George Washington may have been the glue that held the parochial elements of the Continental Army together, but it was a glue backed by court martial as often as by charisma or political sensitivity. As an administrator, Washington relied heavily on courts of inquiry and courts martial to maintain army discipline, and also, where his fractious officer corps was concerned, to monitor and evaluate their performance.
This management style was more in line with British practice than those found in Continental European armies. Lafayette, who almost never disagreed with Washington, told his commander he thought the custom a bad one more suited to the British "love of lawyers...and that black apparatus of sentences, and judgments" than a good institution worthy of revolutionary America.
Lafayette was not alone in observing that this practice was damaging to morale as well as the reputations of officers who could be brought up on baseless charges by their subordinates without legal consequences, and whose reputations suffered even though formally acquitted, Historian Harry M. Ward notes in William Maxwell and the New Jersey Continentals;
"The frequent courts of inquiry and trials unquestionably undermined the morale of the officer corps. General McDougall commented that courts of inquiry "are contrary to my judgment, because they seldom answer any valuable purposes, and often produce mischief.'"
This certainly is evident in the jealousies and intrigues of numerous Continental officers - my ancestors being no exception - over questions of relative rank and allegations about the competence or lack thereof of their rivals and superiors. Lafayette understood the qualities and temperament that made men of his era gentlemen. Such officers bristled with indignation when those inferior in rank and social standing were allowed to bring forward accusations which in civilian life could be legally challenged as defamatory and libelous.
Yet this factor in military trials also had a democratizing quality in a patriot army comprised initially of citizen soldiers with short term enlistments who might well be lead by their neighbors of similar social standing. There was still an officer class, and in some states and units it was dominated by ambitious gentlemen who parleyed their social connections to advance their interests over those of their rivals. Yet it was also an army where a bookseller and a forge owner could rise to General rank and gain admission to Washington's inner circle.
This is not to suggest that the Continental Army was a meritocracy or had a fundamental "leveling" character, except perhaps in comparison to the British military where commissions at the battalion grades were purchased by those with the wealth (and social standing) necessary to afford them. Historian Robert H. Patton observes;
"Americans were the most prosperous people in the world, and also the lowest taxed. In fiscal terms the rebellion was inspired by ambition rather than hardship, by a desire not for financial freedom but for more financial freedom. This push for opportunity spurred people's envy of success, their scorn for failure, and their increasingly dubious view of their compatriots' integrity."
Granted that there were also significant causal factors relating to matters of local governance and institutions; a shift in global power after the French and Indian War; and the religious upheavals of the Great Awakening, Patton's understanding of the fiscal motivations for the Revolution also applies to many of the patriot officers in the Continental Line. Especially when one's business affairs - and for common soldiers, their families' very subsistence - became undermined by long service for depreciated pay, opportunities for advancement became as cutthroat in Washington's Army as they often are in modern institutions. Ask a professor seeking tenure or a corporate executive under peer review whether these processes are purely objective assessments of their quality on merit alone to see if times have really changed all that much from when Washington was HR manager as well as corporate "Founder" and CinC.
It is interesting to note that a number of former Continental Army officers as well as Congressmen engaged extensively in land speculation after the war, and that many - including General Knox the former bookseller, General Greene the forge owner, and my ancestor Captain Aaron Ogden - lost their fortunes thereby. Even Thomas Jefferson faced financial ruin. There was no institution in the early Federal period that was too big to fail, although there were certainly candidates put forward at the time - most notably slavery. There was a bail out, however. Hamilton's federal bank assumed the war debts of the various states and was a major factor in bringing them into the federal Constitution.
Connections clearly mattered to numerous officers and gentlemen in Washington's Army, as did financial accomplishments. As General Greene wrote candidly in 1778; "Without wealth a man will be of no consequence. Mark my words for it - patriotism and every sacrifice will soon be forgotten." Not all who served were motivated by these things, nor were such desires in officers incompatible with patriotism and personal bravery.
There is probably a research opportunity here for scholarly inquiry into the winners and losers of these officer squabbles over rank, particularly at their courts of inquiry and courts martial. Two of the clear losers - Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr - went on to later notoriety which in Arnold's case seems, in part, to have been motivated by jealousy over the preferential advancement of those he considered less entitled than he to promotion. I would propose the hypothesis that these outcomes may be predictable based on socio-economic status, patronage, kin relationships and differences in local and regional bases of support. I may have to test this theory in the ranks of the 1st New Jersey battalion of the Continental Line, and if so, you may be sure I will share what emerges in a subsequent post.