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The Continental Army: Chapter VI

Infantry Regiment 27 May 1778
of the permanent light infantry company, the new regiment on paper was inferior to the old one as a battlefield force. Congress viewed these changes as important from a financial point of view, and also as acceptable compromises with the realities of recruiting revealed in 1777. Washington knew that the demonstrated lack of state support for a large army had negated the paper advantages of the 1776 regiment, and he grudgingly accepted the loss of tactical control, although he remained upset by Congress’ insistence on using line officers to perform staff duties outside the regiment.

The artillery regiment underwent less change. It gained a third second lieutenant for each company, but lost staff officers in a change that paralleled the change in the infantry regiment’s staff. Similar staff reductions took place in the light dragoon regiment. (Chart 9) Unlike the infantry regiment, the cavalry regiment expanded. Each troop gained 1 second lieutenant, 1 sergeant, 1 corporal, and 22 privates. On the other hand, the 4 regimental supernumeraries and the troop armorer were eliminated. The troop was now nearly double its 1777 size, with 4 officers and 64 enlisted men. The new regimental structure required 29 officers and 386 men. In Congress’ eyes this increase in the ratio of enlisted men to officers gave the mounted arm a more economical organization.

Congress waited for a lull in the 1778 campaign to carry out the conversion to the new regimental organizations, but its decisions, culminating in the 27 May resolution, had modified many of the concepts embodied in the previous winter’s decisions. To a certain extent its actions had simply acknowledged the practical impossibility of raising the large, long-term army that Washington had wanted. They also reflected some delegates’ continuing deep-seated suspicion of a standing army. The contrast between Gates’ success at Saratoga and Washington’s loss of Philadelphia was still fresh in their minds. They believed that Gates’ success derived from his use of a small Conti-

Light Dragoon Regiment 27 May 1778

nental cadre combined with a large militia force called out in response to the emergency. The reconstitution of the Board of War almost certainly had stemmed from the belief that his example could be followed. Washington stood off the board’s challenge to his leadership, but Congress did not accept his views on a number of issues important to his concept of a professional army. Although Congress followed his suggestion in recommending that the states institute a civilian recruiting system and a limited draft, for example, it also ordered cuts in the number of infantry units and in their size.

Foreign Advisers
The revised regimental structure adopted by Congress represented a movement toward the British model, but during the winter at Valley Forge, Washington decided to adopt certain characteristics of European military organization as well. He based his decisions not just on his reading of various military handbooks and his personal experience but also on the expert advice of a number of foreign volunteers who had joined the Army during 1777. The Continental Army’s engineer corps was the first to feel this impact, followed by the mounted arm. The creation of various specialized units also reflected Washington’s openness to new ideas.

Tradition in Europe allowed officers to serve in the armies of other nations to win glory, gain promotions, and taste adventure. In 1776 a number of individuals who

LOUIS LE BEGUE DE PRESLE DUPORTAIL (1743-1802) was a skilled French engineer “loaned” to the Continental Army. Ne reached the rank of major general after Yorktown and is regarded as the father of the Corps of Engineers. In 1791 when France adopted the tactical reforms proposed by Guibert, Duportail was serving as minister of war. (Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1782.)

came to America for these reasons claimed to have technical expertise in the artillery and engineer branches. Unfortunately, many were frauds who demanded high rank. Congress’ hope that Frenchmen could successfully recruit in Canada, and Germans in the German-American community, proved groundless. Since most were not fluent in English, they could not be assigned to line units. Frederick de Woedtke, a former Prussian officer, and Matthias-Alexis, Chevalier de La Rochefermoy, who both served in 1776 as brigadier generals in the Northern Department, were conspicuous failures.17

Silas Deane’s diplomatic mission to France in the summer of 1776 included hiring skilled professional soldiers as well as soliciting material assistance. On the advice of Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais and Jean Baptiste de Gribeauval (the leading artillery expert of the century), Deane contracted with one of the latter’s proteges, Philip Tronson du Coudray, to organize and lead a group of volunteers to America. Coudray, despite extravagant claims, was actually a military theorist whose rank was equivalent to that of an artillery major. Deane granted him a generous contract and the title of General of Artillery and Ordnance (with the rank of major general). The contract promised him a virtually free hand in artillery and engineer operations. His group arrived in America in the late spring of 1777. Congress commissioned two members, Thomas Conway and Philippe-Hubert, Chevalier de Preudhomme de Borre, brigadier generals; it commissioned Coudray as Inspector General of Ordnance and Military Manufactories. His accidental death on 15 September ended a controversy over rank that had erupted among American generals.18

17. Idzerda, Lafayette, 1:68-87. Chevalier Dubuisson des Hayes, an aide to Maj. Gen. Johannes de Kalb, described the first volunteers as “officers who are deeply in debt,” and added that some of them have been discharged from their units in Europe. He charged that the governors of the French West Indies had sent them to America with deliberately inflated credentials in order to be rid of them.
18. Force, American Archives, 5th ser., 1:1011-23; 2:283-85; Jonathan R. Dull, The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1789 (Princeton: Princeton university Press, 1975), pp. 30-49. Lafayette described Coudray as “a clever but imprudent man, a good officer but vain to the point of folly”, Idzerda, Lafayette, 1:11.

THADDEUS KOSCIUSZKO (1746-1817), a Pole trained as a military engineer in France, came to America in 1776 as a volunteer and became one of the most trusted members of the Corps of Engineers. He later led an unsuccessful revolution in his native land. (Portrait by Julian Rys, 1897.)

A second group of technical experts came to America through the efforts of the French Minister of War, the Comte de Saint-Germain. He formally “loaned” four military engineers to the Continental Army. In contrast to previous volunteers, these men were given contracts that called for promotions to a grade only one step higher than their French commissions, and Saint-Germain had carefully picked them for their skills. Their leader, Louis le Begue de Presle Duportail, was commissioned a colonel on 8 July 1777, and shortly thereafter he was given command over all engineers in the Army. He and his colleagues quickly unmasked Coudray’s claims to technical training as an engineer. Duportail’s obvious expertise and cooperative attitude led to his promotion on 17 November to brigadier general, a status equivalent to that of General Knox.19

A third contingent from France reached America in 1777. Led by the Marquis de Lafayette, Gilbert du Motier, and the Bavarian-born Johannes de Kalb, they were talented proteges of the Comte de Broglie, one of France’s top military commanders. Although Lafayette’s military experience was limited, his powerful political connections in the French Court led Deane to offer him a major general’s commission. De Kalb, an experienced officer in the French Army, received a similar offer. Deane promised them assignments in the infantry rather than in the technical services. By the time the group reached Philadelphia, however, the failure of some of the first volunteers and the controversy surrounding Coudray led to a cold reception by Congress and the Army. But Lafayette’s enthusiasm, their offer to serve as unpaid volunteers, and their demonstrated competence eventually earned most of these Frenchmen commissions.20

19. Elizabeth S. Kite, Brigadier-General Louis Lebegue Duportail, Commandant of Engineers in the Continental Army. 1777-1783 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, for the Institut Francais de Washington, 1933), pp. 2-34.
20. Idzerda, Lafayette, pp. xxiv-xxvi, 7-12, 17-18, 33-36, 53-56, 68-87, 145-50. Lafayette (1757-1834) held the rank in France of a cavalry captain in a reserve status, but as Kalb later commented, he was a gifted natural soldier.

The most immediate impact of foreign volunteers came in military engineering. There was no training available in America that could match that offered to British engineers at Woolwich, let alone that available in France where the science of military engineering was being perfected. Of the first foreign volunteers commissioned as engineers, only a young Polish captain, Andrew Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who had been trained in France, was qualified by European standards. Congress commissioned him a colonel of engineers on 18 October 1776.21 Washington then included a request for an organized corps of engineers in his plans for 1777, and Congress authorized him to form such a body on 27 December 1776. The shortage of proficient engineers, however, prevented any action. Col. Rufus Putnam chose to return to infantry duty in 1777, and a more cautious Congress halted the commissioning of untested volunteers. This decision left only Col. Jeduthan Baldwin, Kosciuszko, and a number of detailed infantry and artillery officers until Duportail’s group arrived at Philadelphia.22 With Duportail’s emergence as a trusted expert, for the first time the Army now could judge Europeans solely on professional merit. He secured the services of experienced men such as Jean de Murnan, whose career in the French Army had been blocked by Court intrigue.23

One of the first contributions of the engineers was a bridging train. On the night of 11-12 December 1777 they constructed two bridges over the Schuylkill River at Swede’s Ford. One consisted of a roadbed laid across floating rafts; the other, of thirty-six wagons placed in the shallow water of the ford with rails across them. The engineers later constructed more sophisticated flat-bottomed pontons with special wheeled carriages at Albany, and in 1781 these pontons accompanied the troops to Yorktown.24

A second major involvement was in the construction of permanent fortifications. After the defeats of 1777, Washington funneled available resources to the field army. He refortified only the Hudson Highlands to make the area the strategic pivot for the Main Army. From the winter of 1777-78 until the end of the war a large portion of the engineer corps worked on the fortress at West Point. Instead of a single large fort, which could be lost in one stroke, Duportail’s engineers erected a modern complex of smaller, mutually supporting works for in depth defense.25

At Valley Forge Duportail proposed to supplement the engineer officers with companies of combat engineers. Following European custom, he called them companies of sappers and miners. Sappers dug the entrenchments (saps) for a formal siege; miners constructed underground tunnels. These companies could execute small projects or supervise infantry details in more extensive undertakings. Washington particularly

21. JCC, 5:565, 614-15, 656; 6:888; Miecislaus Haiman, Kosciuszko in the American Revolution (New York: Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, 1943), pp. 1-11.
22. Force, American Archives, 5th ser., 2:549-50, 892-93; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 6:160-61; 7:102-6; 8:380-82; Baldwin, Revolutionary Journal, pp. 102-3; JCC, 8:380. Congress commissioned the Marquis de Fleury as a captain on 2 May 1777, but his was the only new engineer appointment made in the first half of 1777.
23. Burnett, Letters, 2:417-21; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 10:35; JCC, 8:571; 9:932; 13:57-58; Kite, Duportail, pp. 50-52. Duportail is considered the father of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
24. Amos Perry, ed., “Dr. Albigence Waldo, Surgeon in the Continental Army,” Historical Magazine 5 (1861):131; Enos Reeves, “Extracts From the Letter-Books of Lieutenant Enos Reeves, of the Pennsylvania Line,” ed. John B. Reeves, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 20 (1896):458-59; James Duncan, “Captain James Duncan’s Diary of the Siege of Yorktown,” ed. W.F. Boogher, Magazine of History 2 (1905):408.
25. Kite, Duportail, pp. 47-50, 60-72; Haiman, Kosciuszko, pp. 43-47; Fitzpatrick, Writings, 11:297-98.

liked Duportail’s plan to train their officers as apprentice engineers, thus ensuring for the first time a steady supply of native-born engineers. Congress approved the formation of three companies on 27 May 1778, but the Army moved slowly. Washington appointed officers on 2 August 1779, after Duportail had personally interviewed the candidates, and Washington transferred carefully selected enlisted men from infantry regiments a year later. Each company was authorized a captain, 3 lieutenants, 4 sergeants, 4 corporals, and 60 privates.26

Congress took the final step to regularize the engineers on 11 March 1779. In response to Washington’s continuing pressure, it resolved “that the engineers in the service of the United States shall be formed into a corps, styled the ‘corps of engineers,’ and shall take rank and enjoy the same rights, honours, and privileges, with the other troops on continental establishment.”27 This legislation gave the engineers the status of a branch of the Continental Army. They received the same pay and prerogatives as artillerymen to prevent any jealousy between the technical branches. As commandant, Duportail supervised the engineer officers and the companies of sappers and miners, functioned as a special adviser to the Commander in Chief, and assigned individual officers to specific posts before the start of each campaign.28

France provided a precedent for a separate topographical section. Following the Seven Years’ War, France had begun rigorously training a small corps of topographical engineers, the Ingenieurs Geographes (distinct from the Corps Royal du Genie). They prepared a systematic map reference library for planning operations.29 As a former surveyor, Washington particularly understood the value of accurate maps. On 19 July 1777 he asked for a topographical staff; six days later Congress told him to appoint a “geographer and surveyor of the roads, to take sketches of the country, the seat of war,” as well as necessary subordinates. Robert Erskine accepted the job but did not report to headquarters until June 1778.

Erskine, a Scot who had migrated to New Jersey in 1771, was a civil engineer and inventor. Until he died of pneumonia on 2 October 1780, Erskine coordinated up to six survey teams from his home at Ringwood Forge near West Point. He and his successors transformed the collected raw data into a comprehensive survey of the zone of operations of the Main Army. The resulting maps equaled those of the French in accuracy and were vastly superior to anything available to British commanders.30

On 15 September 1777 Congress answered Washington’s long-standing request for a cavalry commander on a par with Knox. He had been hoping to find another for-

26. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 10:433; 11:239; 12:40, 241, 311; 14:235; 15:103, 491-92; 16:36; 17:443-45; 19:224; JCC, 11:541-42; 16:133; Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle: Being a Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, ed. George F. Scheer (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1962), pp. 194-96. The British Royal Military Artificers were not formed until 1787.
27. JCC, 13:305-6.
28. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 12:376-77; 14:160-61; 16:21-23, 37, 46-48; JCC, 14:570-71; Kite, Duportail, pp. 125-31
29. J. B. Hawley, Barbara Bartz Petchenik, and Lawrence W. Tower, eds., Mapping the American Revolutionary War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 32-36, 68-75; Howard C. Rice, Jr., and Anne S. K. Brown, eds., The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army: 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, 2 vols. (Princeton and Providence: Princeton and Brown University Presses, 1972), 1:191-219; 2:3-5, 111-20.
30. Fitzpatrick, Writings, 7:65; 8:372, 443, 495-96; 11:246; 12:21; 14:182-83; 23:68-69; JCC, 8:580; 18:1118; 20:475-76, 738. The maps are in the Erskine-DeWitt Collection, New-York Historical Society. British Headquarters Maps are in the Henry Clinton Papers, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan; photostatic copies are available at the New-York Historical Society. Simeon DeWitt succeeded Erskine in the north, as Thomas Hutchings did in the south.