An Uncommon Defense (1607–1775)


On September 24, 1759, a force of nearly 150 men maneuvered in the marshy woods of North America. They included Indians, provincials, and regulars, although most of them possessed no formal military training. After entering Quebec, they gathered to the northeast of Missisquoi Bay for a “council of war.”

Major Robert Rogers, their commander, addressed the gathering. Clothed in a green-jacket and bonnet, he stood over 6 feet tall. His face was marked by smallpox scars and gunpowder burns. His forehead revealed a line carved into his flesh by a lead bullet. He spoke deliberately with few words, exhibiting a coolness that inspired confidence in the weary men. Their line of retreat was cut off by their enemy, he announced, while an ambush awaited them ahead. Drawing upon his understanding of the terrain, he quickly designed a plan of action. Although the mission that he outlined seemed impossible, they voted to “prosecute our design at all adventures.”

Modifying their route, Rogers guided them through the spruce bogs in the boreal forests. As they stepped into the cold, acidic water, the submerged branches, needles, roots, and logs tore their moccasins to shreds and left many of them barefoot. They marched abreast in a single “Indian file,” so as to prevent their enemy from tracking them. Their movement through the bogs continued for nine days and culminated near the Saint-Francois River.

The men stood almost 6 miles away from their target, an Abenaki village on the other side of the waterway. They stripped and bundled their clothes inside their packs. While carrying their packs and muskets as high as possible, they cautiously stepped into the river. They waded into the icy, turbulent currents of a channel nearly 5 feet deep and hundreds of yards across. They formed a human chain, sidestepping through the raging water across the slippery rocks. After reaching the northern shoreline, they heard the sounds of the village in the night air.

At dawn on October 4, Rogers divided his forces into three groups for the raid. They readied their muskets, fixed their bayonets, and secured their tomahawks and knives. As they crept to the edge of the village, they held their breath. In an instant, the sudden crackle of the first shot reverberated in their ears.

Figure 1.1 Robert Rogers – commandeur der Americaner, 1778. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


The raid on the Abenaki village illustrated how deeply Rogers and his comrades immersed themselves in the martial arts of the woodland Indians. They studied Native American warriors, who possessed great skill in a surprise encounter and used the terrain to their tactical advantage. While maneuvering in a bewildering landscape, they learned to discern unexpected patches of color or movement against the forest hue. They utilized the plants and the animals to orient themselves and to track their foes. Over the decades, they found ways to unite the stealth and mobility of the indigenous cultures with the European appetite for technology and adventure. Their synthesis of the Old and New World modes of fighting evolved into a kind of warfare that would define early America.

Beginning in 1492, European empires waged war against each other and against the first people of the Americas. During the age of conquest, they forged highly disciplined and powerful military organizations capable of invading and occupying vast territories across the globe. They established outposts in distant corners of North America: the Spanish at St. Augustine and Santa Fe, the French at Quebec, the Dutch at Fort Nassau, and, most significantly for the future United States, the English at Jamestown. Colonization accentuated an exaggerated sense of localism as well as a naive faith in improvisation. Thus, the English colonists devised a militia system to defend the settlements, to police the backcountry, and to extend the borders.

By the time England established a beachhead on the Atlantic seaboard, North America was already a war zone. The bases of the Spanish, French, and Dutch supported the European occupation of the Amerindian homelands, while their search for portable wealth spawned violence at almost every turn. For the English colonists, appropriating land proved more important than extracting tribute or booty. Their outposts on far and distant shores offered refuge to newcomers. The process of empire-building helped to shape the structure and composition of the armed forces. Steeped in ancient tradition and codified into common law, the colonial societies called forth warriors to provide an uncommon defense.

The Militia

The English word “militia” comes from the Latin term miles, meaning soldier. In ancient Greece, the city-states required military service from all able-bodied citizens. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the concept of localized militia spread across Europe and migrated to England. Thus, the militia system that the English-speaking people inherited owed much to assumptions about citizen soldiers in antiquity.

During the middle ages of Europe, the English militia system resonated with feudalism. It took the form of the Anglo-Saxon fyrd, which required every freeman between the ages of 16 and 60 to take up arms in defense of the community. In 1181, the English King Henry II declared in his “Assize of Arms” that men should keep and bear arms in service to the realm and in allegiance to their lord. Subsequent laws in England placed constraints on the employment of a well-armed militia, especially beyond the boundaries of the kingdom. Local governments formed militia based upon notions of social order, basic rights, and civic obligations. Consequently, English monarchs turned to mercenaries to undertake foreign ventures.

English monarchs expected the ruling classes to lead collective efforts to protect the homeland. The aristocracy dominated the officer ranks while celebrating the virtues of service, honor, and chivalry. The knights of the realm deferred to the nobility of a hierarchical order, thereby placing the king at the apex but fixing the masses at the base. The yeomanry across the countryside mustered on occasion as infantry, although they tended to remain adjuncts to the mounted and armored cavalry. Feudal armies defended fortified castles, which arose on commanding points of terrain as bulwarks against all gathering threats. Common law referred to the notion of posse comitatus, which derived from the Latin phrase for “force of the county.” In an emergency, a sheriff wielded the legal authority to conscript any able-bodied male over the age of 15 to pursue and to arrest bandits. In other words, the English population assumed a shared responsibility for maintaining peace and security.

The reign of Queen Elizabeth I from 1558 to 1603 produced significant refinements to the militia system of England. Rather than expending resources to support all members of the militia, she preferred to focus domestically on a smaller portion of the whole. They were dubbed “trained-bands,” or trainbands. They constituted a select group of militia, who received better armaments and experienced frequent drilling. By 1573, trainbands in London included 3,000 men. Ten years later, as many as 12,000 men appeared on the English muster rolls as members. Generally, the Elizabethan trainbands protected property, policed towns, and erected defenses.

By the end of the sixteenth century, English soldiers and sailors showed more interest in raiding Spanish treasure than in colonizing the western hemisphere. Closer to home, English monarchs devoted blood and treasure to the military subjugation of Ireland. No army of professionals sailed in mass for North America, leaving settler societies more or less to defend themselves against all enemies. In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh funded a fleet of five ships and a handful of military veterans to establish a fortress on Roanoke Island. They returned to England a year later, but the colonists sent to the island by Raleigh in 1587 were lost.

Arriving in 1607, the first English colonists of Virginia included a few military veterans such as Captain Christopher Newport. They built a simple, triangular fort in a settlement known as Jamestown. They encountered a Pamunkey chieftain named Powhatan, who governed the Native people along the James River through tribute, diplomacy, and trade. Called a Werowance, or great ruler, he asserted supremacy over a host of Algonquian-speaking groups. They affiliated with what came to be known as Powhatan's Confederacy. Powhatan initially considered the strangers from England as potential allies in a struggle to extend his power still further over Indian tribes around the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to their loyalty, he desired to acquire technologically advanced swords, hatchets, guns, and powder.

Instead of submitting, the Virginia Company authorized the colonists to raise a militia to plunder Powhatan's Confederacy. During 1609, Governor Thomas West, who was known as Lord De La Warr, increased the number of soldiers at Jamestown and turned the settlement into a garrison. With greater military discipline, their regimen replicated the conventions of the Elizabethan trainbands. Accordingly, all adult males were required to buy, to maintain, and to carry muskets. Among the mercenaries, Captain John Smith commanded several sorties inland. Five expeditions occurred during 1610, which killed Indians, burned wigwams, and confiscated food. Raids on Indian cornfields amounted to “feed fights.” They sparked retaliation against Jamestown and the surrounding settlements. The relations between the Indians and the Virginians grew more adversarial, because the colonists frequently stole to survive.

Though usually protected by palisades, Indian villages lacked defenses against the spread of European diseases along the North American coast. In 1620, a group of religious dissenters called Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower and landed at Cape Cod. They established Plymouth Plantation on the site of an abandoned Indian village already decimated by smallpox. Only one experienced English soldier, Myles Standish, arrived with the Pilgrims, even though he did not adhere to their particular doctrines. Nevertheless, they elected him as their captain and military commander. He owned a snaphance musket, rapier sword, double-edged dagger, and body armor, but he found that most colonists knew nothing about armed conflict. Within a year, they built a fort at Plymouth Plantation. For conducting watch patrols near the settlement, they organized a four-squadron militia in 1622. Hauled from the Mayflower and emplaced upon a hill, imposing cannons discouraged an Indian attack.

Initially, the Indians preferred to trade with the Pilgrims rather than to attack them. Known as wampum, beads cut from white or purple shells found along Cape Cod excited the Algonquian speakers. The beads were drilled and threaded into decorative strings and elaborate belts. Like their Dutch counterparts in New Netherlands, English traders used their tools to turn the sacred objects into a commodity for exchange. Massasoit, a Wampanoag chieftain, viewed the English colonists as potentially useful for combating his enemies, the Narragansett, who received arms and supplies from the Dutch. In fact, he encouraged the Pilgrims to employ their militia to preemptively strike the Massachusetts, another rival group in the area. For several decades, the Plymouth Plantation maintained a military alliance with their Wampanoag neighbors in the area.

With the arrival of more colonists, the Massachusetts Bay Company established the first enrolled militia regiments of New England. On December 13, 1636, the General Court directed towns to muster men into units for local service. Nevertheless, deferments from training days went to officials, ministers, students, craftsmen, and fishermen. Most towns prohibited non-English inhabitants from serving at all. To guarantee a rapid response to attacks, the General Court passed a law on August 13, 1645, directing each militia unit to select a third of its members for a heightened state of readiness. They would respond to alarms “at half an hour's warning” with their arms, ammunition, and equipment. Laws regulating the service of a citizen soldiery achieved vitality in New England at the same time that the militia system declined as an institution in Oliver Cromwell's England.

With the exception of Pennsylvania, all of the original 13 colonies established a form of compulsory militia service. Requirements varied from place to place, but individuals on government rolls ranged in age from as young as 16 to as old as 60. Men were required to own a basic weapon such as a musket, which fired using a matchlock or flintlock mechanism. Most units trained once or twice a year. Some formed patrols to capture runaway servants and slaves. Local authorities maintained reserve supplies of musketry to arm those unable to buy them and collected stores of ammunition and small cannons for major campaigns. The colonial assembly appropriated the money for supplies and exercised fiscal control over the funding of expeditionary forces. The colonial governor often acted as the “commander-in-chief” of the militia and mobilized the members through secular and religious appeals. The militia mustered reluctantly for duties that took them away from their homes or left their families unprotected.

Often neglected by their mother country, the English colonists raised four types of militia. First and foremost, the standing militia included the citizenry enrolled in local units to provide defense and security. Secondly, colonies organized specialized companies from the militia for patrolling the backcountry as well as for apprehending fugitives. Third, expeditionary volunteers came from the standing militia and received special inducements or bounties to serve during longer campaigns. Lastly, militia relied upon impressed, hired, or conscripted individuals – usually convicts or vagrants – who were coerced into service to fill a levy assigned to a county or town. Whatever the exact force composition, the militia provided a large pool of able-bodied men from which colonial governments drew for strength in times of trouble.


The growth of the English colonies and their encroachment upon Indian country escalated the violence along the Atlantic seaboard. While the colonists shifted the balance of power to the coastal towns, the natives of the woodlands fought them in ways that the English pejoratively called “savage.” From the tidewater of Virginia to the forests of Massachusetts, the key attribute of Indian warfare was skulking.

When skulking against enemies, Indian warriors preferred indirect actions over frontal assaults. War parties gathered with remarkable stealth and avoided direct engagements whenever possible, instead seeking victory by surprise and with the calculated use of terrain. Their approach to a threat environment involved nonlinear tactics – concealment and surprise, skirmishing, movement, envelopment, and, when the enemy's ranks collapsed, hand-to-hand combat. Because stone tools appeared scarce in areas with deep alluvial soils, they armed themselves with long bows, wooden swords, spears, knives, and clubs. Their weaponry suited a swift raid against an isolated settlement but seemed less conducive to pitched battles in open fields. They utilized speed and cover to strike and to retreat out of harm's way without suffering heavy casualties. An ambush often awaited any pursuing colonials.

Skulking helped to develop and to preserve the martial spirit of the Native Americans, because it underscored the symbolic meanings of the struggle for power. In most battles, warriors confronted foes to earn honors or to claim prizes. In a one-on-one match, an individual revealed bravery and strength by catching an opponent off guard. War parties attacked men, women, and children, to be sure, but they did so primarily to seize them for captivity, adoption, or exchange. According to the concept of a “mourning war,” the vanquished were apportioned among the aggrieved to compensate for previous losses. Through stylized and ritualistic combat, military actions settled scores without necessarily causing massive destruction.

The Europeans observed that Huron, Iroquois, and Muskogee warriors removed scalps from the heads of victims, although the practice was not a universal one. Of course, body parts taken by warriors in battle often represented trophies for exhibition at home. They also wore them as badges or ornaments with traditional clothing. They typically consisted of removable appendages such as the head, fingers, or ears. The scalp represented a very special kind of prize, because it involved removing a portion of an enemy's crown with only a knife. Some cultures encouraged the removal of a small hair-braid or scalp-lock, often decorated with paint or jewelry. Although the practice of taking a scalp appeared in pre-contact North and South America, the specific forms of scalping varied from tribe to tribe.

Once drawn into the European web of trade, Indian tribes became entangled with the economic and political system of the colonists. Officials offered scalp bounties to encourage strikes against those deemed hostile to the interests of the Europeans, who demanded proof of success on a raid. The need for proof prompted the colonists to encourage and to reward the taking of scalps, which permitted the victims to survive the bloody acts on occasion. In fact, the bounties fostered the spread of metal knives to tribes previously unfamiliar with the practice of hair removal. In terms of Indian warfare within the Americas, scalping turned skulking into a tactic of terror suitable to the woodlands.

In addition, the permanent presence of Dutch and English traders along the coast and in the valleys transformed the technologies and tactics of Indian warfare. Most warriors lost any inhibitions against slaughtering their enemies, especially when population centers appeared vulnerable. Firearms proved instrumental in precipitating the changes over time, although the adoption of the European musket involved many factors. Indian tribes showed an immediate preference for the flintlock over the more common and inexpensive matchlock. They became quite adept at utilizing the former in deadly hit-and-run raids, employing the new weaponry more or less as skillfully as they used their bows and arrows. They also learned how to repair arms, to cast bullets, and to form European-style perimeters. As the fighting over contested grounds intensified, the range and accuracy of the muskets made skulking even more effective.

By the end of the seventeenth century, an extraordinary style of combat evolved in the woodlands. Innovations in techniques made the Indians formidable on raids, which drove many colonists to turn to the same tactics that they bitterly denounced. Furthermore, the employment of friendly Indians provided colonial governments with their best countermeasures to belligerent tribes. Since the English previously described a patroller as a “ranger,” mixed companies that maneuvered in the forests appropriated the term. “Now we are glad to learn the skulking way of war,” boasted Reverend John Eliot of Connecticut.

Effective tactics, however, could not compensate for strategic weaknesses. Whereas indigenous populations relied on European trade for firearms and for gunpowder, their fragile economies could not sustain a spirited resistance. Their diffuse organizations for war became a liability against the military discipline of the invaders. Known as “fire-water” in many communities, alcohol as a trade commodity negatively impacted the behavior of war parties. Vulnerable to disease and to fragmentation, the Indians lacked the cohesiveness to prevail in a long war against the Europeans.

Despite superior weaponry, the Europeans required more than a century to conquer the Native Americans east of the Allegheny and Appalachian Mountains. The colonists appeared inefficient when operating in a threat environment conducive to the dispersion of armed forces. Victory required first understanding and respecting Indian warfare and then devising defensive and offensive concepts that fully exploited the advantages of technology and logistics.

Wars of Extirpation

The English colonists tended to view the Indian villages as obstacles to their expansion into the North American interior. Colonial arms trading with Indians, though officially outlawed, took away the upper hand that the English militia initially possessed in their clashes with Indian warriors. Muskets, pikes, knives, swords, lances, and tools proliferated with destructive results. To reduce the Indians' advantages in the woodlands, military leaders decided to undertake offensives before their enemies could strike backcountry settlements.

In the Tidewater Wars of Virginia, intense fighting erupted on March 22, 1622. Powhatan's brother and successor, Opechancanough, launched a surprise attack along the James and Appomattox Rivers that wiped out one-quarter of Virginia's settler population in a single day. The Virginians counterattacked by hitting the Nanesemond, Chickahominy, and Pamunkey villages. A major battle occurred during the summer of 1624, when an expedition of armored Englishmen sailed up the York River to confiscate Indian corn. The Pamunkey and their allies defended their cornfields but were mauled by English musketeers. Sporadic but intense fighting continued until 1646, when the aged and feeble Opechancanough was captured and killed. After a peace treaty ended the Tidewater Wars, the Indians relocated to a reservation and paid an annual tribute to the King of England.

From 1636 to 1637, tensions over trade relations in New England led to the Pequot War. The Pequot – an Algonquian word meaning “destroyers” – resided at the mouth of the Connecticut River, where they dealt with Dutch traders from Manhattan Island and English colonists in the Massachusetts Bay. The death of two traders sparked fears that the Pequot planned a widespread uprising against the English and their Indian allies. Militia companies from New England towns and warrior bands from the Mohegan and the Narragansett villages launched preemptive strikes against the Pequot. A kind of “holy war,” which entailed massive casualties among noncombatants, ensued along the Mystic River. On May 26, 1637, Captain John Mason urged the English militia to torch Fort Mystic and to kill the Indians gathered behind the palisades. With the aid of allies, they sat fire to wigwams, shot fleeing men, captured women and children, and divided the spoils. They killed as many as 700 at Fort Mystic and drove the Pequot into hiding. Some survivors sought refuge in “praying towns” and converted to Christianity. Others became the property of Caribbean slave traders. The Pequot name was outlawed in New England thereafter.

Relations between the English colonists and the Wampanoag tribe deteriorated after the death of Massasoit, although his successors sought to keep peace. By the early 1670s, Metacom, a chieftain of the Wampanoag and a descendant of Massasoit, began to organize a pan-Indian movement to drive the colonists from the woodlands altogether. The inter-tribal forces of King Philip – as the English dubbed the Wampanoag leader – moved swiftly and killed thousands of farmers and townspeople. However, the English militia struck back. Honing their skills in fields of battle, they evolved into mobile units capable of operating on multiple fronts to harass their adversaries. During the “Great Swamp fight” near Kingston, Rhode Island, inter-colonial forces led by Josiah Winslow, the governor of Plymouth, attacked a Narragansett fortress on December 19, 1675. As many as 600 Indians perished that day. With the tide turning in favor of New England, King Philip's War became a rout.

Chief among the English veterans of King Philip's War, Benjamin Church commanded an “Army of the United Colonies” during 1676. Born in Plymouth, he later resided in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Neutral or formerly hostile Indians joined his ranger company, which skillfully conducted operations that anticipated the emergence of guerrilla warfare. Acting in concert with Indian allies, he led expeditions that successfully penetrated forests and swamps. John Alderman, a converted Indian serving under Church, killed Metacom on August 12, 1676, thereby effectively ending the war. The Wampanoag chief was beheaded, drawn, and quartered. His head sat atop a pike first in Boston and then in Plymouth, where locals displayed it for years. Over the next several decades, Church's companies conducted operations against the French and the Indians in Maine, Canada, and Acadia. They killed residents, looted property, burned houses, and slaughtered livestock. Published shortly before his death in 1718, Church's memoirs became the first manual for “ranging” in North America.

By 1676, the Virginia House of Burgesses had enlisted a force of rangers to operate along the Piedmont. Within the Old Dominion, Sir William Berkeley, the Royal governor, refused to authorize strikes against Indian villages. He tried to distinguish between friendly and belligerent tribes. To keep antagonists in the backcountry separated, the government planned to construct a network of forts. After the Doeg assailed English settlements, a 29-year-old planter named Nathaniel Bacon sought a commission from Governor Berkeley to command the militia. Bacon intended to wage a war of vengeance against all Indians. His anti-Indian rants rallied angry locals. Unwilling to wait for the government to act, he and his counterparts assaulted the Susquehannock and the Occaneechee. As a result of recklessness and incompetence, mayhem spread across Virginia.

Governor Berkeley reluctantly issued the commission to his challenger, though he ordered “General” Bacon to cease campaigning. In defiance of authority, Bacon offered to fund his own band of Indian fighters. On September 19, 1676, they seized Jamestown and torched it. When Bacon suddenly died of dysentery, the rebellion that he fomented collapsed. Thereafter, Virginia's gentry turned to mounted troops and a well-regulated militia for security.

In the Carolinas, extirpative war involved the collaboration of scalp hunters, slave raiders, and ranger companies. With their towns besieged by the spread of English settlements, the Tuscarora initiated a bloody fight in 1711. Instead of battling the Tuscarora warriors, John Barnwell commanded a search-and-destroy expedition aimed at their villages. With the help of Indian allies, they targeted noncombatants such as women and children. Two years later, James Moore led the largest expedition of the Tuscarora War, which killed and captured hundreds. The Tuscarora fled northward to find refuge. When the Yamasee attempted to resist English dominance, they found themselves suffering a similar fate. Responding to renewed Indian attacks on plantations in the lowlands, a company under George Chicken ambushed Yamasee warriors outside of Charleston in 1715. With the capital defended, they marched inland and began to annihilate, to enslave, and to dislocate the Yamasee. In addition to frightful atrocities and high casualties, the ferocity of the armed conflict caused starvation and dispersion. After the mauling, the Yamasee escaped to Florida to live under Spanish protection.

More than a century of on-again, off-again warfare generated extreme violence in hundreds of communities near the Atlantic Coast. Colonial governments sanctioned wars of extirpation out of military necessity, or so English authorities insisted. Local forces targeted corn fields, stored provisions, and population centers in Indian country. Eventually, their antagonism drove many of the Indian tribes into the arms of their European rivals.

Imperial March

Conflicts among English, French, and Spanish interests in Europe involved the colonial population of North America in almost constant warfare. Major wars on the European continent shared a trans-Atlantic component that became intermingled with outbursts of violence in the woodlands. The Indians grew increasingly dependent on European commodities, while the profits from trade increased. Undoubtedly, the Europeans prized North America.

The European colonists in North America gave the wars for empire different names from their kinsmen across the Atlantic Ocean. From 1689 to 1697, the War of the League of Augsburg was known among the English colonists as King William's War. They knew the War of Spanish Succession from 1701 to 1713 by the name of Queen Anne's War. After 1739, King George's War in North America extended what the Europeans knew as the War of Jenkins's Ear or the War of Austrian Succession. To finance the wars for empire, the home governments increased expenditures, taxation, and debt.

Over the course of decades, the wars for empire brought grand armies and navies to the North American theater. Europeans marshaled forces composed of career officers and seasoned soldiers and sailors, who did not disband when hostilities officially ceased but remained “standing.” Royal regimes directed, maintained, and remunerated their service in distant provinces. With the increasing centralization of authority, the uniformed services became more disciplined and better organized. The massing of recruits from the lower echelons of society required harsh restraints and severe punishment for transgressions of regulations. They differed from previous companies, however, because the new kind of military assembled English, Scottish, Irish, Germanic, Spanish, or Swiss recruits into British regiments. Without regard to ethnic ties, military professionals served to achieve the imperial ambitions of the home government.

The colonial population of British America viewed military professionals with a great deal of suspicion. Based upon popular impressions, their presence denoted the evils of corruption, power, and tyranny. Critics warned that standing forces imperiled the rights of citizens and threatened to bond free men into slavery. They railed against potential despotism on the horizon. Such vitriol derived largely from the English experience with the schemes of Cromwell, who they remembered and reviled for organizing the New Model Army. Moreover, the English Bill of Rights in 1689 mandated that a military establishment must remain subordinate to the authority of Parliament. Whatever the prowess of military professionals, they often frightened provincials.

Provincials held to their assumptions of classical republicanism, that is, a polity comprising a responsible, active citizenry devoted to the “public good.” They pointed to historic examples from ancient Rome and medieval Europe to argue that mercenaries constituted a danger to civil society. In the absence of citizen soldiers and sailors, they said, communities relied upon “hirelings” to keep and bear arms. Furthermore, the anxieties about standing armies and navies reflected changes to the composition of many British units. If military duties fell to those from outside the settlements they defended, then the stakeholders feared the loss of their republican virtues. On the periphery of a growing empire, provincials kept a vigilant eye open for signs of governmental repression.

Nevertheless, provincials in Boston welcomed the sight of British regulars during the summer of 1711. The British commanders, Commodore Hovenden Walker and General John Hill, planned to lead 60 ships with 5,000 regulars on board to strike French Quebec. Departing for the St. Lawrence River, Canada loomed as a great prize that fired the enthusiasm of British Americans. However, the fleet actually sailed into a terrible squall before commencing the invasion. Many of the ships crashed, which prompted the Royal Navy to order the rest to return home. The disappointed provincials felt abandoned and betrayed in the end, while their strategic interests continued to grow apart from the objectives of Great Britain.

Despite colonial loyalty to the Crown, the Royal Navy neglected to provide significant military protection beyond monitoring the trans-Atlantic trade routes. The fleet experienced periods of stagnation and decline during peacetime but feverish shipbuilding and renovation during wartime. Comparable to the French and Spanish navies, the vessels of the British fleet represented powerful wooden machines driven by wind and muscle. Cannonading demanded that commanders deploy line-ahead tactics to achieve point-blank range. Naval guns remained extremely inaccurate, possessing an effective range of less than 300 yards. Good gunnery entailed firing with speed and volume – not accuracy. When ships docked at colonial seaports, naval impressment gangs often scoured the neighborhoods in search of sailors. At sea, the crews typically suffered from bad food, low pay, and physical abuse.

Not surprisingly, most British Americans preferred to volunteer for the crews of privately owned vessels prowling the Caribbean. In fact, the lure of profits from capturing enemy transport and supply ships prompted sailors to enlist for service on board the men-of-war. Ports such as New York and Charleston financially benefited from the actions of the privateers, who returned to North America with booty from their maritime adventures. Hence, provincial ships plundered the holdings of enemy ships and brought quick profits to the motley crews. Of course, the allure of privateering meant greater competition for finding experienced, worthy “Jack Tars” to man the ships of the Royal Navy.

When the Europeans clashed over trade routes and fishing rights, the conflicts soon spread to the interior of North America. In contrast to local skirmishes, imperial marches accentuated colorful rows of flag-waving regiments stepping in formation to the roar of cannons and muskets. Whereas the artillery and cavalry provided a vital component in most operations, the columns of infantry crossed the battlefields to deliver volleys. With respect to maneuver, the rank and file concentrated in complicated and fluid arrangements while absorbing minimal casualties. Officers eschewed violence against noncombatants, because the object of a pitched battle required closing within range of the enemy's lines. War unfolded in accord with rigid rules during the eighteenth century, while strategies and tactics largely reflected a chess-game affair.

For the British regulars, the standard infantry weapon was the Brown Bess – a flintlock musket. It included a smoothbore barrel that fired a lead ball about three-quarters of an inch in diameter. Since the barrel lacked rifling, it seldom struck targets with accuracy. Its effective range for volley fire was approximately 100 to 150 yards, which surpassed earlier muskets. At best, its rate of fire measured three rounds per minute. Nevertheless, the impact of the ball tore flesh and shattered bones in horrific fashion. If firing the Brown Bess softened the enemy, then the infantry fixed a 14 inch socket bayonet and charged to break the opposing lines.

The long-rifle gradually replaced the Brown Bess in North America. Rifling the barrel, which involved forging spiral grooves that imparted a spinning effect to a bullet, increased the accuracy and range of arms in combat. By 1750, German-speaking gunsmiths in Pennsylvania had developed a light model that proved easier and faster to load than older European models. It became the forerunner of the “Pennsylvania” or “Kentucky” long-rifles. Utilizing handmade pieces, it required a customized bullet mold. The bullet was slightly smaller than the bore, but a patch of greased linen kept the fit tight after ramming. In the hands of a marksman, the muzzle-loader could hit a target at 200 yards. For fighting behind the cover of trees, bushes, and rocks, the long-rifle matched the operational imperatives of the threat environment.

The fight over borders raged throughout the eighteenth century, as British America continued to develop and to expand along the Atlantic seaboard. In 1732, London chartered the colony of Georgia. Four years later, General James Oglethorpe, a British Army officer serving as Royal protector of the colony, received an appointment as “commander-in-chief” of His Majesty's forces in both Georgia and South Carolina. His diplomacy made inroads with heretofore unfamiliar Native American bands and confederacies. The Creek Indians resided chiefly in the area extending west by north from the middle and upper Chattahoochee River. To the north and northeast of them lived the Cherokee; to the northwest, the Chickasaw; and to the west and southwest, the Choctaw. In effect, Georgia amounted to a military buffer for the British Empire in the lower south.

In 1739, General Oglethorpe planned joint operations to “annoy” the Spanish in Florida. Gathering 500 Indians, 400 South Carolina militia, 500 regulars, 400 rangers and Scottish Highlanders, and several British naval vessels, he conducted a siege of Fort San Marcos in St. Augustine. He eventually abandoned it, because his cannonading failed to penetrate the walls. In 1743, he struck St. Augustine once again to no avail. He returned to London that year to answer charges by a regimental officer and to impress upon Parliament the necessity of defending the Georgia coast.

After the British captured Porto Bello in Panama, the focus of King George's War shifted to the West Indies. In 1741, the Royal Navy organized a major offensive to capture the Spanish port at Cartagena, a seaport in South America. Virginia Governor William Gooch commanded the “American Regiment,” which included volunteers from 11 colonies and numbered more than 3,500 men. Led by Admiral Edward Vernon, the combined forces of the British sailed with over 9,000 men on board. They landed at Cartagena, but the regiments surviving the initial assaults faced a more dangerous enemy – yellow fever. Abandoning Cartagena, they tried to assail Cuba without success. By the time the “American Regiment” finally returned home, no more than 600 men remained alive. Remembering the British admiral of the fleet, one of the Virginians, Lawrence Washington, renamed his plantation Mount Vernon.

The last major offensive of King George's War aimed at seizing Louisbourg, which constituted the “Gibraltar of the New World.” The Vauban fortifications at Cape Breton Island, which stood 30 feet high, were lined with 250 cannons on the ramparts. They defended access to the St. Lawrence River. At the behest of Governor William Shirley, Massachusetts recruited provincials for an expedition to take Louisbourg in 1745. Commanded by William Pepperell and supported by Commodore Peter Warren, an intra-colonial army of 3,000 men besieged the fortress for 49 days. Despite bouts of drunkenness, they captured the grand battery and used the cannons to fire upon the town. On June 17, the French garrison surrendered. News of the victory sparked excitement across New England. However, the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 returned Louisbourg to the French in exchange for new British territory in India.

As Europeans continued their imperial march, a new mixture of martial assumptions, methods, and objectives emerged from the global contest. The provincial forces gained supreme confidence in their own capabilities to wage war and to defend themselves, but they received few rewards for their valiant efforts. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the people of British America grew anxious about their place in an overstretched empire.

The French and Indian War

The cycle of Anglo-French conflicts in Europe culminated in the Seven Years War, which British Americans dubbed the French and Indian War. The conflict began initially as a colonial dispute over the North American dominion claimed by France. Indian populations close to French traders generally denounced the “long knives” – a phrase they used to identify British provincials – although several tribes in the continental interior remained neutral. In order to block British expansion inland, French governors in Canada expanded the system of forts around the Great Lakes. In 1753, they began constructing three forts between Lake Erie and the forks of the Ohio River. In opposition, Royal authorities demanded their removal.

Figure 1.2 European claims in North America, 1754–1763


During the summer of 1754, delegates from seven colonies gathered in Albany, New York, at the request of the home government in London. In addition to Indian affairs, they discussed plans to provide money and troops for inter-colonial defense. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania proposed a plan to create a “union” headed by a “president general.” Calling for unity in the face of the French menace, he circulated a placard depicting a segmented serpent with the caption “join, or die.” Unwilling to share power, the colonial governments disliked the Albany plan and refused to ratify it. Without a plan to build forts or to equip ships, the colonial population remained unprepared for the coming of war.

Meanwhile, Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia sent a volunteer regiment to the Ohio River commanded by a 21-year-old militia officer named George Washington. After previously delivering a formal warning to a French commander, Washington ambushed an advance party and permitted the assassination of a captured officer. He retreated to a hastily built stockade dubbed Fort Necessity, where he surrendered to the French and Indians on July 3, 1754. After his release, he accompanied the next expedition to the Ohio River but received no command role. Eventually, he resigned in frustration and returned to Mount Vernon.

In 1755, General Edward Braddock arrived in Virginia with ambitious plans to capture Fort Duquesne on the Monongahela River. Supported by provincial volunteers, Braddock marched red-coated soldiers into an ambush on July 9. Amid war whoops and confused commands, the columns panicked in the woodlands. Their enemies attacked them in a crescent formation while delivering the moving fire common to Indian warfare. Braddock suffered a mortal wound, which prompted a hasty burial on the road. His troops fled in pandemonium, not even stopping when they reached the baggage wagons to their rear. Blaming inexperienced provincials for the loss, British military leaders called for the deployment of more regulars to North America. Regardless of the cause, “Braddock's Defeat” illustrated the need for a concerted effort to fight the French and the Indians.

After ordering the expulsion of the French-speaking Acadians from Nova Scotia, Great Britain officially declared war against France on May 18, 1756. The next year, French General Louis-Joseph Marquis de Montcalm besieged Fort William Henry at the head of Lake George in New York. The British commander, Lieutenant Colonel George Munro, finally capitulated on August 9. In a formal ceremony, the British forces turned Fort William Henry over to the French in exchange for safe passage to Fort Edward. The next morning, the British soldiers, families, and followers began a 16-mile march with their baggage, arms, and horses. To the surprise of the commander, Montcalm's Indian allies pursued them and attacked them with French escorts watching. Munro survived, but more than 200 people died in the massacre. In the aftermath, Indian warfare against the outer settlements of British America intensified.

British warfare changed dramatically after William Pitt became the Secretary of State. Unlike his predecessors, Pitt understood that North America – not Europe – was central to the outcome of the war. He helped to change the strategic outlook by ordering the Royal Army on campaigns to seize French forts and the Royal Navy to blockade French ports. The home government assumed responsibility for the increased costs of the military, pledging to reimburse colonial governments for most of their expenses and providing pay and supplies for many provincial units to ensure their continued service.

Provincials augmented the British regiments, who assumed primary responsibility for fighting in the North American theater. Between 1758 and 1759, the colonies armed, trained, and equipped more than 42,000 recruits. As a result, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York furnished over two-thirds of the total force structure. British officers repeatedly characterized the locals in uniform as lazy, shiftless, and unfit, although many expressed eagerness to defend hearth and home. The four battalions of “The Royal Americans” served under the Swiss-born Colonel Henry Bouquet, who advocated French tactics for petite guerre, or guerrilla war. Though relegated to support and auxiliary functions, colonial volunteers actively participated in major combat operations for Great Britain.

One volunteer company from New Hampshire was commanded by Robert Rogers, who inspired the nickname, Rogers' Rangers. Whatever his questionable reputation, Rogers took responsibility for mustering, arming, and leading them. They trained at an island fortress identified today as Rogers Island, which loomed across from Fort Edward in the Hudson River. They prepared to maneuver undetected, to scout locations, to capture prisoners, and to gather intelligence. Disrespected by many British regulars, they represented one of the few forces able to overcome harsh conditions and mountainous terrain. They undertook long and seemingly impossible winter marches, trekking with crude snowshoes across frozen waters. Skillful at ambush, evasion, and misdirection in battle, they preferred to operate in small groups while making use of forests and mountains for cover. They sometimes scalped Indian foes, who referred to Rogers as the “white devil.” In fact, Colonel Thomas Gage organized a British regiment of light infantry modeled after Rogers' Rangers.

During 1758, General Jeffery Amherst commanded a force of 9,000 regulars and 500 colonials in a new offensive to capture Louisbourg. The Royal Navy established a tight blockade of Canada, while British forces scrambled ashore at Gabarus Bay. Beginning on June 8, British sappers under General James Wolfe began to besiege the Vauban fortress. In one of the finest examples of siege warfare in history, they avoided launching dangerous infantry attacks by instead digging a series of alternating parallel and approach trenches. With gradual yet relentless pressure, the British cannons breached the fortress walls. After six weeks, Louisbourg fell. Cape Breton and Ile St. Jean passed into British hands.

The British landed more blows against the French. On August 26, 1758, Lieutenant Colonel John Bradstreet and a mixed force that included Indian auxiliaries attacked Fort Frontenac on Lake Ontario. They permitted the French to depart before demolishing the fortress. Elsewhere, General John Forbes constructed a road to approach Fort Duquesne, which the French decided to burn after fleeing. Occupying the ruins on November 25, 1758, Forbes rebuilt the walls and renamed it Fort Pitt. Hundreds of Iroquois warriors aided Lieutenant Colonel Eyre Massey, who captured Fort Niagara on July 23, 1759. Amherst also drove a French garrison from Fort Carillon by occupying the high ground nearby. A few days later, the French mined the fortress and blew it up. The ruined stronghold was renamed Ticonderoga, an Iroquois word meaning “the junction of two waterways.” With the French in retreat, Wolfe conducted a spectacular campaign that resulted in the capture of Quebec on September 16, 1759. The next year, Montreal surrendered as well. Finally, Rogers' Rangers took command of Fort Detroit and raised the British flag in triumph.

Despite the triumph of British America, a number of Indian tribes continued to resist the encroachment on their lands. Although the Cherokee became British allies, colonial governments wanted to drive them from the valleys of the southern Appalachians. In 1760, Cherokee raiders struck the garrison at Fort Prince George. Amherst dispatched more than 1,300 Highlanders and Royal Scots from New York to Charleston under the command of Colonel Archibald Montgomery and Major James Grant. They looted and burned the Lower Cherokee towns and briefly campaigned against the Middle and Overhill Cherokee towns. However, the Cherokee captured Fort Loudoun and killed dozens of soldiers. The next year, Grant returned with a force of 2,800 British regulars, colonial volunteers, and Indian auxiliaries. After crossing the Cowee Range, they destroyed a total of 15 towns and more than 1,000 acres of corn belonging to the Cherokee. Unable to gain allies from neighboring Indian tribes, the Cherokee prudently agreed to peace with British negotiators.

Near the Great Lakes, many Indian tribes joined the conspiracy of Pontiac, an Ottawa leader. He was inspired by Neolin, a Delaware prophet, who claimed that the Great Holy Force Above called on his people to repudiate European technology and trade goods – especially alcohol. The initial uprising captured nearly every British garrison west of Fort Niagara and besieged Fort Detroit. At the Battle of Bloody Run on July 31, 1763, Indian warriors defeated British regulars and forced settlers to flee the backcountry. Amherst, the commander of the British Army in North America, allowed the distribution of smallpox-infested blankets from Fort Pitt during that summer. Over the winter, the smallpox contagion turned the tide against the belligerent tribes. The military operations the next year broke the resistance movement.

Victory in the French and Indian War gave the British formal dominion from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River. Thanks to the mettle of the British forces on land and at sea, the empire doubled in size. According to the Peace of Paris in 1763, France ceded all claims to the interior of the continent. While the British won the prized land along the Great Lakes, the French abandoned their Indian allies.

Martial Law

In the wake of the French and Indian War, the colonial population dreaded the contin­uing presence of British regulars in their communities. Although they benefited from the increased security, they disputed the legality of the new taxes and the unexpected imposition of standing armies and navies. They perceived the empire as an overbearing giant, even if they previously celebrated its military triumphs.

Faced with massive debt and backcountry unrest, London pursued a series of measures to reform colonial administration. Abandoning the tradition of salutary neglect, the government levied duties on the colonies to finance the defense of the far-flung empire. New orders in council tightened the enforcement of maritime trade and navigation laws. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 forbade settlers from advancing beyond the mountains that divided the Atlantic Coast from the inland forests. Growing unruly and discontented, many provincials concluded that the reforms violated their legitimate interests.

Most alarming to the populations of New England and the middle colonies, the presence of British regulars exacerbated the problems with Royal authority. As the new commander of the British Army in North America, General Gage asked Parliament to pass the Quartering Act in 1765. The Act required the colonial assemblies to pay for certain supplies given to regiments stationed within their borders. To the dismay of King George III, it was circumvented in each of the colonies except Pennsylvania. When the New York assembly refused to comply, Parliament prohibited the Royal governor from signing any further legislation until the assembly implemented it. In Massachusetts, British officers carefully followed the new stipulations to quarter the red-coated soldiers in public spaces, not in private homes. They pitched tents on the Boston Commons and waited for tensions to ease. However, off-duty soldiers competed with urban laborers for low-wage jobs near the waterfront. With boycotts of imports leaving seaport workers unemployed, baiting the troops became a popular diversion for the sort of men carousing at the taverns. Trouble was brewing in the port city.

By 1770, street brawls between British regulars and local mobs culminated in the Boston Massacre. Radical groups such as the Sons of Liberty encouraged demonstrations by angry “Jack Tars,” who sometimes roamed the neighborhoods carrying cudgels. In early March, members of the 29th Regiment attempted to find work at a ropewalk but instead scuffled with Bostonians hurling insults. On the evening of March 5, dockworkers came out to King Street to pitch snowballs at “Lobster-backs” guarding the Customs House. Liquor seemed to reinforce their courage to challenge the sentries. Captain Thomas Preston and his squad formed a “half-cocked” line, while a voice in the night yelled “Fire!” Five rioters on King Street were killed, including a 6-foot 2-inch former slave named Crispus Attucks. After a sensational trial in Boston, a local jury determined that the soldiers acted in self-defense, which acquitted them of the murder charges. In fact, Preston's squad benefited from the legal defense presented by John Adams, a lawyer from Braintree, Massachusetts. For Bostonians, the tragic event crystallized colonial fears about the dangers of a standing military.

Tensions continued to escalate and eventually led to martial law in Boston. After the Boston Tea Party dumped a ship's cargo into the harbor, Parliament passed a series of Coercive Acts in 1774. In addition to suspending the Massachusetts charter and closing the port of Boston, the Acts appointed General Gage to the position of military governor. Committees of Correspondence, which formed previously to disseminate information about local resistance and to promote the non-importation of British goods, denounced his dictatorial powers. In opposition to the “intolerable Acts,” colonial delegations assembled for the first Continental Congress later that year. The delegates issued a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances” to no avail. They not only called for a colonial union in support of a continental boycott but also insisted that “keeping a standing army” was against the will of the people. Accordingly, martial law seemed to arouse rather than to subdue their passions.

The militia of Massachusetts prepared to actively resist the enforcement of martial law. Outside of Gage's reach in Boston, communities began collecting ammunition, powder, cannons, and stores in their arsenals. One of the most important arsenals in the countryside lay at Concord, about 20 miles inland from Boston. Local officials began to identify militia officers to entrust with command, as opposed to the ones known to be loyal to the military governor. Wherever possible, companies reorganized to form rapid response units. Asking them to turn out armed and ready “in a minute's notice,” commanders christened their special forces the “Minutemen.” As winter turned into spring, Massachusetts readied its armed citizenry to oppose the British Army in the field.

On April 19, 1775, Gage dispatched a column of 700 soldiers to seize the weaponry held by the militia in Concord. Placing Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith in command of the column, the military governor also ordered the arrest of opposition leaders, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Forewarned by midnight riders, 70 Minutemen under Captain John Parker intercepted the British regulars about 6 miles away from Concord. At dawn on Lexington's village green, they gathered to demonstrate their resolve but not necessarily to provoke a fight. “Stand your ground,” ordered Parker. Major Thomas Pitcairn ordered the “damn rebels” to lay down their weapons and to disperse from the field. Suddenly, a volley of gunfire erupted. His Majesty's troops delivered a bayonet charge. As a result of the “shots heard around the world,” eight Minutemen perished. Ten more suffered wounds in the Battle of Lexington.

As news of the bloodshed spread quickly, the British column marched onward to Concord. They burned a number of wooden gun carriages in storage, although locals had removed most of the powder previously. Smoke from the pyre rose into the morning sky, which convinced residents that the British intended to set the town ablaze. Around 8:30 a.m., Captain David Brown and 400 militiamen from Concord attacked British infantry at the North Bridge. Their shots ignited the Battle of Concord. Shortly before noon, Smith ordered the British column to withdraw.

Militiamen converged on the 17-mile road connecting Concord to Boston. Thousands assumed positions at critical points along the route, which slowed the withdrawal of the redcoats. From behind fences, rocks, and trees, they poured rolling fire onto the British column. Frustrated by an elusive foe, the marching infantry found few targets for their customary volleys or bayonet charges. Their flankers suffered ambushing and scalping in the surrounding woods. Only the arrival of reinforcements enabled most of them to reach the safety of Boston by dusk. At the end of the day, Gage's troops counted as many as 273 killed, wounded, or missing. The losses among the regulars totaled nearly three times the number among the militia.

Elsewhere in New England, the militia assailed Fort Ticonderoga at the juncture of Lake Champlain and Lake George. Colonel Benedict Arnold, a merchant from New Haven, Connecticut, accepted orders from the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to seize artillery from the British garrison. He linked up with Colonel Ethan Allen and his gang of about 100 “Green Mountain Boys” in New York. Even though Arnold and Allen squabbled over command, they captured the key outpost on May 10, 1775.

Although reconciliation remained a possibility, martial law failed to suppress the resistance movement. The skirmishes between the colonists and the empire indicated that the former would stand defiantly against the latter. When Royal authorities decided to punish Massachusetts, they incited an open and armed rebellion.

Rebel Forces

More than 10,000 provincials poured into the militia camps on the outskirts of Boston. Though poorly organized and quarrelsome, they began to construct a ring of siege works from shore to shore. Under the direction of Colonel Artemas Ward, the mob of New England patriots formed an arc around Boston to keep the British regulars at bay.

While toiling, the mob enjoyed a song native to the colonial era variously titled “A Visit to Camp,” “The Lexington March,” and even “Doodle Dandy.” Certain lines were attributable to Richard Shuckburgh, an army surgeon for a British regiment, which parodied training days and camp life. Moreover, the chorus offered a derisive epithet for the militiamen. “Yankee” probably derived from a Dutch nickname for the provincials, whereas “doodle” in English denoted playful, shiftless, or menial activities. Given a martial beat with fife and drums, the cadences involved dancing, gesturing, mocking, and frolicking. The lyrics questioned authority with a distinguishing mix of satire and irony, which insinuated that the outfitted regulars, not the armed citizenry, were the foolish ones.

The armed citizenry occupied the Charlestown peninsula, where two heights, Bunker's Hill and Breed's Hill, overlooked Boston from the north. Originally, they intended to fortify the former, which loomed nearest the narrow neck of land connecting the peninsula with the mainland. The latter rose nearer to the shoreline, but the terrain left the defenders exposed to a possible British landing to the rear. Arriving on the night of June 16, 1775, the militia companies dug trenches and erected redoubts across Breed's Hill by mistake.

Meanwhile, reinforcements to Gage's troops inside Boston raised their numbers to 6,500. The reinforcements included three major generals – William Howe, Henry Clinton, and Johnny Burgoyne. As a public demonstration of military prowess, the “council of war” planned a frontal assault on the high ground. They assumed that the assembled “rabble in arms” would disintegrate in the face of a disciplined attack by British regulars. On June 17, Gage detailed 2,500 soldiers under the command of Howe and ferried them to the Charlestown peninsula under the cover of a Royal Navy bombardment. Convinced that the rebels would retreat from their hillside dispositions, Howe landed his redcoats at the tip of the peninsula and marched them up the slope.

Figure 1.3 View of the Attack on Bunker's Hill, 1783. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


That sunny afternoon, the residents of Boston mounted rooftops to witness what was incorrectly called the Battle of Bunker Hill. Colonel William Prescott, a Massachusetts farmer who once had been offered a commission in the British Army, resolved to make a defiant stand. When a flying cannonball tore off one comrade's head, Prescott stood erect on a parapet to steady the rebel line. They charged their weapons with rusty nails and scrap metal, while their balls were encrusted at times with poisonous mixtures. Brigadier General Israel Putnam of Connecticut told them: “Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” His advice seemed prudent, because they lacked sufficient ammunition for numerous volleys. Their aim proved deadly, as withering fire shattered the first British advance. After a quick regrouping, they repelled the second. Finally, a third attempt pushed them from the hillside. Running out of ammunition, they fell back to Bunker's Hill before withdrawing to Cambridge.

British casualties totaled a staggering 1,054 – almost half of the force engaged – compared with rebel losses of 411. Shaken by the carnage of the battle, the British regulars never forgot the costly assault. Clearly, Royal authorities miscalculated the challenges that they faced in New England.

To the south, the Royal governor of Virginia faced challenges of his own. John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, received word that a renewed cycle of Indian raids threatened backcountry settlements. Unrest spread throughout the countryside during 1774, particularly in the insular communities distant from the capital at Williamsburg. The Mingo and the Shawnee, who lived west of the Royal Proclamation line, began attacking provincials entering their hunting grounds. At Dunmore's request, Virginia's House of Burgesses authorized funding for a volunteer militia expedition against the gathering threats. At the junction of the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers, Dunmore's forces defeated Shawnee and Mingo warriors in the Battle of Point Pleasant on October 10, 1774. The governor returned to the capital to declare victory in his war.

Irrespective of his military leadership, Dunmore confronted political opposition in the House of Burgesses. Patrick Henry, a combative member of the House, called for the permanent organization of a volunteer company of cavalry or infantry within every county. In an expression of solidarity with Massachusetts, he encouraged the House to pass a resolution in 1774 declaring a day of fasting and prayer. In response, Dunmore dissolved the House.

The next year, local officials across Virginia readied the militia for an emergency. At the behest of the Virginia Convention meeting in Richmond, they stockpiled weapons, ammunition, and gunpowder. After the clashes at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, Dunmore sought to deprive a potential insurrection of logistical capabilities. He ordered the Royal marines to empty the arsenal and to disable the muskets stored in Williamsburg. On the night of April 20, 1775, Lieutenant Henry Collins arrived in the capital with a squad from H.M.S. Magdalen, which anchored on the James River. Afterwards, they fled in the dark with 15 half-barrels of powder for delivery to H.M.S. Fowey on the York River.

Rumors about additional operations by the Royal marines brought out the Virginia militia. Led by Henry, the Hanover County militia voted on May 2 to march on Williamsburg. They stopped outside the capital, because Henry received a bill of exchange as payment for the powder. Nevertheless, Dunmore felt so imperiled that he briefly armed a group of black slaves and Shawnee Indians to guard the Governor's Palace. On June 8, he fled from the capital to H.M.S. Fowey. On November 17, he issued a shocking proclamation, which promised freedom to chattel in the Old Dominion if they joined an “Ethiopian Regiment.” He also dispatched an emissary to recruit Indian warriors to “march forth to conquer the Virginia rebels.” After a decisive defeat in the Battle of the Great Bridge that December, he resorted to sporadic raiding the next year. The Virginia gentry decided that British rule had lost legitimacy.

By the end of 1775, British hopes for colonial reconciliation had all but disappeared. The Crown began recruiting new regiments of provincial loyalists and soliciting armed auxiliaries from Indian tribes. In addition, the home government hired 30,000 Hessian mercenaries for deployment to North America. “Well, the die is now cast,” King George III responded when told of rebel forces. The king concluded forthrightly: “Now, blows must decide whether they're to be our subjects or independent.”


The American military originated in the violent interactions of diverse people, who armed themselves for survival in the woodlands. Beginning in 1607, the English colonies organized militia units to conduct operations from their coastal bases. Their acts of war included frequent skirmishes with the Indians as well as occasional patrolling in the interior. Taking advantage of their assets, they pushed Indian tribes from the perimeters of provincial towns. At the same time, they relied upon the Royal Army and Navy to battle against rival empires. Eventually, the population of North America became involved in a series of global wars between Great Britain and France. The fighting culminated with the French and Indian War, which exposed thousands of locals to arduous campaigning. Governmental disputes with London produced an imperial crisis, when the British placed the colony of Massachusetts under martial law. Soon, the militia and the regulars came to blows. By 1775, revolting Americans defied the military power of Great Britain.

Long before Americans revolted, trans-Atlantic colonization gave credence to the myth that the frontiersmen stood ready to provide an effective defense against all enemies. That is because the conquerors of North America resorted to the inherited traditions of classical republicanism for their notions of security. In the life-and-death struggle for control of the continent, the militia system reflected a kind of reversed self-image of what English colonists associated with imperial might. Armed citizens led the way for the American military, first against the spirited resistance of Indian tribes and later against the standing armies and navies of European monarchs. Generally, they did not perform well on expeditions outside the vicinity of their homes and communities. Many deserted their posts, especially if the logistics for conducting operations in faraway places faltered. Clinging to their colonial insti­tutions, Americans assumed that amateurs could stand toe-to-toe with professionals in war.

In the wars of the colonial era, Americans experienced an evolution of military affairs. Though slow to change in many respects, European approaches to combat were not completely abandoned by the armed forces. Nevertheless, imperial warfare waged by regulars gave way to military actions that entailed a great deal of innovation. On the one hand, troops possessing organization, discipline, and firepower remained necessary to clear and to hold objectives for decisive results. On the other hand, they needed to travel faster and lighter to take advantage of cover, concealment, and surprise in the marshy woods. In other words, combatants on both sides of the Atlantic learned from each other while reinventing their systems of defense. Because American warriors adapted their strategies, tactics, and logistics to the threat environment, their fighting styles revealed a number of lessons learned from Indian people.

Fighting in the colonial era broadly reinforced the warrior attributes not always evident in the rank and file of the standing military. Regardless of the force structure, soldiers and sailors in North America tended to act in highly competitive ways. They preferred to serve and to sacrifice for their friends and their families rather than for the objectives of distant authorities. Drawn from a dynamic population, they grew united in their desire to overcome adversaries with strenuous work and dauntless courage. They seemed to resent the discipline and the punishments associated with His Majesty's service, even though they battled against long odds with prodigious bursts of energy. Eager to return from the theater of operations as soon as possible, they often fought with their passion for liberty uppermost in mind. Time and again, the strengths and weaknesses of the American military manifested under the stress of a long war.

Essential Questions

1 How did the technology and tactics of the Native Americans differ from those employed by European forces?

2 What were the chief features of the colonial militia system?

3 Why did the colonists revolt against a standing military after the French and Indian War?

Suggested Readings

Allison, William T., Jeffrey Grey, and Janet G. Valentine. American Military History: A Survey from Colonial Times to the Present. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007.

Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Archer, Richard. As If an Enemy's Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Cave, Alfred A. The Pequot War. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

Doubler, Michael D. Civilian in Peace, Soldier in War: The Army National Guard, 1636– 2000. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.

Ferling, John E. Struggle for a Continent: The Wars of Early America. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1993.

Grenier, John. The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607–1814. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Keegan, John. Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Leach, Douglas Edward. Arms for Empire: A Military History of the British Colonies in North America, 1607–1763. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity. New York: Random House, 1998.

Malone, Patrick M. The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics Among New England Indians. Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 2000.

Millett, Allan R., and Peter Maslowski. For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. Revised edition. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Peckham, Howard H. The Colonial Wars, 1689–1762. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Ross, John F. War on the Run: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America's First Frontier. New York: Bantam Books, 2009.

Shea, William L. The Virginia Militia in the Seventeenth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.

Silver, Peter. Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.

Starkey, Armstrong. European and Native American Warfare, 1675–1815. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Steele, Ian K. Warpaths: Invasions of North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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