Washington’s Flying Camp The American Revolution’s Mobile Response Force

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Many of you who are regular readers of this blog know that the Revolutionary War is not my favorite historical time period. Despite the burgeoning publications on the Civil War (and that is my favorite time period) brought on by sesquicentennial activities, my goal for the year is to read more about                   the Revolutionary War and this seminal period of American history. Richard Lee Baker’s Villainy       and Maddness,’ Washington’s Flying Camp, recently published by Clearfield Company, offered an opportunity to further this goal (and with 108 pages of text, it suggested a quick read).

The title caught my attention. In order to dispel the alarming image of the winged monkeys from The Wizard of Oz that immediately leapt to mind, I decided to understand just what the term “flying camp” actually meant. The Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia defines the term as “a camp or body of troops formed for rapid motion from one place to another.” A more descriptive definition is offered by Wikipedia: “In military strategy, a flying camp, or camp-volant, was a small but strong army of horsemen and dragoons, to which were sometimes added foot-soldiers. Such an army was usually commanded by a lieutenant general, and was always in motion, both to cover the garrisons in possession, and to keep the adversary in continual alarm.” This concept of a mobile reserve or rapid response force is employed by military strategists to the present day.

With the Declaration of Independence a fait accompli, Great Britain and its colonies embarked on a collision course. Ambrose Serle, secretary to Admiral Richard Lord Howe, noted that the document “…proclaims the villainy and madness of these deluded people.” George Washington, planning his military strategy in 1776, realized the need to meet the expected British invasion into the middle colonies, specifically New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. He wrote to Congress requesting the formation of a strategic mobile reserve, a “flying camp,” to be made up of 10,000 men – 6,000 from Pennsylvania, 3,400 from Maryland, and 600 from the lower counties of Delaware. These men would be raised in the various states with terms extending to December 1, 1776. They would eventually be joined with smaller numbers of troops from New Jersey, Virginia and Connecticut. General Hugh Mercer was appointed commander of the camp on 20 July 1776, and headquarters were established at Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

Several factors prevented the flying camp strategy from enjoying true success. From the beginning, the organization of the flying camp was plagued with problems, not the least of which was the inability to raise and equip the authorized numbers, who were asked to report for duty with “a good Musket with a Bayonet…, a Tomahawk, a Cartouch-box, Blanket, Canteen, and Knapsack.” Pennsylvania, charged with providing the bulk of the flying camp forces, suffered a political crisis that necessitated formation of a new government, and thus was slow to respond with any men at all. The troops that were raised from the three principal colonies were difficult to retain, particularly as harvest time approached and the December 1st date for dispersal beckoned. They were poorly paid and poorly provisioned, and morale was low. Many simply left the service at (or before) reenlistment time either as individuals or as whole companies and, occasionally, battalions. Thus, full strength was never reached. In addition, the reluctance of various states to transfer more seasoned troops to the support of New York and New Jersey slowed the process of populating the flying camp. These states felt that complying with such requests would leave them more vulnerable to attack themselves, as well as reliant on less-committed and less-trained militia forces who were slow to respond, if at all, to calls to service. Clearly the former colonies had not yet embraced the idea of working together in mutual support. Finally, the early part of the war was being directed by the Continental Congress, under the presidency of John Hancock, and as we have seen in other wars, such direction by committee does not support clear, decisive action. The descriptions of troop movements describe an often chaotic situation. Hancock’s messages to a specific unit commander sometimes differed from his communication to Washington or Mercer. For example, he might tell the commander to take his forces to New Jersey, but at the same time was writing to Washington or Mercer that the forces were headed to New York.

Nevertheless, despite low numbers, poor morale, Congressional direction, and abominable weather, Washington’s Flying Camp was able to turn the main component of Howe’s British army away from New Jersey and Pennsylvania toward Washington’s main force in New York. Without their efforts, the Revolutionary War might have had an earlier and different outcome.

Baker’s ‘Villainy  and Maddness,’ Washington’s Flying Camp provides great detail about the formation and use of the flying camp, relying on first-hand accounts from diaries, letters, and archives of various states and the Continental Congress. While the book could benefit from copy-editing, it offers a unique view of a specific time period and military strategy that helped to shaped the direction of the conflict.

Additional information about the Flying Camp can be found on Footnote where my broad search on “Flying Camp” yielded images from the Papers of the Continental Congress, the Pennsylvania Archives, Revolutionary War Rolls, and more. The website of the Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati provides information (look under “F”) for the Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania (Swope’s) Battalions, and the New York Division of the Flying Camp. The website of the Delaware Society of the Cincinnati provides a “History of the Delaware Battalion of the Flying Camp.” A Google search located a timeline for the Flying Camp with links to various articles. I noted that in one, dated 12 July 1776, a “Thomas Barclay was enrolled with St. Mary’s County [Maryland] by Capt. Uriah Forrest, and was received and passed as a member of the ‘Flying Camp,’ by John A. Briscoe…” Rootsweb provides links to information about the Flying Camp and lists related holdings at the Pennsylvania State Archives, in RG-4, Records of the Office of the Comptroller General. An opportunity for further reading is found in Francis E. Devine’s currently out-of-print The Pennsylvania Flying Camp, July-November (Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1979).

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