The True George Washington: Soldier: Preserving the Army

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Preserving the Army

The problem of the Revolution was not one of military strategy, but of keeping an army in existence, and it was in this that the commander-in-chief's great ability showed itself. The British could and did repeatedly beat the Continental army, but they could not beat the General, and so long as he was in the field there was a rallying ground for whatever fighting spirit there was.

The difficulty of this task can hardly be over-magnified. When Washington assumed command of the forces before Boston, he "found a mixed multitude of people ... under very little discipline, order, or government," and "confusion and disorder reigned in every department, which, in a little time, must have ended either in the separation of the army or fatal contests with one another." Before he was well in the saddle his general officers were quarrelling over rank, and resigning; there was such a scarcity of powder that it was out of the question for some months to do anything; and the British sent people infected with small-pox to the Continental army, with a consequent outbreak of that pest.

Hardly had he brought order out of chaos when the army he had taken such pains to discipline began to melt away, having been by political folly recruited for short terms, and the work was to be all done over. Again and again during the war regiments which had been enlisted for short periods left him at the most critical moment. Very typical occurrences he himself tells of, when Connecticut troops could "not be prevailed upon to stay longer than their term (saving those who have enlisted for the next campaign, and mostly on furlough), and such a dirty, mercenary spirit pervades the whole, that I should not be at all surprised at any disaster that may happen," and when he described how in his retreat through New Jersey, "The militia, instead of calling forth their utmost efforts to a brave and manly opposition in order to repair our losses, are dismayed, intractable, and impatient to return. Great numbers of them have gone off; in some instances, almost by whole regiments, by half ones, and by companies at a time." Another instance of this evil occurred when "the Continental regiments from the eastern governments ... agreed to stay six weeks beyond their term of enlistment.... For this extraordinary mark of their attachment to their country, I have agreed to give them a bounty of ten dollars per man, besides their pay running on." The men took the bounty, and nearly one-half went off a few days after.

Nor was this the only evil of the policy of short enlistments. Another was that the new troops not merely were green soldiers, but were without discipline. At New York Tilghman wrote that after the battle of Brooklyn the "Eastern" soldiers were "plundering everything that comes in their way," and Washington in describing the condition said, "every Hour brings the most distressing complaints of the Ravages of our own Troops who are become infinitely more formidable to the poor Farmers and Inhabitants than the common Enemy. Horses are taken out of the Continental Teams; the Baggage of Officers and the Hospital Stores, even the Quarters of General Officers are not exempt from Rapine." At the most critical moment of the war the New Jersey militia not merely deserted, but captured and took with them nearly the whole stores of the army. As the General truly wrote, "the Dependence which the Congress have placed upon the militia, has already greatly injured, and I fear will totally ruin our cause. Being subject to no controul themselves, they introduce disorder among the troops, whom you have attempted to discipline, while the change in their living brings on sickness; this makes them Impatient to get home, which spreads universally, and introduces abominable desertions." "The collecting militia," he said elsewhere, "depends entirely upon the prospects of the day. If favorable they throng in to you; if not, they will not move."

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