Military Departments in the American Army

  •  Main Army  •  Eastern  •  Northern  •  Southern  •  Western  •  Highlands  •  Canadian

The Continental Army of the American Revolutionary War was organized into six regional 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 the executive power of one of the states, 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, 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 left George Washington as the ranking general of the army throughout the war.

MAIN ARMY

(aka Middle Department)

The Main Army or the Middle Department was 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.

  • Established: June 15, 1775
  • Abolished: End of war.
  • Commanders:

EASTERN DEPARTMENT

(aka New England department)

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.

  • Established: April 4, 1776 when General Washington moved the Main Army to New York.
  • Abolished: November 1779.
  • Commanders:
    • Artemas Ward from April 4, 1776 - March 20, 1777
    • William Heath from March 20, 1777 - November 7, 1778
    • Horatio Gates from November 7, 1778 - November 1779

NORTHERN DEPARTMENT

(aka The New York Department)

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 the only one to remain after the war. The last elements of the Continental Army were kept to guard the western frontier outposts.

  • Established: June 25, 1775
    • Originally included New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.
    • Reduced to upstate New York in April 1776 when General Washington moved the Main Army to New York
    • The Canadian Department was folded in following the withdrawal of Continental forces from Canada in June 1776.
  • Abolished: January 15, 1783
  • Commanders:
    • Philip Schuyler from June 25, 1775 - August 19, 1777
    • John Stark from August 19, 1777 - April 17, 1778
    • Horatio Gates from April 17, 1778 - October 19, 1778
    • Edward Hand from October 19, 1778 - November 20, 1778
    • James Clinton from November 20, 1778 - June 25, 1781
    • John Stark from June 25, 1781 - October 15, 1781
    • William Alexander (Stirling) from October 15, 1781 - November 21, 1781
    • John Stark from November 21, 1781 - August 29, 1782
    • William Alexander (Stirling) from August 29, 1782 - January 15, 1783

SOUTHERN DEPARTMENT

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 12, 1780. The second was at the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780.

  • Established: March 1, 1776
    • Originally comprised of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
    • Later in the war, Maryland and Delaware were transferred to the department.
  • Abolished: End of war
  • Commanders:
    • Charles Lee from March 1, 1776 - September 9, 1776
    • Robert Howe from September 9, 1776 - September 25, 1778
    • Benjamin Lincoln from September 25, 1778 - June 13, 1780
    • Horatio Gates from June 13, 1780 - October 17, 1780
    • Nathanael Greene from October 17, 1780 - end of war

WESTERN DEPARTMENT

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.

  • Established: April 10, 1777
    • Created to protect the Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia frontiers from Indian invasions.
  • Abolished: End of war
  • Commanders:
    • Edward Hand from April 10, 1777 - May 26, 1778
    • Lachlan McIntosh from May 26, 1778 - February 20, 1779
    • Daniel Brodhead from March 5, 1779 - September 21, 1781
    • William Irvine from September 24, 1781 - end of war

HIGHLAND'S DEPARTMENT

The Highland's 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.

  • Established: June 25, 1775
    • Originally included New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.
    • Reduced to upstate New York in April 1776 when General Washington moved the Main Army to New York
    • The Canadian Department was folded in following the withdrawal of Continental forces from Canada in June 1776.
  • Abolished: January 15, 1783
  • Commanders:
    • William Heath from November 12, 1776 - December 21, 1776
    • Alexander McDougall from December 21, 1776 - May 12, 1777
    • Horatio Gates from November 7, 1778 - November 1779
    • Israel Putnam from May 12, 1777 - March 16, 1778
    • Alexander McDougall from March 16, 1778 - May 20, 1778
    • Horatio Gates from May 20, 1778 - November 24, 1778
    • Alexander McDougall from November 24, 1778 - November 27, 1779
    • William Heath from November 27, 1779 - February 21, 1780
    • Robert Howe (acting) from February 21, 1780 - June 21, 1780
    • Alexander McDougall from June 21, 1780 - August 3, 1780
    • Benedict Arnold from August 3, 1780 - September 25, 1780
    • George Washington from September 25, 1780 - September 28, 1780
    • Alexander McDougall from September 28, 1780 - October 5, 1780
    • Nathanael Greene from October 5, 1780 - October 17, 1780
    • William Heath from October 17, 1780 - May 11, 1781
    • John Paterson (acting) from May 11, 1781 - June 24, 1781
    • Alexander McDougall from June 24, 1781 - January 18, 1782
    • William Heath from January 18, 1782 - August 24, 1782
    • Henry Knox from August 24, 1782 - end of war

CANADIAN DEPARTMENT

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

  • Established: February 17, 1776 following the invasion of Quebec in the Winter of 1775-1776.
  • Abolished: Folded July 2, 1776 into the Northern Department following the withdrawal of Continental troops from the Department area.
  • Commanders:
    • Richard Montogomery (provisional) from December 9, 1775 - December 31, 1775
    • David Wooster (provisional) from December 31, 1775 - March 6, 1776
    • Charles Lee (never served) from February 17, 1776 - March 1, 1776
    • John Thomas (1st Commander) from March 6, 1776 - June 1, 1776
    • John Sullivan from June 1, 1776 - July 2, 1776
    • Horatio Gates (Never served due to withdrawal if troops from department area) Appointed June 17, 1776
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