The Warfare State


The Virginian’s vision of a professional army after the European pattern ran up against a deeply ingrained American aversion to the very concept of a standing army. The mere phrase was anathema, conjuring up images of British redcoats quartered in civilian homes. The vast majority of America’s landowning aristocrats had an almost congenital distrust of standing armies, which their ancestors for generations had identified with despotism, both royal and Cromwellian. They glorified instead the yeoman militiaman, linked to the land and closely tied to local interests. Yet the war posed a dilemma: If the Americans wanted freedom from the depredations of a standing army, they would have to create one.

The Congress had voted in June 1775 to form a Continental army to fight alongside the militia, but a corrupt recruiting system and perilously short terms of enlistment made the measure ineffective. Enlistments were initially for one year, but some recruiters offered ten-dollar bounties for just six weeks of service. If this was a standing army, it did not stand for long. Military necessity eventually persuaded Congress to build up an institution it fundamentally distrusted. In June 1776 it voted three-year enlistments and in September began offering twenty dollars and a hundred acres of land to men who signed on for the duration. By 1777 a regular system of recruiting was in place, with quotas assigned to each state.

The formation of a regular army under a single command had a crucial unifying effect on the new republic. At the Battle of Brandywine in 1777, Nathanael Greene from Rhode Island led a Virginia division while Anthony Wayne of Pennsylvania commanded troops from New Jersey. Such an arrangement would have been unthinkable at the onset of the war just two years earlier. Likewise, soldiers from different regions who initially viewed one another with suspicion or even animosity got along better as they camped, marched, and fought together.

Contrary to a popular conception of the War of Independence as a civilized and rather tidy affair, it was in fact marked by extraordinary violence and upheaval. The number of soldiers killed in battle is officially set at 4,435, but the total number, including those who perished from wounds, from disease, or in prison, is estimated at 25,324, nearly one percent of the population in 1780 and more than one in ten of all soldiers who served. As a percentage of the national population, the losses were three times those of World War II and were surpassed only by the Civil War’s.

Nor should the impact of the “civil war within the war” be overlooked. Anti-Tory reprisals encouraged the emigration of between 50,000 and 100,000 British Loyalists from America during the war and tens of thousands more afterward; the ratio of exiles to population was at least five times as high as the émigré wave that fled France during the French Revolution. This exodus together with the brutality that came to characterize the war on the Indian frontiers and in the South gives us a picture of violent upheaval far exceeding the popular image of the war. The War of Independence was an event of immense proportions, a major cause in its own right of the larger American Revolution.

Even as the Army helped make the nation, the war helped forge the first administrative organs of national government. The mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line in January 1781 persuaded Congress that the task of financing and directing the war effort could not be left to the individual states. Within two months it opened a Department of Foreign Affairs, created the office of the Secretary of War, and established a Department of Finance, whose first superintendent, Robert Morris, became the virtual financial dictator of the United States. Other national institutions begun during the war included departments of military supply and organization; the Springfield Armory, in Massachusetts; and the Bank of North America, first formed in Philadelphia in June 1780 by citizens wanting to assist the Army.

The Treaty of Paris led to the rapid decline of nationalist sentiments in the former colonies. By 1784 the Army had shrunk to 700 men under Maj. Gen. Henry Knox. Distrustful of standing armies, Congress disbanded even this force, leaving only two garrisons, one of 55 men, the other of 25. The administrative departments established by Congress also atrophied, and several states began conducting their affairs almost as if the Articles of Confederation did not exist. The ingrained American mistrust of centralized power thus manifested itself in two habits that would resurface after nearly every war: rapid, nearly total demobilization of the Army and partial dismantling of the state administration.