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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Monday, November 12, 2012

Gen. Washington’s “three Grand Divisions”

The day before Gen. George Washington wrote his letter asking Gen. John Thomas to stay with the Continental Army, he announced a new organization for those troops outside Boston. This was the first time the new commander-in-chief had changed how those forces operated, thus the first major exercise of his new authority.

Washington faced two short-term problems: the Boston and Charlestown Necks. Since the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British military controlled both those towns, well protected on their peninsulas. Washington feared that at any time the royal troops could charge out either isthmus, breaking through the Continentals’ lines. As soon as he and Gen. Charles Lee arrived in Massachusetts in early July 1775, their first priority was strengthening the fortifications at the base of those two necks.

Gen. Washington’s longer-term problem was strengthening the Continental Army as an institution. He wanted his soldiers, both officers and men, to think of themselves as protecting the united colonies, not as men from separate colonies committed only to officers they knew. Washington was also trying to soothe the hurt feelings that came from how the Continental Congress in Philadelphia had ranked the generals.

The 22 July reorganization of the American army into “three Grand Divisions,” each containing two brigades, addressed all those problems. Washington didn’t explain his thinking at length, so I can’t even say for sure what his purpose was or whether this was all his idea. But this is the effect of the change.

On his northern wing at Winter Hill and Prospect Hill, facing off against the British troops in Charlestown, Washington placed Maj. Gen. Lee, Brig. Gen. John Sullivan of New Hampshire, and Brig. Gen. Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island. Lee was the most experienced military man in the Continental forces, so he could bring along those young brigadiers, neither of whom had ever been in a war.

On the southern wing in Roxbury and Dorchester, protecting against a charge off the Boston Neck, Washington placed Maj. Gen. Artemas Ward, Brig. Gen. Thomas, and Brig. Gen. Joseph Spencer of Connecticut. Those officers were all war veterans, and Ward and Thomas had been the top New England commanders before Washington arrived, so he could trust them to handle whatever came up on the far side of the Charles River.

Finally, in the center at east Cambridge, Washington placed Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam, Brig. Gen. William Heath, and a brigadier to be named later. This division was to function as “also a Corps-de-Reserve, for the defence of the several posts, north of Roxbury, not already named.” Creating it had the added benefit of ensuring that Putnam didn’t oversee Spencer, who had objected to his former subordinate’s new rank, and Heath and Thomas needn’t have awkward discussions of their relative seniority.

As part of this reorganization, Washington assigned some of the many Massachusetts regiments to the northern wing even though it had no Massachusetts general. Soon he would mix in the new companies of riflemen from the south, assigning them to different brigades as needed. That was the start of Gen. Washington’s effort to meld regiments from different colonies/states into a single, national force.

TOMORROW: One last detail—does anyone remember Gen. Frye?

1 comment:

EJWitek said...

As a boyhood fan of "The Last of the Mohicans" I delved into the history of the siege at Fort William Henry, its surrender, and the subsequent "massacre." Joseph Frye was the colonel commanding the Massachusetts Regiment at the siege. His report to the Governor of Massachusetts about the battle, surrender,and aftermath is the single best account of the incident that is the center of James Fennimore Cooper's novel.
Frye's exploits could well be the subject of a novel themselves - a larger than life character, now forgotten.