by Blake Stilwell
June 14 should be considered one of the most patriotic days in America. Not only is it Flag Day, celebrating the adoption of the Stars and Stripes as the official U.S. flag, but it’s also the birthday of one of the United States’ most trusted institutions: the Army.
After British regulars and colonial militiamen exchanged gunfire at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, in April 1775, three other colonies sent men to assist the Massachusetts minutemen, and the situation became real. The colonies were in revolt.
Luckily, colonial leaders had been preparing for an armed conflict for years before the 1775 outbreak of violence. The four forces met in Boston, forming a loose regional force that laid siege to the British troops at Boston. But militiamen weren’t trained or equipped for a protracted siege.
The colonies needed a force of professional soldiers who were trained, funded and equipped for extended military maneuvers. They appealed to the delegates of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. On June 14, 1775, the Congress passed a resolution forming the Continental Army.
"Resolved, That six companies of expert riflemen, be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia … [and] as soon as completed, shall march and join the army near Boston, to be there employed as light infantry, under the command of the chief Officer in that army."
The Congress even wrote an early oath of enlistment for the new recruits:
“I have, this day, voluntarily enlisted myself, as a soldier, in the American continental army, for one year, unless sooner discharged: And I do bind myself to conform, in all instances, to such rules and regulations, as are, or shall be, established for the government of the said Army.”
On June 15, 1775, the legislative body of the rebel colonies named George Washington to the post of chief officer of the new fighting force, citing the general’s “patriotism, valor, conduct, and fidelity.”
The Continental Army’s effectiveness evolved throughout the war. Although the regulars of the Continental Army were much more highly regarded by the British than their militia counterparts, it wasn’t until 1778 at Valley Forge that the fledgling U.S. Army evolved into a real army.
That February, a Prussian military officer known to history as Baron Friedrich von Steuben arrived at the Continental Army’s harsh winter quarters and began training those men in close-order drill in an advanced Prussian style. He crushed them with harsh discipline, forced them to learn shooting and reloading like expert soldiers and taught them the importance of learning to fight with a bayonet.
Although it was a harsh winter for the demoralized American regulars, they walked out of Valley Forge much stronger than when they went in. Just nine days after breaking camp, the Americans met the numerically superior British force under Lord Cornwallis at Monmouth, New Jersey, and fought it to a draw.
Though the battle was strategically irrelevant, the Americans maintained the battlefield, forcing the British to return to New York. It lay to rest any misgivings Congress had about Washington as commander in chief, and the general kept his job.
The Continental Army would have seven birthdays after its foundational June 14, 1775, congressional resolution. Washington had ideas to develop the new U.S. Army further, but they were ignored by Congress. The Continental Army was disbanded, save for a handful of soldiers of Fort Pitt and West Point in 1783.
Almost immediately, the Army was reinstated, as the need for a national defense made itself apparent on the American frontier. The U.S. Army has been rolling along ever since.
British Major General Charles Cornwallis surrenders his army at Yorktown, the U.S. Army's first - but not last - overall war victory.
A bunch of farmers beating the world's top military power at the Battle of Lexington. (William Barnes Wollen/National Army Museum)