To the Sound of the Fife

Primary Sources

July 1, 2015
by Editors Also by this Author


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So you’ve been elected Captain of the militia company of your small Massachusetts town in 1774, and now you’ve got to train your men. Where do you begin? Probably by sending to a Boston bookseller (maybe Henry Knox) for a copy of a militia training manual. Several were published in England during the French & Indian War, and were promptly reprinted in America. Among the most popular was William Windham’s A Plan of Discipline Composed for the Use of the Militia of the County of Norfolk, published in London in 1759. By 1768 an adaptation of it was being printed by Richard Draper on Newbury Street in Boston under the title A Plan of Exercise for the militia of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, Extracted from the plan of discipline for the Norfolk Militia. Further editions were printed in 1770, 1771, 1772 and 1774; a variant was printed for use “by the province of New Hampshire” in Portsmouth in 1771, and versions “for the Militia of the Colony of Connecticut” in New Haven and New London in 1772.

The book covered all manner of rudiments for teaching officers to teach men: how to give words of command, the sequence in which to train men, how to march, the various formations and maneuvers required to move large bodies of men in an organized fashion, and the all-important manual of arms for handling muskets. Among the many military texts available at the time, Windham’s work stood out because it was oriented towards militia and documented many fundamental things that would be passed down by word of mouth in a standing army. Only when Timothy Pickering released the first truly American military text, An Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia in 1775, was Windham’s work finally eclipsed.

An interested element of the original 1759 edition of Windham’s book is a paragraph that was added after the work had been arranged for printing. Windham had for the first time seen British army regiments marching to a new accompaniment, the fife. He was struck by the sound of it, and recommended it for militia use (as was the famous European military writer Marshall de Saxe, whose name the printer failed to render completely in Windham’s book). It caught on quickly, and by the time war broke out in America in 1775 the shrill tones of the fife were familiar on both sides of the conflict. We can only guess the extent to which Windham’s writings promoted the use of this iconic instrument in America.

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