A depiction of the Second Continental Congress voting on the United States Declaration of Independence, by Robert Edge Pine, c.1790 / Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Professor Freeman discusses four difficulties that the Continental Congress faced in organizing the colonial war effort: regionalism, localism, the supply shortage that the Continental Army faced in providing for its troops, and the Continental Congress’s inexperience in organizing an army. The lecture concludes with a discussion of a Connecticut newspaper from July 1776.
Introduction: Organizing a War
We’re going to be looking at is some of the challenges facing these — well, now they’re states, now that we’ve declared independence — thirteen states when they came together in the opening phases of this civil war for their mutual defense. And as we’re going to see during the lecture, on the one hand, given that togetherness was not really their natural state of being, they did manage to accomplish quite a bit convened in the Continental Congress. But on the other hand, the process of organizing a war did not end up being a very efficient business in many ways, and that’s really going to be the main subject of what I’m going to talk about today.
And the experience of trying to accomplish things with only a weak Continental Congress acting as the central organizational body actually ended up convincing some people down the road that a stronger government than that one was going to be necessary when people were trying to figure out a more permanent form of government for these newly independent states. So one of the things I’ll be showing and talking about by the end of the lecture is the ways in which real life experiences were convincing some people or teaching some people — even a better word — lessons about governance in these new states, and about what they thought worked and what they thought didn’t. There was never great uniform agreement, but you’ll see why some people emerged from the Revolutionary War effort thinking that something stronger and more centralized was necessary.
Regionalism in Leadership and Military Makeup: The Promotion of George Washington
Portrait of General George Washington, by John Trumbull, 1792 / Yale University Art Gallery
Now let’s turn to the Continental Congress and how they organized a war. Now the effort really began in earnest in May of 1775 when the Second Continental Congress was first sitting just after Lexington and Concord, because it was in May of 1775 that the Continental Congress took direction of colonial military resistance to the British by creating the Continental Army.
Now, I ended Thursday’s lecture with a quote by John Adams from a letter that he wrote to Abigail in which he was summing up some of the challenges facing Congress. I’ll repeat it here because it’s going to outline some of the things that I’m — we will be talking about in today’s lecture. And what Adams wrote was:
“When 50 or 60 Men have a Constitution to form for a great Empire, at the same Time that they have a country of 1500 Miles extent to fortify, Millions to arm and train, a Naval Power to begin, an extensive Commerce to regulate, numerous Tribes of Indians to negotiate with, a standing Army of Twenty seven Thousand Men to raise pay, victual, and officer, I shall really pity those 50 or 60 men.”
Okay. So that’s Adams writing to Abigail basically saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is what we have in front of us. This will not be easy.’
And you can see in that quote the scope of the task that really did lie before the Continental Congress: figuring out how to govern the thirteen states; worrying about issues having to do with commerce; negotiating with Native Americans; and of course in war time — most central of all given military hostilities that were right at hand — creating and supplying an army. And it’s that latter task that I’m going to focus on at the moment.
I’m going to be looking at how the Continental Congress created and supplied the Continental Army, because in a lot of ways, when you look at all of the complications and controversies surrounding the creation of the Continental Army, you get a great case study of many of the problems that were at the heart of any effort at unity between the colonies and then the states. And not surprisingly, as we’re going to see down the road in this course when we talk more about the 1780s, many of these problems certainly did persist as problems not only through the Revolution, but through the 1780s, through the nation’s first decades, and in some cases long thereafter. So in a sense, you can look at the creation of the Continental Army as a kind of case study in some of the problems involved with creating an American union.
Now given what I’ve just said about problems inherent in creating a union, it’s not surprising that one of the first problems to present itself, as far as the Continental Army is concerned, was regionalism. I’m going to talk in a moment about localism, but for now I’m going to talk about regionalism. You might think that in a moment of crisis, regionalism might entirely fall by the wayside, and I suppose in some ways it did, but definitely not completely and, as I’m going to talk about in a moment, you can see this particularly when you talk about the issue of who’s going to command the Continental Army.
I remember when I was first working on my book, which is about politics in the 1790s, and I thought — without looking into it very much — that what I was going to find when I started looking at letters from the period was that there’d be this little honeymoon nationalism moment where everyone thought: ‘well, we just created a Constitution and we’re not sure about it, but let’s hang in there and be national together, and let’s not really focus on regionalism for just a little while.’ And that maybe there’d be this little honeymoon moment and then that might sort of wane and then people would get more back into their entrenched sort of regional outlooks. And what I found is that no, there wasn’t a honeymoon nationalism moment. [laughs] It just — It never happened — that even as soon as the national government is launched in the 1790s, even when people have decided to commit, at least for the present, to this new Constitution, they were still thinking about: Southerners, ‘I don’t know if we trust the Northerners’ — Northerners, ‘I don’t know if I trust the Southerners.’
Portrait of John Hancock, by John Singleton Copley, c.1770–72 / Massachusetts Historical Society
I remember finding a letter from one Southerner to another Southerner from the first year or two that the government was in existence, and the one Southerner says to the other, ‘I think we should try as hard as we can to get as many young men in clerkships in this new government as possible, because they’re going to gradually be promoted into higher offices, and sooner or later Southern men will be in control of most of the national offices, which is much better than being governed by a bunch of arrogant Northerners.’ Okay. This is the like — the government hasn’t even been in existence yet for two years, and already people are like, ‘I don’t know about that other — those Northerners.’
So it doesn’t — it waxes and wanes; it doesn’t go away, and so it’s not surprising, given that, that it pops up right at the outset of the whole revolutionary enterprise, particularly when people were thinking about a commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Now obviously, in and of itself it’s an important decision. You want the right man for that job, but it was complicated by regional concerns.
Basically, many New Englanders felt that since, during this early period of the war, most of the military action was happening in New England — basically all the hostilities we’ve been talking about much of it certainly is going on in New England — that a New Englander would be the logical choice to lead the Army. And some people even had the sneaking suspicion that maybe New Englanders wouldn’t be willing to fight under anybody else. People thought about the way that the New England militia operated as units. One of the striking things about the New England militia was that they actually elected their officers. Right? They — It wasn’t like someone was sort of enforced upon them as an officer. Militia units elected their own officers — so, given that, the thought was, given that kind of military culture, having a Southerner thrust upon them might not be welcomed with open arms by New England troops.
On a much more minor note, complicating matters was that — not only did some people think a New Englander made the most sense, but also John Hancock and some of his friends actually thought that he was the guy who should be commander-in-chief. They had pretty much already decided: John Hancock, he’s the man, just a matter of time before he gets nominated and made commander-in-chief of the army. So for a variety of reasons some people thought maybe a Southerner would not work as commander-in-chief, but on the other hand there were other people who felt just the opposite, who actually thought that because a lot of what had been happening so far had been going on in New England, that New Englanders had been doing a lot of the fighting, all the more reason to promote unity among the colonies by finding someone who wasn’t a New Englander, by finding a Southerner to be commander-in-chief and suggest that this was a joint continental effort and not some New England war.
And this kind of logic, this kind of wondering about how do you balance out positions, officerships, cabinet offices, diplomatic posts — this goes on and on and on throughout this period. The people are always very concerned — whether you’re talking about military positions or whether you’re talking about civil positions. Even Presidents had the same problem. Washington certainly has it throughout the war as commander-in-chief — with this constant concern about trying to balance things out regionally, not just oh, because it would seem fair, but actually if you think about the fact that a union — whether you’re talking about the 1770s, the 1780s or the 1790s — if you think about the fact that whatever kind of union you have, it’s pretty weak, if you actually don’t think about things like balancing between regions and different positions of responsibility and authority, the fear was that maybe parts of the union that didn’t feel included and didn’t feel represented might actually just pull out of the union.
And throughout this period, actually later than one would think, that was a constant threat — that sections of the union would threaten to pull out because they felt that they weren’t really being included as important members. Sort of again and again at key moments, there’s a little sort of threat of secession that raises its head and then is sort of shoved back down until finally it raises its head and is not shoved back down, but certainly that was a logical fear. And so wondering about balance was a problem for anyone who was in any position of authority or command throughout this period, so in the case of the army, commander-in-chief, obviously this is a big and typical kind of a decision. So some favor Hancock. Others favored a Virginian named George Washington.
The earliest authenticated portrait of George Washington shows him wearing his colonel’s uniform of the Virginia Regiment from the French and Indian War. The portrait was painted about 12 years after Washington’s service in that war, and several years before he would reenter military service in the American Revolution. By Charles Wilson Peale, c.1772. / Washington and Lee University
We’ve already seen Washington did have military experience as an officer fighting during the French and Indian War. He made a few choices that perhaps were not the best. However, he was someone who did have extensive military experience fighting alongside or as part of the British army. He also was a person — He really did kind of have a commanding presence. He was someone who seemed like he ought to be a military leader.
A couple — Gosh. Probably a couple years ago, I was giving a talk at Mount Vernon and they have a new sort of museum education center at Mount Vernon which is actually really big, really impressive — and one of the things that they did, was they created three life-scale exact models of George Washington at sort of key moments. So you have Washington as a surveyor, Washington during the Revolution, Washington taking the oath of office as President, and they literally measured his skull and did whatever they had to do to make it like, exact George Washington.
So I’m the historian. I’m giving the talk. I’m like, ‘oh, I have a little bit of time before the talk, I’ll go wander around the visitor center’ — and I see — you know — there’s Washington surveyor, huh, well, who would have thought I would have seen — there he is, it’s kind of realistic looking. And then I wander into the revolution room and — Okay. So however long I’ve been studying this period, you see a bazillion times people will say, “The man was an impressive figure on a horse.” Everyone finds a way of saying that, “My, he was an impressive figure on a horse, up on that white horse. What a man.” One way or another, everyone’s sort of, ‘oh, oh, oh’ — and I thought yeah, yeah, okay, I know this, impressive, impressive figure on a horse. So I walk into this room and there’s [laughs] Washington on the horse, and without even thinking I said, “Wow, he’s an impressive figure.” [laughter] I was like okay, it must be true. [laughter] I couldn’t help myself. He was — like, really impressive.
So he looked like someone who ought to be in command. Another useful thing about George Washington — You’ll see it’s a little complicated, but he didn’t seem ambitious. Right? One of the overriding assumptions of politics at this time is, if you really are openly power hungry, if you really are very openly ambitious, you’re the exact person who should not be given power, particularly if you’re looking at a republic or a confederation or some kind of a form of government that’s weak or shaky or new. The thought is you get a power-hungry person and you give that person power, they’re very likely to become a tyrant or a despot and then basically seize control of the government and then “poof,” everything is gone and now you just have a despotism, so you don’t want to give ambitious people power.
And George Washington, though he did have any number of talents and skills, and though he was certainly ambitious, as you’ll see in a moment, he wasn’t the kind of guy who seemed to be pulling for power. He wasn’t the sort of guy who was campaigning for himself. He wasn’t the sort of guy who was sort of pushing himself into situations. He really had kind of a modest demeanor in how he presented himself when up for some kind of an office. And a great example of that is what happens when he shows up to the Continental Congress — and he’s named a delegate to the Continental Congress, and he shows up, and he shows up in his military uniform. Okay. He’s the only guy in a military uniform. Right? He shows up like: ‘hi, I’m George Washington, guy in a uniform. Think George, think command, think — He’ll — He’s not saying anything. He’s not campaigning, but he’s definitely putting the idea out there like: ‘I’m a military guy and you’re looking for one right now, and here I am in my uniform waiting [laughter] for you to notice me.’ So it was a sort of skillful play on his part to just sort of plant the subliminal message in everyone’s mind — so surely he wanted to be commander-in-chief.
And it ends up being Adams who nominates Washington for the position of commander-in-chief, which really, really irked John Hancock, who thought that, as a Massachusetts man, when Adams starts talking, that obviously Adams must be talking about him. So before Adams says Washington’s name, sort of Hancock’s like: ‘ha, indeed that’s me, I deserve this post.’ And Adams actually later recalls this. He says he stood up to nominate Washington. He says that Washington, who was sitting near the door of the room, quote, “As soon as he heard me allude to him, from his usual modesty, darted into the library-room.” Okay. So Adams stands up and says, ‘I want to talk about commander in chief’ and Washington goes “boom,” out of the room, [laughs] not that anyone will notice. It’s like, ‘no, no, no, I don’t want to be in the room.’
John Adams, by John Trumbull, 1792 / White House Blue Room
So Adams presents his reasons as to why he thinks this particular unnamed person would be good for the post of commander-in-chief. Hancock thinks clearly that Adams is talking about him. Adams says, “Mr. Hancock, — who was our President. . . ” — he’s presiding over the Continental Congress — “heard me with visible pleasure,” until “I came to describe Washington for the commander, I never remarked a more sudden and striking change of countenance. Mortification and resentment were expressed as forcibly as his face could exhibit them.” Okay. That’s a really sort of nice little moment there. Hancock was not pleased.
However, Washington was appointed commander — in-chief of the Continental Army, June 15, 1775. Now he may have been a good person for this job. This is not to say he didn’t have regional prejudices of his own.
When Washington first goes up to New England to take his position as commander-in-chief and meet this New England army that he’s been made commander of, his response to looking at the army is: “New Englanders are an exceeding dirty and nasty people.” Okay. That’s George Washington, father of our country, commander of the Continental Army, on the army that he has just inherited.
So he’s not exactly thrilled. He doesn’t — He hasn’t necessarily commanded men like this before, and he’s also a little — I don’t even know what the right word is — befuddled, struck, by the mood or the way in which these troops conduct themselves. As I mentioned before, New England is like a town meeting government kind of a place, and they’re electing their officers in their military units. To Washington, this — he just — this did not make sense, electing an officer? What kind of authority does an elected officer have? He didn’t like the idea. It was pretty foreign as far as military thinking goes to Washington, and he wasn’t entirely sure that he could actually tell the officers apart from the common soldiers, which is probably true if they’re electing people from their midst. So Washington definitely saw New Englanders as unfamiliar, to say the least, when he took command of the Army — again, regionalism.
Regionalism was also apparent in just the mere appearance of the soldiers. They came from ultimately different parts of the confederation. Some of them were striking-looking people who came from the frontier, frontier riflemen from Virginia and I think Pennsylvania as well. These were guys who were dressed in hunting shirts. They didn’t have formal uniforms. They didn’t carry muskets, but instead they carried rifles, which were — seemed to be sharp shooting — sharper shooting, I guess, than a musket was. Some of them carried tomahawks and they were very proud of their shooting skills. They were kind of a wild bunch.
There is a rather eccentric American general who will come up again in the course. His name is Charles Lee, and he always referred to the riflemen, quote, as “that damned riffraff.” He just thought they were these wild and crazy guys from out on the frontier armed with rifles so — and Lee I should note — I’ll mention Lee again later. Lee — He’s — Everyone describes him as eccentric. Even Lee describes himself as eccentric, but maybe one of the more eccentric things about Charles Lee was that he had a pack of dogs that he loved and that followed him everywhere he went, everywhere he went. If he went into a lady’s parlor, he had six dogs. If he went into a lady’s private chamber, apparently, he had six dogs — [laughter] so this was not particularly popular with the female kind. He’s an eccentric individual for a variety of reasons — and he ends up having a bad, bad moment during the Revolution, which we’ll come to. But anyway, so Charles — if Charles Lee is calling people a damned riffraff [laughs], that actually says something.
So anyway, the riflemen were kind of a wild crew. They saw themselves as the elite of the army because of their shooting skills. They actually spent some time sort of taking potshots at British officers on the line until the British officers realized that there were these kind of crazy riflemen taking shots at them, and it would be good not to be out in the open anymore. They also just liked shooting off their guns for fun. Ammunition supplies were very low and this was not a good idea. I’ll come back to this in a minute, but they were a little bit wild. And they did not necessarily like to be disciplined, so for example in one instance there was one Virginia rifleman who was arrested for not listening to orders and other riflemen stormed the jail and freed him. Okay. This is not intense military discipline taking place here at this time, and of course on the other hand you couldn’t give all kinds of privileges to the riflemen because then all the other troops would say, ‘Well, why are those guys getting treated special, like they’re better than us?’ So the army is kind of a conglomeration of different kinds of people, different places, even different uniforms, not just different behavior.
So you can see just in the matter of managing an army, regionalism can add complications and problems.
Localism and Supply Shortages: Issues in Fighting for a National Cause and in Fighting with Proper Equipment
Drawing of American soldiers at the siege of Yorktown, by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine DeVerger, 1781 / Wikimedia Commons
It’s also a problem in a slightly different form, and I’m going to call it localism because I mean it in a slightly different way than I mean regionalism.
And what I mean by localism is, people often tended to think of their own locality first and foremost rather necessarily than of the good of the entire American cause. So people thought about wherever they were from first and foremost — and along similar lines, they were distrustful about surrendering local authority to any kind of a centralized authority.
Now in the Continental Army, obviously this is going to make it extremely complicated to gather together one united armed force. Every state had its own militia. State legislatures wanted to stay in control of their own militias. Some of these militias stayed separate from the Continental Army. They certainly didn’t want to surrender control of their own military defense to some kind of central organization that wouldn’t necessarily put their interests first. So the very idea of combining some of these militias into one big united one, in a sense — the Continental Army — was controversial. And at the start of the war in many ways, the army was kind of a collection of separate little military delegations, just like the Continental Congress in some ways was a collection of separate little state delegations.
This same fear about surrendering local control and about protecting local interests made it extremely difficult for the Continental Congress to organize and orchestrate the war effort because as a body the Continental Congress had virtually no power of enforcement. It could advise the states. It could ask them for things. It could make recommendations. It could not order a state to do something and then enforce that order. It had no real power of enforcement. And this came to be a particularly big problem when it came to supplying the army. Given that the states didn’t rush forward to supply soldiers from other states, supplying the Continental Army in any kind of a reliable way sometimes was virtually impossible. So whatever the Congress tried to do in the way of making requests or making recommendations about supplies — like we recommend that each state provide X pounds of food and X number of blankets for the use of the Continental Army — you just absolutely couldn’t tell, on the reality level, what would happen as a result of that kind of an order.
And this was a big problem, because there was an enormous supply shortage in the Continental Army as well as in the local militias. The scale of supplies required by this army was huge. So for example, during three months — December of 1777 and January and February of 1778 — so during a three-month period, the army ate more than two million pounds of beef, two million pounds of flour, and their horses ate two million tons of hay. Okay. That’s a lot of supplies, particularly if you have no really organized way to get it. And Americans started the war deficient in almost every necessity: guns, ammunition, flint, artillery, steel for bayonets, clothing, tents, blankets. The solution obviously would be for the Continental Congress to organize some kind of a central supply system, which they tried to do, but again, without being able to enforce things, that was not a very effective way to proceed.
This wasn’t all Congress’s fault. Congress wasn’t very good at the implementation. The actual shortage of supplies, ironically enough, in part, was caused by the fact that British imports were no longer being taken — right? — in the colonies and the states so that we — the states had been so busy saying, ‘No, we do not want those evil British imported goods.’ Now they’re like. ‘uh oh, we kind of might have been able to use some of that stuff now that we’re actually fighting the British.’ So in time they — when the states began to encourage other countries to bring imported goods, this became a little bit less extreme, but that is sort of a weird, ironic problem that arose when the war broke out.
In the meantime, there were some American soldiers fighting with spears, fighting with tomahawks. Benjamin Franklin apparently thought that bows and arrows might be a really good idea, and he was serious — and he calculated. Okay. He’s a calculating guy. You remember he’s the guy who backed away from George Whitefield to see how far — Okay. So he’s calculating again, and he calculated this time that you could — a single soldier could shoot off four arrows in the time that it took him to load and fire his gun, so that maybe it’s even a great idea to have the soldiers fighting with bows and arrows. That didn’t necessarily go very far but he was thinking about it.
As long as the states were so wary about surrendering control to Congress, supplies really were a seemingly insurmountable problem, and there are actually stories of Washington’s aides literally going farmhouse to farmhouse and knocking on doors to ask people for blankets and supplies and wagons and whatever they could get. Literally, the army sometimes was reduced to that level.
Given that kind of problem, it makes sense that the experience of fighting the war convinced many people that there did need to be something stronger, something more centralized at the center of whatever kind of confederation was forming. And particularly people who were at military headquarters with Washington, which includes Alexander Hamilton, since they were the guys who were seeing problems with supplies and how Congress couldn’t seem to do anything forcefully and efficiently — it’s not surprising that many of those people ended up being really strong nationalists who really wanted a stronger centralized government. Hamilton, frustrated at headquarters, just seeing what he saw as this sort of amazing, potentially deadly inefficiency of the Continental Congress, really early in the war, he is already coming forward and saying, ‘We need a stronger centralized power; we need a stronger centralized power,’ even before anyone is really thinking about what kind of government comes later. Hamilton’s sort of already out there pounding away, and it’s partly based on his real life experience of what it’s like to try and be governed by the Continental Army while being in the army during a time of war.
So this is basically an interesting and important point. It’ll come up again towards the end of the course, but basically there were real life experiences behind people’s theoretical ideas about what kind of government would be desirable for the new American nation. When we get to the part of the course where we’re talking about the Constitution and different ideas and sort of what led up to it and why people thought one thing or thought another thing, some of those ideas are not sort of highfalutin’, sort of detached ‘thoughts about federalism,’ but they’re actually based on real life experiences and real lessons and people looking at what has been happening and then drawing conclusions and coming to different conclusions — but still, drawing conclusions, based on what they’ve just experienced, about what should be happening next.
Continental Congress’s Inexperience in Organizing an Army
So basically centralized coordination, scary thing for the states — not good news for organizing a continental army; neither was the complete lack of a precedent for what the Congress was doing in organizing this war — if you think about Great Britain, think about all of the sophisticated administrative machinery that they would have had there for conducting a war, and then think about the American states that have really nothing in place.
They’re really starting from scratch, and the people in Congress who were responsible for organizing the army were not men with vast military experience. Of the roughly sixty-five congressmen that were in attendance in 1775 and 1776, only five had served with the British during the French and Indian War; only one of these five had real experience in supplies and that experience dated back to 1759; none really had experience with medical matters in a time of war; only two had any medical training and they were not on the medical committee, so bureaucracy even at an early point. ‘Let’s take the two medical guys and put them on the grain committee.’ Well, I don’t know.
So basically, you have a bunch of people here who are trying to figure out from scratch how to create a coordinated army effort. By 1778, Congress began to try to improve its administrative structure and it did begin to create boards of war and boards of admiralty, but even once they started to have an organized administrative force, habits of individual congressmen were unpredictable. There wasn’t even a way to enforce attendance to the Continental Congress — and again, sometimes Continental Congressmen thought that what was happening at home demanded their attention more than whatever was going on with the Continental Congress, so they just didn’t show up — to the point that in April of 1778, Congress actually circulated a written statement that was titled “Engagement of Members to Meet Punctually.” Okay. They actually published a little reminder saying: ‘we really need you guys to come [laughs] to the Congress. We’re kind of having a war and bad things are happening. We really — We’d like you to be here so you can actually do things.’ Even just attendance sometimes could be a problem, and that really didn’t accomplish very much. As one historian wrote, Congress was “too inefficient to correct its own inefficiency.” That’s not good.
Okay. So obviously things are somewhat unpredictable, occasionally random, and this made congressional control and organization a problem throughout the war — and it wasn’t just congressmen who were inexperienced with this kind of issue and were having problems with the whole question of supplies. Supply issues were complicated by the behavior of soldiers, many of whom for the most part had not ever been soldiers before, so they’re also not following any precedent. It’s not like they’re a trained military force — and many of them were often far more interested in protecting their locality than in anything else, and their behavior in battle when far from home was sometimes not ideal.
Also, because they were not always sure of what they were doing they were not very careful with the supplies that they were given. Like the riflemen., they fired off their guns for fun. They sold sometimes their clothes and ammunition if they needed cash. When they were beating a hasty retreat, they tended to just throw anything that was heavy and getting in their way on the ground as they ran. One soldier who returned to a place where the army — the Continental Army had just retreated said “the ground was literally covered with arms, knapsacks, staves, coats, hats, and old oil flasks.” These people — They just dropped things and ran, and left them on the field.
So there’s no precedent on so many levels for what we’re talking about here. There was no precedent for an organized Continental Army, there was no precedent for an organized Continental Army administration, so troops had to learn how to behave like an army while already fighting a war — which leads to another problem at the start of the war, and that is the problem of what certainly one or two European visitors saw as the attitude of the American troops.
In part, as I just suggested, many soldiers were just ignorant about military operations, about how an army was supposed to be organized. They hadn’t been soldiers. They didn’t know how an army was supposed to work. They had to be trained from scratch. Now Baron von Steuben was a foreign volunteer that arrived in the states in 1777. Specifically, he was given the task of training the Continental Army. He was someone who had experience with European armies. He was given the task of training the American troops. Steuben didn’t speak a lot of English when he first came here. He actually was much better in French and German, and so according to people at the time, when he was training the troops, he cursed in three different languages at the same time, [laughs] English, French and German, and I guess he cursed a lot. I think he was probably a little surprised by what the troops could not do.
Supposedly, Steuben and others who were trying to train the troops discovered among other things that it was very hard to teach the people to march because they didn’t always consistently know left foot and right foot. Right? If that’s something you hadn’t thought about before, I suppose you’re not thinking about it as you’re walking. So — And I’m such a city slicker here that I don’t know the difference, and I always — every year when I say this, I count on someone in the class. Maybe one of you will know and can sort of interpret this for me. Supposedly, or at least anecdotally, one of the things that they did to train these troops was they tied hay on one foot and straw on the other foot and said, ‘hay foot, straw foot, hay foot, straw foot,’ and that was the way that people were initially taught to march. Now of course city slicker me: What is the difference between hay and straw? I would be bad. I would be even worse. I would be not knowing how to march in the Continental Army because I wouldn’t know which was my hay foot. Hay has actual food mixed in.
Now von Steuben is one of the people who looked at the Continental soldiers and commented on what he took to be a particularly American attitude. Supposedly, what Steuben said was, in the Prussian army, officers said to a soldier “‘Do this,’ and he doeth it: but I am obliged to say. . . ‘This is the reason why you ought to do that;’ and then he does it.” The Americans are operating in a slightly different way from what he considers a traditional European army’s behavior. Basically, Americans didn’t always respond well to orders. They wanted to take part in decisions. They wanted their opinions to be represented. Obviously, this kind of political sensibility could present problems if you’re trying to command men in an army.
It also created problems with terms of enlistment. Soldiers tended to sign on for one year at a time and when the year was over, they just often went home. They were in the army by choice, and they felt that they basically had no need to listen to any kind of higher command telling them to stay. We’ll see a little bit later in a future lecture Washington literally pleading with the men: ‘Please don’t go home. I know you can go home. Please don’t go home. Please stay just a little bit longer.’
So for example, at the end of 1775, a big chunk of the army just packed up and went home — so America essentially changed armies at the beginning of 1776, found new men, enlisted them for another one-year term, and it was assumed that at the end of another year the same thing would happen again. It took a while before Congress agreed to try and regulate and lengthen terms of enlistment.
There was a similar problem involved with social rank and military rank. I’ve already mentioned very early in the course that social rank, hierarchy in the colonies, was a little bit more slippery than in England, so that while there certainly was an elite in the colonies and the states, there wasn’t a sort of entrenched to-the-manor-born aristocratic class, as there would have been in England, and the difference between a gentleman and a more common man could sometimes be hard to tell.
Well, Washington wanted gentlemen to serve as commanding officers. Basically, he wanted to use social rank to enforce military rank, thinking that if you respected someone as your social superior you’d probably respect him as your military superior. As Washington put it, “the true criterion” of judgment about who should be an officer “when past services do not enter into the competition, is, whether the candidate for office has a just pretension to the character of a gentleman, a proper sense of honor, and some reputation to lose.” Right? If he has some reputation to lose, he’s going to worry about losing it, so there’s a logic for having an officer.
Portrait of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, by Charles Wilson Peale, 1780 / Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Now this may sound logical by eighteenth-century terms — this kind of logic — but it often presented a problem, because sometimes there really wasn’t all that much separating socially — as far as rank is concerned — officers from non-officers. And again, think about the New Englanders promoting people from within their own. Sometimes there wasn’t really much of a social rank differentiating officers at all.
There’s one historian who argues that one of the reasons why there was dueling prevalent among some of the younger officers in the Continental Army was because they were actually dueling to prove that they could duel, which meant that they were actually gentlemen, or of the gentleman class, which meant they were actually better than some of the men they were commanding who were pretty much their equals. So dueling was a way for these young officers to sort of prove that they deserved to be elite. So we’re talking about kind of a fuzzy line here that was not helpful for Washington in trying to figure out how to get discipline and order in the army.
This is certainly not something that you would have found in the British or French army where social rank and military rank was much more defined and established, and it’s one of the reasons why Europeans came to America to fight during the American Revolution. Some of them came because they were inspired by the cause. Some of them came because they would not have been able to promote themselves in the British or French Army or some other army, but in the Continental Army they were Europeans; they seemed sophisticated; they seemed to have experience. They could go to the Continental Army, say that they would fight for the cause if they were given a commission as an officer, and they’d be given one.
And this was enormously demoralizing for some of the Continental Army officers who were not being promoted. They watched these people come in from other countries and be promoted above them. Alexander Hamilton said it gave him “pygmy feelings,” this idea that these foreigners could come in because they were supposedly better than us and then get promoted over us, and we were just a bunch of rustic boobs and we didn’t get promoted as quickly as they did. So some people from foreign countries were actually taking advantage of the sort of ambiguity in the states at the time.
Okay. So looking at the process of organizing a war, we’ve seen regionalism and localism in action working against centralized control and organization; we’ve seen complications of social rank and the sort of individualism of the troops, making it hard again to organize and command; and overall we’ve seen a Congress that all in all doesn’t have that much power, really struggling to exert some kind of centralized control over a continental war effort.
So in essence, the things that were complicating unity between the colonies and then the states are the same things logically that are going to complicate and confuse efforts to create some kind of continental war effort. We’ll see this continuing in a different way in the 1780s.