The role of a first lieutenant during the Revolutionary War

At the start of the American Revolution, the Continental Army did not have a concrete understanding of soldiers’ roles within a regiment and how to properly prepare for war. As a result, in 1779 Frederick Wilhelm von Steuben, Inspector General of the Continental Army, cohesively organized military strategies in his publication, “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States,” now referred to as the “Blue Book.” Von Steuben laid the foundation for how soldiers were to be trained, the roles and ranking within a company, and military strategies.[1]

As von Steuben explained, the role of the first lieutenant was crucial to the success of the regiment. One first lieutenant in particular, was Thomas Harwood of Captain John Day Scott’s Seventh Company of the First Maryland Regiment. Commissioned on January 3, 1776, Harwood, as a first lieutenant, had a myriad of responsibilities. [2]  Leading his men by “his judgment, vigilance, and bravery,” Harwood was to teach the soldiers discipline, order, and fearlessness.[3] Having his men learn to follow protocol was essential to helping limit the amount of casualties during the war.[4]

During the first half of 1776, Harwood aimed to gain the trust of his soldiers so that he knew what was going on in his company. Yet, the challenge Harwood and the First Maryland Regiment faced, was that none of the soldiers, including Harwood, had any military experience prior to enlisting. As a result, it was the job of the first lieutenant to teach the new recruits military formations and how to be soldiers in a cohesive unit.[5]

All the requirements of a first lieutenant needed to be followed, so that in the event of the captain’s death, the first lieutenant could quickly step in and take over. In such an instance, during the Battle of White Plains on Oct 28, 1776, Harwood’s captain, John Day Scott, was mortally wounded, forcing Harwood to take over the control of the company.[6]

Throughout his post-revolution life, Harwood borrowed heavily from a myriad of creditors to invest in over 10,000 acres in Georgia and over 1,000 acres in Pennsylvania. However, Harwood was unable to sell the land and thus, when his creditors came after him, he found himself drowning in a sea of debt and legal cases. Having to declare bankruptcy in the late 1790s, Harwood had to sell all of his possessions, including his personal belongings, to pay back his creditors.[7] As a result, “by his imprudence he had not only ruined himself but also his children.”[8] Thomas Harwood died in Calvert County in 1804. [9]

Read more about Harwood’s life here.

-Joshua Rifkin


[1] Robert K. Wright, Jr., The Continental Army, (Washington, D.C.: United States Army, 1983), 137-142.

[2] Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 15 [hereafter Archives of Maryland vol. 18].

[3] Frederick Steuben, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, Part I. (Philadelphia: Styner and Cist, 1792), 74.

[4] Steuben, 74.

[5] Steuben, 74; Wright, 137-142.

[6] Pension of John Babbs. The National Archives. Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804 S.45241. From

[7] Thomas Harwood. Calvert County, Case# 2621, 1799, Chancery Court, Chancery Papers, MdHR 17,898-2621 [MSA S512-2695, 1/36/2/079].

[8] Thomas Harwood. Calvert County, Case# 2621, 1799, Chancery Court, Chancery Papers, MdHR 17,898-2621 [MSA S512-2695, 1/36/2/079]; Robert H. Smith and Caroline Smith vs. Joseph Wilkinson. Calvert County, Case #5003, 1804, Chancery Court, Chancery Papers, MdHR 17,898-5003 [MSA S512-5149, 1/37/1/084].

[9] Harrison Dwight Cavanagh, Colonial Chesapeake Families: British Origins and Decendants,” Vol. 1. (Xlibris LLC, 2014.), 329.

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