The Continental Army

The Americans could not win the war with militia alone. They needed a military force capable of meeting the British regulars on equal terms. At the outset of the war, Congress created the Continental army. Washington and his officers labored to create an army that combined professionalism with an American respect for individual rights.

The Enlisted Men

There were never enough men in the Continental army. Like their British counterparts, the American authorities had a hard time inducing men to sign up with the regular army. Most men preferred to do their duty in the militia, where they could serve for shorter periods closer to home and in the company of friends and neighbors.

Congress tried several approaches to enlistment. Initially continental troops were recruited for one year. Then Congress tried enlistment for the duration of the war, and when that did not prove attractive, it lowered the term of enlistment to three years. By 1777, Congress turned to awarding bounties as an inducement to enlistment. This led to an inflation in entitlements as several states sweetened the pot. It also led to disaffection among troops who had joined up before the rewards increased. By 1778, the states were supplementing their recruiting drives with a draft. Local militia units were called upon to produce a given number of men. Those drafted had to serve or provide a substitute.

Some men joined the Continental army out of ideological conviction. Others joined to get away from home and find adventure. The authorities tried to appeal to this restlessness, noting in one advertisement that the army offered opportunities to travel through “this beautiful continent, in the honourable and truly respectable character of a soldier, after which, he may, if he pleases return home to his friends, with his pockets full of money and his head covered with laurels.”

Congress originally directed that the uniform of the Continental army should be brown. Supply shortages kept this from becoming widespread. Shipments of blue coats from France led to the adoption of a blue uniform, which became the standard for the American army until the early twentieth century.

Despite such modern-sounding invitations to be all that one could be, the men who served in the Continental army often came from the lowest ranks of society, men sufficiently rootless to be attracted by congressional promises or hired as substitutes. As the war went on, British and Hessian prisoners of war became a rich source of recruits for the Continental army. Washington worried about the practice, but necessity overbore any scruples. Many a former soldier of the King earned his citizenship fighting under the American flag.

Governing an American Army

Most of the officers in the Continental army entered the war with little or no experience and learned their new trade in action. George Washington devoted a great deal of time to working with his officers, developing the sort of professionalism that he admired in the British army. Under Washington's tutelage, the officers of the Continental army developed a genuinely continental point of view that became important in the politics of the postwar period.

Like their British counterparts, the American officer corps was intensely political. Congress made promotions and commands at the highest level. Officers lobbied congressional representatives in their quest for advancement. John Adams grew disgusted with this military politicking, writing that he was “wearied to Death with the Wrangles between military officers, high and low. They Quarrell like Cats and Dogs. They worry one another like Mastiffs Scrambling for Rank and Pay like Apes for Nuts.”

One way in which the command of the Continental army differed from the British was in its concern that American soldiers knew what they were fighting for. “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the Courage and Conduct of this Army,” wrote Washington. Discipline in the Continental army, harsh by modern standards, was enlightened for its day. American soldiers could not be whipped into discipline, especially when it was so easy for them to melt back into the general population. They had to be led. Nothing else could explain the extraordinary fact that the Continental army endured defeats, disease, hunger, and exposure to the elements before winning its final victory.

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