Horton's Historical Articles

by Gerald Horton

The Militia

A Very Condensed Overview


At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the colonies possessed only one military force with which to oppose the British Army – the militia. The majority of men who made up the militia were farmers, tradesmen, and general laborers and that is what they wanted to remain. Although they supported the rebellion, they were unwilling to leave their farms, shops, and families for any extended period of time. They were untrained and undisciplined with most people disparaging their military ability. The British high command looked upon the American colonies’ militia with scorn, calling them a “chickenhearted race of farmers, dry goods dealers, and slave drivers”. According to Benjamin Franklin, British General Clarke said that with one thousand grenadiers he would go through America and “geld all the Males, partly by force and partly by a little Coaxing”(Sic). 1


American Loyalists were almost glad to see the conflict come to open warfare. They had long believed a few individuals fomented the discord between England and the colonies in order to make money outside the law. Now the rebels would be forced to see the folly of their beliefs. Loyalists called the revolutionary army a mob: “A vagabond Army of Ragamuffins with Paper Pay, bad Cloathes, and worse Spirits”(Sic). 2


For all the disdain directed at the militia, the officers and men performed well at Bunker Hill and Boston. However the fighting spirit or “passion of arms” that existed at the beginning of the war quickly faded and by the end of 1776 had disappeared entirely. From the twenty to thirty thousand men at Boston, General Washington’s army was reduced to less than ten thousand. Washington knew he had to have a large well-trained army and that he had to fight the British regulars face to face. He wasn’t anticipating a major ‘winner take all’ battle. However, he did want a well trained professional army that could oppose the British troops in the European manner. Fighting with small forces in various areas of the colonies would lead to guerrilla warfare and the loss of any chance at independence.


At the outset of the war, Congress was extremely reluctant to support a standing army. American experience before the war had shown the threat of such an army in the prolonged presence of the British troops in Boston, in Quartering Acts, in the British ministry’s pretense of taxation for imperial defense. The most prevalent wartime legacy of the ingrained suspicion of a standing army was not ideological but emotional. The revolutionaries felt a strong distaste for an army in repose, an army as an institution, an army as an organ of the state. 3 After several years, however, these objections were overcome and most revolutionaries supported the need for a regular army – at least during the war.


When Congress accepted this need for a standing army, a new issue emerged – recruiting and retaining the manpower to fill the ranks of that army. By the end of 1776, the initial “war fever” and altruistic enlistment to ‘fight for freedom” had waned. The Continental Army at that point consisted mainly of “indentured servants, paid substitutes, farm laborers, unemployed persons, and transients…”. 4 Recruiting by officers and other members of the army failed to fill the ranks. Therefore, Congress resorted to a draft. It issued a quota for recruits to all the states. The states then issued quotas to the counties. Within the counties, lotteries were used to fill the quotas. A muster of the local militia was called and men picked by lot to serve in the Continental Army for nine months, the Levies for six months, or the local militia for three months. Continental service took the men farthest from home. New York State formed five Line (or Continental) regiments during the war. Several served at the Battles of Trenton and Monmouth and one served at the siege of Yorktown. Levies, at times, served in other states, but most were posted at forts within the state. Militia was posted the closest to home. Even with the lotteries, draftees were reluctant to serve in the Continental Army, some refused outright. In 1777, Congress and the states began issuing bounties of money or land if a man would enlist. Men of sufficient financial means who were picked in the lotteries could hire a substitute to go in their place. The substitute received a fee from the recruit as well as any bounty for enlistment. In farming communities, younger sons substituted for their fathers or older brothers. More experienced men were needed at home to maintain the productivity of the farms.


Not many letters or journals exist that show specific reason(s) why a man volunteered for the Continental Army. Historian Bruce Chadwick located a few journals that gave some writers’ reasons: “Some students at Princeton joined after the British ruined university buildings as they marched through the town. Sam Shaw joined because, for months, hated British troops had been quartered in his Boston home. Elisha Bostwick of Connecticut fought because the British hanged Nathan Hale, his friend and neighbor. Dan Granger, just thirteen, walked into the American camp in Boston and talked a colonel into letting him take the place of his brother because he feared the brother, very ill, might die if he did not return home”.5


Most of the men in the Mohawk Valley refused to serve in the Continental Army but they did join the militia. Their most likely reason for joining the militia and not the Levies or the Continental Army was to remain close to home. They feared their families would suffer savagery at the hands of Tories joining in combination with the Iroquois. The state apparently accepted the refusals to join the Continental Army, as no reprisals were forthcoming. When General Washington told the state governors he would not send Continental troops to guard the frontiers, Governor Clinton felt justified in keeping as many militiamen on the frontier as possible. Following the Battle of Oriskany in 1777, fewer than four hundred men were left to defend the valley. The years from 1777 to 1781 saw the ranks even further depleted due to men killed in skirmishes, taken prisoner, or families leaving the area. In 1781, Col. Marinus Willett, commander of the New York Frontier Militia, stated he would be lucky to find 250 men capable of serving.6 But find them he did, and they distinguished themselves by winning  battles at Durlach (near present day Sharon Springs) and at Johnstown. They continued to bravely defend the more than twenty-four forts along the Mohawk River until the end of the war.    



1        Charles A. Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army & American Character, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill, NC, University of North Carolina Press, 1979) pg 10.

2        Ibid.

3        Ibid, pg 36

4        Don Higginbotham, “The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Militia” in Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791, edited by Richard D. Brown (2nd edition, New York, NY, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000) pg 214.

5        Bruce Chadwick, The First American Army (Naperville, Illinois, Sourcebooks, Inc., 2005) pg 54.

6        Howard Thomas, Marinus Willett: Soldier – Patriot (Prospect, NY Prospect Books, 1954) pg120.


Other Books:

Some other books that deal with the militia in the Revolutionary War:

Robert A. Gross, The Minutemen and Their World

Gregory T. Knouff, The Soldiers’ Revolution: Pennsylvania in Arms and the Forging of Early American Identity

John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed

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