The American Continental Army

The colonial post-office system had been broken up by the public disorders, and on the 26th of July (1775) the Congress made provision for a new one, and appointed Dr. Franklin postmaster-general. From that office he had been dismissed by the British government the year before, as we have observed. Very little else was done during the year toward organizing civil government, for military affairs occupied almost the whole attention of the Congress. They established a general hospital, and appointed the unworthy Dr. Benjamin Church as chief director. Soon after his appointment, he was detected in holding secret correspondence with General Gage. He was immediately expelled from every position of trust which he held, and by order of the Continental Congress was lodged in the Norwich (Connecticut) jail. His health failing, he was allowed to leave the country for the West Indies. The vessel in which he sailed was never heard of afterward. So perished the first traitor to the American cause. Dr. John Morgan took his place at the head of the hospital.

The army before Boston received the special attention of the Congress. The term of enlistment of all the troops would expire with the year, and Washington foresaw the dissolution of his forces then. He asked the Congress to assist him in providing plans for preventing such a fatal disaster. They sent a committee composed of Dr. Franklin, Thomas Lynch, and Benjamin Harrison to the camp at Cambridge for the purpose, and at the headquarters of Washington they opened their conference with the commander-in-chief on the 18th of October. There they were joined by delegates from the several New England colonies, and in the course of a few days they matured a plan that was satisfactory to Washington, and was effectual.

For a long time the army was not only weak in numbers, but feeble in moral strength and material supplies. In August it was discovered that the supply of gunpowder was not sufficient for nine rounds to each man, and other munitions were lacking in the same proportion. For months the American army was compelled to play the part of jailer to the British troops in Boston. It was even difficult to sustain that part; and had the royal forces known the real impotence of their jailers, they might have burst their prison doors with impunity, and scattered the republican army to the winds. In the individuality--the self-assertion of each soldier--to which allusion has been made, was found moral weakness as regarded the strength of discipline. Each man had left his home to fight for freedom, and was disposed to first assert it in his own behalf. The consequence was general insubordination, which had to be humored until the common sense and experience of the soldier taught him the value and necessity of discipline. Washington managed this matter with great tact, and accomplished, by argument and persuasion, that which he could not have gained by force.

Comparative inaction marked the siege of Boston for several months. There was some cannonading in August when General Sullivan, in imitation of Prescott, cast up a redoubt in a single night upon an eminence within cannon-shot of Bunker's Hill. Three hundred shells were thrown upon this redoubt from Bunker's Hill and British shipping with very little effect. There were occasional skirmishes between republican detachments and royal foragers on the islands in Boston harbor and the shores of the main, but there was no serious engagement. Washington tried to bring on one by various challenges. He did not feel strong enough to attack his foe, but he was ready to meet any sortie or sallying-out the British troops might make. But Gage was too prudent to attempt another excursion into the country. He contented himself with threats; in the sending out of alarming stories about Russian and German troops coming to help the British, and in treating the few whigs who remained in Boston in a barbarous manner. Gage was called to England, in October, to answer for his inefficiency, when General Howe assumed the chief command of the British army in America. Howe strengthened his defences, and increased the number of British cruisers sent out to harass the coast towns of New England, hoping thereby to cause Washington to weaken his besieging army by sending detachments for the relief of the distressed regions. Falmouth (now Portland, Maine,) was burned in October, and other towns were sorely smitten by the marauders. These acts failed to draw a regiment away from Cambridge, but caused a swarm of American privateers to appear upon the waters. Captain Manly, in a vessel sent out by Washington to intercept supply-vessels bound for Boston, maintained a position off the harbor of the New England capital for some time, and made three important captures. One of his prizes contained heavy guns, mortars, and intrenching tools; the very things most needed by the Americans at that time.

Howe imitated Gage in treating the open whigs and suspected persons in Boston with harshness. His excuse was that they were active, though secret, enemies, keeping up a communication with the "rebels" either by personal intercourse, or by signals from church steeples and other high places. He forbade all persons leaving the city without permission, under pain of military execution; and he ordered all of the inhabitants to associate themselves into military companies.

At about this time the Congress was putting forth its energies for the establishment of a Continental Navy. The separate colonies were doing the same thing. A Marine Committee was appointed, and in December (1775) the Congress ordered the construction of thirteen armed vessels. Meanwhile Washington, under instructions, had caused floating batteries to be built in the Charles River, from one of which shells were thrown into Boston late in October, producing much alarm and some injury.

Six months had passed away since the battle of Bunker's Hill, and yet the relative position of the belligerent troops had changed very little. The people murmured; Congress fretted, and Washington was impatient to begin a vigorous siege. But he was almost powerless. At the beginning of December his old army began to dissolve, and not more than five thousand new recruits were enrolled. There seemed to be a fatal flagging of spirits. The cold was increasing; many of the soldiers lacked comfortable clothing; it was difficult to procure wood for fuel, and whole regiments were compelled to eat their provisions raw for the want of it to cook them. Fences and fruit trees around the camp were seized for use, and groups of shivering soldiers were often seen hovering around smouldering embers. The Connecticut troops demanded a bounty, and when it was refused, because Congress had not authorized it, they resolved to leave camp in a body on the 6th of December. Many did go and never came back. These untoward circumstances filled the mind of Washington with the keenest anxiety; when suddenly a salutary change was visible. Within the space of a fortnight new hopes and renewed patriotism seemed to fill the bosoms of the people, and at the close of the year the regiments were nearly all full, and ten thousand Minute-men, chiefly in Massachusetts, were ready to swell the ranks when called upon. The camp was well supplied with provisions; order was generally preserved; the commander-in-chief was more hopeful than at any time since his arrival, and general cheerfulness prevailed. The wives of several of the officers had arrived in camp. Mrs. Washington, with her son John Parke Custis and his young spouse, came on the 11th of December, and the Christmas holidays were spent at Cambridge quite agreeably.

The new Continental army was organized on the first of January, 1776, when it consisted of almost ten thousand men, of whom more than a thousand were absent on furlough which it had been necessary to grant as a condition of re-enlistment. The event was signalled by the raising of a new flag composed of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, emblematic of the union of the thirteen colonies (for Georgia had lately sent delegates to the Congress), and in the dexter corner, the British Union--the combined crosses of St. George and St. Andrew on a blue ground as indicative of the loyalty of the colonies to the British crown. As it fluttered in the keen winter wind on that clear morning, shouts from a thousand voices greeted it, and in token of their feelings many of the soldiers threw their hats high in air. This incident produced erroneous impressions upon the British officers in Boston. On that day printed copies of the king's speech on the opening of Parliament late in October were received by General Howe, and he sent a package of them to General Washington. The king, after declaring his intention to enforce obedience in the colonies, proposed the appointment of Commissioners to offer the olive branch of peace and pardon to all individual offenders in America, as well as whole communities or provinces that might sue for forgiveness. The hoisting of the Union flag--the flag with the British Union--was regarded with joy in Boston as a token of the deep impression the "gracious speech" had made upon the Americans, and as a signal of submission! The Union flag had been raised before the speech was received, and the latter was burned with contempt by a party of Massachusetts soldiers.

The British troops in Boston, at this time, numbered about eight thousand, exclusive of marines on the ships-of-war in the harbor. They were well supplied with provisions from Barbadoes and Great Britain, and having been promised ample reinforcements the coming season, they were prepared to sit quietly in Boston and wait for them. They had converted the Old South Meeting-house into a riding-school, and Faneuil Hall into a theatre, and were whiling away the winter quite pleasantly, while Washington was chafing with impatience to "break up the nest." He had received a temporary reinforcement of five thousand militia, and he waited for the ice in the rivers to become strong enough to bear his troops to make an assault upon the town. But the winter was exceedingly mild and no opportunity of that kind offered until February, when a council of his officers deemed the undertaking too hazardous. The temporary militia had retired, and Washington was compelled to call upon the New England colonies to furnish thirteen regiments more.

Just at that time news came from the north of the death of Montgomery and the repulse at Quebec, with an urgent request from General Schuyler for the commander-in-chief to send three thousand soldiers immediately to reinforce the little army in Canada to retrieve its losses, and to maintain the republican cause in that province. The necessity for strength at Boston was as great as at Quebec, yet Washington, ever ready to act for the general good, asked Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut to furnish a regiment each, enlisted for a year, and send them to Canada. To relieve these colonies of an increased burden, he allowed three regiments to be taken from his last requisition, reserving ten for the main army. They were raised and sent to Canada during the winter.

In small arms and ammunition the army at Cambridge was yet sadly deficient. Powder was very scarce, and it was difficult to get a supply. General Putnam was specially charged with the procuring of it. Colonel Moylan wrote from the camp in January: "The bay is open--everything thaws here except Old Put. He is still as hard as ever, crying out for powder--powder--ye gods, give us powder!" Colonel Knox, who had been sent to the Champlain forts, had, with great enterprise and perseverance, brought, upon forty sledges drawn by oxen, more than fifty cannon, mortars, and howitzers. The strange procession of cattle and sledges, and rough teamsters carrying their guns slung over their knapsacks on their backs, had made their way over frozen lakes and rivers, wild morasses and rugged hills covered with almost impassable snows; and a supply of bomb-shells came from New York. Late in February powder began to arrive. The ten militia regiments came in to strengthen the lines. Heavy pieces of ordnance were placed in position before Boston, and Washington, who had been urged by the Congress to attack the city as soon as possible, before expected reinforcements should arrive, now prepared to do so. General Howe, meanwhile, felt perfectly secure. He wrote to Dartmouth that he had not the least apprehension of an attack from the rebels, and wished they would "attempt so rash a step, and quit their strong intrenchments," to which they might attribute their safety.

Return to Our Country, Vol II