At the beginning of American independence an immense task faced the colonial revolutionary. The English army, the best-trained, best-equipped military in the world, had served in the Americas, enforcing the will of the crown for many decades. American victory rested in the ability of the colonists to put together a viable fighting army. We know from history that the American Continental Army, commanded by George Washington, defeated the superior British army and expelled the rule of the crown from the colonies by 1783.

Washington and the Continental Congress largely relied on the colonial militias to man the army and win the war. Until recently, most military historians, mostly former army soldiers largely ignored the contribution of the militia in the victory over the British. As John Shy has pointed out “Critics of the militia—many of them professional soldiers point to…the apparent inefficiency of militia in combat, and on the way the myth of defense by ‘citizen soldiers’ led again and again to tragic unpreparedness for war.”[1] Shy is implying here that for too long those who rejected militia defense in principle disavowed their success during the Revolution. If this is true then it begs an important question. How much did the colonial militia contribute to enable the Continental army to defeat the British? I would posit that the militia movement was the driving force behind the Continental Army’s victory over the British because they were the main source of manpower, because they were already trained and armed with a 150 year harden tradition of defense to protect their own communities, and because the militia was made up of mostly  farmers and landowners, they stood to gain the most from independence giving them something tangible to fight for other than “liberty”.

The first Continental Army was composed almost entirely of militia groups, the most logical recruitment pool for two reasons. One, their paramilitary nature gave them all the qualifications to be molded relatively easily into a fighting army. Two, almost all able bodied men belonged to the militia anyway.[2]  Most colonial militias required all men between sixteen and fifty to serve for different periods of time.[3] They were required “to provide their own weapons and equipment, and to be mustered and trained periodically by their duly commissioned officers.”[4] Hence, the militia member was an ideal candidate for regular army service.

There was however, some resistance to forming a regular army. Unattached rebellious militias were against enlistment for several reasons. Many colonists viewed a standing army as a threat to their rights.[5] They feared that any regular army, foreign or domestic, might at sometime in the future be in a position to remove their liberties forcibly. The idea of a standing army raised the provincial “suspicion that one province would be sacrificed in favor of the interests of another”. One of the original reasons for establishing “town” militias was to protect their own homes and loved ones. Fighting in an army that might force the soldier to travel would leave their homes vulnerable to attack from Indians or in the case of the south, slave uprisings.[6]

There were times when the militia just plain refused to observe calls to arms.[7] For example, in August 1777, the British attempted to seize control of the Hudson River after the battle for Quebec. Washington did not have enough soldiers to defend against the operation. Consequently, as he successfully did a number of times during the Revolutionary War, he called on the militia to fill out the needed numbers.[8] However, Washington and his generals could never be sure if the militia would answer the call or not. In this case the call went largely unheeded. Washington was furious.  He severely condemned “the conduct of the Militia of Connecticut, who because they find no enemy at their doors, refuse to assist their neighbors.”[9]  Two months later the Connecticut Militia did serve with distinction under General Gates and contributed to the surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga.

Each colony decided how many of its units it would commit to the Continental force. [10]   Consequently, some colonies committed more than others. However, because some militia units stayed out of the army did not necessarily mean they did not participate in the Revolution. Non-committed militia units provided a vital role in the civilian sector of the war.

While the Continental Army was waging its wars against the British at Saratoga, Princeton and Yorktown, the militias were conscientiously waging war against rebel interests in the towns and villages up and down the Eastern seaboard. They were “indispensable” in this part of the revolution. “Governors George Clinton of New York and John Rutledge of South Carolina agreed that suppressing loyalism was the most vital function the militia could perform.”[11] Loyalist influence was the soft underbelly of the Rebel movement. Removing Tory forces and influence was a great help in ousting the British.

Spying and partisan activities, not limited to atrocities on both sides were well known occurrences. [12]  Both the loyalists and rebels came from all walks of life, civil servants, customs officers, crown officials, clergy, merchants, tradesman and farmers.[13] They were so intertwined with each other that it was easy for each side to infiltrate each other’s groups. This constituted a bloody, vengeful conflict.

Militia groups were stationed at various pockets of loyalist interest, and engaged them when necessary. For example, the Fourteenth Connecticut Regiment in the northwestern region of the colony was “held in reserve to defend the Salisbury foundry,” which was a Tory stronghold, against possible uprisings.[14] Fierce Guerilla conflicts broke out in various places between Loyalists and Rebel forces. Especially in the south, these tit for tat terrorist activities spread throughout North Carolina and into Georgia. [15] Various rebel militias kept loyalist groups busy so they could not interfere on the side of the British while they were engaging the Continental Army. This enabled Washington and his generals to concentrate fully on convincing the British to leave the American continent. These unattached militia groups cooperated with the army on a regular basis. Continental troops could not be everywhere at once.  The militia, operating on the local scene or behind the lines simply had to handle problems of  “law and order, disaffection, and war weariness.”[16]

Another advantage to utilizing the militia enabled the continentals to reinforce losses much easier than the British. This had a profound effect on the outcome of several battles, which were germane to the ultimate American victory. At the same time it contributed to the inability of the British to sustain a fight. Several times Washington’s forces were depleted, even in danger of collapse, when the militia would appear to replenish badly needed numbers of soldiers.

At the battle of Brandywyne in August of 1777, American forces sustained twice as many casualties as the British. General Howe was not able to replenish his losses. General Washington however, did so within three weeks after the battle ended. Along with the 900 Continentals from Peekskill, “General Smallwood appeared with 1,100 Maryland militia, and David Forman’s 600 New Jersey irregulars…”[17] Without this substantial joining of militia forces to Washington’s army, they might not have been able to continue engaging the enemy with the same intensity.

At the time of the Revolution, The militia movement was a one hundred and fifty-year entrenched institution with traditions molded by almost constant warfare. Citizen defense became as much a part of colonial life as farming and “religious freedom.” “John Adams called it one of the cornerstones of New England society—along with towns, schools, and congregations—from which the virtues and talents of the people were formed.” [18] The first militia units can be traced to Salem, Massachusetts in 1630, a necessary development “in safeguarding small but isolated communities against a hostile and threatening environment.”[19] Following Massachusetts’ lead, the Virginia assembly in 1632, “told every man fit to carry a gun to bring it to church, that he might exercise with it after the service.”[20] From that time the militia became a necessary entity of colonial life, culminating in using its skills to become the driving force in winning the Revolutionary War.[21]

The men that made up the militia groups were mostly farmers, middle class landowners who banded together to protect their individual communities. As the objects of hostility changed over time so did the militia policy.[22] Each colony would react to the particular dangers indicative to their own environments. For example, Virginia might be organizing to withstand Indian attacks while in the southern colonies slave revolts might require the most attention. Consequently, colonial militias developed different policy, strategy and tactics depending on their own particular means of defense. By the time of the Revolution most militias had become specialized in their own kind of warfare. Therefore, the militiaman, turned soldier, could bring a special expertise to the army, which could then be exploited at the commander’s discretion.

A cross section of the entire colonial society served in militia groups for various reasons. According to militia law, “officers were to ‘muster and train all sorts of men, of what condition or wheresoever born.’” This allowed for others outside of the normal militia structure to be “mustered.” [23] “Friendly and domesticated Indians, free Negroes and mulattoes, white servants and apprentices, and free white men on the move” were among the most common who were more than willing to go to war. [24]

Certain tensions arose between the militia and the Continentals. The lack of scholarship about the militia contribution to the Revolutionary War mentioned in the introduction to this essay, is a testament to these tensions that still exist even to the present day. Army officers during the revolutionary war voiced openly their disdain for militia discipline and standards. They were, complained General Nathaniel Greene, “people coming from home with all the tender feelings of domestic life” and “not sufficiently fortified with natural courage to stand the shocking scenes of war. To march over dead men, to hear without concern the groans of the wounded, I say few men can stand such scenes unless steeled by habit or fortified by military pride.”[25] Even though some army officers developed their military style from their militia service, they still criticized the movement for being to lax in its approach to military discipline. Militia members were accused of tardiness, absenteeism, drunkenness and a general lack of military discipline.[26]

The tensions notwithstanding, these experiences gave the militia a fighting tradition, which although lacking in strict military discipline, put the colonists in a position to man and train a regular army within a short period of time. The formation of regular American soldiers giving over to military discipline happened so rapidly that it surprised the British enemy. At the battle of Germantown in October 1777, the British observed that this “ was a superior American army to the one that had fought the campaign of 1776.”[27]  The militia participation in the war helped the colonists to become a unified, fighting force quickly, shortening the duration of the conflict. Without the militia tradition the army would have had to take valuable time and resources to train and develop a military attitude.


Colonial America was mostly an agrarian society. Most landowners were farmers. But whether they were farmers or merchants serving the farming community, they all had the same objective at the time of the Revolution, to cease paying taxes to the King of England. By the middle of the  1770s, perceived unfair treatment in regard to having to pay revenue to a king across the ocean could not be accepted by a large portion of English colonists. Therefore, they revolted. This segment of society stood to gain the most from independence because it not only gave them liberty but freed them from having to pay the tax. .

The incentive to take up arms by 1775 commenced after years of frustration and failed negotiation over tax relief from the king to the American farmer. This frustration led to the Massachusetts Militia first engaging the British in April 1775 initiating the Revolutionary War.  Their performance was an inspiration to all colonists who held a common grudge against English rule. Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill were fought entirely by “irate citizens and embattled farmers.” [28]  Because of the clear American victory in those initial confrontations, the Continental Congress took a daring step forward and adopted the idea of extricating the British from American shores completely.[29] The events perpetrated by the Massachusetts Militias at Lexington and Concord, decisively moved the colonies toward revolution. If the colonists could force the British to leave, tax paying landowners would no longer be liable to the King of England. This would relieve an immense burden and alleviate the frustration that had built up for years.

The great strength of the militia movement however, was the merchant or farmer who were put into positions of leadership and policy making within the militia structure. “Towns nominated two or three men for the office of captain and lieutenant.” [30] The farmer the militia group, leading mostly other farmers forced the policy of the militia by 1775 to react violently, thereby initiating hostilities.

From the time of the Seven Years War many recruits into the militia were not farmers at all but “those who were recruited for all the wrong reasons—money, escape, and the assurance of easy discipline.”[31] These men were easily swayed because of their predicaments and therefore exploited to fight for independence. The overwhelming fact remained that since the economy depended on an agrarian market, it was the farmers and those who served them that insisted on the war, and ultimately succeeded through the militia in ousting the British.

How significant was the militia contribution to the ultimate American victory during the Revolutionary War? The Militia was the driving force behind that victory because of three factors.

It was the main source of manpower supplied to the Continental army. Although not an organized army in 1775, it did have a long standing military tradition which enabled the colonists to build the army needed to defeat the British in a relatively short period of time. There were tensions between army officers and militia members who refused to join for various reasons. This worked more to the rebel advantage because it enabled unnatached militia groups to work within the civilian sector fighting off British sympathy in their individual colonies. And, they provided a reinforcement of soldiers, when needed, with a quickness that the British could not match.  A one hundred and fifty-year tradition of citizen soldiers existing in almost every town and hamlet in North America allowed for the quick advancement into a regular army, ultimately to defeat the British, the most well trained army in the world. And, the fact that farmers, themselves a tradition in colonial America, were so influential in the militia movement, they stood to gain the most from extricating the rule of the Crown, by eliminating a perceived unfair tax. This possessed the militia soldier with more passion and incentive to win the war than the common British soldier.

In the end it was as John Galvin has termed it, a war fought and won by “irate citizens and embattled farmers.”[32]



[1] John Shy. A People Numerous and Armed: reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, p. 23

[2] Higgenbotham,. p. 94. “The great pool of civilian manpower largely accounted for the surprising resilience of the rebel main armies.” Shy,  p. 209

[3] John B. B. Jr. Trussell. The Pennsylvania Line: Regimental Organization and Operations, 1776-1783. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1977. P.244. Each colony set its own rules as to age limits, who should go and when. For example, the Pennsylvania militia act of 1777, clearly delineated the age of able bodied men to serve in the Pennsylvania militias from eighteen to fifty-three. However, these rules were not always followed to the letter. For example, many colonies, not only Pennsylvania, followed the British tradition of using younger boys as drummers and fifers. Therefore, it was not unusual to see ten and twelve year old boys in the militia.

[4] Shy, p. 24, Higgenbotham, p. 10.

[5] Boucher, p. 36. See also Higgenbotham,, p. 114

[6] Higgenbotham,  War of Independence, p.7

[7] Buel p. 31. This was a problem that continued throughout much of the war. By 1780 the defiance of the militia toward the Continentals became so severe that the Congress found it necessary to take strong action against their insolence. “The prejudice against the Continental service waned precisely as serious disorders began to plague the militia. In the spring and summer of 1780, the legislature for the first time confronted a rash of insubordination charges against officers who would not execute orders to draft their men.”

[8] Jameson, “Equipment for the Militia,” p. 121. “They (the militia) did serve throughout the war as replacements in the Continental lines of their respective states and as militia units attached to the army on a temporary basis.

[9] Buel p. 123. This is in reference to the militia members’ criticism of joining a standing army. Their desire to stay close to home, so as not leave their families vulnerable proved to be a powerful incentive not to fight for a union. Incidences like this caused Washington and many of his officers to take pause. How much could they count on these groups?  There were several  statements I found that showed Washington’s distrust of the militia. But, these seem more like  momentary lapses of confidence or outbursts of anger as there were also numerous references to the praising of the efforts of the militia also. For example, in a letter that Washington wrote to Abner Nash on November 6, 1780, he is quite willing to praise the militia and counts this particular service they performed among the successes of the campaign. “…the success of the militia against Col. Ferguson, this I flatter myself will give a better aspect to your affair and will awaken more extensively that spirit of bravery and enterprise  which displayed itself as conspicuously on that occasion.” Washington Papers, Library of Congress, Web site: http://memory.loc.gov)

[10] Buel, p. 37. For example in Connecticut the militia at first conscripted one-fourth or 6000 of their 26,260 irregulars in 1775. However, more were committed later. It was a slow process at best. Buel, p. 77. According to Buel, the Connecticut militia’s conscription into the army maxed out at 18,915, 75 per cent of Connecticut’s militia force.

[11] Higgenbotham, P. 273.

[12] Shy, p. 212. For example, in October of 1780, a group of rebel militias wiped out a thousand man Loyal force at King’s Mountain, North Carolina. Some have suggested that actual civil war existed between those sympathetic to the British and those siding with the patriots.

[13] Lynn Montross. Rag, Tag, and Bobtail: The story of The Continental Army, 1775-1783. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1952. p. 95.

[14] Buel, p. 77.

[15] Shy, p. 212

[16]  Higgenbotham, p. 94. Jameson,  “Equipment for the Militia.” P. 121. “They were called repeatedly to render services which ranged from turning out on any sudden alarm, to guarding prisoners, apprehending deserters, building fortifications, and protecting cattle.

[17] Higgenbotham, War of Independence, p.186.

[18] Higgenbotham, War of Independence, p.13

[19] Ronald L. Boucher. “The Colonial Militia as a Social Institution.” Anthology by the editors of Military affairs. Military Analysis of the Revolutionary War.  New York: KTO Press, 1977. p. 35

[20] Shy, A people numerous and Armed. p. 24

[21] These dates tend to vary slightly between historians. But one could assume from most of the scholarship that the first militias formed in the colonies were in Virginia and Massachusetts, and did take place sometime between 1630 and 1633.

[22] Shy, A People Numerous and Armed. p. 25.  “Indian policy had a direct bearing on military organization. For a time, Virginia attempted to treat all Indians as hostile, ipso, facto. But the military requirements of such a policy were too great, demanding large forces to make almost continuous raids into Indian country. The policy was changed, and the system of defense changed with it; henceforth, Virginia relied on a buffer of friendly Indians, on several forts along the frontier…”

[23] Shy, A people numerous and Armed. p. 28.

[24] Shy, A people numerous and Armed. p. 29. Although this policy varied from colony to colony and depended on several factors, it shows a multicultural blend, a rather unique statement for that time in history.

[25] Higgenbotham,  p. 107-108. This might be an unfair characterization of the typical American militia member but it shows the disdain that American army officers had for these groups.

[26] Boucher, “Militia as Social Institution.” P. 38

[27] Higgenbotham, War of Independence, p.187.

[28] Gen. John R. Galvin, U.S. Army. The Minute Men: The First Fight: Myths & Realities of the American Revolution. Washington: Pergamon-Brassey Publishers. 1989. Some argue that the embattled farmers concept, while maybe accurate does not do the story justice. “It was much more than that.” Galvin argues that it was more like a final outrage rather than an opening battle in that the colonists had enough of British presence in what they considered a country apart from England. The American success at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill, can be attributed at least in part to the fact that the British were clearly outnumbered. Fourteen thousand colonists in forty-seven militia regiments employed organization and tactics, which had been forged over the previous 150 years of nearly constant warfare. The British were handedly defeated on April 19, 1775, thus beginning the American Revolutionary War. p. 3.

[29]  Don Higgenbotham, The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practices, 1763-1789. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971. P. 57

[30] Jack S. Radabaugh, “The Militia of Colonial Massachusetts.” Anthology by the editors of Military affairs. Military Analysis of the Revolutionary War.  New York: KTO Press, 1977.

[31] Shy, A People Numerous and Armed. p. 31. “The generally low opinion acquired by most British officers of the American fighting man, an opinioin that later would have disastrous consequences for them, originated with wthe kind of provincial units they saw during the Severn Years’ War.”

[32] Galvin, The Minute Men. P. 3

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