The Continental Army under the Articles of Confederation
On October 19th, 1781, Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his forces at Yorktown, Virginia to a combined Franco-American force led by General George Washington, following a twenty-day siege. Soon thereafter, peace talks between Great Britain and the United States began, and although the Treaty of Paris would not be signed until 1783, for the majority of the Continental Army the war was over. The status of this peacetime army proved to be a contentious issue for the newly-assembled Confederation CongressConfederation Congress 1781-1789
The governing body of the United States under the Articles of Confederation., and their ultimate decision to disband the Continental Army would have a lasting impact throughout the Confederation period.
Unrest in the Continental Army
Before the Confederation Congress could decide what to do with the Continental Army, the more pressing issue of paying the army had to be addressed. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had no power to levyLevy verb
to impose or collect, esp. taxes. taxes, and had to rely on the individual states to contribute to the national treasury, which rarely happened. As such, the Continental army was chronically short of money, and was forced to make promises of future payment: soldiers who enlisted for the duration of the war were promised twenty dollars and one hundred acres of land.1 Officers, on the other hand, were promised pensions of half-pay for life.2 As the war drew to a close and no payment seemed to be forthcoming, officers began to feel slighted. As one historian puts it, "the officers believed they had sacrificed the best years of their lives for the Revolutionary cause, and many were beginning to ask, 'for what?'"3
The issue came to a head in the winter of 1783, when an anonymous letter originated from the Continental Army's encampment in Newburgh, New York. Addressed to the Confederation Congress, the letter demanded immediate payment, with a thinly veiled threat that failure to do so would force the army to take matters into its own hands.4 Only the intervention of George Washington himself convinced the conspirators to abandon their plans.5
Disbanding the Continental Army
The existence of a standing armyStanding Army
a permanent army of full-time, professional soldiers, especially one that exists during peacetime. during peace was as much an anathemaAnathema noun
an object of extreme dislike; an abomination. to the Confederation Congress, as it had been to the Continental CongressContinental Congress 1774-1781
The governing body of the Thirteen Colonies prior to the adoption of the Articles of Confederation. who accused King George III of having "kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures" in the Declaration of Independence. This sentiment is clearly expressed in a 1783 Letter from Elbridge Gerry to John Adams, in which Gerry predicts dire consequences if plans for a "peace establishment" (i.e. a Standing Army) proposed by George Washington were accepted, while at the same time acknowledging a need to defend the nation's western border. The result was a meager compromise. In October of 1783, George Washington, with the approval of the Confederation Congress, discharged all but 500 men of the Continental Army; on June 3rd of the following year, the Confederation Congress authorized the creation of the United States Army, to consist of just 700 men to man frontier posts and to defend West Point, at the time the nation's largest arsenal.
The drawbacks of such a small force soon became apparent. As part of the Treaty of Paris, the British had agreed to evacuate a number of garrisonsGarrison noun
A fortified encampment of soldiers. along the western frontier "With all convenient speed." With no significant American forces in the region, the British chose to occupy these garrisons for the duration of the 1780s in the hopes that they could be used as leverage to protect loyalists; the last forts were not evacuated until the signing of the Jay Treaty in 1795.6
Far more alarming, however, was the United States Army's inability to cope with domestic insurrection. When a group of Massachusetts farmers led by Daniel Shay rose up in rebellion and attempted to seize the Springfield Armory, the standing army - stationed as it was on the western frontier and at West Point - was powerless to stop it; only by the intervention of a private militia force was the rebellion put down. Shay's rebellion is discussed at length in the section on "Domestic Insurrections."
The status of the army proved to be a constant headache for the Confederation Congress. The difficulty the national government had in fulfilling its promises to the soldiers of the Continental Army set the stage for a near-mutiny that was only averted by the intervention of General Washington. Congress's solution, to vastly reduce the army, created an entirely new set of problems, as the tiny force was unable to either secure the western frontier or to defend against domestic insurrections.