Colonial Military Experience

English military institutions formed part of the cultural inheritance which the first colonists brought to America, immigrants and occasional contact with the British Army kept the colonists informed about newer developments. The most important of the inherited institutions was the militia, which dated back to Anglo-Saxon times, but the specific conditions of colonial settlement produced important modifications. Other variations crept in as the defensive needs of the colonies began to outstrip the capabilities of the militia.

The Tudors had revived the English militia in the sixteenth century as an inexpensive alternative to a large permanent army. They used the traditional universal obligation to serve in the defense of the realm as a basis for sustaining a body of voluntary "trained bands." The members of the general population acted as a reserve force through their possession of arms, and various fines levied on them in relation to their obligations furnished financial support for the trained bands. The county lords lieutenant provided organization, geographical identity, and central direction.

The first settlements in Virginia, Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Connecticut all recruited professional soldiers to act as military advisers. The colonists recognized from the beginning that both the Indians and England's European rivals posed potential threats. The Jamestown trading post organized itself into a virtual regimental garrison, complete with companies and squads. Plymouth, on the advice of Miles Standish, organized four companies of militia within two years of its founding. The Massachusetts Bay Colony profited from the experiences of the earlier settlements. In 1629 its first expedition left England for Salem with a militia company already organized and equipped with the latest weapons.

During the course of the seventeenth century the colonists adapted the English militia system to meet their own particular needs. Several regional patterns emerged. In the Chesapeake Bay area a plantation economy took root, leading to dispersed settlement. Virginia and Maryland formed their militia companies from all the residents of a particular area, in New England religion and a different economy led to a town-based residential system. Each town formed one or more militia companies as soon as possible after establishing its local government. South Carolina had a plantation economy, but its settlers came from Barbados and brought a large slave population with them. Its militia followed the example of Barbados and placed a heavy emphasis on controlling the slaves. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, did not pass a law establishing a mandatory militia until 1777. The differences in the militia establishments among these colonies in part explain later variations in organizing units for the Continental Army in 1775-76.

Growth in each colony soon led to innovation. In Massachusetts, for example, an excess of noncommissioned officers over European norms allowed for forming subordinate elements, or "demi-companies," which received a field test in a 1635 punitive expedition against Indians on Block Island. When the colony then grouped its fifteen companies into three regional regiments in December 1636, it became the first English speaking government to adopt permanent regiments. Other colonies followed: Maryland and Plymouth in 1658, Virginia in 1666, and Connecticut in 1672. Standing regiments appeared in the English Army only in the 1640's.

Another modification of the European heritage occurred in the choice of weapons. Wilderness conditions accentuated the flintlock musket's advantages. By 1675 nearly every colony required its militiamen to own flintlocks rather than matchlocks: American armies thus completed this transition a quarter of a century before European armies. Many colonists hunted, but few had ever fought in a formal line of battle. Militia training consequently stressed individual marksmanship rather than massed firing at an area, which had been the norm in the Old World. A specific byproduct of this emphasis was the refinement of the rifle - a hunting weapon with German roots - by gunsmiths in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania rifle was longer than the standard musket but had a smaller bore (usually .45-caliber). Grooves, or rifling, cut into the barrel imparted spin to the ball and allowed a trained marksman to hit targets at up to 400 yards. As a military weapon the rifle was effective in skirmishing, but its slow rate of fire and lack of a bayonet placed riflemen at a disadvantage in open terrain.

By the eighteenth century the colonial militia, like the English trained bands, was armed with flintlocks and was organized geographically. The southern colonies with one regiment per county were closest to the "shire" system; the more densely populated northern colonies normally formed several regiments in each county. Most colonies gave both administrative and command responsibilities to the colonel of each regiment and dispensed with the office of county lieutenant. Local elites in both the mother country and America dominated the militia officer positions, whether elected or appointed, just as they controlled all other aspects of society. Ultimate responsibility for the militia was a function of the Crown. In England it was exercised for the Crown by the county lords lieutenant; in America, by the governor. The financial powers of the elective lower houses of the colonial legislatures, however, placed major limits on a governor's prerogatives.

The biggest difference between the English trained bands and the colonial militia was the latter's more comprehensive membership. Few free adult males were exempted by law from participating: the clergy, some conscientious objectors, and a handful of other special groups. This situation was the result of the first settlers' immediate need for local defense, a need absent in England since the days of the Spanish Armada. But in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the danger to the more settled regions subsided. Although a militia structure based on an area's total male population was an admirable goal for local defense, taking the men for military service disrupted a colony's economy during extended crises or lengthy offensives. As other institutions emerged, the militia was left as a local training center and a replacement pool, a country selective service system and a law enforcing agency, an induction camp and a primitive supply depot.

As early as the 1620's in Virginia and in the 1630's during the Pequot War in New England, temporary detachments were drawn from the militia companies for field operations against the Indians. Volunteers or drafted quotas formed the detachments. This expedient practice minimized economic dislocation and concentrated field leadership in the hands of the most experienced officers. But even the detachments were seen as disrupting continuity life too much, and eventually they were employed primarily as garrisons. A different type of force emerged in the 1670's. Hired volunteers ranged the frontiers, patrolling between outposts and giving early warning of any Indian attack. Other volunteers combined with friendly Indians for offensive operations deep in the wilderness where European tactics were ineffective. The memoirs of the most successful leader of these mixed forces, Benjamin Church, were published by his son Thomas in 1716 and represent the first American military manual.

During the Imperial Wars (1689-1762) against Spanish and French colonies, regiments completely separated from the militia system were raised for specific campaigns. These units, called Provincials, were patterned after regular British regiments and were recruited by the individual colonial governors and legislatures, who appointed the officers. Bounties were used to induce recruits, and the officers enjoyed a status greater than that of equivalent militia officers. Although new regiments were raised each year, in most colonies a large percentage of officers had years of service. Provincial field officers tended to be members of the legislature who had compiled long service in the militia. The company officers, responsible for most of the recruiting, were drawn from popular junior militia officers with demonstrated military skills. The most famous Provincial units were formed by Maj. Robert Rogers of New Hampshire during the French and Indian War. His separate companies of rangers were recruited throughout the northern colonies and were paid directly by the British Army. They performed reconnaissance for the regular forces invading Canada and conducted occasional long-range raids against the French and their Indian allies.

The French and Indian War was different from earlier wars in one very important way. Formerly Great Britain had been content to leave fighting in North America to the colonists and had furnished only naval and logistical aid. William Pitt's ministry reversed that policy, and the regular British Army now carried out the major combat operations. The Provincials were relegated to support and reserve functions. Americans resented this treatment, particularly when they saw British commanders such as Edward Braddock and James Abercromby perform poorly in the wilderness. At the same time, Britons formed a negative opinion of the fighting qualities of the Provincials. British recruiting techniques and impressment of food, quarters, and transport created other tensions. The resulting residual bitterness contributed to the growing breach between the colonies and the mother country during the following decade.

- - - - - -Robert K.Wright Jr.

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