THE COLONIAL MILITARY

The Coming of the Revolution

During the years following the Seven Years' War, the central government in London adopted a series of policies which altered the traditional relationship between England and the American colonies. The colonists, whose political institutions were rapidly maturing, resented English intervention in what they viewed as their internal affairs. Many different issues led to a growing alienation. By 1774 there was a real potential for armed confrontation.

A change in British military policy was a catalyst for the controversy. After the 1763 Peace of Paris, London decided to create an American Establishment and to tax the colonists to pay for it. In the eyes of London planners, this army, patterned on a similar garrison stationed in Ireland for nearly a century, would serve several useful ends. It would enable the British Army to retain more regiments in peacetime than it could have otherwise. The regiments in America were to secure the newly won territories of Canada and Florida from French or Spanish attack and also to act as a buffer between the colonists and the Indians. The Americans felt that these troops served no useful purpose, particularly when the majority moved from the frontier to coastal cities to simplify logistics. As tensions rose, the colonists became more suspicious of British aims and increasingly saw the regular regiments as a "standing army" stationed in their midst to enforce unpopular legislation.

Political leaders cited the American Establishment in their rhetoric as an example of the British government's corruption and unconstitutional policies. Threats to use the troops in New York City to enforce the Stamp Act and to act as police during later land unrest in the Hudson River Valley caused initial concern. A major affront in American eyes came when Britain transferred several regiments to Boston in the immediate aftermath of protests over taxes imposed by the Townshend Act. To Americans this pattern paralleled the actions of the Stuarts in England in the late seventeenth century. In 1770 the Boston Massacre proved this point to a large body of the American people.

Other American leaders moved beyond rhetoric to counter force with force. For instance, the Sons of Liberty emerged in New York in 1765-66 as a paramilitary organization in direct response to British troop movements. Even more intense reactions came in Massachusetts, the center of opposition to British policy. Although most troops withdrew from Boston in 1771, a garrison remained. Local politicians began agitating for serious militia reforms to create a force capable of offering opposition to the British Army if it returned in strength. A number of individuals who later occupied important positions in the Continental Army, such as Timothy Pickering ("A Military Citizen") and William Heath ("A Military Countryman"), contributed articles to the Massachusetts press advocating such reforms. Others organized voluntary military companies for extra training.

When British troops returned to Boston in far greater numbers after the Boston Tea Party of 1773, the final phase of tension began. If Americans needed any further proof of British intent, this action and Parliament's punitive "Coercive Acts" furnished it. Military preparations quickened throughout New England, and the First Continental Congress met at Philadelphia in September to direct a concerted effort to secure a redress of American grievances. New Englanders removed militia officers known to be loyal to the Crown and increased the tempo of training. By the autumn of 1774 calls arose for forming a unified colonial army of observation that could take the field if hostilities erupted. Similar trends, although less pronounced existed in the middle and southern colonies.

Interest in the militia was matched during 1774 and early 1775 by a concern for war supplies. Adam Stephen, later a major general in the Continental Army, spoke for many in 1774 when he warned Virginia politicians that artillery, arms, and ammunition were in short supply in the colonies. His suggestions to encourage domestic production and importation from Europe were echoed by others who agreed with his statement that if enough arms and ammunition were available, "individuals may suffer, but the gates of hell cannot prevail against America." Imports of arms and powder grew by October 1774 to such a degree that British officials became alarmed. Individual colonial governments began to move existing stores beyond the reach of British seizure and to encourage domestic manufacturers. Massachusetts took the lead in collecting munitions, as it did in reforming the militia.

The First Continental Congress rejected a proposal by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia to form a nationwide militia but did adopt a plan for concerted economic protest. The plan provided for a boycott of British goods after 1 December 1774 and authorized forming enforcement committees which quickly became de facto governments at the colony and local levels. The committees also secured political control over the countryside, a control which British authorities were never able to shake. This political control included leadership of the militia, and that institution became an instrument of resistance to the British. Instead of being intimidated by Britain's Coercive Acts of 1774, the colonists were moving toward armed resistance.

Thus in the years immediately before 1775, tensions built to the point that the leaders in each colony foresaw the possibility of violence. They reacted by gathering war materials and restoring the militia (or volunteer forces) to a level of readiness not seen since the early days of settlement. British officers in America were aware of the colonists' actions but dismissed them as "mere bullying." Given these attitudes, the presence of Maj. Gen. Thomas Gage's garrison in Boston, and the advanced state of preparation in Massachusetts, it is not surprising that war began in that colony.

Massachusetts Acts

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress met as a shadow government and on 26 October 1774 adopted a comprehensive military program based on the militia. It created the executive Committees of Safety and of Supplies and gave the former the power to order out the militia in an emergency. It also directed the militia officers to reorganize their commands into more efficient units, to conduct new elections, to drill according to the latest British manual, and to organize one-quarter of the colony's force into "minute companies." The minutemen constituted special units within the militia system whose members agreed to undergo additional training and to hold themselves ready to turn out quickly ("at a minute's notice") for emergencies. Jedediah Preble, Artemas Ward, and Seth Pomeroy, three politicians who had served in the French and Indian War, were elected general officers of the militia. A month later two younger general officers were added: John Thomas (a veteran of the French and Indian War) and William Heath (a militiaman with a reputation as an administrator). During periods of congressional recess, the Committee of Safety and the Committee of Supplies collected material and established depots.

After new elections were held, the Provincial Congress reconvened in February 1775. It clarified the Committee of Safety's powers re-appointed the five generals, and added John Whitcomb, another politically active veteran, as a sixth general. The Congress also altered its basic military policy. In the face of increased tension, it took steps to augment the militia with a more permanent force patterned after the earlier Provincials. Regulations for this "Constitutional Army" were adopted on 5 April.

The Provincial Congress made a momentous decision three days later. By a vote of 96 of 103 members present a report on the "State of the Province" was approved. The report stated that "the present dangerous and alarming situation of our public affairs, renders it necessary for this Colony to make preparations for their security and defence by raising and establishing an Army." The projected volunteer force was to include more than just Massachusetts men, and delegates were sent to the other New England colonies to urge their participation. On 14 April the Committee of Safety was instructed to begin selecting field officers for Massachusetts' contingent. These officers, in turn, were to assist the committee in selecting captains, who would appoint subalterns. Minuteman officers were given preference. Officers selected would then raise their regiments and companies, as the Provincial officers had done.

After imitating its plans for a New England army, the Provincial Congress adjourned on 15 April. It reassembled on the day after the events at Lexington and Concord. The first order of business was accumulating testimony to prove to the English people that Gage's troops had been the aggressors. The congress then turned its attention to forming a volunteer army from the men who had massed around Boston. The Committee of Safety had already taken tentative steps in this direction. On 21 April the committee had approved an enlistment format; 8,000 effectives were to serve until 31 December in regiments consisting of a colonel, a lieutenant colonel, a major, and 9 companies. The committee planned to have each company consist of 3 officers, 4 sergeants, a drummer, a fifer, and 70 rank and file, though it subsequently reduced the latter figure to 50. The pre-Lexington plan had been to form an army by apportioning quotas of men on the various towns, a traditional colonial device. The committee decided instead to have the generals survey the men at the siege lines at Boston to persuade them to remain. Its decisions were preliminary since final authority rested with the Provincial Congress. As confusion spread, on 23 April General Ward, the commander of the siege, suggested that the congress use smaller units to retain a maximum number of officers.

The Provincial Congress incorporated Ward's suggestions into a comprehensive plan that it adopted the same day. It called for a New England army of 30,000 men, of which Massachusetts would furnish 13,600. The regimental organization adopted for the infantry called for 598 men: a colonel, a lieutenant colonel, a major, an adjutant, a quartermaster, a chaplain, a surgeon, 2 surgeon's mates, and 10 companies. Each company was to have a captain, 2 lieutenants, an ensign, and 55 enlisted men. On 25 April, following additional discussions with the Committee of Safety, this structure was confirmed with one change: it also accepted the committee's suggestion that each regiment headed by a general officer have two majors. Finally, after some discussion, it approved pay scales for the new force.

The Massachusetts plan called for artillerymen as well as infantry regiments. As early as 23 February the Committee of Safety, planning to train artillery companies, had distributed field guns to selected militia regiments. On 13 April the Provincial Congress had directed the committee to form six companies for the planned volunteer army. On 6 May congress adopted an organization of 4 officers, 4 sergeants. 4 corporals, a drummer, a fifer, and 32 matrosses, or privates, for each company. Four days later it rescinded that organization and sent a committee to confer with Richard Gridley on the propriety of organizing a full artillery regiment. Gridley, hero of the 1745 capture of Louisbourg, was the colony's leading expert on artillery. Following the talks, on 12 May the Provincial Congress authorized a ten-company regiment. Four days later it gave Gridley the command.

The regiment formed in June. Neither Gridley nor William Burbeck, his assistant, could concentrate on it since they had also been appointed the colony's two engineers on 26 April. In June the Committee of Safety added a logistical staff and an organic company of artificers (skilled workmen) to do maintenance. The important post of ordnance storekeeper went to Ezekiel Cheever. The company officers came largely from the several Boston militia artillery companies, particularly Adino Paddock's which had received extensive training from British artillerymen in the 1760's and was composed mostly of skilled artisans and Sons of Liberty. Two of its members, John Crane and Ebenezer Stevens, had moved to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1774 after the closing of the port of Boston. Their close ties enabled the Rhode Island artillerymen to merge easily with the regiment in 1776.

In spite of careful preparations, Massachusetts entered the war in a state of chaos. The Provincial Congress and the Committee of Safety frequently found themselves working at cross-purposes. Confusion over the size and configuration of the army created duplication of effort,and prospective officers were recruited under a variety of authorities. The minutemen and other militia who had responded to Lexington by besieging Boston, moreover, were not prepared to remain in the field for an extended period, although later arrivals were more inclined to serve a full term (until 31 December).

Order began to emerge in May when formats for commissions and oaths were codified. Muster masters were appointed to examine enlistment rolls at Cambridge and Roxbury so that the Committee of Safety could certify officers for commissioning. Regiments emerged with a geographic basis, drawing their precedence from that of the militia which furnished the majority of their men. Since all commissions were dated 19 May 1775, the touchy matter of seniority remained to be settled later. By the end of June twenty-six regiments had been certified, plus part of a regiment whose status as a Massachusetts or New Hampshire unit was unresolved.

During early June 1775, the Massachusetts army achieved a relatively final form. The Provincial Congress decided on 13 June to retain in service a force of one artillery and twenty-three infantry regiments. This limit was altered ten days later when the raising of troops specifically for coastal defense released Edmund Phinney's Cumberland County regiment from that mission to join the army. The Congress also resolved the status of the generals. Ward retained the overall command he had exercised since the outbreak of hostilities. John Whitcomb, William Heath, and Ebenezer Frye were designated major generals.

- - - - -Robert K.Wright Jr.

Colonial Military Links

Colonial Military Bibliography