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The Continental Army: Chapter VI

New Influences From Europe

The winter encampment at Valley Forge was an extremely important period in the development of the Continental Army. Despite numerous problems, for the first time in the war the Army enjoyed a winter free from the need to recruit and reorganize most of the regiments. Congress and military leaders used this time to review the campaign of 1777 and to debate reforms to improve the Army’s battlefield performance. One group advocated a return to two centuries of Anglo-American experience; a second sought inspiration from European, particularly French, professional soldiers and military theory. Over the next year and a half parts of each group’s program were adopted, but a preponderance of reforms came from new European ideas. This period witnessed the gradual transformation of the Continental Army into a professional fighting force.

Valley Forge
When in September 1776 Congress approved raising an army to serve for the duration of the war, it broke with the militia tradition without serious debate because the military commanders insisted that such a force was necessary to win victory. Three months later the delegates approved a larger force for the same reason. On the other hand, Congress expected such a permanent army to win victories. The Main Army did not do so in 1777, but Gates’ army won a smashing victory with the assistance of large militia forces. Policy debates during the winter of 1777-78 over a number of related issues revealed two basic interpretations of the lessons of the 1777 campaign. Some delegates, supported by one contingent of army leaders, pressed for a return to the ideals of 1776. They cited Saratoga as proof that their program, which put less reliance on a large standing army, would produce results. Washington, most of the senior officers, and other delegates felt that the transformation of 1777 was correct, and they sought to improve on it. The central issues debated during the winter related to the overall direction of military affairs, the professionalization of the officer corps, and the size of the army. Neither faction won complete endorsement for its position, and tensions ran high.1

The first question concerned the Board of War. The original board, a standing committee of Congress, simply could not keep pace with the volume of work, and as early as April 1777 it had recommended its own replacement by a permanent administrative body. On 17 October 1777 the delegates approved a plan that called for a

1. Information on the general political and ideological context is contained in Henderson, Party Politics, pp. 54, 102-5, 118-24; White, “Standing Armies,” pp. 199-201, 207, 224-61, 277-78.

Board of War consisting of three permanent members plus a clerical staff. Congress also expanded its duties. In addition to the administrative functions of its predecessor, the new board’s responsibilities included supervising recruitment, managing prisoners, and producing weapons. It was to act as Congress’ sole official intermediary in dealing with the Army and the states on military affairs. On 7 November Quartermaster General Thomas Mifflin, Adjutant General Timothy Pickering, and Robert Hanson Harrison, Washington’s military secretary, were elected as members, although Harrison promptly declined.2

Mifflin was the first to report, and he immediately took an active role. The fact that reorganizing the Quartermaster’s Department was one of the Board of War’s first tasks contributed substantially to Mifflin’s early influence. He persuaded Congress to expand the board to five members, which it did on 24 November, and recommended Richard Peters (the permanent secretary of the old board) and Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates for the new vacancies. Congress appointed both men and named former Commissary General Joseph Trumbull to replace Harrison. At Mifflin’s suggestion, Gates was named president of the board. He retained both his rank and his right to field command. These five men brought with them the staff expertise that Congress wanted the board to have, but none were members of Washington’s inner circle.3

When Gates arrived at York, Pennsylvania, in January to take up his new duties, the memory of his victory at Saratoga remained with various delegates and Army officers.4 He also knew that Congress had initiated investigations into the loss of forts in the Highlands and along the Delaware River and had openly criticized Washington for his failure to confiscate supplies in Pennsylvania to keep them out of enemy hands.5 Prodded by some delegates, Mifflin, and a handful of disgruntled officers, Gates began trying to convert the Board of War into an agency with control of military operations.

In October 1777 Col. Moses Hazen had suggested to Gates that a small force could capitalize on the Saratoga victory by attacking Montreal that winter when ice would neutralize British warships on Lake Champlain; a larger force could then complete the conquest of Canada in the spring. Brig. Gen. John Stark independently convinced Congress to authorize a small raid by militia volunteers on the Lake Champlain naval base at St. John’s. Gates, working through the Board of War, persuaded Congress in January to authorize an “irruption” into Canada along the lines suggested by Hazen, and to place the board in complete control of the operation. At Gates’ suggestion, Congress named the Marquis de Lafayette, who had been commissioned a major general in July, to command the expedition, assisted by Maj. Gen. Thomas Conway, General Stark, and Colonel Hazen.6

Conway, an Irish veteran of the French Army, became known as a critic of Washington during the late fall. On 13 December Congress had promoted him, over a number of more senior brigadier generals, to major general and had named him an

2. JCC, 7:241-42; 8:474n, 563; 9:809-11, 818-20, 874, 936, 971; Burnett, Letters, 2:52.
3. JCC, 9:941, 959-63, 971-72; Burnett, Letters, 2:574-76; Pennsylvania Archives, 1st ser., 6:35.
4. Gates Papers (James Lovell to Gates, 5 Oct and 27 Nov 77; Joseph Reed to Gates, 30 Oct 77; James Wilkinson to Gates, 4 Nov 77; Eliphalet Dyer to Gates, 5 Nov 77; Thomas Conway to Gates, 11 Nov 77; Mifflin to Gates, 17 and 27 Nov 77).
5. JCC, 9:972, 975-76, 1013-15.
6. Gates Papers (Hazen to Gates, 26 Oct 77; James Duane to Gates, 16 Dec 77; Gates to Col John Greaton, 28 Dec 77); JCC, 9:999-1001; 10:84-85, 87; Burnett, Letters, 3:124-30; Stanley J. Idzerda et al., eds., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977- ), 1:xxiv-xxvi, 169-72, 204-7, 213-18, 245-385.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquid de Lafayette

MARIE-PAUL-JOSEPH-ROCH-YVES-GILBERT DU MOTHER, MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE (1757-1834) was only a supernumerary cavalry captain in the French Army when he came to America as a volunteer in 1777. He demonstrated exceptional leadership as a youthful Continental Army major general. (Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1781.)

Inspector General. Conway planned to turn his new office into the field agency of the president of the Board of War, but Washington effectively froze him out of any role within the Main Army.7 Gates selected Lafayette in effect to be a French figurehead for the Canadian invasion; he expected that Conway would be the de facto commander. Lafayette, however, refused to participate in any activity that might undermine Washington’s authority as Commander in Chief; he insisted that Conway be removed and that orders from Congress concerning the expedition pass through Washington rather than through the board. He threatened to return to France if his demands were not met. This strong support for Washington had the desired effect, and Congress canceled the invasion on 2 March.8

The termination of the Canadian “irruption” and a related congressional airing and dismissal of Conway’s criticisms of Washington ended the challenge to Washington’s leadership of the Army. Conway submitted his resignation in a ploy to bolster his status, but Congress quickly accepted it. Gates, realizing that he lacked both the Commander in Chief’s support and the strength to unseat him, abandoned the presidency of the board and returned to his field command in the north. When Mifflin was pressured into resigning on 17 August 1778, the Board of War reverted to a purely administrative role. These decisions solidified Washington’s authority as the single voice of the Army on matters of policy.9

7. Fitzpatrick. Writings, 9:387-90; 10:39, 226-28, 236-37; JCC, 9:1026; Gates Papers (Conway to Gates, 1 Nov 77 and 4 Jan 78).
8. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 11:113-14; JCC, 10:107, 216-17, 253-54; Burnett, Letters, 3:63-65; McDougall Papers (Greene to McDougall, 5 Feb 78).
9. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 10:236-37, 410-11; 11:493-94; 14:383-86; JCC, 10:399; 11:520, 802; Burnett’ Letters, 3:20-25, 2~31, 39-40, 42, 48, 141-42, 209-11, 487-89; Gates Papers (Mifflin to Gates, 28 Nov 77; Gates to Washington, 8 Dec 77, 23 Jan and 17 Feb 78; to congress, it Dec 77; Walter Stewart to Gates, 12 Feb 78; Pickering to Gates, 26 Aug 78); McDougall, Papers (Greene to McDougall, 25 Jan and 16 Apr 78; Varnum to McDougall, 7 Feb 78; McDougall to Greene, 14 Feb 78); S. Weir Mitchell, ed., “Historical Notes of Dr. Benjamin Rush, 1777,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 27 (1903):147; John Laurens, The Army Correspondence of Colonel John Laurens in the Years 1777-78 (New York: Bradford Club, 1867), pp. 80-88, 98-101.


Benedict Arnold's oath of allegiance

OATH OF ALLEGIANCE OF BENEDICT ARNOLD. On 3 February 1778 Congress required all members of the Continental Army to sign an oath acknowledging support of national independence. This was an effort to weed Loyalist sympathizers out of the military. Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s oath was witnessed on 30 May 1778 by Brig. Gen. Henry Knox at the Artillery Park at Valley Forge.

Washington asserted his restored position by answering congressional objections to improving the professional conditions of the officer corps. During the winter of 1777-78 a large number of officers were leaving the Continental Army because they could no longer afford the financial losses connected with service. An officer who wished to leave the British Army could sell his commission (under government supervision) and use the proceeds as retirement income; officers involuntarily retired in Army reductions drew half pay. Washington and his senior advisers believed that similar programs were needed in the Continental Army if it was to attract able officers in a time of inflation and other economic problems. Members of Congress with ideological objections to standing armies, however, strenuously opposed such measures as half pay, which they felt would create “a set of haughty idle imperious Scandalizers of industrious Citizens and Farmers.”10

On 10 January 1778 Congress decided to send a Committee of Conference to Valley Forge to discuss matters relating to efficiency and economy in the Army, including the question of officers’ compensation. The committee’s proponents wanted it to con-

10. Burnett, Letters, 3:31-33; see also 2:585-86; 3:34, 153-56; McDougall Papers (Greene to McDougall, 25 Jan 78); Albigence Waldo, “Valley Forge, 1777-78. Diary of Surgeon Albigence Waldo, of the Connecticut Line,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 21 (1897):314. Henderson, Party Politics, pp. 102-4, 120-24; White, “Standing Armies,” pp. 277-78.

sist of three members of the Board of War and three delegates, but when the political tide turned against the board, the committee drew its membership exclusively from delegates. Under the leadership of Francis Dana and Gouverneur Morris, the committee held extensive discussions with Washington and his advisers between 28 January and 12 March and in effect filled the policy-setting role that Gates and Mifflin had planned for the Board of War. The committee’s reports and recommendations to Congress largely echoed Washington’s position and formed the basis for numerous reforms enacted during the winter and spring. On 1 April Congress rejected the committee’s endorsement of half pay and peacetime sale of commissions, but it then spent six weeks attempting to find an alternative. Washington lobbied hard in support of the committee, arguing that the Army’s sufferings at Valley Forge proved its loyalty to the civilian government. He won support for a compromise on 15 May. Officers serving to the end of the war were promised seven years of half pay; enlisted men, a lump-sum payment of eighty dollars.11

The committee at camp had a second major objective: reconciling the large size of the Army approved in the 1776 resolves with the manpower realities of the 1777 campaign. Most regiments had started that campaign below full strength, and losses had forced Washington to issue muskets to sergeants and junior officers to augment the fire of the rank and file. In contrast to the shortages of enlisted men, there were nearly full complements of officers in most regiments. Washington’s suggested solution was the institution of a civilian recruiting system and a limited draft. Congress lacked the legal power to enforce such systems, but it did recommend them to the individual states. The delegates, convinced now that 110 regiments could not be filled, directed the committee at camp to look for ways to reduce quotas to realistic levels, consolidate units, and eliminate surplus officers.12

By the beginning of February 1778, when the committee at camp was well into its work, most of the continentals were with the Main Army. Every state except Georgia and South Carolina had sent units to Washington. The 1st Continental Artillery remained in its home state of Virginia, and the equivalent of three brigades were in the Highlands or in the Northern Department. All remaining Continental units, a force that should have numbered over 60,000 men, were at Valley Forge or its outposts. Washington had 15 brigades directly under his command at Valley Forge plus 2 others that were wintering at Wilmington, Delaware. Portions of 3 artillery regiments also were at Valley Forge, and the 4 light dragoon regiments were occupying Trenton. The infantrymen of the 15 brigades included 64 field, 720 company, and 206 staff officers; 931 sergeants; 642 drummers and fifers; and 17,491 rank and file. Only 7,600 rank and file were completely fit for duty, and a third of those were detached for various purposes. Almost 5,000 were sick, 1,100 were on furlough, and 3,700 healthy men lacked either shoes or clothes and could not participate in combat. The artillery contingent contained 117 officers and 810 men; the cavalry, 70 officers and 438 mends

11. JCC, 10:39-41, 67, 285-86, 300-301; 11:502-3; Burnett, Letters, 3:61-115, 123-24, 131, 160-63, 212-13, 219-21, 244-45, 255-56; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 11:285-86, 290-92, 415; Max M. Mintz, Gouverneur Morris and the American Revolution (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), pp. 91-101.
12. JCC, 8:593-95, 670; 9:930; 10:39-40; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 8:440; 9:365-67, 406-7; 10:125-26, 153, 195, 197-98, 205, 221-25; 11:236-40; “Plan for a Re-Organization of the Continental Army,” Historical Magazine, 2d ser., 3 (1868):270-73.
13. RG 93, National Archives (General Return, Main Army, 9 Feb 78).


The committee thus found a Main Army with only about a third of its authorized strength.

The committee members held extensive discussions with Washington and his senior advisers before reporting back to Congress. The press of other business prevented that body from implementing substantive reforms before the 1778 campaign started, although on 26 February it recommended, as an interim measure, that the states institute a recruiting program that included using nine-month drafts to fill the quotas. In a sense this decision marked a temporary retreat from the ideal of an Army composed exclusively of long-service soldiers. Congress also reduced Rhode Island’s quota for the campaign to the equivalent of a single full regiment and Pennsylvania’s to ten regiments.14

Comprehensive legislation came in May and involved a revision of the basic tables of organization for the various types of regiments. This resolve of 27 May 1778 reduced the number of regiments and especially the number of officers in each regiment, and made several other changes.15 Perhaps the most basic of these reforms concerned the infantry regiment. After rejecting a radically different organizational model suggested by Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, Congress adopted a structure which moved toward the British regimental model.16 (Chart 8) Each regiment gained a ninth company as a permanent light infantry company, but the total number of regimental officers declined from 40 to 29 and enlisted strength fell from 692 to 553. Through attrition each regiment was to eliminate its colonel and operate with only two field officers. This change would simplify prisoner of war exchanges since the British colonel was not a combat officer. Another major area of reduction was the staff, where the adjutant, quartermaster, and paymaster ceased to be separate positions. Subalterns from line companies assumed the duties of the first two offices as additional tasks, while one of the captains, elected by the unit’s officers, became paymaster as well. All three received extra compensation.

Within each company one lieutenant’s position disappeared, and several captains lost their positions as the field officers assumed command of companies. If a regiment still had a colonel, the senior lieutenant, as captain-lieutenant, exercised practical control over his company. Each company also lost a sergeant and a corporal from the organization approved in 1776. Privates were cut by a third, from 76 to 53. The rank and file strength, the true power of the company, fell from 80 to 56. If a regiment retained its light company, it now deployed for combat with a bayonet strength of 504 out of a total of 582. This 87 percent figure was roughly the same as in the previous structure. Normally, however, the light company was detached, and the bayonet strength then dropped to 448, roughly on a par with a British regiment.

Congress had created a regiment which would cost less than the 1776 regiment, but it was only 70 percent as strong. Its combat efficiency was even lower since 2 or 3 of the companies had only 2 officers, and the reduced staff no longer furnished a pool of spare officers to replace casualties during the heat of combat. Except for the addition

14. JCC, 10:199-203.
15. Ibid., 11:538-43, 570, 633-34; 12:1154-60; Burnett, Letters, 3:264-66, 407, 431-32; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 11:475-76; 12:30-35, 60-62, 274-75; Idzerda, Lafayette, 1:284-85.
16. Lee, Papers, 2:382-89; JCC, 11:514-15. Lee’s plan was based on the “legion” advocated by Marshal Maurice de Saxe. An earlier version of the plan is contained in Webb, Correspondence and Journals, 1:84-87.