in his officers. They were often sick, ignored his orders, or deserted. In the spectacular case of Benedict Arnold (1741–1801), Washington endured the hurt of having a trusted officer betray the cause by going over to the British side.
The lower ranks of the British military came from England's lowest social class. They were men who had nowhere else to turn and joined for the money or because the king forced them into service. The lower ranks of the American military consisted of some farmers and merchants, as well as recent immigrants, enemy deserters, prisoners of war, Loyalists, criminals (who were given the choice of enlisting or hanging), the homeless, servants, free black men, and runaway slaves. There was such a mix, in fact, that to some soldiers, the Indians they encountered near their homes seemed more familiar than their fellow soldiers.
Many of the Americans who fought for freedom believed in their cause and willingly endured tremendous hardships in defense of it. Millett and Maslowski summed it up: "Money could not buy, and discipline could not instill, the Continentals' type of loyalty; a … motivation that promised a better life for themselves and their posterity [future generations] held them in the ranks." Despite George Washington's constant frustration with his men, he did manage to win the war with them.
Fighting styles—American versus British
One of the great questions debated by historians is how Washington pulled it off—how America won the Revolutionary War. Great Britain was one of the world's foremost military powers. Her navy was the world's finest. Her soldiers and seamen were well trained, well armed, and disciplined. American soldiers lacked experience, training, adequate weapons, and often even clothing and shoes. In fact, the colonies had no navy at all at the beginning of the war.
The American fighting style clearly gave the colonists the edge in their fight for independence. White men learned this rougher style by observing Native Americans as they fought to prevent whites from taking over their hunting grounds. The only reason the whites emerged the victors in their conflicts with the Indians was because they were better armed. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger described what white soldiers learned from warfare with Indians in his book The Birth of a Nation: "In Indian fashion they now also scoured the woods, moving swiftly in small bands unimpeded with heavy baggage, sleeping in the open, living off the land, and stealing through the underbrush to spring surprise attacks."
Americans ignored rigid European-style rules of warfare. Like the Indians, American fighting men took full advantage of the cover provided by rocks and trees. Since Indians preferred not to fight in the winter, Americans often chose that season to attack. The unwillingness to fight in the wintertime was a European custom that would prove fatal to the British and their German allies in the Revolutionary War. American soldiers sometimes resorted to outright trickery, too, as when patriot militiamen were able to penetrate the British ranks at the Battle of Bennington, Vermont (August 1777) by fashioning rosettes—ornaments designed to resemble roses—into a style that was supposed to identify them as Loyalists.
In contrast, the British fought in the traditional European style. In Europe, wars were typically fought by opposing armies who drew close together on open, level terrain. According to military historian T. Harry Williams, because of the type of weapons they used, "men who wanted to kill other men in the eighteenth century had to be able to see their intended victims." Men marched onto a battlefield in columns, then formed lines of infantry (men with handguns) standing shoulder to shoulder, together with their artillery (men who operated weapons such as cannons that throw projectiles [bombs] across the field of battle). The cavalry (men on horseback) were stationed in the rear.
European battles began with artillery fire from both sides. Then, whichever commander thought he had the upper hand ordered his infantrymen forward. The men advanced in rigid lines, approaching within a hundred yards or less of the enemy. They halted and waited for the command to fire. After firing, the first line of men moved to the rear to reload or knelt so their comrades could fire over them. Albert Marrin noted in The War for Independence: "The idea was for many men to point their guns in the same direction, fire at once, reload quickly, and fire again in the hope of hitting something." This went on until the enemy infantry was thought to have reached the breaking point; then the winning commander would try for a rush with the cavalry.
As described by Harry T. Williams in The History of American Wars from 1745 to 1918, the cavalry came forward, shooting short guns at close range before drawing their swords and sweeping through the enemy ranks. When the field was won, the victors pursued the fleeing enemy. The defeated commander tried to elude the victors and regroup for another battle.
The British style of fighting required highly disciplined soldiers who had gone through long and rigorous training. This description in no way applied to the Americans, whom the British called "Yankees." (The term "Yankee" referred to any inhabitant of New England; when the British used the expression, they did not mean it as a compliment.) British soldiers had a very low opinion of the Yankees as fighting men, believing they would run for cover at the first sign of danger.
General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of British forces at the time of the Battle of Bunker Hill, remarked that the Yankees "will be Lyons, whilst we are Lambs but if we take the resolute part [if we are determined] they will undoubtedly prove very meek [mild; weak]." He was proven wrong, as the American soldiers held onto the hill until they ran out of ammunition (see Chapter 6: Lexington, Concord, and the Organization of Colonial Resistance).
The weapons they carried
British infantrymen carried handguns called flintlocks that were six feet long, including the bayonet (a knife that fit in the muzzle [shooting] end). T. Harry Williams described the loading of a flintlock:
It was loaded from the muzzle, the man doing the loading having to stand in an exposed position. He bit off the end of an envelope containing ball and powder, rammed home the charge, placed priming powder in the pan, and was ready to fire. On command, he pressed the trigger, whereupon, if everything went right, a piece of flint struck steel, producing sparks that ignited the powder. The process required seventeen motions, but a trained soldier could get off two to three rounds a minute if he did not become rattled in the din of battle.
The projectile discharged was a large lead ball that killed, or tore a gaping, ghastly wound, if it hit an enemy. It did not always hit, however…. Its most effective range was 50 to 100 yards. The Revolutionary officer [Colonel Putnam at the Battle of Bunker Hill] who reportedly [ordered] his men, 'Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes,' was not making a statement for the history books but giving a necessary order.
Some American militiamen were equipped with a type of handgun that had been invented in the colonies. Known either as the Pennsylvania or Kentucky rifle, it had an accurate range of up to 300 yards. It took a long time to load, though, and could be impractical in battle. More soldiers carried muskets, a type of shoulder gun. American-made artillery was in short supply, and Congress had to set up foundries (places where metals are cast [melted and molded]) to produce it. Stimulated by wartime needs, factories for the production of muskets and artillery sprang up throughout Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. What Americans could not manufacture was later imported from France—including more muskets and gunpowder.
Throughout the war, the British maintained the superiority in weaponry. Richard L. Bushman summed up the unexpected victory of the Americans this way: "[I]n the final analysis it was the refusal of the civilian population to [give up] and the determination of hundreds of illtrained, poorly supplied companies to harass the enemy that weighed most heavily in the defeat of the British forces in America."
Congress orders formation of a navy
At the same time it was trying to put together a Continental army, Congress tried to establish a navy to go up against the world's greatest sea power—that of Great Britain. This was a much harder task than trying to form an army. While most potential army soldiers showed up to serve bearing their own weapons, a navy required expensive ships, complicated weaponry, and men trained to use them.
Efforts to create a navy were hampered throughout the war by a lack of shipbuilding facilities, so the Continental navy never grew to be very large. According to T. Harry Williams, only fifty to sixty ships ever served in the war—and not all at the same time. The highest number ever assembled to serve at one time was twenty-seven in 1776. In contrast, the British Royal Navy had 270 ships at the beginning of the war and 480 at the end of it (in 1783). Still, the Continental Congress hoped that a small American navy might at least slow the British down by creating a nuisance and disrupting British supply ships.
Congress never appointed a commander in chief of the Continental navy. Williams suggested one reason: among the few men who might qualify for such a position, there was too much jealousy to allow one of them to command the others. Instead, each American ship acted independently, raiding British ships for supplies and weapons and sometimes engaging them in battle.
The most famous of the American sea raiders was John Paul Jones (1747–1792). Born in Scotland, John Paul added the "Jones" when he moved to America in 1773 or 1774 to conceal some unsavory actions in his past. According to Mark M. Boatner III's Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Jones once beat a man for neglect of duty. The man died; Jones was charged with murder, and imprisoned, but the charge was later dismissed. On another occasion, a man ran into Jones's sword and died. Although it was not his fault, Jones's reputation suffered and his friends advised him to move to America.
He had been trained by the British Royal Navy and was the most knowledgeable of all American seamen when, in 1775, he was made a senior first lieutenant (pronounced loo-TEN-ant) in the new Continental navy. He was only twenty-eight years old. Jones was promoted to captain within a year and in 1787 was the only Continental navy officer to receive a gold medal from Congress for his daring war exploits.
The bravery of Jones and other raiders made America proud, but their actions were no match for the British Royal Navy. Throughout the war, the Royal Navy landed troops all along the American coast with little real interference. Henry Steele Commager summarized the naval campaign: "The story of the sea battles and naval campaigns of the American Revolution is a nautical version of [the biblical story of] David and Goliath [an ancient tale of an underdog going up against a giant]. The British Navy enjoyed overwhelming superiority over the tiny Continental naval force…." The balance shiftedonly once, when France and Spain entered the war on the side of America and French ships briefly controlled American waters (see Chapter 11: The War Shifts to the South [1778–1780]).
For More Information
Hawke, David. The Colonial Experience. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.
Miller, Lillian B. "The Dye Is Now Cast": The Road to American Independence, 1774–1776. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975.
Boatner, Mark M. III. "Knox's Noble Train of Artillery." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 587–88.
Bushman, Richard L. "Revolution." In The Reader's Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, eds. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.
Cresswell, Nicholas. The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell: 1774–1777. London: Jonathan Cape, 1918, pp. 126–28.
Davis, Burke. George Washington and the American Revolution. New York: Random House, 1975.
Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.
Lyman, Simeon. "Journal of Simeon Lyman of Sharon, Aug. 10 to Dec. 18, 1775." In Connecticut Historical Society Collections, VII (1899), pp. 111–33.
Millet, Allan R., and Peter Maslowski. For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. New York: The Free Press, 1984.
Schlesinger, Arthur M. The Birth of a Nation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.
Washington, George. George Washington, Writings. Edited by John Rhode-hamel. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1997.
Williams, T. Harry. The History of American Wars from 1745 to 1918. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.
An Innocent Englishman Trapped in Revolutionary America
Nicholas Cresswell (1750–1804) was the son of an English sheep farmer and landowner. The young man was employed helping his father on his country estate when, at age twenty-four, he made the fateful decision to see America. The year was 1774, and the American Revolution was brewing. It was hardly an ideal time to be traveling to the colonies. Cresswell kept a diary of his visit, which was later published under the title The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell: 1774–1777. It offers a lively account of his adventures as America prepared for and engaged in a major war.
Cresswell traveled throughout the South, observing the customs of the people and engaging in trade with the Native Americans he encountered. (He traded money for animal skins.) He complained that his travels were often disrupted by war preparations. Cresswell found himself in a terrible position in late 1775 after all exports to Great Britain were stopped. No ships were sailing in either direction, and he had run out of money. Here are excerpts from his diary reporting on his distress:
"Alexandria, Virginia—Thursday, October 19th, 1775. Everything is in confusion, all exports are stopped and hardly a possibility of getting home. I have nothing to support me and how to proceed I do not know.
"Friday, October 20th, 1775. Slept very little last night owing to my agitation of mind. To add to my distress, the Moths have eaten two suits of my clothes to pieces. Nothing but War talked of, raising men and making every military preparation…. This …is open rebellion and I am convinced if Great Britain does not send more men here and subdue them [the colonists] soon they will declare Independence.
"Saturday, October 21st, 1775. I am now in a disagreeable situation [because] if I enter into any sort of business I must be obliged to enter into the service of these rascals and fight against my Friends and Country if called upon. On the other hand, I am not permitted to depart the Continent and have nothing if I am fortunate enough to escape the jail. I will live as cheap as I can and hope for better times.
"Monday, October 30th, 1775. The people here are ripe for a revolt, nothing but curses … against England, her Fleets, armies, and friends. The King is publicly cursed and rebellion rears her horrid head.
"Tuesday, October 31st, 1775. Understand I am suspected of being what they call a Tory (that is a Friend to my Country) and am threatened with Tar and Feathers, Imprisonment and the [Devil] knows what. Curse the Scoundrels."
In July of 1777, Cresswell finally made his way to New York and a ship bound for England. He left convinced that the once-happy land of America had been totally ruined by the stubbornness of "a vile Congress" and the blindness of King George.
Source: Nicholas Cresswell. The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell: 1774–1777. London: Jonathan Cape, 1918, pp. 126–28.
Eighteenth-century armies bore little resemblance to today's armies. Men, women, and children known as "camp followers" played an important role in the American Revolution. They accompanied American soldiers as they traveled throughout the country during wartime. (British and German soldiers had camp followers during the war, too.)
Camp followers were not from any particular social class. Among them were: soldiers' wives or lady friends; educated women who were able to write letters for the soldiers, knit warm clothes and blankets, and manage battlefield hospitals; civilian (non-soldier) drivers of wagons; storekeepers who carried items for the soldiers to purchase; and clergymen.
Camp followers lived hard lives; they were expected to earn their own way and follow camp rules or suffer punishment. Those who obeyed the rules received a portion of food and drink. The followers had to keep up with the marching soldiers and often carried the unit's pots and pans along with the soldiers' personal belongings. Sometimes, pregnant women and the wives of officers were permitted to travel in military wagons. The women washed and mended clothing, made meals, and nursed the wounded. Commanding officers expected them to register their names and those of their children, along with that of the soldier to whom they were attached.
Women and children usually stayed in the military camps while the men went off to fight. But when battles became fierce, women such as Margaret Corbin (1751–c. 1800) and Mary McCauley (known as "Molly Pitcher"; 1754–1832), who were called half-soldiers, took off for the battlefront to assist their mates.
But camp followers could also be a danger to the army. For example, some American camp followers once wandered off to plunder houses that the enemy had abandoned. They brought back smallpox germs in the blankets they stole from the houses, and some soldiers were infected.