|First Regular Army uniforms resembled these late Continental Army togs of 1784.|
If asked about the origin of the United States Army, most folks, if they have a clue, would point to the American Revolution. On June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army and the next day unanimously elected George Washington commanding general. Volunteer units from several colonies already besieging Boston alongside militia units were mustered as the First Regiment of the Line. Washington soon joined the troops and the battle war was on as a seriously united effort.
All of that, of course, is true. But almost as soon as the war ended the Continental Army was demobilized and essentially disbanded by order of General Washington on May 12, 1783 after Congress, now under the Articles of Confederation, rejected his appeal for a small standing army to be placed under the command of General Henry Knox. Congress was deeply fearful that a standing army would lead inevitably to monarch or dictatorship—and more than a few feared that the popular Washington might use it to have himself made king.
One hundred artillerymen and 500 infantry were kept on the payroll. The artillery company was stationed at West Point, essentially security guards for the large arsenal there. The infantrymen were scattered in small numbers at forts and outposts across the long western frontier and the border with British Canada.
Those infantrymen were totally unable to face the challenge of continuing warfare on the frontier by native tribes still allied to the British. The plight of settlers west of the Alleganys and south of the Ohio was soon desperate.
And this tiny Federal force was not even regularized, it operated out of necessity but with no legal foundation.
In June of 1784 Congress formally rejected Washington’s scaled back plans for a 700 man army. On May 12 they discharged all of the troops except for 25 caretakers at Fort Pitt and 55 at West Point. On June 14 of that year Congress reluctantly agreed to raise a force of 700 men for one year’s duty on the frontier under the command of a Lt. Colonel.
On September 29, 1784 the War Department formally issued the order creating what many considered just a temporary resurrection of the Continental Army. Four companies of infantry and two of artillery dubbed the First American Regiment came under the command of Colonel Josiah Harmar of Pennsylvania.
The creation of the First Regiment is considered the true birthday of the Regular US Army.
The idea that a tiny regular army supplemented with local militia and, if need be short term musters of Volunteer Regiments would be enough to keep a lid on the powder keg on the frontier was ludicrous.
Some of the bloodiest, most intense, and widest ranging Indian warfare in American history continued for years on the frontier. On November 4, 1791 a large force of volunteers, militia, and some regular companies under General Arthur St. Clare were routed and nearly massacred by native forces of the Western Confederation near Fort Recovery in Ohio.
This disaster finally encouraged Congress to expand and reorganize the Army. With the approval of President Washington and his Secretary of War Knox, the Legion of the United States was created with General (Mad) Anthony Wayne in command. It was organized into four sub legions, two of which were converted from the First and Second Regiments, and two more to be recruited and trained.
After extensive training in 1792 and ’93 the Legion took to the field for operations against the Western Confederacy south of the Ohio. The large, disciplined force, with the assistance of by now veteran militia, was successful in a campaign in Kentucky that drove most of the hostiles north of the river.
Wayne and the Legion pursued the tribes into their home territory north of the river, burning several principle towns and finally decisively defeating them at the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 4, 1794.
Later that year the Whiskey Rebellion broke out in Western Pennsylvania. To suppress it Washington, at the urging of his closest rival, Alexander Hamilton raised the largest army the new nation had ever put into the field, over 12,000 troops, mostly federalized militia including for the first time, draftees, and a handful of Legion troops. He personally took to the field to command the force, which made quick, and largely bloodless, work of suppressing the rebellion.
With the frontier seemingly secured, the Legion was disbanded in 1796 and the reduced Army was reorganized into regiments the following year. Some historians take this as the real origin of the Regular Army, but since the First and Second regiments were reconstituted, most take the 1784 date.
The new Army was placed under the command of General James Wilkerson, an officer with a checkered reputation for rascality, but a splendid battle record in the Revolution and under Wayne at Fallen Timbers—despite the fact that as a double agent for the Spanish in New Orleans he may have leaked some of the Legion's operational plans to British agents active with the Indians).
After retirement Washington was recalled to command the Army in 1798 by President John Adams as a possible war with France loomed. A large force was raised, mostly Volunteers with regular Army regiments. Washington helped plan the formation and logistics, but left operational command to his favorite Hamilton who expected to take the field in command. Hamilton had grandiose dreams of martial glory, including the conquest of Louisiana.
Washington died at home in Mt. Vernon still nominally in command on March 1, 1799. The crisis with France passed, much to Adams’s relief and to the disappointment of Hamilton. The Volunteer Army was disbanded and the Regular Army shrunken.
Wilkerson was restored to command and embarked on more plots with the Spanish and later with disgraced Vice President Aaron Burr who planned a filibustering campaign to either capture Texas from the Spanish or perhaps create a break away nation west of the Appalachians. At the last moment the Commanding general betrayed Burr, but that is another story.
The Regular Army remained under manned and scattered in coastal defense fortifications and along the frontier. It was totally unprepared for the War of 1812...yet another story.