J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Running the Numbers in 1776

While I was confirming some figures in Charles H. Lesser’s The Sinews of Independence, a Bicentennial book collecting the best records of the size of the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War, I spotted a couple of curious trends.

We often think of the first American invasion of British Canada as coming to a spectacular end in the attack on Québec on 31 Dec 1775. Gen. Richard Montgomery was killed; Col. Benedict Arnold wounded; Capt. Daniel Morgan, Capt. Henry Dearborn, and many other men captured. (John Trumbull’s painting of Montgomery’s death above.)

But the Continental Congress actually ordered more troops north after that battle. In late February 1776, Arnold (now a brigadier general) reported having 1,290 soldiers under his command, of whom 964 were able to fight. The next month, that number had grown to 2,505 men, with 1,719 in shape. The invasion of Canada outlasted the siege of Boston. But it doesn’t have a good narrative shape, with a long, dreary second act.

Meanwhile, Col. Henry Knox was moving his artillery regiment south—and losing men. As of February 1776, he reported having 604 artillerists under his command outside Boston, with 563 ready to fight. As soon as the units left New England, where almost all those troops came from, they evidently began peeling off. In April, Knox could report only 421 men, of whom 358 were listed as available. Through October, he never had more than 500 soldiers assigned to him, and never was able to field even 400.

Lesser’s book, thorough as it is, isn’t a useful source for the strength of American armies in really bad times early in the war: when the invasion of Canada collapsed under the onslaught of smallpox, when the British forces drove Gen. George Washington and Knox out of New York and across New Jersey. In those hectic months, the army couldn’t collect and maintain systematic returns, so no total figures survive.

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