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To George Washington from Eight Continental Army Field Officers, November 1777

From Eight Continental Army Field Officers

[Whitemarsh, Pa., November 1777]


Impress’d with Sentiments of real concern for the safety and freedom of America, Apprehensive that the Constitution of the Army, in its present languid and weak state may not be productive of the great ends for which it was rais’d, should not an immediate reform be effected, We take the liberty to offer to your Excellency’s perusal the hints and observations contain’d in the enclos’d sheets.1

Our knowledge of mankind hath taught us that Interest, tho’ inferior in point of Honor or others, is yet the most general motive to action; that by consulting the interest of any body politick, Government will be strengthned and obedience secured, and that those rewards, which will acquire estimation in men’s minds must be either honorary or lucrative.

The Officers of the Army of the United States under it’s present establishment have neither of these to attach them to the service; their pay is of little value, when we consider the Scarcity and dearness of every necessary of life; their other allowances are small and difficult to be obtain’d through the unlicens’d chicanery of the Staff, And to support their rank as Gentlemen, they must either injure their patrimonies, or incur debts which they can have no prospect of discharging. The rank they ought to derive from their commissions will not distinguish them or command respect; That is lost in the deluge of those to whom that priviledge is extended, consequently the Officers having nothing to incite them to duty and obedience, but the Commands of their superiors and the love of their Country, (which latter consideration ought to be common to the Citizen as well as to the Soldier, but having unhappily in some Measure fail’d in the Country cannot be relied on in Camp) do not act with that chearfulness and alacrity, which will procure good order and discipline.

The exertion of power is ever bitter, and unless sweetned with some real advantage will become irksome and odious; from these causes the Officers of the American Army are disgusted with trifling Occurrences, and any Opportunity serves as an excuse for resignation.

Those frequent resignations among other evils introduce a continual rotation of Officers, which keeps our Army young and raw, while the bravery and Exertion of Veterans is expected from it.

We cannot help complaining of eccentric promotions, promotions not calculated to reward the meritorious, but which only prefer the favorite, and tend to disgust the Army. Our honour as Soldiers obliges us to dwell on this Article. Bravery, Enterprize, or Accident, will sometimes make an Officer ostensible and render him famous; We mean not to obviate such a man’s promotion. We know it is necessary to keep this incitement to Gallantry and Valour. But when An Officer is thus promoted, whom even good fortune hath not favor’d with an appearance of superior military abilities; It must argue great demerit in those to whom he is preferr’d and is an Affront which they must highly resent.

Should we prove so happy as to have afforded in these essays, any observations on the present state of the army which may meet with your concurrence, We shall think our time well bestow’d and beg that you will be pleas’d to communicate them to Congress. We have the honor to be with every Sentiment of respect and Attachment. Your Excellency’s most obedt Servts

Theok Bland

M: Gist

Jo. Carvl Hall

Thos Hartley

Robt Lawson

Jas Innes

John Taylor

Henry Miller

DS, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Another manuscript “draft or contemporary copy” of this document and its enclosure were offered for sale in The Collector, July–Sept. 1955, item no. 650. This document and the enclosed proposals for army reform printed in note 1 are undated, as are GW’s remarks on the proposals and the officers’ observations on his remarks. The dates of all four documents are taken from GW’s docket on the officers’ observations, which reads in part “Novr 1777” (see Remarks on Proposed Reform of the Continental Army, November 1777, source note).

1The enclosed undated proposals read: “1st That confidence which troops ought to place in Officers of high rank frequently wants an object, in consequence of the local motives which direct their appointment; by abolishing the Colonial distinction this mischief will be probably cured, and therefore would it not be proper and highly advantageous to the interest of America, as well with respect to her internal strength, as her reputation with foreign powers, to consolidate all the forces rais’d in the States into one Army, to abolish the distinction between State troops and Continental, As it is certainly the business of Congress to defend every part of the Continent alike? Would not all confusion in Rank and all Colonial Jealousies by this means be put a stop to?

“2nd Instead of each State being obliged to furnish a certain number of Regiments, Would it not be adviseable that each state should be bound by Articles of Confederacy to furnish a certain number of men by a Stipulated time, or make good the deficiencies by draughts from the State, to be continued in the Continental Service, and charg’d to the State untill the Quota of men is compleated. As the mode of furnishing Regiments introduces a great number of Supernumerary Officers and but few men, by which the Expence of the Army is greatly enhanc’d and it’s strength not at all encreas’d. Will not sixty thousand men be sufficient for the defence of this Continent the next Campaign? And cannot that number be easily rais’d, including the present Army in the field? Would it not be proper to fix on some establish’d Rule, as soon as may be, for reducing supernumerary Officers, establishing rank, and forming a Grand Army, and Armies of observation, as soon as possible? Would not the following be the best mode of executing those adviseable purposes, and of Selecting the best Officers the Continent affords?

“Plan for modelling the Army Anew, and providing for the defence of every part of the Continent.

“Sixty thousand men to be rais’d and embodied for the service of the current year, exclusive of Six Regiments of Artillery, eight Regiments of Horse, and seven hundred and fifty Marines.

“The whole Army to be under one Head or Captain General, who shall recommend Six Lieut. Generals, (one to each ten thousand men or ten Regiments) to be commission’d by Congress, if approv’d of. When commission’d, they with the approbation of the Commander in chief to recommend twelve Major Generals to Congress. Who when commission’d, are in conjunction with the Lieut. Generals, and the approbation of the Commander in chief to select twenty four Brigadier Generals, to be recommended to Congress, to be commission’d, if approv’d of.

“The Field Officers of each Regiment to be recommended by a Majority of the Lieut. Generals and approbation of the Commander in chief.

“The Captains and Subalterns to be recommended by the field Officers of their respective Regiments and so of the Staff.

“A Regiment of Infantry to consist of one Colonel one Lieut. Colo. one Major: Ten Captains, twenty Lieutenants, ten Ensigns, Sixty Serjeants, forty Corporals and nine hundred and Sixty Privates. Including Grenadier and light infantry Companies.

“One Sixth of each Lieutenant General’s command, to be light Infantry, and Grenadiers, to be always kept full by draughts of pick’d men.

“An Artillery Regiment to be annex’d to each Lieut. Generals command, to be rais’d exclusively, but afterwards to be fill’d by draughts.

“Artificers of all sorts are to be rais’d exclusive.

“A Certain number of Marines to be attach’d to each Grand division for the purpose of making descents by water &c. &c.

“Such Officers as are or may be left out of this arrangement to have the lands assign’d them by Congress, and to such as can produce certificates Sign’d by the Commander in chief and Lieut. Generals of their good Conduct, shall be entitled to half pay, untill call’d into service, when any Augmentation of the Army shall be necessary.

“Officers having accepted of their nomination should have their Rank immediately establish’d, and should be bound to adhere to the conditions of their appointment. No Officer should be promoted out of turn except in cases of Merit, and by purchase, where the præemption had been offer’d to the next succeeding Officers and refused. In the first of these cases, The Commander in chief with the advice of a Council of War, consisting of Lieut. Generals should recommend him to Congress in writing, assigning their reasons why he should be promoted; which being done, it should be held disgraceful & unbecoming the Character of an Officer to object to.

“The institution of some order of knighthood for those above the rank of Colonel, who had distinguish’d themselves, to which adequate pensions should be annexed on quitting the Army, and the conferring a Sword, Medal, or other honourable mark of approbation on those beneath the rank of General, who had distinguish’d merit, and of pecuniary rewards to non-commission’d Officers and Soldiers would greatly tend to excite the laudable principle of Ambition throughout the army, which would stimulate it’s members to great and noble Actions.

“When the first Arrangement of Officers is fix’t, any future Appointments of General Officers to be wholly at the disposal of Congress.

“That Commissions should be held in more estimation, good Officers be made fond of accepting them and when accepted be happy to remain in the service and to make a military life their business, pleasure and Study, I would propose—

“1st  That Officers be nominated as before.

“2nd  That they immediately on being nominated, be inform’d of the rank they are to hold in the army when reform’d, and after they have accepted this, are not to object on account of Rank.

“3rd  That when they have serv’d one or more years (as shall be stipulated) with reputation and honor, they may with the Commander in chief’s permission have Liberty to sell their Commissions, giving the next in command the præemption or option to buy & so on in succession.

“4th  That a value shall be set on every Commission, and a man purchasing from a lower to a higher pay the difference.

“5th  That the money paid for commissions shall not be paid into the hands of the Seller, but into the treasury of the board of War, and the Seller when retiring as above, to receive the interest of the full value of the commission sold, during life, and after his death the Capital to be funded, and the interest arising from such fund to be paid to Officers Widows & Orphans according to the rank of their deceased Husbands or fathers. ’Till a fund can arise from the mode propos’d, Where any Officer in the Continental Service dies leaving a Widow and distress’d family; Would it not be consistent with justice, that the Congress should establish a fund for the support of such Widow & family? This fund to be establish’d as soon as possible, as it must be a great consolation to a needy Officer to be certain in case of an Accident, that his family will be provided for.

“6th  That Officers resigning without leave, or being dismiss’d or cashierd shall be entitled to none of the above mention’d priviledges.

“That Officers maimed, wounded or incapaciated by loss of constitution should over and above the Interest of his commission receive half pay for life or be otherwise provided for in some military Academy, or Corps of Invalids.

“At the end of the War, if Regiments are reduc’d, the Officers so reduc’d should be entitled to half pay untill call’d in again.

“We wish to see all rank taken from those who do not serve in the line, which will lessen the number of Officers, and of course enhance their honor. Let the Staff be also compos’d of Commd Officers from the line, which will obviate any inconvenience of want of rank, in that department, will hold out to the needy Officer a prospect of redeeming his losses, and will also give some share of ease & profit to those who suffer the toils and danger. This will also give you an Opportunity of changing the Constitution of the Army without disbanding those Officers who have suffer’d and fought for their Country.

“An Army being modell’d, & the Officers thus selected, there would be little doubt but that order, and regularity and discipline would take place, and that, Slovenly dress, straggling, filth, and their Concomitants, Sloth, desertion, and disease would be banish’d the Camps of the American Armies. Inattention to General orders and every unofficer-like conduct and behaviour would be look’d on in a disgraceful point of view. Officers guilty of such crimes being punish’d with the loss of Commissions honorable from the mode of their being conferr’d and profitable while possess’d, would be stimulated to exert themselves, especially when the reward of their merit and services were set before them.

“The Staff, who are at present left at large to commit various enormities, & omit many necessary duties, without any mode of rectifying them, except that of an Arrest, might be perhaps put on a better footing, by instituting a weekly or monthly board to hear such complaints as might occur in that line, and investing that board with powers to dismiss all such as did not hold commissions in the line with disgrace from their employments, when such Complaints were justly founded: this might at least be done in the Army, with deputies. Through this board complaints might be transmitted to the board of War of any neglect in Principals. Officers who held commissions in the line might be arrested, and tried by Court Martials.

“The food and Cloathing of Soldiers should be strictly attended to, and in the latter Article, Conveniency & warmth should be the chief consideration; good Shoes, Stockings, Overalls, warm woollen Caps and blankets should be constantly Supply’d, and provision made in case of Accidents; A certain number of watchcoats to each troop and Company for Videttes, Sentries and Patrolls by night, without which Guards should never mount would save the lives and healths of thousands. Straw and Wood should be supplyd by the Quarter Masters in sufficient Quantities, which would prevent the disorders contracted from laying on damp ground, and the business of the Quarter Master, which is at present almost a Sine-cure, would then be of importance.

“The utmost Accuracy should be observ’d by the Officers in seeing the Camp Utensils kept clean and a due proportion of Vegetables furnishd the men, that they bake their bread or have well baked bread issued to them, and that their food be chiefly boil’d, instead of fried & broil’d, by which last mode of cooking Dysenteries and bilious Camp disorders are contracted. Physicians and Surgeons should be obliged once a week to make a report to a board of Officers, of the state and condition of the Sick and Hospitals under their care from their own Ocular inspection, and a General Officer be frequently appointed to visit the General Hospitals, to see if the report corresponds with the true state thereof, and if there is any remissness in that department, the Offender should be by the above board instantly dismiss’d with disgrace. And as an inducement for them to discharge their duty, they should be entitled to sell their posts, receive the benefit of half pay, & to all the pecuniary emoluments arising from their commissions, when quitting the Army with reputation, that other Officers have; their Commissions being valued in proportion to the pay they receive.

“In fine, Every Officer and Soldier before entering into the Army or on receiving a Commission Should be obliged to take an oath of Allegiance to the United States, and of abjuration of the supremacy of the Crown and parliament of Great Britain, and of obedience to the lawful commands of his superior Officers” (DLC:GW).

A copy of these proposals was circulating among some members of Congress by 13 Jan. when James Lovell wrote John Adams: “I give you a Specimen of the agitating Genius of the Men of Leisure on the Banks of Schuylkill. They have offered 13 quarto pages of hints and observations to Genl. W—for his concurrence and conveyance to Congress. The spirit of those pages is contained in the following Analisis made by Secretary Thompson who has kept very near the Letter. You will percieve a roguish sneer in the Preface and Conclusion, but it is what no whig Farmer could avoid.” Thompson offered satiric versions of the officers’ six numbered proposals concerning rank and privileges and concluded that with adoption of the proposals, “Order and Regularity and Discipline will immediately take place. Every soldier will be clean and neatly dressed, his head combed and powdered; Sloth Desertion and Disease will be banished the Camp of the American army; nay, what is more, they will be well fed and their meat will be boiled instead of fried or broiled” (Papers of John Adams description begins Robert J. Taylor et al., eds. Papers of John Adams. 17 vols. to date. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1977–. description ends , 5:383–85).

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