Our History: ‘Invalid Corps’ created in wake of the Battle of Long Island

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In August 1776, an important first test was faced by the American patriots in the Revolutionary War when they met up against the British and Hessians in the important Battle of Long Island. Outnumbered as they were by the English, they were overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and their ensuing defeat.

They suffered overwhelming odds when the tally of losses was taken — records, though not exact in verification even up to this day, show that at least 1,100 were taken prisoner and approximately 300 were killed and 650 wounded. It was considered a great loss for that time when taking into account the number of combatants involved.

Faced with this great loss, Gen. George Washington was more than determined to face the task of saving his remaining troops and this, fortunately, he was able to accomplish later.

At that time, the idea of forming a different class of regiment occurred — soon to be known as the “Invalid Corps.” This idea, it seems, grew out of discussions and decisions which had been initiated concerning the number of disabilities and the problem of allowances and status of pensions after the battle.

So many losses were precipitated during the Battle of Long Island — losses of arms and legs and other body parts — that something had to be done to alleviate the severity of the problems that arose. The plan that was devised was to help the Continental soldiers willing to enter battle, even at the risk of their own lives, and this was to offer what was to be the first American “pension plan.”

What Congress decided was to grant half-pay to the wounded and disabled, but also put forth the following caveat, that all such officers and soldiers who were found capable of doing guard or garrison duty should be formed into a “Corps of Invalids” and “subject into the said duty.”

Trained and knowledgeable about European military tradition, Washington knew, no doubt, that European troops included “invalids” who served “light duty.” Appropriately, not until Washington himself traced the history and results of the European plan did he arrange for the resolution to be adopted to provide the plan here. He had traced the plan’s results in Europe and found that such soldiers could well supply “light duty.” He wrote to some well-placed congressmen suggesting that such a plan be adopted by the Continental army.

The result was that on June 20, 1777, Congress was to restate a resolution which read: “Resolved that a Corps of Invalids be formed consisting of eight companies.” It was to be employed in a garrison and guards were to serve in cities and places such as hospitals and arsenals. In addition, some officers from the corps would be constantly employed in the recruiting service.

Col. Lewis Nicola, author of a military treatise and 60 at the time, was put in charge. He was elected to the post of commandant of the Invalid Corps and served in that capacity until its disbandment at the end of the war.

Washington had a high regard for the corps and its wide area of service, relieving the hard-driven militia in key places. Records show the corps was stationed all over the middle and northern states and held assignments in such places as Philadelphia, Vermont and West Point, to name a few.

In addition, several companies were assigned to guard the capital as well as assuming the task of protecting hospitals and even prisons.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.

Updated 6:08 pm, October 10, 2011
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