Excogitations On The Messy Birth Of The Continental Army.

by Daniel Russ on August 2, 2011

George Washington

The states that were divided among the American colony were mostly an aggregation of agricultural communities that traded raw goods for British and French surplus goods. Roads were inadequate to provide major thoroughfares from one state to the next, so trade was mostly conducted along rivers. Let’s face it. This hardly resembled a nation. Indeed conflict between the states delayed true and full ratification of the constitution until 1781. This was a series of municipalities duct-taped together. This meant that whatever civil infrastructure existed at the time allowed for a militia to be supplied and resupplied for weeks at a time, but a national army was along way off. To boot, there was almost no centralized government that could finance a war effort until well after the war.

An effectively ineffective central government meant that not only could the national government issue currency, each state had its own currency. So national currency was traded with state currency and this was quite confusing. To make certain that currency was available, states printed money profusely, and the result was rampart inflation. The endless loans from Europe and local greed rendered the “national” economy all but worthless. Thusly, the phrase ‘not worth a Continental’ was coined. Yet the Revolution could not have happened without these new monies. The Continental army was hardly ever paid on time and there were chronic shortages of weapons and food supplies and uniforms. From time to time men also walked when they weren’t paid.

In battles throughout the Revolution the Continentals could always call upon militias to outnumber and harass the British Expeditionary forces. But only when and if the Continental Army could be paid. That said, George Washington could never really muster a large, well supplied and well-trained army styled after the British Army. Worse, Continental armies rallied around Washington as a symbol of the Revolution, but they were only successful when he had the money. How very American.

The specific mandates from the articles of the Continental Congress passed authority and responsibility to recruit troops and train them and create an actual standing army. The state would also have to clothe and feed them. The problem was that there was so little to go around that the Army often had to dip into the supplies of the militia. Militias didn’t like this. Zones of authority over lapped and inefficiencies eroded George Washington’s confidence that he would ever have a simple and reliable and straight-forward supply

Ethan Allen, Militia Leader

line. So the Continental Congress allotted for 110 total battalions, or an army of about 75,000 men. After the war the allotments were cut to 59 battalions of 30,000 men. The truth of the matter is that the Continentals could never muster more than about 15,000 men to serve as regulars. Washington hated the militias although often they were all he had, and frankly they fought well enough to make a difference. Militias offered two advantages that we cannot ignore. One is that men who were given only a single choice in the US Army – serve for a year then go home – had multiple choices as militia forces – serve when you can help, and then go home. It also allowed men who would not be in the work force producing something a way to keep the economy stoked and act as soldiers at the same time.

It is an astonishing thing that Washington was able to field an army at all under these conditions and all this while battling the most formidable expeditionary force in the world. He was surrounded by politics, by ego driven rivalries, and by a panoply of various rules, drills and best practices of armed confrontation from each state.

The confused financial and organizational problems the colonials faced did not win the day. The Colonials did. The British by the way, did not have this perfectly in order either. We will talk about this soon.


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