Reflecting on the service of American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines this past Veteran’s Day prompted an interesting question: Who was the first Continental soldier to die in combat during the American Revolution? The death of the first general officer, Brigadier General Richard Montgomery, during the failed American assault on Quebec on December 31, 1775, is well-documented even though there is no eyewitness account of the event. Many other men died that same evening but men serving in units authorized by the Continental Congress as part of the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington entered service around Boston during mid-August 1775. Who was the first member of the new national army or Continental Army to give his life for the American cause that would ultimately lead to American independence?
Birth of the Continental Army
The Untied Colonies engaged the British Army at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 with a collection of militia. These units formed a New England regional force that evolved into the “Army of Observation” that laid siege to Boston and fought the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. While these events unfolded in New England the Continental Congress began the process of creating a national army, the Continental Army.
Interestingly, the United States (U.S.) Army traces its lineage to the American Army of the 1780s, not the Continental Army that fought the American Revolution. The U.S. Army, however, celebrates its birth on the 14th of June each year. This anniversary documents the birth of the Continental Army on June 14, 1775 when the Continental Congress authorized three different states to raise ten rifle companies, six from Pennsylvania, two from Maryland and two from Virginia to serve near Boston. Congress established the term of enlistment for the initial rifle companies for one year and specified company strength of eighty-one men, a captain, three lieutenants, four sergeants, four corporals, a drummer or trumpeter, and sixty-eight privates. Congress understood when they specifically authorized rifle companies, the nature of the backcountry population and the importance of providing a national vice regional approach to the conflict.
Rifles were standard weapons on the colonial frontier or backcountry, with significant killing power, and the backcountry men who used the rifles were excellent marksmen. Soldiers who could kill the enemy at over 200 yards provided a capability not resident in the New England militia units assembled around Boston. These initial Continental soldiers armed with rifles provided their own clothing and rifles, reflective of their independent backcountry lifestyle. The ability of the riflemen to equip themselves with personal weapons also facilitated the rapid recruitment, organization and deployment of these rifle companies. Even the simple wording of the enlistment contracts signed by these first Continental soldiers reflects the level of commitment expected; the contract even portends an optimistic view that the conflict would end quickly. The enlistment contract prescribed on June 14, 1775, read:
I _____________________ have, this day, voluntarily enlisted myself, as a soldier, in the American continental army, for one year, unless sooner discharged: And I do bind myself to conform, in all instances, to such rules and regulations, as are, or shall be, established for the government of the sad. Army.
The resounding response by the various county committees in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia resulted in the companies exceeding initial enlistment quotas and men even volunteering to serve without pay. The successful formation of units in Pennsylvania’s western and northern counties resulted in Congress, acting on June 22, authorizing the eight Pennsylvania companies to form a battalion. Congress added a ninth Pennsylvania Company on July 11. The rifle companies formed quickly and began the march north to Boston to join the New England forces operating there, providing the United Colonies a national versus regional army.
Movement to Boston
The newly formed national army units departed their home counties during mid-July and arrived in Boston by mid-August. The Virginia companies traveled over 500 miles, units marched twenty to thirty miles per day, and some made the trip to Boston in three weeks. The companies tended to follow similar routes that converged as they neared New York City.
All nine companies from Pennsylvania, organized as Thompson’s Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion, arrived in Cambridge by August 18. Three Pennsylvania companies arrived at Cambridge on August 8 with one Pennsylvania Company, Hendricks’, arriving on August 9. Cresap’s and Price’s, two Maryland Companies, arrived August 9 as well. Daniel Morgan’s Virginia Company, possibly the first to report to General Washington for duty, arrived on August 6 followed by Stephenson’s Virginia Company on August 11. These thirteen companies of congressionally authorized, skilled marksmen provided a national rather than regional flavor to the American military effort and they exacerbated the discipline problems Gen. George Washington experienced with the thousands of New England militia already present around Boston.
One of the men in Captain Hendricks’ Company, formed in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, Private George Morison, provided a lively account of the Pennsylvania riflemen’s journey to Boston. After obtaining clothing and supplies at Reading, Hendricks’ Company proceeded to Bethlehem where the men spent their leisure time observing a number of beautiful, young nuns of a local convent. Crossing the Delaware River into New Jersey on July 26, Hendricks’ Company took a break from marching and entertained themselves by tarring and feathering a loyalist. As the company proceeded to Litchfield, Connecticut on August 3, the Pennsylvania troops tarred and feathered another loyalist, brought into town by one of the two Maryland rifle companies also en route to Boston. To add insult, the Pennsylvania men made the man “… drink to the health of Congress …” before drumming him out of town.
Reports of Combat
Three of the Pennsylvania rifle companies that arrived in Cambridge on August 8, 1775 announced their presence by killing a British sentry the same day. Capt. James Chambers, commander of a Pennsylvania rifle company from Cumberland County reported, in a letter dated August 13, 1775, only a few days after their arrival, that the activities of the riflemen resulted in “forty-two killed and thirty-eight prisoners taken,” including four captains. The riflemen successfully combined their superior marksmanship skills and their aggressive patrolling to effectively interfere with the activities of the British. The riflemen, when not on duty by shooting at targets, also impressed those along the route of march and the New England troops around Boston with their marksmanship skills. “Two brothers in the company [Captain Cresap’s from Maryland] took a piece of board five inched broad, and seven inched long, with a bit of white paper, the size of a dollar, nailed in the center, and while one of them supported this board perpendicularly between his knees, the other at a distance of upwards of sixty yards, and without any kind of rest, shot eight bullets through it successfully, and spared the brother’s thigh!” Doctor James Thacher noted in his journal:
Several companies of riflemen, amounting, it is said, to more than fourteen hundred men, have arrived here from Pennsylvania and Maryland; a distance of from five hundred to seven hundred miles. They are remarkably stout and hardy men; many of them exceeding six feet in height. They are dressed in white frocks, or rifle-shirts, and round hats. These men are remarkable for the accuracy of their aim; striking a mark with great certainty at two hundred yards distance. At a review, a company of them, while on a quick advance, fired their balls into objects of seven inches diameter, at the distance of two hundred and fifty yards. They are now stationed on our lines, and their shot have frequently proved fatal to British officers and soldiers who expose themselves to view, even at more than double the distance of common musket-shot.
Enemy Artillery Finds Its Mark
Only a few weeks after arrival the rifle companies were actively integrated into the routine duties of the new American Army. These units formed the nucleus of the Continental Army and were actively supporting the campaign design associated with the siege of Boston initiated by the New England Militia months earlier. General Washington did not have the luxury of building an army in garrison; he built the American Army while maintaining the siege of Boston, a complicated and difficult endeavor. Siege warfare often involves extend periods of seemingly mundane tasks interspersed with periods of intense combat.
One of these periods of intense combat occurred on August 27 when a detachment of fifty Pennsylvania riflemen provided covering and supporting fires for a unit engaged in the construction of an artillery battery position on Ploughed Hill. The American and British lines were very close together at this location. As the riflemen provided long and short range fires to cover those men digging the battery position, the British responded to the rifle fire with artillery fire from platforms they already had available to disrupt work of the Americans. One can envision the British gunners loading and priming their guns behind the wall of earth thrown up to protect them from the well-aimed and accurate American rifle fire, then moving their guns into position and quickly aiming and firing. Or perhaps the British responded with larger and longer range guns positions beyond the range of the American riflemen.
The British artillery response was effective. Mr. William Simpson, of Paxton Township, a volunteer in Smith’s Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Company, had his foot ripped from his body by an enemy cannon ball. Simpson initially survived this traumatic event but ultimately succumbed to the injuries. William Simpson, like Gen. Richard Montgomery, died from artillery fire. Artillery proved an effective killer during the American Revolution and this lethality is worthy of the more recent designation as “King of Battle.” Congress took notice of the importance of artillery and began the process of building a national vice regional corps of American artillery with the appointment of Col. Henry Knox on November 17, 1775.
George Washington visited the wounded William Simpson shortly after the incident and this visitation of a wounded comrade in arms by the commanding officer reflects an American tradition of military leadership that continues to this day. The severe wound necessitated amputation of Simpson’s leg, and he died the next day. Simpson’s death may very well mark the first combat casualty in the new national or Continental Army raised by the United Colonies under the authority of the Continental Congress. This force was fielded in mid-August 1775, only a few weeks before Simpson’s death. Simpson would become one of many thousands of men to serve, first the United Colonies and later the United States, and in doing so sacrifice their lives in the nearly decade long struggle that would ultimately lead to the independence of the United States of America.
 H. T. Shelton, General Richard Montgomery and the American Revolution (New York: New York University Press, 1994), 149; also see 219-20 n38.
 Robert K. Wright Jr., The Continental Army (Washington D.C.: Center for Military History, 1983); see Chapter 1, “The Army of Observation: New England in Arms,” 4-20.
 Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, Volume II (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1905), 89-90, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00235, accessed November 16, 2016. The Wednesday, June 14, 1775 entry reads in part, “That each company, as soon as compleated, shall march and join the army near Boston, to be there employed as light infantry, under the command of the chief Officer in that army.” June 14 is both Flag Day and the official birthday of the United States Army. Congress authorized the “Stars and Stripes,” on Saturday June 14, 1777. The entry in the Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Vol. VIII, 1777, reads “Resolved that the flag of the thirteen United States be Thirteen stripes alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” See http://www.nationalflagday.com/history.asp accessed November 16, 2016 and http://www.army.mil/birthday accessed November 16, 2016.
 Ford, Journals, 89; and Arthur S. Lefkowitz, Benedict Arnold’s Army (New York: Savas Beatie, 2008), 291 n62. Morgan’s Company over recruited, departing Winchester with twenty-eight more men than authorized by Congress; Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan Revolutionary Rifleman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), 23; Upon arrival in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in route to Boston, Cresap’s Maryland Company contained 130 men; J. B. Wisker, The American Colonial Militia: The Pennsylvania Colonial Militia (Vol. 3) (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1997), 100. Smith’s Company had at least one volunteer citizen, Mr. Simpson; most companies apparently exceeded their recruiting quotas and added volunteers to the rosters who served without pay.
 Thomas Lynch Montgomery, ed., Pennsylvania Archives, Fifth Series, Volume II (Harrisburg: Harrisburg Publishing Company, State Printer, 1906), 4; Lefkowitz, Benedict Arnold, 44-46.
 Ford, Journals, 90.
 Ibid., 104; Wright, Continental Army, 5. The term regiment and battalion were largely synonymous in the British and new American military structure; most other nations included two battalions in a regiment the British and Americans did not. The Continental Army eventually adopted the regiment as the standard headquarters for controlling groups of companies but the term battalion was used through the American Revolution.
 Ford, Journals, 173; Wright, Continental Army, 25-26. The ninth company was the second company raised in Lancaster County.
 Kenneth Roberts, March to Quebec, Journals of Members of Arnold’s Expedition (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1946), Morison Diary, 506-508.
 Tucker F. Hentz, Unit History of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment 1776-1781, Insights from the Service Record of Capt. Adamson Tannehill (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 2007), 3, http://www.vahistorical.org/research/tann.pdf, accessed November 16, 2016; and Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan, 24.
 Montgomery, Pennsylvania Archives, 6. William Simpson’s brother, Michael, also served the patriot cause with Benedict Arnold at Quebec and at Trenton, Princeton, White Plains and Brandywine and continued his service as a Pennsylvania Militia general after the Revolution; AmericanRevolution.org, http://www.americanrevolution.org/arnold/arnoldappb.php, accessed January 1, 2017.
 Roberts, March to Quebec, Morison Diary, 506-508.
 Roberts, March to Quebec, Caleb Haskell, 469; John Blair Linn, ed., Pennsylvania in the War of the Revolution, Battalions and Line. 1775-1783, Volume 1 (Harrisburg: L. S. Hart, State Printer, 1880), 5, http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/john-blair-linn/pennsylvania-in-the-war-of-the-revolution-battalions-and-line-1775-1783-volum-ala/1-pennsylvania-in-the-war-of-the-revolution-battalions-and-line-1775-1783-volum-ala.shtml, accessed December 10, 2016.
 Wisker, The American Colonial Militia, 100; the original report of this event was in the Pennsylvania Journal, August 23, 1775.
 Montgomery, Pennsylvania Archives, 46.
 Shelton, Montgomery, 149.
 McKenney, Janice E. The Organizational History of Field Artillery, 1775-2003 (Washington D.C.: Center for Military History, 2007), 4.
 Montgomery, Pennsylvania Archives, 46 indicates Simpson was wounded August 27 and “died a few days after;” Roberts, March to Quebec, Morison Diary, 508-509, indicates Simpson was wounded on September 3 and died the next day; Franklin Ellis, History of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania: with biographical sketches of many of its pioneers and prominent men (Philadelphia: Everts & Peck, 1883), 40, indicates the date of Simpson’s wound as August 28 with his death on August 29. Many men had already died in the actions by New England militia around Boston, but Simpson may have been the first member of the force raised by the United Colonies, not individual state colonial militias, to die in combat during the American Revolution.