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TNA 22-09 2006 Citizen Soldiers the Militia

TNA 22-09 2006 Citizen Soldiers the Militia

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THE NEW AMERICAN MAY 1, 20063
by Michael E. Telzrow 
W
hen the English first land-ed in Virginia in 1607,they began a long processof transplanting their political, cultural,and military institutions to the New World.In addition to introducing their versionof the Christian faith, they brought withthem a traditional fear of a standing army,and a reverent faith in the common militiasystem.The militia system, based upon univer-sal military service for able-bodied men,played an integral part in the founding of America. Transplanted from England, butmodified to meet the requirements of anew environment, it enabled colonists tosubdue the native population and to defendBritish interests from foreign incursion.But beyond that, it imbued Americanswith a sense of martial responsibility, anda love of freedom that ultimately enabledthem to achieve independence and forge anew country out of what was once a com-munity of loosely united colonies.
New World Defense
English colonists to the New World faceda hostile environment. It is estimated that300,000 Indians occupied the lands eastof the Mississippi at the time of Englisharrival on the Eastern shores of America.Cautiously friendly at first, the nativeinhabitants became increasingly aggres-sive in the face of English incursion andmaltreatment.English colonists faced additionalthreats that, in many ways, were more dan-gerous than a hostile native population. Tothe south of its mid-Atlantic possessions,England’s traditional enemy Spain heldpower over Florida. To the north and westlay the French presence, while the mer-cantilist Dutch forged new settlements inwhat would become the New York region.The threat of war loomed constantly on acontinent divided by religion, nationality,ethnicity, and economic philosophy.This hostile environment profoundlyaffected the new colonies. Though theCrown authorized land grants for settle-ment, it simply did not have the financialresources to maintain a colonial defenseforce. Common defense was by necessitya colonial responsibility. In response to thenative and foreign threat, virtually all of the colonies adopted the militia system forlocal defense.The principle of military obligationfor all able-bodied men was central to aneffective militia system. It is likely thatmany male colonists would have been fa-miliar with the militia systems from theirhomeland. Very few, however, were expe-rienced professional soldiers. Therefore,the early colonial expeditions were led byexperienced military men.Jamestown’s Virginia Company em-ployed Captain John Smith, a seasonedveteran of numerous European wars, whilethe Plymouth Colony relied upon CaptainMiles Standish for military guidance. Al-though they imported the tradition of theEnglish militia system, it soon developedinto a uniquely American institution.The danger from attack by Indians andcompeting European powers turned colo-nial settlements into armed enclaves. Allable-bodied men were automatically re-quired to lend service to the militia. Thetraditional age limits of 15 to 60 were nor-mally observed with some deviation fromcolony to colony.
 Michael E. Telzrow is a historian/museum profes-sional living in De Pere, Wisconsin.
STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM
HISTORY
 
HISTORY
 
The story of America’s citizen soldiers shows that the militiaand the Second Amendment are not obsolete. The populaceat large will always fulfill essential militia functions.
Citizen Soldiers:The Militia 
 
THE NEW AMERICAN MAY 1, 2006 36 
The company functioned as the pri-mary unit of organization. Companystrength varied according to locale andranged widely in number from 10 to 200men. A full strength company was com-manded by a captain with a lieutenant andensign following in chain of command. Acorps of non-commissioned officers in-cluded varying numbers of sergeants andcorporals.Militia leadership was primarily the do-main of wealthy landowners who, quiteoften, held political office. Generally, thegovernor and legislative bodies possessedthe authority to select regimental officers.Initially, the governors held dominantpower, but colonial assemblies feared theabuse of gubernatorial power and the leg-islative branch gained controlover military appropriations.
Local Defense Force
By definition, the commonmilitia was a local defenseforce. Only on rare occa-sions did the militia manageto carry warfare to a remoteenemy. New England mili-tia successfully did it dur-ing the Pequot War of 1637,but essentially, geographicallimitations kept the militia close to home.Consequently, it became common practicefor militia companies to refuse serviceoutside their defined boundaries.Virginia’s Governor Spotswood foundit impossible to successfully address theproblem in 1713. At a time when Tusca-rora Indians were menacing the frontier,Virginia Tidewater militiamen refused tomuster on the grounds that the danger wasremote and did not threaten their house-holds. During the French & Indian War,George Washington found his efforts ham-pered by these geographical limitations, ashe was unable to deploy Virginia troops inthe Ohio Country because it lay outsidethe accepted boundaries of Virginia.The militia also operated under strictduration limits. Agriculture demandedlabor, and militiamen could not remain oncampaign for extended periods of time.Accepted duration limits varied betweencolonies, but the average maximum pe-riod of deployment rarely exceeded threemonths.With the westward advancement of thefrontier and the diminution of the Indianthreat, the settled areas of the eastern sea-board experienced a structural and culturalevolution among the militia. Muster dayswere held less frequently, and more oftenwere seen as occasions for social and cer-emonial gatherings. Age restrictions be-came more limited, and exemptions fromservice were given more readily.Each colony dealt with the change dif-ferently. In most colonies far removedfrom European or Indian threats, militialaws were rarely enforced. Those coloniesthat still faced a potential threat continuedto employ a vigorous militia system, andit remained a viable institution in much of New England and the southern colonies.Elsewhere, the common militia typicallyfunctioned as a posse comitatus.
Militia Resurgence
The bitter colonial wars fought between1689 and 1763 profoundly affected the na-ture of the militia system. Tomeet the demands of extendedoffensive and defensive oper-ations, the colonies resortedto crafting a more flexibleversion of the common mili-tia system. This new systemwas built around the conceptof a volunteer militia.In its simplest form, thevolunteer militia was com-prised of volunteers from thecommon militia. These menwere a part of the militia,yet they procured arms andequipment at their own ex-pense. Volunteer militia unitsenjoyed immense popularityin urban centers where mem-bers resided in close proximi-ty. They drilled apart from thecommon militia and assumeda social as well as militarystatus.Provincial volunteers fur-ther augmented the military
Under the command of men like DanielMorgan, the militia could prove aneffective fighting force. Their performanceat Cowpens under Morgan was masterful.Morgan used them to induce BritishColonel Banastre Tarleton’s men into arecklessly aggressive frontal attack.
 
STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM
HISTORY
 
HISTORY
Bunker Hill:
In the first major open-field battle between the American patriots and the British, the British tookthe contested hills, but they sustained heavy losses. Later battles showed that the American militiamen wereusually as good as the men leading them.
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THE NEW AMERICAN MAY 1, 20063
manpower pool. These men of-fered their services to quasi-standing armies for offensiveexpeditions. They had marchedwest with Lord Dunmore in 1774to punish the Shawnee, and laterwith George Rogers Clark intoIllinois country to eliminate theBritish presence.When a military expedition wasplanned, the common militia wasnot called out as in earlier periods.Instead, commissioned officerswere called upon to establish andmeet specific manpower quotasfor each district. These new pro-vincial armies were used to aug-ment the increasing number of British professionals arriving inthe colonies. Later, they werecalled upon to fight against thesame British troops.
Independence and Reform
At the conclusion of the Frenchand Indian War, England becamethe holder of a vast empire. Alongwith the acquisition of large tractsof land came the increasing responsibilityof defense for a growing colony. So, theburden of defense shifted from the colo-nies to the Mother Country, and Englishtroops were stationed in America in everincreasing numbers.But the militia system did not entirelyfade away. Although it had evolved intoa quasi-professional volunteer system, itcontinued to remain a cherished institutionin the minds of most Americans. Men likeTimothy Pickering, later QuartermasterGeneral of the Continental Army, calledfor the strengthening of the militia throughreform. Pickering argued for compulsoryservice and the abolition of liberal exemp-tion and substitution laws. He echoed thesentiments of earlier opponents of stand-ing armies, proclaiming that the citizensoldier was a guarantor of free society.Pickering’s call for a strengthened mi-litia did not go unheeded. Colonial as-semblies revamped the militia system byincreasing the frequency of training days,assessing fines for missing musters, andreducing exemptions. On the eve of theWar for Independence, Tory officers andloyalists were thrown out of the militia inseveral colonies.
New Strategy
But the war with Britain could not befought by the militia alone. DefeatingBritish regulars would take professionalsoldiers.Although most Americans still mistrust-ed a standing army, the decision was madeto create a Continental Army. Despite therebirth of the militia, Congress felt that asmall professional force, augmented by themilitia, was essential to obtain a favorableoutcome to the war. In addition, GeorgeWashington held the militia in low regard;his negative experiences with them duringthe war with France were still fresh in hismind. Thus, the concept of the “dual army”tradition was born. Within this model, themilitia provided substantial numbers of partially trained soldiers. They were notexpected to face British regulars alone,although they did so at times with goodresults, but in most cases fought alongsideContinental troops.Despite Washington’s aversion to themilitia he was forced to rely heavily uponthem. There were simply too few Conti-nental soldiers available and even fewerexperienced officers. His successes in Del-aware following the retreat from New York were achieved largely through the effortsof militiamen who remained at his sidedespite their expiration of enlistments. In-deed, most men chose state militia serviceover regular soldiery. Among the militiathere was no stigma attached to militaryservice, and geographical and enlistmentlimitations ensured relatively brief serviceenlistments for citizen soldiers.Congress tried to augment the numberof Continental soldiers by offering boun-ties and land grants, but the army neverreached its full paper strength. Althoughthe Continental Army was the backboneof effective resistance, the militia providedcrucial manpower support. In addition toaugmenting Continental troops, the militiafought against Indians in the Northwest,garrisoned forts, and patrolled againstslave uprisings.
Battlefield Performance
Militia battlefield performance was mixed,its successes often dependent upon thecaliber of its commanding leaders. Underthe command of men like Daniel Morgan,the militia could prove an effective fight-ing force. Their performance at Cowpensunder Morgan was masterful. Morgan
Call to action:
Wherever the British marched, Minutemen quickly gathered to attack them. Militiamen werealso expected to guard forts and towns and respond to any hostile forces, including Indians and brigands.
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