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Today is the 246th Birthday of the United States Army. On June 14th, 1775, the Second Continental Congress passed the following:
“Resolved, That six companies of expert riflemen, be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia… [and] as soon as completed, shall march and join the army near Boston, to be there employed as light infantry, under the command of the chief Officer in that army.” (here)
I’ve spent years researching the American military experience, particularly in the years leading up to the War of Independence. However, it was only in the last few days that it occurred to me: Why ten rifle companies?
To a non-military reader, or even a war history enthusiast, this question might seem a bit silly. I mean, even among the most casual of observers, the decision by the Continental Congress to form a new army most likely seems to be pretty obvious: “We’re in a shooting war with the British Army; let’s make an army, okay?” Of course, this makes sense. But: why rifle companies?
Rifles were not widely or extensively used by the contemporary armies of the period. Conventional infantry regiments (made up of eight to ten companies of approximately 80 soldiers per company) were all armed with smoothbore muskets (not rifles). These muskets were relatively heavy, very sturdy, and built for mounting bayonets. Accurate? Not so much (60-80 yards). Muskets were well-suited to the common infantry shock tactics of the period. By the way, the British Army was excellent at this type of warfare. On the other hand, rifles were poorly suited to then-standard infantry tactics. They were lighter in weight, could not take a bayonet, and had a much, MUCH slower rate of fire. However, they were much more accurate, out to 200-250 yards. Furthermore, at that time there was no industrial production capacity for the manufacture of rifles. Although available in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Virginia, rifles were hand-produced and custom-made to the owner’s specifications. Therefore, in specifying rifle companies, Congress made an explicit, purposeful choice in favor of weapons (and therefore tactics) distinctly different from those favored by the Regular military.
However, none of this factual history really answers the question: Why? At this point in the war, the bulk of the British Army was besieged in Boston, unable to breakout by land, and not yet willing to retreat by sea. Conventional tactics of the era would require the Continental Army have greater numbers of heavy infantry, grenadiers, sappers, or pioneers for use in tightening the siege. Under such tactics, light infantry (riflemen) would be pretty much ancillary. Sharp-shooting and sniping were considered “uncivilized” at best, and violated the recognized laws of land warfare of the time. (That these rifle companies would perform this exact function superbly once they arrived in Boston is a discussion for some other time.) Again, the question comes back to, “Why did Congress authorize the establishment of a specific body of soldiers, armed with a particular piece of equipment, unsuited to the immediate fight at hand?”
What’s even more puzzling is that this question, (Why ten rifle companies?) leads to others: Whose idea was it in Congress to introduce and pass such a bill? Was the Congress responding to a request by General Washington for more light infantry? If so, how does this square with Washington’s ambivalence concerning the use and utility of riflemen and other irregular tactics? (Again, a topic for another day.) How much debate did Congress entertain before passing the bill? Regarding the debate, what justifications were made to argue in favor of the proposed ten rifle companies?
The bottom line is this: I don’t know the answers. If any of Ricochet’s many well-educated scholars and experienced Soldiers know anything about these topics, I hope you’ll join the conversation.
And let me close with this: Happy Birthday, United States Army, an institution I have loved (and at times hated) since 1981. It has been my honor to serve, and I would go back and start all over again if I could.Published in