« ZurückWeiter »
THE ADMINISTRATION OF THE AMER
ICAN REVOLUTIONARY ARMY.
WHEN the Second Continental Congress met, May 10, 1775, the British army was shut up in Boston by bodies of imperfectly organized and ill-trained troops from the four New England colonies. This mass of armed men which constituted the besieging force scarcely deserved the name of army, and the units of which it was composed could hardly be called sol. diers. The Americans, indeed, were brave, accustomed to long and difficult journeys, and familiar with the use of firearms; but they knew little of military training or military subordination. To be sure, nearly every able-bodied man served in the militia ; but under a popular or a semi-popular government, and with little immediate danger of invasion, people are ordinarily too busy sowing and reaping, buying and selling, to give much attention to drills and reviews. These conditions had brought about the usual results, and the musters had degenerated into little more than farces.
In 1745 the Rhode Island legislature voted that the militia should drill but twice a year. Of the Massachusetts musters, Timothy Pickering, afterwards quartermaster-general of the Revolutionary army, wrote an amusing account. The men assembled slowly, he says, and disputed with each other for places. While marching to the training field, some would break ranks to engage in the chivalrous pastime of frightening young
1 Rhode Island Colonial Records, v. 156.
women by surrounding them and discharging their muskets. The “training " was made up of a few short drills, at least one “elegant entertainment" for the officers, a day's musketry practice, and two sham battles, — all very simple and useless.
Pickering declared that the object of his criticism was to bring about a reform, so that, if war broke out with France and the seaports were attacked, there might be a well-disciplined militia to hold the invaders in check until aid could arrive from Great Britain. The Salem patriot was following the example of a Boston town-meeting, which, in 1768, advised all persons without arms to procure them, “in consequence of prevailing apprehensions of a war with France.”' 2
As the danger of a conflict with England became imminent, the colonies made earnest attempts to improve their militia. In Virginia, volunteer companies drilled busily.3 In Maryland, there was a thorough reorganization of the militia under the leadership of Charles Lee, an English half-pay officer. Rhode Island, in 1774, ordered that company drills be held monthly, regimental semiannually, brigade biennially. In October of the same year the Massachusetts Congress directed the fieldofficers of the militia to endeavor to enlist at least one-quarter of the men in a special force, ready to march at a moment's notice; and the same Congress recommended all the inhabitants to “perfect themselves in the military skill.”6 The former were the famous minute-men of Massachusetts.
Curiously enough, the initiative in improving the militia was sometimes taken by the royal governors. On JanuaryʻI, 1771, Governor Wentworth of New Hampshire informed the legislature that “the present appearances of impending war leaves us no time to loose [lose) in making effectual preparations for the defence and safety of the province, particularly in forming the
1 Pickering, Pickering, i. 16-20, from Essex Gazette, January 31 and February 21, 1769.
2 Hildreth, United States, ii. 546. 8 Irving, Washington, i. 421-422. 4 Lee Papers (New York Historical Society, Collections, 1874), ii. 247. 5 Rhode Island Colonial Records, vii. 269–270. 6 Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War, i., pp. ix.-X. COLONIAL MILITIA.
militia into a powerful and respectable body." His Excellency proposed that the laws on the subject “be drawn together into one plain and precise act"; and the legislature accordingly appointed a committee to prepare such a revision. Probably the governor was honestly alarmed at the situation of foreign affairs, and did not appreciate the danger of revolt at home; he may have hoped also to turn the reorganization to the advantage of the crown.
In New York a similar policy was adopted. In 1772 a number of excellent companies were raised in the colony on the suggestion of Governor Tryon, a staunch loyalist; but the British government, for once understanding colonial sentiment, received the news of what he had done with considerable coolness.?
Besides drilling on the muster-ground, hundreds of the pro- . vincials had served with the royal troops in the French and Indian War; but this experience was, perhaps, of small disciplinary value. It was often merely a training in frontier warfare, where men fought in small groups, or even singly, and where, as Pickering said, “no other discipline was necessary than being good marksmen and dexterous in skulking behind trees and bushes.” 3 Knowledge of tactics and strategy was also lacking; there was no military school in the colonies, and nearly half the American generals served their apprenticeship in the war itself. Of the remainder, three — St. Clair, Montgomery, and Dayton — had held royal commissions; the others had served in the provincial forces only. With the exception of Washington, however, the veterans, if we may call them so, manifested little superiority over their more inexperienced fellows. Of the twenty-one American major-generals in the Continental army, ten had been at least company officers in earlier wars; five of these were of small ability, three were especially valuable, and two belonged to neither category. Of the eleven who had seen no previous service, three showed little military skill, three rank among the ablest of the American generals, and three, though less eminent, deserve an honorable place in the
1 New Hampshire Provincial Papers, vii. 267.
military history of our country. The two unclassified are Benedict Arnold, and Parsons of Connecticut, who was probably also a traitor.1
The lack of military experience was the more alarming on account of the power of Great Britain. The Seven Years' War had greatly increased her dominion and influence. She had a considerable army, an excellent navy, and was accustomed to combining land and sea operations. British cruisers could interrupt the foreign trade of the colonies, to whom commerce was almost a necessity, since America was not a manufacturing country; British fleets could facilitate a landing in every harbor of the extended coast; and Canada furnished a base for an attack by land. Everywhere the colonies lay open to invasion; from Eastport to Savannah there was not a single fortified town.
True, the size of the country was a better guarantee against conquest than the possession of a Quebec, or even of a Gibraltar; it was much easier to overrun the colonies than to subdue them. If the Americans could avoid a pitched battle in a fair field and be content to hover round an invading army and confine its operations, there was hope that at last Great Britain would grow weary of a struggle which brought little honor and no profit; or that foreign aid or some blunder of the enemy would give an opportunity to strike a decisive blow. It would, however, be difficult for an unwarlike democracy to maintain such a system; untrained troops are ill fitted for delicate manoeuvres, and frequent retreats may demoralize even veterans. Moreover, the temper of the voters must be considered as well as that of the soldiers; and America would be fortunate if the people, impatient under the burdens of war and zealous for the glory of their
1 The American major-generals of the Continental army were in the order of their appointment: Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, Philip Schuyler, Israel Putnam, Richard Montgomery, John Thomas, Horatio Gates, William Heath, Joseph Spencer, John Sullivan, Nathanael Greene, Benedict Arnold, William Alexander (called Lord Stirling), Thomas Mifflin, Arthur St. Clair, Adam Stephen, Benjamin Lincoln, Robert Howe, Alexander McDougall, William Smallwood, Samuel H. Parsons, Henry Knox, William Moultrie. — Heitman, Historical Register of the Officers of the Continental Army, 9.
country, did not drive the government or the general to meet the enemy in the field, though at a risk of utter ruin.
Such were the conditions under which the members of the Continental Congress were obliged to answer the solemn questions: Are you ready to risk your property and person by abet, ting armed resistance to the royal authority ? Dare you take upon your conscience the awful responsibility of a civil war, when defeat may mean loss of charters and privileges, and victory may result in the breaking of the ties which for over 150 years have bound you to the mother country? The colonists were proud to call themselves Englishmen, and even the Whigs were reluctant to consent to independence. To us the word means liberty, but to them it meant secession. To-day, with national feeling higher than ever before, and the western hemisphere too small for our ambition, it is difficult to appreciate the moral courage displayed by the Continental Congress when they gave their sanction to an appeal to arms.
Indeed, Congress at first refused to approve of a general war, . · and tried to confine the fighting to the vicinity of Boston. Theyadvised that, if British troops came to New York, they should remain unmolested, provided that they behaved peaceably and did not attempt to erect fortifications. Congress also expressed disapproval of colonial incursions into Canada, and promised to give back the cannon and stores which Ethan Allen had taken at Ticonderoga, “when the restoration of the former harmony between Great Britain and these colonies, so ardently wished for by the latter, shall render it prudent and consistent with the overruling law of self-preservation.”2 Congress acted on the theory that they were opposing, not the king, but the “ministerial army” under Gage. The fiction now seems rather transparent; at that time many Americans felt that they were not making war so much as defending themselves against unlawful violence, and thought that they had suffered a real injustice when, on August 23, 1775, George III. officially declared them rebels.
Though Congress hesitated to call things by their right names, and to recognize the full meaning of the siege of Boston, they
1 Journals of Congress, i. 101-102, May 15, 1775.