War of Independence (detail of Boston massacre print)

George Washington’s Army

In the summer of 1776, George Washington was in New York waiting for a British attack. Thousands of men were joining the Continental Army: they were young and mostly poor farmers, fishermen, and artisans; some were Africans. All were volunteers and many joined for the cash bounty. Some were veterans of the French and Indian War, but most had no idea of what they were getting into.

Washington knew that order and discipline were key to transforming free-willed and unruly civilians into soldiers. He insisted that all officers and soldiers conduct themselves in an orderly manner, “as Men contending in the glorious cause of Liberty ought to do.” And he did not hesitate to whip, drum out of the army, or even execute those who failed to obey orders.

He also made sure that troops trained for battle using “systems of Discipline” from various English military manuals. Discipline ensured the coordinated handling of weaponry, taught individuals to act as one, and kept scared soldiers marching forward when those beside them exploded in blood.

When the British attacked Long Island in August, Washington’s troops faced heavy volleys of musket fire, fusillades of artillery, and charges with fixed bayonets. Many were killed; others retreated before superior British forces. But gradually they learned to be soldiers.


The Battle of Princeton by William Mercer
From a medical text on amputation, 1768. Soft lead musket balls flatten on impact. They tear gaping wounds. They shatter limbs, leaving amputation the only possible treatment.

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