Roles of the Militia
The New England colonies maintained a politically stable militia system during the pre-Revolutionary War years. There was virtually no standing army but all the provincial governments were able to provide large numbers of militiamen when and where they were needed simply by drafting them out of the town militias. The New England colonies lost some territory and many men during the last quarter of the seventeenth century, but the political authorities never lost administrative control.
Each town effectively became an advanced military base from which the provincials could maintain a defensive posture or launch an attack on the enemy aborigine. New England towns had a military organization that was sustained and implemented locally with a minimum of outside interference. One authority argued that the relatively loose and decentralized control that the provincial officers maintained in New England towns was a principal cause of the maintenance of political cohesion by the legislature and governors.cxcvii Most towns had sufficient supplies in the community store houses to support the local militia and quite a few other militiamen for at least a short time. Other towns could draw on similar supplies to sustain the war effort. In King Philip's War the aborigine were defeated more by shortages of supplies than by acts of war.
New England militia often supplemented the ordinarily and common civil authorities, such as the sheriffs, police and town patrol or watch units. During the British occupation of Boston with the king's troops a series of clashes occurred between militia and civil authorities on the one side and the British forces operating as military conservators of the peace, on the other side. The Boston Evening Post editorialized that so great were the offenses of the military conservators that in Boston there had been "a late vote of council of this town calling upon the inhabitants to provide themselves with arms for their defence." It thought that this was "a measure as prudent as it was legal" because "it is a natural right which the people have reserved to themselves, conformed by the [English] Bill of Rights, to keep arms for their own defence."cxcviii
New England militia seldom went into actual battle as whole units, although they engaged in skirmishes and pursued marauding Indian war parties as whole units. Men were selected for their particular skills in tracking, sensing danger, marksmanship, and other useful military skills and then especially trained to become frontier rangers. The general political authority raised and paid for special combat forces in times of trouble, using the general militia as a reservoir of supply for these volunteers. These select militiamen were the voluntary and democratic counterpart of the Anglo-Saxon select fyrd. The latter usually had no choice but to accept the additional training that separated them from the general (or great) fyrd, the militia comprised of all able-bodied males. Whether for principle or pay, the long term and mobile New England militia volunteered to serve in these select militia forces. The volunteer element also removed from concern one potential problem, that being the question of whether the general militia could be deployed outside their home counties or colony.
Serving in a regiment did not excuse a man from guard duty, for within a regiment, there were five distinct types of guard duty on which a man might have to serve. In a quarter guard a regiment provided its own police, usually with a subaltern, drummer and as many as forty men. They patrolled the perimeter at night and held prisoners awaiting courts-martial or punishment. The provost guard provided additional police functions via detachment of forty-five men under a subaltern. It carried out punishment, including executions. The piquet guard was composed of a captain, two subalterns and as many as 50 men. It was designed to hold a line upon attack until the whole regiment could form. The main guard was the company-size force which provided external security for the whole camp and consisted of a company drawn from the entire body of men on a rotational basis. Officers of the rank of general were entitled to a personal guard, which varied by rank. A lieutenant-general had thirty-three guards; a major-general, twenty-three; and a brigadier-general, fifteen.cxcix Typically, as many as a quarter of the men assigned to a regiment or camp might be assigned to guard duty; or, a man might expect to serve on guard duty every fourth day.
There was a fundamental difference between the British regulars and the American militiamen regarding camp life. The American militia viewed the camp as a temporary aberration, a place to stay away from home, having no permanence. They did only the bare minimum required to stay for a brief period. There was no question that, no matter how fine military quarters might be, the men would gladly trade them at any point for their own homes. English soldiers, from both personal desire and because they were driven by brutal discipline, made the camp as perfect as possible. They cleared stumps, set drainage and permanent latrines, levelled the land if at all possible, and then set their camps according to a pre-arranged plan, and with a define sense of order. To those men, the army was a way of life and the camp was as close to a permanent home as they were likely to come, for most had been impressed or enlisted for life. To the British troops, the militiamen were a disorderly group possessed of no pride of accomplishment. To the Americans, the English fetish for camp orderliness was the result of the officers' insistence on discipline for its own sake and decision to make the men work to keep them from mischief.cc
Illness and malnutrition were the two great enemies of all in the field on military assignments. The standard diet of the enlisted men was adequate to maintain health and normal activity. The diet, by standards of the time, were reasonably well balanced. Problems occurred when food was not supplied as the manual required or when men were assigned to especially arduous tasks, such as felling trees, building roads, forts or bridges and carrying supplies or boats.cci Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard reported to the board of Trade in 1763 that, "I was surprised to see what havoc disease made alone among the provincial soldiers." ccii We need not dwell here on the woeful state of medicine, the inferior training of physicians and surgeons, poor sanitation, lack of real hospitals and drugs, presence of lice and rats and other disease carriers, inability to diagnose diseases and ailments correctly, lack of sterile instruments or the lack of understanding of how diseases were caused and spread. Dysentery, typhus, typhoid fever, pneumonia, smallpox, diphtheria, malaria, measles, mumps, and other virulent disorders frequently caused more deaths than engagements with the enemy. A man injured in an accident or wounded in combat could count on virtually no medical help. Amputation was standard treatment for shattered limbs. Bodily wounds or internal injuries were generally untreated because of the lack of skill and hospitals. Professor Anderson found that, during the French and Indian War, New England militia and volunteers suffered a mortality rate of between 40 and 66.7 per thousand and a total casualty rate of 283.5 per 1000, for a period of about three months.cciii
The English regarded the American militiamen as substitute manual laborers who were especially well suited, if for nothing else, for building and maintaining roads and bridges, driving wagons, building boats and then carrying these across portages, cutting firewood, building and maintaining latrines, and in general performing such distasteful physical tasks as fell on the British soldiers when there were no militia available. As Colonel John Robertson explained, the provincials were suited only "to work our boats, drive our wagons, and fell our trees, and do the work that, in inhabited counties, are performed by peasants."cciv Perhaps most odious of all duties was that of cutting trees and doing other attendant work to build roads. This work required enormous physical stamina, for first growth trees of the virgin forests provided a significant obstacle and among the many considerations of British civil engineers, the amount of physical toil required was the least. Next in line as a physically demanding task was the building of fortifications. Forts required the digging of large holes, felling and cleaning large trees and dragging these to the proper place and setting the posts in the holes; and locating, extracting, shaping and setting large stones. Many period records show that the British officers enlisted, drafted, recruited, and, if all else failed, hired, provincial tradesmen to serve as masons, sawyers, carpenters, millwrights, wheelwrights, or (that all-purpose term), "artificers." Provincials also hunted game to supplement the standard fare of salt beef, pork, cod, or mutton.
There was no socio-economic discrimination practiced in New England militia as had been the case with the English militia. Regular British officers who served in North America and who knew little, if anything, of prevailing social conditions, and often cared to know even less about the national customs, misunderstood the colonial way of fighting and preparing for war. They did not care to understand the fraternity and socializing that marked militia training days. To them, the American provincials were woefully disorganized, completely inefficient and hopelessly democratic. Officers socializing with the enlisted men and militiamen electing their own officers necessarily precluded discipline, organization and efficiency. In an army where officers made it a practice to refuse to learn, let alone address men by, their first names, the fraternization they saw among provincials was disgusting. Surely, mutiny and desertion would follow from such lax discipline.ccv Here, poor citizens and indentured servants joined with their commercial and propertied brethren. The New England militia certainly represented a far greater cross-section of society than did the contemporary English militia.ccvi
A prominent Tory compared the militia to Falstaff's army; it was "poor and bare." Another Tory said that many of the militia had entered battle wearing "breeches that put decency to blush." The Earl of Loudoun complained to Lord Cumberland about his militia. "[A]s to the complaints of the ill usage of the Militia, it rather appears to me that the Militia came rather slow up, and when they arrived to the number of 2000, the desertion from that time on was equal to their Acquisition by the arrival of new reinforcements."ccvii
As we have seen, at least Englishmen did show respect for the colonial militia and their unique ability to wage war effectively in the hinterland of America. After the catastrophic defeat of General Edward Braddock's army at the Battle of the Wilderness, the London-based Public Advertiser caustically observed that "300 New England Militia men would have routed this Party of Indians."ccviii One British officer commended the New England militia to the exclusion of the others.
In all military Affairs it seems to belong to the New England Provinces to set a proper Example. All agree that they are better able to plan and execute than any of the [other] British Colonies. We put no Confidence in any troops other than theirs; and it is generally lamented that the British Veterans were not out in Garrisons and New England Irregulars [Militia] sent to the Ohio. Their men fight from Principle and always succeed. . . . Instead of the Devastations committed by the Troops in 1746, not a Farmer has lost a chicken . . . .ccix
Americans were only too willingly to support this kind of endorsement. The Public Advertiser's American correspondent, writing on 18 August 1755, related an account of an ambush that had occurred "150 miles off . . . a few days ago" in which an Amerindian war party numbering three hundred had attacked a party of eighty New England militia. "The Indians fired first and killed one Man; the New England Men took to the swamps and woods after them and killed 40 of them."ccx A private letter written by a Boston correspondent in August 1755 in the same newspaper recounted the success of the New England militia in "the late fight at Nova Scotia." An "Old England Officer, Colonel Monckton" had ordered the militiamen to march in European-style close "Army Order" which they did, but only so long as they were not under attack. "When the Indians fired on them out of the Woods they broke their Ranks and ran into the Woods after them." Monckton was outraged and accused them of misconduct, saying "the Devil was in them." But the militiamen had the last laugh. "They soon returned and shewed him several Indian heads and scalps, [saying] 'This is our Country Fighting.'" This lesson had been lost on British commanders and because Braddock had insisted on fighting as Monckton had, he "fell sacrifice to his Onstancy."ccxi After the British surrender at Yorktown, Sir Henry Clinton referred to the New England militiamen as "warlike, numerous and formidable."
Each colony in New England set aside one or more days for training and disciplining the citizen-soldiers. This custom had been inherited from medieval England where similar days had been set aside for like purpose in each shire. When training day laws went unenforced the militias lapsed into mobs that were unable to coordinate their activities on the field of battle and were unwilling to obey their officers. Occasionally, part of the training days was set aside to repair and build fortifications. A chaplin opened and closed the day with a prayer and occasionally with a sermon. The minister also enforced morality laws to such a degree that public drunkenness was all but unknown and the camp followers that commonly accompanied men in arms were also nowhere to be found.
During the French and Indian War a New York correspondent of the London-based Public Advertiser praised the moral character of the New England militiamen.
We put no Confidence in any other Troops than theirs; and it is generally lamented that the British veterans were not put into Garrison and New England Irregulars sent to the Ohio. Their men fight from Principle and always succeed. The Behaviours of the New England Provincials at Albany is equally admirable and satisfactory. Instead of the Devastations committed by the [British regular] Troops in 1746, not a single Farmer has lost a Chicken or even a Mess of Herbs. They have five Chaplains and maintain the best Order in Camp. Public Prayers, Psalm-singing and Martial Exercises engrossed their whole Time at Albany. Twice a week they have Sermons and are in the very best frame of Mind for an Army, looking for success in a Dependence upon Almighty God . . . . Would to God the New England Disposition in this Respect were catching.ccxii
The number of annual training days was fixed by law and varied considerably according to time and place. In 1631 the Massachusetts militia was so enthusiastic about training days that it mustered weekly. Within a year the enthusiasm waned and musters were then held monthly. By 1637 the interest had continued to decline and consequently drills were held only eight times a year. Subsequent changes in the law reduced the obligation to six times a year and then just four. Emergencies changed the militiamen's minds and prompted them to take muster more seriously. During King Philip's War the Massachusetts militia mustered every Sunday and one additional day per week.ccxiii
Training days became social occasions. Whole families attended. The women folk prepared the means which were taken in common. The children enjoyed a rare opportunity, at least in rural areas, to socialize and to play with large numbers of other children. Many young, single men met their future wives at these gatherings. Occasionally, a church or public building had to be repaired and this was done as a part of, or adjunct to, training days.ccxiv A British officer described New England training under the watchful eye of five chaplains who assumed responsibility for the morality and general decorum.ccxv
To Jeffery Amherst's seasoned, professional officers the Americans were utterly ill-mannered and ungentlemanly. They ignored class distinctions which were all important among the British officer corps. They reported to Amherst that the officers joined their men in carousing and carrying on, often into the wee hours of the morning. The militia officers were as bad as the men, engaging in all manner of outrageous behavior. They often wore costumes and unacceptable, non-military clothing. Many officers failed to wear insignia or distinctive uniforms that would identify them amongst their men. Moreover, they failed to obey even the most rudimentary rules of sanitation. Men and officers alike stank for they failed to bathe or change and wash their clothing.
In 1759 General Jeffery Amherst, preparing at assault the French fort at Ticonderoga, reviewed the colonial militia and volunteers. He was so disturbed by the New England militia's lack of basic military knowledge that he ordered them trained with British regulars using the same handbooks, training manuals, and standards used with regular army recruits. Only by applying universal training standards could Amherst expect to integrate them with his own forces and deploy them as a single combat team. Amherst ordered that all regiments of volunteers and militia be given a copy of Humphrey Bland's Treatise of Military Discipline.ccxvi Throughout the long campaign in upper New York and into Canada the New Englanders struggled to become acquainted with the unfamiliar rules and procedures of British military routine.
Additionally, Amherst was amazed to discover that many militiamen had only the most rudimentary knowledge of how their firearms worked. He expected to find the fabled "nation or riflemen" but instead discovered to his dismay that many of the urban New England militiamen possessed only the faintest knowledge of how their arms operated and how to care for them. Many men had fired, at the most, a few rounds of ammunition, and these on rare occasions at militia musters when musket practice was held. Amherst immediately gave orders that the marksmanship training and instruction in the manual of arms be given top priority at future musters and that volunteers in his army be trained with his own men in standard British military fashion. To his mind, militia training days were a sham.
All militia required discipline and organization. These were based on, or obtained from, some standard infantry field manuals and books of instruction on military drill. The standard drill manual for British troops was The Manual Exercise as Ordered by His Majesty in 1764, printed as early as 1766 in the colonies, but it had never been officially adopted for militia exercise. Thomas Simes, a young British officer in 1772 had written a Military Guide for Young Officers, reprinted in 1776 in Philadelphia. It proved to be among the most popular manuals in the colonies in the years immediately preceding the War for Independence. Sir Humphrey Bland had produced a work on military discipline which proved to be popular in the colonies. On the eve of the Revolution there was no shortage of manuals upon which the American militia officers might draw.
But Americans seemed inclined to produce their own manuals, influenced though they might be by British works. Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts was always interested in military matters as he was a militia officer, and in 1775 he published a militia training manual, An Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia. Later, Washington, recommended him to Congress for the office of Adjutant General, commending him in these words, "He is a great military genius cultivated by an industrious attention to the study of war."ccxvii Pickering's book was based upon a similar work known as Norfolk Discipline, written in 1757 for the use of the militia of Norfolk County, England. That work was the text book used by the militia of Rhode Island; and was, in fact, the basis for the training of most of the New England militia. Massachusetts for a time instructed her militia with William Windham's A Plan of Exercise for the Militia of the Province of Massachusetts, written in 1771. Windham's book was based upon the Norfolk work. In the preface to his manual, Pickering listed his sources: Norfolk Discipline; Exercises Ordered by His Majesty; Memoirs of Saxe;ccxviii The Young Artillery-Man, by Barrisse;ccxix Exercises of the Army; Regulations for the Prussian Infantry;ccxx Bland's Military Discipline; General Wolfe's Instructions for Young Officers; The Cadet; and Young'sccxxi Essays on the Command of Small Detachments.ccxxii
There were few major engagements fought in the new world. Battles on the European continent and in the West Indies rarely touched the colonists. The wars came and peace again reigned and there were long periods of rest in between the wars. The Revolution was a different matter.
All battles in the Revolution were fought on American soil, save only for a few, relatively minor, naval engagements. There were no regular army units to fight the war, save for those ultimately drawn from the militia. The militia was constantly on the move, fighting against both the English and the Amerindians. Frontier militiamen who served far away from their homes had real reason to worry about the fate of their families at home, especially after the Six Nations entered the war with a vengeance. Men were away from their homes and farms or other occupations for extended periods of time. Women and children at home might make do with the principal bread-winner being absent for one season, but continued absence over several years took a horrible toll. Since most farms had operated essentially on a subsistence level, it meant that fewer people had to raise more food to feed more people. Someone had to grow the food to feed those in the armed forces.
During the first two years of the Revolutionary War there were few problems. By 1777 the war was taking a toll on the patriots. Men were tiring of the war. Taxes were high and the currency depreciating at a rapid rate. High inflation and high taxes placed many father-less families at the mercy of money lenders. Some taxes went unpaid. Militia fines were substantial, and providing a substitute was beyond the means of the typical household. Since the lame, halt, blind and others who were handicapped or disabled had to procure a substitute each time they were drafted, this obligation fell heavily on a segment of society which was ordinarily unable to sustain the cost. Wages of the enlisted men, whether in the continental line or militia, were insufficient to support a family. The pay of soldiers in 1776 was given in paper money which exchanged freely on par with silver. In January 1777 silver brought a premium of 25% and by January 1778 silver was valued at four times the stated value of paper money. In 1780 silver was worth sixty times the face value of the depreciated currency. By May 1781 it was essentially worthless and had ceased to circulate for virtually no one, the most ardent patriots included, would accept it.
The British regulars assigned to North America were generally well trained and subjected to the most harsh discipline known among military organizations anywhere. During the many wars with France, many times the British army stood against savage assaults because of this discipline. The colonial militias never accepted such discipline because of the egalitarian spirit that pervaded the colonies.
The militia failed to work effectively as regular combat units for several reasons. Few, if any, militiamen were interested in prolonged campaigns far from home. Training had long been oriented toward serving short-term home guard service. The militiamen were especially ineffective as garrison troops in various fortified areas, as they became bored quickly and had little interest in such service. When a man served a tour of duty far from home he remained concerned for the protection and economic well-being of his family. Most militiamen could ill afford the costs of leaving home, farm, business, or shop. The Amerindians, Tories and British were a constant threat to their property.
Perhaps the most important reason for failures of the militia can be traced to the volunteering and drafting militiamen. Those who were most interested in the military life volunteered first. Militia units preferred to send their best men to the Continental Line. With the ranks depleted, the militia units were increasingly filled with those least interested, or least able to serve, in military service. By the end of the war grizzled, and often semi-invalided, veterans mixed with young, raw recruits, and those who had, by some device or another, escaped regular state or national service.ccxxiii
Local boards and militia officers were under constant pressures to increase their procurement of men for regular army service. With each passing month there were fewer volunteers, but more calls from the states and the Continental Congress for men. The most ardent patriots had already enlisted for the duration of the war. Others with more modest pretenses of patriotism had also volunteered, or at least not resisted a draft, for shorter terms of service. Most of those left at home by 1777 either preferred to fill their responsibilities at home, were reluctant associators or were handicapped in some way. Some may have been so worried about the safety of the home folks that they did not choose to abandon their responsibilities to their families and neighbors.
In truth, by 1781, after nearly six years of uninterrupted warfare, neither units of the continental line nor militia units were up to their full and expected strengths. Many times partial companies, battalions and regiments of each took the field, seriously undermanned. Few were the able-bodied men who had not served on active service in some way or another. Many had come away horrified by the realities of war or repelled by army life in the field. Many had developed such a strong dislike for military duty that they paid large fines rather than even attend militia muster. Some had seen their families reduced almost to financial ruin during their service and would not place them in jeopardy again. Others had feared for the safety of their families during their absence and were unwilling to serve except in local tours of militia patrols again. Thus, even the militiamen often resisted short periods of duty outside their home counties.
Appeals to sentiment and patriotism began to fall on deaf ears. Military discipline was extremely harsh and British rule could be viewed as humane when compared with military discipline. Officers were a generally intolerant lot, allowing few deviations from a strict regimen which repulsed many who had become accustomed to the enjoyment of freedoms at home. There was little freedom of thought or of action. Moral discipline was imposed even on those with few moral principles. Much of military life was reduced to drill and camp routine which was monotonous and boring. There was much military routine and preparation for each day of battle, especially for those in the militia, on garrison duty or standing watch. Sheer boredom as well as home-sickness were greater enemies than the opposing armies.
All of these things might be said of the soldier's life at any period, but it was at least as great during the Revolution as at any time in human history. Its greater burden may be found in the context of the time which allowed for far greater freedoms than had heretofore been the case. The fact that all these factors were at work throughout history makes it none the easier for those undergoing it in the present.
The militia worked well as an emergency force, deployed for a limited time, in a limited operation, operating near home and for a short duration. Indeed, under these circumstances there may be no formidable military force. It certainly is well used as an auxiliary force to protect the home-front while the majority of eligibles are serving in the regular armed force. In the case of prolonged war conducted throughout a large geographical area the primary use of a militia is to serve as a definable register of those available for a draft into a regular military unit. Some militia training is certainly advantageous to the regular army for it introduces military drill, use of arms and general military regimen to civilians. The American War for Independence marked the end of the militia as the primary fighting force in America and the beginning of the emergence of a regular army as the primary military and defense force of the nation. The emergence of a regular force might have come much sooner had it not been for the continual presence of the British army in North America.