Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Towards a Continental Army

The American people were gradually moving into armed conflict with Great Britain during the early 1770s. In the Spring of 1775, two events turned what had been a slow-burning fuse into an open conflagration. One was the British raid on colonial stores that resulted in the battle of Lexington and Concord. The other was the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point. A crisis was at hand because the American colonies were ill-prepared for open warfare with Great Britain. The American army that formed in Massachusetts after Lexington and Concord was bereft of the instruments of war, and the garrisons for the newly-captured British forts in New York were grossly lacking in men and provisions.

Neither Massachusetts nor New York was able to solve these crises are their own. Both colonies looked to the Continental Congress to provide direction and support. However, the Congress could not quickly act. No system of government existed beyond those for the individual colonies. Congress, therefore, effectively needed a unanimous consent in order to act on any major issue.

A brief timeline appears below:

May 10: The Second Continental Congress convenes. Also on this date: Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold seize Fort Ticonderoga in New York; news of Lexington and Concord reaches Georgia.

May 15: Congress forms “a committee to consider what posts are necessary to be occupied in the Colony of New-York, and that they be desired to report as speedily as possible.” The members are Virginia’s George Washington, Massachusetts’ Samuel Adams, Thomas Lynch of South Carolina, and the full New York delegation. Adams is one of the conspirators behind the expedition against Fort Ticonderoga [see past blog posts concerning April 25 and April 29, 1775], and he likely briefs the committee on what is afoot.

May 18: Congress receives word that Ticonderoga has fallen and it hears allegations that the British are planning to form an invasion army in Canada. [see past blog post concerning May 18, 1775].

May 26: Congress passes a resolution that reads, in part:

“Hostilities being actually commenced in the Massachusett’s-Bay, by the British troops under the command of General Gage, and the lives of a number of the inhabitants of that Colony destroyed, the town of Boston having not only been long occupied as a garrisoned town in an enemy’s country, but the inhabitants thereof treated with a severity and cruelty not to be justified even towards declared enemies; large re-inforcements too being ordered and soon expected, for the declared purpose of compelling these Colonies to submit to the operation of the said acts; that therefore, for the express purpose of securing and defending these Colonies, and preserving them in safety against all attempts to carry the said acts into execution by force of arms, these Colonies be immediately put into a state of defence.”

May 27: Congress forms “a Committee to consider on ways and means to supply these Colonies with ammunition and military stores,” that consists of George Washington, Samuel Adams, New York’s Philip Schuyler, Connecticut’s Silas Deane, and Pennsylvania’s Thomas Mifflin and Robert Morris.

May 30: Congress receives a letter from Benedict Arnold, who is at Crown Point. He warns that 400 British regulars have assembled at Fort Saint-Jean in southern Canada, and he expects that these men, with the help of Indian forces, will attempt to retake Ticonderoga and Crown Point. Arnold asks for reinforcement and supplies.

Congress begins to provide direction to the war effort. They pass a resolution calling for Connecticut to provide men and New York to provide supplies for the defense of Ticonderoga and Crown Point.

June 3: There is a tacit acceptance of the need for a Continental Army under Congressional supervision and direction, as evidenced by two sources:

1. The secret journal of the Continental Congress records the passing of a resolution “That a committee be appointed for the purpose of borrowing the sum of six thousand pounds… [for] the purchase of gunpowder for the use of the continental army.” [emphasis added].

2. The New York delegates to the Continental Congress send a letter to the New York Provincial Congress, in which they state: “We think it an object of great consequence to know in whom you would wish to vest the command of the Continental Army [emphasis added] in our Province… As General Officers will, in all probability, be shortly appointed by this Congress...”

The reason why discussions about the army are prolonged is revealed in a letter of this date by Silas Deane to his wife: “The Congress, tho' not numerous, are yet a very unwieldly Body, in their very nature, as no motion or resolution can be started or proposed but what must be subject to much canvassing before it will pass with the unanimous approbation of Thirteen Colonies whose situation and circumstances are various. And Unanimity is the basis on which we mean to rise...”

June 9: The secret journal of the Continental Congress records the passing of a resolution calling for New York to convey 5,000 barrels of flour to “the continental army” [emphasis added] in Massachusetts. There is still no consensus on the more difficult questions, including who will lead the army.

June 14: This date will come to be regarded as the birth date of the Continental Army. A committee is formed “to prepare Rules and Regulations for the government of the army.” The committee consists of Washington, Schuyler, Deane, Massachusetts’ Thomas Cushing, and North Carolina’s Joesph Hewes.

Congress also undertakes the raising of troops with the following resolution:

Resolved, That six companies of expert riflemen be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia… That each company, as soon as completed, march and join the army near Boston…

“That the form of the inlistment be in the following words:

“I [blank] have this day voluntarily inlisted myself as a soldier in the American Continental Army [emphasis added] 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.”

One of the Virginia delegates writes, “Col. Washington has been pressed to take the supreme command of the American Troops... and I believe will accept the appointment, though with much reluctance...”

June 15: Congress appoints George Washington “to command all the Continental Forces, raised or to be raised for the defence of American liberty.” He formally accepts this appointment on the 16th.


Journal of the proceedings of the congress: held at Philadelphia, May 10, 1775.

Secret journals of the acts and proceedings of Congress, from the first meeting thereof to the dissolution of the Confederation, Vol 1.

Letters of members of the Continental Congress, Vol. 1.

Peter Force's American Archives.

No comments:

Post a Comment