The Continental Army was established by the Second Continental Congress a few days before the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. George Washington was appointed the commander-in-chief and he served throughout the war without pay, requesting only that his expenses be paid. Washington was immediately confronted by the lack of discipline and training in his troops, and he devoted the entire war to building a fighting force from inexperienced and generally short-term soldiers.
The Continental Army suffered from the shortcomings of the Continental Congress. The Congress had no authority to legislate, to levy taxes, or to raise troops except by appeals to volunteers. They could only request that the states provide soldiers and funds with which to pay them, which was never easy. The states had their own militias, which they would from time to time provide to support the regular army, but which they might also prefer to support as the militias were dedicated to local defense.
Throughout the war, the continental soldiers were poorly armed, poorly clothed, poorly fed, and poorly paid. The rifles they carried were an assortment of home made and imported weapons. The men from the frontiers used long rifles that had longer range than their British opponents, and they were often better shots. There was no uniform, and many soldiers were reduced to rags.
Although Crispus Attucks, a black man, was the first American to die from British fire in the American Revolution at the Boston Massacre, this did not signify a tolerant attitude on the part of all revolutionary leaders. Horatio Gates, as adjutant general of the new Continental Army, issue instructions to recruiters in Massachusetts:
You are not to enlist any deserter from the ministerial army, nor any stroller, Negro, or vagabond, or person suspected of being an enemy of the liberty of America, nor any under eighteen years of age.
There are no reliable figures as to the number of men who served in the Continental Army. The rolls indicate that 231,771 men enlisted, but many were for short duration and reenlistments can be counted twice. Washington had as few as 4000 men at the worst of the winter of Valley Forge and never more than the 26,000 he commanded in November, 1779.
In April, 1777, Banjamin Rush was appointed surgeon general of the army. He developed a very negative view of the standard of medical care of the soldiers and wrote to Washington on December 26, sharply criticizing Dr. William Shippen, the director of the medical service. Washington referred the question to Congress, which cleared Shippen of the charges.
Unhappy with the turn of events, Rush wrote anonymously to Patrick Henry on January 12, 1778, suggesting that George Washington should be replaced. Henry sent the letter to Washington, who recognized Rush as the author and rebuked him. Rush then retired to private practice in Philadelphia.
By early 1778, it became evident to Washington that the organization of the army needed to be reformed. Washington wrote to Congress on January 28, explaining the many problems:
A small knowledge of human nature will convince us, that, with far the greatest part of mankind, interest is the governing principle; and that almost every man is more or less, under its influence. Motives of public virtue may for a time, or in particular instances, actuate men to the observance of a conduct purely disinterested; but they are not of themselves sufficient to produce a persevering conformity to the refined dictates and obligations of social duty. Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest, or advantage, to the common good. It is vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account; the fact is so, the experience of every age and nation has proved it and we must in a great measure, change the constitution of man, before we can make it otherwise. No institution, not built on the presumptive truth of these maxims can succeed.
Near the end of the war, with the officers and men of the Continental Army still not receiving what they had been promised by Congress, some voices were raised in defiance, suggesting that the army should take by force if necessary what was owed them. Washington addressed the officers and rebuked those who spoke in this fashion, urging them on practical and ethical grounds to be patient.
After the war's conclusion, a number of former officers of the Continental Army formed the Society of the Cincinnati. Although criticized by some as an attempt for form an aristocratic military elite, the Society has perservered to the present in its efforts to preserve the heritage of the American Revolution.