Wherever the King’s forces point, militia, to the amount of three or four thousand assemble in twenty-four hours.General John Burgoyne, British Commander, Saratoga Campaign, 1777
The everyday men and boys who served in colonial militias during the Revolutionary War played a vital and often overlooked role in the conflict. They came from all walks of life and varied in age from teenagers to men in their sixties. Many were farmers and their sons, others were apprentices, tradesmen, or merchants. They came from a storied tradition going back to the first Europeans who landed in North America in the early 1600s. Life in the colonies, far from the mother country and her standing army, was perilous; the threat of attack from rival nations, pirates, or Native Americans was constant and very real. To protect themselves against these dangers, the colonies formed militias. Service was obligatory for most able-bodied males aged sixteen to sixty. Militias were organized into regiments of men from the same area serving together, who drilled at appointed times with required weapons and equipment. Generally, they practiced democracy and elected their own officers. Towns would often stockpile weaponry, supplies, and ammunition for use by their militia. It was a very effective setup that functioned as a draft board, home guard, reconnaissance and communication apparatus, and rear echelon supply network. For short periods of time large numbers of men could be quickly mobilized and respond to extreme emergencies, such as invasions.
By spring, 1775 anti-British sentiment had reached boiling point in New England; implementation of the Coercive Acts (also known as the Intolerable Acts) enraged many American colonists. As punishment for the Boston Tea Party, Royal Navy warships closed the critical port of Boston, a move with far-reaching consequences that wrecked the economy of Massachusetts and her neighbors who depended heavily on the port for trade. Hundreds of Redcoats were garrisoned in the city, quartered in residents’ homes without their consent. Local government had been abolished and replaced with marshal law; colonists accused of crimes were subject to deportation to Great Britain for trial. Patriot leaders like Sam Adams and John Hancock were now wanted men in hiding. Against this backdrop of events, colonial American militias began preparations to defend themselves against what they viewed as further British aggression.
Leading up to the war militias increased the number and intensity of their annual drill days and stockpiled munitions and arms. Some instituted the minuteman concept, a rapid response unit within the militia structure that could deploy quickly against local threats. Consequently, the militia fought the first major engagements of the revolution. Using unconventional tactics, the militia became the bane of British regulars who could count on being harassed or ambushed when they least expected it.
First Blood – Into the Hornets’ Nest
British Army General and Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Gage, realized the danger posed by an armed, angry citizenry and decided to make a preemptive strike. Gage ordered Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith to lead 700 British Army regulars across the bay in row boats and then on a twenty-mile march to the town of Concord, where the militia had stockpiled weapons and ammunition. They were to confiscate the weaponry, disarm the militia, and arrest wanted men believed to be hiding in the area. News of the British plan, leaked through the Patriot spy network, allowed Boston resident and medical doctor, Joseph Warren, to send Paul Revere and William Dawes to spread the word on horseback. On the night of April 18, 1775, when the British made their move, news spread through the countryside like wildfire.
At sunrise the following morning when the Redcoats marched into the village of Lexington, several miles from Concord, a detachment of militia men under the command of Captain John Parker stood in their path. Royal Marine Major John Pitcairn, who commanded the lead echelon of the British force, ordered the Americans to surrender their weapons and go home. In the confusion that ensued someone fired a shot and British regulars drove the militia from the field, leaving eight Americans dead, including Parker. This act bought their comrades at Concord time to empty the armory there and evacuate wanted men to safe houses in other locations.
Upon arrival at Concord later that morning the British commander split his force into companies to search the town. Unbeknownst to him, hundreds of militiamen had assembled near Concord and were preparing for action. One of these, a unit known as the Acton Company (from Acton Mass.) under the command of Isaac Davis, were first in action. They attacked a company of regulars left to guard a bridge on the north side of town. Outnumbered four to one, the Redcoats fired a volley and retreated into Concord. As the news spread, militia members converged on the route back to Boston. Soon the British regulars were outnumbered and forced into a tactical retreat. Gage dispatched a 1,000-man relief force that eventually linked up with Col. Smith near Lexington, however even this was not enough. Outnumbered and worn out from the all-night forced march to Concord, the regulars were in real danger of being annihilated. However, lack of clear orders and an organized American chain of command allowed the British force to survive to fight again. They ran the gauntlet back into Boston ambushed and harried all along the way, losing 73 men killed, 174 wounded, and 53 captured in the process.
By the end of the day militia members from the neighboring colonies of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire had arrived and joined in the fight. General Gage soon found himself trapped. 20,000 militiamen surrounded the British in Boston and later fought the Battle of Bunker Hill, inflicting terrible losses on British regulars. It was at this point that the Continental Congress decided that a Commander in Chief was needed and appointed George Washington to take command of the Army and organize it into a fighting force.
While both Congress and George Washington realized that a standing army would be necessary to defeat the British regulars, the militia played an important role in every major campaign of the war. Washington, who had experience with the militia in Virginia and in the French and Indian War, recognized the value of the militia. But he disliked the lack of discipline and soldierly bearing that was common among the militiamen. Despite these misgivings, it was the militia that time and again stepped in to fill the ranks when regular enlistments were up, and he needed manpower to fill out depleted ranks.
On the conventional battlefields of the Revolution the militia demonstrated mixed results. Sometimes they would throw down their weapons and flee in disgrace – at the Battle of Camden, American General Horatio Gates entrusted his left flank to the militia who retreated leaving the outnumbered Continental regulars in a terrible situation. On other occasions they fought valiantly side by side with the regular army. Astute American commanders who knew how to utilize the militia had a powerful tool in their hands. In the Saratoga Campaign, a militia force from Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire defeated a 1,000-man force of elite German mercenaries at Bennington.
As the war dragged on and the British, cut off from regular supply, were forced to forage for food and cattle fodder the militia mounted guerrilla operations against forage parties. The British army was forced to operate in hostile territory, often against an enemy that would appear out of nowhere in overwhelming numbers, inflict maximum damage, and then melt away. The British never understood the American militia and failed to realize that to defeat it they would literally have to occupy every town and village in the colonies and disarm every single man. An impossible task, even for the world’s premier fighting force.
The American Revolution set the stage for a new and unique military doctrine in which large numbers of reserve citizen-soldiers stood behind a small volunteer regular army that could provide guidance military expertise when necessary. This went against centuries of old-world military tradition and formed a strategic reserve that our nation, even with today’s large active force, continues to draw on in times of great conflict.
Allan R. Millett, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States from 1607 to 2012 (New York: Free Press. Kindle Edition, 2012).