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Colonial Militia and the Myth of Preparedness

“TO TRUST ARMS in the hands of the people at large has, in Europe, been believed … to be an experiment fraught only with danger,” wrote President Timothy Dwight of Yale in the early 19th century. “Here by a long trial it has been proved to be perfectly harmless…. If the government be equitable; if it be reasonable in its exactions; if proper attention be paid to the education of children in knowledge, and religion, few men will be disposed to use arms, unless for their amusement, and for the defence of themselves and their country. The difficulty, here, has been to persuade the citizens to keep arms; not to prevent them from being employed for violent purposes.” The story of the military institutions of the American colonies is an account of efforts to keep as much of the free population as possible armed and prepared to fight on short notice.

In Europe, where rulers were reluctant to put the means of revolt into the hands of their subjects, the high cost of firearms had anyway kept such weapons beyond the reach of most of the populace. But in America the requirements for self-defense and food-gathering had put firearms in the hands of nearly everyone. Separated by an ocean, their European sovereign could not have enforced a prohibition even if he had tried, but he did not fear that their arms would shake his throne. From a. very early date, however, English Governors complained (and Americans boasted) of this armed citizenry. “How miserable that man is,” wailed Governor Sir William Berkeley of Virginia, who had to deal with Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, “that Governes a People wher six parts of seaven at least are Poore Endebted Discontented and Armed.” Even a century later Crèvecoeur observed that among backwoodsmen “surrounding hostility immediately puts the gun into their hands.”

An armed citizenry was a response not only to the omnipresent threat of war but to the skirmishing type of warfare common in the American woods. Because of the poor communications, the vast terrain, and the ways of Indian fighting, war could seldom be a centrally-directed operation; instead it was a mass of scattered encounters by small groups and individuals acting largely on their own. When Indians attacked, the wise defenders hid themselves behind rocks and tree-trunks. “In our first war with the Indians,” the Apostle John Eliot wrote to Robert Boyle in 1677, “God pleased to show us the vanity of our military skill, in managing our arms, after the European mode. Now we are glad to learn the skulking way of war. And what God’s end is, in teaching us such a way of discipline, I know not.”

The mass drill, precision, and discipline of the professional soldier were of little use, and decentralization of command was inevitable. Virginia Governors, fearing that a nervous populace might foment Indian troubles by fighting without provocation, in the early years actually forbade the raising of the militia in any part of the colony until the Governor’s approval had been secured. But such delay was fatal, and by 1680 the right to summon the militia was conferred on officers in different parts of the colony. The commander of a remote backwoods fort had to show an independence, which sometimes amounted to contempt for his superior officers. When Captain Cadwalader Jones, commander of a Virginia fort on the Rappahannock, received a command in September 1679 which did not please him, he assembled his garrison, read the communication aloud, and burned it in full view of his men, exclaiming that this showed what he thought of Major Robert Beverley and the Governor! Under such conditions, what use was elaborate strategy by a commander far from the scene of action?

The early Pilgrims organized their landing parties in loose, impromptu fashion. Although they fortunately had a veteran military leader in Captain Miles Standish, their armed unit was not the permanently organized military company but, as one historian has aptly put it, a “pick-up team,” chosen for each particular occasion from the men most available at the time. Their first encounters showed features which would continue to mark colonial military life: fighting by a band of casually gathered, haphazardly armed civilians, over whom there was no effective central command. The earliest settlers at Plymouth found that defense could hardly be separated from all the other tasks of daily living—of cultivating the land, getting food, and building shelters. “They are constantly on their guard night and day,” observed a visitor to the town in 1627; men went to church, musket in hand, and during the service “each sets his arms down near him.” But as the settlements pushed back from the coast and dispersed, as the Indian menace became only intermittent, a more formal organization became necessary. New England developed a militia system which became the common pattern of colonial defense.

An armed citizenry was by no means an American invention. A prime example of American “regression,” it was a revival of the medieval Assize of Arms (1181), from which the English had developed a militia consisting of every able-bodied freeman, each required to provide himself with arms, to train periodically under a local officer, and to be ready on sudden call. By the later 17th and early 18th century, as Europe’s “limited” warfare left fighting to a small number of professionals, the English militia system had become something of a joke—mainly a device for parade and ostentation by the gentlemen lords-lieutenants. In America, however, the ancient militia system, with a number of striking New World modifications, was the pattern by which whole communities organized against their enemies.

The unit in this system was not the trained professional soldier armed and supplied from above; it was the self-armed citizen. The Court of Assistants of Massachusetts Bay, in March 1631, ordered that within two weeks every town should see that all men (including servants but excepting magistrates and ministers) were supplied with arms approved by their militia officers. Anyone who did not already own arms was required to purchase them; if he could not afford the price, the money would be advanced by the town to be repaid by the citizen as soon as possible. The next year the colony ordered that any single man who had not so armed himself should be hired out as a servant, and this law remained. In Plymouth the requirements were still more detailed: after January 1633 each man had to have a musket or other suitable gun, a cartridge belt, a sword, two pounds of powder, and ten pounds of bullets. A long series of Acts in Massachusetts and neighboring colonies established a militia system in which every able-bodied man was armed and each town had its own company of militia, holding periodic trainings and inspections of arms.

The militia was a most unmilitary outfit by European standards. It wore no uniform. Although colonial Governors had sometimes been chosen because of their military experience, only seldom was a colonial militia actually drilled or commanded by a professional soldier. A striking and troublesome feature of the colonial militia was its unprofessional practice of electing its own officers. The occasions for these elections, as we have already seen, were celebrated by a peculiar New England institution: the “artillery election sermon” delivered to the community of armed congregants. With minor variations and occasional exceptions, the officers of the local militia owed their positions to popular choice, usually ratified by the colonial legislature; the arrangement became tolerable only as the custom developed of electing officers for an indefinite term or of automatically reelecting satisfactory officers. This system mitigated the brutal discipline of the European professional armies (service in which, especially in remote colonies, was a form of punishment for crime); but it produced an informality between officers and men which weakened the force in combat. It also reminded the soldiers that they were fighting for themselves and encouraged them to desert when service become inconvenient.

In the South after about 1700, the problem of defense for the white European population was complicated by fear of a slave uprising. In South Carolina, for example, the “patrol”—the group of white men temporarily recruited from the civilian population who went regular rounds to apprehend and punish vagrant Negroes—soon became part of the militia. Elsewhere, too, the militia system was adapted to a slave-holding society. How widespread was the actual fear of uprising and to what extent that fear fostered a militant spirit is debatable, but no one can deny that features of a slaveholding plantation society helped disperse the military function into the whole white community. Military leadership fell on the civilian leaders of the community, who would have been as jealous of a military class as they were of lawyers or of any other group of specialized professionals. In Virginia the institution of the “county-lieutenant” acquired a new life, and the proverbial “Kentucky Colonel” remains a vestige of the earliest. American military institutions.

Allowing for some variations, there was an impressive uniformity in the way colonists organized (or failed to organize) their defense. Everywhere, Americans relied on an armed citizenry rather than on a professional army. The failure to distinguish between the “military man” and every other man was simply another example of the dissolving of the monopolies and distinctions of European life.

The militia system itself, with its axiom that every man was a trained and ready-armed soldier who would instantly spring to the defense of his country, encouraged the belief—which often proved a dangerous illusion—that the community was always prepared for its peril. In a country inhabited by “Minute Men” why keep a standing army? At the time of the first World War, William Jennings Bryan would boast that when the President called, a million freemen would spring to arms between sunrise and sunset. His belief was based on the obsolete assumption that the very conditions of American life produced men who were always ready to fight. The fear of a standing army, which by European hypothesis was the instrument of tyrants and the enslaver of peoples, re-enforced opposition to a professional body of men-in-arms. Moreover, so long as the men-in-arms were merely civilians temporarily distracted from their regular peaceful occupations, so long as there was no professional group concerned for its own prestige, few American politicians dared urge the advantages of a professional army.

The long-standing American myth of a constantly prepared citizenry helps explain why Americans have always been so ready to demobilize their forces. Again and again, our popular army has laid down its arms with dizzying speed, only to disperse into a precarious peace. This rhythm of our life began in the earliest colonial period. The people sprang quickly to arms: for example, on the night of September 23, 1675, during King Philip’s War, an alarm at a town thirty miles out of Boston brought twelve hundred militiamen under arms within an hour. As soon as an alarm was past, an expedition over, or a campaign ended, militiamen showed the same speed in disbanding.

In New England after each of the early Indian wars the militia quickly disintegrated. King Philip’s War of 1675-76 had brought heavy massacres to the miserably prepared colonies. They relied on the myth that, because every individual man was required to be prepared, the community as a whole did not need to worry. Their militia system, organized only for peacetime, lacked communications suitable for war. There was, in fact, no central command nor was there a permanent commissariat which might have kept an army continuously supplied. Village after village suffered surprise attack and had no way of securing assistance. Yet, the obvious lesson was lost on the colonists—at least they did nothing about it. As soon as a battle was over, they allowed their forces to fall into decay. By 1683, there was so little interest in local defense and such difficulty in filling the quotas of commissioned officers that in Plymouth Colony, for example, the government itself threatened to appoint militia officers if the towns continued to neglect their duty. When Indians fell upon the colonists in 1689, they were again disastrously unprepared.

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