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The Militia of the Revolution

The militia played a very important role in the War of American Independence. Its political functions probably were indispensable, and as a military institution, supported by state troops, it continued to meets its traditional colonial responsibilities for local defense and for providing a general emergency reserve. On the other hand, it could not effectively operate as a main battle force at any distance from home or for an extended period. Congress recognized the militia's limitations from the beginning of the war and turned to full-time regular troops, the Continentals. As long as a field army of Continentals remained nearby, a British commander had to concentrate on it and leave the militia unmolested.

The Sons of Liberty emerged in New York in 1765-66 as a paramilitary organization in direct response to British troop movements. Even more intense reactions came in Massachusetts, the center of opposition to British policy. Although most troops withdrew from Boston in 1771, a garrison remained. Local politicians began agitating for serious militia reforms to create a force capable of offering opposition to the British Army if it returned in strength. A number of individuals who later occupied important positions in the Continental Army, such as Timothy Pickering ("A Military Citizen") and William Heath ("A Military Countryman"), contributed articles to the Massachusetts press advocating such reforms.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress met as a shadow government and on 26 October 1774 adopted a comprehensive military program based on the militia. It created the executive Committees of Safety and of Supplies and gave the former the power to order out the militia in an emergency. It also directed the militia officers to reorganize their commands into more efficient units, to conduct new elections, to drill according to the latest British manual, and to organize one-quarter of the colony's force into "minute companies." The minutemen constituted special units within the militia system whose members agreed to undergo additional training and to hold themselves ready to turn out quickly ("at a minute's notice") for emergencies.

The militia of the Revolution was what the troops of semi-independent communities must always be. It was badly organized, because provincial governments cannot make a good organization; it was undisciplined, because it chose its own officers, and claimed privileges as local troops and as men who had not ceased to be citizens; it was inexperienced, because it seldom remained in the field more than three months at a time. In addition to these defects, it was un-uniformed, armed with all sorts of guns, often ill supplied with ammunition, and generally destitute of bayonets. The short term of service was a great disadvantage to morale; a man who goes to war for three months means to come back. The election of the officers by the men was equally disastrous; the discipline was very like that of her majesty's ship Pinafore.

The affair after Lexington was a vigorous harassing, from behind cover, of a column which had effected its purpose, and was returning by order to its post. The political importance of the skirmish was very far greater than its military interest; the militiamen showed themselves high-spirited citizens rather than skillful soldiers capable of decisive operations; they could worry an inferior force, but could not capture it. Bunker's Hill was highly creditable to the militia, and also to the English troops, both deserving more praise than the English generals. Some fifteen hundred novices endured patiently a cannonade to which they could not reply, resisted three thousand fine regulars until their ammunition was exhausted, inflicted a loss of over one thousand killed and wounded, and lost themselves four hundred and twenty, with only thirty prisoners. We must observe, however, that they were favored by an eminence and well covered by field-works, and that on an even field they would undoubtedly have been out-manoeuvred and out-fought without difficulty. Thanks to such leaders as Montgomery, Arnold, Morgan, Greene, and Wooster, the invasion of Canada was a wonderful performance; but Montgomery pronounced the New Englanders "the worst possible material for soldiers," except the New Yorkers. "The privates," he wrote, "are all generals, but not soldiers." It is singular, by the way, that the finest feats of the citizen troops should have been done early in the war.

In the battle of Brooklyn Heights an army of militia was outwitted and whipped with the greatest ease. At Trenton the victorious American column consisted mainly of Continentals; the two auxiliary columns of militia failed to cross the icy river. At Princeton the militia, forming three fourths of the army, fired two or three volleys, and then fled before the bayonet, leaving the battle to the Continental regiments, the ragged and barefooted sufferers of the New Jersey bivouacs, starved by a Congress which, even in war, was jealous of a regular army. The force which defended Fort Sullivan under Moultrie was a battalion of South Carolina regulars, not yet turned over to the general government. The battle of Bennington was honorable to the militia; but their antagonists were less than half as numerous, and had the additional disadvantage of coming into the field by detachments; there was no one period of the action during which the Americans were less than four to one. The army which conquered near Saratoga consisted, at the close of the operations, of 9093 Continentals and 4129 militia.

At the Brandywine, Stirling's regular brigade stood firm long after both its flanks had been uncovered by a stampede of militia. After the battle Congress summoned Continentals from all quarters, showing that it had begun to lose confidence in its citizen soldiers, and leading one to infer that they had behaved even worse than the writers of the time confess. At Germantown the regulars lost in killed and wounded one hundred and twenty-seven commissioned and non-commissioned, and four hundred and eighty-seven privates. The militia, comprising about a quarter of the army, lost in commissioned and noncommissioned three killed, four wounded, and eleven missing, the latter supposed to be runaways or prisoners. Its loss in privates was not reported, but probably had the same unhappy proportion of missing, always an ugly item for the honor of a force. So far as these figures go, they show that the regulars fought the battle pretty well alone. In the combat of Brier Creek the militia fled promptly, some of them without firing; and the only troops who kept in shape, even for a little, were a few scores of Georgia Continentals. The storming of Stony Point, the finest American feat of the war, was done by regulars alone.

At Camden the Virginia militia, although they had bayonets, ran at the first volley, followed by all the North Carolina militia except one regiment, which stood next the Continentals. The regulars fought magnificently till their uncovered flanks were crushed, and, if we may credit the imperfect returns, more than one third of them were killed. It is difficult to believe that the militiamen could be of the same race with these heroes. Organization and discipline made the whole difference. At Cowpens the militia retreated with its usual alacrity, and the battle was saved by a volley and charge from Howard's two hundred and ninety Continentals, supported by a few regular riflemen, and followed up by the dash of Colonel Washington's regular troopers. Quite wonderful was the cool dexterity of Howard and the steadiness of his handful of infantry. Overlapped in consequence of the flight of the militia, he obliqued his line, retired a short distance, faced about as if on parade, and struck at the flank of the hurrying and disordered pursuers. No body of "state troops" ever performed such a movement under circumstances anything like so trying. It was, by the way, the first time, and perhaps also the last time, that a Highland regiment was ever seen to run.

At Guilford Court House eleven hundred North Carolina militia fled before it lost a man, and seventeen hundred Virginia militia followed it after a few volleys. Fifteen hundred Continentals, aided by two hundred regular cavalry, "bore the whole brunt of the action, although there was only one veteran regiment present, the rest being raw recruits. The losses were, Continentals, three hundred killed and wounded; Virginia militia, one hundred ditto and two hundred and ninety-four missing; North Carolina militia, nine ditto and five hundred and fifty-two missing. "As is always the case after a battle," wrote Lee, "the missing might be found safe at their own firesides." At Eutaw Springs the militia behaved with unwonted steadiness, some regiments of them firing as many as seventeen rounds. Once broken, however, they left the field as usual, and the battle was fought out by the Continentals. Of the force which brought Coruwallis to surrender, the American part consisted of about seven thousand regulars and about four thousand militia. Only the former were used in assaulting, or could have been serviceable as artillerists, or could be trusted to do important guard duty, so that the contribution of the latter to the result must have been small.

The above summary of the principal conflicts of the Revolutionary struggle shows clearly enough that if American forces had been wholly militia the country should probably have failed to achieve independence; and that if they had been wholly regulars it would have been achieved it with fewer defeats and in much less time.



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