Washington’s Reorganization of the Army, In the Hand of Signer George Read

Rare and important document from 1776.

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In late August 1776, General Washington and his army suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Long Island. The British then moved on New York and by mid-September would take that city. American troops performed poorly; this was a low point for Washington and American arms. Yet American leaders were forced...

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Washington’s Reorganization of the Army, In the Hand of Signer George Read

Rare and important document from 1776.

In late August 1776, General Washington and his army suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Long Island. The British then moved on New York and by mid-September would take that city. American troops performed poorly; this was a low point for Washington and American arms. Yet American leaders were forced to accept that the British were intent on sending massive forces to end the Revolution. Washington implored Congress to act, and action must mean organization of a professional army, something many Americans would look on with disfavor. As Caesar Rodney wrote home to fellow Delaware signers of the Declaration of Independence George Read and Thomas McKean, justifying the need to act and the urgency: “By letter from General Washington to Congress, we are informed that General Howe with about 6 or 7 thousand of his troops took possession of New York on Sunday last. We are not so much Astonished that he should get possession of New York (because we have Expected it for Some time past) as at the Scandelous behaviour of our troops that were placed to defend the post Where the enemy Landed, who run away from their lines & breastwork, in a most dastardly manner.”

Just after the debacle at Long Island, the Continental Congress set about strengthening and reorganizing the army. On September 16, 1776, it passed the “Eighty-eight Battalion Resolve,” the measure that created the army that would eventually defeat the British. This established an army of 88 regiments of infantry, with each of the 13 states assigned a quota based on its population. Enlistment terms were extended to three years or “the length of the war” to avoid the year-end crises that depleted forces (including the notable near collapse of the army at the end of 1776, which could have ended the war in a loss by forfeit).  The act also gave Washington authority to raise further troops, it set the proper compensation for officers and soldiers, and guaranteed each officer a grant of land. Still more was to be done.

From the 7th to the 10th of October, 1776, Congress took further steps to clarify and bolster these efforts.  On the 7th, it established the proportional distribution of regiments. On the 8th, it set further compensation and gave instructions to the states for the disposition of the regiments. It also specifically mentioned applying this measure to a state’s troops serving in New York and New Jersey. Congress, as was its custom, ordered that notice of this information be provided to “the Assemblies, Conventions, and Councils of Safety of the several States.” John Hancock wrote to the states informing them of the acts and the importance of their cooperation. “The enclosed Resolves… will inform you of the ample Provision they have made for the Support of both officer & Soldier, who shall enter into the Service…The Pay of the former is considerably increased, and the latter is to receive annually a compleat Suit of Cloaths, or in Lieu thereof, the Sum of twenty Dollars, should he provide the Suit for himself. This additional Encouragement…will be the Means of engaging the Troops to serve during the War. For this Purpose also, I am to request you will appoint a Committee. or Committees to repair immediately to the Army, to induce such of the Troops as have been raised by your State, to enlist during the War, and to appoint Officers for the same.  The Congress, for very obvious Reasons, are extremely anxious to keep the Army together… [I] beseech you, by that Love you have for your Country, her Rights, and Liberties to exert yourselves to carry them speedily and effectually into Execution, as the only Means of preserving her in this her critical and alarming Situation.”

Congress did yet more. On the 10th, it created a Navy from the ships that were struggling to compete with the British maritime behemoth.  It appointed 24 commissioned naval officers and assigned to them vessels and arms.  Among these were Dudley Saltonstall, Nicholas Biddle, and John Paul Jones. 

Anticipating the Declaration of Independence, the Delaware General Assembly declared its separation from the British government on June 15, 1776. Once American independence was declared in July, the General Assembly called for elections to a convention to draft a constitution for the state. The convention met in October, 1776, and George Read, who had just signed the Declaration of Independence and was a Delaware delegate to the Continental Congress, was elected President and presided. In the absence of a governor (the first one took office in February 1777), he was the senior Delaware official and thus acting in a governor’s stead. During the convention, Read was apprised of the happenings in Congress first and foremost by Caesar Rodney, who wrote home after each major milestone during this period to his family and to Read. Plus, Read was receiving the official correspondence from Congress, very likely including the letter John Hancock addressed to governors requesting the cooperation of states in the Continental Army reorganization.

This document is completely in Read’s hand and quotes the October 1776 measures of Congress, with their call for state “assemblies, conventions and councils of safety” to take action to make the great re-structuring of the U.S. military a reality. He prepared it as part of compliance with Congress’ Order, and we conjecture that he created these edited extracts of the measures in order to present them to the Delaware convention for its participation.

Autograph Document, with signature tipped in, October, 1776, being extracts from the minutes of Congress from October 7-10, tracking the reorganization of the officer corps, army and navy. The document begins with a recitation of the salaries set for officers, also noting that enlistments are for the duration of the war.  “Pay of Regimental Officers to be inlisted during Ye War.” Colonels are to receive 75 dollars and 500 acres of land.  By contrast, ensigns received 20 dollars and 150 acres of land. By the 8th of October reference, Read recites the call to the states: “Recommended to assemblies conventions and Council of Safety of ye several states that have Regiments in ye Continental Service at NY Ticonderoga or N. Jersey to Appoint Committees to Proceed there and appoint their officers advising with Gen. Officers then as to the conduct, etc….Additional bounty annually to non commission officers and soldiers of a suit of Cloaths to consist for ye Present year…Recommendation to compleat ye Battalions by 10th November.” By the text on October 10th, Read lists the new Naval commanders: “Rank of ye Capts in ye Navy,” alongside the name of the vessel and number of guns.  John Paul Jones sits at the 18th rank, commanding the Providence, which had 12 guns.  The verso of the document reads “Extracts from minutes of Congress 7th & 8th Oct. 76,” implying perhaps that the top portion of the document was prepared when Read knew of Congress’s actions as of the 8th, and the bottom after news arrived of the naval measure of the 10th. The reference to November 10 as a target date confirms an October, 1776, date for this document.                                                                 

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