A People in Arms
The forces raised by the French revolutionary government in 1792 are often regarded as the first people's army, defending the nation and egalitarian ideals instead of a monarch. This ignores the American experience in the Revolutionary War. Though they were on the fringe of the wider European world, the Americans, through their militia, would create the first modern forces of and for the people.A Popular Military
Since the founding of the colonies, all able-bodied men had been liable for military service. This practice was born of necessity. In the early days of the American colonies, the royal government had been both unwilling and unable to defend the colonies. The tumult of the English Civil War further wedded the colonists to their militia. A standing army, loyal to the King, was regarded as a threat to the people's liberties. These fears of the tyrannous potential of the regular army played a significant role in the escalation of tensions that led to war.
Militia units were expressions of American localism. Under the overall control of the colonial and state governments, militia companies were organized by township in New England and by county in the south. Officers were often elected. They were usually local leaders in civil as well as military affairs. A militia unit was thus genuinely the community in arms.
The standard smoothbore musket of the British army was the “Brown Bess,” so called because early muskets issued by Queen Elizabeth had their barrels browned. The musket was four and a half feet long and weighed ten pounds. It could fire a three-quarter-inch lead ball 125 yards. Americans carried similar muskets.
Each man provided his own musket and ammunition. Only the poorest citizens could expect to draw arms from small local magazines. Training days had dwindled over time, from several days a month to once a month, or even once a year in the more settled districts. Here training days became an excuse for a local fair with picnicking and politicking. On the frontier, training was taken more seriously. Once the crisis with Britain reached its climax in 1775, drilling took on more urgency everywhere. Militia rarely ventured far from home. Both in colonial times and during the war for American independence, men volunteered from the pool of available militiamen for more extended service farther away.The Effectiveness of the Militia
The militia came under criticism during and after the war. On a number of occasions, raw militiamen fled before the bayonets of British regulars. Officers of the Continental army were often frustrated by the comings and goings of militia units, mirroring their own timetables rather than the exigencies of the military situation.
Despite this, the militia was critical to American success in the war. Militiamen often fought very well in battle, especially when led by men who understood their strengths and limits. True citizen soldiers, militiamen could not be treated like regular soldiers. Americans were proud of the difference. Timothy Pickering wrote, “Men must see the reason and the use of any action or movement.” He went on to describe professional soldiers as “mere machines,” and declared, “God forbid that my countrymen should be thus degraded.”
What did Washington think of the militia?
Anxious to create an army that could stand up to the British, Washington was very critical of the battlefield performance of the militia. He believed that relying on militia was “resting upon a broken staff.” However, he praised the effectiveness of the militia acting behind the enemy lines.
More important than their service on the battlefield was the role the militia played behind the lines. Early on, the Patriots seized control of the militia in the various states. This enabled the Patriots to suppress loyalism and enforce the measures passed by state governments. Wherever British armies traveled, militia units dogged their heels, intercepting stragglers and requisition parties and punishing anyone who provided aid to the redcoats. The British won battles and captured cities but were rarely able to control anything beyond them because of the activities of the militia. Only when the British made use of loyalist units was there a genuine struggle for the countryside. The result was some of the bitterest fighting of the war.