Just weeks after the outbreak of fighting at Lexington and Concord, delegates from every colony gathered in Philadelphia. They resolved to establish a unified colonial military for the Defense of American Liberty. In June 1775, they established a Continental Army and selected George Washington as its commander in chief. They authorized a Continental Navy in October and a contingent of marines in November. Most colonists harbored a deep distrust of a standing army, but the establishment of such a force proved a necessary step toward creating a nation.
Delegates to Congress were impressed by Washington's commanding presence, military experience, and political skill. He has so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among ten thousand people, wrote Benjamin Rush, a physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, in a letter to Thomas Rushton, October 29, 1775. There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side.
George Washingtons Army
In the summer of 1776, George Washington was in New York waiting for a British attack. Thousands of men were joining the Continental Army: they were young and mostly poor farmers, fishermen, and artisans; some were Africans. All were volunteers and many joined for the cash bounty. Some were veterans of the French and Indian War, but most had no idea of what they were getting into.
Washington knew that order and discipline were key to transforming free-willed and unruly civilians into soldiers. He insisted that all officers and soldiers conduct themselves in an orderly manner, as Men contending in the glorious cause of Liberty ought to do. And he did not hesitate to whip, drum out of the army, or even execute those who failed to obey orders.
He also made sure that troops trained for battle using systems of Discipline from various English military manuals. Discipline ensured the coordinated handling of weaponry, taught individuals to act as one, and kept scared soldiers marching forward when those beside them exploded in blood.
When the British attacked Long Island in August, Washingtons troops faced heavy volleys of musket fire, fusillades of artillery, and charges with fixed bayonets. Many were killed; others retreated before superior British forces. But gradually they learned to be soldiers.
Life in Camp
Washington sought to impose strict military protocols and daily orders on life in camp, but was constantly frustrated by all manner of irregularities and discomforts. Each day civilians in every imaginable capacity were drawn to the camps, militiamen came and went, soldiers deserted, and many succumbed to illness. The weather seemed always too hot or too wet. Flies and mosquitoes were ever-present. Rations were inadequate, and promised supplies and equipment never materialized. And once British forces began their attacks in late August, American troops were constantly on the run, retreating from Long Island to Manhattan to White Plains, then all the way across New Jersey.