The Continental Army: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Learn about the Continental Army and its leader, General George Washington. This lesson describes the events leading to the Revolutionary War and the Continental Army's key role in securing independence for the United States.


The Continental Army was formed to secure American colonists' independence from Great Britain. This army courageously fought what became known as the American Revolutionary War and claimed victory for the newly formed United States.

The Revolutionary War began in 1775. This was one year prior to the United States Declaration of Independence and the creation of the United States of America. Let's start with a short review of the events leading to the army's formation.

Tension with the Colonists

Tension between Britain's Parliament and colonists brewed for at least a decade before the declaration of war, resulting in a sizable political movement known as the American Revolution or the Patriot Cause.

Many colonists objected to Britain's tax and restriction of trade attempts. Colonial protests led to the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Britain responded by passing the Intolerable Acts. These unpopular acts further united the colonies and fueled more interest in colonial self-governance.

First Continental Congress

This interest in self-governance led to the colonies' formation of the First Continental Congress, which met in 1774. They did not initially focus on independence. Instead, they attempted to force Britain to repeal colonial legislation.

But British Parliament was not cooperative. The stage was now set for the American Revolutionary movement to escalate into the American Revolutionary War.

The American Revolutionary War

The American Revolutionary War began in April 1775, when British troops already based in Boston were sent to capture patriot leaders and weapons in Concord.

The colonists' early efforts relied on Minutemen. These were individual soldiers from throughout the Thirteen Colonies who could be ready to fight with only a minute's notice. These soldiers were volunteers and not formally organized. Instead, each of the colonies provided a separate militia and their efforts were therefore disjointed.

The Minutemen received advanced notice that the British soldiers, known informally as Red Coats, were headed to Concord. Though enthusiastic for battle, the colonists were outnumbered and their first encounters at Lexington and Concord were taxing. Many lives were lost. The colonists soon found that they required a cohesive army in order to fight the well-established British.

The Continental Army

The Second Continental Congress started meeting in May 1775 and recognized the need for an organized army. Congress officially created the American Continental Army in June of 1775. This creation served to better unify the separate colonial military forces who were already serving together.

Portrait of General George Washington
General George Washington

Congress unanimously elected former Virginia militia officer George Washington to command these forces. Virginia was the largest and most prominent of the southern colonies, and Washington had the most military experience of the congressional representatives. Though an admired leader, even Washington recognized that he lacked large-scale military leadership experience.

He promptly headed to Boston. When General Washington arrived, he found nearly 20,000 soldiers at his behest. Washington was pleased with the number of soldiers but troubled by their disorganization. He described it as 'a mixed multitude of people under very little discipline, order or government.' He was determined to establish an orderly army.

Washington's Transformation

Forming a unified army was challenging. Colonists generally had misgivings toward the establishment of a 'standing' army and the individual militia leaders were inexperienced.

General Washington established firm rules regarding the comings and goings of soldiers. He used a hierarchy amongst the soldiers, instituting the use of more officers. Washington also started a discipline system, which involved physical punishments and court martial for uncooperative soldiers. Washington stressed soldier discipline, which he modeled after British troop behaviors. Many of General Washington's rules are similar to those still used in today's United States Army.

Numerous colonial soldiers were resistant to the new system. Some felt the need to leave the army periodically to care for family and farms. Many soldiers also felt a loyalty to the systems established by their individual militias. These differences led to severely dwindling numbers of troops.

In March of 1776, Washington's army, despite lacking in weapons and artillery, successfully forced the retreat of British soldiers in Boston. Fortunately for Washington, the British left cannons and ammunition behind. These added supplies helped secure the Continental Army's eventual victory.


Infantry in the Continental Army
Continental Army

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