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Continental Army enlistment form, printed by Benjamin Edes, Watertown, Massachusetts, June 1776. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Broadsides and Printed Ephemera Collection.

Continental Army enlistment form, printed by Benjamin Edes, Watertown, Massachusetts, June 1776. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Broadsides and Printed Ephemera Collection.

The duration of enlistment on this enlistment form might, at first glance, seem optimistic. Issued in June 1776, one month before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, young recruits were bound to the service of the United American Colonies until the first day of December, 1776. The war for independence would continue for another five years until the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown in October of 1781. A peace treaty would not be a reality until 1783.

Though the Continental Congress had been managing the war since 1775, throughout the war it struggled to obtain funds for the war. Thus, as indicated in the enlistment form, new recruits were expected to furnish themselves with “a good effective Firearm . . . Bayonet . . . [or] Haches [hatchet] or Tomahawk, a Cartridge Box and Blanket.” Fortunately, in the eighteenth century these items were readily available to most young men. Harder to come by were trained soldiers who not only understood chain of command and basic combat techniques, but were also toughened to the grueling hardships of war. The first American armies were formed of men from the original colonial militias. These citizen soldiers performed valiantly in many battles, but their commitment to the overall war effort was often dictated by the extent of British aggression in their home colony and the duties of farm and family life. Regular military commanders, including George Washington, could not rely solely on the militia to fight the war for independence.

In June 1775, the Continental Congress established the American Continental Army, authorizing ten companies of riflemen from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia under the command of General George Washington. By late 1776, recruitment forms for the regular Continental Army soldiers extended the length of service to three years. By 1777, Washington had persuaded Congress to require newly-enlisted soldiers to serve until the end of the war. Members of the regular army proved to be more consistent, though no less brave, in their efforts. Overall, they received more training, much of it on the job in battle, and had a better sense of the order of command. But the recruits were very young, and far more inexperienced than the standing British Army and the mercenary Hessians employed troops by the British government to help control its vastly sprawling empire. Signing the enlistment form and swearing allegiance to serve subjected new recruits to low pay, harsh discipline, and poor food. Yet many flocked to join out of commitment for the cause of liberty. Military life also provided some stability and a sense of purpose in their lives.


This article was written by Greg Timmons, freelance writer and education consultant, Missoula, Montana.


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