What is the Continental Army?

Mary McMahon

The Continental Army was a military force organized in 1775 to represent what would eventually become the United States in the Revolutionary War. This force fought against the British and though it was dissolved at the conclusion of the war, it laid the groundwork for what eventually became the United States Army.

The Continental Army was formed in 1775 to fight the British.
The Continental Army was formed in 1775 to fight the British.

When the 13 American Colonies initially began resisting Britain, they had no organized military. Individual states fielded militias and troops, but a unified military was lacking. In part, this was a result of wary attitudes among many members of the public, who did not support the idea of an organized military force acting on behalf of all of the colonies. In May 1775, several leaders urged for the formation of the Continental Army, and the Continental Congress set things in motion, appointing George Washington as the commander in chief.

George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775.
George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775.

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The Continental Congress required each of the then-colonies to send men and to supply and pay those men. Few colonies were able to meet their requirements and the Continental Army was often inadequately supplied with food, clothing, and other materials. Many soldiers were poorly paid, and there was a very high turnover rate. Much to Washington's frustration, his recommendation of a three-year military service was not followed, and soldiers enlisted for periods of time as short as a summer, making it difficult to train and coordinate soldiers.

Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben helped George Washington mold the Continental Army into an effective fighting force.
Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben helped George Washington mold the Continental Army into an effective fighting force.

The Continental Army represented an interesting blend of traditional and well-established military tactics and innovation. While it often struggled against the more highly trained and organized British troops in open battle, Continental forces were not above using guerrilla tactics to harry the British. It subverted traditional ideas about how wars should be fought, relying on knowledge of the terrain and creativity to fight the British, rather than attempting to overpower British forces by conventional means. Inconsistent organization within the British military forces was exploited by Continental troops.

The Treaty of Paris was eventually ratified in France's capital, giving the document its name.
The Treaty of Paris was eventually ratified in France's capital, giving the document its name.

Washington's command of the Continental Army was often frustrated by lack of troops and poor organization. The troops lacked even the most rudimentary supplies, like uniforms, and were jeered at by the British. However, ultimately the United States was successful in its bid for independence. After the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 to end the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army was disbanded. The need for a regular military force for the new nation was recognized, and steps were taken to organize a permanent army.

The Treaty of Paris also allowed access to the Mississippi River for both the British and the Americans, and it continues to be a popular shipping route today.
The Treaty of Paris also allowed access to the Mississippi River for both the British and the Americans, and it continues to be a popular shipping route today.
The Continental Army included soldiers from all 13 colonies.
The Continental Army included soldiers from all 13 colonies.
Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" was an influential Revolutionary-era essay.
Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" was an influential Revolutionary-era essay.

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Discussion Comments

anon1001458

The different tactics of both the Continental Army and the militias made it more unpredictable complimenting each other. Today we are still able to do this because we have the non-commissioned officer corps. However, war will always be played out by money, politics and Motivation.

I don't think soldiers have changed that much even 240+ years ago. I know from seeing pictures of WWI and WWII that they still are very similar. Washington in all honesty was good at choosing his subordinate officers. Generals are so far removed that they don't consider the low men. The men would rise or fall to the occasion based on their local leadership.

Izzy78

@TreeMan - I always found the mythology of George Washington so intriguing simply because it is one of the rare myths that has not been overly romanticized without due justice.

He is what made the Continental Army work and defeat the British and simply because of this fact it gave the American people hope that they could in fact beat the mighty British.

I really find it interesting that he was able to convey the Army to the people in such a way that they were able to bring it upon themselves to act out against the British and do whatever they could to win the war and gain their independence.

I guarantee he used his persona to ignite the flames of liberty onto his people and started a fire that would not die and the Continental Army was the driving force behind it.

I really wonder if this topic has been fully explored or if there is more to be researched? I have not heard much about it and wonder if a historian has written on it?

TreeMan

@Emilski - You are absolutely correct. I have researched the American Revolution and the biggest role the Continental Army played was the hope that it gave for the nation as a whole.

The fact that there was actually a professional army to fight the mighty British allowed the Americans to have a sense a pride and in reality a better chance at winning the war as opposed to just having a rag tag group of people together to try and overcome a nearly impossible hurdle.

The Americans were very lucky to have a General such as George Washington on their side as he was the main reason for the victory over the British.

He was also the face of the Continental Army and allowed the people of the nation to have a hero and a group of followers and soldiers to follow him into battle until the end and victory was had.

Emilski
@jcraig - Although you do have a point with your statement I feel like it is something that can be a bit debatable.

Although the local and state militias were a major part of the American Revolution, the Continental Army were the ones that ultimately won the battles.

For the most part the militias were people that simply were farmers or townsfolk that stayed home and chose to only fight when the British invaded their turf. Although this did happen, it could only happen if it were a small number of British, otherwise they could not handle a large scale assault.

This is why the Continental Army was so important, because it centralized the fighting force for the nation and allowed for the soldiers doing the fighting to be united together and be able to face their foe and actually have a chance to win.

Although the militias did play a role, they took a back seat to the Continental Army, which made a monumental impact on the American cause.

jcraig
I have heard stories about the Continental Army and how General George Washington's leadership is what led the Americans to victory over Great Britain during the American Revolution. However, I have also heard that due to the restrictions regarding how long one could serve this led to a greater reliance on the local militias in order to ensure American victory.

Unlike today, the local militias were the groups of people that took care of the British in small scale assaults and supplemented the large scale battles that George Washington and the Continental Army engaged in.

Although without the Continental Army there is no way the Americans could have won the war, the same thing can be said for the local and state militias that played a major role in the American Revolution and were the ones that were expected to face off with the British more often in small scale battles.

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