The Role of the Captain on and off the Battlefield

Since the foundation of the Continental Army by the Continental Congress in 1775, the role of the company was quite significant. In the Continental Army, the company was the most basic unit of the army, both on and off the battlefield. A company contained roughly 70 to 100 men. Moreover, seven to nine companies comprised a regiment.

Each company was led by a captain, who had a myriad of responsibilities. In camp, because many of the men never had formal military training, the captain taught the soldiers how to work together as a cohesive unit.[1] Furthermore, the captain educated his men on how to survive on the battlefield by teaching them “discipline, order, and fearlessness.”[2] Thus, in camp, if any of his men, regardless of rank, did not behave properly, it was the captain’s job to punish those soldiers and their non-commissioned officer. However, it is important to point out that the first and second lieutenants were the men who taught the soldiers the battlefield maneuvers. [3]

Because a captain was in charge of so many men, he could not personally properly make sure they were healthy and had all the equipment they needed. As a result, in camp the captain had both his first and second lieutenants check on the soldiers at all hours of the day. This resulted in the lieutenants being able to form a closer bond with the soldiers than the captain. Moreover, the lieutenants were tasked with reporting to the captain any and all resources that needed to be purchased. The captain, in charge of all the finances in the company, would then buy the necessities, including, but not limited to, ammunition, guns, food, medicines, knapsacks, clothing, and shoes.[4]

When a battle broke out, like the Battle of Brooklyn or White Plains, on the battlefield the captain stood either to the right or to the left of his men. The positioning of the captain was important, in order to allow him either to properly chose a military tactic or relay a maneuver from the regiment’s commander. Once a tactic was chosen, the captain led his men into war, with the lieutenants ensuring that the maneuver was followed.

Regardless of whether the captain was in camp or on the battlefield, he was required to keep a detailed book regarding his soldiers. This included their date of birth, residence, if they suffered an illness, how much he paid them, and when they were promoted. It is not clear, however, if any of the captains never followed this order. None of these records seem to survive from any of the captains of the First Maryland Regiment. Our job would be much easier if they had![5]

Of course, having the captain follow all these duties was ideal. In a future post, we will explore how closely it reflected real life.

-Joshua Rifkin


[1] Robert K. Wright, Jr., The Continental Army (Washington, D.C.: United States Army, 1983), 137-142; Frederick Steuben, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, Part I. (Philadelphia: Styner and Cist, 1792), 72-73.

[2] Steuben, 72-73.

[3] Wright, 137-142; Steuben, 72-73.

[4] Steuben, 72-73.

[5] Steuben, 72-73.

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