The Continental Army was a group of soldiers under the command of Gen. George Washington. This nationally organized body of men was distinct from the state militias that provided a substantial proportion of the American army’s manpower. Throughout the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army stood around 230,000 strong, while the state militias could count around 164,000 men, although only 20,000 men were actively fighting at any one time.
Washington commanded the Continental Army from June 1775 to the end of the war in 1783. Virginia-born Washington had gained plenty of military experience during the French and Indian War of 1754, while he had also previously worked as a surveyor, giving him and appreciation of the uses, advantages and disadvantages of any landscape. His role as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army was ratified by the Second Continental Congress on June 15, 1775.
The original Continental Army was made up of the New England army then besieging Boston. The Second Congressional Congress co-opted this force as the new U.S. army and ordered that 10 companies of riflemen be recruited from other states -- six from Pennsylvania, two from Maryland and two from Virginia. This would provide the nucleus for the much larger force that developed as the war continued. Many of the soldiers came from agricultural backgrounds and were poorly trained, poorly paid, unused to military discipline and reluctant to leave their farms for extended periods.
Washington developed tactics to take advantage of the opportunities available to his armies. His plan had three elements, according to David C. Hanson of Virginia Western Community College. Firstly, he aimed to maintain a strong army and navy and avoid positions where his soldiers were outnumbered and could be trapped and captured or killed. Secondly, and linked to the first element, his men would not hesitate to retreat if that was the best option open to them. The third element of his plan involved using small mobile forces to harass, confuse and distract the British.
The army’s first two battles resulted in one loss and one victory. At Ticonderoga in May 1775, a group of soldiers from Vermont captured a British fort and seized 100 cannons, but a month later the British seized Bunker Hill and Breeds Hill outside Boston from the colonists. In 1776, the army suffered two serious defeats at Long Island and Manhattan but rallied with two victories at Trenton and Princeton. American morale hit a low in 1780 with defeats at Charleston and South Carolina but in October 1781, the British were forced to concede defeat at Yorktown, where Washington accepted British commander Gen. Cornwallis’ surrender.
- Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery: From Revolution to Constitution
- White House: George Washington
- University of Washington Department of History: US History Timeline Wars of Independence
- “The United States Army: Issues, Background and Bibliography”; George D. Bennett; 2002.
- Virginia Western Community College: The War For Independence
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