American Revolution: Colonial Militia

For fighting Indians, colonial governments were in no position to form professional armies, even had the nature of Indian warfare lent itself to such a practice. Instead they fell back on the ancient British tradition of the militia. This tradition took on new vitality in America at the same time it was declining in England, where, after Oliver Cromwell’s time, most of the country’s battles were fought on the sea and in foreign lands. The British government came to rely on its regular army and navy just as other European states did, despite a deep political tradition of opposition to a standing army. Each of the thirteen colonies (except for Pennsylvania, where Quaker influence was dominant) enacted laws providing for a compulsory militia organization generally based on the principle of the Saxon fyrd that required every able-bodied free male from sixteen to sixty to render military service. Each member of the militia was obligated to appear for training at his county or town seat a certain number of days each year, to provide himself with weapons, and to hold himself in readiness for call in case of Indian attack or other emergency.

Each colony maintained a separate militia establishment, and each concentrated on the problems of protecting or extending its own frontiers. Cooperation among the militias of the various colonies was confined to specific expeditions in which two or more colonies had an interest. The militia was by and large a local institution, administered in county and town or township under the general militia laws of each colony. It was closely integrated with the social and economic structure of colonial society. Though the royal governors or colonial assemblies appointed the general officers and the colonels who commanded militia districts, the companies in each locality usually elected their own officers. This practice seemingly put a premium on popularity rather than wealth or ability, but rank in the militia generally corresponded with social station in the community.

Each militiaman was expected to provide his own weapon—usually a smoothbore musket—and ammunition, clothing, and food for a short expedition, just as the British knight had been required to provide his own horse, armor, and suitable weapons for feudal warfare. Local authorities maintained reserve supplies of muskets to arm those too poor to buy them and collected stores of ammunition and sometimes small cannon that could be dragged along through the wilderness. For very long campaigns, the colonial government had to take charge, the assembly appropriating the money for supplies and designating the supply officers or contractors to handle purchasing and distribution.

Although the militia was organized into units by county or township, it hardly ever fought that way. Instead the local unit served as a training and mobilization base from which individuals could be recruited for active operations. When a particular area of a colony was threatened, the colonial government would direct the local militia commander to call out his men and the commander would mobilize as many as he could or as he thought necessary, selecting the younger and more active men for service. For expeditions into the Indian country, usually individuals from many localities were chosen and formed into improvised units for the occasion. Selection was generally voluntary, but local commanders could be legally empowered to draft both men and property if necessary. Drafted men were permitted the option of hiring substitutes, a practice that favored the well-to-do. Volunteer, drafted man, and substitute, all paid while on active duty, alike insisted on the militiaman’s prerogative to serve only a short period and return to home and fireside as quickly as possible.

As a part-time citizen army, the militia was naturally not a well-disciplined, cohesive force comparable to the professional army of the age. Criticism of the militia was frequent. Moreover, its efficiency, even for Indian fighting, varied from colony to colony and even from locality to locality within the same colony, depending on the ability and determination of commanders and the presence or absence of any threat. When engaged in eliminating an Indian threat to their own community, militiamen might be counted on to make up in enthusiasm what they lacked in discipline and formal training. When the Indian threat was pushed westward, people along the eastern seaboard tended to relax. Training days, one day a week in the early years of settlement, fell to one a month or even one a year. Festivities rather than military training increasingly became the main purpose of many of the gatherings, and the efficiency of the militia in these regions declined accordingly. In some towns and counties, however, the military tradition was kept alive by volunteers who formed their own units, purchased distinctive uniforms, and prepared themselves to respond in case of war or emergency. These units became known as the volunteer militia and were the predecessors of the National Guard of the United States. In Pennsylvania, which lacked a militia law until 1755 and then passed one that made militia service voluntary rather than compulsory, all units were composed of volunteers.

One of the more unpleasant manifestations of the militia system in America occurred in those colonies, most but by no means all in the south, with a large slave population. Fears of slave uprising and the rapidly growing imbalance between black and white populations in some areas of the colonies led to the establishment of militia units focused on detecting and defeating the smallest sign of trouble among the African slave population. In South Carolina in 1739, almost one hundred slaves organized themselves, seized weapons, and killed several white colonists before being suppressed by hastily raised militia soldiers. The resulting fear and legislative attempts to deal with the issue ensured that a primary focus of an organized militia in South Carolina, and later the rest of the southern colonies, was on internal security against the slaves.

On the frontier, where Indian raids were a constant threat, training days were frequent and militia had to be ready for instant action. Except on the frontier, where proficiency in this sort of warfare was a matter of survival, it is doubtful that colonial militia in general were really adept in forest fighting. Training days were devoted not to the techniques of fighting Indians but to learning the drill and motions required on a European battlefield. When raids were to be conducted against the Indians, often popularly elected officers selected individual volunteers from the militia to serve for the duration of the expedition. Thus the militia existed mostly as an internal defense force and a pool of trained manpower for ad hoc colonial expeditions against the Indians or other enemies, such as the nearby French Canadians.

With no army from home to protect them, English settlers in America had to provide for their own defense. Initially, this was done at the local level; but on December 13, 1636, the Massachusetts Bay colony organized its disparate militia companies into three regionally based regiments. This date is considered the birthday of what would eventually become the U.S. National Guard. The first muster of the colony’s East Regiment.


SOURCE: American Military History (United States Army Center of Military History)