WASHINGTON (May 31, 2012) -- Before the American colonies even
made their declaration of independence, the Second Continental
Congress gathered together in Philadelphia 237 years ago to formally
create a standing Army.
Artwork - "Impress Upon Every Man" ... Gen. George Washington, first commander of the Continental Army often stopped and talked with citizens to personally explain his vision for American freedom during the American Revolution.
Photo by Bill Rosenburg
The next day, June 15, 1775, Congress chose George Washington, a
Virginian, to be commander in chief. Washington's military
experience was perhaps greater than that of any other American, and
he came from the largest and arguably the most important of the
southern colonies. His impressive appearance, quiet and confident
manner, and good work in the military committees of Congress had
impressed his compatriots.
Washington himself recognized,
when he accepted the command, that he lacked the requisite
experience and knowledge in handling large groups of men. His entire
military experience had been in frontier warfare during the French
and Indian War, though he had commanded a brigade of troops from
several colonies during the capture of Fort Duquesne. He was the
only native-born American up to that time to command a force that
size. Experience gained as a political leader in his native Virginia
and in directing the business affairs of his large plantation at
Mount Vernon also
stood him in good stead.
Washington brought to command traits of character and
abilities as a leader that in the end more than compensated
for his lack of European military experience. Among these
qualities were a determination and a steadfastness of
purpose rooted in an unshakable conviction of the
righteousness of the American cause, a scrupulous sense of
honor and duty, and a dignity that inspired respect and
confidence in those around him. Conscious of his own
defects, he was always willing to profit by experience.
The Army of which Washington formally took command on
July 3, 1775, he described as "a mixed multitude of people
under very little discipline, order or government." Out of
this mixed multitude, Washington set out to create an Army
shaped in large part on the British image. Basing his
observations on his experience with British regulars during
the French and Indian War, he wrote: "Discipline is the soul
of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures
success to the weak and esteem to all."
Washington and his staff made strenuous
efforts to halt the random comings and goings of officers
and men and to institute regular roll calls and strength
returns. Suspicious of the "leveling" tendencies of the New
Englanders, Washington made the distinction between officers
and enlisted men more rigid. He introduced various
punishments such as the lash, pillory, wooden horse, and
drumming out of camp along with courts-martials.
While establishing discipline in the existing army,
Washington had at the same time to form a new one enlisted
directly in the Continental service. Out of conferences with
a congressional committee that visited camp in September
1775 emerged a plan for such an army, composed of 26
regiments of infantry of 728 men each, plus one regiment of
riflemen and one of artillerymen. In all, 20,372 men became
uniformly paid, supplied, and administered by the
Continental Congress and enlisted to the end of the year
1776. The general by his choice received no pay throughout
It was a decent plan on paper; but
Washington soon found he could not carry it out. Both
officers and men resisted a reorganization that cut across
the lines of the locally organized units in which they were
accustomed to serve. The men saw as their first obligation
their families and farms at home, and they were reluctant to
re-enlist for another year's service.
had to maintain the siege of Boston and overcome his
deficiencies in supply. In these efforts he was more
successful. Congress and the individual colonies sponsored
voyages to the West Indies, where the French and Dutch had
conveniently exported quantities of war materials.
Washington put some of his troops on board ship and with an
improvised navy succeeded in capturing numerous British
He sent Col. Henry Knox, later to be
his chief of Artillery, to Forts Ticonderoga; and Knox in
the winter of 1775-1776. Knox brought some 50 pieces of
captured cannon to Cambridge, Mass., over poor or
nonexistent roads in icebound New York and New England. By
March 1776, despite deficiencies in the number of
continentals, Washington was ready to close in on Boston.
On March 4, 1776, he moved onto Dorchester Heights and
emplaced his newly acquired artillery in position to menace
the city; a few days later he fortified Nook's Hill,
standing still closer in. On March 17 the British moved out.
Maj. Gen. William Howe, who succeeded Maj. Gen. Thomas
Gage in command, had concluded long since that Boston was a
poor strategic base and intended to stay only until the
transports arrived to take his army to Halifax in Nova
Scotia to regroup and await reinforcements.
Nevertheless, Washington's maneuvers hastened his departure,
and the reoccupation of Boston was an important
psychological victory for the Americans, balancing the
disappointments of the Canadian campaign. The stores of
cannon and ammunition the British were forced to leave
behind were a welcome addition to the meager American
arsenal and helped win the revolution.
By U.S. Army Center of Military History
Army News Service
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