George Washington had a problem he believed no one had ever encountered before. On January 1, 1776, the Continental Army would disappear unless Washington recruited enough men to replace it.
Somehow, he managed.
His ragtag fighting force, strung out along the hills surrounding Boston, had bottled up British troops despite having little gunpowder, inferior weapons and no heavy artillery. Nearly all enlistments expired on December 31. But somehow Washington recruited a whole new army within firing range of the world’s most powerful fighting force.
On Jan. 4, 1776, he wrote a letter to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, to explain.
“It is not in the pages of History perhaps, to furnish a case like ours, to maintain a post within Musket Shot of the Enemy for Six months together without — and at the same time to disband one Army and recruit another, within that distance, of Twenty off British regiments, is probably more than ever was attempted.”
George Washington Recruited by Congress
The Continental Congress authorized a standing army on June 14, 1775, and the next day named George Washington “captain general” of American fighting forces.
It took nine days for Washington to ride from Philadelphia to Cambridge, delayed by public demonstrations along the way. He arrived on July 2, 1775, 15 days after the Battle of Bunker Hill. He knew little about the battle, though he learned along the way that 1,000 British troops had perished during the conflict. They were still encamped on top of the hill, peppering the Americans with artillery fire.
Washington was dismayed at what he saw. Few soldiers had uniforms or tents, and they lived in shantytowns of lumber and cloth. Some lived in vacated Tory homes, in one case, 250 men to a house. They hadn’t dug latrines and the camps stank.
The officers were not only ignorant and quarrelsome but scandalously disobedient, wrote Washington’s aide Joseph Reed to Elias Boudinot on Aug. 13, 1775. “Many had proven themselves notorious cowards.”
It took him a week to find out how many men he commanded.
He thought he had 20,000. He had 16,500 and only 14,000 were fit for duty. The rest were sick or wounded. The british had 6,000, but he figured they could form a fighting force of 12,000 if they armed slaves and Loyalists left in Boston.
“We are in an exceeding dangerous situation,” he wrote to his friend Richard Henry Lee on July 10.
In early August, Washington learned the shocking truth about his gunpowder supply. During a war council, he was told his men barely had enough gunpowder for eight, maybe nine rounds each.
For a half hour, Washington sat in silence before speaking again, reported one of his generals, John Sullivan.
From then on, Washington didn’t dare order a morning or evening gun fired. When the British bombarded his forces with cannonade he couldn’t order their fire returned.
Fortunately, the enemy couldn’t believe how bad things were, according to the journal of Elias Boudinot. A member of the Committee of Safety of Massachusetts knew the secret, wrote Boudinot. He deserted and went over to Gen. Thomas Gage, the British commander, and told him.
“The fact was so incredible that General Gage treated it as a stratagem of war and the informant as a spy, or coming with the express purpose of deceiving him and drawing his army into a snare, by which mean we were saved from having our quarters beaten up,” wrote Boudinot.
“Few people know the predicament we are in,” wrote Washington to his friend Joseph Reed.
Had they known, the American Revolution might have ended right then and there.
On November 16, Washington ordered a 25-year-old former bookseller named Henry Knox, a colonel, to ask Congress for cannon. If he couldn’t get any, he should go to Fort Ticonderoga, captured in May, to retrieve the heavy artillery.
He also sent two men – his muster-master general, Stephen Moylan, and Col. John Glover — to outfit privateers to capture unarmed enemy supply ships. On November 29, Capt. John Manley, commanding the privateer Lee, captured the British brigantine Nancy, along with thousands of musket, shot and a cannon.
Washington also knew about a lightly guarded cache of gunpowder in the British colony of Bermuda. So he asked Rhode Island Gov. Nicholas Cooke to send an armed vessel to the island to capture it. Cooke obliged, sending Abraham Whipple on the mission.
But the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing. Congress also sent an armed vessel to Bermuda to steal the British store of gunpowder there. Bermudans who shared the colonies’ displeasure with Britain stole enough gunpowder to quadruple Washington’s supply. When Whipple arrived, the powder was already on its way to Washington.
The Army Dwindles
On October 31, King George III delivered a speech to Parliament declaring the Americans in open rebellion and asking for more troops to put down the uprising.
Winter was coming. Washington’s army had few blankets and no winter clothing. Enlistments started to expire on December 1 and every man could leave on January 1.
The patriotic fervor that inspired thousands to rush to Boston had worn off. Men started to flock back home. Whole regiments packed up and left.
By late November, Washington had only 3,500 men. “Could I have foreseen what I have, & am like to experience, no consideration upon Earth should have induced me to accept this Command,” he wrote in a Nov. 28, 1775 letter to Joseph Reed.
How Washington Recruited an Army
Enlistments came in slowly. News of the army’s harsh condition had spread. Washington, too, had introduced discipline: the lash, the pillory and the court martial.
And so the army offered a signing bonus: a dollar, big money in those days.
Joseph Plumb Martin described the allure of a dollar on a drum head.
A dollar deposited upon the drum head was taken by some one as soon as placed there, and the holder’s name taken, and he enrolled . . . My spirits began to revive at the sight of the money offered; the seeds of courage began to sprout . . . O, thought I, if I were but old enough to put myself forward, I would be the possessor of one dollar, the dangers of war notwithstanding.
Some enlistees tried to game the system, waiting until the last minute to enlist in the hopes the army in its desperation would raise the bounty.
On New Year’s Eve Washington had 9,650 men – about half of what Congress authorized.
To minimize disruption, Washington asked the men who enlisted for 1776 to join their new regiment a few days before the new year. He asked dismissed soldiers to stay longer and called up militias to reinforce the army.
On Jan. 1, 1776, Washington ordered the soldiers who didn’t reenlist to their parade grounds. They were then sent home, leaving by the hundreds and thousands.
Gen. Nathanael Greene lost three-fourths of his brigade and had fewer than 700 men.
Slowly, the Continental Army returned to its strength of 1775. The British stayed put, failing to take advantage of their enemy’s weakened position. By March, Henry Knox would arrived with his noble artillery train, and the British would soon evacuate.
This story last updated in 2022.