THE BELIEF that American wars would always be fought by “embattled farmers” was rooted in the earliest facts of American life. Military men were to be simply citizens in arms. The military caste, the Man-on-Horseback, the Palace Revolution, the Coup d’état, the tug of war between army and civil government—these recurring motifs in continental European political life did not appear on the American scene. Civilian control over the army, clearly asserted in the Federal Constitution, merely declared what was already one of the firmest institutions of colonial life.
The typical American view of the military appeared in Doddridge’s description of the backwoodsmen who “formed the cordon along the Ohio river, on the frontiers of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky, which defended the country against the attacks of the Indians during the revolutionary war. They were the janizaries of the country, that is, they were soldiers when they chose to be so, and when they chose laid down their arms. Their military service was voluntary, and of course received no pay.”
Long before the end of the colonial period, British politicians and professional soldiers had learned that they could not rely on Americans to fill the ranks of the regular army stationed in America. While the backwoodsman with his sharpshooting rifle was ready and able to defend his home, he was intractable within a European-type professional army. The armed civilians of the separate colonies, which in their intense localism refused to cooperate in any large strategy, were inadequate to the large tasks of colonial defense. If the British government hoped to protect the colonies by preventing the accumulation of offensive French military strength, they had to send in a professional army from the outside. The capture of Louisbourg by New Englanders in 1745 was the only instance in the colonial period of a successful large-scale military operation by provincial fighters—and even that was the product not of wise planning but of lucky coincidence.
When General Braddock made his preparations for the disastrous campaign of 1755, he put relatively small reliance on American troops. Even at that he was expecting too much. The nucleus of his army was soldiers of regular regiments of the British Army, supposed to be brought up to full strength by American recruits, to be supported by voluntary financial aid from the colonial assemblies, and to be partly provisioned by the colonies. But Braddock was disappointed: few recruits were raised, the assemblies refused substantial assistance, and wagons and supplies were offered only at exorbitant rates. Characteristically, the northern colonies voted instead to set up a wholly provincial army under a general of their own choosing. This foreshadowed the difficulties which Lord Loudoun would meet on a larger scale a few years later and which would dramatize the divergence of American from European ways of war.
Loudoun’s activities comprised the greatest British effort before the Revolution to control and centralize American military activities. According to plans made in advance, he arrived in America in 1756 carrying a broad commission to organize a force against the French and Indians; he was supposed to command a regular army of nearly fourteen thousand men (two-thirds of the privates besides replacements to be colonials). During two years of recruitment, the British, using dubious methods, managed to enlist about 7500 Americans; during the same period the British Isles supplied only about 4500. The year 1757 showed a decided reversal of proportions: in that year only about 1200 men were recruited in the colonies, while 11,000 came from England. Loudoun, with the hoped-for acquiescence of the separate colonial governments, was supposed to be supreme commander of all local forces, including, of course, their militia. But the more Loudoun learned of colonial troops and colonial ways, the less he came to rely on them—whether as recruits for the ranks of his regular regiments or as supporting forces organized in their own militia. “The King must trust in this country to himself and those he sends,” Lord Loudoun wrote back from America as early as September 1756, “… for this Country will not run when he calls.”
Everything that Loudoun, with the experienced eye of a professional soldier, saw of the American provincial militias appalled him. Upon his arrival, there were about seven thousand militiamen occupying the colonies’ northern forts. These men had been raised, and their officers commissioned, each by his separate province; for all practical purposes each group was responsible only to its own distinct government. When Loudoun and his subordinates inspected the camp commanded by General John Winslow (who had been commissioned by the Governors of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York), they were horrified by the absence of decent military order or even rudimentary sanitation. They saw a hundred graves dug in a day for men dead of disease. “The fort stinks enough to cause an infection,” Loudoun heard from Fort William Henry, “they have all their sick in it. The camp nastier than anything I could conceive, their necessary houses, kitchens, graves and places for slaughtering cattle, all mixed through their encampment.” Deserters were only mildly punished. Loudoun was shocked to see men firing their guns at random after drill, sleeping on post, and taking pot shots at game while they were on the march. But the elected officers would seldom risk unpopularity by punishing offenders.
No commander in his right mind would admit men with such a conception of an army into a regiment of well-disciplined regulars. And why, indeed, should any American put himself under the strict discipline of the British Army? Everything was better in the provincial militias: a Massachusetts private soldier received all of 10d sterling a day while a British regular private received no more than 4d; in addition, the provincial soldier received an annual bounty for reënlistment. Supplies for the provincials looked like luxuries to the regulars. The militiaman not only received a greater staple allowance, but after one summer’s service, he was allowed to keep his hatchet, blanket, and knapsack—and he soon established the profitable custom of taking his musket home with him. He could count on his sugar, ginger, rum, and molasses; and his marching allowance was three times that of a British regular.
This life of a provincial militiaman was free-and-easy compared to that of the regular, who might be punished with flogging, or be forced to enlist for life in the West Indies. It was so free-and-easy in fact that the commander of provincial troops never really knew how many men he had at his disposal. The militiaman preferred to stay close to home, so that he could return to his family in case of need. When the General Court of Massachusetts voted troops for the expedition to Crown Point in northeastern New York, they expressly provided that the men “shall not be compelled to march southward of Albany, or westward of Schenechtedy.” “The Troops are constantly coming & going,” an observer wrote of General Johnson’s New York army, “ill arm’d, ill cloath’d & worse disciplined, some having served their time out, as they phrase it, and some commencing fresh men. Never to be sure was such a motly Herd, almost every man his own master & a General.”
The “leveling spirit” of the Americans was notorious among British officers. “Our Militia is under no kind of discipline….” complained Cadwallader Colden to Lord Halifax in 1754. “The Inhabitants of the Northern Colonies are all so nearly on a level, and a licentiousness, under the notion of liberty, so generally prevails, that they are impatient under all kind of superiority and authority.” “The Officers of the Army with very few Exceptions,” a colonial observer noted of such provincial troops, “are utter Strangers to Military Life and most of them in no Respect superior to the Men they are put over, They are like the heads and indeed are the heads of a Mob.” Such “officers” had long been snubbed by British regulars. In 1741 in the expedition against Cartagena in the Caribbean, officers from Virginia, including even the experienced and highly competent Governor Gooch, had been passed over for promotion and brazenly mistreated. George Washington himself had traveled alone half-way across the colonies to settle just such a question concerning his own military rank. The established policy repeated by the Duke of Cumberland in 1754 ordered “that all Troops serving by Commissions signed by Us, or by Our General Commanding in Chief in North America, shall take Rank before all Troops which may serve by Commission from any of the Governors or Councils of Our Provinces in North America: And It is Our further Pleasure, that the Generals and Field Officers of the Provincial Troops shall have no Rank with the Generals & Field Officers who serve by Commissions from Us.” Loudoun brought with him to America a modified order allowing colonial officers more rank, but by then it was too late.
There was not a single problem that plagued Loudoun in the French and Indian War that did not also trouble Washington in the War of Independence. Washington, trying to raise a unified Continental Army from unmilitary Americans, now stood in the shoes of Lord Loudoun. Although the “cause” was different, the difficulties were the same. The Continental Army, like the British Regular Army twenty years earlier, had to compete for men against the separate state militias, and Washington had only slightly more success. Had the American cause been forced to depend on an American regular army, the outcome would have been even more doubtful and drawn-out. Washington, however, took wise advantage of his opportunity to fight the war seriatim—first in New England, then in the Middle Colonies, then in the South—rather than all-at-once, as the French and Indian Wars had been fought. This made the dispersed militia more useful and his smaller army more effective.
The unseemly disputes over rank and precedence, in which regular British officers had lorded it over mere militiamen, were reënacted with the officers of the Continental line now assuming the old airs of the regulars. The Congress and the States showed democratic prodigality; they lavished military titles on mere able-bodied citizens, regardless of competence. “My blacksmith is a captain,” De Kalb reported in amazement. To avoid offense, it was always safer to assume that anybody was entitled to be addressed as a high officer. “Not an hour passes,” Washington wrote to the President of the Continental Congress (Aug. 3, 1778), “without new applications and new complaints about rank…. We can scarcely form a Court Martial or parade a detachment in any instance, without a warm discussion on the subject of precedence.” When Colonel Crafts of the militia and Colonel Jackson of the Continental army arrived to act as pall-bearers at the funeral of a fellow-officer, Crafts as the older man claimed the right to walk first, but Jackson argued that as a Continental officer he was entitled to precedence. Neither gave in, and Crafts and his friends walked out on the funeral.
Even Washington’s patience wore thin; but since local prides were not to be overcome, he learned to live with them and somehow to harness them in the common cause. “I have labored, ever since I have been in the service,” Washington wrote at the end of 1776, “to discourage all kinds of local attachments and distinctions of country [i.e. of State], denominating the whole by the greater name of American, but I have found it impossible to overcome prejudices; and, under the new establishment, I conceive it best to stir up an emulation; in order to do which would it not be better for each State to furnish, though not to appoint, their own brigadiers?” In 1780, to the inquiries of the Congress about his problems of promotion and rank, he replied: “If in all cases ours was one army, or thirteen armies allied for the common defence, there would be no difficulty in solving your question; but we are occasionally both, and I should not be much out if I were to say, that we are sometimes neither, but a compound of both.”
All the American armies were competing against each other for men, for officers, for rank, and for glory. Privates from New England were being offered higher pay than those from the Middle States. Massachusetts even offered to pay its men by lunar rather than calendar months in order to secure a competitive advantage. This particular trick Washington stigmatized as the “most fatal stab to the peace of this Army, that ever was given…. Lord North himself could not have devised a more effectual blow to the recruiting Service.” Problems were compounded by the familiar “leveling” tendencies of the Americans; by their refusal to allow a sufficiently higher pay to officers, they stirred discontent and bred an unmilitary familiarity between officers and men.
The widespread fear of a permanent professional army increased the difficulties. John Adams declared it safer in the long run to put public faith in a temporary though less effective militia. “Although it may cost us more, and we may put now and then a battle to hazard by the method we are in, yet we shall be less in danger of corruption and violence from a standing army, and our militia will acquire courage, experience, discipline, and hardiness in actual service. I wish every man upon the continent was a soldier, and obliged, upon occasion, to fight and determined to conquer or to die. Flight was unknown to the Romans. I wish it was to Americans.” Proposals to offer long-term pensions to officers, in order to attract better men and to raise their morale, were widely opposed. Elbridge Gerry listed the reasons (Jan. 13, 1778): “the infant state of the country, its aversion to placemen and pensioners, whereby Great Britain is likely to lose her liberty, the equality of the officers and soldiers of some States, before the war.”
Short-term enlistments (sometimes for as little as three months) expressed both the widespread fear of a professional standing army and the assumption that an army would be superfluous the day after the war was won. Washington repeatedly complained that this was the core of his problem. For example, in a circular (Oct. 18, 1780) to the several States from his headquarters near Passaic, he said:
I am religiously persuaded that the duration of the war, and the greatest part of the Misfortunes, and perplexities we have hitherto experienced, are chiefly to be attributed to temporary inlistments…. A moderate, compact force, on a permanent establishment capable of acquiring the discipline essential to military operations, would have been able to make head against the Enemy, without comparison better than the throngs of Militia, which have been at certain periods not in the feild, but on their way to, and from the feild: for from that want of perseverance which characterises all Militia, and of that coercion which cannot be exercised upon them it has always been found impracticable to detain the greatest part of them in service even for the term, for which they have been called out; and this has been commonly so short, that we have had a great proportion of the time, two sets of men to feed and pay, one coming to the Army, and the other going from it.
Men went home just as they were beginning to understand their duties, and it was often necessary to recruit a new army in the face of the enemy. More than one American military defeat can be explained by the transient character of the army. General Richard Montgomery rushed into his disastrous assault on Quebec in late December 1775 because the enlistments of all his New England troops would expire at midnight on December 31, and he was sure they would not stay with him a day longer.
The unreliability and lack of discipline of the American armed citizenry, which had been so hastily gathered into military ranks, haunted brave Revolutionary commanders from Washington down to lieutenants in the field, and made large-scale planning mere wishful thinking. Time after time militia fled the battlefield, spreading defeatism as they went. “America,” warned Washington, “has been almost amused out of her Liberties” by the proponents of the militia. “I solemnly declare I never was witness to a single instance, that can countenance an opinion of Militia or raw Troops being fit for the real business of fighting. I have found them useful as light Parties to skirmish in the woods, but incapable of making or sustaining a serious attack…. The late battle of Camden is a melancholly comment upon this doctrine. The Militia fled at the first fire, and left the Continental Troops surrounded on every side, and overpowered by numbers to combat for safety instead of victory.” “Great god,” exclaimed Daniel Morgan on Feb. 1, 1781, only a few days after his victory over Tarleton, “what is the reason we cant Have more men in the field—so many men in the country Nearby idle for want of employment.” At this critical moment in the War, when Greene was retreating before Cornwallis, Edward Stevens vainly appealed to his troops.
After crossing the Yadkin we could not have Paraded a greater Force than Eight Hundred for Action if even that Including Militia and all and a great part of the number was the Militia under me whose times were out. I saw the greatest necessity of these men remaining a few days till the Troops from General Greens Camp could get up, and this the General requested of me to endeavour to bring about. I had them paraded and addressed them on the Subject. But to my great mortification and astonishment scarce a man would agree to it, And gave for answer he was a good Soldier that Served his time out. If the Salvation of the Country had depended on their staying Ten or Fifteen days, I dont believe they would have done it. Militia wont do. Their greatest Study is to Rub through their Tower [Tour] of Duty with whole Bones.
But many militiamen were not this scrupulous of their duty; they often went home before their term was up. Desertions were commonplace. It is hard to assess the military tactics of some battles because one can never be sure how many of the “losses” of the Revolutionary army were due to desertion rather than to death or capture. Within a few weeks before the Battle of Bennington on August 16, 1777, more than four hundred men deserted—or, more accurately, disappeared. At the siege of Newport, about the same time, five thousand militiamen deserted within a few days, so weakening Sullivan’s forces that he had to abandon any idea of attack. On many occasions—for example, near Savannah in March 1779, at Johnstown in October 1781, and at other places too numerous to mention—large numbers of militia fled in panic. Although the Americans had outnumbered the British by more than fifty per cent at Guilford Court House on March 15, 1781, the wholesale flight of the militia to the woods gave victory to the British. The experienced General Daniel Morgan had shrewdly foreseen just this when he warned General Nathanael Greene against the “great number of militia” and advised, “If they fight, you beat Cornwallis, if not, he will beat you.” “Put the … militia in the centre, with some picked troops in their rear with orders to shoot down the first man that runs.” Greene followed Morgan’s advice, but the anxiety of the North Carolina and Virginia militia prevailed.
How could such an ill-assorted, ill-disciplined, and ill-supplied army succeed against the well-organized forces of one of the great military powers? How, indeed, can we account for the final victory? Many acts of heroism, courage, and sacrifice embellished the records of the fighting Americans. The unorthodox imagination of amateur American generals, in sharp contrast to the professional rigidity of the British command, gave the colonials an unexpected advantage. But it is still hard to explain why the British surrendered so quickly after Yorktown. Today the most persuasive answer is not that the Americans won but that the British lost—or perhaps that they simply gave up, having seen the long-run hopelessness of their cause. The American terrain (together with the colonial dispersion, which meant that there was no jugular vein to be cut by British force) led the British to realize that to subdue America was beyond their means. Within the first four years of the Revolution, every one of the most populous towns—Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston—had fallen to the British and had been occupied by their regular troops, but always without decisive effect. The American center was everywhere and nowhere—in each man himself. In addition, the French brought crucial aid to the American militia and irregulars, and the spectre of a permanent American alliance with France haunted the British Empire.
Perhaps the most typical and most ominous of the military events of the war was the abrupt disbanding of the army. In January, 1781—ten months before Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown—mutiny shook the army in Pennsylvania; again, on the brink of peace in June 1783, mutinous soldiers, in control of the powder magazines and public offices at the seat of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, threatened to use force to get their wages. It was in the shadow of such disorder that the Continental Army was hastily dispersed and that General Washington on December fourth bade a tearful farewell to his officers. Nothing was more American about the Revolution than this conclusion of it, when armed citizens impatiently dissolved themselves back into the populace. In this, as in later wars in American history, “the end of the war” and the end of the army were substantially, and disastrously, synonymous.
In American folklore it is fitting that the first call to arms, the rousing of “embattled farmers,” the sudden appearance of Minute Men, together with Washington’s Farewell and the last dispersion of the army, should remain the most permanent and the most moving symbols. The story of the actual administration of the Army is dismal and discreditable—almost unprecedented in the annals of war.
Yet the very weaknesses of the professional army had already foreshadowed strengths in American institutions. Unmilitary Americans freely chose a general for their first President. Washington might become “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” but the political power given to a military leader meant something very different here from what it might have meant elsewhere. The American military ideal was not Caesar but Cincinnatus, not the skilled general glorying in the tasks of warfare to which he gave his life, but the planter who had unwillingly left his tobacco fields.
When, near the end of the war, American officers tried to set up an organization to perpetuate their comradeship, their memories, and their tradition (and perhaps their political influence), they significantly chose to call themselves the Society of the Cincinnati. Washington assumed its leadership—though only with the greatest reluctance, for he was suspicious of the organization and hoped to see it soon dissolved. Among the people at large it aroused violent fears of a military caste; they saw in such a hereditary military society a dangerous center of aristocracy, a focus of monarchic conspiracy. The Society was so congenial to the monarchic spirit that King Louis XVI of France authorized his officers to form a branch chapter and to wear the Order of the Cincinnati as a military decoration.
Long after the Society of the Cincinnati had faded from the public memory, another American military institution reached into many American homes. This was the Purple Heart Badge of Military Merit, which Washington established by a general order of Aug. 7, 1782:
The General ever desirous to cherish a virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit, directs that whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings over the left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding. Not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential Service in any way shall meet with a due reward…. Men who have merited this last distinction to be suffered to pass all guards and sentinels which officers are permitted to do.
The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all—this order is also to have retrospect to the earliest stages of the war, and to be considered as a permanent one.
Even though the Federal Constitution later gave the power to wage war to the central government, the American army was never fully unified. State militias, under their later guise of the “national guard,” remained important; they helped keep alive a spirit of local allegiance and a variety of practice and military standards which eventually created all kinds of problems. The peacetime regional nucleus of the militia or “national guard” stayed together through a Civil War and two World Wars, so that many men continued to fight beside their neighbors.
Starting with Washington himself, American history would offer again and again—especially after the decline of the Virginia Dynasty—examples of men whose fame on the battlefield eventually led them to the highest civil office. Even in Great Britain, where there was little fear of military coups d’état during the 18th and 19th centuries, military men rarely became prime ministers; turning military success into a political career was almost unheard of there. But in America this became common: the prominent examples—Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower—come quickly to mind. Some of these men had begun, not in the ranks of the regular army, but in the local militia. And their military exploits—far from seeming mere success in a specialized profession—actually attested their success as undifferentiated Americans. Precisely because there was no military caste, the citizen-soldier easily found a place in American political life.