The Colonial Army of the American Revolution

As for the means through which the declared independence of America was to be consummated, and the opposing means through which England hoped to reduce her revolted colonies to obedience, there were discouraging circumstances on both sides. Besides the difficulties experienced by Washington in making an army out of the intractable materials placed in his hands, and of the inconvenience arising from the short terms of enlistment of the men, there were other disheartening conditions. An officer who at that time wrote to a member of Congress presented a deplorable picture of the state of the army: "Almost every villainy that can disgrace the man, the soldier, or the citizen is daily practised, without meeting the punishment they merit. So many of our officers want honor, and so many of our soldiers want virtue, civil, social, and military, that nothing but the severest punishments will keep both from practices that must ruin us. . Our men are at present only robbers; that they will soon be murderers, unless some are hanged, I have no doubt." This is the testimony of a patriotic American, and it is confirmed by other statements.

It was evident that a total change in the military system of the country was requisite. Many of the soldiers were enlisted for a few months, and none for more than a year, and they had no time to learn the business of war. The enthusiasm of the militia quickly died out, as it necessarily always does, and it was remarked by a member of Congress that the Americans had lost most of that virtue which first drew them to the field, and were sinking into an army of mercenaries. They received so little pay, and were so ill provided with the necessaries of life, that there was some excuse for their acts of plundering. Yet these acts were of serious dimensions. Washington spoke of them as infamous, and said that no man was secure in his effects, and scarcely in his person. Yet he found it impossible to reduce the soldiers to subordination, under existing circumstances. He did his utmost to rouse Congress to the importance of long enlistments, but such was the dread of a standing army that these demands were as yet unheeded. Congress, indeed, discouraged the formation of martial habits, and required that frequent furloughs should be granted, "rather than that the endearments of wives and children should cease to allure the individuals of our army from camps to farms." This was no way to make an army, as the law-makers were destined to discover. Shortly before the evacuation of New York by General Washington, it was resolved, against considerable opposition, to reorganize the army in eighty-eight battalions, to be made up of men enlisted for the war. A quota was assigned to each State, and, to encourage enlistments, a bounty of twenty dollars and one hundred acres of land was given to every recruit, with higher bounties to officers. A new set of rules for the discipline of the army was at the same time adopted. It had become evident that a regular army must be formed if success were desired.

Yet the raising of these new levies proceeded with discouraging slowness, and meanwhile affairs were going from bad to worse. One expedient adopted by Congress was an attempt to seduce the Hessian troops from the British service by the offer of large bounties in land. Yet the condition of American affairs after the loss of New York was calculated to render all these efforts nugatory. When Washington reached the western shore of the Delaware, after his retreat through New Jersey, the fortunes of the United States were at a very low ebb. The army was greatly reduced in numbers, and the term of all its members would end within a month. Indications looked towards its complete disbandment, and a hopeless yielding of the colonies to the power against which they had rebelled.

Washington's success at Trenton radically changed this depressing state of affairs. The cruelty of the British and the Hessians had aroused the people of the occupied regions to bitter hatred, and as the Continental army gradually regained possession of the State of New Jersey, confidence returned, and the depleted ranks were filled up with new levies. From that time forward the American forces became an army more than in name, and the fortunes of the United States never again sank to so low an ebb.

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