The birth of American military defense followed a path similar to that of America as a nation.  Initially small and scattered, forces would over time grow into an organized, united, and respected force that would ultimately help to establish a new nation.

     Prior to the American Revolution, the defense of the colonies with typically served by local volunteer militia. These men, and young men (minimum enlistment age was 16, 15 with parental consent), could literally be farmers with guns.  They were the community, and they defended themselves, their property, and their families.  When there was an emergency at hand, the local militia would respond..  In times of known conflict, such as during the French and Indian War, temporary “provincial regiments” could be raised, and Britain would send troops over to America to protect it’s colonial interests.

     After fighting broke out in Lexington and Concord and the siege of Boston began both in April of 1775, it was clear a defined and strong military force was necessary to defend the interest of the colonies.  On June 14th, 1775, the Second Continental Congress established the Continental Army.  Throughout the American revolution the Continental Army would see three major organizational approaches.  These included the First Establishment (1775), the Second Establishment (1776), and the Third Establishment (1777 with ongoing changes through 1783).  Throughout the entire course of the war, smaller regimental adjustments, reassignments, and changes were authorized.

Types of Units:

  • Infantry – Foot soldier units that were typically armed with a musket
  • Artillery – Ground based troops responsible for the operation of artillery
  • Cavalry – Mounted troops generally used for reconnaissance and scouting
  • Artificers – Civilian or military mechanics and artisans employed by they army.  They included carpenters, wheelwrights, coopers, harness makers, farriers, nailers, and blacksmiths
  • Partisan CorpsCombined-arms units of mounted and infantry troops, organized as battalion-sized forces but often broken down into smaller detachments, mainly intended to engage in high mobility guerrilla warfare
  • Provost CorpsConsisted of mounted soldiers that performed the duties of military police rather than of cavalry
  • Invalid CorpsComposed of Continental Army veterans who had become unfit for field duty but who could still usefully serve as guards for magazines, hospitals, and similar installations
  • Commander-in-Chief’s Guard – Provided security and protection for the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, George Washington

A typical infantry regiment might include 728 men from 8 companies, a Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel, and Major.  Staff could include an Adjutant, Quartermaster, Surgeon, Surgeon’s Mate, Paymaster, and Chaplin.  Each company could be made up of:

Company (in a Regiment)
Men:  91
# of Men
Captain 1
Lieutenants 2
Ensign 1
Sergents 4
Corporals 4
Fifers/Drummers 2
Privates 76

Not all regiments were filled at all times.  Cavalry regiments were similarly structured.  Artillery Regiments could include specialized companies of soldiers that included bombardiers, gunners, and matrosses.  Rather than as a large, regiment force, they would function in smaller, specialized groups to support strategic battle needs as necessary.

The Three Continental Army Establishments:

There were three major organizational changes within the continental army throughout the course of the war.  They included:

First Establishment (1775): The First Establishment was authorized on June 14th, 1775 by the Continental Congress.  It was composed of units adopted from some previously established militia units, and some newly authorized units.  They were organized into two main departments, they included:

  • Main Army
  • New York Department (for the defense of New York)
First Establishment
Dates:  06/14/1775-12/31/1775
Enlistment Period:  through December 31st, 1775
Total Units:  69
 From # Infantry Units # Artillery Units
Previous Militia
New Hampshire 3
Massachusetts 27 1
Rhode Island 3 1
Connecticut 8
Newly Raised
Pennsylvania 9
Maryland 2
Virginia 4
North Carolina 2
South Carolina 2
Georgia 1
New York 5 1

Second Establishment (1776): The Second Establishment took effect on January 1st, 1776.  A new organizational structure included several major departments, they included:

  • Main Army
  • Canadian Department
  • Northern Department
  • Eastern Department
  • Middle Department
  • Southern Department
Second Establishment
Dates:  01/01/1776-12/31/1776
Enlistment Period:  1 year, through December 31st, 1776
Total Units:  107
From # Infantry Units # Artillery Units # Cavalry Units
Main Army
Pennsylvania 1
New Hampshire 3
Massachusetts 16
Rhode Island 2
Connecticut 5
Other Units 5 1
Canadian Department
Connecticut 2
New York 3
Pennsylvania 3
New Hampshire 4
Massachusetts 4
New Jersey 1
Vermont 1
Canadian 2
Northern Department
Connecticut 1
New York 4 1
New Jersey 2
Pennsylvania 2
Continental Unit 2
Eastern Department
Massachusetts 5
New Hampshire 1
Connecticut 1
Rhode Island 2
Middle Department
Pennsylvania 2
Delaware 1
Maryland 2
Connecticut 1
German Battalian 1
Southern Department
Virginia 9 2
North Carolina 6  1
South Carolina 4 1  1
Georgia 1  1

Third Establishment (1777-1783): The Third Establishment, based on decisions made in 1776, saw some major changes starting in 1777.  The department structure was changed into organization of “State Lines”, which was a name encompassing the military units from each state.  There was a requirement set by the Continental Congress for the number of regiments required from each state, set in proportion to each state’s population.  Also, each state was required to arm, clothe, and equip their regiments.  Several other new unit types were added as well.  From 1777 to 1783 regimental adjustments and reassignments were common, the numbers below reflect the totals as the numbers were not static through those years.  At any one given time throughout the war, the Continental Army remained below 17,000 men.  In all, the units included:

  • Connecticut Line
  • Delaware Line
  • Georgia Line
  • Maryland Line
  • Massachusetts Line
  • New Hampshire Line
  • New Jersey Line
  • New York Line
  • North Carolina Line
  • Pennsylvania Line
  • Rhode Island Line
  • South Carolina Line
  • Virginia Line
  • “Additional” Regiments
  • “Extras” Regiments
  • Continental Light Dragoons
  • Continental Artillery
  • Partisan Corps
  • Provost Corps
  • Invalid Corps
Third Establishment
Dates:  1777-1783
Enlistment Period:  3 years, or duration of the war
Total Units:  136
From # Infantry Units # Artillery Units # Cavalry Units
State Lines
Connecticut 8
Delaware 1
Georgia 4
Maryland 8
Massachusetts 16
New Hampshire 3
New Jersey 4
New York 5
North Carolina 9
Pennsylvania 14
Rhode Island 2
South Carolina 6
Virginia 15
Other Units
“Additional” Units 14
“Extras” Units 10
Continental Light Dragoons 6
Continental Artillery 5
Partisan Corps 4
Provost Corps 1
Invalid Corps 1


National Archives Microfilm Publication M881 – Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War