The Darker Side of the Militia


February 26, 2014
by Thomas Verenna Also by this Author


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On November 8, 1808, in his eighth State of the Union address, Thomas Jefferson uttered the now famous lines, “For a people who are free, and who mean to remain so, a well organized and armed militia is their best security.”[1]  These words intimate the fears held by many of the founders of a standing army in a time of peace.  Having witnessed the abuse suffered by some ordinary citizens by the British Regulars prior to the Revolution, Americans put their trust into the ideal that the militia—a highly regulated group of local citizens, free men who met at various times a year to drill and train—was the greatest means to defend American borders.  Prior to and during the War of 1812, Americans largely believed in the value of militia in highly idealized forms.[2]  Even modern Americans have an embellished opinion on the subject.  But this heroic view of a citizen army during the war for American Independence does not tell the whole story; there is a darker side.  In no place is this better documented than Pennsylvania.

The militia throughout Colonial America during the Revolution were generally undisciplined, poorly equipped, and unreliable.  General Washington didn’t mince words about it.  A few weeks after the Battle of Harlem Heights, Washington wrote a letter to his nephew.  In it he documented the condition of the militia: they “are again ordered out, but they come without any conveniences and soon return. I discharged a regiment the other day that had in it fourteen rank and file fit for duty only, and several that had less than fifty.” The depressing state of the army had drained him mentally; he noted that he had become “… wearied to death all day with a variety of perplexing circumstances—disturbed at the conduct of the militia, whose behavior and want of discipline has done great injury to the other troops, who never had officers, except in a few instances, worth the bread they eat.”[3]

But the Pennsylvania militia holds a unique place in American history; in a sense they represented the true dichotomy of the militia force during the Revolution.  They were a band of men who at times served admirably, but who also committed terrible acts of atrocity.  This may be because prior to 1777, Pennsylvania had no militia laws.  While there did exist a group of volunteer military Associations (or Associators, founded by Benjamin Franklin) since 1747, there had been no direct governance under provincial legislation for the arming, equipping, and training of a defense force for the colony.

At the start of the war, Pennsylvania relied primarily upon Associator groups to perform support tasks like guarding supply depots at Easton and Reading.  But as the war progressed, and Washington’s army dwindled from 14,000 to only a few thousand fit for duty, the need for a more short-term solution forced the Committee of Safety at Philadelphia to call up Pennsylvania militia.[4]  These were largely volunteers who were paid a small wage and given dated equipment (or none at all).  The duties of the militia varied; some were sent to New Jersey to support Washington in 1776, those companies sent without arms being made to work on the fortifications around camp.[5]

But even these volunteer companies were not free from dissidents.  At one point, Washington wrote to the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety about his fears concerning the local militia from the area of his headquarters:

“The Spirit of Disaffection that appears in this County [of Bucks, where Washington was headquartered-ed.], deserves your serious Attention. Instead of giving any Assistance in repelling the Enemy, the Militia have not only refused to obey your general Summons and that of their commanding Officers, but I am told exult at the Approach of the Enemy and our late Misfortunes. I beg leave to submit to your Consideration whether such people are to be intrusted with Arms in their Hands? If they will not use them for us, there is the greatest Reason to apprehend they will against us, if Oppertunity offers. But even supposing they claimed the Right of remaining Neuter, in my Opinion we ought not to hesitate a Moment in taking their Arms, which will be so much wanted in furnishing the new Levies. If such a Step meets your Approbation, I leave it to you to determine upon the Mode. If you think fit to empower me, I will undertake to have it done as speedily and effectually as possible. You must be sensible that the utmost Secrecy is necessary, both in your Deliberation on, and in the Execution of a Matter of this kind, for if the thing should take Wind, the Arms would presently be conveyed beyond our Reach or rendered useless.”[6]

The Pennsylvania militia had a more defining role during the Philadelphia Campaign of 1777-1778.  In March of 1777, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania passed the state’s first militia laws, known as the Militia Act.  The Act resolved that every white male between the ages of 18 and 53 were considered enrolled in the militia (excepting clergymen of every religion, various public officials and judges) and that those who refused to serve would have to find substitutes or pay a hefty fine (which the state then used to furnish substitutes in their stead).  As a result, by August of 1777, Washington’s army had swelled with a large number of Pennsylvania militia; nearly 3,000 turned out at Chester to aide Washington.[7]  As with previous militia units from Pennsylvania, most were without arms.[8]

About 54% of all individuals called to serve either failed to show and paid a fine, or found someone to replace them.[9]   As a result, some of the militia included poor individuals (those who could not afford the fines nor furnish a replacement), conscripts (those forced by others to serve as substitutes), and mercenaries (those who were hired by the state, paid for by fines).  The conscripts and mercenaries fought among those who dutifully left their farms and families and marched for the cause.  The mixture was volatile and so discipline was lacking.

Several prominent Revolutionary elites made note of their shenanigans, among them Henry Muhlenberg who wrote that many of the Pennsylvania militiamen were using a local Lutheran church at Trappe, Pennsylvania (near where the army was encamped) for recreation, causing all sorts of commotion, carrying their firearms near the altar while apparently drinking, and singing to accompany one of their comrades playing the church organ.[10]  Discipline was so terrible, in fact, that some Pennsylvania militia resorted to thievery and looting as they passed through other Pennsylvania towns.[11]

These issues were not the only type to plague the reputation of the Pennsylvanians.  Because the Militia Act placed the militia under the guidance of County Lieutenants and Sub-Lieutenants, the militia were often used as the County Lieutenants’ own private police force (dedicated law enforcement did not exist in America until the nineteenth century).  At their bidding, the militia could be dispatched to various parts of the county to handle business unrelated to the war or sent to confiscate the home and land of anyone accused of aiding the enemy.[12]  When the militia going on active duty required firearms and ammunition, the County Lieutenant of Northampton would send a detachment of troops currently on duty to take them from private residences by force if the persons living there did not hand them over when asked.[13]

The most morally questionable actions of the militia, under the direction of County Lieutenants, was the persistent harassment of Moravian communities.  Though supported by Congress, Moravians were a target by local authorities because, as per their religious beliefs, they were pacifists and refused to serve.  In addition to their stance of neutrality, many refused to take the Oath of Allegiance, feeling that doing so would go against their religious contracts.  Bishop Ettwein of Bethlehem wrote that the Test Act (by which everyone was required to give an oath to the new government) was “the most absurd, tyrannical & wicked Law that ever was passed in a free County.”[14] The Moravians, as a result this attitude, suffered horrible abuses.

These persecutions were not carried out by the militia alone; the Committees of Observation and Inspection in Northampton and Lancaster levied ridiculous fines on the Moravian communities.  Some had their peaceful homes turned into war hospitals and others into prisons for Hessians captured during the New Jersey and Philadelphia campaigns.  The enforcement of these measures were carried out by the local militia, however—again at the behest of the County Lieutenants.

The mass grave of Indians at the Gnadenhutten Massacre site. Source: Wikipedia (Bwsmith84)
The mass grave of Indians at the Gnadenhutten Massacre site. Source: Wikipedia (Bwsmith84)

While usually acting under the guidance of County officials, sometimes the militia took matters into their own hands.  In one such troubling incident, after the Moravians of Lititz in Lancaster County had all their firearms confiscated by the local County government, a group of local militia arrived armed and equipped. After several names were read aloud, 14 Moravian men were systematically rounded up and taken away from their families—right in the middle of a day.  They were held under guard in the militia Captain’s house and then taken to jail, paraded through town as people shouted slurs and insults at them.  After a day or so, the men were released by the Committee of Observation because they had not given any order to detain them. This act was committed by what many consider today to be ‘patriot militiamen’.  As Scott Paul Gordon pointed out:[15]

“Such stories of Moravians during the American Revolution still have the power to surprise students of American history. Tories, usually cast in the role of villains, are absent; instead, it is American patriots that act tyrannically, deviously, even murderously. These patriots seemed unable to tolerate Moravians’ refusal either to bear arms or to swear loyalty to Pennsylvania’s new state government.”

Often the Moravians had to rely upon the protection of Continental soldiers and members of the Committee of Safety from the local militia!  A Moravian diary entry from February 10, 1777 reads:[16]

“During the past week, we learned of threats made on the part of some militia in the vicinity of Allentown, against us and our town [Bethlehem]; that they intended to search the houses, seize all blankets, and compel our young men to march to the field with them. The soldiers and the officers at present quartered here have resolved to protect us, and will remain until the militia have passed through to camp.”

Perhaps the worst act of violence perpetrated against a peaceful settlement occurred in 1782, in the Moravian mission village of Gnadenhütten, Ohio.  A large force of Pennsylvania militia marched into Ohio and massacred about 100 unarmed Moravian Indians.  The excuse they gave was that the attack was in retaliation for frontier assaults, but the Moravian Indians had actually been working with the Patriots, supplying them with information concerning Tory and British activities.[17]

Certainly not all the members of the Pennsylvania militia were guilty of these crimes.  This article purposefully highlights some of the uglier events in its history.  Demonstrating the brutal dichotomy of the Pennsylvania militia, General Armstrong, before leaving service in the Continental army, wrote to Pennsylvania’s President Wharton in 1777:

“Many, too many of the militia, are a Scandle to the military profession, a nusance in service & a dead weight on the publick; yet it is equally true, that taken as a body, they have render’d that Service that neither the State nor the Army cou’d have dispenced with. They have constantly mounted guards, form’d many & direct Pickquets, perform’d many occasional pieces of Labour—Patroled the Roads leading to the Enemy by day & by night, & that more than their proportion—they have taken a number of prisoners, brought in deserters, suppressed Tories, prevented much intercourse betwixt the disaffected & the Enemy—Met and Scirmished with the Enemy as early & as often as others, and except the Battle of Brandiwine, of which their station little fell in their way, have had a proportional Share of Success, hazard, & loss of blood.”[18]

Yet the darker side laid out here does demonstrate a fundamental flaw with the quote given at the beginning of this article by Jefferson.[19]  While many of the militia called to serve did so admirably and performed whatever duties asked of them, others did not.  Indeed, in Pennsylvania, the militia were not always the providers of security to the free.  While Congress and the Committee of Safety tried to control the militia, a general lack of laws prior to 1777 and a general distrust of the Militia and Test Acts of 1777, along with corrupt county officials, led to situations where the militia were the ones who took away security and threatened liberty rather than defending it.

[Featured image above: The Gnaddenhutten Massacre. William Dean Howells, Stories of Ohio (New York: American Book Company, 1897), p 80.]


[1] The context of this speech is set in a time of prolonged economic downturn and yet another possibility of war between America and Great Britain; Jefferson had raised something like 100,000 militia, arming and equipping them in preparation for a possible invasion.  Following this oft-used quote, Jefferson also notes that he is concerned that many states have not taken the training of militia seriously.

[2] See the excellent article by Matt Barrett, ‘The Memory of the Revolution and the War of 1812’, The Journal of the American Revolution (January 2014), accessed February 13, 2014: .

[3] Letter from George Washington to Lund Washington, September 30, 1776; accessed February 13, 2014: . These views were supported by John Adams, in a letter to his wife dated October 8, 1776, where he wrote, “They are now posted at Haerlem [sic], about ten or eleven miles from the city…. Wherever the men of war have approached, our militia have most manfully turned their backs and run away, officers and men, like sturdy fellows; and their panics have sometimes seized the regular regiments.” John Adams, Letters, addressed to his wife (Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1841), 170.

[4] See George Washington’s letter to the officers of the Bucks County militia (probably the local Associator companies): .  Those who refused to turn out had their firearms confiscated by the county Associators and they were treated as enemies of liberty.  See the resolution by the Committee of Safety, .

[5] Washington wrote to the Committee of Safety: “I have not a Musket to spare to the Militia who are without Arms. This demand upon me, makes it necessary to remind you, that it will be needless for those to come down who have no Arms, except they will consent to work upon the Fortifications, instead of taking their Tour of military Duty, if they will do that, they may be most usefully employed.” Letter from George Washington to the Council of Safety, December 23, 1776, accessed February 13, 2014: .

[6] Letter from George Washington to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, December 15, 1776; accessed February 13, 2014:

[7] On September 1, 1777, the total militia from Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Lancaster, York and Berks Counties, including officers numbered something like 3024; out of 2496 enlisted Pennsylvania militiamen, only 1940 (under two-thirds) were armed and equipped for duty, 127 were sick in camp, and 98 had deserted.

[8] John Adams wrote on August 26, 1777, “The militia are turning out with great alacrity both in Maryland and Pennsylvania. They are distressed for want of arms. Many have none, others have little fowling pieces. However, we shall rake and scrape enough to do Howe’s business, by the favor of Heaven.” (Adams, Letters, 257)

[9] Arthur J. Alexander, ‘Service by Substitute in the Militia of Northampton and Lancaster Counties (Pennsylvania) During the War of the Revolution’ Military Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Autumn, 1945), 278-282.

[10] See Theodore G. Tappert & John W. Doberstein, trans., The Journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Vol. 3, 80.  Muhlenberg also laments the local farms, which had been devastated by the large numbers of militia who had drained them all of ‘wood, hay, and crops’. See Trappert, Journals, 81-82.

[11] In a diary entry courtesy of the Moravian archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania dated February 13, 1777, “The first four companies of the Allentown militia passed through in quiet. In Easton they entered the houses in squads of ten and twelve, and took blankets and coverlets from the beds. Mr. Dean was sent for by an Express, and compelled them to desist and return the stolen property.” John W. Jordan, Abraham Berlin, et al.,’ Bethlehem During the Revolution: Extracts from the Diaries in the Moravian Archives at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Jan., 1889), 398.

[12] In 1775, a detachment of some 600 Pennsylvania militia were sent north to Wyoming Valley in an attempt to dislodge Connecticut settlers in the region; this action had nothing to do with the Revolution.  See my article, “Connecticut Yankees in a Pennamite’s Fort,” in the Journal of the American Revolution.

[13] In September of 1777, the County Lieutenant of York wrote to President Wharton (first President of Pennsylvania) that “Yesterday I was Hon’d with yr Letter of the 12th Instant & have sent expresses to each Batalion in the County, as to arms we are at a loss for, as the last year the arms was Nearly all taken to Campe, where they mostly remained. The Nonasasiators [Nonassociators], then was mostly disarmed, our situation at present is such, that believe we shant be able to send out many arms….” (Pennsylvania Archives, Series 1, Vol. 5, 629-634). See also my example in ‘The Importance of Observation and Inspection’, The Journal of the American Revolution (January 2014), accessed February 13, 2014, .

[14] Cited by Scott Paul Gordon, ‘Patriots and Neighbors: Pennsylvania Moravians in the American Revolution’ in Journal of Moravian History, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2012), 112.

[15] Gordon, ‘Patriots and Neighbors,’ 111-112.

[16] Jordan, ‘Bethlehem’, 397.

[17] These particular Moravian Indians had even been exiled from the area months earlier by Wyandot and Shawnee Indians who had discovered they had been cooperating with the Continental army.  Among the massacred, the 160 Pennsylvania militiamen had slain 30 children. For a full discussion, see Rob Harper, ‘Looking the Other Way: The Gnadenhutten Massacre and the Contextual Interpretation of Violence’, The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Jul., 2007), 621-644.

[18] Pennsylvania Archives, Series 1, Vol. 6, 100-101.

[19] Incidentally, Jefferson was wrong. In the coming years, during the War of 1812, the militia failed horribly against the might of the British army, as they had done consistently (with few exceptions) during the Revolution. It was primarily the work of the American Regulars (Federal troops) that led to an eventually victory over the British. See the brief discussion on the reliance upon militia in David Stephen Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, The War of 1812 (Westport and London: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002), 55-57.


  • Hugh, that is an excellent question and one I have to say I don’t know as much about. I am aware that militia in the Southern states were used occasionally by wealthy slave owners as their own policing force; but to my knowledge this was a rare occurrence. It is my understanding that slave patrols in the South were mobs of men generally unaffiliated with an official state militia (though men could clearly have been in both). So in that way, the South does have a dark side to their militia as well. And the inhumane and detestable treatment suffered by people of color is as terrible and then some as anything dealt to the Moravians in Pennsylvania.

    What I think makes Pennsylvania so unique is that prior to 1777, the General Assembly wasn’t very radical–they had no official militia law on the books (though there had been times when militia laws did exist in Pennsylvania–like during the French and Indian Wars, but these eventually expired); they lacked the experience that other colonies had had with arming and equipping and training militia as a state sanctioned activity. While Franklin started a Military Association, it was not on the same level as, say, Virginia’s militia and certainly they were not as well trained as the Minutemen of New England.

    The men of the northern and western counties were all Frontiersmen; they had hard lives fighting back Indian attacks and incursions by the French in the 1750’s-60’s. Several ancestors of mine living in Northampton County saw their homes burned and their neighbors slaughtered by the French and their native allies in 1755-1756 and were displaced for a time at a Moravian settlement. And this is interesting because those same Moravians who had taken in hundreds of refugees during the F&I War became the targets of some of the very same people they rescued and clothed during the Revolution.

    Either way, I do believe a lot more can be said about this subject. It will hopefully make a very interesting thesis for me one day. 😉

  • The war in the South was a civil war in the truest sense of the word. Literally hundreds of skirmishes were militia only – and, the militia participated in all the major battles as well. After the fall of Charleston in 1780 the militia was the only Whig fighting force in the field. Then, Gates moves south with the Continentals (and militia) and is defeated at Camden. A very strong case can be made that the war was won in the south – and, a huge part of that was shared by the militia. (another case – the victory at Kings Mountain was militia only)

  • As a true believer that the southern states owe their independence to the militia, I wouldn’t doubt for a moment the existence of a ‘dark side’ to many of the men involved. We have a number of instances that might exhibit somewhat questionable behavior.

    After the victory at King’s Mountain, the victorious militia got together and condemned something like 30 men to hanging. The idea being these men were guilty of plundering or murdering their neighbors prior to the battle. After actually hanging 8 or 9 of the prisoners, John Sevier stepped up and helped stop the process by showing mercy to one who had been a neighbor. Since Sevier was also mourning the loss of his son at the battle, he carried the moment and the hangings stopped.

    The situation in Georgia was so bitter that Andrew Pickens had Thomas Brown removed from Augusta after its fall to avoid seeing the Loyalist Colonel murdered by Elijah Clark or one of his men. They had already murdered Major Eaton after the surrender.

    Apparently William R. Davies and his militia took a few liberties with Col Bryan’s tory regiment after routing them at Hanging Rock. Having recently arrived in the British camp, Bryan’s men remained mostly unarmed at the time.

    Lest we focus only on the negative, the militia General Thomas Sumter once spared Major Wemyss from a sure hanging after his capture at Fishdam Ford. It seems the major was running around with a list of all the plantations he and his men had burned and plundered. Realizing that publication of the find would surely condemn the major to death at the hands of his men, Sumter kept quiet and Major Wemyss survived the war intact.

    In any event, to deny the ‘dark side’ to the militia would be incorrect. However, in my opinion, there was an equal ‘dark side’ to the British and the Loyalists in the southern states. hmmm, perhaps a story to contemplate such. . . .

  • Hugh and Wayne; by all means you’re both correct. I would not want to suggest the militia were all bad nor would I suggest that the Tories and British were all good. Many of my ancestors fought in the PA militia and I wouldn’t dare diminish their service (and thankfully I have no come across any negative events during their tours). Nevertheless, as Wayne put it–we cannot ignore the dark side. For all bad must be remembered with the good. Part of history is, after all, preserving and learning it from it.

  • My ancestor emigrated from Germany and was in the Chester County militia. I do not know if he was in any battles but I heard he helped build forts anong the Delaware river. His name was Spanogle.

    1. Fred Burnisky, we probably have the same ancestor! I have Sponaugles way back to Germany–all with various spellings! Beginning with my grandmother, Bertha Sponaugle 1899, grandfather Daniel Spunaugle 1843, William 1814, Balsar 1772, and George 1743 who was born in Germany. Let me know if you want to collaborate!


  • Hi my name is Tom McFadden.I just did my family tree and so have both 6xgreatgrandfathers that fought in the Lancaster militia,one 7thgreat grandfather. my one6xggf was Hans peter Zimmerman.He was friends with Benjamin Franklin and owened businesses with William Penn.Out of 3 those men have all of their children that fought also.I am still researching but it’s probably 15 more.My one relative was in Lancaster malitia and was in the battle of Long Island where retreated and a lot were captured.He was of Germantown and the battle of the Brandywine.samuel Zimmerman sat on the committee with Ben Franklin A lot of them were very wealthy.As far as weapons Samuel Zimmerman lent the money to Franklin to purchase wagons and rifles for the battle of Cumberland,Where General Braddock surrendered and the British took all of the Euipment.Most of the Germans and the swiss were in the military before immigrating to Lancaster.Think Samuels father was employed by Louis the14 th along with 20,000 more Swiss guard.Whatever the character of the men who fought might have been a whole different world where we live,without them.Ask the other half of my family from Ireland,who is still owned by England.

  • My 5th GGF also was in the Lancaster Militia…………also a German immigrant. Name of Stephan Felix……born in Moselle, Lorraine Franace….fled to Germany & thence to what’s now the U.S..

    Buried in St. Peters catholic cemetery in Lancaster.

    I unfortunately do not know of any engagements he was involved with. Born in 1741, don’t recall the date of death, but he was a fairly prosperous farmer in either Dauphin or Lancaster Co.

  • Hello my name is Molly Crusen Bishop and I am a registered member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. My Patriot is John Kroesen who served under Captain Henry Lott in the Bucks County Militia.
    I would love to know more about him and his group to have a broader knowledge of his endeavors and trials.
    Any information on specific battles or events for me to research would be wonderful. I love research but am stuck finding any specifics about him.
    He was born in 1740 and died in Northumberland Co. Oct. 4th, 1796. He was married to Jane Coursen.
    I see 2 John Kroesen’s in his group- one an ensign or Second Lieutenant and one a Private.

  • Very disappointed to read in this article the poor behavior reputation that the Pennsylvania militia had. Especially with the Moravians.
    We just discovered that my wife’s 5th gr grandfather, Jacob Fedder, was a private in the 9th Battalion Lancaster County PA militia during 1778-1779. He served under Col John Huber. I would appreciate hearing from anyone with history on this unit during that time and perhaps any info on Jacob Fedder.
    I haven’t found much yet at the Pennsylvania Archives site but still working on that, Any other good sources you may know of would be appreciated.

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