The Invasion of Canada and the Fall of Boston: The major military operations of 1775 and early 1776 were not around Boston but in far-distant Canada, which the Americans tried to add as a fourteenth colony. Canada seemed a tempting and vulnerable target. To take it would eliminate a British base at the head of the familiar invasion route along the lake and river chain connecting the St. Lawrence with the Hudson. Congress, getting no response to an appeal to the Canadians to join in its cause, in late June 1775 instructed Major General Philip Schuyler of New York to take possession of Canada if “practicable” and “not disagreeable to the Canadians.”
Schuyler managed to get together a force of about 2,000 men from New York and Connecticut, thus forming the nucleus of what was to become known as the Northern Army. In September 1775 Brigadier General Richard Montgomery set out with this small army from Ticonderoga with the objective of taking Montreal. To form a second prong to the invasion, Washington detached a force of 1,100 under Colonel Benedict Arnold, including a contingent of riflemen under Captain Daniel Morgan of Virginia, to proceed up the Kennebec River, across the wilds of Maine, and down the Chaudiere to join with Montgomery before Quebec.
Montgomery, advancing along the route via Lake George, Lake Champlain, and the Richelieu River, was seriously delayed by the British fort at St. Johns but managed to capture Montreal on November 13. Arnold meanwhile had arrived opposite Quebec on November 8, after one of the most rugged marches in history. One part of his force had turned back and others were lost by starvation, sickness, drowning, and desertion. Only 600 men crossed the St. Lawrence on November 13, and in imitation of Wolfe scaled the cliffs and encamped on the Plains of Abraham. It was a magnificent feat, but the force was too small to prevail even against the scattered Canadian militia and British Regulars who, unlike Montcalm, shut themselves up in the city and refused battle in the open. Arnold’s men were finally forced to withdraw to Point aux Trembles, where they were joined by Montgomery with all the men he could spare from the defense of Montreal; a total of 300. Nowhere did the Canadians show much inclination to rally to the American cause; the French habitants remained indifferent, and the small British population gave its loyalty to the governor general. With the enlistments of about half their men expiring by the new year, Arnold and Montgomery undertook a desperate assault on the city during the night of December 30 in the middle of a raging blizzard. The Americans were outnumbered by the defenders, and the attack was a failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold wounded.
The wounded Arnold, undaunted, continued to keep up the appearance of a siege with the scattered remnants of his force while he waited for reinforcements. The reinforcements came as Continental regiments raised in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania; but they came in driblets and there were never enough to build a force capable of again taking the offensive, though a total of 8,000 men were eventually committed to the Canadian campaign. Smallpox and other diseases took their toll and never did the supply line bring in adequate food, clothing, or ammunition. Meanwhile, the British received reinforcements and in June 1776 struck back against a disintegrating American army that retreated before them almost without a fight. By mid-July the Americans were back at Ticonderoga where they had started less than a year earlier, and the initiative on the northern front passed to the British.
While the effort to conquer Canada was moving toward its dismal end, Washington finally took the initiative at 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. It would be presumptuous to say that their exit was solely a consequence of American pressure. Sir William Howe, who succeeded 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 indeed to the meager American arsenal.
The New Nation: The Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, established a new nation and transformed a limited revolt to secure rights within the British Empire into a far-reaching one, aimed at complete independence from British control. Since the king and his ministers had determined to restore British rule, the Americans now faced a long, hard struggle for independence requiring a sustained national effort such as they had not expected in 1775.
The new nation was still a weak confederation of thirteen independent states. Such national feeling as existed was a new phenomenon growing out of common opposition to British measures. Colonial tradition, divided loyalties, the nature of the economy, and the spirit of a revolt born in opposition to the use of military force to suppress popular liberties, all worked against the creation of any new strong central authority capable of mobilizing resources effectively for the long struggle that lay ahead.
The thirteen states proclaiming their independence in 1776 possessed a total population of about two and a half million people, but not all the males of military age were part of the military potential. About 20 percent were Negro slaves who except under special circumstances were not eligible for service, though Negroes did serve in the Revolution and not in segregated units. Perhaps one-third of the “politically active” Americans remained loyal to the British Government. As in any society there were also the apathetic and indifferent who swayed with the tide. The genuine patriots still provided a far larger potential of military manpower than the British could possibly transport and supply across the Atlantic, but most of the men of military age were farmers who married young and immediately started large families. Whatever their patriotic sentiments, few were ready to undertake long terms of military service, fearing that if they did their farms and families at home would suffer. Accustomed to the tradition of short-term militia service under local commanders, they infinitely preferred it to long-term service in the Continental Army.
The economy of the thirteen new states was neither self-sufficient nor truly national. The states were essentially a collection of separate agricultural communities, accustomed to exchanging their agricultural surplus for British manufactured goods and West Indian products. Manufacturing was still in its infancy and America produced few of the essentials of military supply. Despite diligent efforts to promote domestic production during the war years, the Continental Army had to rely primarily on captures and imports from Europe and the West Indies, run through a British blockade, for much of its military hardware and even for clothing. While the country produced foodstuffs in ample quantity, transport from one area to another was difficult. The normal avenues of commerce ran up and down the rivers, not overland; roads running north and south were few and inadequate. There was always a shortage of wagons, boats, and other means of transportation. Under these circumstances, it was far easier to support local militia for a few days or weeks than any sizable and continuously operating national army in the field.
The governmental machinery created after the Declaration was characterized by decentralization and executive weakness. The thirteen new “free and independent states” transformed their existing de facto revolutionary governments into legal state governments by adopting institutions. Almost invariably, these constitutions vested most of the powers of government in the state legislatures, successors to the popular assemblies of the colonial period, and severely restricted the executive authority of the governors. At the national level, the same general distrust of strong authority was apparent, and the existing Continental Congress, essentially a gathering of delegates chosen by the state legislatures and without either express powers of its own or an executive to carry out its enactments, was continued as the only central governing body. Articles of Confederation stipulating the terms of union and granting Congress specific but limited powers were drawn up shortly after the Declaration, but jealousies among the states prevented ratification until 1781. In the interim, Congress exercised most of the powers granted it under the Articles, but they did not include either the right to levy taxes or the power to raise military forces directly under its auspices. Congress could only determine the Confederation’s need for troops and money to wage war and set quotas for the states to meet in proportion to their population and wealth. It had no means of insuring that the states met their quotas, and indeed they seldom did.
The decentralized structure provided no adequate means of financing the war. The state legislatures, possessing the power to tax that Congress lacked, hesitated to use it extensively in the face of popular opposition to taxation, and were normally embarrassed to meet even their own expenses. Congress very early took unto itself the power to issue paper money and to negotiate domestic and foreign loans, but it shared these powers with also printed paper money the states, which also printed paper money in profusion and borrowed both at home and abroad to the extent they could. The paper money was a useful expedient in the early part of the war; indeed the Revolution could not have been carried on without it. But successive issues by Congress and the states led to first gradual and then galloping inflation, leaving the phrase “not worth a Continental” as a permanent legacy to the American language. The process of depreciation and the exhaustion of credit gradually robbed both the states and Congress of the power to pay troops, buy supplies, and otherwise meet the multitudinous expenses of war.
Evolution of the Continental Army: Under these circumstances it is not surprising that Washington never got the kind of army, molded in the British image that he desired. The experience before Boston in 1775 was repeated many times, as local militia had to be called in continually to give the American Army a numerical superiority in the field. The Continental Army, nevertheless, became the center of American resistance, and its commander, Washington, the symbol of the patriot cause. The extent to which militia could be expected to rally to that cause was very largely determined by the Continental Army’s success or failure in the field.
Though the militia belonged to the states, the Continental Army was a creation of the Continental Congress. Congress prescribed its size and composition, chose its generals, and governed the system for its administration and supply. Suspicious on principle of a standing army and acutely aware of historic examples of seizure of political power by military leaders, its members kept a watchful eye on the Army’s commanders and insisted they defer to civilian authority. Washington countered these suspicions by constantly deferring to Congressional wishes, and he was rewarded by the assiduity with which Congress usually adopted his recommendations.
Lacking an executive, Congress had to rely on committees and boards to carry out its policies; unwieldy devices at best and centers of conflicting interest and discord at worst. In June 1776 it set up a Board of War and Ordnance, consisting of five of its members, the lineal ancestor of the War Department. In 1777 Congress changed the composition of the board, directing that it henceforth be made up of persons outside Congress who could devote full time to their military duties. Neither of these devices really worked well, and Congress continually handled administrative matters by action of the entire membership or by appointment of special committees to go to camp. In 1781 the board was replaced by a single Secretary at War.
Under the Articles of Confederation the states were responsible for raising troops for the Continental Army, for organizing and equipping them, and for appointing officers through the rank of colonel. State authorities called out militia sometimes at the request of Congress and sometimes on their own initiative. When they joined the main army, militia normally shared in its supplies and equipment. The states, however, maintained an interest in supplying and administering the troops of their own “lines” as well as their militia, and the Continental agents had continually to enlist state assistance in their own efforts. Lines of authority crisscrossed at every turn.
It was an inefficient military system for an organized national effort. Washington could never depend on having enough trained men or supplies. He continually inveighed against sending militia to fight his battles and by early 1776 had concluded that he needed an army enlisted for the duration of the war. Congress did not, as has often been charged, ignore his wishes. In October 1776 it voted a new establishment, superseding the plan developed for the army before Boston in 1775 and haphazard arrangements made in the interim for raising Continental regiments in various states. This establishment was to contain 88 battalions of infantry, or about 60,000 men, enlisted to serve three years or “during the present war,” with each state assigned a quota in proportion to its population under the system set up in the Articles. After the disastrous retreat across New Jersey in December 1776, Congress went further and authorized an additional 22 battalions to be recruited by Washington’s officers directly into the Continental service. These 110 battalions remained the authorized strength of the Continental Army until 1781, when Congress cut it to 59.
Neither the 88 battalions, nor the 110, nor even the 59 ever existed except on paper. The Continental Army never had as many as 30,000 men at any one time, and very rarely was Washington able to muster as many as 15,000 effectives in the field. The states were simply unable to meet their quotas. By the winter of 1777-78, the effort to enlist men for three years or the duration collapsed, and the following spring, with the sanction of Washington, Congress reverted to a system of one-year enlistments and recommended to the states that they institute a system of drafting men from the militia for one year’s service. This first American wartime draft was applied irregularly in the various states and succeeded no better than had earlier methods in filling the Continental ranks. Bounties, instituted by both the states and the Congress very early in the war and progressively increased one step behind the pace of inflation, also produced only temporary and irregular results.
The coin did have another side. In reality the shortage of arms and ammunition and of facilities for producing them, limited the number of men who could be kept continuously in the field as effectively as did the failure of enlistment drives. The militia system enabled many able-bodied males to perform part-time military service and still remain most of the time in the labor force that kept the economy going. It is doubtful whether the American economy could have sustained such an army as Washington and Congress proposed in 1776, even had there been a central administration with adequate power. As it was, the small Continental Army that did remain in the field intermittently suffered extreme hardship and near starvation. On the other hand, American ability to raise local armies in any threatened region helped to balance the strategic mobility that the British Fleet gave to the British Army. Although militia generally did not perform well in regular warfare, when highly motivated and ably led, they could fight well on terrain suited to their capabilities. Given the conditions under which the Revolution was fought, the American military system was more effective than its critics have recognized, though it failed to provide adequately for a sustained military effort over a period of years.
Perhaps Washington’s greatest achievement was simply in maintaining the Continental Army continuously in the field. Despite its many vicissitudes, that army did take shape during the war as the first distinctively American military organization, neither quite a replica of the professional British Army on which it was modeled nor yet the type of national army raised by conscription that was to appear in France after the Revolution of 1789.
The Continental Army operated in three main territorial divisions or departments; the main army under Washington largely in the Middle States, the Northern Army in northern New York, and the Southern Army in the Carolinas and Georgia. Although Washington was Commander in Chief of the whole, the commanders of the Northern and Southern Armies still operated with a considerable measure of independence. Congress, rather than Washington, named their commanders and communicated directly with them. Of the two “separate armies,” the Northern Army was by far the most important until 1777 and the Southern Army existed largely on paper; by 1780 the situation was reversed as the British transferred their main effort to the southern states.
The Continental Army was composed mainly of infantry and artillery, with very little cavalry. The basic unit of infantry organization was the regiment or battalion composed of eight companies above this level was highly flexible. A brigade was usually formed of several regiments and was commanded by a brigadier general; a division consisted of a similar grouping of several brigades commanded by a major general. Artillery was organized into a brigade of four regiments under a Chief of Artillery, Brig. Gen. Henry Knox, but the various companies were distributed among the infantry battalions. There was a small corps of engineers and an even smaller contingent of artificers, who handled the servicing and repair of ordnance.
Washington was provided with a staff generally corresponding to that of the British Army. The most important staff officer was the Quartermaster General, responsible not only for transportation and delivery of supplies but also for arranging the camp, regulating marches, and establishing the order of battle of the army. There were also an Adjutant General, a Judge Advocate General, a Paymaster General, a Commissary General of Musters, a Commissary General of Provisions, a Clothier General, a Chief Surgeon, and a Chief Engineer. Each of the separate armies also usually had staff officers in these positions, designated as deputies to those of the main army.
All these staff officers had primarily administrative and supply functions. The modern concept of a general staff that acts as a sort of collective brain for the commander had no real counterpart in the eighteenth century. For advice on strategy and operations, Washington relied on a Council of War made up of his principal subordinate commanders, and, conforming to his original instructions from Congress, he usually consulted the council before making major decisions.
Both organization and staff work suffered from the ills that afflicted the whole military system. Regiments were constantly understrength, were organized differently by the various states, and employed varying systems of drill, discipline, and training. In the promotion of officers in the state lines, Continental commanders shared authority with the states, and the confused system gave rise to all sorts of rivalries, jealousies, and resentment, leading to frequent resignations. Staff officers were generally inexperienced, and few had the patience and perseverance to overcome the obstacles posed by divided authority, inadequate means, and poor transportation and communication facilities. The supply and support services of the Continental Army never really functioned efficiently, and with the depreciation in the currency they came close to collapse.
THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®
SOURCE: American Military History; Army Historical Series; Office of the Chief of Military History United States Army (United States Army Center of Military History)
CONTRIBUTOR: Eddy Toorall