A Dangerous New World, 1607–1689
Crossing the Atlantic during the seventeenth century was a perilous voyage, entailing weeks or months of cramped quarters, inadequate food, and unsanitary conditions. Yet in the late 1500s Englishmen had begun to hazard the venture, and in 1607 they planted their first permanent settlement on the North American continent at Jamestown. By the early 1730s, thirteen separate colonies hugged the seaboard. Although great diversity prevailed among the colonies, most colonists shared a common English heritage and clung to it tenaciously. Their religious attitudes, economic views, political thoughts, and military ideals and institutions were all grounded in English history. In no aspect of colonial life was this heritage more important than in regard to military matters. The colonists’ most revered military institution (the militia) and their most cherished military tradition (fear of a standing army) both came from England.
The English Inheritance
The earliest English settlers arrived in a dangerous New World. The initial colonies represented little more than amphibious landings on a hostile coastline followed by the consolidation of small, insecure beachheads. The settlers did not take possession of an uninhabited land, but settled in regions controlled by various Native American tribes. Fortunately for the colonists, they unwittingly landed in areas that had recently experienced precipitous population losses among the Indians. Europeans made
periodic contact with the natives long before they established permanent colonies. These transient visitors left a devastating legacy of smallpox, measles, and other European diseases, for which the natives had no built-in immunities. But the colonists soon learned that the Indians, even in their weakened state, were a formidable adversary. Nor were Indians the only military threat. The English settled in lands also claimed by their European rivals, and the memory of the raids conducted by the Spanish, French, and English against each other’s outposts in the Caribbean and along the Florida coast undoubtedly haunted many colonists. The fear of pillaging buccaneers and pirates who infested coastal waterways compounded the potential problem posed by European enemies.
Colonists faced these threats alone. Although the English monarch authorized their expeditions and granted extensive lands for settlement, the Crown expected the colonists to defend themselves. With few illusions about their precarious position, colonists came to the New World armed and, anticipating conflict, gave prompt attention to defense. Professional soldiers accompanied the expeditions to Jamestown, Plymouth, and succeeding colonies. Indeed, the first heroes in American history were far from ordinary settlers. The profit-seeking Virginia Company hired Captain John Smith, a veteran of Europe’s religious wars, to teach military skills to the settlers at Jamestown in 1607. Other experienced soldiers, such as Lord De La Warr, Sir Thomas Gates, and Sir Thomas Dale, soon followed him. The pious Pilgrims wisely did not rely on God’s favor alone for protection, but employed Captain Myles Standish, a veteran of the Dutch wars for independence, to ensure Plymouth’s success. Although Smith and Standish are the most famous of the soldier-settlers, practically all the other colonies had similar veterans who provided military leadership during the founding period. The importance placed on military preparations could be seen in the attention given to fortifications. Less than a month after their arrival, the settlers at Jamestown had constructed a primitive, triangular fort, and by 1622 the Pilgrims had erected a 2,700-foot-long defensive perimeter guarding their fledgling plantation.
The most important response to the dangerous military realities was the creation of a militia system in each colony. The British military heritage, the all-pervasive sense of military insecurity, and the inability of the economically poor colonies to maintain an expensive professional army all combined to guarantee that the Elizabethan militia would be transplanted to the North American wilderness. No colonial institution was more complex than the militia. In many respects it was static and homogenous, varying little from colony to colony and from generation to generation. Yet the militia was also evolutionary and heterogeneous, as diverse as the thirteen colonies and ever changing within individual colonies.
At the heart of the militia was the principle of universal military obligation for all able-bodied males. Colonial laws regularly declared that all able-bodied men between certain ages automatically belonged to the militia. Yet within the context of this immutable principle, variations abounded. While the normal age limits were from sixteen to sixty, this was not universal practice. Connecticut, for example, began with an upper age limit of sixty but gradually reduced it to forty-five. Sometimes the lower age limit was eighteen or even twenty-one. Each colony also established occupational exemptions from militia training. Invariably the exemption list began small but grew to become a seemingly endless list that reduced the militia’s theoretical strength.
If a man was in the militia, he participated in periodic musters, or training days, with the other members of his unit. Attendance at musters was compulsory; militia laws levied fines for nonattendance. During the initial years of settlement, when dangers seemed particularly acute, musters were frequent. However, as the Indian threat receded, the trend was toward fewer muster days, and by the early 1700s most colonies had decided that four peacetime musters per year were sufficient. Whether few or many, muster days helped forge a link between religious duty and military service, particularly in New England. An integral part of each training day (and of all military expeditions) was a sermon, which invariably fostered an aggressive militancy by emphasizing that the Bible sanctioned martial activity and that warfare was a true Christian’s sacred duty. “Hence it is no wayes unbecoming a Christian to learn to be a Souldier,” Chaplain Samuel Nowell preached to Massachusetts militiamen in 1678, because being a soldier was “a Credit, a praise and a glory.” When the colonists unsheathed their swords, they did so in God’s name, serene in the belief that the Lord was on their side against their heathen and Papist enemies and that whatever happened was God’s will.
Militiamen had to provide and maintain their own weapons. Militia laws detailed the required weaponry, which underwent a rapid evolution in the New World. Initially a militiaman was armed much like a European soldier, laden with armor, equipped with either a pike or matchlock musket, and carrying a sword. But Indian warfare was not European warfare, and most of this weaponry proved of limited value. By the mid-1670s colonial armaments had been revolutionized. Armor, which made it difficult to traverse rugged terrain and pursue Indians, had disappeared. Pikes were equally cumbersome and of little use against Indians, who neither stood their ground when assaulted nor made massed charges. At times the matchlock was superior to Indian bows and arrows, but its disadvantages were many. It took two minutes to load, and it misfired approximately three times in every ten shots. The weapon discharged when a slow-burning
came in contact with the priming powder, but keeping the match lit on rainy or windy days was difficult, and the combination of a burning match and gunpowder in close proximity often resulted in serious accidents. By the midseventeenth century, the matchlock had given way to the flintlock musket. Depending on flint scraping against steel for discharge, flintlocks could be loaded in thirty seconds and misfired less often. Swords remained common weapons, but colonists increasingly preferred hatchets for close-quarter combat. Although both weapons were valuable in a melee, hatchets were also useful for a variety of domestic purposes.
Militia laws emphasized the importance of a well-armed citizenry in numerous ways. To ensure that each man had the requisite weapons and accoutrements, colonies instituted a review of arms, imposing the duty of conducting it on militia officers, muster masters, or other specially appointed officials. Each colony’s law detailed how destitute citizens could be armed at public expense, and legislatures provided for public arsenals to supplement individually owned armaments. Colonies also required that even men exempted from attending musters should be completely armed and equipped. Although the basic tactical unit in all the colonies was the company, or trainband, regional variations and changes over time were as important as the superficial uniformity. No standardized company size existed, some companies containing as few as sixty-five men and others as many as two hundred. Some trainbands elected their officers, but in others the governors appointed them. Southern colonies, with widely dispersed populations, often organized companies on a countywide basis; while in New England, with its towns and villages, individual communities contained their own trainbands. As populations increased and the number of trainbands grew, colonies organized companies into regiments to preserve efficient management. As one last example of the variety and change within militia units, the initial all-infantry composition evolved into a mixture of infantry and mounted units, the latter providing increased maneuverability and speed, which were valuable assets in Indian warfare.
Militia officers, like colonial politicians, overwhelmingly came from the upper classes, and men moved with ease from important political positions into high military offices and vice versa. The practice of plural officeholding, whereby a man simultaneously held political and military office, epitomized the integration of political and military leadership. For example, in Salem, Massachusetts, between 1765 and 1774, twelve of the twenty-nine active militia officers also held important positions in the municipal government. Similar instances could be cited for other colonies.
The militia was, above all else, a local institution, and officers rarely ordered their men to serve far from home. Each colony organized its militia for its own defense, a principle frequently embodied in legislation prohibiting the militia’s use outside a colony’s boundaries. Every colony faced Indian attacks, worried about rival Europeans, and experienced financial stringencies. How could Virginia help South Carolina without rendering itself less secure, or New York assist Pennsylvania without subjecting itself to increased danger? It could not—or at least it believed that it could not.
Within a colony civil authority controlled military matters, establishing America’s revered tradition of civilian control over the military. However, a shift occurred in the governmental branch exercising predominant influence over the militia. Initially the governors dominated, often receiving their power directly from the King, who gave them wide latitude in appointing officers and waging war. But people considered the governor analogous to the King, the colonial assemblies analogous to Parliament. In England the King and Parliament, and in the colonies governors and assemblies, battled for supremacy. The legislative branch emerged triumphant in both Britain and America. By the mideighteenth century a governor’s military authority lacked substance without the cooperation of the legislature, which had gained almost exclusive control over expenditures, including military appropriations. Using the power of the purse as a lever, legislatures gradually assumed control of the militia. By the Revolution, civilian authority over the military meant legislative control.
As the frontier advanced, the militia decayed. The rot appeared first in the more densely settled seaboard regions, where the Indian threat had diminished by the waning years of the seventeenth century and spread into the interior. Militia service became more of a social or ceremonial function than a military function. The fewer muster days witnessed little serious training and instead became occasions for picnics for the privates and elegant dinners for the officers. Men clamored for more restricted age limitations and an expanded exemption list and complained about the burden of maintaining weapons and equipment. Increasingly men sought militia officership not from a sense of duty but because, as one critic wrote, they had “an amazing infatuation” with military titles as symbols of social prominence. Authorities everywhere laxly enforced the militia laws.
As the common militia based on universal and obligatory service deteriorated, a new phenomenon emerged, partially filling the military void. In George Washington’s words, some men always had “a natural fondness for Military parade,” enjoyed soldiering, and willingly devoted time and money to it. Thus “volunteer militia” companies arose, distinct from the common militia, with their own uniforms, equipment, organization, and esprit de corps. Like so much of the American military heritage, independent
volunteer militia units traced their roots to England, especially to London’s Honorable Artillery Company, chartered in 1537. The first similar New World organization was the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Boston, founded in 1638. Exclusive little societies of fifty to one hundred enthusiastic and relatively affluent men, the volunteer organizations kept the martial spirit alive in regions more and more remote from immediate danger.
The Diversity of Colonial Military Forces
Paradoxically, trainbands and regiments were not combat units, rarely functioning in warfare as colonial assemblies organized them on paper. In fact, legislatures did not design the common militia as a fighting force except, perhaps, for extreme local emergencies. Instead it served primarily as an induction center, a training school, and a reservoir of partially trained manpower. Upon reaching the requisite age, a man automatically joined his local trainband; then he underwent periodic training for the next thirty years or so and acquired at least a rudimentary knowledge of military practice. In wartime, authorities formed expeditions by tapping this manpower pool, drawing men out of the trainbands on an individual basis and organizing them into fighting units.
In theory the militia could provide local defense during an emergency, such as an Indian or rival European assault on an exposed settlement. During such crises settlers had little hope of assistance from the colonial government. The unexpected nature of an attack and the poor communications precluded an appeal to the government for timely aid. And the nature of the resulting warfare—usually little more than guerrilla skirmishes amidst the enveloping wilderness—placed a premium on local self-reliance. Knowing they might be unable to exert much influence over events in isolated areas, colonial officials delegated a great deal of power to local officials, but this decentralization of authority was of questionable value. Suppose an Indian war party suddenly descended upon a frontier outpost. Even if word of the attack reached local militia officers, travel was so slow that a complete trainband could not be mobilized and dispatched in time to save the settlement. Nor would it have been wise to send the trainband out: If all the able-bodied men in an area rushed to one beleaguered location, the entire vicinity would be left unprotected against further enemy depredations. Even for local defense the militia, as organized on paper, was of limited effectiveness.
As a practical solution for the problem of local defense, pioneers adopted a stronghold concept. Garrison houses, blockhouses, and stockades dotted the frontier. When danger threatened, inhabitants crowded into
these fortified structures. The men at the loopholes were militiamen, but, few in number, they acted as individuals rather than members of a militia unit. The stronghold concept had disadvantages. Maintaining a large number of people created logistical problems, not only for arms and ammunition but also for food and water. Abandoning homes and farms for the security of a garrison house or stockade left other property vulnerable to destruction. The colonists, in effect, allowed themselves to be surrounded, leaving no avenue for retreat. Fortunately for them, Indians rarely conducted siege operations, and strongholds could often survive. Strongholds may have preserved settlers’ lives, but the smoky plumes from burning homes, the steady stream of refugees, and the long roll call of abandoned settlements all attested to the militia’s inability to provide defense when and where colonists most desperately needed it. The militia failed to perform its theoretical local defense function, and in a war’s early stages the frontier invariably retracted toward the more heavily populated seaboard.
The militia was more effective as a local police force or as a standby posse comitatus. It preserved the domestic peace, protected propertied and privileged colonists from the disadvantaged elements within society, and quelled movements against the established political order. Militiamen frequently performed riot control duty. In the south, colonies merged their slave patrols with the militia and converted it into an internal police force to recover fugitive slaves and suppress slave insurrections. New Englanders in essence converted their militia into a civil police by mating it with the night watch. As a final example, when the Regulators of western North Carolina demanded substantial local governmental reforms and defied colonial authority during the late 1760s and early 1770s, the governor mobilized a thousand militiamen, who routed the Regulators at the Battle of Alamance in May 1771. Thus a sharp distinction arose between the militia as a domestic police and a colony’s expeditionary military forces.
When authorities launched a military expedition, they did not “call out the militia” per se. Instead they commissioned officers specifically to command the expedition and established manpower quotas for militia districts. Sometimes the commanding officers appointed for an expeditionary force were regular militia officers, but oftentimes they were not. Based upon a formula related to population, the quotas demanded a certain number of men from each affected trainband. Sound reasons supported the quota system. A community needed most of its able-bodied men to defend it from an enemy that often seemed to appear magically where least expected. Settlements also required men at home to plant, tend, and harvest the crops. What good would be accomplished by creating a large army only to have the soldiers in the field and their dependents at home face the grim specter of starvation?
Militia districts filled their quotas by a combination of volunteers, draftees, substitutes, and hirelings, with volunteering being the preferred method. To spur volunteering from among the men in the trainbands, governments usually offered volunteers a bounty. Even lucrative bounties rarely enticed sufficient volunteers, in which case militia officials drafted men out of their trainbands. However, a draftee could avoid service by obtaining a discharge from the governor or a high-ranking militia officer, by providing a substitute, or by paying a commutation fine. Authorities used the money collected from fines to hire additional men or to buy arms and ammunition for destitute soldiers or the community arsenal. A draftee unable to obtain a discharge or a substitute and too poor to pay the fine had one last option to avoid soldiering: He could flee. Movement of men from town to town evading wartime service was a common problem.
The men serving in expeditions increasingly came from society’s lower classes. Individuals of wealth and status were often exempt and unlikely to volunteer, and they could easily secure a discharge, find a substitute, or pay the commutation fine. In fact, colonies sometimes consciously excluded more prosperous citizens from active duty. For example, in the mid-1750s Virginia sought to raise 1,270 men for service. Local justices of the peace, field officers, and militia captains were to hold a court of inquiry, examining the occupations of men between the ages of eighteen and fifty on the muster rolls and making a list of all able-bodied men “as 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 subsistence, and all other idle, vagrant, or dissolute persons, wandering abroad without betaking themselves to some lawful employment.” The court was also to list “such able-bodied men, not being freeholders or housekeepers qualified to vote at an election of burgesses, as they shall think proper. . . .” A second court would meet the quota by drafting men from among those on the list, which automatically omitted the colony’s best citizens.
Yet, as always, colonial military affairs were not subject to easy generalizations, and an acute threat could result in an expeditionary force that more nearly represented a colony’s social composition. For example, at a time when Virginia was raising its army almost exclusively from among the poorest elements of its population, Massachusetts was acting quite differently. Far more immediately threatened by the French in Canada than was Virginia, Massachusetts fielded military forces during the 1750s that were not heavily weighted toward the permanently poor and vagrants but instead reflected the colony’s overall social composition.
From whatever social class they came, once enlisted for an expedition the men who filled the ranks believed they had a legal contract with the provincial government that could not be breached without the mutual
consent of both parties. Their military ethos contained little of the emphasis on loyalty, subordination, and discipline that characterized European armies. When a colony failed to fulfil...