The militia system, an institution in colonial life traces its beginning on this continent going back to 1632. That year the Virginia assembly ordered “every man fit to carry a gun to bring it to church, that he might exercise with it after the service” By the time of the Revolution, the wording of ordering men to serve was more sophisticated but in reality it had changed little. Massachusetts ordered men between the ages of sixteen and fifty to be enrolled in the militia, to provide their own weapons and equipment, and to be mustered and trained periodically  by their duly commissioned officers.” During times of emergencies men could be “levied, impressed, or drafted. (The wording changes depending on which set of laws you are reading). In most colonies company officers were chosen by the governors. One exception was New England where the officers were democratically elected by their militia members. Anyone who was drafted could be excused by paying a fine or finding a substitute. ( Shy, A People Numerous and Armed, p. 24 first paragraph).

The militia system fit very well into the American colonial fabric from the very beginning. Like the county court, the town meeting, and the church congregation, it was run by local people meeting local needs. The system also proliferated through provincialism that gave rise to the fear that a continental army might sacrifice one area for the interests of another, There were also difficulties in bringing the men together, problems of expense, and of leaving one’s own colony, worked against having some sort of intercolonial organized military force.(Higgenbothm War and Society, p. 7, see also Military Analysis, p. 36 at the top)

It is of some note that at the beginning of the Revolutionary war, the thirteen colonies did not have a standing army. The first battles fought at Lexington and Concord were victories entirely secured by the militias of Massachusetts. It is for the most part concluded by authoritative historians of the time, like Higgenbotham and John Shy that it was Massachusetts, which inspired the other colonies through their victories at Lexington and Concord that the British might indeed be ousted.  There were those who felt that at some point the new country would need a regular army but early in 1775 there was only the militia. This reversed long standing colonial aversion to the idea of a regular army.

By the Eighteenth century, the militia movement began to utilize several different classes of men, friendly Indians, free black slaves, white servants and apprentices and free white men on the move. These classes of men were more than willing to go to war to prove themselves. This leads to speculation that slaves might have been used as substitutes. In Virginia for example, according to Shy, depending on the author you are reading, one lists “Negroes” as being exempt, and the other lists “Slaves.” “Militia companies tended in the eighteenth century to become more social than military organizations, they became the hallmarks of respectablility or at least of full citizenship in the community” (Shy, p. 29 last paragraph). These social changes were to have a profound effect on the militia movement as it neared the time of the American Revolution. Saturating recruitment because of previous campaigns or family obligations saw recruiting techniques take in men that would have been labeled undesirable only fifty years earlier. The Virginia House of Burgesses is a good example of the changing social makeup of the militia.

(Those who) shall be found, loitering and neglecting to labor for reasonable wages; all who run from their habitations, leaving wives or children without suitable means for their subsistence, and all other idle, vagrant, or dissolute persons wandering abroad without betaking themselves to some lawful employment (Shy p. 30).

The militia had certain strengths and weaknesses. They were poorly trained, wasteful of equipment, and many times unreliable. So, after the establishment of the continental army their usefulness in battle was considered limited by most Continental officers. However, they were very good at defending their own property and liberty. One of the areas where the militias were very successful was weeding out internal enemies within the colonies. Govenor’s George Clinton of New York and John Rutledge of South Carolina said that “suppressing loyalism was the most vital function the militia could perform.” (Higgenbotham, p. 273 at the bottom). Militia men are creditied with destroying loyalist activity in western Connecticut, which was a hotbed of Loyalist action, vandalized and destroyed James Rivington’s Tory Press in New York City, and by 1777 militia units were placed at key roads and waterways to discourage and detain, if necessary, Loyalists who were traveling to join up with the British. (Higgenbotham p. 274).


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