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  • George C. Wildrick

The Continental "Line" in the American Revolution



What was the "Continental line"? The name came from a line item specified for each "state/province,” enumerated by acts or resolutions of the Continental Congress that established a quota of regiments to be provided by each province to the Continental Army.


The Continental Army was established by the 2nd Continental Congress on 14 June 1775 in response to a request written by Dr. Joseph Warren earlier that May.

Warren identified the requirement for a unified army that would be formed under the aegis of the Congress and remain under civil control to confront the British besieged within Boston. Warren, as the President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, had untenable command of four sovereign provincial armies surrounding Boston following the gunfight at Lexington/Concord in April. Provincial regiments from each of the New England colonies -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island -- had sped to the aid of the rebels surrounding Boston following the "shot heard round the world." Warren was trying to keep a grizzly bear treed with a herd of cats.

Warren's letter not only gave birth to the Continental Army but his request for a "generalissimo" resulted in the selection of George Washington to be its commander.

The selection of a Virginian as opposed to an experienced New England general currently in place was designed to not only bring in the powerful Virginians but also to signal the national nature of the Continental Army. That was one fateful letter. The American Armed Forces have been under civil control ever since.


To understand what a revolutionary concept (pun intended) a Continental Army was, a brief description of previous military forces is required. The militia system had existed in each colony since its founding. It was the duty of each male between the ages of 16 and 60 to serve in what was usually an unpaid defensive force that also served as the local police. Based initially on the English militia system, Colonial militias differed from the English usually by the requirement for each militia man to provide his own arms. This was not only an economic consideration but, unlike England, the militia man's first responsibility was to protect his own home and family. In England that responsibility fell to the local Lord as inherited through feudal custom. (Think Sheriff of Nottingham.)


The militia was then an unpaid defensive force (with a few exceptions) whose membership was a duty levied on local citizens. How this duty was exercised varied greatly among the colonies as the threats and social structures dictated. Massachusetts had weathered 150 years of French and Indian wars and had an extremely effective and experienced militia and provincial system.


How then did provincial colonies conduct offensive operations? They commissioned provincial regiments under the authority of the provincial government and commissioned officers to raise regiments from the local militias. The provinces then paid and usually equipped their regiments, forming them each spring and disbanding in the fall. In effect there was a new provincial regiment each year. Soldiers were often recruited from existing militia companies but largely came from surplus manpower. The fact that they were paid in cash and equipped was a major inducement. It was the provincial regiments that fought outside a local area and conducted offensive expeditions. (Those familiar with the movie "Last of the Mohicans" will remember the scenes where the Provincials wanted to protect their homes that the British failed to protect ---a very real issue). Many modern historians, re-enactors and all film makers (and the British at the time) frequently confuse provincials with militia. Not the same thing.


Once the Continental Army was authorized and formed, many of these provincial regiments were incorporated into the Continental Army under the quotas posed by the Continental Congress as a "line" of an act or resolution to a specific province. In addition to providing "line" regiments, most provinces maintained their own provincial regiments as well as militias. Thus, in a single theater of operations, there could be three separate patriot military forces operating.


In fact, it is desperately complicated. One only has to look at the pension records of Revolutionary War veterans who may have served alternately in the militia, provincial regiments, and Continental line.


Who then were the Minute Men? Now that is another story........


George C. Wildrick (edited by Teri Wildrick)

Published Posthumously

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