On June 15, 1775 the Continental Congress appointed George Washington as the Commanding General of the Continental Army. With Massachusetts and other New England militia units already besieging the British Army in Boston, Congress created a new Continental Army as a signal to the enemy that it was facing a united enemy from all of the colonies, not just crazy, disgruntled Yankees.
A unified command was essential, as was the arrival on the scene at the earliest possible moment of troops from the Middle and Southern colonies. The choice for the Commander was the subject of some intrigue. There were other candidates.
Most noteworthy was retired British Regular Army Lt. Colonel Charles Lee who had served as a junior officer with the 44th Foot Regiment in the French and Indian Wars. Although he was away from the unit for the Battle of the Monongahela, Lee did serve at the siege of Louisbourg, a failed attempt to capture Ft. Ticonderoga, the capture of Ft. Niagara, and the failed attack on Montreal. After returning to England and rising in the ranks, he became a mercenary serving with the Portuguese against a Spanish invasion and in the service of King Stanislaus II of Poland in the Russo-Turkish War. After retiring from the British Army he express sympathy for the Colonial cause and immigrated to Virginia where he purchased an estate. Lee was by far the most experienced officer available and had many supporters.
Thomas Mifflin, a “fighting Quaker” from Pennsylvania was put forward by that colony’s delegates. Artemus Ward, already commanding the troops in front of Boston, was naturally a candidate. Among other names mentioned was another former British Regular officer, Richard Montgomery originally of Dublin, a veteran soldier with strong political links to British Whigs, and married into New York’s powerful Livingston family.
Each of these men had regional and political support in Congress. Virginia delegate Colonel George Washington was officially uninterested in the position. But he showed up in Congress wearing his full uniform as Colonel of the Virginia Militia. At a sturdy 6’2” the gentlemanly Washington cut quite a martial figure. His mere presence inspired the members, especially in contrast to the slovenly, eccentric Lee.
Like other candidates, Washington had served in the French and Indian Wars—in fact he started the war with his attack on a French scouting party near Fort Duquesne. He established Ft. Necessity nearby, but was soon driven out by French reinforcements. He served as Braddock’s aide-de-camp on his doomed expedition and was noted for his coolness under fire and getting as many men as possible out of the ambush.
As commanding officer of the Virginia Blues militia he had established a series of frontier outpost for protection against Indian raids and conducted years of low grade warfare in the west.
Massachusetts delegate John Adams quickly recognized Washington as the best candidate. He knew that a Virginia officer was essential in rallying the rest of the colonies to the rescue of his state. Adams distrusted Lee because of his British roots and was offended by his uncouth manners. He used all of his considerable legislative skill to line up a majority to elect Washington.
In the end, however the choice might have come down to a matter of pay. Lee insisted on the pay of a British Major General. Washington promised to serve “without pay” only for expenses. The frugal Congress, which had no power to raise revenues, liked that. Washington accepted the appointment with appropriate, if feigned, modesty. In a letter home he wrote:
I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity, and that I should enjoy more happiness in one month with you at home than I have the most distant prospect of finding abroad.
The ailing General Ward was confirmed as official second in command, Lee made senior Major General, Montgomery a Brigadier, and Mifflin rode north with Washington as his aide-de-camp and was soon to rise to Quarter Master General.
Washington arrived in Massachusetts to take command on July 3, 1775. Although he found a large number of men under his command they were poorly organized and short of both powder and artillery. He set about remedying both. Sending Col. Henry Knox to haul heavy cannon, shot, and powder overland from recently captured Ft. Ticonderoga, he installed the new artillery on a commanding hill overlooking the city in a surprise over-night maneuver. That forced the British to evacuate the town and sail away for Halifax, Nova Scotia in March of 1776. The rest, as they say, is history.