Militia in the American Revolution: Historical Background

This is the first post of a series looking at the American militia in the American Revolution.  The activity of the militia in that conflict is one of its salient features.  From the embattled farmers who took up arms at Lexington and Concord to the militia units that marched into New York City with Washington in 1783, the role of the militia in the war was all-important.

Often damned during the war for their frequent inability to stand toe to toe in combat against highly trained British regulars, the militia provided the patriots with a force against the British different in nature from the trained Continental regulars, but very effective when used properly by commanders who understood the vices and virtues of untrained citizen soldiers.

The American militia was a legacy from England, reflecting English abhorrence of standing armies, with memories of the rule of Cromwell’s military dictatorship after the English Civil War haunting English history for centuries, a reliance upon sea power, and a detestation of the high taxes necessary to provide for a standing army.

In colonial America, regulars were a rare sight.  If military activity was needed, the militia, consisting of all adult males, was called out.  Mustering days for the militia were often relaxed affairs, with picnics, parades, speeches by local politicians, drinking, and maybe a little drill for the militia.  Officers were often elected at the company level, with higher officers appointed by the governor of the colony.

The militias differed wildly from colony to colony and from town to town within a colony.  Some militia units were well-trained and led by officers with military experience in prior wars.  Other units were little better than poorly armed mobs, led by local politicians with zero military experience.  Some militia units were in long settled areas where no shot had been fired in anger in over a century.  Others were along the frontier and waged ceaseless cold and hot wars with the Indian tribes close to them.  In short, the American militia on the eve of the American Revolution was very much a mixed bag and defies generalizations.

In our next installment we will look at attempts to prepare the militia for war prior to the onset of the Revolution.

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Published in: on October 22, 2010 at 5:30 am  Comments Off  
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