The Continental Army in the Revolutionary War

The Continental Army fought for the 13 colonies in the Revolutionary War.

The army served for the entire eight years of the Revolutionary War, from 1775-1783, in North America as well as in the West Indies.

The following are some facts about the Continental Army:

Why Was the Continental Army Formed?

When the American Revolution first began, the colonists didn’t have an army and instead relied on militias in each colony or raised temporary regiments during specific crises such as the French and Indian War in 1754.

The local militias were not as experienced or as well-trained as the professional British Army and it quickly became apparent to the colonists that they needed their own unified army if they were to defeat the British and their German allies.

On June 14, 1775, the Continental Congress officially established the Continental Army.

George Washington accepting command of the Continental Army, lithograph by Currier & Ives, circa 1876

George Washington accepting command of the Continental Army, lithograph by Currier & Ives, circa 1876

On June 15, 1775, Congress appointed George Washington, who was a veteran of the French and Indian War, as the Commander-in-Chief of the new army.

How Was the Continental Army Structured?

This first establishment of the Continental Army, from 1775-1776, consisted of 10 companies of riflemen from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia who served a one-year enlistment.

In addition to the 10 new companies, Congress also adopted the existing 22,000 troops that had already been raised by the colonies of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut and were stationed outside Boston in the Siege of Boston.

These troops were organized into 39 regiments of infantry, one regiment of artillery and one separate company of artillery.

Each regiment had a total of eight companies and 728 soldiers who were commanded by a colonel, a lieutenant colonel and a major.

Each company had a total of 90 soldiers who were commanded by a captain as well as lieutenants, ensigns, or cornets.

The Continental Army was also supplemented by local militias and troops that remained under the control of individual states.

When the one-year enlistment for the soldiers was up in 1776, the Continental Congress had to re-raise the army. This second establishment of the Continental Army, from 1776-1777, consisted of 27 regiments with eight companies in each regiment.

Towards the end of 1776, when the British army began deploying huge forces of German soldiers to supplement their ranks, the Continental Army found itself in desperate need of more soldiers.

As a result, in December of 1776, the Continental Congress voted to dramatically increase the number of regiments in the army to about 120 and required soldiers to enlist for the duration of the war (or at least three years.)

This resulted in the third establishment of the Continental Army, from 1777-1784, which consisted of 119 regiments with nine companies in each regiment.

Each state provided pay, food, shelter, clothing, arms, and other equipment for each of their state regiments. Each state also had a quota, based on their population size, for the number of soldiers they were required to raise.

Uniforms and weapons of the Continental Army, lithograph by Henry Alexander Ogden

Uniforms and weapons of the Continental Army, lithograph by Henry Alexander Ogden

Most of the Continental Army was disbanded after the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War in 1783. The 1st and 2nd Regiments went on to form the Legion of the United States in 1792 which later became the foundation of the United States Army in 1796.

What Advantages Did the Continental Army Have?

The Continental Army had a number of advantages over the British army. Their biggest advantage was that they were fighting for a grand cause, their independence and freedom, which was a very motivating factor.

In addition to this, the colonists also had a militia that was highly skilled in guerrilla-style warfare, which the British were unaccustomed to, and the Continental Army was also fighting on its home turf so it knew the land, shortcuts, problems areas and places to hide.

Although most of the soldiers were inexperienced, the army fortunately had the leadership skills of George Washington to guide them. Washington was a veteran of the French and Indian War and was considered a very skilled and talented military leader.

Later in the war, a number of different countries, first France and then Spain and the Dutch Republic, joined the war as allies of the United States or allies of France and provided badly needed funds, troops and supplies.

What Disadvantages Did the Continental Army Face?

The Continental Army also faced many disadvantages, such as a constant shortage of money, weapons, gun powder, food, clothing and medicine.

Although the British army had the British government and the Crown to fund them, the Americans had no such source of wealth to draw from in the early days of the war and were always short on money.

In the first few years of the war, the colonies had no allies to help them and had to supplement their small army with local militia regiments.

Also, the majority of the soldiers in the Continental Army were mostly farmers and had very little to no experience on the battlefield. This was a major disadvantage against the British army who were some of the most skilled and experienced soldiers in the world.

The Continental soldiers also sometimes had to fight their neighbors and fellow countrymen when they joined the loyalist regiments in the British army.

What Was the Continental Army’s Strategy?

Many historians believe the American’s strategy in the Revolutionary War was the Fabian strategy which was to wear the British army down by avoiding decisive battles and dragging the war out for as long as possible.

These historians argue that the Continental Army knew they were up against one of the most powerful armies in the world so instead of trying to win, the Americans simply tried not to lose for as long as possible in the hopes that the British would tire of the war and give up.

"Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown" by John Trumball circa 1819-20. Painting depicting the British surrendering to French and American troops in Yorktown.

“Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown” by John Trumball circa 1819-20. Painting depicting the British surrendering to French and American troops in Yorktown.

Yet, many other historians believe the Americans had no real strategy in place and were just trying to survive. These historians argue that this lack of focus resulted in numerous military losses and a needlessly prolonged war.

Weapons Used by the Continental Army:

The Continental army used a variety of weapons which includes:

Flintlock muskets
British Short Land Service Musket (aka Brown Bess musket)
Charleville muskets
American-made muskets
Long rifles
Bayonets
Halberds
Spontoons

Continental Army Commanders in the Revolutionary War:

Commander in Chief: George Washington

Continental Army Generals in the Revolutionary War:

Major General Artemas Ward
Major General Charles Lee
Major General Philip Schuyler
Major General Israel Putnam
Brigadier General John Thomas
Brigadier General Richard Montgomery
Brigadier General David Wooster
Brigadier General William Heath
Brigadier General Joseph Spencer
Brigadier General John Sullivan
Brigadier General Nathaniel Greene

Continental Army Regiments in the Revolutionary War:

1st Connecticut Regiment (1776-1783)
2nd Connecticut Regiment (1776-1783)
3rd Connecticut Regiment (1776-1783)
4th Connecticut Regiment (1776-1783)
5th Connecticut Regiment (1776-1783)
6th Connecticut Regiment (1776-1781)
7th Connecticut Regiment (1776-1781)
8th Connecticut Regiment (1776-1781)
9th Connecticut Regiment (1776-1781)

198th Signal Battalion in the Delaware National Guard (1775-1783)
1st Delaware Regiment (1776-1783)

1st Georgia Regiment (1775-1783)
2nd Georgia Regiment (1776-1781)
3rd Georgia Regiment (1776-1781)
4th Georgia Regiment (1777-1781)

1st Maryland Regiment (1776-1783)
2nd Maryland Regiment (1776-1783)
3rd Maryland Regiment (1776-1783)
4th Maryland Regiment (1776-1783)
5th Maryland Regiment (1776-1783)
6th Maryland Regiment (1776-1781)
7th Maryland Regiment (1776-1781)

1st Massachusetts Regiment (1775-1783)
2nd Massachusetts Regiment (1775-1783)
3rd Massachusetts Regiment (1775-1783)
4th Massachusetts Regiment (1775-1783)
5th Massachusetts Regiment (1775-1783)
6th Massachusetts Regiment (1775-1783)
7th Massachusetts Regiment (1775-1783)
8th Massachusetts Regiment (1775-1783)
9th Massachusetts Regiment (1775-1777)
10th Massachusetts Regiment (1776-1783)
11th Massachusetts Regiment (1776-1781)
12th Massachusetts Regiment (1775-1781)
13th Massachusetts Regiment (1775-1781)
14th Massachusetts Regiment (1775-1781)
15th Massachusetts Regiment (1776-1781)
16th Massachusetts Regiment (1777-1781)

1st New Hampshire Regiment (1775-1784)
2nd New Hampshire Regiment (1775-1783)
3rd New Hampshire Regiment (1775-1781)

1st New Jersey Regiment (1775-1783)
2nd New Jersey Regiment (1775-1783)
3rd New Jersey Regiment (1776-1781)
4th New Jersey Regiment (1776-1789)

1st New York Regiment (1775-1783)
2nd New York Regiment (1775-1783)
3rd New York Regiment (1775-1780)
4th New York Regiment (1775-1781)
5th New York Regiment (1777-1781)

1st North Carolina Regiment (1775-1783)
2nd North Carolina Regiment (1775-1783)
3rd North Carolina Regiment (1776-1783)
4th North Carolina Regiment (1776-1783)
5th North Carolina Regiment (1776-1783)
6th North Carolina Regiment (1776-1783)
7th North Carolina Regiment (1776-1778)
8th North Carolina Regiment (1776-1778)
9th North Carolina Regiment (1776-1778)

1st Pennsylvania Regiment (1775-1783)
2nd Pennsylvania Regiment (1775-1783)
3rd Pennsylvania Regiment (1775-1783)
4th Pennsylvania Regiment (1775-1783)
5th Pennsylvania Regiment (1775-1783)
6th Pennsylvania Regiment (1775-1783)
7th Pennsylvania Regiment (1776-1781)
8th Pennsylvania Regiment (1776-1781)
9th Pennsylvania Regiment (1776-1781)
10th Pennsylvania Regiment (1776-1781)
11th Pennsylvania Regiment (1776-1778)
12th Pennsylvania Regiment (1776-1778)
13th Pennsylvania Regiment (1776-1778)
Hartley’s Additional Continental Regiment (1777-1781)

1st Rhode Island Regiment (1775-1783)
2nd Rhode Island Regiment (1775-1781)

1st South Carolina Regiment (1775-1783)
2nd South Carolina Regiment (1775-1783)
3rd South Carolina Regiment (1775-1783)
4th South Carolina Regiment (1775-1783)
5th South Carolina Regiment (1776-1780)
6th South Carolina Regiment (1776-1780)

1st Virginia Regiment (1775-1783)
2nd Virginia Regiment (1775-1783)
3rd Virginia Regiment (1775-1783)
4th Virginia Regiment (1775-1783)
5th Virginia Regiment (1775-1783)
6th Virginia Regiment (1775-1783)
7th Virginia Regiment (1776-1783)
8th Virginia Regiment (1776-1783)
9th Virginia Regiment (1775-1781)
10th Virginia Regiment (1775-1783)
11th Virginia Regiment (1777-1781)
12th Virginia Regiment (1776-1780)
13th Virginia Regiment (1776-1783)
14th Virginia Regiment (1776-1780)
15th Virginia Regiment (1776-1780)

Additional Regiments:
The Continental Army also had many unnumbered infantry regiments. They were raised “at large” and were not a part of any state’s quota.

Forman’s Additional Continental Regiment (1777-1779)
Gist’s Additional Continental Regiment (1777-1781)
Grayson’s Additional Continental Regiment (1777-1779)
Hartley’s Additional Continental Regiment (1777-1781)
Henley’s Additional Continental Regiment (1777-1779)
Lee’s Additional Continental Regiment (1777-1779)
Malcolm’s Additional Continental Regiment (1777-1779)
Patton’s Additional Continental Regiment (1777-1779)
Sheppard’s Additional Continental Regiment (1777-1778)
Sherburne’s Additional Continental Regiment (1777-1781)
Spencer’s Additional Continental Regiment (1777-1781)
Thurston’s Additional Continental Regiment (1777-1779)
Webb’s Additional Continental Regiment (1777-1781)

Extra Infantry Units:
Certain permanent infantry units existed in the Continental Army throughout the war that were not part of the infantry authorized by Congress and have been designated the “extra” regiments and corps of the Continental Army.

1st Canadian Regiment (1775-1781)
Elmore’s Regiment (1776-1777)
2nd Canadian Regiment (1776-1783)
Commander in Chief’s Guard (1776-1783)
Long’s Regiment (1776-1777)
Ward’s Regiment (1776-1777)
German Battalion (1776-1781)
Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment (1776-1781)
Westmoreland Independent Companies (1776-1781)
New Hampshire Rangers, aka Whitcomb’s Rangers, (1776-1781)

Continental Light Dragoons:
The Continental Corps of Light Dragoons was created in 1777 as an element of of the third establishment of the Continental Army.

1st Continental Light Dragoons (1777-1779)
2nd Continental Light Dragoons (1776-close of war)
3rd Continental Light Dragoons (1777-1778)
4th Continental Light Dragoons (1777-1783)
Corps of North Carolina Light Dragoons (1776-1779)
Georgia Regiment of Horse Rangers (1780-1781)

Continental Artillery:

1st Continental Artillery Regiment (1776-1783)
2nd Continental Artillery Regiment (1777-1783)
3rd Continental Artillery Regiment (1777-1783)
4th Continental Artillery Regiment ( 1777-1781)
North Carolina Continental Artillery Company (1777-1780)

Partisan Corps:

Partisan Corps units of mounted and infantry troops that were mainly intended to engage in guerrilla warfare.

Armand’s Legion (1778-1783)
Ottendorf’s Corps (1776-1778)
Pulaski’s Legion (1778-1780)
Lee’s Legion (1776-1783)

Invalid Corps:
The Corps of Invalids was a separate branch of the Continental Army that consisted of veterans who were unfit for duty but could still serve as guards for magazines, hospitals and etc.

Corps of Invalids (1777-1783)

Sources:
“Regiments.” Valley Forge Legacy: The Muster Roll Project, Valley Forge Park Alliance,
valleyforgemusterroll.org/army_regiments.asp
“Army Birthdays.” U.S. Army Center of Military History, history.army.mil/html/faq/branches.html
Fleming, Thomas. “Militia and Continentals.” Journal of the American Revolution, 30 Dec. 2013, allthingsliberty.com/2013/12/militia-continentals
“Continental Army.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/continental-army
Wright, Robert Jr. The Continental Army. 1983 history.army.mil/books/RevWar/ContArmy/CA-fm.htm
Heitman, Francis Bernard. Officers of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, April 1775, to December, 1783. 1892.

The Continental Army in the Revolutionary War

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the writer and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

2 thoughts on “The Continental Army in the Revolutionary War

  1. Peter Nagy

    What percent of the Revolutionary soldiers used their own weapons and what percent were supplied by their states or the Continental Congress?

    Reply
  2. Stephen Preuninger

    I believe you omitted Mordecai Gist in your list of brigadier generals. He was from Maryland

    Reply

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