Origins of the Continental Army

About the author

Edward St. Germain.
Edward St. Germain

Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.

Editor’s note

The following is a chapter from the book “The Private Soldier Under Washington” written by Charles Knowles Bolton in 1902. The book helps to explain the conditions that Continental soldiers experienced during the American Revolution.

The book contains fascinating letters and notes written by soldiers during the war, which you may find contain some outdated spellings of certain words compared to modern English.


When the colonists in America rose in rebellion against the English Government in 1775, they occupied scarcely more territory than had been won from the wilderness a century earlier. Pioneers from the shores of the North Sea had crossed the Atlantic to make for themselves homes; the more venturesome had forced their way to the head-waters of the coast rivers to build block-houses for trade and defence. Little by little they and their descendants cut away the timber along the banks of many pleasant streams and planted grain. And now, at the southward, their lands reached from the ocean to the Appalachian range – the watershed of the Potomac, the James, the Roanoke, the Santee, the Savannah and the Altamaha rivers. Farther north they cleared and tilled the country which is drained by the Susquehanna, the Hudson, the Connecticut, the Kennebec, and the Penobscot.

Here was a theatre of war with great possibilities for the strategist who knew the topography thoroughly, and could marshal the rivers and hills like forces in reserve to checkmate his antagonist. Throughout Washington’s campaigns near New York the Hudson River on the east and the Delaware on the west served to keep the British in check. The manoeuvres of Gates and Greene in the Carolinas were everywhere influenced by the broad streams that cross the country. But rivers were dangerous allies, and when made part of a great plan might, by the fortunes of war, prove ruinous to an army. In the campaign of 1777 Burgoyne was to gain control of the Hudson in order to separate the men of New England from their brothers in rebellion; but he accepted a position within the bend of the river at Saratoga and was compelled to surrender. In the expedition of Cornwallis in 1781 the converging streams of the York and the James, which were to protect his army, held him like a trap as soon as the French allies came into possession of the sea.

The political divisions show that England laid claim to the eastern part of America, with the exception of Florida. Massachusetts still included the territory between the western part of Nova Scotia, now called New Brunswick, and New Hampshire, later known as Maine; and the land between the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain, afterward the State of Vermont, was at this time within the bounds of New York. The rich country between the upper Mississippi and its tributary the Ohio had but recently been added to the Government of Quebec. There were few English inhabitants in this region, and the French stockades and trading villages, such as Detroit, Vincennes on the Wabash, and Kaskaskia, were important only as settlements along the water highway from Canada and the Great Lakes to New Orleans. The southern English colonies already looked westward to the Mississippi for their expansion.

Beyond all this region lay the untouched forests which gathered rains for the far-reaching waters of the Rio Grande, the Colorado, the Arkansas, and the Missouri – the possessions of Spain.

The English colonies in 1775 had a population of two and a half million people, less than a third the number then in Great Britain and Ireland. Moreover, above half a million of these people were negroes, barred very generally from military service; many others refused from their religious views to bear arms; and a considerable minority of the citizens – more than a third of the men of influence, said Adams – opposed an appeal to force. It was fortunate for America that the war began in New England, which had few Tories and slaves, and was able, by furnishing a large part of the patriot army, to show a strong front to the enemy.

Earlier in the century there had been little to draw together the various races then settled upon the continent, isolated as they were by religious differences, social distinctions, and the imperfect means of travel. But a steady policy of irritation and repression on the part of the English Government quickened the sympathies of the people, and led to the perfection of intercommunication and to the dissemination of political ideas. The arbitrary restriction of trade and abrogation of privileges by an unseen power 3,000 miles away aroused the colonies to a sense of their common danger.

The presence of an English garrison at Boston, and the enforcement of acts designed by Parliament to crush out the revolutionary spirit in Massachusetts, made the colony a centre of the coming storm. The members of a convention of delegates from the towns and districts in Suffolk County, meeting in September, 1774, declared in language vigorous, if a little florid, that to arrest the hand about to ransack their pockets, to disarm the parricide who stood with a dagger at their bosoms, and to resist the usurpation of unconstitutional power, would roll their reputation upon a “torrent of panegyric” to the abyss of eternity.1 With their future fame secured, they set about frankly to prepare for the conflict, calling upon the people to elect their militia officers, and acquaint themselves with the art of war, that King George might not make an easy prey of “a numerous, brave, and hardy people.”2 The action taken by several of the towns about Boston was if possible more marked. Brookline, for example, appointed a committee in September to examine into the state of the town as to its military preparation for war “in case of a suden attack from our enemies.”3

On October 26, 1774, the Provincial Congress, sitting at Cambridge, chose a committee of safety with power to collect military stores, and, if necessary, to summon and support the militia. With the delegation of this authority to a specific body of leaders, the opposition to Great Britain ceased to be wholly legislative, for the committee had the necessary power to maintain armed rebellion. The military measures of this period, proposed in convention and carried by vote, in time of peace and within three or four miles of the British garrison, were a test of New England courage and determination that deserve recognition.

At the same time a plan of organization for the militia was outlined. Field officers were ordered to enlist, if possible, a quarter of the total number of militiamen for emergency service under the direction of the committee of safety; these companies were to consist of at least fifty minute-men each, and were to elect their own company officers.4 Twenty years earlier, alarm-list companies had been organized to repel the Indians; they may be considered as survivals of the regiments that were in King Philip’s time ordered to be ready to march at a moment’s warning; and these in turn can be traced to the companies of thirty men from each hundred of the militia which in 1645 were to be prepared “at halfe an howers warning.” Thus had the training in arms and in preparation against surprise and attack been handed down from the days of Myles Standish and Simon Willard.5 The committee on the state of the province drew up, December 10, 1774, an address to the people which urged the towns and districts to pay their local militia for their services, in order to encourage them “to obtain the skill of complete soldiers.”

These preparations were well known in Boston, and Lord Percy, who was for a time in command of the British troops there, referred often to them in letters to his father; as early as September 12th he said that the rebels “did not make a despicable appearance as soldiers.”6 He knew that training-day had ceased to be a perfunctory ceremony. The Provincial Congress resolved, on April 8, 1775, that an army should be raised and established, and other New England colonies should be asked to furnish their quotas of men for the general defence. The records of the committees of safety and supplies show that various stores were being collected at this time, such as spades, pick-axes and bill-hooks, iron pots and wooden mess-bowls, carpenters’ tools, cartridge-paper, powder and fuses, grape and round shot, bombs, mortars, musket-balls and flints, molasses, salt fish, raisins, oatmeal, and flour.7 From the 8th of March to the 14th of April, 1775, sundry persons under the direction of John Goddard were carting through the quiet country roads that lead to Concord casks of balls, barrels of linen, hogsheads of flints, loads of beef and rice, quantities of canteens and other articles.8

To seize these stores, so specifically enumerated in the old thong-bound account-book of wagonmaster Goddard, Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Smith,9 with the flank companies of the Tenth Regiment of foot and of several other corps, embarked from Boston Common at about half-past ten o’clock Tuesday night, the 18th of April,10 crossed the Charles River, and began the march which was to bring on the American Revolution. He met and dispersed the forewarned minute-men on Lexington Green at five o’clock of the morning of the 19th of April; he marched on to Concord, destroyed the stores, and commenced the return; at half-past two his men, thoroughly exhausted from their rapid march back toward Lexington, lay down within the hollow square formed by reenforcements which Lord Percy had led out from Boston.

The retreat of the regulars along the country road has often been pictured in words; the redcoats were harassed by the farmers who (to use Percy’s own phrase) surrounded and followed them like a moving circle,11 firing from trees and stone walls. A British soldier, apparently in “Chatham’s division of marines,” had his hat shot off his head three times, lost his bayonet by a ball, and had two holes in his coat,12 as he pushed on to Charlestown. Colonel Smith’s men from the Tenth Regiment wore at this period three-cornered cocked hats bound with white lace; scarlet coats faced and turned up with bright yellow, and ornamented with white lace; scarlet waistcoats and breeches; white linen gaiters reaching above the knee; white cravats, and buff belts.13 They were brave men of many battlefields, and their discomfiture was a sight to stir the blood of every man in homespun who reached the scene. Each town has its story of that muster-morning, of the minute-man who left his plough in the furrow, the bucket at the well-sweep, or the fodder at the door of the cattle-shed. In some towns not above half a dozen able-bodied men remained at home through the 19th of April, and the killed, wounded, or missing were credited to twenty-three different towns and villages.14

The British reached Bunker Hill, across the narrow neck which joins Charlestown to the mainland, as the dusk began to make visible the flash of the muskets. Their pursuers halted while the militia officers held a consultation at the foot of Prospect Hill; a guard was formed, sentinels were posted as far as the approach to the Neck, and patrols were sent out to watch the enemy. The militia then withdrew to Cambridge. Another guard went to the Brookline and Roxbury shores, south of Boston, to cover that territory until morning. On the 20th Cambridge was searched for beef, pork, and cooking utensils, while Roxbury furnished a good supply of ship-bread for the hungry men. Before noon the committee of supplies in Concord had sent word that they were using every effort to forward provisions. Thus were the first difficulties overcome, and an armed force began the siege of Boston.15

The men who encamped about Boston had fought with perseverance and resolution;16 they were not raw recruits, for many had contended in the wars with French and Indians, and their names may still be seen on the King’s muster-rolls.17 They were not a rabble recruited from the low ranks from which a city mob is drawn. College and professional men did their part. The death of a justice of the peace, who was a graduate of Harvard and held his commission under the Crown, caused a heated discussion in the British press; some said that he was a spectator, for they could not believe that the movement was respectable in the character of its supporters.18 General Howe, writing to Lord Dartmouth a few months later, stated half the truth when he said that the Continental army contained many European soldiers and most of the young men of spirit in the country, who gave diligent attention to the military profession.19 Lord Percy had held that the Americans were “a set of sly, artful, hypocritical rascals, cruel, and cowards,”20 but after the battle of Lexington he declared that the rebels showed an enthusiasm and a courage to meet death that promised an insurrection not so despicable as was imagined in England. Percy was quick to see that the Indian method of fighting from behind trees and stone walls was proof not of cowardice, but of ability to profit by conditions; and, said he, ” they know very well what they are about.”21

Soon after the events of the 19th, men in the companies encamped near Boston were asked by the committee of safety to enlist for service until the end of the year, or for a shorter period at the committee’s discretion.22 A vigorous circular letter, dated April 20th, was sent to the neighboring towns urging the enlistment of an army to defend wives and children “from the butchering hands of an inhuman soldiery”; and on the 21st the committee decided to raise an army of 8,000 effective men out of the Massachusetts forces.23 In the meantime the Provincial Congress had been hastily summoned, and had resolved, April 23, 1775, to raise 13,600 men. Proposals were also made “to the congress of New Hampshire, and governments of Rhode Island and Connecticut colonies” for furnishing men in the same proportion, as an army of 30,000 was deemed necessary. A month later 24,500 men had been collected in the several colonies.

So thoroughly had the work of organization gone on in the colonies during 1773, 1774, and the spring of 1775, that an appeal for men when the siege of Boston began was immediately successful. Throughout the country a network of local committees, controlling militia companies and post-riders, bound together the opposition to the King; this network was like a fuse which ran over thousands of miles of wood, meadow, and farm-land. The people had been able to follow every movement of the hostile British Parliament through the aid of the committees of correspondence and inquiry. These committees, formed in each colony at the suggestion of the Virginia House of Burgesses in March, 1773,24 watched the approaching storm, tested the loyalty of those who professed to welcome it, and guided the popular indignation.

How the news was carried. An express from New England. From the Gerard Bancker collection of broadsides.
How the news was carried. An express from New England. From the Gerard Bancker collection of broadsides.

When the battle of Lexington came, the colonies were as well prepared for war as the poor dependencies of a powerful nation could be. The first news of the battle was brought to the ears of Putnam at Pomfret the next day, and to Arnold at New Haven a day later,25 John Stark in New Hampshire heard it in good time. At ten o’clock on Wednesday morning, the 19th, Palmer, of the Massachusetts committee of safety, wrote a letter from Watertown to alarm the country “quite to Connecticut,” entrusting it to a rider who was to ask for fresh horses as he went. At Fairfield, Connecticut, this message was overtaken by one written at three o’clock Thursday morning, and attested by the committee of correspondence from town to town. The news reached New York on Sunday, the 23rd, at noon, and confirmed the rumors that had already begun to circulate; by four o’clock a messenger was on his way to Philadelphia. About two o’clock of the 25th a second express from New England reached New York, his papers having been attested at New Haven, Fairfield, Norwalk, Stamford, and Greenwich. The same evening a copy reached Elizabethtown; at ten it was in Woodbridge and signed; at midnight it had reached New Brunswick across the Raritan and half way through New Jersey; three hours and a half brought the good horse and its rider to Princeton; at half-past six they were in Trenton, and by seven the attested papers were on their way to Philadelphia. The committee of the city sent the news at midday to Chester; at nine the man drew up at Newcastle, having followed the Delaware through the gathering darkness; he reached Christeen Bridge at midnight with orders to forward the papers day and night; at half-past four, in the gray of the morning of April 27th, he was at the Head of Elk in Maryland, and after travelling seventeen hours, touching Charlestown on the way, he reached Baltimore at ten that night. A hard ride along the tortuous shore of Chesapeake Bay through the entire night brought the news to Annapolis, where Carroll of Carrollton, Tilghman, and other patriots attested the papers and spread the tidings.

Still on, through Alexandria and Dumfries, a long Sunday journey brought the papers to Fredericksburg, where the committee signed at half-past four. Carter Braxton met the messenger at King William on May 1st, nearly a fortnight after the battle. To the southward went the news, through Surry County, Williamsburg, Smithfield (May 3d), Nansemond, Chowan in North Carolina, Edenton, Beaufort County, Bath, Newbern (May 6th), to Onslow County, where the committee received it at ten o’clock Sunday morning of the 7th. At Wilmington on Cape Fear River, Harnett, of the committee, wrote, “For God’s sake send the man on without the least delay,” and so the news was borne to the committees of Little River and Georgetown, and on to Charleston in South Carolina.

What a ride and for what a cause! Through rain and sun and starlight this firebrand of rebellion was carried. This was a ride that made the colonies into a nation, and the nameless messengers and their horses deserve a page in history.26

The Continental Congress resolved on June 14th that six companies of expert riflemen be immediately raised in Pennsylvania two in Maryland, and two in Virginia to reenforce the army near Boston; each company was to consist of a captain, three lieutenants, four sergeants, four corporals, a drummer or trumpeter, and sixty-eight privates.27 The besieging army was temporarily under the command of General Artemas Ward, who received his commission from Massachusetts as commander-in-chief on May 20th. Four days earlier, however, the Provincial Congress had sent Dr. Church to Philadelphia to offer the direction of the army to the Continental Congress. On June 15th George Washington was appointed “to command all the Continental forces”; on July 4, 1775, it was announced in general orders that the “troops of the United Provinces of North America” were taken over by Congress. The army then numbered not more than 14,500 men,28 including perhaps the newly organized train of artillery which had been authorized in April by the province.29 There existed also a coastguard which had been raised to defend the sea-board towns upon which the British made depredations in their excursions after food.

The army had scarcely settled down to besiege Boston before the presence of slaves and free negroes gave rise to the question of their status in the army. They had not, apparently, been included in the companies of militiamen and minute-men which were organized and drilled in the winter of 1774-75; but the moment a call for men went out, the black men presented themselves for service. In May the committee of safety faced the matter frankly in a resolve which is ethically curious for its differentiation of principles when applied to freemen and to slaves. This resolve read: “That it is the opinion of this committee, as the contest now between Great Britain and the colonies respects the liberties and privileges of the latter, which the colonies are determined to maintain, that the admission of any persons, as soldiers, into the army now raising, but only such as are freemen, will be inconsistent with the principles that are to be supported, and reflect dishonour on this colony; and that no slaves be admitted into this army upon any consideration whatever.”31

The Provincial Congress considered the matter, and laid it on the table. Free negroes continued to serve in the American camp, and were conspicuous at the battle of Bunker Hill in June; one man, Salem Poor, “behaved like an experienced officer as well as an excellent soldier,” according to the testimony of Colonel Prescott.32 They were obedient soldiers and useful laborers, of a less mutinous spirit than some of their white brothers.33 In July the Provincial Congress barred out all negroes, but the question came to the front again in the autumn of 1775, when the reenlistment of troops for 1776 was under discussion; the council of general officers voted October 23d to reject slaves and free negroes.34

Lord Dunmore’s proclamation in November, 1775, freeing all indented servants and slaves who were able and willing to bear arms, to induce them to join the British army, probably forced a general order issued by Washington, December 30th, allowing continental recruiting officers to enlist free negroes, and promising to bring the whole matter to the attention of Congress. Finally, as a compromise, Congress permitted those who had served faithfully at Cambridge to reenlist.35 Blacks continued to serve in the army despite all legislative efforts to exclude them; a return of negroes in Washington’s command August 24, 1778, shows that seven brigades then had an average of fifty-four in each.36 A Hessian officer said in 1777: “One sees no regiment in which there are not negroes in abundance, and among them are able-bodied, sturdy fellows.”37 The employment of negroes met with approval in many of the colonies, but not in the extreme South. Rhode Island purchased the freedom of slaves before enrolling them as soldiers, trusting to Congress for financial aid, and many men in Colonel Christopher Greene’s regiment were obtained in this way.38 The South, true to its traditions, refused the urgent appeals of Colonel John Laurens in 1779 and in 1782 for permission to enlist colored troops, although Congress had at last come to favor the scheme, and it was backed by Alexander Hamilton and General Greene.39 Southern statesmen were by no means of one way of thinking on the slavery question and on the employment of negroes as soldiers. The views that Laurens expressed to his father, while highly creditable to a young man reared in South Carolina, were not such as would appeal to most slave-holders. He wrote: “I would advance those who are unjustly deprived of the rights of mankind to a state which would be a proper gradation between abject slavery and perfect liberty…” And again: “I am tempted to believe that this trampled people have so much human left in them, as to be capable of aspiring to the rights of men by noble exertions, if some friend to mankind would point the road, and give them a prospect of success…Habits of subordination, patience under fatigues, sufferings and privations of every kind, are soldierly qualifications, which these men possess in an eminent degree.” Laurens said with truth that five thousand black soldiers might change the course of the next campaign. But it was the institution of slavery, not the character of the slaves, as Washington himself intimated, that placed obstacles in the way.40 Madison was disposed to favor the use of blacks in regiments with white officers and a fair proportion of white soldiers. His correspondent, Joseph Jones, could see the blessings of emancipation, but he wanted no hasty measures and nothing so uncertain in its results as the drafting in of slaves. His statement of the case is strong and reasonable: “If they [the enemy] once see us disposed to arm the blacks for the field, they will follow the example and not disdain to fight us in our own way, and this would bring on the southern States inevitable ruin. At least it would draw off immediately such a number of the best labourers for the culture of the earth as to ruin individuals, distress the State, and perhaps the Continent, when all that can be raised by their assistance is but barely sufficient to keep us jogging along with the great expence of the war.”41

The private who marched in his company to reenforce the army about Boston felt somewhat as a voter did at a parish or a town meeting. The company to which he belonged was his, and the officers owed their authority in part to his favoring vote. A private from New Jersey has described the mode of procedure: the men were “sworn to be true and faithful soldiers in the Continental army, under the direction of the Right Honorable Congress. After this we chose our officers…When on parade, our 1st lieut. came and told us he would be glad if we would excuse him from going, which we refused; but on consideration we concluded it was better to consent; after which he said he would go; but we said, ‘You shall not command us, for he whose mind can change in an hour is not fit to command in the field where liberty is contended for.’ In the evening we chose a private in his place.”42 Could there be a more vivid picture of the private soldier at this period of the war? There is the respect (kept well in hand) that is due the chief legislative body known as the “Right Honorable Congress “; there is also evidence of a matter-of-fact management of officers which must have been unknown to the benighted British soldier; then comes that word of philosophy so characteristic of the age and of the undisciplined volunteer; and finally in the election of a private as first lieutenant is shown that disregard of station which gives the picture its last touch.43

On July 19, 1775, the army exceeded 17,000 men, including Gridley’s regiment and Crane’s company of artillery;44 in the latter part of 1775 Washington had about 19,000 effective men near Boston, most of whom would return home when their terms of enlistment expired in December or at the end of the year.45 To pay off this army on the old establishment, as it was called, and to provide one month’s pay in advance for the new establishment which was to be enlisted to carry on the siege, required £278,228 15s. or the sum of $927,429 1/6.46 In the new army, which was to have 20,372 men including officers,47 the soldiers (except drummers and fifers) were to furnish good arms or when provided by Congress to allow a deduction of six shillings from their pay; a stoppage of ten shillings a month was to be made from each man’s pay until his debt for clothing was cancelled.48 Although this was an unsatisfactory method at times, and the payment of wages by the calendar month was even more disliked,49 the soldier was told to be cheerful over the fact that he received higher pay than private soldiers ever had in any former war.50 Another blessing of war came when the colonies, at the request of Congress, prohibited the arrest of Continental soldiers for debts under thirty-five dollars, or the attachment of their property for sums under one hundred and fifty dollars.51 When the principles involved in the creation of a new army for the year 1776 came under consideration, the duration of the contest was very uncertain. Congress recommended to Massachusetts and Connecticut a two-year or a one-year term; it was found that men hesitated to pledge their services for the entire war, and at that time the military profession was so little known and so untried by those who were fitted only for the ranks that they did not turn to it as readily as they did to farming. John Adams contended that a regiment might possibly be obtained in New England “of the meanest, idlest, most intemperate and worthless, but no more. A regiment was no army to defend this country. We must have tradesmen’s sons and farmers’ sons, or we should be without defence, and such men certainly would not enlist during the war, or for long periods, as yet. The service was too new; they had not yet become attached to it by habit. Was it credible that men who could get at home better living, more comfortable lodgings, more than double the wages, in safety, not exposed to the sicknesses of the camp, would bind themselves during the war? I knew it to be impossible.”52 This is the view of a shrewd observer of New England character, a politician who, it may fairly be said, knew those of whom he wrote. On the other hand, he does not seem to count the influence of patriotism and love of adventure; these certainly would have moved some to forsake their comforts and good wages for the army, even had the term of service been long. With a small permanent force many troubles of the next few years might have been banished, provided, of course, the force was large enough to carry on the war. The size of the army that could have been raised will always remain debatable.

The advantage of long over short terms of enlistment has the weight of all authorities familiar with raising, equipping, and drilling recruits. Washington himself said on this subject: “The evils arising from short or even any limited inlistment of the troops are greater and more extensively hurtful than any person (not an eyewitness to them) can form any idea of. It takes you two or three months to bring new men in any tolerable degree acquainted with their duty, it takes a longer time to bring a people of the temper and genius of these into such a subordinate way of thinking as is necessary for a Soldier. Before this is accomplished, the time approaches for their dismissal, and you are beginning to make interest with them for their continuance for another limited period; in the doing of which you are obliged to relax in your discipline, in order as it were to curry favor with them, by which means the latter part of your time is employed in undoing what the first was accomplishing…Congress had better determine to give a bounty of 20, 30, or even 40 Dollars to every man who will Inlist for the whole time.”53 Joseph Hawley, of the Provincial Congress, might be quoted in reply that no bounty would induce New England men to enlist for more than two years.54

An enlistment blank of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1776 and an enlistment blank of 1776.
An enlistment blank of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1776 and an enlistment blank of 1776.

The popular feeling in the autumn of 1776 is well shown by the following extract from a letter of Josiah Bartlett, a delegate in Congress from Rhode Island: “I am fully sensible,” he writes, “of the great difficulties we labour under by the soldiers being enlisted for such short periods, and that it would have been much better had they at first received a good bounty, and been enlisted to serve during the war. But you may recollect the many, and, to appearance, almost insuperable difficulties that then lay in our way. No money, no magazines of provisions, no military stores, no government; in short, when I look back, and consider our situation about fifteen months ago, instead of wondering that we are in no better situation than at present, I am surprised we are in so good.”55

The colonies, particularly at the north where democracy was less tolerant of militarism, dreaded a standing army,56 which to most minds had some close but mysterious connection with “enlisting for the war.” Among northern officers this feeling crystallized into a leaning toward colony affiliation in preference to Congressional control; Governor Ward of Rhode Island, who was no enemy to the Continental system, attributed the slow enlistment under the new establishment to dislike of plans brought forward through southern influence favorable to an army “wholly Continental ” or attached solely to the Congress.57

The difficulties which were encountered in raising, equipping, and supporting a regular army led to the frequent use of militia. This in turn hindered the pursuit of agriculture and brought about a greater scarcity of food,58 while the constant coming and going of men, some of whom had been hired at exorbitant rates – $150 in specie for five months of service – increased the consumption of supplies without adding proportionately to the effective force. Men were to be seen in the country taverns and upon the roads, some returning from service, some away on furlough, and too many away through desertion In a war of great successes their presence in the country might have encouraged enlistments by awaking a warlike spirit; in a war of delay and hardships they must have done little or nothing to offset the heavy cost of travel and rations while on their journey. The amusing experience of a not over-scrupulous private while on his travels has been related by himself: “The 20th [February, 1780] I leaves Mr. Lowdens [at New Windsor] and Crosses the North River and Comes to Fishkill, and gos to a offiser to git an order to Draw provision, and he hapened to be there that I Drue provision on the Day before. he said, Did not you Draw Eight Days yesterday (I found I was Cached). I said yes but that was to Carry me to Boston. He said how I Could draw at Litchfield and at Hartford. I said I did not want to Draw it there to have to Carry it.”59

The captains and lieutenants were kept busy training raw recruits; this work was not left to sergeants and corporals, as it seemed best to have a closer bond between the officers and their men.60 Baron Steuben was an ardent advocate of personal contact of officer and private; he had no patience with the British custom of giving over the awkward squads to sergeants. He rose at three in the morning during the manoeuvres, says his biographer North, drank a cup of coffee and smoked a single pipe while his servant dressed his hair; at sunrise he was on horseback. A year or two later when his theories of training had come to have their influence he said: “Do you see there, sir, your colonel instructing that recruit? I thank God for that.”61 His own interest in the rank and file was very real. One day during the roll-call Steuben heard a private answer to the name Arnold; he summoned the man to his tent, told him that so good a soldier should not bear a traitor’s name, and gave him permission to be known thereafter as Steuben.62

Increase in the price of food and clothing which accompanies war tends to check the enlistment of married men, and the rise in artisans’ wages still further operates in the same direction where men have families dependent upon them for support. Under these conditions the bounty or pay must be advanced, as was ably set forth in the time of the Civil War by Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana in an address to Congress in 1862, entitled “Increase of Pay of private Soldiers.” Colonel Cortlandt related to General Gates a case that tells of the married man’s trials: “The bearer hereof, William Foster, a soldier in Colonel Wynkoop’s regiment, having lately buried his wife, and has with him now at this place five small children, and no way to provide provision for them unless he can be discharged to go to a small farm he has some distance from here, and begs me to write in his favour to procure his discharge.”63

The privations of army life were trifling when compared with the worry that was caused by a knowledge of the privation at home. The steady increase of taxes in 1779 – 82 and the departure of farm-hands to the front drove women almost to desperation. State and town officials endeavored to aid and support the wives and children of the soldiers,64 and to check and punish those who forced up the necessities of life beyond the prices agreed upon by state or county conventions and accepted by the towns.65 Salt, so necessary to every farm that had live stock, rose from about thirty cents a bushel to almost as many dollars; tea and molasses also advanced to a price that bore hard upon the poor.66 Women did the hard work of the farm, with a suggestion or word of advice at long intervals from their absent husbands. A private at the siege of Boston wrote to his wife and children in 1775: ” I must Bee Short! gat 2 or 3 Bushel of Solt as quick as you Can for it will Bee Deer, and what [cattle?] the Barn will Not Winter [ie., hold through the winter] the Saller Sall [cellar shall ?]; and give them as good a chance [to thrive] as you Can and as for my Coming home I Can Not if you Sant ten men in my Room.”67

There was at the same time, if Dr. Benjamin Rush is right in his assertion, an increase in the birth-rate in America, implying prosperity or at least easy circumstances among a considerable part of the population.68 In the larger centres of trade the increased circulation of money, the growth in importation of goods and in transportation of grain, with an undoubted demand for labor, all combined to give an appearance of good times to that class which has nothing to lose by war. The men about the taverns, the small shops, and the wharves married and cared for their families. Dr. Rush declares that from the year 1776 to the close of the war beggars were rarely seen. The burdens of the war were not wiped out, but were placed upon the owners of the soil; poverty was lifted from the town poor to fall upon the farmers.

As it became more and more difficult for farmers to support their families, it is no surprise to find that after the first enthusiasm had died away, the enlistment of men was slow and unpleasant. An officer would go to the village tavern, wax eloquent, and pass round the toddy until some country lad was moved to sign his name to the papers; but unless an officer was shrewd, he came away with his money spent and no recruit at his back. That his errand was sometimes a relief to a town may be inferred from a note in Graydon’s Memoirs: “Mr. Heath…helped us to a recruit, a fellow, he said, who would do to stop a bullet as well as a better man, and as he was a truly worthless dog, he held that the neighborhood would be much indebted to us for taking him away.”69

Another writer has pictured the motley throng of men and boys, in all stages of intoxication, that gathered about a recruiting officer in a seaport town. When the band which he employed to gather a crowd had stopped playing he stood at the street corner beneath a flag and sang in a comical manner:

All you that have bad masters,
And cannot get your due,
Come, come, my brave boys,
And join with our ship’s crew.

This was followed by cheers and a commotion in which men were persuaded or driven to the wharves and aboard a privateer that was ready for a cruise.70

Many undesirable army recruits were sent to camp, and upon one occasion General Parsons forwarded seven useless fellows to Hartford that the Connecticut Legislature might see what imposition was practised by some recruiting officers.71 Congress decided in January, 1776, to disapprove the employment of prisoners, and thus closed to the enlistment officer a hopeful field for his efforts. When voluntary enlistments fell off the authorities resorted to drafts; these were not always successful, especially in the disaffected districts, where many officers and men so obtained proved to be Tories at heart.72 When the militia were well fed and clothed, with good officers to make them contented, numbers of the rank and file could be trusted at times to go home to gather recruits. Colonel Thomson, of South Carolina, on one occasion wished to send most of his men away on furlough, so that they might return in time with lusty country lads at their heels.73

No doubt there was an element less readily moved to enlist by patriotism than by material and tangible considerations, however deep, strong, and broad the unseen current of loyalty might be. A warm, pleasant day in the autumn of 1775 and a cheering glass of grog helped the officers who were recruiting for the army of 1776.74 This, the testimony of an officer at Roxbury, fairly represents the easy-going spirit which governed men of a certain class. They were not the privates who studied by the camp-fire and kept diaries, but many were none the less useful soldiers. A battle sifts men by a process unknown to the days of peace, bringing to the front unexpected heroes. Can you not see two of them now – Haines at Bemis Heights, astride the muzzle of a British brass twelve-pounder, ramming his bayonet into the thigh of a savage foe, recovering himself to parry the thrust of a second, and, quick as a tiger, dashing the same bloody bayonet through his head; recovering again, only to fall from the cannon, shot through the mouth and tongue; lying two nights on the battle-field until thirst, hunger, and loss of blood overcame him, then in the ranks of the dead made ready for burial; and from all this recovering for three years more of service and a green old age:75 or again, that unknown dare-devil whose swaying figure stood out upon the parapet of the entrenchments about Yorktown, brandishing his spade at every ball that burred about him, finally going to his death, “damning his soul if he would dodge.”76

“The common people,” said General Greene, referring to New England, “are exceedingly avaricious; the genius of the people is commercial from their long intercourse with trade.”77 This spirit prompted many from the towns to make the best bargain possible when they enlisted for the year 1776, while the farmers, who usually saw very little money, coveted the bounty that was offered. Washington had an independent income; the poorer officers and the rank and file depended for their subsistence and the support of their families upon their meagre and uncertain pay. This difference in condition did not impress Washington with sufficient force in his first encounter with the army. There was no doubt “a dirty, mercenary spirit” which to some extent made possible “stock-jobbing and fertility in all low arts to obtain advantages of one kind and another,” but that it “pervaded the whole” one must doubt. The diaries of officers and privates, written with no thought of publication, show a loyalty and in some instances a religious earnestness that must indicate widespread moral purpose.78

The character and care of the private soldiers were subjects for debate in every town that labored diligently to keep its quota of men in the field. As the farmers sat about the fire in the stuffy town threshing the matter out, a weatherworn, weary volunteer home upon furlough often sat there too and heard what they thought of him. Sometimes he had an opportunity to know what the leaders thought. Elijah Fisher has described his interview with the committee of inquiry in Boston, whither he went to get satisfaction, having complained because they deducted from the amount still due him as wages on account of the depreciation in paper money, the bounty which he had received. The punctuation has been added, but the story is his:

“One of the Comita, start[ing] up, with his grate wigg, said the sholgers had been used very well; sometimes these things were not to be got, and then we could not have them as soon as we should wish. I was wrong in acusing and talking as you [I ?] do.

“Then spake up another, that set a little Distance and heard what was said (a black haired man), in my behalf, and said that the sholgers had been used very ill as this man said, and that they are cheated out of a good eel that they ought to have…”79

It was no light task to bring an army into the field and maintain it for years, combating successfully the local prejudices of northerner and southerner, the greed for bounties, the trials that follow a depreciating currency and an advance in the price of family necessities, the fear of militarism and the dislike of strict discipline in an age of democratic theories. That the army about Boston had the virtues that characterized many of the soldiers themselves no one will doubt. That it fell short in certain particulars may be surmised from the exclamation of a southern rifleman in the camp at Prospect Hill in September, 1775: “Such Sermons, such Negroes, such Colonels, such Boys, & such Great Great Grandfathers.”80


  1. Journals of each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts (Lincoln), pp. 601, 602.
  2. Ibid., pp. 603, 604.
  3. Muddy River Records, p. 248.
  4. Journals Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, p. 33. The Continental Congress recommended to the Colonies, July 18, 1775, to form similar companies of minute-men. The term minute-men appears September 21, 1774, in the journal of the Worcester County Convention. (Journals Provincial Congress, pp. 643, 644.)
  5. Green’s Groton during the Revolution, p. 3.
  6. Percy to his father, September 12, 1774 ; MS. at Alnwick.
  7. Journals Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, p. 505 et seq. Records Committee of Safety.
  8. Goddard’s Account Book; MS. in Brookline Public Library. Reprinted in part in Brookline Historical Publication Society, Publication No. 15.
  9. Cannon’s Historical Record of the Tenth Regiment, p. 36.
  10. Gage’s account in Journals Provincial Congress of Massachusetts (Lincoln), p. 679.
  11. Percy to General Harvey, April 20, 1775; MS. at Alnwick.
  12. Journals Provincial Congress of Massachusetts (Lincoln), p. 683.
  13. R. Cannon’s Historical Record, p. 35.
  14. Journals Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, p. 678.
  15. Heath’s Memoirs (1798), pp. 14-16.
  16. Lord Percy’s letter, supra.
  17. Massachusetts Archives, Colonial and Revolutionary Rolls.
  18. Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, July 4, 1775.
  19. Howe’s letter, January 16, 1776, quoted in Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 3, p. 353
  20. Lord Percy to H. Reveley, August 8, 1774 ; MS. at Alnwick.
  21. Lord Percy to Harvey, April 20, 1775.
  22. For the oath see Journals Provincial Congress of Massachusetts (Lincoln), p. 201.
  23. Records Committee of Safety. Journals Provincial Congress (Lincoln), p. 518-523. Each company was to have a captain, lieutenant, ensign, four sergeants, a fifer, drummer and fifty men; nine companies to form a regiment. The men were promised good officers.
  24. Calendar of Virginia State Papers, vol. 8.
  25. Stiles’s Diary, vol. I, p. 540 ; Durfee’s Fitch (1843), p. 8.
  26. American Archives IV., vol. 2, col. 363 ; and in North Carolina Colonial Records, vol. 9, p. 1229.
  27. June 22d two more companies were ordered to be raised in Pennsylvania.
  28. Washington to Congress, July 9, 1775. Journals Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, p. 482.
  29. Journals Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, p. 220, and Journals Continental Congress, July 29, 1775.
  30. These men were to furnish good firelocks and were to receive powder from the towns in which they were stationed, the powder to be paid for by the colony. They were to serve through December, 1775, and to receive $36 a month and subsistence. – Journals, pp. 402, 412, 426.
  31. Moore’s Historical Notes on the Employment of Negroes in the American Army, p. 5. Committee of Safety, May 20, 1775. American Archives IV., vol. 2, col. 762.
  32. Massachusetts Archives, vol. 180, p. 241. Quoted also by George Livermore.
  33. General Thomas to John Adams. Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, 1862-63, p. 186.
  34. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 3, p. 162.
  35. Journals of Congress, January 16, 1776.
  36. Moore’s Historical Notes, p. 17 et seq.
  37. Schloezer’s Briefwechsel, vol. 4, p. 365.
  38. Governor Greene’s letter, June 3, 1779; in R.I. Historical Society Collections, vol. 6, pp. 235 – 236.
  39. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 10, p. 48.
  40. Army Correspondence of Colonel John Laurens, pp. 108, 115 -118.
  41. Jones to Madison, quoted in Madison’s Writings (Hunt), vol. I, p. 106.
  42. Aaron Wright’s Revolutionary Journal; in Historical Magazine, July, 1862, p. 209.
  43. The oath referred to above was no doubt as follows (Journals of Congress, June 14, 1775):I……have, this day, voluntarily enlisted myself, as a soldier, in the American continental army, for one year, unless sooner discharged: and I do bind myself to conform, in all instances, to such rules and regulations, as are, or shall be, established for the government of the said army.Privates who took the oath were to find their own arms and clothes, and were to receive $6 2/3 or 40 shillings a month. – Journals of Congress, June 14, 1775. For the Massachusetts oath see Journals Provincial Congress, May 8, 1775.
  44. Washington’s Writings (Sparks), vol. 3, p. 488
  45. American Historical Review, vol. I, p. 292; Washington’s Writings (Sparks), vol. 3, p. 493.
  46. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 3, P. 296.
  47. Journals of Congress, Nov. 4, 1775.
  48. Washington’s Orderly Book, October 31, November 12, 1775, in his Writings (Ford), vol. 3, pp. 191, 221.
  49. Rev. B. Boardman’s Diary; in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, May, 1892, p. 412.
  50. Washington’s Orderly Book, October 31, November 12, 1775, in his Writings (Ford), vol. 3, pp. 191, 221,
  51. Journals of Congress, December 26 1775,
  52. John Adams’s Autobiography, in his Works (C. F. Adams), 1951, vol. 3, p. 48.
  53. Washington to Reid, February 1, 1776, in his Writings (Ford), vol. 3, p. 400. For some suggestive remarks on short enlistments and an untrained militia during the wars subsequent to the Revolution, see Hazard Stevens’s address, October 14, 1898, “Reform the militia system” (Boston, 1898).
  54. American Archives V., vol. 1, col. 404.
  55. Ibid., vol. 2, col. 118.
  56. “The well disciplining the militia renders useless that dangerous power and grievous Burden, a standing Army.” – T. Pickering in the Essex Gazette, January 31, 1769, p. I.
  57. Samuel Ward to his brother, November 21, 1775; in W. Gammell’s Life of Ward (Sparks’s Library of American Biography, second series, ix., p 327).
  58. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 8, p. 395.
  59. Elijah Fisher’s Journal, p. 13. The punctuation has been supplied.
  60. A. Graydon’s Memoirs, pp. 117 – 122.
  61. Kapp’s Steuben (1850), pp. 130, 131.
  62. Ibid., p. 290.
  63. American Archives V., vol. 2, col. 573.
  64. Miss Caulkins’s New London (1852), p. 503. Wheeler’s History of Brunswick, Me., pp. 125, 126, 170
  65. New London, p. 503 ; Parmenter’s Pelham, Mass., p. 137.
  66. Stevens’s Facsimiles, No. 2082.
  67. Parmenter’s Pelham, p. 129.
  68. Massachusetts Magazine for 1791, p. 360.
  69. Graydon’s Memoirs, p. 135.
  70. E. Fox’s Revolutionary Adventures, p. 56.
  71. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. 9, p. 156.
  72. American Archives V., vol. 3, col. 206.
  73. Thomson to Rutledge and to Howe, June 9, 1777, in Salley’s Orangeburg County, S. C., pp. 450, 451.
  74. J. Fitch, Jr.’s, Diary, November 14, 1775; in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, May, 1894, p. 80.
  75. Kidder’s First New Hampshire Regiment, p. 23.
  76. Captain James Duncan’s Diary; in Pennsylvania Archives, second series, vol. 15, p. 748.
  77. Greene to Ward, December 18, 1775; in Greene’s Nathanael Greene (1867), vol. I, p. 126.
  78. Washington’s Writings (Ford), vol. I, p. 81; vol. 3, p. 247
  79. E. Fisher’s Journal, p. 14.
  80. Letter of Jesse Lukens; in Boston Public Library Historical Manuscripts, No. I, p. 27.

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