In a letter to his nephew, Lund Washington, plantation manager of Mount Vernon, General George Washington writes on this day in 1776 of his displeasure with the undisciplined conduct and poor battlefield performance of the American militia. Washington blamed the Patriot reliance on the militia as the chief root of his problems in the devastating loss of Long Island and Manhattan to the British.
In his letter, Washington wrote, “I am wearied to death all day with a variety of perplexing circumstances, disturbed at the conduct of the militia, whose behavior and want of discipline has done great injury to the other troops, who never had officers, except in a few instances, worth the bread they eat.” Washington added, “In confidence I tell you that I never was in such an unhappy, divided state since I was born.”
Just as the British had discovered the difficulties of waging war with obstreperous Yankees for soldiers during the Seven Years’ War, Washington, the Virginia planter-cum-soldier, was unimpressed upon meeting his supposed army outside Boston upon his appointment as commander in chief of Continental forces in 1775. Just as the British had, he saw “stupidity” among the enlisted men, who were used to the easy familiarity of being commanded by neighbors in local militias with elected officers. Washington promptly insisted that the officers behave with decorum and the enlisted men with deference. Although he enjoyed some success with this original army, the New Englanders went home to their farms at the end of 1775, and Washington had to start fresh with new recruits in 1776.
Washington fought an uphill battle for military order until Friedrich, Freiherr von Steuben arrived at General Washington’s encampment at Valley Forge on February 23, 1778. The Prussian military officer commenced training soldiers in close-order drill, instilling new confidence and discipline in the demoralized Continental Army. Before von Steuben’s arrival, colonial American soldiers were notorious for their slovenly camp conditions. Von Steuben insisted on reorganization to establish basic hygiene, ordering that kitchens and latrines be put on opposite sides of the camp, with latrines facing a downhill slope. Just having latrines was a novelty to the Continental troops, who were accustomed to living in their own filth.
On the merit of his efforts at Valley Forge, Washington recommended that von Steuben be named inspector general of the Continental Army; Congress complied. In this capacity, von Steuben propagated his methods throughout the Patriot forces by circulating his “Blue Book,” entitled “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States.”