SAN JOSE, Calif., April 29, 2015 – After the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, various leaders marched volunteers into Massachusetts from surrounding colonies to help in the struggle with the king’s troops. When the Continental Congress reconvened, one of the decisive measures it took was to adopt the ragtag band of men and boys who dared fire upon and kill soldiers of the king. Much more important, however, the Congress voted to appoint Col. George Washington of Virginia to be the commanding general of the “army” that was not really an army for a nation that didn’t really exist. Washington and the Continental Army would be fighting for the dream of freedom.
When the Continental Congress reconvened on May 10, it began to sort out what had happened up in Lexington and Concord by taking eyewitness accounts of the fighting. However, by then in Massachusetts, events proceeded with speed as the revolutionary leadership saw the need to organize the “American troops” to create some degree of order amidst growing tension and the apprehension of an impending British backlash. The audacity of shooting at the king’s soldiers would be considered as taking shots at the king himself — an outright act of rebellion.
Many 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 to the eventual British retribution. The amateur army of volunteers had managed a simple strategy, to surround the British forces and trap them in Boston. However, most colonists realized that the British would not be complacent about the serious events unfolding in Massachusetts. It was fairly clear that Britain, boasting the most powerful army on the planet at the time, would not put up with rebellion in their precious colonies without a fight.
If or when serious fighting would commence, there existed a potentially disastrous set of circumstances that could undermine the rebels, for each band answered to its own colonial leadership; they were armed, equipped and supported by the colonies that dispatched them. The rebellious minutemen and various units of militia in New England had no serious chain of command, no single recognized commander. In anticipation of the danger of the escalating crisis and the likelihood of further hostilities, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress sent an urgent request to the Second Continental Congress for assistance.
Eventually, on June 14, John Adams rose in Congress to formalize the appeal from the Massachusetts assembly requesting leadership, organization and assumption of authority over the various volunteer militias aggregating in Massachusetts intent upon armed conflict with the British. Adams addressed the delegates of Congress with urgency to avoid a pending disaster should the British troops manage to break out of Boston and “spread desolation as far as they could go.” John Adams’ resolution was for the Congress to take charge of the band of volunteer troops and to appoint someone to be a commander in charge of the troops in the field.
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Some of what Adams recommended has been recorded with regard to who should lead such a “Continental Army.” 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 voted to affirm Adams’ proposal. Thus, on June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress formally adopted the ragtag band of men and boys who had stirred up such a great amount of trouble when they essentially set the nation on a course toward revolution by shooting at the king’s troops. The United States Army was born, and a commander-in-chief was appointed. Col. Washington willingly accepted being chosen by his peers as the one to command the newly adopted “Continental Army.”
Despite what the body of men was called, it could scarcely qualify as a legitimate army, so when Washington took command as the general of the of that ragtag 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 truly 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. They honestly did not appear to be a threat to the mighty British military, which was 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 the Americans captured Dorchester Heights and installed captured British cannon upon the hills overlooking Boston Harbor. Experienced General Howe had to evacuate Boston by mid-March of 1776, and Washington allowed Howe to safely evacuate Boston, but the retreating British forces simply sailed to Nova Scotia. They would mount a formidable counter-offensive based upon King George’s directives to the Parliament in early October the previous year. During this same period, momentum to formally declare independence from Britain grew steadily 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 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. On May 10, one year after re-convening to get clear about the initial skirmishes in Massachusetts, the Continental Congress authorized the 13 colonies to form provincial governments and was also securing a serious resolve to formally declare independence.
Yet all of these events occurred before there was any Declaration of Independence. Today, Americans refer to the Declaration as the birthday of the nation. But, a case can be made for the date of when the actual shooting started, or when the army was born or when Washington took command. The truth of the matter is that brave men stood against a very fearful force with little clear idea of whether they would ever succeed in what they were attempting, or whether they would ever have the chance of living in a free country. George Washington was leading bold men who were not quite qualified to be considered an army in the fight for a country that was only a dream.
If Washington were alive today, he would probably be more concerned whether Americans would remember what such brave men fought for in that moment in time — the values and the vision that existed in him and those ordinary men and women who could no longer tolerate tyranny. Americans need to remember George Washington for all he was to the nation still only a vision; but also, Americans need to remember that ordinary farmers and laborers, doctors and teachers, merchants and shop-keepers were the first to devote themselves to the creation of a new nation – to demonstrate the courage to stand for a vision not yet articulated, not yet written.
By remembering Washington in these days, Americans can remember “we the people.”