THE COLONIAL MILITARY

The Formation of a New England Army

With remarkable speed, committees of correspondence spread the traumatic news of Lexington and Concord beyond the borders of Massachusetts. By 24 April New York City had the details and Philadelphia had them by the next day. Savannah, the city farthest from the scene of the engagement, received the news on 10 May. Massachusetts' call for a joint army of observation was answered by the three other New England colonies: New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Each responded in its own way. Within two months three small armies joined the Massachusetts troops at Boston, and a council of war began strategic coordination. This regional force paved the way for the creation of a national institution, the Continental Army.

New Hampshiremen responded as individuals and in small groups to the news of Lexington. On 25 April, anticipating formal aid from New Hampshire, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety directed Paul Dudley Sargent of Hillsborough County to raise a regiment from these individuals. Four days earlier the New Hampshire Provincial Congress had convened in emergency session. After considering a copy of Massachusetts' plan for a New England army, the New Hampshire body sent three of its members to confer with the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, but deferred further action until it could mobilize public support and make adequate financial plans.

On 18 May the full Provincial Congress resolved to raise men "to join in the common cause of defending our just rights and liberties." Legislation on 20 May created a Committee of Safety and authorized a 2,000-man quota for the New England army. This figure included those New Hampshiremen already in service at Boston. The initial plan called for regiments organized on the same pattern as those in Massachusetts, but two days later, on 22 May, the Congress adopted a more specific plan. It created three regiments and dispatched two officials to Cambridge to muster the volunteers who had gone to Massachusetts as one of those regiments. The volunteers had already elected John Stark, a veteran of Rogers' Rangeis as their colonel.

On 23 May the Provincial Congress appointed Nathaniel Folsom as the general officer to command the colony's forces, and the Committee of Safety began to nominate officers for the three regiments. On 24 May Enoch Poor of Exeter received command of the second of the regiments with an order to organize it immediately. On 1 June the congress appointed the officers of the 3d New Hampshire Regiment, the command going to James Reed of Fitzwilliam. Reed raised it in Strafford and Rockingham counties. Two days later the congress designated the regiment at Boston the 1st, or "eldest," Regiment, and confirmed Stark and its other field officers.

Folsom initially received the rank of brigadier general with duties similar to those of such officers in Massachusetts, except that he had no regimental command. On 6 June the Provincial Congress reaffirmed his authority as the commanding general, under General Ward, of all New Hampshire forces, and at the end of the month it promoted him to major general. Jealousy by the volunteers at Boston limited his authority for a time. When Reed assembled his 3d New Hampshire Regiment at Boston on 14 June, he received two of Stark's surplus companies to round out the unit. Poor's 2d New Hampshire Regiment was detained to defend the colony from possible British attack, but it was ordered to Cambridge on 18 June. Its last company arrived in early August. Although Folsom had wanted an artillery company to support his regiments, New Hampshire had no officers qualified to command one. The best the Provincial Congress could do was to send artillery pieces for the Massachusetts men to use.

Meeting in emergency session in response to the news of Lexington, the Rhode Island Assembly on 25 April decided to raise 1,500 men "properly armed and disciplined, to continue in this Colony, as an Army of Observation; to repel any insults or violence that may be offered to the inhabitants; and also, if it be necessary for the safety and preservation of any of the Colonies, that they be ordered to march out of this Colony, and join and cooperate with the Forces of our neighbouring Colonies."

It deferred substantive action until the regular May session. In the interim the commander of the Providence County militia brigade offered Massachusetts the services of his three battalions; other individuals went off to Boston as volunteers.

At the regular May session, the Rhode Island Assembly created an "Army of Observation" and a Committee of Safety. Because Governor Joseph Wanton remained loyal to the Crown, the colony's secretary signed the commissions. Deputy Governor Nicholas Cooke soon replaced Wanton. Rhode Island organized its contingent as a balanced brigade under Brig. Gen. Nathanael Greene, thus adopting a different approach than that of the other New England colonies.

Greene's staff included a brigade adjutant and a brigade commissary responsible for logistics. The troops formed three regiments (two with eight companies and one with seven) and a company of artillery. Greene, Cooke, and the Committee of Safety arranged the officers; since all commissions were dated 8 May, seniority was resolved by drawing lots. The three regiments rotated posts of honor to avoid establishing a system of precedence. One regiment was raised in Bristol and Newport Counties by Thomas Church; another was raised by Daniel Hitchcock in Providence County. A business associate of Greene's, James Mitchell Varnum, was given command of the regiment from King's and Kent counties, while John Crane, formerly of Boston, became captain of the artillery company.

Companies left for Boston as quickly as possible. Hitchcock's and Church's regiments had assembled there by 4 June, the date that Greene opened his headquarters. The artillery company, armed with four field pieces and escorting a dozen heavy guns, also arrived in early June. Varnuni's regiment arrived several weeks later, the Rhode Island Assembly reconvened on 12 June and remained in session until 10 July. During this period it settled various logistical and disciplinary matters and added a secretary, a baker, and a chaplain to the brigade's staff. It also raised six new companies, two for each regiment. Greene was given the power, in consultation with the field officers, to fill vacancies, and he was placed under the "command and direction" of the Commander in Chief of the "combined American army" in Massachusetts.

On 21 April representatives from Massachusetts met with the Connecticut Committee of Correspondence in the home of Governor Jonathan Trumbull at Lebanon. Trumbull sent his son David to inform Massachusetts that a special session of the Connecticut assembly would meet as soon as possible. While some Connecticut militia units marched to Boston on hearing of Lexington, most followed the advice of the governor to wait until the assembly could act. The wisdom of this course was confirmed by news that although Israel Putnam had asserted a loose hegemony over the volunteers, a formal command structure was needed before they would become effective.

The special session convened at Hartford on 26 April, and the next day the Connecticut Assembly ordered that six regiments be raised, each containing ten companies. Officers were appointed on 28 April and arranged on 1 May. At the time the assembly believed that these 6,000 men represented 25 percent of the colony militia strength; they were obligated to serve until 10 December. The companies were apportioned among the several counties according to population. Connecticut's regimental structure followed a somewhat older model than that chosen by the other colonies and was considerably larger. Connecticut placed generals in direct command of regiments, as Massachusetts did, but followed Rhode Island's example in having field officers command companies. This left generals filling three roles at the same time - that of general, colonel, and captain. Rather than assigning an extra lieutenant to each field officer's company, as Rhode Island did, Connecticut merely designated the senior lieutenant in each colonel's company as a captain-lieutenant. On the other hand, the Connecticut organization called for each company to contain four officers rather than the three the other New England jurisdictions provided. The assembly appointed Joseph Spencer and Israel Putnam brigadier generals and David Wooster major general. It assigned supply responsibilities to Joseph Trumbull, another of the governor's sons, by appointing him commissary general.

After a recess the assembly reconvened on 11 May and remained in session for the rest of the month, passing legislation that resolved a number of logistical, administrative, and disciplinary problems. It defined the regimental adjutant as a distinct officer. It also appointed Samuel Mott as the colony's engineer, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and ordered him to Fort Ticonderoga. This session created a Committee of Safety, also known as the Committee of Defense or the Committee of War, which served for the rest of the war as the governor's executive and advisory body. The assembly considered, but rejected, reorganizing the six regiments into eight to bring the size of these units more into conformity with that of the regiments from the other colonies. Another special session (1-6 July) added two more regiments, but these were smaller than the earlier ones. The assembly reduced the number of privates in these regiments by nearly a third, while retaining their same organization and superstructure, and then ordered both to Boston.

Deployment of the Connecticut regiments followed a pattern established during the colonial period. In the Imperial Wars the colony had been responsible for reinforcing its neighbors, supporting New York on the northern frontier around Albany and assuming primary responsibility for the defense of western Massachusetts. In 1775 Spencer's 2d and Putnam's 3d Connecticut Regiments, raised in the northeastern and north central portions of the colony, naturally marched to Boston. Samuel Parsons' 6th, from the southeast, followed as soon as the vital port of New London was secure. Benjamin Hinman's 4th, from Litchfield County in the northwest, went to Fort Ticonderoga, where the county's men had served in earlier wars. The 1st under Wooster and the 5th under David Waterbury, from Fairfield and New Haven Counties, respectively, in the southwest, prepared to secure New York City.

News of the battle of Bunker Hill led Governor Trumbull to place the men in Massachusetts temporarily under the command of General Ward. At the same time the 1st and 5th regiments were ordered into New York, subject to the orders of the Continental Congress and the New York Provincial Congress.

Although the three other New England colonies, in responding to Massachusetts' plan for a joint army, experienced delays in fielding their regiments, these delays turned out to be a blessing. The regiments were formed in a rational manner that avoided the confusion that had plagued Massachusetts' efforts. Only the 1st New Hampshire Regiment, organized from the volunteers at Boston, experienced the same organizational troubles the Massachusetts regiments did.

For all these New England troops, however, arms and ammunition were in short supply even though efforts had been made to accumulate them. The available weapons were mostly English military muskets - known colloquially as Tower or Brown Bess muskets - left over from earlier wars, and domestically manufactured hunting weapons. The scarcity of gunpowder, lead (for musket balls), and paper (for cartridges) was severe. These shortages were immediate and severely limited the operations of the New England troops. It would take years for the domestic arms industry to become established despite the best efforts of local governments. In the interim, imports from France, other European nations, and Mexico City were needed.

The New England army that assembled around Boston in the aftermath of Lexington and Concord reflected, in its modifications of European military institutions, nearly two centuries of American colonial experience. Its emergence was a microcosm of the evolution of colonial military institutions. The common colonial heritage explains why the four colonies adopted organizational patterns that were very similar; particular experiences and individual backgrounds account for the variations.

The initial American response to the possibility of allied confrontation with British authorities had been a strengthening of the militia. Each colony took steps to replace aged or unreliable leaders and to reorganize units for greater efficiency. Training is increased. By 1775 most colonies were able to restore the militia to a degree of defensive competence not seen for a century or more. As the crisis worsened, American leaders involved beyond the basic militia. They began to prepaid provisional militia units that could muster at short notice and remain in the field for longer periods. Whether volunteer companies or minutemen, these units were a response to the same need to minimize economic disruption that seventeenth century colonists had faced. The New England army that came into being at the instigation of Massachusetts moved a step beyond the minutemen. Like its Provincial model, this regional force was composed of regiments standing apart from the militia system, although drawing heavily on it for its recruits.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress had set the minimum force needed to meet the British threat at some 30,000 men. By July a substantial portion of that total had assembled around Boston. Not containing artillery and several regiments that had not reported to Boston, the New England force consisted of 26 infantry regiments from Massachusetts and 3 each from New Hampshire. Rhode Island, and Connecticut. On paper these units had 99 field officers. 866 company and 144 stall officers, and 18,538 enlisted men. This total was more than 2,500 men below authorized levels. More importantly, it included 1,600 sick and almost 1,500 on furlough or detached duty. These regiments were still only partially organized. Only nine from Massachusetts had reached a paper strength of 95 percent; five were below 80 percent of their authorizedlevels and were, therefore, of questionable combat value.

These deficiencies were due in part to the lack of any centralized control over the army, or, rather, the collection of separate armies. The forces raised by each of the New England colonies in response to Massachusetts' call for assistance arrived piecemeal and were assigned positions and responsibilities around Boston according to the needs of the moment. The only coordination was furnished by a committee form of leadership. The Massachusetts commanders established a council of war on 20 April, and senior officers from the other colonies joined it as they arrived. Although it worked closely with the Massachusetts civil authorities, the council did not really command; it merely worked out consensus views. In practice this arrangement not only prevented effective planning but blocked the individual regiments from making their needs known. Incomplete information proved to be a major problem in the early months of the Boston siege.

On 17 June the regional army fought its first engagement, a battle which revealed its weaknesses and its strengths. The council of war decided to apply pressure on the Boston garrison by occupying dominating hills on Charlestown Peninsula. It did not prepare an adequate plan, committing units piecemeal without sufficient ammunition or a clearly delineated chain of command. The British decided to launch a frontal assault in the hope of demoralizing the New Englanders. From the security of hasty fieldworks the defenders shattered two attacks with accurate musketry. A third assault drove them from the peninsula. Sir William Howe, staggered by a 42 percent casualty rate, realized he could not afford to let the colonists again fight from prepared positions since that advantage compensated for many of their weaknesses. He reported to his superiors in London after the battle: "When I look to the consequences of it, in the loss of so many brave Officers, I do it with horror - The Success is too dearly bought."

The New England army had been defeated, although it had inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. The colonists had to find solutions to the problems highlighted by the battle, but it was already clear that these solutions required a national army. The search turned to Philadelphia where the Continental Congress was in session.

- - - - - -Robert K.Wright Jr.

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