Continental Army Historical Facts

An enduring myth is that liberty-loving farmers, settlers, and shopkeepers banded together and defeated the British army through sheer determination during the Revolutionary War. Although citizen militias played an important role in the conflict, the fledgling nation fielded a formal military force known as the Continental Army, America’s first army. Bearing much of the burden of fighting, the group fought the British from the Siege of Boston until Yorktown. Originally ill-trained and ill-equipped, the army had evolved by 1780 into a European-style military force capable of overcoming the best the British army could throw at it.

The following are facts about America’s Continental Army.

Birth of the Army

Congress initially opposed a standing army. The First Continental Congress feared that a standing army could be used as an instrument of tyranny. This attitude changed after the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The Second Continental Congress approved the formation of the army on June 14, 1775. The legislation placed the militia forces, then fighting outside Boston, under federal control. These troops formed the nucleus of the army. The date is still celebrated as the birthday of the U.S. Army.

Its One and Only Commanding General

George Washington was named commander in chief on June 15, 1775. He assumed command of the army in a field in Cambridge, Massachusetts the following month. Washington served as commanding general for the entire war without a salary.

continental congress deleagtes
Washington, Henry & Pendleton going to the First Congress. 1850-1856. New York Public Library.

A Diverse Fighting Force

The Continental Army reflected the diversity of the colonies. Coming from all 13 colonies, soldiers were native-born and immigrants of almost every nationality as well as free and enslaved African-Americans. Several women also disguised themselves as men in order to fight. The army accepted volunteers as young as 16. A 15-year-old could join with a parent’s permission. Artilleryman Jeremiah Levering is reported to have been only 12-years-old.

The Size of the Army

Over 230,000 soldiers served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, although no more than 48,000 at any one time. The largest number of troops gathered in a single place for battle was 13,000.

Becoming a Well-Trained Fighting Force

Training initially varied in quantity and quality from one regiment to another based on how much experience their leaders had. Congress hired Prussian Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben to direct the army’s training at Valley Forge. He published a training manual containing the regulations for order and discipline in 1779. Von Steuben organized a company of 100 soldiers that would demonstrate proper drill and battle tactics to newly recruited regiments. His efforts were instrumental in creating a professional army.

Army Food

On paper, a soldier was supposed to be supplied with one pound of meat, one pound of bread and three pints of dried vegetables each day as well as a pint of milk and a quart of cider or spruce beer. This rarely happened. The army typically had to forage for food and often went hungry.

Army Pay

Soldiers were promised a pay of $29 per month, a small fortune for the time. Many of the colonies maintained their own currencies and exchange rates. The Continental dollar was almost worthless. Congress often lacked the funds to pay the soldiers, who remained true to the cause of liberty despite the hardships.

Major Battles

Between 1775 and 1783, the Continental Army fought numerous skirmishes and minor engagements as well as more than a dozen major full-blown set-piece battles against British and Hessian forces. The fledgling army won slightly more than half the battles ranging from South Carolina to upstate New York. Important victories include Saratoga, Trenton, Cowpens, and Yorktown.

 

battle of lexington
Battle of Lexington. 1777-1832. © Library of Congress.

Casualties in the Cause of Liberty

During the war, as many as 8,000 soldiers were killed in battle and twice that number died from illness or starvation. Approximately 25,000 were wounded. Nearly 30 percent of the army was killed, wounded or captured.

Swords into Ploughshares

The Continental Army was mustered out of service by early 1784. Only a small token of 80 soldiers remained on active duty. The following year, the First American Infantry Regiment was created. It consisted of eight infantry companies and two artillery batteries. This unit was enlarged a decade later and renamed the Legion of the United States.

In his famous “Farewell Orders” to the soldiers on November 2, 1783, Washington offered his impressions of the Continental Army. He reflected on their unparalleled perseverance to overcome disadvantageous circumstances of almost every possible kind over eight years. He also stated that their victory was “little short of a miracle.”