George Washington’s Greatest Battle

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George Washington’s experiences in the wars against the French taught him the value of irregular tactics in wilderness areas, but his relationships with British officers also taught him that a regular army organization was superior in settled areas. In the aftermath of Bunker Hill in 1775, when American optimism was at its peak, he was fearful about the abilities of the colonial militias to stand up to units of the British army in organized battle. Because the Massachusetts militia had been preparing for a fight for a considerable period before Concord and Lexington, they were the exception, not the rule.

He was right. The defeats of the American ‘army’ in Brooklyn and north of Manhattan Island on the Hudson River in 1776 only served to underscore his conviction that Congress had to find the money to train and equip a regular force. For one thing, the militias and volunteers were all committed to serve but short terms before being allowed to return home for planting or harvesting their crops. The militiamen were also obligated to their own colonies first, but the ‘united’ colonies needed a united force, not one where the different parties were almost as likely to get into fights with each other as to oppose the British. Examples of the recently-concluded ‘Pennamite War’ between Connecticut and Pennsylvania and the emerging Vermont secession from New York were cases in point.

Further, the primary value of militiamen was not so much as a fighting force, but as a force that could stand behind and maintain political control away from the actual fighting. The militia, like so-called ‘security forces’ in today’s journalistic terms, became the backbone of the American revolutionary government. They controlled the community, whether through intimidation or indoctrination.

The problem Washington faced from the end of 1776 on was one of maintaining a force in the field and then managing to train it for professional duty. Congress often had little or no funds. Vouchers for free land and bounty cash were used, to little avail. Even around Concord MA, the legendary heart of the Revolution, most had lost their enthusiasm for battle early on and their places were taken by imprisoned debtors, free blacks, and the ‘strolling [homeless] poor’. Militiamen were conscripted, but many bought themselves off with substitutes who themselves promptly deserted. Recent immigrants, British deserters and the unemployed were taken in. Given the terms set for enrollees, the numbers of soldiers was in constant flux. Racially and ethnically, the Army was also a mixed bag.

Women disguised as men were accepted for what they claimed to be. There were many women who assisted the army directly by providing support services, but it appears that a Yankee woman, Deborah Sampson, from Massachusetts, was, at 22, the first woman to successfully pass herself off to recruiters as a male. After being found out and ejected from the army on her first try, she left home and went 75 miles away to Worcester and tried again. Sampson joined in May,1782 and was wounded in a skirmish in New York. She was hospitalized in the summer of 1783 with the ‘fever’ and her gender was discovered. In November of 1783, she was honorably discharged. She then married, had 3 children and later lectured on her experiences all over the country.

It took almost 5 years, until the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, for Washington to accomplish his task of creating a real army---and then this Continental Army was effectively disbanded by Congress with the peace in 1783, because the Articles of Confederation did not provide for its continuation beyond wartime. The standing army of the new country after this Congressional action consisted of a few officers and 80 men. Only a day after the disbandment, Congress asked four of the States to raise a contingent of 700 militiamen for one year. The next year, Congress decided to raise its own small force for a three-year term. Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786 frightened the country and proved the Congressional government under the Articles of Confederation to be an inept instrument for achieving stability, which led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

One-third of the members of the Constitutional Convention were veterans and they had strong ideas about the need for an army. When Elbridge Gerry proposed that the regular army should be limited to 3,000 troops, Washington retorted that there should be a provision that ’no foreign enemy should [be allowed to] invade the United States at any time with more than 3,000 troops’.

In the early 1790s, Jefferson and Washington continued to argue over the need for a standing army, with Jefferson advocating for a militia. Only when the Whisky Rebellion in Pennsylvania and militia incompetence in the Indian wars in Ohio proved the need for a trained military force, did Jefferson relent to some extent.

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