Continental Army

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Continental Army

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851.jpg

George Washington crosses the Delaware December 25, 1776
Emanuel Leutze (1851)
active June 15, 1775 to June 2, 1784
Country Flag of the United States (1777-1795) .svg Thirteen colonies of United States
United States 13United States 
Wars American War of Independence
Commander in chief
commander George Washington
Seal of the United States Board of War and Ordnance (1778)
Various independent companies ( Independent Companies ), adjustment to 1775
Different units, adjustment around 1776
Commander-in-Chief, Adjutant and Line Officers, adjustment around 1779
Infantry , adjustment 1779–1783
Artillery , adjustment 1777–1783
Light infantry , adjustment around 1782
Infantry and artillery, adjustment around 1783
African-American soldier of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment

Continental Army ( English Continental Army ) was the collective term for operating under a unified command contingents of the Thirteen Colonies , which in the American War of Independence against the army of the Kingdom of Great Britain fought. The army was set up by a resolution of the Continental Congress on June 15, 1775, its commander in chief was George Washington . In addition, the militias of the individual colonies were also used in the war of independence.

Most of the Continental Army was disbanded on November 3, 1783 after the Peace of Paris . A small part of West Point and some border outposts remained until Congress, by resolution of June 3, 1784, established the United States Army .


Formation of the army

Democratic theory often thwarted military practice in the American colonies. The Republican politicians had great reservations about the regular military. A standing army was needed on the one hand to achieve independence, but on the other hand it was feared that it would then pose a serious threat to the newly won freedom. Many equated their own soldiers with the British red coats. These fears flowed a. also in the Virginia Bill of Rights (Article 13):

“A well-ordered militia, formed from the masses of the people and trained in armed service, is the appropriate, natural and safe protection of a free state; standing armies should be avoided in times of peace as dangerous to freedom; In any case, the military should be strictly subordinated to and controlled by civil authority. "

One has therefore always endeavored to let the military commanders feel the supremacy of Congress and the civil governments in order to be able to play them off against one another. This should prevent any of them from being tempted to usurp all of power. The period of service in the Continental Army was therefore set to only one year. The extensive autonomy of the individual states also hindered the establishment of the Continental Army considerably. The Congress was the official central authority and determined the size of the troop contingents that each of the member states had to raise. However, it was up to them whether they actually presented them. Congressmen had no legal recourse to compel them and were not allowed to raise troops themselves. Since the individual states were reluctant to meet their payment obligations, Congress had paper money printed as compensation, which, however, fueled inflation. The supply of the army was made considerably more difficult because the supplies could not simply be requisitioned by the citizens. There was always a lack of provisions, medicine, clothing and, above all, ammunition. There was no uniform armament. Most of the weapons available were already out of date. Cannons were also in short supply. Local production could not even come close to meeting the demand. The aid deliveries from the allied France were not infrequently intercepted by the British blockade fleet. Fraud, corruption and mismanagement were common. In 1778 z. B. the general commissioner of the directorate and his deputy are removed from their office because of the submission of falsified accounts. Ordinary soldiers let themselves be entered in the troop lists, collected the cash for it, then deserted across the border and let themselves be recruited in another state.

Continental Army fighters were recruited along the lines of the British Royal Army. The recruitment pool was limited, however, as a third of the population of the colonies were loyalists . In order to make the service more attractive, the pay was increased mainly through payment with the largely worthless paper money as well as a humane treatment and a certain (but not too far-reaching) equation with the officers. The men recruited in their state each formed their own regiments. They strictly refused to mix with units from other countries or even to follow orders from their officers. This led to a certain amount of competition - counterproductive for the struggle - and, at every opportunity, to friction and fights between the soldiers of the individual states. Mutinies were put down by e.g. B. Troops from Pennsylvania deployed against those from Connecticut. Desertion was the order of the day. Washington was therefore forced to "... use one half of the army to recapture the other," as he later wrote.

In 1775, in the opinion of the Continental Congress, the unity of the colonies was established, although Georgia was not yet represented in Congress. On June 9th, "the twelve United Colonies" were mentioned for the first time. In order to strengthen the union, they took over the armed forces in Cambridge as the "Continental Army" at the instigation of John Adams .

On July 15, Congress deliberated on the election of a commander-in-chief for the Continental Army. At the suggestion of the New England delegation , Thomas Johnson nominated George Washington for this role and was elected unanimously.

The next morning, when the President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, officially offered Washington command, he rose from his seat and accepted the function. Speaking on the occasion, after expressing his doubts that he would be able to fulfill his duties to all satisfaction, he said:

“As a payment, sir, I want to assure Congress that since no financial considerations could have moved me to take up this difficult office at the expense of my domestic peace and happiness, I do not wish to benefit from it in any way. I will keep an exact statement of my expenses. These, I have no doubt, will be replaced for me, and that is all I ask. "

Washington was 56 years old. Four major generals and eight brigade generals were appointed within a few days. The former were Artemas Ward , Charles Lee , Philip Schuyler, and Israel Putnam ; the latter were Seth Pomeroy , Richard Montgomery , David Wooster , William Heath , Joseph Spencer , John Thomas , John Sullivan and Nathanael Greene , later men like James Mitchell Varnum joined them.

At the beginning of June 1775, the army in Cambridge numbered over 16,000 men, all of them from New England. General Artemas Ward was the commander and Benjamin Lincoln his adjutant. Richard Gridley was given command of the Artillery Corps and the post of Chief Military Engineer, assisted by Henry Knox , who had commanded an artillery company in Boston .

The British armed forces in Boston were reinforced by newly arrived troops, they then numbered over 10,000 men. The major-generals William Howe , Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne arrived in late May and began with Lieutenant General Thomas Gage , enthusiastic plans for the expulsion of the rebels to set up and perform.

In the feeling of security through the presence of the experienced officers and men and several warships under the command of Admiral Thomas Graves , the governor issued an extremely insulting declaration, proclaimed martial law , denounced the armed citizens and their accomplices as "rebels" and "assassins of the Constitution ”and offered grace to all who would immediately return to their loyalty, except Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were to face their due punishment as traitors. This proclamation caused great indignation in the province.

Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, “All historical records cannot have a blacker side. Satan showed less malice in driving him from the regions of bliss. The father of lies has obviously been trumped. We still believe that this is the best proclamation that you could circulate. "

Black soldiers

If there was one point on which the colonies agreed, it was to expel the majority of African Americans from military service. There were essentially two main reasons why they were not allowed to join the colonial militia.

  • The majority of them were enslaved (hence property) and
  • many whites believed that the slave's service was an absolute priority for his master.

Resistance to the use of black soldiers as soldiers was particularly strong among the delegates from the south in the Continental Congress. Nevertheless, black volunteers were soon deployed on both sides during the War of Independence. Most of them fought under the American and French flags. About 5,000 of the 200,000 or so African Americans served in the ranks of the Americans. In proportion to the number of people in the American colonies, even more blacks took up arms than whites. Above all, they hoped to gain their freedom and more civil rights. This is also because they were able to leave the direct domain of their owners and thus the first step in this direction was taken. After the battle of Yorktown, the Palatinate mercenary Daniel Flohr reported that the majority of those killed there were “Moors”. Another participant in this fight, Baron Ludwig von Closen , estimated that one in four American soldiers was recruited from the black population. In 1775, Lord Dunmore, the British governor of Virginia, declared all blacks who entered his "Ethiopian regiment" free. The slogan "Liberty to Slaves" was sewn onto their uniforms. Even the Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel, Friedrich II. Recruited more blacks as mercenaries after the first major losses.

There were no such far-reaching concessions on the American side. Slaves were an important factor of production for the colonists' agriculture. In addition, there was great fear that armed slaves would eventually turn against their masters. Therefore, initially only a few black units were set up and integrated into the white regiments as a precaution. It was clear to the protagonists of the revolution from the start that the war could not be won in the long term without the active participation of the black population. In 1775, George Washington noted that whoever succeeded in arming them the quickest would achieve the first successes.

In both armies the blacks were treated as second-class people despite their great willingness to work. Lord Cornwallis used to B. only list “his negroes” together with the number of horses. Mainly they were used as drummers and pipers, with the supply train or for the transmission of messages. On the other hand, the American General John Thomas said of the black soldiers in his Massachusetts Brigade that: "... we have some Negroes here, but I consider them to be on par with my other men, at work and on the field" and that ". ..many of them have shown themselves to be very brave. " Colonel Tye achieved particular fame. It was about the former slave Titus Cornelius, who after his escape from a farm in New Jersey with British help set up a guerrilla group of 800 blacks, the "Black Brigade" and with them in the regions around New York and New Jersey - especially among the patriots and slave owners - fear and terror spread.

Historian Alan Gilbert believes that the British would have won the war after all if they had declared all blacks in the thirteen colonies, without exception, free. Conversely, the Republicans could have won the fight much faster. The majority of those who had fought on the side of the Americans eventually gained their freedom. After that, however, they were not allowed to join the newly founded US Army. Most of the blacks who fought for the British had to leave the country for Canada or England. Some of them were also handed over to their loyalist owners who emigrated to the Caribbean after the founding of the United States. But even after that, personal freedom and the right to military service were guaranteed only in those states which had abolished slavery during or shortly after the revolution.

Use in the War of Independence

After Washington initially successfully expelled the British from Boston , he lost the Battle of Long Island in 1776 and retired to Valley Forge outside the British sphere of influence so that his troops could recover from their defeat there. The Continental Army was in very poor condition at the time. In the spring of 1778 it officially numbered 17,000 men, but only around 5,000 men were actually fit for duty. Regiments sometimes consisted of only thirty fighters, companies of one corporal . There were no uniform disciplinary or service regulations. Each regimental commander drilled and led his unit according to his own ideas. Even the uniforms were different in each unit. The forced here retraining of the troops in the introduction of the Prussian-born officer Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben played a supporting role, is one of the decisive factors for the victory of the Americans in the Revolutionary War because he succeeded one another fractious and militarily inexperienced groups of guerrillas in to transform a powerful army. First and foremost, Steuben drafted a uniform service order (Regulations) which was strongly based on the royal Prussian military law and drill regulations, but which he modified in some points and adapted to local customs. From a hundred selected men, he first put together a “model company”, which he personally trained for twelve hours a day. Steuben noted:

“In Prussia, Austria or France you say to a soldier: Do that! And he does. Here I am forced to say: This is why you should do this. Only then does he do it. And six foreign officers give me more trouble here (because of their aristocratic origin) than two hundred American ones. "

Nevertheless, Steuben soon succeeded in teaching his “sans-culottes”, as he called them, to march and shoot on command. Washington, impressed by his achievements, soon appointed him major general and inspector general of his troops. In the following years the number of fully trained soldiers increased more and more. In the individual battles, the troops he commanded also contributed significantly to the victory. His tactical instructions formed the basis for the American victory in the Battle of Monmouth , the turning point of the war, on June 28, 1778. In 1781, Washington was able to field around 5,850 fully trained Continental Army soldiers near Yorktown. Steuben was also temporarily George Washington's chief of staff .


After the end of the war, the army was disbanded by a resolution of Congress. George Washington resigned as its commander in chief on December 23, 1783. However, the units were only partially disarmed. On June 3, 1784, Congress decided to set up the first regiment of the Regular Army , which later became the United States Army .

The officers of the Continental Army formed the Cincinnati Society in May 1783 and elected George Washington president of that society. He held this office until his death in 1799. It is still active and is represented by the descendants of the officers of the units at the time, as well as by France.


Army command and administration were organized in departments . Their commanders were appointed by the Continental Congress.

Eastern Department for New England ;
Northern Department for most of New York ;
Highlands Department for the Hudson River Defense Forces north of New York City .
Middle Department for Pennsylvania , New Jersey , Delaware, and Maryland .
Southern Department of Virginia and everything south of it.
Western department for the Allegheny Mountains area north of Virginia.
Canadian Department for Canada

The main field unit of the Continental Army was the regiment . This term included not only infantry units (so-called line units), but also military engineers and dragoons (or cavalry units ). Most units were distinguished by a serial number and the name of the state in which they were placed (for example, 3. Massachusetts). The regiments were grouped into brigades for larger operations and were then directly under the command of the department commander or the commander in chief of the armed forces. One regiment was led by a colonel . In 1777, Congress authorized the establishment of 16 additional regiments that were not named after the states ( Additional Continental regiments ). These were usually identified by the name of the colonel who commanded it ( e.g. Greyson's auxiliary regiment ). The congress had previously approved the formation of 6 Extra Regiments ( Extra Continental regiments ).

The regiment was made up of companies and typically had six to ten companies. Company and regiment sizes varied during the war, but various attempts were made to establish standards.


As of 1775
Color of the sash across the chest Color of the cockade on the hat Color of the epaulettes or the stripes on the right shoulder
Major general Brigadier general Aide-de-camp Colonel,
Lieutenant colonel,
Captain Lieutenant, ensign sergeant Corporal
Status 1780
Towards the end of the war, a uniform, blue-white-red uniform with a black-and-white cockade for all ranks was introduced.
Officers also wore silver or gold insignia.
General and
Major general Brigadier general Colonel Lieutenant colonel Aide-de-camp major Captain Lieutenant , Cornet , Ensign Sergeant major sergeant Corporal Private
US-O9 insignia.svg US-O8 insignia.svg US-O7 insignia.svg Two epaulets of
tunic with silver or gold edging
Two epaulettes Golden epaulettes.
Green cockade
Two epaulettes An epaulette
(right shoulder)
An epaulette
(left shoulder)
Two epaulettes A red epaulette
(right shoulder)
A green epaulette
(right shoulder)
No epaulettes
Epaulette general brigade army Napoléonienne.svg
Epaulette colonel army Napoléonienne.svg
Epaulettes major.svg
Epaulette colonel army Napoléonienne.svg
Epaulette colonel army Napoléonienne.svg

Epaulette plain.png
Epaulette plain.png

Epaulette plain red.png
Epaulette plain red.png

Epaulette plain red.png

Epaulette plain green one.png

The main battles

See also


  • Bulletin of Army History published by the United States Army Center for Military History.
  • Henry Carrington; "Battles of the American Revolution" ; 1877, Promontory Press, New York; 1974 reprint: ISBN 0-88394-007-8 (English)
  • Alan Gilbert: Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence. 2012, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0-226-29307-3 .
  • Franz Herre : The American Revolution. Birth of a world power. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 1976, pp. 142–150, ISBN 3-462-01124-3 .
  • Christopher Hibbert; "Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution through British Eyes" ; 1990, Avon Books, New York; ISBN 0-380-71544-9 (English)
  • Curt Johnson; "Battles of the American Revolution" ; 1985, outlet; ISBN 0-517-46758-5 (English)
  • Charles Patrick Neimeyer: America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army. NYU Press, New York 1995, ISBN 978-0-8147-5780-2 .
  • Noel B. Poirier: Brave and Gallant Soldiers: African Americans and the Continental Army. Colonial Williamsburg interpreter. Article for the Military and Naval History Forum at Virginia Military Institute, 2001.
  • George Scheer and Hugh Rankin; "Rebels and Redcoats" ; 1957, Da Capo Press, New York; ISBN 0-306-80307-0 (English)
  • Jeffrey Shaara ; "Rise to Rebellion" ; 2002, Ballantine Books; ISBN 0-345-45206-2 (English)
  • Jeffrey Shaara; "The Glorious Cause" ; 2003, Ballantine Books; ISBN 0-345-42758-0 (sequel to Rise to Rebellion) (English)
  • Friedrich von Steuben ; "Baron Von Steuben's Revolutionary War Drill Manual" ; 1985 Facsimile (1794), Dover Publications; ISBN 0-486-24934-4 (English)
  • Robert K. Wright, Jr .; "The Continental Army" ; 1983, United States Government Printing Office , Washington, DC; ISBN 0-16-001931-1 (English)

Individual evidence

  1. Franz Herre: 1976, pp. 148-150
  2. ^ Noel B. Poirier 2001, Alan Gilbert 2012.
  3. Franz Herre: 1976, pp. 145-146
  4. Steven A. Bingaman (2013), The History of American Ranks and Rank Insignia, p. 11.
  5. ^ "The Later Revolutionary War Era / 1780." US ARMY INSIGNIA. 2018-06-09.

Web links

Commons : Continental Army  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files