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The American Revolution
Revolutionary War: Southern Phase, 1778-1781
The Condition of the Continental Army, Spring 1780

In the following letters to the Continental Congress, Washington informs Congress of the continued deprivations of the soldiers in the army. What are these deprivations? What consequences of these deprivations does Washington indicate are occurring?

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Washington to Continental Congress, April 3, 1780

Sir: I have frequently had the honor to address Congress on the subject of those Corps which are unconnected with the lines of particular States. Satisfied of the numerous perplexities, under which they labour, it is with pain and reluctance I trouble them with repeated representations of the same nature; but in the present case it is so indispensable something should be done, that I cannot forbear the repetition, however disagreeable.

The situation of the Officers of these Corps is absolutely insupportable. Unless something effectual can be done to make it more comfortable, it is impossible they can remain in the service. The resolution of Congress for making them part of the State Quotas has rather been a disadvantage, than an advantage. It has had a very partial operation, and the benefit resulting to a few has only served to establish a contrast that embitters the sufferings of the rest. Nothing can be conceived more chagrining, than for an Officer to see himself destitute of every necessary, while another, not only in the service of the same Government, engaged in defending the same cause, but even in the same regiment and sometimes standing by his side, in the same Company, is decently, if not amply, provided. Enthusiasm alone can support him in a moments perseverance; but even this principle must give way to a necessity so continued and so hopeless. Dayly applications are made to me to know whether there is a prospect of relief, always accompanied with a declaration, that it is impossible any longer to endure the extremities to which they are driven.

I intreat the attention of Congress to this matter. If there is no way to make provision for the Officers, it would be better to dissolve the Corps, incorporate the men with the Regiments belonging to the State lines, and let the Officers retire with pay and subsistence and such other emoluments as may be enjoyed by others after the War. In their present state, they are actually suffering every inconvenience, in fruitless expectation of a remedy, that will perhaps never come. Those who have less resource otherwise, less zeal, or less fortitude are resigning from day to day, a relaxation of care in the interior of the regiments must be a necessary consequence and many valuable men will be gradually lost to the service who might be saved. It is much better therefore that the expedient suggested should be adopted than that things should remain as now circumstanced. But if it were possible to obviate the necessity for it, it were much to be wished; as it would preserve many of our best Officers to the Army, who would with infinite reluctance quit the field while the defence of their Country called for their services.

Before I conclude I think it my duty to touch upon the general situation of the Army at this juncture. It is absolutely necessary Congress should be apprised of it, for it is difficult to forsee what may be the result, and as very serious consequences are to be apprehended I should not be justified in preserving silence. There never has been a stage of the War in which the dissatisfaction has been so general or alarming. It has lately in particular instances worn features of a very dangerous complexion. A variety of causes has contributed to this. The diversity in the terms of enlistments, the inequality of the rewards given for entering into the service; but still more the disparity in the provision made by the several States for their respective Troops. The system of State supplies, however, in the commencement, dictated by necessity, has proved in its operation pernicious beyond description. An Army must be raised, paid, subsisted and regulated upon an equal and uniform principle, or the confusions and discontents are endless. Little less than the dissolution of the Army would have been long since the consequence of a different plan, had it not been for a spirit of patriotic virtue both in officers and men of which there are few examples; seconded by the unremitting pains that have been taken to compose and reconcile them to their situation. But these will not be able to hold out much longer against the influence of causes constantly operating and every day with some new aggravation.

Some States from their internal ability and local advantages furnish their Troops pretty amply not only with Cloathing; but with many little comforts and conveniences; others supply them with some necessaries, but on a more contracted scale; while others have it in their power to do little or nothing at all. The officers and men in the routine of duty mix dayly and compare circumstances. Those who fare worse than others of course are dissatisfied and have their resentment excited, not only against their own States, but against the confederacy. They become disgusted with a service that makes such injurious distinctions. No arguments can persuade an Officer it is justice he should be obliged to pay £??? a yard for Cloth and other things in proportion while another is furnished at a part of the price. The Officers resign, and we have now scarcely a sufficient number left to take care even of the fragments of Corps which remain. The men have not this resource, they murmur, brood over their discontents, and have lately shown a disposition to enter into seditious combinations.

Washington to the Continental Congress, May 27, 1780

Sir: It is with infinite pain I inform Congress, that we are reduced again to a situation of extremity for want of meat. On several days of late, the Troops have been entirely destitute of any, and for a considerable time past they have been at best, at half, a quarter, an Eighth allowance of this essential article of provision. The men have borne their distress in general with a firmness and patience never exceeded, and every commendation is due the Officers for encouraging them to it, by exhortation and example. They have suffered equally with the Men, and, their relative situations considered, rather more. But such reiterated, constant instances of want are too much for the Soldiery, and cannot but lead to alarming consequences. Accordingly Two Regiments of the Connecticut line mutinied and got under Arms on Thursday night, and but for the timely exertions of some of their Officers who got notice of it, it might have been the case with the whole, with a determination to return home, or at best to gain subsistence at the point of the bayonet. After a good deal of expostulation by their Officers and some of the Pennsylvania line who had come to their Assistance, after parading their Regiments upon the occasion, the Men were prevailed on to go to their Huts; but a few nevertheless turned out again with their packs, who are now confined. . . .

Nothing is further from my wishes than to add in the smallest degree to the distresses or embarrassments of Congress upon any occasion, and more particularly on one, where I have every reason to fear they have it not in their power to administer the least relief. Duty however compels me to add one matter more to those I have already detailed. I have been informed by the Two Colonels of the Pennsylva. line in whom I have the utmost confidence, who were called to assist Colo. Meigs to suppress the mutiny on Thursday night, that in the course of their expostulations, the troops very pointedly mentioned besides their distresses for provision, their not being paid for Five months; and, what is of a still more serious and delicate nature in our present circumstances, they mentioned the great depreciation of the Money, it's being of little or no value at all, and yet if they should be paid, that it would be in this way and according to the usual amount, without an adequate allowance for the depreciation. They were reasoned with, and every argument used that these Gentlemen and Colo Meigs could devise, either to interest their pride or their passions; they were reminded of their past good conduct; of the late assurances of Congress; of the Objects for which they were contending; but their answer was, their sufferings were too great; that they wanted present relief, and some present substantial recompence for their service. This matter I confess, tho' I have heard of no further uneasiness among the Men, has given me infinitely more concern than any thing that has ever happened, and strikes me as the most important; because We have no means at this time that I know of, for paying the Troops but in Continental money, and as it is evidently impracticable from the immense quantity it would require, to pay them in this as much as would make up the depreciation. Every possible means in my power will be directed on this and on all occasions, as they ever have been, to preserve order and promote the public service; but in such an accumulation of distresses, amidst such a varicty of embarrassments which surround us on all sides, this will be found at least extremely difficult. If the Troops could only be comfortably supplied with provisions, it would be a great point, and such as would with the event we expect soon to take place, the arrival of the Armament from France to our succour, make them forget, or at least forego, many matters which make a part of their anxiety and present complaints. I have the Honor etc. . . .
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View the original documents by clicking on the links above. Both documents are from the George Washington Papers. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.