First in War

On this day (June 15) in 1775, the Continental Congress appointed George Washington “General and Commander in Chief of the army of the United Colonies.” Just two months earlier, fighting at Lexington and Concord had sparked war in Massachusetts. Within days, thousands of armed and angry New Englanders had rushed to besiege British-occupied Boston. Bottled up in the city, British forces under General Thomas Gage stared across the narrow Boston neck and harbor as military camps and fortifications spread over the encircling hills.

When delegates to the Second Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia (just two blocks from the site of the Museum of the American Revolution) in early May, they faced the momentous question of how to respond to the situation in New England. Within weeks, Congress moved to create a “continental” army by adopting the New England forces.

On June 14, Congress voted to raise ten companies of “expert riflemen” from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia as reinforcements for the army at Boston. The following day, June 15, 1775, Congress appointed George Washington to command the forces—now including Yankees and Southerners— that would come to be known as the Continental Army. Battle tested during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), and wearing the blue and buff military uniform of his fellow Virginia patriots, Washington struck his fellow delegates in Congress as an ideal commander. “This appointment,” John Adams wrote his beloved wife Abigail from his lodgings in Philadelphia, “will have a great effect, in cementing and securing the Union of these Colonies.”

The American Revolution was a work of many heads and hands, but it is with good reason that we remember Washington as his most famous eulogy reads: First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of his Countrymen.

 This musket was made by Philadelphia gunsmith Thomas Palmer, whose shop was located a short walk from the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall).  After attending the First Continental Congress in September-October 1774, George Washington ordered a “stand” of forty muskets from Palmer for the Prince William County (VA) Independent Company, one of hundreds of volunteer military units organized throughout the colonies to prepare for possible conflict with Great Britain.  This fine example of Palmer’s work is believed to be one of those commissioned by Washington in January 1775. It is a gift of the Estate of Robert McNeil, Jr.