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Military, Political, and Economic Conditions – 1776

Join or Die

An early American political cartoon originally published in Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper

As a general statement of conditions in the Continental Army after his appointment to General and Commander in Chief of the Armies of the United Colonies, Washington stated:

“Powder was to be obtained, not from officers under the control of Congress, but from committees and other local powers, who had collected small parcels for local defense. Arms, too, were deficient in number, and inferior in quality. The troops were almost destitute of clothing, and without tents. A siege (Boston, Massachusetts circa September 1774) was to be carried on without engineers and almost without entrenching tools. In addition to these defects, many were discontented with the general officers appointed by Congress: and the mode of appointing regimental officers, in some of the colonies, where they were elected by the soldiers, was extremely unfavorable to discipline. Yet under all these disadvantages, the General observed with pleasure, ‘the materials of a good army.’ There were ‘a great number of men, able-bodied, active, zealous in the cause, and of unquestionable courage.’ Possessed of these materials, he employed himself indefatigably in their organization.”

Washington recognized the need immediately for a more established and disciplined military force establishing the Continental Army. With battle experience, training and discipline, the Continental soldiers improved. They became “professional” American soldiers. State Militias, on the other hand, were often formed and disbanded in days or weeks, seldom disciplined, and generally untrained. This is not to deny their importance in the war effort. On the contrary, they provided essential support in many battles for without them, there would not have been sufficient numbers of soldiers to face the formidable British Army.

The organization of States as sovereign entities voluntarily supporting the Union placed many political burdens on maintaining an effective continental fighting force, as stated by Marshall:

“As the season for active operations approached, fresh difficulties, growing out of the organization of the American system, disclosed themselves. Every state being exposed to invasion, the attention of each was directed to itself. The spirit incident to every league was displayed in repeated attempts to give to military force such various directions as would leave it unable to affect any great object, or to obstruct any one plan the enemy might form. The patriotism of the day, however, and the unexampled confidence placed in the commander-in-chief, prevented the mischief’s(sic) this spirit is well calculated to generate. His representations made their proper impression, and the intention of retaining continental troops for local defense was reluctantly abandoned. The plan of raising additional regular corps, to be exclusively under state authority, was substituted for yeomanry of the country, as more effectual and convenient mode of protecting the coasts from insult.”

Once the organizational problems were settled, food, clothing, blankets, and shoes became an immediate and continual problem. Many men were forced to march barefooted. Particularly bad in winter weather, the army often left a trail of blood in the snow. Shelter for the rank and file was often non-existent. They often slept unprotected in rain, and suffered the cold under the stars. Disease was rampant, reducing the effective force more than causalities from battle. Smallpox was particularly devastating, as well as forms of dysentery that could lead to death. Conditions at Valley Forge, for example, were so bad that many accounts avoided the cruel reality of an army living in unimaginable squalor, unfit to defend itself against the British. Joseph and his compatriots were promised food and clothing as part of the compensation for joining. Instead, they shared in mutual deprivation for their service.

The Continental Congress had no taxing power and was left to pleading with the States to provide for the Continental Army and militias. Washington and his officers constant requests to Congress and State Legislators often went unfulfilled. America and the respective states did not have an economy sufficient to support a war. Soldiers were often not paid and, when they were, it was often in paper that rapidly depreciated. The parsimonious conduct of the various state congresses and treasuries was out of necessity. The country borrowed heavily during the war. Fortunately, for the outcome of the war, American allies provided cloth, arms and naval support at critical junctions in the long campaign. The men suffered nonetheless.

The political realities of the time were as harsh as the military realities. As a rule of thumb, one-third of the country opposed the war and separation with England, one-third favored independence, and one-third switched position with the ebb and flow of the war effort. Thomas Paine, in Common Sense published in February 1776, stated that the most efficacious time was the present to fight the British. He argued that after years of fighting in the French Indian war, Americans were armed, many had seen military action, and military officers with experience were available. These conditions would not continue to exist indefinitely. Common Sense was widely read, providing a needed stimulant and justification to pursue the war for independence. Therefore those that sought America independence went to war with colonial citizens divided in their support.

It should be noted however that the French Indian War was much different than fighting an established army like the British. Guerrilla tactics that often favored the use of the long rifle, preferred for its utility in hunting as well as warfare, were utilized. The use of rifles against a large and organized British force was another matter. These rifles could not mount bayonets and took five times as long to reload as the muskets in use at the time. Special rifle companies, regiments, and brigades were formed and used for special purposes; they were highly feared by the British, but muskets were far more useful with forces facing each other in the conventional battle formations that often ended in hand-to-hand combat. Few muskets were available at the beginning of the war.

The British Army was the most powerful and disciplined army since the Roman legions. Washington knew that he could not lose his army and often made battle decisions that would preserve it. Accordingly the battle outcomes were often judged to not have been in his favor. As will be discussed later, he allowed the British to occupy Philadelphia in order to save his army and an important store of ordnance and iron works. Although he made a number of brilliant moves, such as the Christmas attack on Trenton, he fought a war largely of attrition. The cost of the war was enormous for the British. It was, from an English citizen’s point of view, distant, and not as important as continuing conflicts with France and Spain on the mainland. The British public eventually became weary of the war with the colonies and more concerned about their own backyard. Washington had only to wait for an appropriate opportunity to execute a decisive victory. When he achieved it at Yorktown with the help of the French Army and Navy, the British surrendered. After Yorktown, the British recognition of America as an independent and sovereign nation took lengthy negotiations, but was eventually accomplished with no further military confrontations except on the frontier. The British remained in control of such places as Detroit and from there encouraged Native Americans to keep up the hostilities. After Yorktown the frontier continued to be at war.

The Native Americans in the western frontier were encouraged by the British to attack the Americans, which initially gave rise to the Pennsylvania 8th Regiment. Native Americans were often recruited as warrior soldiers and fought with the British. Many Native Americans were sympathetic to the British, because they appeared to be a superior adversary after having won the French Indian War. Moreover, Native Americans believed they would receive better treatment from the British than from Americans, who were more land acquisitive. In short, the Native Americans wanted the British to win because it would improve the probability of protecting their lands from settlement.

The greatest deficiency of the American economy at the time was a shortage of labor to build and produce. Diverting labor to military service took manpower away from a farm production economy. Much of the instability of the various militias that were formed was based on the need for the men to return home to plant and harvest their crops, or take care of pressing family material needs. The economic impact of war greatly disturbed the successful operation of family enterprises. Essential manufactured goods were no longer available from Britain. In the short run, without manufactured goods, many were hobbled in their daily pursuits and moreover believed it unlikely in the long run that a confrontation with the British would yield favorable results.

No matter how fragile the conditions were, America had a cause and a purpose that seemed to manifest itself as the revolution progressed. The founding fathers were able to put substance to long-debated political and philosophical issues. No republic the size of America had ever been established. The most instructive attempts had been Greek city-states. No one was entirely sure whether a republic would work on the scale that would be required in America. But these concerns, although actively debated, were put aside to first establish that the citizens of this country had certain inalienable rights that were being denied by unenlightened British policy. Although reconciliation with Britain was sought, it eventually became apparent that there was no choice but to seek independence. Unlike many revolutions that were lead by thugs, America’s was unique for its exceptional if not divinely inspired leadership. The founding fathers were a unique breed of men. So were their military officers.