The Continental Army was continually plagued by a shortage of money, which meant a shortage of men and supplies. To combat this deficiency, the Continental Congress was generally unable to levy taxes; that power was left to each of the thirteen states individually.
The Continental Congress was able to borrow some money, but the army was still underfunded. This led inevitably to conscription and impressment.
Conscription, later known as ‘the draft,’ is involuntary military service. Impressment is the appropriation of supplies from the civilian population.
The exact implementation of these practices varied from time to time, and from place to place, during the war. The earlier phases of the war saw more combat in the North; the latter years of the war featured more combat in the South.
Historian John Maass writes:
North Carolina was not the only American province to adopt these taxing expedients. Impressment of supplies and wartime necessities occurred on the Continental and state levels throughout the war, beginning during the siege of Boston in 1775. Likewise, the use of conscription was widespread during the American Revolution from the opening months of the conflict to the end of the war. By focusing on wartime North Carolina, these two onerous practices and their consequences can be examined in detail.
The earliest documented impressment in North Carolina is dated to May 1776, according to Maass, which would be a year after the war began at Lexington and Concord.
But impressment in significant quantities didn’t begin until December 1778, as more fighting began to happen in the South.
The two main problems with impressment were that, first, it presented an almost insurmountable temptation to corruption, and that, second, it undermined popular opinion in support of the war.
Leaders in the Continental Army, like General Nathanael Greene, worked diligently to reduce corruption: to see to it that only necessary items were impressed, and that the impressed items served the army and not the personal enrichment of the officers tasked with impressing those items.
Greene’s efforts produced at least of modicum of acceptance among the civilian public.
Despite the difficulties of impressment and conscription, an American victory would almost certainly have been impossible without them. They represented a temporary sacrifice necessary to permanently abolish a bitter tyranny.