EDINBURGH, June 14, 2013 — As news spread throughout New England of the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, tensions rapidly increased between the colonists and British troops.
Shooting at the King’s soldiers would be considered an outright act of rebellion. Yet from surrounding colonies, various leaders marched volunteers together toward Boston in a simplistic strategy to surround the British forces and trap them in the city. Within three weeks, specifically by May 10th, the Continental Congress reconvened in order to decipher eyewitness accounts of the battles against British regulars.
There seemed little doubt that the British government would send more shiploads of troops.
The British would not give up their precious colonies without a serious fight. And when serious fighting would eventually begin, the rebellious minutemen and militia in New England had no serious chain of command, nor a single recognized commander because each band answered to their own colonial leadership as they were armed, equipped, and supported by the colonies that dispatched them. So in Massachusetts, the revolutionary leadership saw the real need to re-organize the ‘American troops’ in order to create a more cohesive and realistic fighting force. The New England revolutionaries also saw the need to rally support from the rest of the colonies if they were going to offer a significant challenge.
It was fairly clear that the British, a government, boasting the most powerful army on the planet at the time, would not put up with rebellion in their precious colonies without a serious fight. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress sent an urgent request to the Second Continental Congress for assistance with organization and some assumption of authority over the various volunteer militias aggregating in Massachusetts intent upon armed conflict with the British.
In anticipation of the danger of the escalating crisis and the likelihood of further hostilities, the Second Continental Congress considered practical steps to formally adopt the revolutionaries that had surrounded the British Army in Boston.
Eventually, on June 14, John Adams rose to formalize the appeal of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and addressed the delegates of Congress with the urgency to avoid a disaster should the British troops manage to break out of Boston and “spread desolation as far as they could go.” John Adam’s resolution was for the Congress to take charge of the band of amateur troops, and to appoint someone to be a commanding general to take charge of the troops in the field.
Some of what Adams recommended has been recorded with regard to who should lead such a “Continental Army” and he proclaimed that he “had but one Gentleman in… Mind for that important command, and that was a Gentleman from Virginia who was among Us… a Gentleman whose Skill and Experience as an Officer, whose independent fortune, great Talents and excellent universal Character, would command the Approbation of all of America, and unite the cordial Exertions of all the Colonies better than any other person in the Union.”
After Adams finished his proposal, George Washington consented to his nomination to ‘that important command.’ Congress subsequently decided on Adams’ proposal by voting to affirm his resolutions. Thus, on June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress formally adopted the rag-tag band of men and boys who had stirred up such a great amount of trouble when they started shooting at the King’s troops. The United States Army was born and a Commander-in-Chief was appointed. Colonel Washington willingly accepted being chosen by his peers as the one to command the newly adopted ‘ContinentalArmy.’
When he took command as the general of the of that rag-tag band of men and boys near Boston on July 2, 1775, he realized that he had a tremendous amount of work in front of him. The “troops” did not resemble an army, and the assembly did not match up well to the British military. The ‘troops’ did not resemble an army because they were not a genuine army in practical form. They were a volunteer force: of farm hands and farmers, of doctors and teachers, of merchants and shop-keepers. Honestly, they did not appear to be a threat to the British military which was essentially the most disciplined, the best equipped, and the strongest force of soldiers and seamen in the world at that time.
Ultimately, Washington’s initial efforts as the Commander of the Continental Army would surprise the British as experienced General Howe had to evacuate Boston by mid-March of 1776. The Americans had captured Dorchester Heights and installed captured British cannon upon the hills overlooking Boston Harbor. Washington allowed Howe to safely evacuate Boston, but the retreating British forces simply sailed to Nova Scotia. During this same period, a genuine momentum to formally declare independence from Britain developed in the colonies.
In January of 1776, Thomas Paine had issued his arguments against monarchies in his pamphlet Common Sense. By April 6, 1776, the North Carolina colonial assembly became the first of the colonies to authorize its delegates to the Continental Congress to be able to vote for independence from Britain. By May, King Louis XVI of France committed one million dollars in arms and munitions to the rebels in North America. And on May 10th,the Continental Congress had authorized the 13 colonies to form provincial governments. During this same period, the Continental Congress was gaining a serious resolve to formally declare independence.
Yet the British had no intention of losing a war with a rag-tag band of rebels. By the summertime, the British government tasked General Howe with a mission to mount a serious counterattack against the colonies. Between June and July, General Howe had reassembled the British forces, and was in command of a massive war fleet consisting of 30 battleships carrying 1200 cannon and accompanied by 300 supply ships to invade at New York Harbor. The government had dispatched 30,000 more soldiers and 10,000 sailors, and it was indeed the largest military deployment in British history up to that time. It reflected the determination of the government to maintain its hold on the colonies.
Then, on June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee put forth a proposal that had originally been approved unanimously by the Virginia convention. The submission of Lee’s proposal was the formal act of challenging Congress to make a serious decision of whether to allow business as usual or make a dramatic break with the mother country. By that time, the hostilities between the King’s troops and the Continental Army seemed to be quite irreconcilable because there had been too many military confrontations, too much talk of separation.
Circumstances had gone from bad to worse in the months since shots were fired at the King’s troops near Lexington and Concord. There were so many seemingly insurmountable obstacles that Washington and his men had to contend with after the British onslaught intensified. He grasped more than most that he did not fight with the superior force. To have the army lose a head to head battle with the British or German mercenary forces would have been disastrous. However, perhaps the deeper problem Washington and the Continental Army faced was the inherent weakness of Congress.
After 1777, the Continental Congress started operating provisionally under the Articles of Confederation, but was not able to provide adequate support that the Continental Army desperately needed. Many Americans are aware of the long bitter winter in 1777-78 at Valley Forge, but many are not aware of the prolonged severe hardships faced by the troops due to the lack of supplies. During that cold and bitter time, Washington wrote of his men: “Naked and starving as they are, we cannot insufficiently admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiers.” Yet, Washington was steadfast in his effort to hold on to the ideals and the values for which he was risking his life and the lives of his men.
Washington was forced to plead with the Congress time and again for the money or supplies needed to maintain the fight against the British forces. In 1780, he wrote:
“We have been half our time without provision, and are likely to continue so. We have no magazines, nor money to form them, and in a little time we shall have no men, if we had money to pay them. We have lived upon expedients till we can no longer. In a word, the history of the war is a history of false hopes and temporary devices…” Nevertheless, the general made the best use of what little he had. He developed a real closeness to his men, which ensured that a core of the army held together despite so much discouragement and numerous desertions of disillusioned freedom fighters.
Several accounts reveal the dire and desperate circumstances of the Continental Army. On more than one occasion at the beginning of 1781, angry officers and troops marching on the Congress at Philadelphia to either demonstrate their dissatisfaction with lack of pay for more than a year, or to seize power and take matters into their own hands. These attempts had to be halted and disbanded by General Washington who saw to it that insurrectionist leaders were executed. He would not tolerate a threat to the fragile government of the people, despite how weak Congress was. Some accounts of these incidents imply that Washington could have been tempted to use such opportunities to simply seize power via the army.
On the contrary, Washington’s leadership of the Continental Army was steadfast. He was firm in adhering to the core of the beliefs and the values that the Founders shared. The values and the vision existing within words of the Declaration of Independence lived within Washington the individual. He had already committed the act of treason in 1775 against the Crown when he accepted the commission as commander of the Continental Army. He was one of those brave soldiers already in the field willing to lay down their lives for the sake of the creation of a new nation – to make the concept of freedom more than philosophical idea.