GW: Life & Times

Slide 6 — Keeping the Troops in Line: General Orders from the Revolutionary War

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George Washington, by John Trumbull, 1780.

As Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, Washington faced a formidable challenge. Before he could defeat the British, he had to unify the Americans. First, it was difficult to even raise an army; about one third of the colonists were still loyal to the British and only a third more genuinely supported the fight for independence.

After he had convinced the recruits from the various colonies that they should wear the same "American" uniform and that officers should be appointed by the Continental Congress instead of the colonies, the general had to try to keep the army he had raised. While Washington himself had volunteered to serve without a salary, he knew that his soldiers needed greater incentive to remain loyal. With meager food supplies, harsh weather, the spread of disease and poor pay, desertion was a constant problem. Over the course of the war, from 1775 until 1781, GW repeatedly asked the Continental Congress for more money to supply his troops.

The first year of the war held few victories until GW led the army in crossing the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776 to attack sleeping Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, New Jersey.

After a very harsh winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania the next year, the Continental Army began to prevail with the help of the French. Although the war would last four more years until the surrender at Yorktown in 1781, the darkest days were over.

Additional Resources

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