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Departments of the Continental Army

The overall Continental Army of the American Revolutionary War was organized into six departments for command and administrative purposes. Each department had a semi-autonomous commanding general. The Continental Congress dealt with and through the department commanders.

Throughout the war, congress retained the authority to appoint or remove these commanders. In practice, when an urgent need arose, a commander was just as frequently appointed by George Washington or a state President, pending the approval of Congress. Many of these were then appointed by the Congress. This practice, along with the war and Navy committees of the Congress, did set the precedent for the later civil control of military affairs embodied in the United States Constitution.

The Department commanders and their staffs also worked directly with the governments of the states within their department. At first these were all the ad-hoc or provisional governments, but the practice continued as more formal or structured governments emerged in each of the states. By convention, the Commanders were Major Generals, which always left George Washington as the ranking general of the Army throughout the war.

The Departments

There were six Departments, although they were not all active for the entire war:

The Eastern Department was formed around those states that had originally sent troops to support the Siege of Boston, and in that sense it even existed before the Continental Army. This was essentially the New England department, and included the states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island,

The Northern Department was those parts of New York north of New York City. It was first called the New York Department, but after the Highlands Department was created on November 12, 1776 it was always referred to as the Northern Department. This department was also the only one to remain after the war. The last elements of the Continental Army were kept to guard the frontier outposts against Indian

The Highlands Department was the smallest in area, and was formed around the defenses on the Hudson River north of New York. After the British occupied New York City the defenses just north of there became critically important. The presence of British Naval Forces at New York emphasized the importance of the Hudson River, and both sides in the war recognized the importance of controlling that waterway. The Americans created fortifications, including West Point with its chain across the river. The British sought to gain control with the Saratoga Campaign in 1777.

The Middle Department comprised the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. It was usually referred to simply as the Main Army since George Washington was its commander throughout the war.

The Southern Department included Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia along with the western frontier south of Virginia. This department was the most independent of the commands due to geography and the need for year round operations. Most of the northern departments suspended offensive operations for the winter and early spring. It also was the only one whose command structure was destroyed twice. The first time was at the surrender of Charleston on May 12th, 1780. The second was at the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780.

The Western Department covered the frontier territories west and northwest of Virginia and Pennsylvania. It extended from Pittsburgh all the way to the Illinois country and as far north as the southern peninsula of Michigan.

The Canadian Department reflected the aspirations of the Congress and some Americans more than an effective theater of operations. The department was never under the control of the Continental Army. After the Invasion of Canada failed, all troops were withdrawn by July of 1776, and the Canadian Department went out of existence.

List of Department Commanders

Department Commander Date Appointed
Main Army George Washington June 16, 1775
Eastern Geroge Washington
Artemas Ward
William Heath
Horatio Gates
June 16, 1775
April 4, 1776
March 20, 1777
November 7, 1778
Northern Philip Schuyler
Horatio Gates
John Stark
Edward Hand
James Clinton
John Stark
William Alexander
John Stark
William Alexander
June 25, 1775
August 19, 1777
April 17, 1778
October 19, 1778
November 20, 1778
June 25, 1781 (2nd time)
October 15, 1781
November 21, 1781 (3rd time)
August 29, 1782 (2nd time)
Southern Charles Lee
Robert Howe
Benjamin Lincoln
Horatio Gates
Nathanael Greene
March 1, 1776
September 9, 1776
September 25, 1778
June 13, 1780
October 31, 1780
Western Edward Hand
Lachlan McIntosh
Daniel Brodhead
William Irvine
April 10, 1777
May 26, 1778
March 5, 1779
September 24, 1781
Highlands William Heath
Alexander McDougall
Israel Putnam
Alexander McDougall
Horatio Gates
Alexander McDougall
William Heath
Robert Howe
Alexander McDougall
Benedict Arnold
George Washington
Alexander McDougall
Nathaniel Greene
William Heath
John Paterson
Alexander McDougall
William Heath
Henry Knox
November 12, 1776
December 21, 1776
May 12, 1777
March 16, 1778 (2nd time)
May 20, 1778
November 24, 1778 (3rd time)
November 27, 1779 (2nd time)
February 21, 1780 (acting)
June 21, 1780 (4th time)
August 3, 1780
September 25, 1780 (acting)
September 28, 1780 (5th time)
October 5, 1780
October 17, 1780 (3rd time)
May 11, 1781 (acting)
June 24, 1781 (6th time)
January 18, 1782 (4th time)
August 24, 1782
Canadian Richard Montgomery
David Wooster
Charles Lee
John Thomas
John Sullivan
Horatio Gates
December 9, 1775
December 31, 1775 (acting)
February 17, 1776 (declined)
March 6, 1776
June 1, 1776
June 17, 1776 (never served)