Effective Use of Colonial Militia


The colonial militia, when utilized in such a way to take advantage of its strengths, proved to be a very effective tool for the colonists in their war against Britain. During the course of the war, colonial militia representing the larger overall body of troops in the field, tended to be more effective in the "petit guerre" of partisan warfare against small units of the enemy and Tories, as well as performing support and screening duties that released regulars for front line service. They were less useful in large-scale operations where they would be forced to stand and face redcoats in the open.

 The militia tradition in America can be traced as far back as 1632, when the Virginia assembly had ordered “every fit male” to take part in military drills after church services. Provincial militia fought Indians, put down slave uprisings and generally protected the white propertied families that contributed to its ranks from societal disruption. Lacking quality training, provincial militia rarely saw actual combat, and even when the need arose, colonial governments preferred to call up the poor and indigent, rather than expose its better classes to any real danger.

 British military officials, finding that they needed to rely on these provincial troops to some degree during the French and Indian War, came away with a rather poor opinion of the American soldier, concluding that “they lacked the character to make good soldiers.” Militia refused to serve except on their own terms, and these terms were typically negotiated with the provincial government. Accustomed to a great deal of autonomy, colonial militia insisted on serving in a separate command, and then only within certain distances from home; in addition, militia officers became extremely uncooperative when pressured by British regular army commanders to submit to outside authority. This image of an undisciplined, insubordinate and thoroughly unmilitary provincial militia would color future British opinions of American militia, often with disastrous consequences during the Revolution twenty years later.

 Not that the British were alone in their doubts about the utility of American militia. George Washington himself, upon assuming command of the Continental Army (which in 1775 was comprised entirely of militia), said, “All the General Officers agree that no Dependence can be put on the Militia for a Continuance in Camp, or Regularity and Discipline during the short time they may stay.” He would later say, “To place any dependence upon militia is assuredly resting upon a broken staff.”

American General Nathanial Greene felt similarly. “(The militia are)…not sufficiently fortified with natural courage to stand the shocking scenes of war… few men could stand such scenes unless steeled by habit and fortified by military pride.” Greene concluded that only through the rigors of drill, discipline and exposure to combat could men be welded into an effective army. Key to militia success was keeping them out of situations where they would be asked to face off against massed British firepower in open combat. When forced to do so, the militia regularly failed, and more often than not, broke and ran, abandoning the field to their enemy. Patriot General Daniel Morgan, speaking about the Battle of Cowpens, said, “Had I crossed the {Broad} river (at Cowpens), one half of the militia would immediately have abandoned me.”

Despite these misgivings by Continental Army commanders, militia, when used properly, repeatedly demonstrated their utility to the patriot cause. At Concord in 1775, militia, firing from the cover of the trees lining the road back to Boston, inflicted over 25% casualties on the retreating redcoats. In the desperate winter of 1776-1777, up to 12,000 militia soldiers from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware came to the relief of Washington’s Army, while other units remained in defensive postures in New York and Connecticut. Without the numbers contributed by local militia, the British would not have been forced to give back much of what they had earlier conquered in New Jersey. A few months later, in June of 1777, Washington was able to reinforce Northern New York while still holding the New Jersey Highlands due to the presence of local militia, demonstrating a flexibility of response that came from the dispersal of local militia units throughout the colonies.

The militia proved most devastating to the enemy when operating as partisans in petit guerre fashion, usually in small groups. Petit Guerre was described at the time in this way: “… a body of light Troops, from One hundred to Two thousand Men, separated from the Grand Army to secure its March, to protect the Camp, to reconnoiter the Country or the Enemy; to surprise their Posts, or their Convoys; to form Ambuscades; and in short, to put to Practice every Stratagem that may harass or disturb them.”

Militia units would engage in running battles with elements of British, Hessian or Tory detachments, usually in the unprotected areas of the countryside or along the coast between encampments, forcing the British to fight their way from point to point, almost without cessation. A Hessian jäger later said, “Little war was continuous war.”

The militia also took part in larger campaigns, guarding waterways and key roads. In doing so, they severely limited the operational freedom of their enemy, and limited the assistance that could be given to the British by loyalists, whom they pursued and persecuted throughout the war. Sometimes, militia action provided decisive results by itself. In February of 1776, militia crushed loyalists in North Carolina at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, and later that fall decisively defeated southern Cherokee Indians who were allied with the British. In the South in 1781, the militia screened Nathanial Greene’s army in the days leading up to the Battle of Guildford Court House and then suppressed local Tories, paving the way for the patriot reconquest of South Carolina.

Militia also served as constabulary forces for the emerging state governments. In the South, militia forces affected a sort of taxation upon the well-to-do, redistributing food to the needy; they also protected surrendering loyalists, kept the Indians at bay, stopped plundering and assisted locals in the recovery of stolen property. They also defended emerging state governments from the British and Tories, and screened the countryside from the main bodies of enemy troops. It was militia from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that stood guard between New York City and neighboring states, right up until the final British withdrawal from that city in November of 1783.

Gradually, Washington was able to successfully coordinate the movements of the militia with his regulars so that both could be used for maximum effect. Eventually, he employed a “strategy of forward defense” with militiamen being utilized as skirmishers, screening the army from surprise, while allowing the main body of troops the freedom to advance or retreat unmolested. In the middle states, Washington’s skill at using the militia in conjunction with the Continental Army proved critical in relegating the British to control of only New York City, keeping them from reinforcing Cornwallis in the South. So impressed was Washington with the performance of the militia that his later comments about them stand in stark contrast to his initial impression. In 1783 he said, “The Militia of this Country must be considered as the Palladium of our security, and the first effectual resort in case of hostility…”

Washington’s statement is typical of the persistent American belief in reliance upon an armed citizenry that would rapidly deploy at a moment's notice to an area of danger. The success of guerrilla warfare tactics against the British further reinforced this undeserved faith in the power of "farmers and shopkeepers" alone to take the place of a powerful standing army. While this is clearly not true, the militia, when used carefully in settings that took advantage of its strengths without exposing its deficiencies, had demonstrated that it could be a significant contributor to national defense.


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