A History of the Regiment
The First Continental Regiment was not accidentally named. In addition to being the first regiment raised by Pennsylvania, and the first counted against the state’s quota of twelve regiments to be raised for Continental service, the regiment was the first established by an act of Congress. On June 14, 1775, the Continental Congress passed a resolution calling for the raising of six companies of riflemen from Pennsylvania, two from Maryland and two from Virginia. By a resolution of June 22, Pennsylvania was directed to raise an additional three companies, which were to be formed into a battalion.
William Thompson of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was appointed colonel of the Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion, which following the British tradition of naming a regiment after its commander, became known as “Thompson’s Rifle Battalion.” The battalion marched north to join the emerging Continental army and arrived at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on August 7, 1775. Being regarded as elite troops, General Washington did not assign the riflemen to regular camp duties similar to the rest of the troops besieging Boston. Instead, the riflemen busied themselves with the hounding of British troops with long range fire. Yet these Pennsylvanians also proved that soldiers with too much free time would cause trouble. After Washington had to break up a riot between the men of Thompson’s Rifle Battalion and John Glover’s Regiment, the riflemen were found guilty of insubordination and the battalion was assigned to regular camp duties.
In the fall of 1775, Colonel Benedict Arnold was sent on an expedition through the Maine wilderness to attack Quebec and capture Canada for the American Colonies. The companies of Hendricks and Smith of Thompson’s Rifle Battalion were assigned to the Arnold expedition. After weeks of extreme hardship, Arnold’s army reached Quebec and laid siege. On the evening of December 31, 1775, the combined forces of General Richard Montgomery and Colonel Arnold assaulted the city. The attack ended in failure, with Montgomery being killed and Arnold wounded. The two companies of the battalion were forced to surrender and held captive in Quebec.
When Colonel Thompson was promoted to Brigadier General, Lt. Colonel Edward Hand of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, took command of the regiment on March 7, 1776. This was a time of great change for these Pennsylvania troops. The Continental Army was reorganized on January 1, 1776, Thompson’s Rifle Battalion was renamed the First Continent Regiment. With orders that all Continental regiments were procure their own standards, Colonel Hand designed the regiment’s new flag. The established motto of the new First Continental Regiment would be Domari Nolo - “I refuse to be subjugated,” a motto which proved to be most prophetic.
Following the British evacuation of Boston in March of 1776, the Continental Army marched south to protect New York City from invasion. On July 1, 1776, the army was reorganized yet again, with each state required to supply a quota of line regiments for the Continental Army. Under the new name of the First Pennsylvania Regiment, the troops waited for the British to arrive. Positioned on the Brooklyn Heights, the regiment engaged in heavy fighting during the disastrous battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776. Covering the Continental Army’s retreat to Manhattan, the First Pennsylvania Regiment stayed on the Brooklyn Heights, stoking the campfires to fool the British, and was the last regiment to leave Long Island. The regiment was frequently engaged as Washington was forced back through the battles at Harlem Heights, White Plains, Fort Washington, and finally into a beaten, despairing retreat across New Jersey until the army reached the Delaware River and crossed into Pennsylvania.
However, the tide turned as Washington conceived a daring attack on the Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey. On the morning of December 26, 1776, the First Pennsylvania Regiment cutoff the Hessian escape route, which forced the German troops to surrender at the battle of Trenton. At the battle of Assunpink Creek, a week later, the First Pennsylvania Regiment was part of the brigade ordered to slow down the British advance along the Trenton Road. When the commanding officer, Brigadier General Matthias de Roche-Fermoy, fled in the face of the enemy, Colonel Hand took command of the brigade, stalling the British and allowing the Continental Army to force a stalemate at the creek. Under the cover of dark, Washington’s army withdrew from Trenton to attack the British rearguard at Princeton. The battle of Princeton was a great success for the Continental army, in which the regiment hit the British left flank and crippled the British seventeenth regiment.
On April 1, 1777, Colonel Hand, like his predecessor, was promoted to Brigadier General and command of the regiment was given to Colonel James Chambers of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Chambers would lead the regiment for the remainder of the war. After the Continental army wintered in Morristown, New Jersey, the regiment started the spring campaign of 1777 in the First Pennsylvania Brigade of General Anthony Wayne’s Division. By this time, the First Pennsylvania Regiment was considered an elite regiment and was given the post of honor on the right of the line. The regiment fought well at battle of the Brandywine on September 11, 1777, in which the troops retook their captured colors, covered the Pennsylvania artillery’s withdrawal, and after the artillery crews left a howitzer behind, the troops of the regiment pulled the cannon to safety before retiring from the battlefield themselves.
At the battle of Paoli, the regiment did not fair as well as before. Given the impossible task of covering the withdrawal of the other Pennsylvania troops, the First Pennsylvania Regiment fell apart following heavy pressure from the British light infantry’s charge. At the battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777, the regiment would redeem itself. Seeking retribution, the men of Wayne’s division attacked the British position with the greatest of zeal. With the British in flight, the Pennsylvanians pursued the British into the village of Germantown. At the point when victory seemed to be in their grasp, the Pennsylvania Line was fired upon by fellow Continentals through the fog and forced to retreat. Following the battle, Washington’s army would march and countermarch across the Pennsylvania countryside, skirmish with the British at Whitemarsh, and finally go into winter quarters at Valley Forge.
Between the fall of 1777 and the spring of 1778, the First Pennsylvania’s rifles were exchanged for muskets and bayonets. Under Baron Von Steuben, the troops of the regiment were trained how to use their new weapons and drilled properly, as was the rest of the army. This retrained army emerged from Valley Forge on June 19, 1778, to pursue the British evacuating Philadelphia. Nine days later, the two armies clashed at the battle of Monmouth. While the Pennsylvanians were held in reserve at the beginning of the battle, Wayne’s division attacked the British rearguard as they started to first retreat. This caused the battle to continue for several hours, and the regiment fought the British in savage hand-to-hand combat. Ultimately, Wayne ordered his troops to a more defensive position and the British withdrew from the battlefield, heading for New York.
The battlefields of the war turned to the southern states following Monmouth, and the main Continental army held position in northern New Jersey to continue the stalemate with the main British forces in New York City. A detachment from the First Pennsylvania Regiment was with Wayne’s light infantry at the storming of Stony Point, New York, on July 15, 1779, and the regiment fought hard at Bergen Neck on July 21, 1779. During the late summer and early fall of 1779, the regiment’s rifle company served under General John Sullivan on his campaign against the Iroquois in Upstate New York. On January 1, 1781, the First Pennsylvania Regiment, after suffering years of long and hard service along with poor pay, poor food, and poor equipment, joined the other Pennsylvania regiments in a mutiny at Morristown, New Jersey. Although the mutiny failed, the result was that many of the men received their discharges, which is what many of them were seeking.
Following the mutiny, the Pennsylvania regiments were reorganized into six regiments. Yet for tactical purposes, the Pennsylvania troops were placed into three fighting battalions. The men of the First Pennsylvania who continued to serve saw action at the siege of Yorktown in 1781, along with the mopping up operations in South Carolina in 1782. On November 3, 1783, after a distinguished career, the First Pennsylvania Regiment was mustered out in Philadelphia.