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The Continental Army, Chapter I

The Army of Observation:
New England in Arms

On 19 April 1775 local Massachusetts militiamen and regular British troops began the War of American Independence at Lexington and Concord. The New England colonists reacted to this news by raising four separate armies. Each jurisdiction formed its force according to its particular experience in earlier wars and its individual interpretation of European military developments over the previous century. The speed of the American response stemmed from a decade of tension and from the tentative preparations for possible armed conflict that the colonists had made during the preceding months. The concentration of four separate armed forces at Boston under loose Massachusetts hegemony as a de facto regional army paved the way for establishing a national Continental Army.

Warfare in the Eighteenth Century
The Continental Army was the product of European military science, but like all institutions developed by the American colonists, its European origins had been modified by the particular conditions of American experience. A proper appreciation of that Army in the context of its own times thus requires an understanding not only of the general developments in the military art of western civilization during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but also of the particular martial traditions and experiences of the English colonists in North America.

In the seventeenth century Europeans developed a new range of weapons and gradually introduced them into their armies. At the same time a wave of dynastic wars in western Europe led to the creation of increasingly larger forces serving nation-states. Commanders and leading military theoreticians spent most of the eighteenth century developing organizational structures and tactical doctrines to exploit the potential of the new weapons and armies. The full impact of these changes came at the end of that century.1

1. The basic sources for this section are as follows: David Chandler, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1976); Christopher Duffy, The Army of Frederick the Great (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1974); Robert S. Quimby, The Background of Napoleonic Warfare: The Theory of Military Tactics in Eighteenth Century France (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957); Richard Glover, Peninsular Preparation: The Reform of the British Army. 1795-1809 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963); and Oliver Lyman Spaulding, Jr., Hoffman Nickerson, and John Womack Wright, Warfare: A Study of Military Methods From the Earliest Times (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1925).

During the seventeenth century, the firearm replaced the pike as the basic infantry weapon. The original firearm, a heavy matchlock musket, suffered from several serious defects as a military weapon: it was cumbersome; reloading was long and complicated; the chance of misfire was extremely high, particularly in damp weather; and the lit match required to ignite the gunpowder charge betrayed positions in the dark. These defects, particularly at close quarters, required a proportion of each unit to carry pikes for defense against an attack by enemy cavalry or pikemen.

A technological breakthrough occurred in the second half of the century with the introduction of a new firing mechanism. It relied on the spark produced by a piece of flint striking a steel plate to touch off the propellant charge. Although still susceptible to moisture, the flintlock musket was lighter and more wieldy than its predecessor, had a higher rate of fire, and was easier to maintain. Late in the century, development of the socket bayonet complemented the flintlock musket. The bayonet, a foot-long triangular blade which slipped around the muzzle of the musket without blocking it, transformed the firearm into a pole weapon. The transition to the musket and bayonet combination gradually eliminated the need for defensive pikemen, who disappeared from most western European armies by the end of the first decade of the eighteenth century. Standardized flintlocks appeared shortly thereafter.

Whether produced at government arsenals or by private contractors, all eighteenth century muskets were inaccurate. Weighing over ten pounds and with a barrel over a yard long, they were difficult to aim. Flints tended to wear out after only twenty rounds, and even under ideal conditions the effective range of these smoothbore weapons, which fired one-ounce balls (two-thirds to three-quarters of an inch in diameter), was only about one hundred yards. An average soldier under the stress of combat could fire three rounds a minute for short periods, but he required considerable training to accomplish this feat. Since care in reloading was a major factor influencing accuracy, only the first round loaded before combat began was completely reliable.

New tactical formations and doctrine between 1688 and 1745 took advantage of these new weapons. The emergence of the infantry as a major factor on the battlefield gained momentum from the growing importance of firepower. Beginning with the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-14), generals sought literally to blast the enemy off the field with concentrated fire delivered at close range. They moved away from the massed formations which had characterized the era of the pike and adopted a deployment in long lines (linear tactics); by mid-century infantrymen in nearly every army stood three-deep to bring a maximum number of muskets into play. The critical firefight took place at ranges of between fifty and one hundred yards.

These weapons and tactics required adjustments in organization. Since the sixteenth century the regiment had formed the basic component of an army, providing administrative and tactical control over a group of companies. The need for better fire control in battle led to many complicated experiments. Ultimately, every army turned to a more manageable subelement, the platoon, whose fire could be controlled by a handful of officers and noncommissioned officers. Coordinating the actions of a number of these basic elements of fire (normally eight) produced the battalion, the basic element of maneuver. Most regiments were composed of two or more battalions, except in the British Army, where the regiment and battalion were normally synonymous. The relationship between the company (an administrative entity) and the platoon varied, but by the end of the century most armies were making them interchangeable.

Filled with rank and file trained to fire in unison at areas rather than individual targets, these units constituted the latest advances in organization at the time of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63).

A second development during the eighteenth century was improved handling of armies on the battlefield. At the beginning of the century, armies marched overland in massed formation and took hours to deploy into line of battle. A commander who felt at a disadvantage refused battle and marched away or took refuge in fortifications. Engagements normally occurred when both generals wanted to fight. Several reforms were introduced to force battle on an unwilling opponent. The cadenced march step and standardized drill maneuvers sought to reduce the time needed to deploy and the confusion associated with forming a line of battle. These changes also allowed a commander to adjust his formations to the changing flow of a battle without risking total disruption of his ranks. Brigades and divisions controlled the movements of several battalions and increasingly became semipermanent.

Mobile field artillery also emerged in the eighteenth century. While heavy cannon continued to be important for fortresses and sieges, lighter guns were introduced to give direct support to the infantry. Standardized calibers eased administrative and logistical problems. Ballistics experts and metallurgists reduced the weight of the tubes, while others improved carriages. The French emerged with the best of the new artillery after reforms in 1764 by General Jean Baptiste de Gribeauval, an experienced combat officer and able theoretician. The new mobility enabled tacticians to consider artillery as a supporting arm whose function was firing at enemy personnel instead of engaging in artillery duels. In nearly every European army the artillery became a separate armed service, legally distinct from the infantry and cavalry.

The army which naturally exercised the greatest influence on the American colonies was the British. Great Britain enjoyed a unique status among the great powers during this period because its strong navy gave it security from attack by its neighbors. One consequence was that the British Army at first lagged behind the other European armies in adopting the reforms of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but by the time of the Seven Years’ War, it had adopted the major ones. In fact, it had led the way in introducing many techniques of infantry fire control. Its slow and ad hoc growth as an institution, however, had produced an inefficient and extremely complex administrative and logistical superstructure. Authority and responsibility were divided between two major Army commands (the British and Irish Establishments), between the Army proper and the Ordnance Department (controlling artillery, engineers, and munitions), and between the civilian Secretary at War and the military Commander in Chief (when that office was filled). Strategic direction was shared by two or three civilian Secretaries of State. At times the various individuals responsible for these chains of command cooperated, and the system functioned well. However, when breakdowns occurred, the British Army appeared leaderless and inept.2

Colonial Military Experience
English military institutions formed part of the cultural inheritance which the first colonists brought to America. Immigrants and occasional contact with the British

2. Glover, Peninsular Preparation, pp. 2, 12.

Army kept the colonists informed about newer developments. The most important of the inherited institutions was the militia, which dated back to Anglo-Saxon times, but the specific conditions of colonial settlement produced important modifications. Other variations crept in as the defensive needs of the colonies began to outstrip the capabilities of the militia.

The Tudors had revived the English militia in the sixteenth century as an inexpensive alternative to a large permanent army. They used the traditional universal obligation to serve in the defense of the realm as a basis for sustaining a body of voluntary “trained bands.” The members of the general population acted as a reserve force through their possession of arms, and various fines levied on them in relation to their obligations furnished financial support for the trained bands. The county lords lieutenant provided organization, geographical identity, and central direction.3

The first settlements in Virginia, Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Connecticut all recruited professional soldiers to act as military advisers. The colonists recognized from the beginning that both the Indians and England’s European rivals posed potential threats. The Jamestown trading post organized itself into a virtual regimental garrison, complete with companies and squads. Plymouth, on the advice of Miles Standish, organized four companies of militia within two years of its founding. The Massachusetts Bay Colony profited from the experiences of the earlier settlements. In 1629 its first expedition left England for Salem with a militia company already organized and equipped with the latest weapons.

During the course of the seventeenth century the colonists adapted the English militia system to meet their own particular needs. Several regional patterns emerged. In the Chesapeake Bay area a plantation economy took root, leading to dispersed settlement. Virginia and Maryland formed their militia companies from all the residents of a particular area. In New England religion and a different economy led to a town-based residential system. Each town formed one or more militia companies as soon as possible after establishing its local government. South Carolina had a plantation economy, but its settlers came from Barbados and brought a large slave population with them. Its militia followed the example of Barbados and placed a heavy emphasis on controlling the slaves. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, did not pass a law establishing a mandatory militia until 1777. The differences in the militia establishments among these colonies in part explain later variations in organizing units for the Continental Army in 1775-76.

Growth in each colony soon led to innovations. In Massachusetts, for example, an excess of noncommissioned officers over European norms allowed for forming subordinate elements, or “demi-companies,” which received a field test in a 1635 punitive expedition against Indians on Block Island. When the colony then grouped its fifteen

3. Unless otherwise noted, this section is based on the studies of colonial militias listed in the bibliography and on the following: Darrett A. Rutman, “A Militant New World, 1607-1640: America’s First Generation, Its Martial Spirit, Its Tradition Of Arms, Its Militia Organization, Its wars” (Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1959); Patrick Mitchell Malone, “Indian and English Military Systems in New England in the Seventeenth century (Ph.D. diss., Brown university, 1971); John W. Shy, “A New Look at Colonial Militia,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 20 (1963):175-85; Timothy Breen, “English Origins and New World Development: The case of the Covenanted Militia in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts,” Past and Present 57 (1972):74-96; Douglas Edward Leach, Arms for Empire: A Military History of the British Colonies in North America. 1607-1763 (New York: Macmillan Co., 1973); and Howard H. Peckham, The Colonial Wars, 1689-1762 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).

companies into three regional regiments in December 1636, it became the first English-speaking government to adopt permanent regiments. Other colonies followed: Maryland and Plymouth in 1658, Virginia in 1666, and Connecticut in 1672. Standing regiments appeared in the English Army only in the 1640’s.

Another modification of the European heritage occurred in the choice of weapons. Wilderness conditions accentuated the flintlock musket’s advantages. By 1675 nearly every colony required its militiamen to own flintlocks rather than matchlocks: American armies thus completed this transition a quarter of a century before European armies. Many colonists hunted, but few had ever fought in a formal line of battle. Militia training consequently stressed individual marksmanship rather than massed firing at an area, which had been the norm in the Old World. A specific byproduct of this emphasis was the refinement of the rifle—a hunting weapon with German roots—by gunsmiths in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania rifle was longer than the standard musket but had a smaller bore (usually .45-caliber). Grooves, or rifling, cut into the barrel imparted spin to the ball and allowed a trained marksman to hit targets at up to 400 yards. As a military weapon the rifle was effective in skirmishing, but its slow rate of fire and lack of a bayonet placed riflemen at a disadvantage in open terrain.

By the eighteenth century the colonial militia, like the English trained bands, was armed with flintlocks and was organized geographically. The southern colonies with one regiment per county were closest to the “shire” system; the more densely populated northern colonies normally formed several regiments in each county. Most colonies gave both administrative and command responsibilities to the colonel of each regiment and dispensed with the office of county lieutenant. Local elites in both the mother country and America dominated the militia officer positions, whether elected or appointed, just as they controlled all other aspects of society. Ultimate responsibility for the militia was a function of the Crown. In England it was exercised for the Crown by the county lords lieutenant; in America, by the governor. The financial powers of the elective lower houses of the colonial legislatures, however, placed major limits on a governor’s prerogatives.

The biggest difference between the English trained bands and the colonial militia was the latter’s more comprehensive membership. Few free adult males were exempted by law from participating: the clergy, some conscientious objectors, and a handful of other special groups. This situation was the result of the first settlers’ immediate need for local defense, a need absent in England since the days of the Spanish Armada. But in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the danger to the more settled regions subsided. Although a militia structure based on an area’s total male population was an admirable goal for local defense, taking the men for military service disrupted a colony’s economy during extended crises or lengthy offensives. As other institutions emerged, the militia was left as “a local training center and a replacement pool, a country selective service system and a law enforcing agency, an induction camp and a primitive supply depot.”4

As early as the 1620’s in Virginia and in the 1630’s during the Pequot War in New England, temporary detachments were drawn from the militia companies for field operations against the Indians. Volunteers or drafted quotas formed the detachments. This expedient practice minimized economic dislocation and concentrated field lead-

4. Louis Morton, “The Origins of American Military Policy,” Military Affairs 22 (1958):80.