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Learn about the Continental Army and its leader, General George Washington. This lesson describes the events leading to the Revolutionary War and the Continental Army’s key role in securing independence for the United States.

Overview

The Continental Army was formed to secure American colonists’ independence from Great Britain.

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This army courageously fought what became known as the American Revolutionary War and claimed victory for the newly formed United States.The Revolutionary War began in 1775. This was one year prior to the United States Declaration of Independence and the creation of the United States of America. Let’s start with a short review of the events leading to the army’s formation.

Tension with the Colonists

Tension between Britain’s Parliament and colonists brewed for at least a decade before the declaration of war, resulting in a sizable political movement known as the American Revolution or the Patriot Cause.Many colonists objected to Britain’s tax and restriction of trade attempts. Colonial protests led to the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Britain responded by passing the Intolerable Acts. These unpopular acts further united the colonies and fueled more interest in colonial self-governance.

First Continental Congress

This interest in self-governance led to the colonies’ formation of the First Continental Congress, which met in 1774. They did not initially focus on independence. Instead, they attempted to force Britain to repeal colonial legislation.But British Parliament was not cooperative.

The stage was now set for the American Revolutionary movement to escalate into the American Revolutionary War.

The American Revolutionary War

The American Revolutionary War began in April 1775, when British troops already based in Boston were sent to capture patriot leaders and weapons in Concord.The colonists’ early efforts relied on Minutemen. These were individual soldiers from throughout the Thirteen Colonies who could be ready to fight with only a minute’s notice. These soldiers were volunteers and not formally organized.

Instead, each of the colonies provided a separate militia and their efforts were therefore disjointed.The Minutemen received advanced notice that the British soldiers, known informally as Red Coats, were headed to Concord. Though enthusiastic for battle, the colonists were outnumbered and their first encounters at Lexington and Concord were taxing. Many lives were lost. The colonists soon found that they required a cohesive army in order to fight the well-established British.

The Continental Army

The Second Continental Congress started meeting in May 1775 and recognized the need for an organized army. Congress officially created the American Continental Army in June of 1775. This creation served to better unify the separate colonial military forces who were already serving together.

Portrait of General George Washington
General George Washington

Congress unanimously elected former Virginia militia officer George Washington to command these forces. Virginia was the largest and most prominent of the southern colonies, and Washington had the most military experience of the congressional representatives. Though an admired leader, even Washington recognized that he lacked large-scale military leadership experience.

He promptly headed to Boston. When General Washington arrived, he found nearly 20,000 soldiers at his behest. Washington was pleased with the number of soldiers but troubled by their disorganization. He described it as ‘a mixed multitude of people under very little discipline, order or government.’ He was determined to establish an orderly army.

Washington’s Transformation

Forming a unified army was challenging. Colonists generally had misgivings toward the establishment of a ‘standing’ army and the individual militia leaders were inexperienced.General Washington established firm rules regarding the comings and goings of soldiers. He used a hierarchy amongst the soldiers, instituting the use of more officers. Washington also started a discipline system, which involved physical punishments and court martial for uncooperative soldiers.

Washington stressed soldier discipline, which he modeled after British troop behaviors. Many of General Washington’s rules are similar to those still used in today’s United States Army.Numerous colonial soldiers were resistant to the new system. Some felt the need to leave the army periodically to care for family and farms. Many soldiers also felt a loyalty to the systems established by their individual militias. These differences led to severely dwindling numbers of troops.

In March of 1776, Washington’s army, despite lacking in weapons and artillery, successfully forced the retreat of British soldiers in Boston. Fortunately for Washington, the British left cannons and ammunition behind. These added supplies helped secure the Continental Army’s eventual victory.

Victory

Infantry in the Continental Army
Continental Army

It took more than three years for an effective and successful army to evolve, but by mid-1778, General Washington commanded a structured and capable national army.

The Continental Army underwent many changes and phases in the meantime, including the addition of many army committees and the establishment of Congress’ Board of War and Ordnance and, later, War Office.The Continental Army’s first major victory did not occur until October of 1777, at the Battle of Saratoga. This victory led to France recognizing American independence and their supply of needed war provisions. France formally entered the war as an American ally in 1778. Spain and the Dutch Republic both declared war against Great Britain over the next four years. British forces and supplies were accordingly stretched thin.

The Revolutionary War would last five more years and include various victories and defeats for Washington’s army. Many key victories were the result of French cooperation, including the addition of naval troops and arsenals. The French navy defeated British forces in the Chesapeake Bay in September 1781, then leading to the end of the war through British surrender to revolutionary troops at Yorktown in October 1781.Minor battles continued over the course of the next two years, with all hostilities officially ending with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September of 1783. Great Britain now formally recognized the United States of America, which was formed seven years earlier by the Second Continental Congress.

General Washington resigned his commission as General of the Continental Army in December of 1783.

Lesson Summary

The American Continental Army was formed in 1775 under the leadership of General George Washington in order to present a stronger front against the British. It took a few years, but the army evolved to a disciplined, strong force that won its first major victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. Hostilities officially ended in 1783, eight years after the Continental Army was formed. Great Britain finally recognized the independent United States of America.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Summarize the history that led to the formation of the American Continental Army
  • Describe General George Washington’s leadership of the Continental Army
  • Explain the role the Continental Army played in the Revolutionary War and American independence
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