Once the Revolutionary War got going in 1776, the Patriots had to form an army from scratch to fight the British. That was no mean task: all too often conditions on the ground for the Continental Army soldiers were far from ideal. Shortages of food, ammunition, uniforms, and other supplies were frequent. Yet the men muddled through, ending up victorious in their fight for liberty. But how many of us today could tolerate the hardships those brave men faced?
1. Militia v. regular army
There’s a powerful idea that when the Americans rose up against their colonial masters, it was farmers armed with muskets who took on the British regular army. It’s true that early in the war many members of the Continental Congress, the rebels’ governing body, were adamantly opposed to the very idea of a standing army. They were worried that it might pose a threat to the very freedom for which they were fighting. So American sentiment when the Civil War broke out was firmly against the institution of a regular army. Indeed, many believed that a professional soldier was little better than a mercenary.
The Continental Congress took the view that each colony should muster civilian militias to confront the British Army. But after the early clashes in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord in the summer of 1775 it became apparent that depending solely on militias was not such a brilliant military strategy. It soon became obvious that victory in a full-scale war could not be achieved with militia fighters alone. So Congress changed tack: it took direct control of the Massachusetts militia and ordered the formation of ten infantry companies. The politicians also appointed a commander-in-chief for the new Continental Army, one George Washington.
2. The Revolutionary fighters
So who were the men prepared to risk their lives against the British Redcoats? Although they were fighting for American freedom, the men in the front line came from all around the world. Some of them — Scottish, Irish, and English — were rebelling against their own national government. Others came from different nations including Germany and the Netherlands. And as many as 10 percent were African-Americans. Age wasn’t really a barrier to serving in the fight against colonial domination either. The rebel army was happy to take youths of 16 as soldiers. Even 15-year-olds could join up with parental permission.
The duration of the war
But some revolutionary fighters were even younger. It was reported that one soldier, an artilleryman called Jeremiah Levering, was just 12 years old when he joined the army. Although the Continental Congress lacked the authority to enact conscription, many of the rebel colonies did have drafts to raise manpower. In the early stages of the conflict Congress ruled that volunteers only had to serve for 12 months. But by 1877 a year was clearly too brief; the length of service was increased to three years. Later that was extended further to the “duration of the war.”