Army of Observation (New England)

April–July 1775

The New England Army of Observation was endorsed by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the army assembled around Boston and kept British forces trapped in the city. It was the precursor to the Continental Army.

Artemas Ward, General, American Revolutionary War

Artemas Ward commanded the New England Army of Observation from late April 1775 until the arrival of General George Washington in early July. Image Source: Harvard Art Museum.

What was the New England Army of Observation?

The New England Army of Observation was organized by Massachusetts Bay Colony and the other New England Colonies, in anticipation of hostilities with Great Britain. In the aftermath of the Battle of Concord (April 19, 1775), Massachusetts Militia forces followed the British back to Boston and remained there, initiating the Siege of Boston. Those troops formed the initial ranks of the New England Army of Observation. Over the next few days, they were joined by militia from the other New England Colonies.

New England Army of Observation Facts

These facts provide a summary overview of the New England Army of Observation, which helped pave the way for the establishment of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.

Organization of the Massachusetts Militia Forces

As early as October 1774, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was preparing for hostilities with Great Britain.

On October 24, 1774, the first Provincial Congress proclaimed to the towns in Massachusetts they needed to take control of their militias, enlist Minutemen, and establish the Committees of Safety.

The following day, October 25, 1774, the Provincial Congress appointed three Generals:

  1. Jedediah Preble
  2. Artemas Ward
  3. Seth Pomeroy

The Provincial Congress continued to meet through the fall and winter. On February 9, 1775, two more Generals were appointed:

  1. John Thomas
  2. William Heath

Origin of the Army of Observation

By the end of March 1775, General Thomas Gage was planning to take action against Patriots in Massachusetts who were gathering weapons and other military supplies. However, he was waiting for British officials in London to give him approval. 

Thomas Gage, Portrait, Copley
General Thomas Gage. Image Source: Wikipedia.

On March 29, he sent a large column of 1,200 British troops out of Boston, led by General Hugh Percy, on a march toward Roxbury. Although the march was likely nothing more than a way to give the men some exercise, it caught the attention of Patriots and express riders were sent to raise the alarm.

By the time General Percy’s column reached Watertown, they found there were two unmanned cannons blocking their path over the bridge. Rather than run the risk of a confrontation with the militia, Percy turned the column around and returned to Boston.

In response to Percy’s march, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress resolved the next day, March 30, that any time 500 or more British troops marched out of Boston an “Army of Observation” should assemble right away to “…act solely on the defensive…” 

Establishment of the New England Army of Observation

On April 8, 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress endorsed a plan to form a New England Army.

The New England Army was intended to have 30,000 troops. Massachusetts was supposed to provide nearly half of them, with 13,600. 

Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island also agreed to provide troops.

Lexington, Concord, and the Siege of Boston

Progress in the organization and formation of the army was accelerated by the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which took place on April 19, 1775.

Approximately 4,000 Massachusetts gathered and followed the British back to Boston, harassing them along the way and inflicting heavy casualties.

From Lexington to Boston, General William Heath directed the American pursuit.

When the British reached Bunker Hill, on the Charlestown Peninsula, they were safely within the range of the guns of the British warships anchored in Boston Harbor.

The Americans ended their pursuit and Heath had the men remain in the area around Boston, beginning the Siege of Boston. 

During the day, New Hampshire Militia companies made their way to Boston.

This illustration depicts the American camp at the Siege of Boston. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Artemas Ward Takes Command

On April 23, 1775, the Provincial Congress executed the plan for the army. 

That same day, General Artemas Ward presented a proposal to the Provincial Congress to organize the troops, which was approved. However, frequent changes were made to the organization of regiments and the number of officers.

General Ward took command of the army, and his headquarters were in Cambridge.

The New England Army never had more than 20,000 troops during its short existence, and it was more commonly known as the Army of Observation or the “Boston Army.”

Rhode Island and the Army of Observation

On April 25, the Rhode Island General Assembly decided to raise an army of 1,500 men to “…continue in this Colony, as an Army of Observation; to repel any insults or violence that may be offered to the inhabitants; and also, if it be necessary for the safety and preservation of any of the Colonies, that they be ordered to march out of this Colony, and join and cooperate with the Forces of our neighbouring Colonies.”

The Rhode Island Army, under the command of Brigadier General Nathanael Greene, arrived at Boston in late May and joined the camp at Jamaica Plains, which was under the command of General John Thomas.

General Nathanael Greene, Portrait, Illustration
Nathanael Greene. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

New Hampshire and the Army of Observation

New Hampshire issued orders for its militia forces to remain at Boston, and the militiamen elected Colonel John Stark to lead them. Stark had two regiments under his command, and they were stationed at Medford and Charlestown Neck.

On May 18, the New Hampshire Provincial Congress passed a resolution to raise volunteers “to join in the common cause of defending our just rights and liberties.” 

Two days later, it decided to establish a Committee of Safety and send 2,000 men, under the command of Nathaniel Folsom. However, Folsom and his men did not arrive until June 20, three days after the Battle of Bunker Hill.

General John Stark, Illustration
John Stark. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Connecticut and the Army of Observation

On April 26, Connecticut decided to send 6,000 men and appointed David Wooster as Major General. Wooster was supported by two Brigadier Generals — Israel Putnam and Joseph Spencer.

Challenges for the New England Army of Observation

Despite the preparation and planning that had gone into organizing the army, it suffered from a lack of coordination and centralized authority.

One of the biggest challenges was the fact that the Minutemen and Militiamen who responded to the Lexington Alarm were not prepared to remain away from their homes for an extended period. Most of them had gone out that day, intending to return home that night.

Members of the Provincial Congress and the Second Continental Congress knew most of those men would not stay if the siege continued. They would need to return to their homes and families, where they could tend to their farms or jobs. 

In early June, the organization of the New England Army continued, and on June 14 Dr. Joseph Warren was appointed to the rank of Major General.

However, frustrated by the lack of progress in the Siege of Boston, the Provincial Congress appealed to the Continental Congress and asked it to take over the Army of Occupation.

Joseph Warren, Portrait, Copley
Joseph Warren. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

The Continental Congress Establishes the Continental Army

The Second Continental Congress responded by establishing the Continental Army, of which the New England Army of Observation was a part. Important dates in the organization of the Continental Army are:

  • June 14 — The first troops for the new army were approved, consisting of six companies of riflemen from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.
  • June 15George Washington was elected Commander-in-Chief. 
  • June 17 — Artemas Ward was appointed as a Major General and Second-in-Command to Washington. Horatio Gates was appointed Adjutant General with the rank of Brigadier General. Charles Lee was appointed as a Major General and Third-in-Command.
  • June 19Philip Schuyler was appointed as the 3rd Major General and Israel Putnam was appointed as the 4th Major General.
  • June 22 — Brigadier Generals were commissioned: Seth Pomeroy, Richard Montgomery, David Wooster, William Heath, Joseph Spencer, John Thomas, John Sullivan, and Nathanael Greene.

The New England Army of Observation Skirmishes with British Forces

During the Siege of Boston, the New England Army of Observation fought with British forces in the following incidents:

  • On May 21, a skirmish took place at Grape Island, when British troops tried to steal hay.
  • The Battle of Chelsea Creek was fought on May 27–28, when John Stark and Israel Putnam led American forces to seize livestock and supplies on Hog Island and Noddle’s Island. They also burned a British ship, the HMS Diana.

The New England Army of Observation and the Battle of Bunker Hill

  • Despite the organization of the Continental Army, the New England Army was still in operation on June 16, 1775, when its commanding officers decided to build a redoubt on Breed’s Hill.
  • The New England Army engaged in its inaugural battle at Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775
  • Despite inflicting heavy casualties on British forces, the New England Army had to retreat from Bunker Hill
  • During the retreat, Dr. Joseph Warren was killed.
  • General William Howe, who led British forces during the battle, later wrote, “When I look to the consequences of it, in the loss of so many brave Officers, I do it with horror — The Success is too dearly bought.”
  • Bunker Hill was a British victory but is widely viewed as a moral victory for American forces, who proved they could fight with what were arguably the best-trained soldiers in the world.
Death of Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill, Painting
This painting depicts the death of Joseph Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Image Source: MFA Boston.

Washington Takes Command

  • George Washington left Philadelphia on June 23 and started his journey to Boston. He was accompanied by General Philip Schuyler.
  • Washington arrived at Cambridge on the evening of July 2.
  • He established his headquarters on July 3 and officially took command of the American troops, most of whom transitioned from the New England Army of Observation to the Continental Army.

The Ticonderoga Expeditions

Despite the ongoing effort to organize the New England Army, both Massachusetts and Connecticut set their sights on seizing British artillery and cannons at Fort Ticonderoga in New York. However, neither colony knew what the other was doing.

The Connecticut Expedition was led by Ethan Allen and included Seth Warner and the Green Mountain Boys.

The Massachusetts Expedition was supposed to be organized by Benedict Arnold. However, when he found out about the Connecticut Expedition, he chased after it and tried to take command. When the Green Mountain Boys refused to follow him, he agreed to share leadership with Allen.

Ultimately, Allen, Arnold, and the Green Mountain Boys captured Fort Ticonderoga on May 10. Later, the weapons were moved to Boston by Henry Knox, where they were used to occupy Dorchester Heights and force the British to leave Boston.

Although neither expedition was part of the New England Army of Observation, it shows how disorganized the American military was in the early days of the American Revolutionary War.

Capture of Fort Ticonderoga, Allen and Delaplace, Chappel
Ethan Allen confronts William De La Place, commander of the fort. Image Source: Fort Ticonderoga, Online Collections.

Earlier New England Armies

The New England Army of Observation was not the first military coalition organized by the New England Colonies.

Following the Pequot War (1636–1638), Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven formed the New England Confederation. The purpose was to coordinate their military operations for defense against attacks from Indian, French, and Spanish forces.

The New England Confederation organized military forces and won King Philip’s War (1675–1678).

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Army of Observation (New England)
  • Date April–July 1775
  • Author
  • Keywords New England Army, Army of Observation
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 18, 2024

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