Today we celebrate the U.S. Army’s 247th birthday. While 200-plus years might seem like ages ago, the U.S. Army is a relatively new organization. Other European standing armies have been in existence far longer, such as the British Army, established in 1660, or the French Army, introduced in 1445. But the U.S. Army’s history is especially unique. It can trace its roots back to the summer of 1775, two months after the American colonies revolted. Do you know why and how the U.S. Army got started? Or why the Continental Congress selected George Washington to be its first commander in chief? You might not be aware, but both have a special place in our country’s history.

Organizing an Army

Before the Continental Congress established the U.S. Army, the American colonies relied on local militia units and British soldiers for defense. When fighting erupted at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the colonies were in desperate need of a professionally trained and led force to contend with the British Army. The 13 colonies also desired a single army to serve as a symbol of the new republic. On June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress adopted a resolution approving the formation of the “Continental Army,” originally composed of six companies of expert riflemen raised from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.

Continental Army infantrymen. (Library of Congress)

Continental Army infantrymen. (LOC)

A Continental Army captain received $20 a month, while a private was paid a little over $6. Soldiers had to provide their own arms and clothing. Initially, the recruits only enlisted for one year, but Congress extended the term to three years or the duration of the war. Each soldier swore an oath of allegiance to protect the newly formed government. The Continental Army never reached the strength of 20,000 that the Congress proposed; instead, it was closer to one-third or one-half that number.

The first Continental Army soldier killed in action was a volunteer from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, named Private William Simpson. He died in August 1775. While exact figures are hard to come by, historians estimate that around 7,000 American soldiers were killed during the war, and many more died of disease. Continental Army soldiers sacrificed much to keep our young republic alive.

Washington Appointed to Command

A day after organizing the Continental Army, the Continental Congress unanimously appointed the Virginian George Washington to be its first general in chief. Washington’s military experience dated back to the French and Indian War, where he served as an aide-de-camp to Major General Edward Braddock at the Battle of Monongahela in July 1755. In the fall of 1758, Washington led a brigade of Virginians during Brigadier General John Forbes’ expedition to capture Fort Duquesne.

In addition to his impressive military record, Washington also won over the delegates with character and demeanor. “He is a compleat [sic] gentleman,” declared Massachusetts delegate Thomas Cushing. “He is sensible [sic], amiable, virtuous, modest, and brave.”

Period plate showing General Washington. (Heritage Auctions, HA.com)

Period plate showing General Washington. (Heritage Auctions, HA.com)

Benjamin Rush, a delegate from Pennsylvania, stated, “He has so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him a general and a soldier from among ten thousand people.” The delegates also hoped that by appointing a southerner instead of a New Englander to command the newly formed army, it would help to generate greater support from the southern colonies.

While he did not believe he was qualified for the position, Washington accepted and devoted himself to the cause. “I will enter upon the momentous duty,” he declared, “and exert every power I possesses in their service, and for the support of the glorious cause.” He refused to accept payment. “I beg to assure the Congress,” he continued, “that, as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to accept the arduous employment, at the expense of my domestic ease of happiness, I do not wish to make any profit from it.” This selfless act impressed the Massachusetts delegate John Adams and others. On July 3, 1775, Washington arrived at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and took command of the American forces. The rest is history.

The U.S. Army’s Legacy

Washington's signature. (Heritage Auctions, HA.com)

Washington’s signature. (Heritage Auctions, HA.com)

The U.S. Army has gone through many transformations since the Constitutional Congress established it 247 years ago. But it has remained a pillar of the American republic ever since. Washington played a pivotal role in its early history, serving as a model commander in chief during the war. On December 23, 1783, he resigned his commission and surrendered his power to the Continental Congress. “If [Washington] does that,” King George III of Great Britain reportedly said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.” Washington intended to retire from public service and return to Mount Vernon. However, in 1789 Congress unanimously elected him to be the first president of the new republic.

Even though it is not a federal holiday, the U.S. Army’s birthday is celebrated throughout the country. The Association of the United States Army (AUSA) has an annual celebration, and the Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Programs (MWR) holds the U.S. Army Birthday Ball each year. Other local organizations celebrate the day in their own way. How will you honor and remember the U.S. Army today? Take a minute to appreciate the U.S. Army’s history and its past and present soldiers.

Further Reading

Brown, Jerold E., ed. Historical Dictionary of the U.S. Army. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Fishman, Ethan M., William D. Pederson and Mark J. Rozell, eds. George Washington: Foundation of Presidential Leadership and Character. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001.

Lossing, Benson J. Seventeen Hundred and Seventy-Six, or, the War of Independence; A History of the Anglo-Americans, From the Period of the Union of the Colonies Against the French, to the Inauguration of Washington, the First President of the United States of America. New York: Edward Walker, 1847.

Tucker, Spencer C., ed. American Revolution: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection, Volume 11: D-K. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2018.

Wright, Jr., Robert K. The Continental Army. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1983.