Board of War

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Board of War

BOARD OF WAR. 13 June 1776–7 February 1781. Congress spent much of the war trying to create an effective and efficient system to manage military affairs. Because the colonies did not quickly or easily relinquish control over their military resources, it was something of a miracle that Congress fielded credible, centrally directed armed forces, a success that was attributable largely to the urgent need to coordinate the military activity of what was, in effect, a coalition of thirteen separate states. It took Congress nearly two months, from 17 April to 15 June 1775, to take the obvious step of creating the office of commander in chief of its field forces and selecting George Washington for that responsibility. Although the delegates understood the weaknesses and delays inherent in the committee system, it took them even longer to work out how to allocate the executive authority for managing and overseeing an increasingly complex military system in wartime.


Dissatisfied with the course of the war, particularly the problems plaguing the invasion of Canada, Congress began to consider alternatives to appointing ad hoc committees in January 1776, but it was not until 12 June 1776, while waiting for delegates from South Carolina and the middle colonies to get instructions on whether to support independence, that it resolved to establish "a board of war and ordnance, to consist of five members." It created the board the next day and elected as its members John Adams of Massachusetts (chairman), Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, and James Wilson of Pennsylvania. The geographical distribution of the members reflected the need to give voice to the interests and agendas of the principal states, the only feasible way of running a military alliance of sovereign states.

The care with which the board's duties were spelled out demonstrated Congress's wariness about delegating authority to an executive agent. It was authorized

to obtain and keep an alphabetical and accurate register of the names of all officers of the land forces in the service of the UnitedColonies;… [to] keep exact accounts of all the artillery, arms, ammunition, and warlike stores, belonging to the United Colonies,… [and] have the immediate care of all such … stores, as shall not be employed in actual service; [to] have the care of forwarding all dispatches from Congress to the colonies and armies, and all monies to be transmitted for the public service by order of Congress; [to] superintend the raising, fitting out, and dispatching of all such land forces as may be ordered for the service …; [to] have the care and direction of all prisoners of war"; (Ford, ed., Journals, 5, pp. 434-435)

and to maintain all paperwork. Important extra duties also devolved on what was called the "war office," including "controlling troop movements and detaining suspected spies" (Ward, p. 2). And, in hope of remedying the indiscipline contributing to American military defeats, the Board drew up a revised set of articles of war for the next iteration of the Continental Army that was to be enlisted for three years from 1 January 1777. Congress adopted the revised articles on 20 September 1776.

The crush of detailed work almost overwhelmed the members. According to John Adams,

The duties of this board kept me in continual employment, not to say drudgery from this 12 of June 1776 till the eleventh of November 1777 when I left Congress forever. Not only my mornings and evenings were filled up with the crowd of business before the board, but a great part of my time in Congress was engaged in making, explaining, and justifying our reports and proceedings…. I don't believe there is one of them [lawyers in the United States] who goes through so much business … as I did for a year and a half nearly, that I was loaded with that office. Other gentlemen attended as they pleased, but as I was chairman … I must never be absent. (Adams, Papers, 3, p. 342.)


By the end of 1776, Congress recognized the need to shift the day-to-day burden of managing the war effort from its members. On 26 December 1776, Congress—in a rump session at Baltimore, to which it had fled from the British army advancing on Philadelphia—advocated the creation of a new five-member board of war for "better conducting the executive business of Congress by boards composed of persons, not members of Congress" (Ford, 6, pp. 1041-1042). Congress did not act on this idea until 18 July 1777, when it created a three-member Board of War, and did not elect the members until 7 November, in the midst of a disastrous campaign that again forced it to flee from Philadelphia (19 September), first to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and on to York, Pennsylvania, by 30 September. Within ten days after electing the new board, Congress approved the Articles of Confederation and sent them to the states for the start of a ratification process that would take almost three years to complete (1 March 1781).

The members of the new board were experienced, capable individuals, but their ability to work in harness with Congress and General Washington was open to question. Thomas Mifflin was an important political leader in Pennsylvania, a former delegate to Congress, and a major general in the Continental army, but he had just resigned as quartermaster general (also on 7 November 1777) after a contentious tenure. Colonel Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts was then the adjutant general (and would continue in that post until 13 January 1778), and Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Harrison of Maryland was Washington's headquarters secretary.

Because all three men were already engaged in important business, the new board was slow in organizing. On 21 November, Congress authorized "any two members" of the old board to act with "any one or more" of the new members until the new board could take up the reins of business (Ford, 9, p. 946). Although, on Mifflin's recommendation, Congress added two more members to the new Board on 24 November, the next day it continued the old Board "till such time as a quorum of the commissioners of the War Office shall attend" (Ford, 9, p. 960). On 27 November, Congress completed the membership of the new board. Again on Mifflin's recommendation, it elected Major General Horatio Gates, the victor of Saratoga who was then at the zenith of his reputation, as president of the board. It chose Joseph Trumbull of Connecticut, the former commissary general who had resigned in August 1777 under a cloud of controversy, to replace Harrison, who had declined the original appointment. Finally, it decided to continue in office the secretary of the old board, Richard Peters of Pennsylvania, who had "discharged the duties of an arduous and complicated department in its infant stage with honour to himself and much disinterestedness, and with fidelity and advantage to the public" (Ford, 9, p. 959).


All of this reorganization took place as Washington was coping with the problems of defending the Delaware River forts while trying to recruit, clothe, and feed his army. The reorganization was part of Congress's desire to exert closer control over the army and was fed in part by some dissatisfaction with Washington's performance. The Board of War has been seen by some historians as the center of the so-called Conway Cabal, an effort to replace Washington with Gates, because Gates was its president and Mifflin, who had temporarily fallen out with the commander in chief, was its most important member.

Thomas Conway, a French soldier of Irish descent who had been openly contemptuous of Washington's leadership, submitted his resignation as the army's junior brigadier general to Congress on 14 November 1777, and the delegates referred it to the Board of War. The board did not act on Conway's resignation, but some delegates about this time advocated that Conway be appointed the army's inspector general. Support for Conway was a direct challenge to Washington, and it prompted the commander in chief to ask Congress to choose between them. Faced with this choice, few delegates were willing to back the erratic and arrogant Frenchman against Washington. Washington's sharp reminder of the central role he played in holding the army together resulted in the collapse of congressional criticism of his handling of the war. Gates curbed his ambition, and the Board of War's efforts to exercise greater control over strategy and operations were slowed. The board's advocacy of another invasion of Canada further proved that it was not the instrument to succeed Washington in overall direction of military operations.


Congress reorganized the board a final time on 29 October 1778, when it mandated a membership of three nondelegates and two delegates and set the quorum at three members. Thereafter, most of the Board's work involved ensuring that the armies were properly following the regulations of Congress. The work was undertaken by Pickering and Peters, who increasingly involved themselves in the minutiae of management and whose efforts were undercut in any event by the disastrous decline in the value of Continental currency, a failure wholly outside their control. Over the course of 1780, a year of stalemate and treason in the North and disaster in the South, Congress concluded that it had no choice but to create executive departments in which a single individual would be trusted with the power to manage a portion of the nation's business. Prompted by the same factors that induced Virginia and Maryland to acquiesce to the Articles of Confederation, Congress on 7 February 1781 created the office of the secretary of war to try to save the war effort from spiraling stagnation and ultimate defeat. Even then, Congress moved at a snail's pace and allowed events to shape its actions. It elected Major General Benjamin Lincoln as the first secretary of war only on 30 October 1781. The board continued to function until Lincoln accepted his appointment on 26 November.

While Congress ultimately streamlined and thereby improved the structure of its oversight of military affairs, the choice of Lincoln to fill the office still reflected Congress's hesitancy about delegating too much authority to a single individual whose ambitions might exceed his respect for congressional control. Lincoln's primary qualification, beyond Washington's recommendation and his own experience in the field (culminating with his service as Washington's chief subordinate at Yorktown), was his willingness to obey Congress's orders to defend Charleston, South Carolina, in the spring of 1780, a decision that had led to the capture of the principal American army in the South.

SEE ALSO Canada Invasion; Canada Invasion (Planned); Conway Cabal.


Adams, John. The Adams Papers: Diary and Autobiography of John Adams. 3 vols. Edited by Lyman H. Butterfield, et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Ford, Worthington C., et al.,eds. Journals of the Continental Congress. 34 vols. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1904–1937.

Ward, Harry M. The Department of War, 1781–1795. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962.

                            revised by Harold E. Selesky

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Board of War

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