American Colonial Militia Systems

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This illustration depicts the first muster of Massachusetts Bay Colony militia in the spring of 1637.

In the colonial era, the militia system was linked to fundamental concepts of American citizenship; militias were considered to be one of three pillars of society, along with the church and local government. Militarily, the colonial militia was the primary instrument of defense for the American colonies. By the latter part of the 17th century, the militia had become more complex, as local militias continued to function as local defense forces, while militia volunteers and draftees made up the provincial expeditionary forces for major campaigns. The structures and functions of local militias and expeditionary forces continued to evolve through the series of imperial wars of the 18th century.

Early Colonial Militias

The first English colonists found themselves in precarious circumstances. Potential attack from Native Americans and England’s European rivals compelled the colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth to immediately organize their defenses. For guidance, colonists turned to the English militia tradition, dating to the 12th-century Assize of Arms (1181), which obligated every able-bodied adult man in the community to provide military service for the common defense.

In Jamestown (settled in 1607), Capt. John Smith was one of several among the first colonists with professional military experience. Smith proved more forceful than most, however, and once he assumed responsibility for the defense of the colony he held every man responsible for militia duty. Facing the prospect of the colony’s starvation and total collapse, Smith declared martial law and organized reluctant settlers to raid corn supplies of local Native Americans. Smith’s authoritarian actions kept the colony alive without a formal militia structure. The founders of the first New England colony in Plymouth (1620) hired a military adviser, Miles Standish, to oversee the colony’s defenses. In the early years of both colonies, community defense fell to the entire male community.

After a decade of settlement, the militia structures of Virginia and New England diverged, reflecting differences in their societies and circumstances. In Virginia, the emergence of tobacco as a cash crop stimulated the entrepreneurial individualism that produced a rapid expansion of dispersed plantations. The isolated plantations, however, hindered militia organization and were vulnerable to attack; a 1622 attack by local Powhatans devastated the English colony. The royal government determined to establish an effective militia by mandating universal military service for every man between the ages of 17 and 60. Orders instructed planters to take their weapons with them to church and into the fields when they worked.

In contrast to Virginia’s dispersed settlement pattern, New Englanders settled closely around their meetinghouses, which enabled each town to maintain a militia company. In a total community effort, towns constructed fortifications that made each town an outpost and every freeman a soldier. The display of military prowess combined with competent diplomacy permitted New England to avoid major conflict during the early years of settlement.

17th-Century Militia Systems

Gradually over two decades, New England and Virginia transformed their ad hoc militias into formally structured militia systems. In New England, specialized “trained bands” received military training while the rest of the male population constituted a reserve. Between 1637 and 1676, New England’s military planners learned from repeated conflicts with Native Americans that their best chance for success depended on their ability to counterattack quickly and effectively. The Massachusetts militia adapted by creating special units of troops drawn from the trained bands based on particular skills, for example, tracking and marksmanship.

Their first major expedition during the Pequot War (1637) proved a tactical success but revealed shortcomings in command. As a remedy, New England colonies joined in a cooperative military establishment, the United Colonies of New England (1643). The confederation was formed expressly to provide mutual aid with both men and logistical support and to provide a central command. While imperfect, the New England regional coordinating council lasted for some 40 years.

By the time of King Philip’s War (1675-76), the colonial militia system had begun to take on two distinct forms: local militia and provincial expeditionary forces. After damaging surprise attacks by Native American warriors in 1675, New England towns contributed more than 1,000 militia troops for a retaliatory provincial expedition. The evolution of the militia- from a universal community obligation for local defense to a formalized military force-required provincial officials to negotiate soldiers’ pay rates and specify the destination and duration of service. Soldiers enlisted with the expectation that they were entering into a contract between equals. They insisted on electing the officers who would lead them, set the geographic limits of their service (often refusing to leave their own provinces), stipulated the rations and supplies to which they were entitled, and demanded discharge at the agreed expiration of their enlistment. As the scale and risks of expeditions grew, recruiters increasingly relied on enlistment bonuses to fill the ranks, and the social profiles of expedition soldiers shifted more toward young bachelors and the “lower sort” who were more likely to be enticed by economic incentives.

New England militias were subordinated to the selectmen of their towns; expedition forces reported to the provincial government. Operationally, local committees raised, equipped, and paid the militia, with the social composition of New England militia closely mirroring the community. In the local militia, the “better sort” of well-to-do and respectable men tended to be officers, while freeholders (property owners) filled the ranks; expeditionary forces relied more on the lower end of the social order for their rank and file.

During this same period, the evolution of the Virginia militia followed a different trajectory but arrived at a similar end. After quelling another Powhatan uprising in 1644, Virginia’s militia organization suffered from complacency and neglect. Militia duty was burdensome to busy tobacco planters. The lack of support from established planters pushed frontier settlers to organize their own vigilante militia. In 1676, they attacked bordering tribes, but then quickly turned their wrath on the colonial governor in a violent outburst known as Bacon’s Rebellion. After British regulars restored order, the royal government promptly restructured the Virginia militia, hiring professional soldiers for frontier duty and reserving future local militia service to the “better sort.”

18th-Century Militia Systems

From 1689 to 1763, the demands on the militia system shifted predominantly to providing expeditionary forces to support British wars with Spain and France. By the time of King William’s War (1689-97), provincial expeditionary forces were the primary unit for active duty, even though the militia remained the first line of defense for outlying towns. In the south at the turn of the century, the militia was only occasionally a viable force. When South Carolina experienced a Spanish attack in 1706, the militia rushed to defend the coastal capital Charleston, but during the Yamasee War (1715), militia turnout was dismal. Following the end of Queen Anne’s War in 1714, southern colonial militias declined in military readiness and became exclusively the preserve of white planters who were more worried about slave rebellion than Indian attacks.

By the time of the culminating phase of imperial wars in North America (King George’s War, 1744-48, to the French and Indian War, 1756-63), southern militias’ main function was community policing. When Britain called upon Virginia for troops to support a Caribbean expedition, the Virginia assembly hired or drafted transients, laborers, and other landless persons because propertied men refused to enlist for distant expeditions. Men of property remained active in the militia while it functioned as a policing force at home, but most landholders avoided active duty on the frontier or expeditions by paying a fine for nonservice. In contrast, New Englanders from across the entire social spectrum turned out for an offensive expedition against French Canada in 1745. The French and their Indian allies were a long-standing menace to the northern colonies, and past experiences of predations motivated some recruits. Others responded for army pay and the prospect of plunder, and still others for God and glory.

When the French and Indian War reignited hostilities, the British deployed a regular army to America and called on 30,000 colonial troops to support them. The war linked global imperial struggles to local frontier warfare, and New Englanders again joined the fray in considerable numbers. Because colonial militiamen in Massachusetts saw their military service as a contract, freely entered into and with stipulated limits, most joined voluntarily and were not disproportionately of the lower classes as was the case in Virginia.

As expeditionary forces increasingly fought the wars of empire, local militias became more important as social institutions than as military organizations. By the 18th century, militia training days were important community events in colonial society. Not only did the men come together to drill, the entire community joined in a civic holiday and a picnic, opened with a prayer by the minister of the congregation. Afterward, while the men drilled on the green, women cooked feasts and children socialized with other youngsters. Young women looked on as the young men fired their muskets and marched smartly on the training greens. Training day functioned as an initiation ritual for younger men entering into the world of adult manhood. It also was the stage upon which a community reconfirmed the ranks of citizenship and the social order. Those on the margins of the social proceedings at training days were the same people on the margins of full citizenship or prosperity-a diverse group that included servants, slaves, Native Americans, and transient laborers.

The Revolutionary Militia

The onset of the American Revolution inspired the last resurgence of colonial militia systems as effective military organizations. In 1775, the Minute Men were the American vanguard, as the larger part of the adult male population mustered for community defense. Once serious fighting began, however, the New England colonies reverted to the established model of the expeditionary forces in which recruits tended to be single young men able to handle the rigors of military life. When the war continued into another year, at Commander in Chief George Washington’s urging, the American Congress authorized establishment of a truly national army, much more similar to the European model of a professional army. The demands of a continental war required a national army that superseded the capacities of the colonial militia systems, and henceforth the militias functioned as auxiliaries and recruiting pools.

Bibliography Boucher, Ronald L. “The Colonial Militia as a Social Organization: Salem, Massachusetts, 1764-1775.” Military Affairs 37 (1973): 125-30. Cress, Lawrence Delbert. Citizens in Arms: The Army and the Militia in American Society to the War of 1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982. Leach, Douglas Edward. “The Military System of Plymouth Colony.” New England Quarterly (1951): 342-364. Shy, John. “A New Look at the Colonial Militia.” William and Mary Quarterly 20 (1963): 175-85. Whisker, James Biser. The Rise and Decline of the American Militia System. London: Associated University Press, 1999.

Further Reading Anderson, Fred. A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Gross, Robert. The Minutemen and Their World. New York: Hill & Wang, 1976. Leach, Douglas Edward. Roots of Conflict: British Armed Forces and Colonial Americans, 1677-1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. Main, Jackson Turner. The Social Structure of Revolutionary America. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. Millis, Walter. Arms and Men: A Study in American Military History. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1956.

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