The official birthday of the United States Army is June 14, 1775. On that day, the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia passed the following:
Resolved, That six companies of expert riflemen, be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia . . . as soon as completed, 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.
Why ten rifle companies? To a non-military reader, or even a war history enthusiast, this question might seem a bit silly. Even among the most casual of observers, the decision by the Second Continental Congress to form a new army most likely seems to be pretty obvious. The Colonies found themselves in an actual “shooting war” with the British Empire; establishing an army would certainly make sense. But: why rifle companies? The decision by the Continental Congress to raise rifle companies was driven by one specific set of strategic demands, then subsequently ordering them to Boston in response to a different and competing set of political and military concerns.
Rifles were not widely or extensively used by the contemporary armies of the period. Conventional infantry regiments were made up of five to ten companies of approximately fifty to one hundred soldiers per company (composition of regiments varied in different armies and at different times), and these infantry companies were mostly armed with smoothbore muskets, not rifles. Muskets were relatively heavy, very sturdy, and built for mounting bayonets. Accurate? Not so much, as muskets were inaccurate beyond sixty to eighty yards. But muskets were very well-suited to the common infantry shock tactics of the period. Conventional regimental-sized unit tactics were far more concerned with maneuver than firepower. A successful commander sought to march his troops into the most advantageous position on the field of battle that would allow a decisive charge with fixed bayonets. It was expected that two opposing forces would likely reach a point in their maneuvering that a musket volley would be likely or even unavoidable. But if the overpowering shock of the bayonet charge could be delivered without the exposure or risk of trading musket volleys, so much the better. The British Army was excellent at this type of infantry warfare.
And whereas muskets were well adapted for this style of warfare, rifles were poorly suited to then-standard infantry tactics. They were lighter in weight, could not take a bayonet, and had a much, MUCH slower rate of fire. However, rifles were four- to five times more accurate, all the way out to 200 to 250 yards. Furthermore, at that time there was no industrial production capacity for the manufacture of rifles anywhere in North America. Although available in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Virginia, rifles were hand-produced and custom-made to the owner’s specifications. Therefore, in specifying rifle companies, Congress made an explicit, purposeful choice in favor of weapons (and the resulting tactics demanded by such weapons) that were distinctly different from those favored by the regular military.
Unsurprisingly, none of this military history really answers the question at hand: Why rifle companies? In the summer of 1775, the bulk of the British Army in America was besieged in Boston. It was unable to break out by land, and not yet willing to retreat by sea. Conventional tactics of the era would require the nascent Continental Army to have greater numbers of heavy infantry, grenadiers, sappers, or pioneers for use in tightening the siege. Under such tactics, light infantry or riflemen would be ancillary at best. Again, the question of why comes back, and actually grows ever wider: “Why did Congress authorize the establishment of a specific body of soldiers, armed with a particular piece of equipment, unsuited to the immediate fight at hand?”
In order to make sense of these questions, it is appropriate to impose a bit of order to the relevant historical records and sources dating from these events. Incomplete as these sources may be thus far, when they are examined in chronological order, patterns start to emerge. From those patterns, meaningful conclusions might be drawn that help answer these questions.
Wednesday, April 19, 1775—The Battles of Lexington and Concord were fought, and the Siege of Boston began. Within the month, some thirty-seven separate militia regiments from the four New England colonies of various sizes and strengths, including no less than twenty-seven from Massachusetts, would assemble in the fields surrounding Boston. Three weeks later, on Wednesday, May 10, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia. On the next day, Thursday, May 11, 336 miles away, New England militia forces from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire-Vermont seized Fort Ticonderoga at Lake George, at the southern end of Lake Champlain, the key terrain controlling access across the New York—Canada frontier.
Wasting no time, the New York “Committee of 100,” the extra-legal colonial government forming in opposition to official British rule, immediately sent word of the capture of Ticonderoga to the Congress in Philadelphia. Arriving on Monday, May 15, the letter sought guidance regarding how New York ought to respond to any British military action against the colony. The Continental Congress answered within three days; on Thursday, May 18, it sent instructions to New York to act defensively only, to avoid provocation, and to secure colonial militia stores. In the instructions dispatched to the New York Committee of 100, the Continental Congress made the distinction between military stores—arms, ordinance, and munitions—which were the property of the Colony, as opposed to stores which were the property of the Crown, and thus ought not to be taken or destroyed. The response to the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the instructions to the New York Committee of 100 strongly suggest that the Continental Congress was going to proceed cautiously and defensively, avoiding unnecessary further expansion of the war now being fought in both the east at Boston, and in the west on the New York frontier. A week and a half later, on Saturday, May 27, Congress formed a committee tasked with developing strategies for securing military supplies. This committee was chaired by George Washington (Virginia), and it included Philip Schuyler and Lewis Morris (New York), Thomas Mifflin (Pennsylvania), Samuel Adams (Massachusetts), and Silas Deane (Connecticut).
The work of the military supplies committee was certainly timely, as events in both upstate New York and in Boston were becoming more demanding. On Wednesday, May 31, Congress received a report from Fort Ticonderoga sent by Col. Benedict Arnold of Connecticut Militia: British regulars supported by Indians were expected shortly to attempt to retake the fort. The dispatch concluded with: “Earnestly calling for reinforcement and supplies.” This appeal from one of the militia commanders on the ground at Ticonderoga was substantiated in the private correspondence of Silas Deane, a member of the military stores committee. On Thursday, June 1, Deane received a letter from his brother Barnabas, who was then serving in Albany. In his letter, Barnabas argued for military forces to protect frontier settlers of New York from attack by “Canadians and Indians”:
I met the Express with the Resolutions of the Congress to remove all the artillery to the south end of Lake George, which gives the greatest anxiety to the inhabitants back, as it leaves the whole of them exposed to the inroads of the Canadians and Indians if they should take up against us, as Fort George is no barrier against them; but if we hold Ticonderoga, which is the key of the whole communication between Canada and the English settlements, it will effectually secure the whole of our frontiers and keep us masters of the Lake (Champlain).
That same day, the Congress also received word from Augusta County, Virginia, west of Allegheny Mountains, raising the alarm of possible British action in that region. The message reported a potential “rupture with [the] Indians” and recommended a conference with all concerned colonial governments at Fort Pitt in Western Pennsylvania. This correspondence further complicated the work of the Congress, raising the threat of irregular warfare on the Pennsylvania and Virginia frontiers as well as New York.
On Friday, June 2, the Congress received a letter from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress attesting to the challenges of conducting the siege of Boston since April 19, and formally requesting that the United Colonies assume command of the siege and the New England militia forces then engaged. What had started as an unplanned response by two local town militias to the Crown’s attempt to seize colonists’ arms and munitions had turned into a major military operation. After six weeks of siege, the Provincial government had come to appreciate that commanding, organizing, feeding and supplying an army in the field was quite a bit more challenging than it seemed on the evening of April 18. On Saturday, June 3, an additional committee to consider the Massachusetts request was selected. And clearly appreciating the immediacy of the situation in Boston, the Congress that day also voted to borrow £6,000 to buy gunpowder to support the New England militia.
By the time the letter from Massachusetts arrived, there were several separate committees within the Congress working on military affairs issues including: determining the financial needs and funding requirements demanded by a common defense of the United Colonies; deciding upon key strategic terrain and locations for forts; and drafting rules and regulations for organizing and governing an army. Given his extensive experience as both a staff officer and combat leader, it is no surprise that Colonel Washington served on every committee dealing with military affairs. These committees were struggling with the most fundamental of questions with regard to developing a coherent military strategy for the United Colonies: what was the intended end-state (“What does military success look like?”); whatresources were to be authorized and developed (“What forces are needed, and are best suited to achieve victory?”); how to pay for the forces needed to achieve victory? And as yet, the Congress had only the resources of the various colonial militias to work with.
That same day, in a letter to his wife Elizabeth, Silas Deane described the various militia companies mustering in Philadelphia, remarking on their uniforms and making observations of their training and drill. Deane expressed admiration for the appearance and conduct of the light infantry companies in particular. He marked the distinction between the light infantry companies and “a body of Irregulars, or Riflemen,”
whose dress it is hard to describe. They take a piece of Ticklenburgh, or tow cloth that is stout, and put it in a tan-vat until it has the shade of a dry or fading leaf; then they make a kind of frock of it, reaching down below the knee, open before, with a large cape. They wrap it around them tight, on a march, and tie it with their belt, in which hangs their tomahawk . . . They exercise in the neighboring groves firing at marks, and throwing their tomahawks; forming on a sudden into one line, and then, at the word, break their order and take their posts, to hit their mark.
Deane’s observations to his wife are significant on two accounts: the first is his keen eye in noting the differences in tactics and training for these riflemen. He clearly recognized the significance of their marksmanship and deploying from close into open order, presumably to make best use of terrain. The second is more elemental: he differentiated them from the light infantry companies, and characterized the riflemen as “Irregulars.”
This is quite revealing. Deane seems to have been quite comfortable thinking of the assembling colonial militia companies as “Regulars” in that they were equipped and uniformed as conventional infantry, and were training and drilling in standard infantry tactics. This included the light infantry, whose role on the battlefield would be to advance as skirmishers forward of the main regimental lines, developing the situation, but in close direct support of the body of infantry advancing behind them. Such conventional regular light infantry would not typically have trained for precision marksmanship at distances beyond sixty to eighty yards (the maximum effective range of their smoothbore muskets). Proficiency at longer ranges was only found in the “Irregulars,” the militiamen who were skilled with their own rifled firearms. Deane’s letter of June 3 reveals that riflemen did not spend their time in drilling to become conventional infantry. Rather, these militiamen were training to fight using tactics that were considered non-standard and unconventional, to say the least.
That such questions regarding weapons and tactics were still relevant to the Congress’s various military affairs committees is illustrated by a letter to Silas Deane from his brother dated Monday, June 5: “I hope the Congress have reconsidered their Resolution of abandoning Ticonderoga; which if they do not, it will expose the whole of our frontiers to the ravages of the Indians and Canadians if they should take up against us.” Barnabas’s letters make it clear that the settlers along the New York frontier were fearful of raids conducted by the British in the form of light infantry and their Indian allies, reaffirming his earlier letter, and the concerns of those in the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia and Pennsylvania. They also suggest that word was getting out that with the arrival of the Massachusetts letter, Congress’s attention was being drawn towards Boston and away from the frontiers.
For twelve days, from Saturday, June 3 until Wednesday, June 14, the available primary sources are silent regarding the deliberations of the various Congressional military affairs committees. What can be reasonably assumed is that Washington played a dominant role in shaping the decisions and actions relating to military questions. Recall that Washington, a colonel of Virginia militia, was the most experienced military officer in the Congress. He had served with distinction during the French and Indian War, 1754 to 1761, and had extensive experience with militia troops both in the field and in training. Given the generally informal professional expectations of the era, it can be safely said that Washington was easily as well-prepared to assume higher command as any other officer and gentleman of the era. And this brings the discussion back to the first of the two arguments proposed to answer the question: Why rifle companies?
From May 10 until June 2, although the Congress could not have helped but be aware of the situation in Boston, the actual requests for aid and support were coming not from Massachusetts but from New York and Virginia. And the threats these colonies were most concerned about were not from British regulars, but from Canadian and Indian raiders: rangers and light infantry that would strike by using unconventional and irregular tactics. Colonel Washington knew and appreciated this, and had first-hand experience with such combat. Riflemen drawn from the frontier militias would not dress, drill or fight like conventional infantry. Colonel Washington personally held in low regard the frontier settlers and the Appalachian communities that supplied the lion’s share of riflemen that would make up the rifle companies newly authorized by Congress. His lifelong opinion of them was that they were “a parcel of barbarians and an uncouth set of people.” In spite of this, Washington undeniably understood that in order to meet the threats presented by Britain’s Canadian and Indian allies on the New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia frontiers, rifle companies were the right response. Such a conclusion is consistent with contemporary doctrine, tactics and Washington’s own military experience. Therefore, the decision by Congress to raise rifle companies was being driven by the strategic threat of irregular warfare on the frontiers, and not by the conventional battle shaping up in Boston.
If this is so, why did Congress then order them to Boston, especially given Washington’s personal antipathy towards riflemen and frontier militias? The simplest answer is that after June 3, Congress’s focus was transferred from the western frontiers and became centered upon the siege at Boston. Perhaps this shift was inevitable. But given the dominant role Washington played in all but one of the military affairs committees between May 11 and June 14, it is reasonable to assume that when the shift in strategic focus occurred, the military formations Washington most likely had advocated raising would naturally be assigned under his command.
The one military committee Washington would not have participated in would have been that which resulted in his nomination. As with much of the deliberations in the Congress, details are incomplete. It can be reasonably surmised that the committee that returned Colonel Washington’s name to the “Committee of the Whole” as nominee for commanding general did include Thomas Cushing of Massachusetts, Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Johnson of Maryland. Although it is not clear what other members of the various military affairs committees might also have participated, it is known that Thomas Mifflin served with Washington on other committees since no later than May 15. Thus, Mifflin would have been well familiar with Washington’s arguments for the necessity of rifle companies to meet the strategic threats on the frontier, without necessarily appreciating that the strategic situation was evolving. At some point in the days between June 5 and 14, the committee to recommend a commanding general and the committee recommending specific forces to be raised under the authority of the United Colonies diverged. Only one man is known to have served on both committees: Thomas Mifflin. And only one other man would be directly affected by both: George Washington, who would shortly be nominated as commanding general, and therefore have direct authority over the operational employment of Congressional forces.
On Wednesday, June 14, the Congress approved the raising of ten rifle companies, eight of them from two of the colonies most threatened by Canadian and Indian raiding. But otherwise inexplicably, the ten rifle companies were directed to report to Boston, under the authority of the at-that-time-unnamed “chief Officer in that army.” The next day, on Thursday, June 15, Thomas Johnson of Maryland nominated George Washington to be commissioned as Commanding General of the Continental forces. Johnson’s nomination was approved unanimously.
George Washington was commissioned Commanding General of Continental Army on Monday, June 19, and departed for Boston on the following day. On Friday, June 16, two days after Congress’s act authorizing the raising of ten rifle companies, Silas Deane wrote to Elizabeth, sharing in confidence that the Continental Congress was actually considering leaving Philadelphia:
The members talk more and more every day of a removal to Connecticut . . . and I think it necessary, and shall in good time move it, that a part of the Congress remove to Hartford, as a Committee of the whole, to direct and superintend the movements . . . Should a number of the Riflemen described in my last pass you in their way to Boston, do not be affrighted. I see the Wethersfield Company, under Capt. Chester, appeared with honor on a recent occasion.
This passage is noteworthy for two details. The first is that, regardless of the expressed concerns of the civilians living on the frontier of New York, the situation in Boston had become the “center of gravity” in the minds of the Continental Congress delegates. If this were not so, the Congress would not have ever considered shifting the de-facto capitol of the United Colonies from Philadelphia to Hartford. The second detail is that Deane felt it necessary to reassure his wife not to be afraid of the riflemen, presumably on account of their rough and wild frontier appearance and manners.
After taking command, by July 1775 General Washington had established a policy of not detaching any portion of the Continental Army for duty to defend a particular colony from British raids or attack, other than as part of his overall campaign plan. The several colonies would have to respond to threats with their own militia forces, those that were not already with the Continental Army under Washington’s command. In other words, the risks of localized enemy action in any particular colony, such as seaborne assaults along the New England coast, or Indian raids along the New York frontier, would have to be borne by the colonial militias themselves. No Continentals would be sent to meet such needs. The leading companies of Thompson’s Rifle Battalion from Pennsylvania reached Boston the last week of July, and Capt. Daniel Morgan’s Rifle Company from Virginia arrived on Sunday, August 6. They and the rest of the rifle companies authorized by the Congress were there until General Washington released them or their enlistments expired.
What conclusions can be drawn from all this? The decision by the Continental Congress to raise rifle companies was motivated by the need to protect the western frontiers from British raids, a role well suited to riflemen from the frontier militias. Once the siege at Boston became the focus of the Congress’s attention, any Continental forces being raised were sent there, given that the man most responsible for management was now posted to Boston.
Were the riflemen originally intended for the New York frontier? If yes, this makes quite a bit of sense. The events of the first three weeks from May 11 to June 2, 1775 certainly support this conclusion. Such a course of action would be consistent with Washington’s experiences and demonstrated predispositions regarding the different roles of militias, weapons and tactics.
Were the riflemen intended for Boston, which had been under siege since the third week of April? From a purely tactical consideration, the answer must be “no.” Rifle companies, or light infantry, had little role in a conventional extended siege of an objective such as Boston. Furthermore, the New England militia forces surrounding Boston were a mixed assortment of non-standardized militia units. There is no evidence to support the notion that Washington and the other members of the various military committees had any detailed information regarding the strength and composition of forces then besieging Boston. Why raise an army’s worth of rifle companies (or light infantry) for a battle in which they were ill-suited according to then-contemporary infantry tactics? So then, why send them to Boston? Because that is where new-commissioned Commanding General George Washington was being sent.
Given Washington’s leadership in most military affairs committees, it is undeniable that he had been instrumental in deciding to raise such companies. He was the most experienced and knowledgably military officer participating in Congress. Who else would have been more trusted or better positioned to determine how best to employ these ten rifle companies? As it turns out, the rifle companies’ record at Boston was mixed at best. They quickly demonstrated the efficacy of sniping and precision accuracy, despite the conventional prejudices against such tactics (including by General Washington himself). However, they likewise presented continual disciplinary problems, refusing to comply with conventional army discipline. This was consistent with the ad hoc nature of the early months of the American Revolution. Such a legacy—effective in battle, but resistant to formal authority—is an interesting foundation for the history of the U.S. Army.
”June 14th: The Birthday of the U.S. Army,“U.S. Army Center of Military History, https://history.army.mil/html/faq/birth.html.
“Massachusetts Regiments in the Continental Army,” American Revolutionary War Continental Regiments, 2017, https://revolutionarywar.us/continental-army/massachusetts/.
“Correspondence of Silas Deane, 1774-76,” Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, Vol. II (Hartford, CT: Connecticut Historical Society, 1870), 248. Although much of the Congress’ deliberation after convening was conducted confidentially in the format of “the Committee of the Whole” for the sake of honest candor on the part of the delegates, the personal and private accounts left by the participants often reveals what was being discussed and decided upon. Of the various congressional committee members addressing military affairs, Silas Deane’s collection of letters is an invaluable resource. Unfortunately, the surviving papers of Philip Schuyler, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Mifflin include no references to specific work done on these committees.
Jeff Dacus, “That a General be Appointed to Command,” Journal of the American Revolution, July 22, https://allthingsliberty.com/2021/07/that-a-general-be-appointed-to-command.
The Complete Works of George Washington: Military Journals, Rules of Civility, Writings on the French and Indian War, Messages to Congress, Letters, Presidential Work & Inaugural Addresses, Biography(Praha, Czech Republic: Madison & Adams Press, 2017), 129-30.