Continental Army, Organization

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Continental Army, Organization

CONTINENTAL ARMY, ORGANIZATION. The military forces of revolutionaries during the War of American Independence fell into three categories. Each of the thirteen states maintained a militia organized for local defense. These militias provided basic military training to the adult male population and formed a pool from which mobilizations could be drawn. Longer-serving regulars, called state troops, also remained under the control of the state governments. The third force, the full-time soldiers of the Continental army, served exclusively at the national level under the authority of the Continental Congress. It was this latter group which carried the main battlefield burden of the war.


The Continental Congress created its national army on 14 June 1775 when, in an action deliberately glossed over in its journals for security reasons, it transferred to its own control the four existing colony armies of New England and a similar force that was being created by New York. The same action also directed the recruitment of companies of riflemen in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia to provide for broader participation. With this step Congress accepted the responsibility to pay and feed the men, commission the officers, and establish a disciplinary framework. On 15 June it named George Washington as the "General and Commander in Chief" of this army, and thereafter created other general officers, as well as logistical and other administrative support structures, a process which would continue to be refined and improved throughout the war.

The original military forces assembled in 1775 were intended to maintain the siege of Boston to neutralize occupying British troops, to protect New York City from possible naval attack, and to occupy the traditional Lake Champlain route to prevent an invasion by the British garrison in Canada. Following the precedent set by the provincials of the French and Indian Wars, these first soldiers were recruited only to serve for a single year.

At the end of 1775 Congress, in coordination with the army's leaders, set about reenlisting the regiments for a second year. Washington's main forces around Boston completed the task with reasonable smoothness, and he sought to foster a sense of nationalism by having the regiments stop using the names of their colonies; for example, the Third Connecticut Regiment of 1775 reorganized under the new designation of Twentieth Continental Regiment. Reorganization on the northern front followed a more chaotic path, because of the difficulties associated with active involvement in an invasion of Canada. During the course of 1775 and 1776, all of the other colonies raised regiments which became part of the Continental Army, as did the rebellious inhabitants of Canada, which was to have been the fourteenth member of the Continental Congress. Some of those units started as state troops and then transferred to Congressional control; others were formed explicitly at the request of Congress.

Serious battlefield reverses came during 1776, in the face of the British attempt to crush the rebellion by deploying huge forces of regulars (including Germans) from Europe. This reality led the American political leaders to declare independence and then to reconsider their policy of relying solely upon a relatively small Continental Army whose troops enlisted for a single year and which was supported by large militia mobilizations. On 16 September 1776 Congress passed legislation known as the "88-Battalion Resolve" which endorsed a new strategy. Hereafter the Continentals would enlist for the duration of the war (or at least three years) and would be numerous enough to carry the burden of formal battle with minimal assistance. The December 1776 crisis led to supplemental legislation that increased the authorized force to the equivalent of about 120 regiments. Five were to be artillery, four to be light dragoons, and the rest infantry; Washington's 1776 experiment with dropping state names from regimental titles ended, because it had proved to be unpopular with the men.


The 1777 Continental Army represented the largest American regular force at every point in the war. The infantry quota consisted of the thirteen states' contingents, which were called the "State Lines," and the two-regiment Canadian force, which was also treated as if it were a state line. The primary purpose of the 'line' arrangement was to provide a fair mechanism for officer promotions. Up to the grade of captain, an officer rose by seniority within his regiment, whereas field-grade officers (majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels) had seniority within the entire state line. General officer promotions were handled independently, by Congress, which considered seniority on a national basis.

The light dragoons and the artillery (except for the regiment in South Carolina) were also managed as if they were lines. Some other units remained outside the basic system, however. A few of the older infantry regiments, which were not tied to a specific state, were called Extra Continental Regiments and had a complex administrative structure. Sixteen other infantry regiments authorized in the December 1776 resolve were called Additional Continental Regiments and were managed by Washington himself, These were allocated recruiting areas in an effort to adjust the initial act's quotas to a more realistic apportionment. Only fourteen of them ever actually formed, and several of them failed to achieve full strength. Washington also treated the Additionals as a line.

Congress continued to approve some specialist units after the spring of 1777—for example, two maintenance regiments, a regiment to guard prisoner-of-war facilities, several mixed infantry-cavalry units called legions or partisan corps, and some company-sized formations. But as the 1777 campaign came to a close, the main focus was to keep up the existing troop strength. This problem was never solved, and thereafter the army reluctantly carried out periodic consolidations of regiments in order to sustain combat formations that were capable of fighting.

Major reorganizations took place on 1 January 1781 and 1 January 1783. Once peace negotiations reached a preliminary treaty, Congress directed Washington to begin releasing as many men as possible, granting them furloughs instead of discharges in the event that the regiments had to reassemble if fighting erupted again. On 23 December 1783 Washington returned his commission to Congress, marking the end of the basic demobilization process. The last regiment of the Continental Army mustered out at West Point, New York, in June 1784, to be replaced by a peacetime United States Army.


The fundamental organization in the Continental Army was the regiment. It consisted of a command and staff element and a number of companies. Regiments were normally commanded by a colonel, who was assisted by a lieutenant colonel and a major. Companies were commanded by a captain and his subordinate lieutenants, ensigns or cornets (for mounted units). Regimental staffs usually had: an adjutant, who was assisted by a sergeant major for administration; a quartermaster and a quartermaster sergeant for logistics; a paymaster; a surgeon and his deputy, the surgeon's mate; a drum major and fife major, who were responsible for communications and did not function as a musical band. Early in the war, each regiment also had a chaplain. The typical regiment contained eight companies in the first half of the war and nine in the second half, although numbers could range as high as ten or as low as six.

At full strength, an eight-company infantry regiment would contain about 728 officers and men, and a company would have 90 officers and men. In combat, the regiment would normally be tactically organized as a battalion, with the eight companies that formed the line of battle each being called a platoon. Later in the war, larger units might fight as two battalions, with companies fighting as two platoons. This formation was a reflection of the tactical limitations of the smooth-bore musket. Unlike modern warfare, the private did not fire and move with freedom—inaccuracy, a slow rate of fire, and short range mandated that the platoon all fire at one time, as if it were a giant shotgun. By the time a platoon had completed the reloading process, seven other platoons would have fired. Therefore, using eight platoons allowed a battalion to maintain continuous combat.

Having a regiment act as a single battalion and a company act as a single platoon eliminated confusion during an engagement. The Continentals differed from contemporary Europeans by putting more emphasis on gunfire than on bayonet charges, and had their soldiers stand in formations only two men deep. Europeans used three ranks to achieve more stability, but since the men in the back rank couldn't shoot effectively, they wasted a third of their manpower. When Congress added the ninth company in 1778, it specified that the new addition would be a light infantry force that was to be employed as skirmishers or detached to form elite attack battalions with the light companies of other regiments.

From the beginning, the Continental Army grouped several regiments together as a brigade, commanded by a brigadier general. Several brigades formed a division under a major general. Starting in the Trenton-Princeton campaign, however, Washington started treating the brigade as a combined-arms team that was held together on a long-term basis to improve teamwork. These new brigades usually contained four infantry regiments, one artillery company, and a small support staff. Washington felt that such an organization could fight independently when dispersed to protect larger portions of the countryside and yet it still could concentrate rapidly when needed for major battles. In a set-piece battle, the army would move into position by marching in columns, and then it would deploy into lines. The northern armies under Washington and his subordinates normally used two lines of brigades and a smaller third line as a reserve. In the southern campaign. Nathaniel Greene and Daniel Morgan had much smaller forces of Continentals and employed them only as the third line, placing militia in the first two lines but using them more to wear down the British than to stand and fight at close quarters.


The remaining piece of the Continental Army's system consisted of its tactical doctrine, and took shape slowly. When the original units formed in each state, they tended to rely on British practice, since most of the leaders had gained their combat experience in the French and Indian Wars. Like the British, the early Continentals left decisions about which specific drill manual to use to the regimental commanders or to the state governments. By 1777 this decision rested with the brigade commanders. While most chose to use the then-current British manual, which was issued in 1764, enough variations in application existed to make it hard to maneuver the army—different units moved at different speeds and with different commands.

Washington knew that this variation was a problem, but he could not address it until the winter of 1777–1778, the first time when he did not have to concentrate his attention on issues of reorganization. He turned to a foreign volunteer, Friedrich Steuben from Prussia, to put together a standard system. Steuben created a simple yet highly efficient set of drills and maneuvers based on new ideas circulating in the French army and drawing inspiration from the flexibility of the ancient Roman legions. This was the set of concepts that Washington had learned during the French and Indian War from the innovative British general, John Forbes. Steuben personally taught his ideas at Valley Forge, where he became the Inspector General, and then a team of subordinates spread out to disseminate them to the other parts of the army. In the fall of 1778, a board of generals reviewed that year's campaign and decided that the program had been successful. Washington then had Steuben prepare a written version, which was published in 1779 as Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Army, Part I. Called the Blue Book because of the color of its cover, this slender volume became the Army's first field manual, and dealt with battlefield tactics, not drill and ceremonies.

SEE ALSO Continental Army Draft; Continental Army, Social History; Line; Regiment; Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von.


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