Continental Army, Social History

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Continental Army, Social History

CONTINENTAL ARMY, SOCIAL HISTORY. "Continentals" were the "regulars" of the American army, as distinguished from the state militias. The Continental army was created in June 1775 when Congress raised companies of riflemen, made George Washington commander in chief, took over the Boston "army," and started naming generals for Continental commissions.


When Washington assumed command at Boston on 3 July, he found 17,000 militiamen whose enlistments would expire before the end of the year. A congressional committee visited Boston and consulted Washington and the colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire on the best way of maintaining a regular army; the committee concluded that this force should number at least 20,370 men organized into 26 battalions of 8 companies each, exclusive of artillery and riflemen. (Cavalry was out of the question.) Congress apportioned these battalions among the colonies as follows: Massachusetts, 16; Connecticut, 5; Rhode Island, 2; and New Hampshire, 3. By mid-November fewer than 1,000 had enlisted, and a month later there were only about 6,000. Washington therefore had to call for militia to serve from 10 December to 15 January.

During this first year Congress authorized the raising of Continental troops in other colonies, and about 27,500 men were reported as being in its pay in 1775. An additional 10,000 militia were put in the field by Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

On 1 January 1776, 27 Continental regiments of infantry were raised for the year. The 1st Continental Infantry was from Pennsylvania (and was merely a reorganization, under the same commander, of Thompson's Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion). The 2nd, 5th, and 8th Continental Infantry were from New Hampshire. The 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 12th through16th, 18th, 21st, and 23rd through 27th were from Massachusetts. The 9th and 11th were from Rhode Island, and the 10th, 17th, 19th, 20th, and 22nd Continental Infantry were from Connecticut. It would be more precise to say these regiments were "designated" rather than "raised": they were militia units that had existed in 1775 but that were now given Continental numbers; in almost all instances they retained the same organization and the same commander. On 15 July, Congress authorized Georgia to raise two infantry regiments and two artillery companies in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina to serve until the end of 1777.

On 16 September the delegates resolved that 88 battalions (regiments) be enlisted as soon as possible to serve "during the present war," and they asked states to furnish the following numbers of battalions: New Hampshire, 3; Massachusetts, 15; Rhode Island, 2; Connecticut, 8; New York, 4; New Jersey, 4; Pennsylvania, 12; Delaware, 1; Maryland, 8; Virginia, 15; North Carolina, 9; South Carolina, 6; and Georgia, 1. The Boston phase of the war had ended and the delegates were now faced with British threats against Charleston and New York. Furthermore, they had recently received a letter in which Washington gave his considered opinion that the militia had done the cause more harm than good. Congress now was trying to raise a serious army to which states would contribute in accordance with their populations. A $20 bounty was offered to every enlisted man who would engage for the duration, and land bounties were offered, varying from 500 acres for a colonel to 100 acres for a noncommissioned officer or private.

The 16 Additional Continental Regiments were authorized on 27 December 1776, on which date the delegates also resolved that 2,040 artillery (in three battalions) and 3,000 cavalry (or dragoons) be raised. Fewer than half the Continentals actually were raised, and the overall strength of regulars and militia in 1777 was 68,720, a drop of 20,931 from the strength in 1776. In 1778 the Continental figures dropped another 2,000 and the militia decreased 15,000 (due to lack of enemy activity).


Despite the enticements of a bounty and land warrants, recruitment was slow. Additionally, although there was some regional variation, the evidence indicates that those men who did answer the recruiter's call came from lower social and economic backgrounds. Many of the soldiers who were property owners or sons of property owners returned home after the first enthusiasm for war passed. They were replaced first by laboring men from the same communities and then by transient poor. By 1777 a number of states had instituted a draft in order to meet their troop quotas. Some, such as Maryland, offered an additional bounty payment of clothes and shoes over and above the Continental bounty, and these bounties together provided a considerable inducement for society's poorest men. Draft legislation of the states also reached out to those who lived on the edges of society. Maryland wanted "such disaffected persons that were arrested or hereafter shall be arrested" to be signed up. South Carolina, in 1779, wanted "vagrants and idle disorderly persons" to be recruited. In 1778 North Carolina decided that a term in the Continental army was to be the punishment if a man failed to turn out for militia service, and it was also the punishment for those who harbored Continental deserters.

Those with financial resources who wanted to avoid service could hire a substitute. There was no disgrace in either hiring one or serving as one. The price was privately negotiated between the draftee and the substitute. Details about how much was paid to substitutes is largely anecdotal, but some substitutes reported being paid a small amount of money, perhaps equal to a few weeks pay, while others, perhaps facing a desperate or prosperous draftee, were able to exploit the situation and bargain for land. However, substitution did not always involve a financial transaction. It was also a mechanism used by families to shift the burden of service among themselves. For example, a younger son might go to allow a drafted father or older brother to stay at home, and in those cases it is unlikely any money would change hands.

Some of the men recruited either directly or as substitutes were African Americans. Perhaps as many as five thousand black men served in the Continental army. Initially, George Washington had been reluctant to allow black men to serve, although a significant number were already part of the forces around Boston when he arrived there in June 1775. The commander in chief and other military leaders were afraid that the presence in the army of black men would discourage white enlistment. However, later that year, with enlistments sluggish from all regions, free blacks already in the army were invited to reenlist. In 1777, when the Continental Congress fixed new troop quotas, most northern states allowed blacks to serve, and Connecticut and Rhode Island offered freedom to slaves in exchange for service. In fact, the following year Rhode Island organized two separate African American battalions, but everywhere else African American servicemen were integrated into existing units from places as far south as North Carolina. Outside New England, some slaves gained their freedom by serving as substitutes for their masters or others.

Additionally, a significant number of soldiers were foreign born. Data on this are hard to come by but towards the end of the war, 40 percent of one Maryland regiment was foreign born. However, it is possible that this was a distortion. Following the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781, perhaps citizens had felt free not to renew their enlistments, so that percentage of foreigners may not have been so high earlier in the war. However, even in 1776, one South Carolina regiment recognized its significant cohort of Irish soldiers by giving them a day off for St. Patrick's Day.

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Officers were somewhat easier to find; in fact, more men wanted to be officers than could be accommodated, although many lacked the necessary skills. Following the British tradition, an officer was a gentlemen, and plenty of colonial young men aspired to be both. Washington was not impressed by the quality of men he met who wanted to become officers. In a letter to Congress in September 1776, he argued that only "Gentlemen of Character" should be engaged. He felt officers should be the social superiors of the men they led to solidify and enforce military discipline. Wealthy or prominent men found it easy to secure commissions. Men of less obvious social worth spent a lot of time jockeying for position and recognition both in trying to get their commissions and in trying to get promoted once they were in the army.

In contrast to the British army, in which young gentlemen could buy a junior officer's commission from a regimental commander, an officer leaving a regiment, or a commission broker, Continental commissions were given out by Congress and state legislatures. Congress appointed men to the rank of general, but field grade officers, colonels and below, were appointed by the state assemblies in the state in which a regiment was raised. A commission at any level, then, could only be obtained by having influential friends who might recommend a man for a particular commission. One study of a sample of the New Jersey officer corps shows that 84 percent of them came from the wealthiest third of the community and 32 percent from the richest tenth.

With a lot at stake in terms of any possible promotion, many officers were consumed with their own advancement. A particularly difficult issue for all to deal with was seniority. Matters such as whether earlier service as a militia officer or as an officer with state troops counted toward Continental service when being considered for promotion led to much wrangling and politicking. Still, despite the anxieties thus aroused, the army provided literate men of modest means an opportunity to expand their horizons. It exposed them to a larger community and provided them with opportunities for leadership, and officers therefore jealously guarded all their privileges of rank.


The reorganization of 29 March 1779 called for a regular force of 80 Continental regiments, the 1776 quotas (see above) being changed as follows: New York was to furnish 5, an increase of 1; New Jersey to furnish 1, a decrease of 1; Pennsylvania to furnish 11, one fewer than previously; Virginia, 11, four less than before; and North Carolina, 6, 3 fewer than before. All other states retained their old quotas.

In the last years of the war, from 1781 to 1783, the authorized strength of the Continental army was reduced to 58 battalions. Massachusetts and Virginia were assigned 11 each; Pennsylvania 9; Connecticut, 6; Maryland, 5; North Carolina, 4; New York, 3; New Hampshire, New Jersey, and South Carolina, 2 each; and Rhode Island, Delaware, and Georgia, 1 each. These were supposed to be 576-man battalions, as compared with the 522-man battalions for the previous years, but fewer than half of the required 33,408 Continentals actually showed up during these last years of the war.


Without allowance for the fact that many men served two, three, and even four terms in the American army and were therefore counted several times, the following figures are a basis for estimating how many men fought for American independence. The numbers for the Continental army were estimated by Colonel John Pierce of Connecticut, the army's paymaster general, and the Treasury accountants; the numbers for the militia were estimated by Francis B. Heitman (see table). Heitman estimates that this total, 376,771, should be reduced to not more than 250,000 in view of the multiple enlistments (Heitman, p. 691).

Milita Estimates
New Hampshire12,4974,00016,497
Rhode Island5,9084,0009,908
New York17,78110,00027,781
New Jersey10,7267,00017,726
North Carolina7,26313,00020,263
South Carolina6,41720,00026,417

The largest number of troops raised by Congress during any year of the war was 89,600 men in 1776; 42,700 of these were militia. The largest force Washington ever commanded in the field was under 17,000 regulars and militia, and in his finest campaign, that of Trenton and Princeton, he had only 4,000 regulars and militia. The greatest strength of the Continental army, in November 1778, was about 35,000.


By the end of the war, both officers and men had developed a degree of professionalism that Washington could only have dreamt about in 1775. Soldiers serving for longer terms were better trained and some were seasoned veterans. Officers, too, who were not bound to a particular length of service and who could resign their commissions at will were also gaining experience. Some of the improvement came from military manuals borrowed from the British army and quickly reprinted in the colonies when the fighting started. Some was a result of the training by the Prussian officer Baron Friedrich von Steuben, who had arrived at Valley Forge in 1778. He produced his own military manual, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, which was widely available by 1779. He is most famous for having taught soldiers how to drill and maneuver, thus improving battlefield performance, but he also taught officers what might later be called managerial skills. His own and the other military manuals taught officers how to organize a camp, how to conduct an inspection, and how to deal with insubordination; Steuben even offered a sample worksheet for organizing guard duty rotations. With these instructions, years of practice, and the example of veteran officers, the army gained in confidence and skill.

Paradoxically, another factor that helped create esprit de corps was the increasing isolation that many in the army felt from the civilian community. Continuing supply problems, interruptions in pay, and payment in depreciating currency were grievances that united officers and enlisted men and made both feel forgotten by the civilian world around them. Whether men served for political reasons, for the money, or for adventure or from a desire to get away from an unhappy home, a bad apprenticeship, indentured servitude, or even slavery, army life offered camaraderie, community, and the chance to be part of something larger than oneself. All these factors helped make the men an effective fighting force.


The British evacuated New York on 17 November 1783, Washington resigned as commander in chief on 22 December 1783, and at the start of the next year the American nation of four million people had an army of seven hundred rank and file. They constituted Colonel Henry Jackson's Continental or First American Regiment. On 2 June 1784 Congress abolished the Continental army except for eighty privates, "with a proportionable number of officers, no officers … above the grade of captain," to guard the stores at Fort Pitt, West Point, and other magazines. What was left, under the command of Captain John Doughty at West Point, was the vestige of Alexander Hamilton's Provincial Company of New York Artillery. Hence, only one unit of the modern American army, the one whose lineage can be traced to Hamilton's Battery, dates from the American Revolution.

On 3 June 1784, the day after abolishing Jackson's regiment, Congress recreated a force of seven hundred rank and file. This force was successively increased and decreased as crises arose and were met: these included British refusal to abandon their military posts in the Old Northwest; Shays's Rebellion; Indian troubles with the Miamis; and the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.


In 1783, as the Continental army disbanded, its officers organized the Society of the Cincinnati. The organization celebrated the officers' accomplishments and the value of an orderly society. It also lobbied for the interests of its members, making sure that they received the pensions they had been promised and appropriate national recognition. Soldiers, in contrast, did not form any associations but simply drifted back into civilian life. Workingmen's clubs or associations were a phenomenon of a later era. This generation of veterans scattered and some, many years later, did not know anyone who had served with them. They were also largely forgotten by the public until after the war of 1812. Then, in a spirit of national celebration and an era of budget surpluses, they were awarded pensions, at first need-based and then service-based, and the appreciation of a grateful nation.

SEE ALSO Additional Continental Regiments; African Americans in the Revolution; Boston Siege; Cincinnati, Society of the; Continental Congress; Militia in the North; Pay Bounties and Rations; Populations of Great Britain and America; Riflemen; St. Clair, Arthur; Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von; Thompson's Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion.


Cox, Caroline. A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington's Army. Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 2004.

Heitman, Francis B. Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Rare Book Shop Pub. Co., 1914.

Lender, Mark Edward. "The Social Structure of the New Jersey Brigade: The Continental Line as an American Standing Army." In The Military in America from the Colonial Era to the Present. Edited by Peter Karsten. New York: Free Press, 1980.

Mayer, Holly A. Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

Papenfuse, Edward C., and Gregory A. Stiverson. "General Smallwood's Recruits: The Peacetime Career of the Revolutionary War Private." William and Mary Quarterly 3rd series 30 (1973): 117-132.

Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

Vollmer, Arthur, comp. Military Obligation: The American Tradition. A Compilation of the Enactments of Compulsion from the Earliest Settlements of the Original Thirteen Colonies in 1607 through the Articles of Confederation 1789. 14 vols. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1947.

                              revised by Caroline Cox

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