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Creating a Continental Army

According to Washington's aide Alexander Hamilton, the military strategy the General would pursue throughout the Revolutionary War was as follows: "our hopes are not placed in any particular city, or spot of ground, but in preserving a good army . . . to take advantage of favorable opportunities, and waste and defeat the enemy by piecemeal."

General Anthony Wayne Popular Graphic Arts

In order to "preserve a good army," one had to be created in the first place. It was a long and difficult road from the Continental Congress's edict designating the militia around Boston as a Continental Army and creating such an army in fact. Although many colonials had had some military experience in the French and Indian War, most had served in militia units, a far cry from service in a regular European-style army. The latter, Washington believed, was what the Continental Army needed to become if the colonies were to stand up to the British army.

As Washington put the matter shortly after he arrived in Boston to take command of the army: "The course of human affairs forbids an expectation that troops formed under such circumstances [militia] should at once possess the order, regularity, and discipline of veterans." Washington rather optimistically added, "Whatever deficiencies there may be, will, I doubt not, soon be made up by the activity and zeal of the officers, and the docility and obedience of the men. These qualities, united with their native bravery and spirit, will afford a happy presage of success. . . ." How this opinion would soon change!

When Washington assumed his duties in Boston, he saw no end to problems. "The abuses [problems] in this army, I fear, are considerable, and the new modelling of it [reorganization], in the face of an enemy, from whom we every hour expect an attack, is exceedingly difficult and dangerous." Although often dismayed by his charge, Washington set out to create an army that could stand up in the field to the best army in the world at that time. The documents included here will give you a sense of some of the problems and issues. These and other problems continued to plague Washington and his army throughout the conflict. Over time, Washington would come to believe that only the creation of a permanent standing army could save the revolution.

For additional documents related to these topics, search the Library of Congress using such key words as Continental Army, militia, and recruitment. Browse Washington's General Orders and his letters to the Presidents of the Continental Congress by dates (of specific battles, for example), and terms found in the documents.