Continental Congress vs. Continental Army: The Officer Corps


October 30, 2018
by Stuart Hatfield Also by this Author


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When the Continental Congress first met it was intended to bring the American colonies together to find a solution to the growing disputes with Great Britain, mainly through protest, petitions and boycotts. When it convened again, the time for those measures had passed. On April 19, 1775 fighting between local militias and British regulars turned colonial disagreements into full-on war. Congress had been scheduled to meet prior to the conflagration, but by the time they came together in June of that year they found their role much changed. The individual colonies looked to the Congress for guidance now more than ever. It now took on the role of a central government with three main concerns: how to fight a war against one of the most power nations on earth, how to pay for that war, and how to bring thirteen different colonies together to carry out such an endeavor.

All were challenges that the men of the congress had to rise up and face, but perhaps the most challenging was carrying out the war. Individual colonial militias had started the fighting, taking on the British and pinning them in Boston, raiding government stores for arms and ammunition, and taking control of local governments. If the colonies were to stand a chance, however, they would need a real army, led by capable and talented men. To that aim on June 14, 1775 the Congress adopted the local militias besieging the British in Boston as the Continental Army. They had their army, and thus needed the leadership, and that is where things got complicated.

The idea of civilian control of the military was not completely new in the world at the time. A theme that can be seen through the founding of the United States was how the fear and mistrust of a standing army often flavored the relations of the army and the people, and also between the army and Congress. Keeping control over the army became a very important role that the Congress took upon itself. One method of maintaining this control was through the relationship that it maintained with the officers. In many societies the officer class of the military was made up of the upper class and nobility. They saw themselves as better than the men they were leading. The Continental Army would be different. The officers, especially in the first few years of the war, came from several different sources.

First there were men that had served in the British Army in some capacity, for example Richard Montgomery, Charles Lee and Horatio Gates. Second came the men that had rank in the various state militias. Some of these men had experience against the natives in their colonies or in the colonial wars that fed into the revolution; Artemas Ward, Daniel Morgan and George Washington fell into this category. Third came the men who had only found their militia roots as the crisis with Britain came closer and closer. These men, of whom Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox stand out, were students of war but lacked experience.

Once the war started in earnest a new source of officers and leaders opened up to the army, foreign officers that came to serve the Congress. Each came for his own reasons; some were seeking glory and fortune, others were seeking to take part in the fight for liberty and freedom. French officers such as Lafayette and Du Portrail, Irishmen like Thomas Conway and Prussians such as Frederic von Steuben were among the foreign officers who served in the Continental Army.

Regardless of where the officers came from and whatever their backgrounds, each and every one had to deal with Congress and Congress with them. In this relationship Congress made some very serious missteps. These missteps made running the war difficult and also almost led to outright rebellion among the officer class. Whether it was from how they doled out commissions for the officers, how they dealt with promotions or how they handled the influx of foreign officers, Congress made some serious mistakes.

Officer Commissions
Once Congress officially adopted the army that had been gathering outside of Boston the Continental Army was officially born. From that day forward Congress would find numerous ways to make life difficult for the officers. The difficulties started from almost day one. The first task that was required of Congress was to commission the men that would lead the army. Congress being a political body, it tended to make decisions on commissions first from a political perspective. It was normal in most European armies for commissions to be bought and sold and provided as political boons when needed. There was a general hope that in America it would be different and it would take a while for the meritocracy to truly form. (Some would argue that it never truly did in the military.)

Congress was able to easily make the decision that George Washington was the man they wanted to lead the army. He had military experience and as a Virginian would serve as a bridge to the rest of colonies, reinforcing that the conflict was not just a matter for New England. John Adams wrote his wife on 17 June, 1775:

I can now inform you, that the Congress have made choice of the modest and virtuous, the amiable, generous and brave George Washington, Esquire, to be General of the American army, and that he is to re pair, as soon as possible, to the camp before Boston. This appointment will have a great effect in cementing and securing the union of these colonies.[1]

After Washington however, things quickly became murky. Congress looked to draw from a group of men that held high ranks in the various colonial militias. The problem came from the fact that most of the militias (especially in New England) chose their officers by popular vote, meaning that the men that led them did so because of their political influence, not because of the military experience or ability. This sort of system led to a number of “generals” who had never seen a battle and created a number of hurt feelings as the various colonial commanders vied for these positions.

Among those who were not happy was Gen. Charles Lee. In his memoirs he relayed that when he was first given his commission, he felt that based on his own experience and the fact that he had actually seen real combat, he should have been at least the second in command of the army. That honor instead went to Gen. Artemas Ward of Massachusetts. Lee wrote, “General Ward, of Massachusetts Bay, by some means or other, had received a commission of a prior date; and on his account, perhaps to the injury of the service, he took rank of General Lee, who was content to act under him.”[2] While Lee would eventually gain the position of second in command, his ambition would not stop there. Lee was not alone in his discontent with the decisions of Congress on this matter.

Not long after accepting his own commission, Washington was faced with a number of officers that were seeking commissions from Congress. Many of them were concerned with the decision making process. Massachusetts Gen. John Thomas, for example, told Washington that he would refuse to serve at a rank below what he felt he deserved. Washington implored Thomas to wait on any decisions. “The Order & Rank of the Commissions is under the Consideration of the Continental Congress, whose determination will be received in a few days. It may argue a Want of Respect to that August Body not to wait the Decision.”[3] As much as these men were patriots they were still ruled by a sense of honor which Congress severely tested during this phase of the creation of the national army.

Still, Adams had high hopes for their choices, “Our army will have a group of officers equal to any service. Washington, Ward, Lee, Gates, Gridley, together with all the other New England officers, will make a glorious council of war.”[4]

In an attempt to take some of the pressure off Congress in regards to commissions, a resolution passed in May 1776 gave Washington much more say in the process:

Resolved, That it is the Opinion of this Committee that General Washington be authorized to fill up Vacancies in the Army by issuing Commissions to such officers under the rank of Field officers, as he shall think proper persons to supply the vacancy; he informing the Congress once every month of such appointments, which shall be deemed good and valid, unless disapproved of by Congress on. Such Information; and that blank Commissions be sent to the General for that purpose.[5]

While this gave Washington the ability to deal with openings at the lower end of the rank scale, each and every one of his decisions would need the approval of Congress. Anything above field grade (generally major and upwards) would still be solely invested by Congress. Thankfully after the initial rush of commissions was made and the hurt feelings generally salved, the army could get about its business. Unfortunately the Congressional missteps would not end there.

The next consideration that Congress had to make at the initial stage of the conflict and later as promotions came up, was the number of general officers that came from each of the colonies. A balance had to be kept to prevent any one colony from having too much influence, which could lead to many issues and hurt feelings. In February 1777 Congress added five new major generals. When Benedict Arnold of Connecticut was not on the list, while several of less seniority were, the army held its collective breath. General Washington wrote to Arnold and asked him to stay calm and not do anything rash, knowing that the hot-blooded commander would surely not take the slight well. At the same time Washington wrote to Richard Henry Lee in Congress that “it is not to be presumed that he [Arnold] would continue in service under such a slight.”[6]

In true form Arnold responded to Washington indicating that he saw being passed over as a signal that Congress wanted his resignation. Although he did not resign, he asked Congress to provide a court of inquiry into his performance, hoping to draw out of Washington and Gates their public support.[7] In the end Washington asked him to be patient and to continue to serve. As it turned out Arnold’s promotion to major general was denied because there were already too many generals from Connecticut! This issue would eventually be resolved. Decisions like this would come back to haunt both Congress and Arnold. In fact the nascent seeds of Arnold’s eventual treason very well could have found fertile soil in this Congressional decision.

Hand in hand with the promotions issue was how Congress handled the seniority of the general officers. Arnold again provides an example. When his promotion to major general was in fact finally approved (due in large part to the intervention of General Washington who became quite fond of Arnold), his seniority date was set to the date that the commission was approved, not when it was first set before Congress. This allowed Arnold to be passed over by a number of men of lesser ability, but of more political acumen for sure.

After spending weeks in Philadelphia in front of a Congress that was hypersensitive to any questioning of civilian control of the military, and tired of begging for his proper seniority, Arnold finally relented and handed in his resignation.[8] Only an immediate and well-timed dispatch from Washington requesting Arnold once again go north prevented Arnold from leaving the service he cared so much about. This would prove to be one of many arrows in the quiver that Arnold would cite when his defection from Congress became complete. There could be no doubt Arnold’s defection was aimed directly at Congress. After he deserted and found safety in the British lines he sent a packet to General Washington that contained his official resignation that he asked be forwarded to Congress. Included was a letter stating that he would never serve the Congress in any capacity.[9]

The issue of promotions was constantly vexing. Enough so for John Adams to complain about them to his wife:

We have made General Lincoln a continental Major General. We shall make Colonel Glover a Brigadier. I sincerely wish we could hear more from General Heath. Many persons are extremely dissatisfied with numbers of the general officers of the highest rank. I don’t mean the Commander-in-chief, his character is justly very high, but Schuyler, Putnam, Spencer, Heath, are thought by very few to be capable of the great commands they hold. We hear of none of their heroic deeds of arms. I wish they would all resign. For my part I will vote upon the genuine principles of a republic for a new election of general officers annually, and every man shall have my consent to be left out, who does not give sufficient proof of his qualifications.[10]

Coming from one of the members of Congress responsible for the approval of promotions, this is very telling. As Adams would seem to indicate in his candidness, promotions were not based on ability and were handed out more for the sake of politics. In another 1777 letter his frustration with the general officers comes boiling through:

I am wearied to death with the wrangles between military officers, high and low. They quarrel like cats and dogs. They worry one another like mastiffs, scrambling for rank and pay, like apes for nuts. I believe there is no one principle which predominates in human nature so much, in every stage of life, from the cradle to the grave, in males and females, old and young, black and white, rich and poor, high and low, as this passion for superiority.[11]

Part of the frustration that Adams felt had to be due to his ongoing debate with Gen. Nathanael Greene over who should have the power of promotion. For Greene the Adams position that Congress, as the representatives of the people, should have that sole power was not right. In a letter to Adams he wrote that the policy was “dangerous, often injurious and sometimes unjust,” as an unskilled officer “may get promoted over the superior if a single instance of bravery is a sufficient reason for . . . promotion.”[12] Adams happily fired back that giving that sole responsibility to one man (in this case Washington) was no guarantee of justice and had the potential to be “more dangerous to the public liberty.”[13] These two giants of the revolution would continue to spar over this issue, especially later on when one of Greene’s comrades, the ever-notorious Benedict Arnold, was passed over for promotion. Later still, Greene, after receiving word that Henry Knox had been passed over, blamed it on the “cursed intrigue” inside of Congress.[14]

In February 1777, Congress passed a resolution that was hoped would bring some clarity on the seniority issue that they seemed to always be facing:

Resolved, That such as are in the continental service, take rank according to the dates of their commissions, and that the rank they held in the army at the time of their promotion; and that such as do not hold continental commissions, stand after them in the order in which they are elected.[15]

The hope with this resolution was to provide a delineation between those that had served in the militia and those that had been taken into service with the Continental Army. For example, if as a militia colonel an officer received his commission in 1775, and then later in 1776 “moved up” with a colonel’s commission in the Continental Army, his seniority date in the army would be from 1776, not 1775. This prevented militia officers from “rank jumping” the regular army officers.

Foreign Officers
If balancing the commissions and promotions of the men from the colonies was not enough to cause Congress nightly heartburn, shortly after the start of hostilities foreign officers began flooding onto the scene. At first these men were sorely needed as there was not much experience on the American side. Unfortunately many of the foreign men that sought commissions had no ability and were seeking either fame or a steady paycheck (or both). This led to a number of conflicts.

The influx left General Washington in quite the lurch as many of these foreign officers came to him expecting to be put in command of troops. In a 1777 letter to Benjamin Lincoln, a member of Congress from Virginia, Washington voiced his frustration with the way Congress handled these men. A young French officer, the “Marquis de le Fiatte,” came to Washington with a commission in his hand that was granted by Congress but was merely, in Washington’s words, “honorary.” Washington went on:

What the designs of Congress respecting this Gentleman were – & what line of Conduct I am to pursue, to comply with their design, & his expectations, I know no more than the Child unborn, & beg to be instructed. If Congress meant that this rank (Major General) should be unaccompanied by Command I wish it had been sufficiently explained to him- If on the other hand it was intended to vest him with all the powers of a Major General why have I been led into a contrary belief, & left in the dark with respect to my own conduct towards him? –this difficulty with the numberless appointments, adds no small embarrassment to a command which, without it, is abundantly perplexed by the different tempers I have to do with, & different modes which the respective States have pursued to nominate & arrange their officers; the combination of all which, is but too just representation of a great Chaos from which we are endeavoring . . . . I was going to address Congress for Instructions in this case of the Marquis de Le Fyatt, but on second thought concluded to ask some direction of My Conduct through a Member, and therefore have imposed this task on you. Let me beseech you then my good Sir to give me the sentiments of Congress on this matter that I may comply with them.[16]

The French marquis that spurred this letter was, of course, none other than the soon-to-be-famous, and practically adopted son of Washington, Lafayette.

The frustration in the tone of the letter comes through as Washington was once again being told to deal with a young, untested foreign officer looking for an integral role in the command of his army. For the most part Congress passed these “adventurers” on based mainly on the subject’s connections in Europe and what resources they may have been able to bring with them. There was very little vetting done. While in this case it worked out and eventually the Marquis de Lafayette became a hero of the revolution, as well as going on to lead a revolution in his own country, these Congressional decisions did not always work out.

Many foreign officers were commissioned at a higher rank than the American officers and were certainly paid more. An example of this that almost brought the army to its knees centered on Gen. Henry Knox. Knox had been serving as the head of the Continental Artillery, which also put him over the engineers. Since his heroic and legendary exploit that involved hauling much-needed cannon from Ticonderoga to the siege of Boston, Knox had again and again shown his ability and talent for his new profession. Imagine his surprise when a group of French officers arrived with instructions from Congress that they were to supersede him. Without hesitation, he reached out to General Washington:

A resolution, of the 30th ultimo, has been shown to me by some French officers attached to the corps of artillery under my command, ordaining that all officers of artillery, engaged by Mr. Deane in France, shall take rank, in the American artillery, according to the dates of their brevet commissions in the French service.
I believe the Congress did not sufficiently consider the consequences of such a resolution, or that they had not full information to form it, consistent with that justice which is due their own officers.
I conceive the most fatal consequences will arise to the artillery, except this resolution be repealed, at least so far as respects the seniority of rank. All that can with propriety be done, is to give them commissions dated at the same time that Congress accepted their services. Anything more will occasion the resignation of every officer of spirit in the corps, who, though they are actuated by every tie of attachment and interest in the service of their country, yet will infinitely prefer serving as volunteers, than under people who can have no other tie than the pay they receive, and who cannot give a single order that can be understood.
In justice to the merit of the officers under my command, and to promote the good of the army, I make this representation to your Excellency, begging that you would be pleased to transmit it to the Honorable Congress for -their information. If they repeal the resolution, I shall be happy. If they do not, I shall be clear of any bad consequences which may follow. I am, with the greatest respect,
Your Excellency’s most obedient servant,

When word of this French officer’s commission started making the rounds, it was not only Knox that stood angry and confused. General Greene, always quick to the defense of his friends, started a letter writing campaign to Congress to get the issue resolved. Then, as if to make the matter even more of a mess, Greene found out that the French Officer’s commission date would put him over Greene also! A new round of letter writing was undertaken by Greene, Knox and Gen. John Sullivan, all three of whom threatened to resign over the issue.[18]

Washington did as Knox requested and sent the letter on to Congress who responded with a new resolution stating that, at least in this case, the intention of previous resolution was to set the rank and seniority “among the French themselves.” Their commissions in the Continental Army and thus their seniority would be based on when Washington accepted them into the service.[19] This was not, however, the end of the issue.

The letter writing campaign that the three generals undertook to Congress was carried out in the public venue, each letter being read into the records of Congress. This caused a righteous sense of embarrassment to the members of Congress, and they were not happy. On July 7 they passed a resolution directing Washington to inform the three generals that their letters were “an invasion of the liberties of the people,” and indicated “a want of confidence in the justice of Congress.” The resolution went on to demand that the men “make proper acknowledgements” for their interference; in other words, to apologize.

In the end they were invited to carry through with their threat: “[If] any of those officers are unwilling to serve their country under the authority of Congress, they shall be at liberty to resign their commissions and retire.”[20] Thankfully for the cause the three generals swallowed their pride and did not carry through with their threat. While tensions between the generals and Congress never really eased, this would not be the last time that the issue of foreign officers caused issues.

The atmosphere that Congress created with the handling of the influx of foreign officers almost had another disastrous side effect. As their number continued to flood into the Continental Army, Washington and others became suspicious and dubious of any newcomer. When Baron von Steuben first came to the Continental Army with a fresh commission in hand, he found his reception somewhat chilly. By this point there were a few of the foreign officers that had proven to be worth their weight in salt but a general feeling of skepticism pervaded the army around these newcomers.

Washington’s first meeting with von Steuben was cold, nearly freezing the new general in place. Wary of having yet another foreign officer thrust upon him, Washington approached the newcomer with trepidation. As Washington became more familiar with the Prussian, he began to warm up. One of Washington’s greatest abilities was to see people for their strengths, and he saw something in von Steuben that many others did not yet. Some saw von Steuben as a potential rival and this brought him into the crosshairs of an unhappy Congress.

Still searching for an excuse to replace Washington and seeing the undermining of von Steuben as a possible attack vector, Gen. Charles Lee, his cohort Gen. Thomas Mifflin, and their allies in Congress worked to discredit the general through a whisper campaign. Alexander Hamilton addressed this campaign in a letter to his friend Elias Boudinot: “You have no doubt heard while you were with the army of the obstacles thrown in [Steuben’s] way by many of the General officers, excited to it by Lee and Mifflin I believe.”[21]

In a final dagger in the heart of the cabal that formed against him, Washington was able to convince the Board of War and Congress to create the post of Inspector General of the Armies of the United States.[22] Washington’s choice for this new post was von Steuben, who accepted with gusto and successfully quieted his critics in Congress. The work that von Steuben did not only at Valley Forge but afterwards set the standard for the American army for generations.

Had Washington not been willing to take the chance on yet another foreign officer, or had Lee and Mifflin succeeded in turning Congress against von Steuben, the Continental Army would probably never had reached anywhere near the level of expertise that it did in the spring of 1778.

When dealing with the officers of the army, Congress had to maintain a very delicate balance. Each officer had an ego and each ego had to be handled a certain way. The Continental Army was not like its European counterparts in that it did not yet have a history or tradition to which the men had to answer. The army did not have the depth to absorb the potential losses that the mishandling of these various egos very nearly caused. What did not make the task of Congress any easier was that more than once the officers took their cases to the people and the press where much of this drama was played out.

With some of the decisions that Congress made in dealing with promotions, commissions and the foreign officers, it almost seems as if they were willing to play a game of chicken in order to get their way. At some point during the war, almost every general officer threatened to resign over one of these issues or another. Generals Knox, Greene, Sullivan, Arnold, and many others were among those that actually tendered resignations. All blinked and continued to serve while Congress blundered on one mistake after another. In the case of Arnold, perhaps the best combat general on the American side, could Congress have acted differently and perhaps avoided the nasty and ongoing conflict that led to his turning coat? Perhaps. Congress never intentionally set out to lose the war, and the war was won is mostly in spite of it. At times it seemed as if Congress spent as much time fighting the Continental Army as it did the British. The way it dealt with the officer corps was only one of the problems.


[1]Charles Francis Adams, Letters of John Adams, Addressed to His Wife. Edited by His Grandson, Charles Francis Adams (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1876), 1: 44.

[2]Charles Lee, The life and memoirs of the late Major General Lee, second in command to General Washington, during the American Revolution, to which are added, his political and military essays (New York: Richard Scott, 1813), 21.

[3]Edward G. Lengel, This Glorious Struggle George Washington’s Revolutionary War Letters (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 15.

[4]Adams, Letters of John Adams,1: 46.

[5]Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789Edited from the original records in the Library of Congress (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1904-37), 4: 361.

[6]Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 239.

[7]Ibid., 240.

[8]James L Nelson, Benedict Arnold’s Navy (New York: McGraw Hill, 2006), 331.

[9]Frank Moore, Diary of the American Revolution. from Newspapers and Original Documents (New York: Scribner & Son’s, 1859), 2: 332.

[10]Adams, Letters of John Adams, 1: 192.

[11]Ibid., 229.

[12]Terry Golway, Washington’s General (New York: Holt, 2006), 185.

[13]Ibid., 122-3.

[14]Ibid., 300;

[15]Journals of the Continental Congress, 7: 141.

[16]Lengel, This Glorious Struggle, 104-5.

[17]Jared Sparks, Correspondence of the American Revolution; Being Letters of Eminent Men to George Washington, from the Time of His Taking Command of the Army to the End of His Presidency (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1853), 1: 378-80.

[18]Golway, Washington’s General, 130.


[20]Ibid., 131.

[21]Thomas Fleming, Washington’s Secret War, The Hidden History of Valley Forge (New York: Smithsonian Books, 2005), 133.

[22]Journals of the Continental Congress,11: 819-21.


  • Regarding notes 21 and 22; if you go to the website of the Inspector General of the US Army, you will see that General Thomas Conway was technically the first to hold that office in the Continental Army; von Steuben was second. The position Inspector General was created by the Board of War, not Washington. Though Washington refused to acknowledge Conway’s credentials when he arrived at Valley Forge, going so far as not even granting him an audience, von Steuben’s timely arrival in February gave him a convenient out. Washington acknowledged the need for the position and put his man (von Steuben) forward for the job. Congress summarily over-ruled the Board of War and confirmed Washington’s choice.

  • An excellent presentation and thought-provoking analysis of the politics between Congress and its generals. Concluding a bit differently, I do not find Congress as culpable in creating controversy and making bad promotion decisions as you do.

    First, it was impossible to sort out general officer ranks based upon objective criteria during the Continental Army’s initial formation. Being a general in a state militia had little to do with one’s ability to lead troops in European style warfare. Also, the ranks were not comparable between colonies given scale and experiential differences. In the end, the initial Congressional selections performed adequately and quickly, weaker generals resigned or were replaced.

    After the Army’s establishment, most generals demanded promotion policies based upon strict seniority to preserve personal honor. Rightly, Congress rejected this deterministic order and retained discretion to make promotions based upon other criteria. For example, getting states to raise their fair share of troops became problematic and Congress used major general promotions to engender more recruits if a state wanted more generals. Congress initially bypassed Benedict Arnold for this reason as Connecticut already had 2 major generals and its forces did not warrant a third. Eventually, leadership abilities and battlefield performance entered into promotion decisions for good reasons.

    Congress sought foreign officers to fill huge gaps in the Continental Army’s knowledge of technical military arts such as engineering, fortifications, siege warfare, calvary, and drill instruction. Congress asked its representatives in Europe to recruit suitable officers. So the responsibility for the quality of the recruits lies with the recruiters – Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane. Once the foreign officer arrived, Congress and Washington quickly diffused most issues. One example is assigning Du Cordray a staff position versus the head of the artillery he was promised in France.

    Lastly, the long arm of Washington’s influence and political acumen can be seen. For example, after Saratoga, he was able to get Benedict promoted over more senior generals with a backdated commission. Also, generals who were personally supportive of him thrived and those critical of him were bypassed. For example, Henry Knox was promoted during the waning stages of the war and Charles Lee was sacked on politically motivated charges. In the end, Congress sought to maintain civilian control of the military which is a bedrock of our democracy today.

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