For contemporary Americans the difference between militia and regular, or “Continental,” soldiers is hard to grasp. Both fought in the war. Both suffered casualties. Both have supporters who claim they won the war. For decades after the Revolution, politicians spouted clouds of hot air on the subject, mostly aimed at denigrating the regular army in favor of the militia.
The militia long predated the American Revolution. As early as 1691 the Massachusetts charter empowered the royal governor to organize regiments of militia in every county. All able-bodied men between sixteen and sixty were required to serve. Each had to keep a musket, bullets and powder ready to repel an attack by the French or Indians. The militia was a kind of standing home army that met on training days to stay acquainted with handling guns and performing military maneuvers.
The minutemen were an elite group of militiamen who met and trained hard in the sixteen months between the Boston Tea Party and the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Many people, including members of the Continental Congress, have confused them with ordinary militiamen. The latter never approached the minutemen’s state of battle readiness. As a result the militia performed disastrously in the opening years of the Revolution.
In late 1776 George Washington, discouraged by the way militiamen tended to run away at the sight of a British soldier, wrathfully informed the Congress: “If I were called upon to declare…whether the militia had been most serviceable or hurtful upon the whole, I should subscribe to the latter.”
Emergency soldiers, summoned from home on short notice, the militia lacked confidence on the battlefield. But Washington eventually concluded that if they had a regular army to support them and “look the enemy in the face,” some of these amateurs were willing to fight and could inflict significant damage on the enemy.
Washington and some of his generals, notably Daniel Morgan and Nathanael Greene, learned to use the militia as auxiliary troops around a core of regulars with triumphant effect at battles such as Cowpens. At Saratoga the militia poured in after the Continentals had proved they could fight the British army to a standstill. Their raw numbers convinced General John Burgoyne that he was hopelessly surrounded. When the British invaded New Jersey in 1780, the militia, knowing the Continental army was in nearby Morristown, fought vigorously.
When the war shifted to the South and the southern Continental army was virtually destroyed by successive defeats at Savannah, Charleston and Camden, the militia under the leadership of experienced soldiers such as Thomas Sumter, carried the brunt of resistance for a while. But their lack of discipline and fondness for plunder alienated as many people as their battlefield valor encouraged. It required the revival of the southern army under General Nathanael Greene to make a decisive impact on the war.
At Bennington and Kings Mountain, the militia, again led by experienced officers, scored victories without the help of Continentals. When Washington marched to Yorktown, he left New Jersey completely in the hands of the militia. The conclusion seems inescapable: the militia could not have won the war alone but the war probably could not have been won without them.
After the battle of Springfield, two voices summed up the appeal of both types of soldiers. One of Washington’s officers, who remembered the starvation and neglect the regulars had endured during the brutal winter of 1780 in Morristown, wrote:”l cherish those dear ragged Continentals, whose patience will be the admiration of future ages, and I glory in bleeding with them .”
Yet even a sternly impartial historian must confess the appeal of the militia’s simpler, more spontaneous solidarity. In a mustering-out message to his regiment after Springfield, a New Jersey colonel took “the greatest pleasure” in the way the men under his command had lived “in the greatest harmony.” He hoped they would continue in “the same peace and unity…and convince the enemy’s of the United States that we mean to live and dye like brothers and go hand in hand in supporting our country against its aprosors….” [oppressors]