The “Flying Camp” is a vaguely understood episode of the American Revolution. In May 1776 the Continental Congress authorized the formation of a force of 10,000 militia, conceived by General George Washington as a “mobile reserve” that would both defend the army’s garrisons in the Middle States and spread alarm amongst the British. Most, but not all, of the putative organization was to come from the states of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland. In point of fact, the Flying Camp as an idea and actuality barely survived the year. In the wake of the New York and New Jersey campaigns of 1776 it became abundantly clear that what Washington needed was a reliable and substantial Continental Army, not short-term, undersubscribed militia haphazardly organized under the chimera of a “Flying Camp.” Despite its unsustainability as a military concept, the officers and noncommissioned members of the various elements of the Flying Camp rendered important service to the Nation in the campaigns of Long Island, Trenton, and Princeton, among others.
The full story of Washington’s Flying Camp is told for the first time in Richard Lee Baker’s new book, “Villainy and Maddness” Washington’s Flying Camp. Drawing on original sources, particularly the correspondence of the Continental Congress, state committees of safety, the George Washington papers, and more, Baker fills in the gaps in the history of the Flying Camp that have eluded historians until now. In his able hands, we trace the Flying Camp from its beginnings in Washington’s imagination, to the dispatches of the new Congress enjoining the Middle States to commit specified numbers of militiamen to this important cause, to the logistical difficulties in achieving the objectives in General Washington’s master plan, and to the actual service of Flying Camp militia in the campaigns of 1776.
The author devotes a separate chapter to Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, delineating each state’s response to the call for a Flying Camp contingent, difficulties in assembling the forces on a timely basis, and the unending problem of militiamen returning home to tend to their crops following their abbreviated terms of service. At the same time, however, Baker sheds light on the valuable service rendered by Flying Camp members on the battlefield as well as in their capacities as engineers, physicians, and artillerymen.
Genealogists will appreciate the many references to actual members of the Flying Camp throughout the narrative, including General Hugh Mercer, one of Washington’s best generals and a fatality at the Battle of Princeton. The work concludes with a list of Flying Camp commanders and officers, a comprehensive bibliography, and a full-name index.
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