Christopher Geist: The Myth of the Militia in the Revolutionary War

Roundup: Talking About History

Christopher Geist, in the journal of Colonial Williamsburg (Autumn 2004):

Before the nineteenth century was more than a couple of decades old, certainly by the fiftieth anniversary of 1776, the United States had come to regard the veterans of its revolution with a sort of wistful romanticism. An emerging American popular culture developed a vision of the common soldier of that war which more or less reflects ours: citizen-soldiers—farmers, laborers, men of the middling sort, young and old—minutemen who picked up their muskets and fell in with their militia units to defend home and community from invading Redcoats. The enemy driven from the field, the fighters returned to the plow, or anvil, or hearth, alert for the next threat. As the years drew on, and more and more of the old soldiers mustered for the march to the grave, the nation's veneration of them only advanced. A sort of pantheonic mythology grew.

In 1837, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson's elegy "Concord Hymn" celebrated the "embattled farmers" who "fired the shot heard round the world." In a speech a year later, young Abraham Lincoln spoke of "the generation just gone to rest," and the War for Independence. In part, he said:
At the close of that struggle, nearly every adult male had been a participator in some of its scenes. The consequence was, that of those scenes, in the form of a husband, a father, a son or a brother, a living history was to be found in every family—a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related—a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned. But those histories are gone. They can be read no more forever. They were a fortress of strength; but what invading foemen could never do the silent artillery of time has done; the levelling of its walls. They are gone....
Who, exactly, were these embodiments of history?

In Soldier of Liberty, Russell Fenton is a boyish recruit, just as were many of the men of '76. Some served the entire war.

The colonies required militia service, generally, of males between sixteen and sixty, excepting clergy, college students, slaves, and, often, free blacks. In Virginia, service by Catholics was forbidden. The militiamen came from the civilian ranks of tailors, mechanics, small farmers, bootmakers, smiths, gentry, common laborers, shopkeepers, clerks, lawyers, tutors, carpenters. The units roughly mirrored the laity of free white male colonial society.

In theory, the militia system provided a deep reservoir of men ready to be put under arms, and, indeed, during the Revolution the number of men who served in militia units far outnumbered that in the Continental Army. Militia was sometimes used effectively by Continental officers to reinforce and support regular forces, or to hold fortifications and fieldworks. Pitched battles were fought solely by militia at such engagements as the Battle of King's Mountain in 1780, but they were exceptions. Sometimes, as the next year at Cowpens, militia units were arrayed in advance of Continentals, taking the initial British attack, firing a volley, and falling back. The regulars moved forward to surprise the enemy with a body of more effective regular troops. Most militias saw action within their home regions, being called to duty as the contending armies moved from theater to theater. Using the militia as a benchmark, Lincoln's statement that "nearly every adult male had been a participator" in the Revolution seems accurate.

But should the occasional participant—the militiaman—be viewed as the most typical, the most reliable American soldier of the conflict?

Probably not.

As important as the militiamen were, and though they were the most numerous American participants in the war, Continental forces were the backbone of the struggle almost from the beginning....

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