- George Washington’s Enforcers: Policing the Continental Army
Harry Ward is an esteemed historian of the Revolutionary War. He has written exceptionally good biographies of four Continental army generals, a book on the banditti in the no-man’s-land between the rival armies, and a general history of the American Revolution. Now Ward, a professor emeritus at the University of Richmond, has turned his attention to a neglected subject. Though he focuses on how the American army was policed in the Revolutionary War, in reality, George Washington’s Enforcers is about far more than policing the Continental army. It offers valuable insights into the lives of those soldiered.
In the fall of 1777, just before the army marched into Valley Forge, the Continental Congress sent a committee to meet with General Washington in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania. Congress had many things on its mind, but it was especially interested in improving discipline within the army. Allegations were flying inside and outside of Congress that autumn that Washington’s army behaved like a mob. In contrast, some also alleged, the army in the Northern Department, commanded by General Horatio Gates, was the very model of what an army should be. Indeed, Gates’s army had just defeated and captured an entire British army at Saratoga, while Washington had unsuccessfully defended Philadelphia against another British army. Congress put Washington on notice to make changes in his [End Page 105] army. Washington got the message, and the army that emerged from Valley Forge six months later was strikingly different.
Keeping discipline in the army was essential for numerous reasons, including protecting health and safeguarding nearby civilians. It was crucial as well that the soldiers learn to follow orders, so that in the heat of battle they would do as they were told. Ward explains the military justice system in detail, showing how it grew more draconian as the war progressed. Under the initial Articles of War there were only two capital crimes, but fourteen others had been added by the end of 1776. Ward estimates that up to one hundred Continental soldiers were sent to the gallows or before firing squads. At the outset of the war, the military code permitted courts-martial to order up to thirty-nine lashes for certain acts; after one year, punishments of one hundred lashes were authorized, and for a wider range of infractions. Corporal punishment occurred almost daily in the Continental army and included many gruesome practices that today would be seen as cruel and unusual.
Ward chronicles the various types of guard duty that existed, including protecting officers, securing the camp, and patrolling detached areas to prevent spying, hunting down deserters, and overseeing commerce between civilians and soldiers. The number of guard officers grew to scandalous proportions. At times, more than 5 percent of the soldiery were assigned to the personal guard units that protected battalion and regimental commanders. Ward devotes a chapter to the Maréchaussée Corps, a mounted police unit that was responsible, among other things, for guarding prisoners and carrying out executions.
Soldiering and warfare is often scorned in academic circles. It should not be, and particularly in regard to the War of Independence. At least a quarter of the free adult males of military age soldiered in that war, several times the percentage that served in the American armed forces in World War II. What Ward has done in his exceptionally well-written book is to open a window onto the world of those men who served in the Continental army, by showing how they lived, what they experienced, and the discipline and hardships they endured. This is at once an excellent history of the Continental army and wonderful social history. [End Page 106]