York County Pennsylvania Militia 1777

Prior to the end of 1776, there was no militia or minuteman company established in Colonial Pennsylvania.  The Provincial government was ruled by the Quakers under the William Penn family in Pennsylvania, since its land grant in the 1600’s. [1] The Quaker religion, being pacifist, would not allow a person to bear arms or provide funds to purchase arms in the colonies for common defense. Relying on the fact all lands in the Pennsylvania land grant were purchased from the Indians, the Quakers felt secure in their faith and in the good faith dealings they had with the inhabitants. The inherent natural dangers of living in Pennsylvania on the then-frontier, and possible threats from Indians and other countries at war with England, cost many a Quaker pioneer his life and property for the want of a means of defense. Needless to say, many a non-Quaker would defend his life, family, and property using any arms he could obtain when any threat arose on the frontier.

After the news of the Boston massacre filtered through the colonies, many local citizens followed the lead of the newly elected Association of Congress and established committees to prepare for the perceived future invasion by and conflict with the British military. Several such committees were organized in YorkTown, Pennsylvania, as it was known at that time. [2] These committees, called a committee of safety and committee of observation, were composed of “freemen” of the county, usually merchants, solicitors and tradesmen. These committees, as best they could, prepared the local populace for the unknowns that most certainly would arrive in the future.

In the early days of the rebellion, in Pennsylvania, there was a shortage of arms for the newly raised battalions needed in Boston, and later battles in the north-east section of the now United Colonies. From the very beginning the Association of Congress waged a battle to acquire arms and more importantly manufacture saltpeter to produce gun powder for the troops in the field.  Before the Boston massacre occurred, the British Parliament halted all shipping to the colonies of items deemed necessary or useful for war. This decision by Parliament required the colonies to begin domestically producing war items normally procured from England.

The problems the Congress and Provincial government had dealing with the British Parliament and army were many. Among these problems was the need to raise an army for possible defense, (or to simply provide protection on the frontier against the Indians) and also the need for local government to provide the normal day to day services necessary for local citizens. The stress of the inaction of the Quakers eventually forced the non-Quakers to seize the state government and write a new constitution for the citizens of Pennsylvania. The new government, now administered by the Supreme Executive Council, was established on March 5, 1777. [3]

Prior to enacting the Constitution, Pennsylvania had serious issues with the volunteers called militia and minutemen.

It should be noted that until the Pennsylvania Constitution was adopted, all troops from York County, who were volunteers, were associated with General George Washington and the Pennsylvania Line. Many of these units were not properly trained, equipped, or disciplined in military knowledge of the day, and many also had the belief they should only obey orders from officers of their own choosing and from their own home county. As can be expected, if the new government was to make changes and to have an effective militia, no time was to be lost to make use of suggestions from knowledgeable officers in the field.

On March 17, 1777, the General Assembly passed a state militia law. [4] The militia law decreed the President of the Supreme Executive Council as the Commander-in-Chief of the new militia. The law further provided a local person, called a County Lieutenant, who held the rank of Colonel,  put in charge to implement the militia according to the law. A militia was set up for each county, and for the city of Philadelphia.

The Supreme Executive Council received a list of names from the General Assembly and appointed Robert McCallister to be County Lieutenant and several others to be Sub-Lieutenants for York County, to implement the militia law. [5] Mr. McCallister was a civilian employee not associated with the military officers holding similar rank. The county lieutenant was required to see that the militia was alerted for service and provided with arms and accountrements at the expense of the State.  Also, county lieutenants were charged with finding substitutes, and with assessing and collecting fines. However, the first duty of the county lieutenant was to acquire from the local constables, within ten days of the receipt of the militia act, “a true and exact list of names … of each and every male white person” who resided within the county, was capable of bearing arms, and was within the established age limits. The militia law had a procedure with time limits that every county lieutenant was required to implement. Under this program a maximum of forty days was allowed for initial organization of the militia.

The Pennsylvania Archives contain some details of Mr. McCallister’s struggle to organize the militia in York County. The Supreme Executive Council initially provided guidance on regulation of the law in the form of suggestions for the county lieutenants. [6] It wasn’t long after implementing the militia law that the council received intelligence of British army movements, which pointed to Philadelphia being invaded in the following months. [7]

This information about the British movements was received at the beginning of April 1777, a mere eighteen days after the signing of the militia law. This information played havoc on the timetable established by the General Assembly to organize the militia.  Later, Congress passed a resolution earnestly recommending to the president of the council that he call out 3,000 militia to man a “flying camp”, with one half to be dispatched to Chester and one half to Bristol. [8] On the next day, the Council sent orders to the lieutenants of the counties to furnish five hundred men from each county to march to the two camps mentioned previously. On this date, only thirty-nine days had elapsed since the militia act became law.

As one can imagine, the county lieutenants were shocked at receiving the intelligence report and the orders from the council.  When Mr. McCallister got the news, he wrote to the president of the council on May 1, 1777.) [9] He questioned the validity of the order to call out men, because the militia in York County wasn’t yet formed nor were the officers elected or commissioned. McCallister related his efforts in forming districts and setting up the election of officers of the militia, and stated he would “do everything in my power to raise the quota of volunteers.” On May 7, the president of the council, Thomas Wharton, replied.[10] In his second paragraph, Wharton wrote, “I apprehend from a paragraph in your Letter, that you have by some means mistook what I wrote to you respecting your Quota for the camp; my intention was, that they should be brought out under the Militia Law, and not as Volunteers; for I am apprehensive that any other plea than that, will by no means answer the good purpose intended – but very probably lead to Confusion.” McCallister received Wharton’s letter on May 12. [11]

It appears that McCallister informed the freemen of his county over the next several days that they were no longer volunteers in service to their new county, but draftees for the state militia. Feeling heat from Congress and General Washington, the council sent a reminder to all county lieutenants to provide manpower to the two flying camps. [12]

McCallister wrote again on June 16 that he was having trouble organizing the militia. [13] On July 4, he observed that the freemen would not meet to choose officers nor serve, and had threatened the lives of the officers that had accepted commissions. It is not apparent in the minutes if McCallister supplied any troops from York County to the flying camp as required. [14]

At this point, on August 13, Archibald McClean, a justice in York Town, wrote a letter to President Bryan, actually the vice president of the council. [15] The letter is quite long and contains observations by McClean about various officials in York County government. One such observation was about the county lieutenant, Mr. McCallister.  McClean alleged McCallister was not supporting the new government, and had not taken the new required Oath of Fidelity of the government.  He claimed this was why the organizing of the militia has not been completed and was mired in an indifferent manner.  At about the same time, August 16, 1777, a Mr. Evans, a member of council, made a visit to the camp at Chester. [16] In a letter to Vice President Bryan, Evans stated that no company from York County was in the camp.

By letter dated August 21, 1777 to Vice President Bryan, Mr. McClean addressed his concerns about the new government and requested that copies of the new constitution in German and English be sent to York County to answer any questions the inhabitants had about the new government. [17] Again McClean wrote about McCallister’s handling of the forming of the militia.  In this letter, McClean stated that he was in the battalion under the command of McCallister, who was elected Colonel.  McClean noted that not one class of the battalion was formed, and that he offered to McCallister his services to perform the necessary work to form the classes as required by law.  McClean remarked that he had drawn the first class for service, meaning that because of the current call up, he would be required to march to the camp along with his fellow first class privates unless he provided a substitute to replace him. McClean wrote that because he was deeply engaged in public service, he had procured a sufficient substitute in obedience of the requisitions of council. This is the first record of any of the York County militia being formed and marching to camp under the new militia law.

During this period there apparently were several additional letters exchanged between the council president and Mr. McCallister. McCallister has on record a letter of August 28, 1777, where he acknowledged receiving a letter from the Council on the 21st of August. [18] That letter is not in Volume V of the Colonial Record.  However, in the letter of August 28, McCallister described denying the former charges against him of not properly managing the affairs of the militia, those charges probably having come from McClean.  He described some of the trouble he had with his fellow neighbors: sometime in August, 200 Germans assembled within a mile of Hanover to “bind themselves to each other that they would not muster nor go in the militia any way, nor suffer their effects to be sold to pay any fines, and stand by other at the risqué of their lives, to kill every man who distress them”. They also claimed upwards of 500 persons in this combination. They intended to go to McCallister’s house and either kill him or beat him, so he would not be any trouble to them anymore. To anyone, that is very serious bluster from your neighbors.

Next in the letter, McCallister made his case as to why the German people were resisting the new government. Many of the settlers in this area came from Europe to escape religious prosecution. At the end of their voyage, upon leaving the ship in Philadelphia, there was a requirement of the British government to take an oath to swear allegiance the King and sign a script to prove loyalty. This is how a person was naturalized and became a British citizen in a British colony. Many Germans felt they could not be cleared of the oath to the King; if they renounced their British oath, and the colonies lost the struggle, they would be obliged to swear allegiance to the King again.

In the letter McCallister stated that five companies had marched and that he was striving hard to march the other three. By using the militia law as a guide, each company would have numbered about 80 to 100 men, resulting in 400 to 500 men marching, close to the required number requested by the council. Later in this discussion, those calculations will be challenged.  McCallister went on to say that he couldn’t get privates or officers to do anything (precisely the fear Council President Wharton expressed in his letter of May 7). To his credit, McCallister classed the eligible freemen and “Drue” part of them out; in other words, they were drafted. McCallister adhered strictly to the opinion of council as stated in the letter of July 28.

The final concern of Mr. McCallister was the collection of fines from non-associators. A person could pay a fine to stay out of the conflict, or more precisely out of the militia. This fine helped pay for those who served in the militia and fund expenses for the war. The militia act required different people to collect the fines.  The law was written so the county lieutenant, not those who were required to collect the fines, was responsible for forwarding the money to the council. McCallister was complaining that little or no fine money was being returned to him to be forwarded to the council as required by law, and that the local people were aware of the situation.

On September 3, 1777, Vice President Bryan received a letter from Mr. McClean reporting that a meeting in Hanover has been held amongst the Germans of the area. He said that to the best of his knowledge, the matter had not yet been to trial and the collection of the fines would be difficult without sufficient force to protect the collectors.  In essence, McClean agreed with McCallister’s position. In a post note, McClean acknowledged receipt of copies of the constitution and the laws of the last session of the assembly for distribution in the German areas county.

The first muster roll that lists the companies and their captains at Wilmington was prepared on September 3, 1777 is an important day in the history of the York County militia. [19] Prior records show that one company of the 1st Company, Second Battalion under Capt. Samuel Ferguson had entered into service on August 9 and marched to Wilmington. The 1st Company, Second Battalion was probably the first company formed under the militia law in York County. Captain Ferguson was killed at the battle of Brandywine, and was probably the first casualty from the new York County militia. [20] On September 6, 1777, the members of the York militia were included into Potter’s Brigade, and they were listed as 1st class under the command of Colonel Thompson. [21] Colonel Thompson was the senior captain of all the companies from York County, and many of the records show his name instead of all the captains in the field, for brevity.

The remaining events of September are an interesting record of how things can go wrong at the worst time. On September 9 the council received intelligence from General Washington that the British were sailing from New York and were on their way to Philadelphia (by this time they had already landed at Head of Elk, Maryland and were moving north towards the city). [22] On the 15th the council received an affidavit from William Beckworth and Adam Laughlin alleging an uprising of persons was soon to begin in York and Cumberland Counties. [23] This information was gathered at a tavern in Lisburn owned by James Rankin. Lisburn is in York County near the border of York and Cumberland counties and James Rankin, later in the Revolution, would be jailed as a traitor. In the affidavit, it is alleged the rich families and lieutenants in York County would be on the side of the British army, as the lieutenants were not willing to take the oath renouncing the King. In a letter from the president of council dated September 21, Mr. McCallister made no mention of the affidavit the council received on the 12th. [24] About this time, McCallister seems to have had a different attitude and an intense drive to complete his task of forming the militia.  We assume that the council had informed Mr. McCallister of the possible uprising in his area, and possibly hinted to his connection.

Meanwhile, probably unknown to McCallister, on the 26th of September the British had successfully taken Philadelphia (without anyone firing a shot in its defense from the city). The council and the Congress both left Philadelphia for other locations. The council moved to Lancaster and the Congress landed in, of all places, York Town.  Could it be that Congress decided to come to York to thwart the possible uprising?

The next correspondence from Mr. McCallister is dated October 1, 1777. It is ironic that McCallister acknowledges that the 1st class of militia was marched to engage the British because they were formed on August 9, and the 2nd and 3rd class did not organize because of a lack of funds from the council.  At this point McCallister requested funds before the men could march. [25] One can only assume that York County provided only one class of privates for the defense of its homeland from the invading British army because of lack of funds.

So, how many patriotic militia men from York County fought the British in the defense of their homeland and the capital city of Philadelphia?

Relying on three returns gathered by historian Hannah Roach, five battalions had been started on their way to camp before the end of August. [26] A General Return of the Pennsylvania Militia at Wilmington, September 1, 1777, included the York militia under the command of Colonel Thompson. The return of four battalions included 125 men total and all were 1st class. A Return of 1st Class, York County at Wilmington dated September 3, 1777, had the number of battalions increased to seven and indicated 187 men of 1st class. There is another Return of Pennsylvania Militia dated September 6, 1777, which lists the York militia with 127 men in a brigade under the command of Brigadier General Potter. Why there is such a difference in number of men listed between September 3 and 6 is unknown.

The returns tell the story of the problems Mr. McCallister had and reinforce his version of the struggle in forming the militia and providing the manpower requested by Congress and the council. The request was for 400 to 500 men. When the troops from York County arrived at Wilmington, there were men from the 1st class of each of seven battalions; each class, if at full strength, would have about sixty men serving, so we’d expect over 400 men at Wilmington. The records show at best 187 men actually present, a stark indication that many were reluctant to serve.

 

[1] Pennsylvania Archives, Series I, Volume IV, 598.

[2] Ibid., 639.

[3] Ibid., 636.

[4] “An Act to Regulate the Militia of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” Chapter DCCL, Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania, Book IX, 75-94.

[5] Pennsylvania Archives, Series I, Volume IV, 264.

[6] Ibid., 265.

[7] Ibid., 297.

[8] Ibid., 321.

[9] Ibid., 330.

[10] Ibid., 333.

[11] Ibid., 335.

[12] Ibid., 365.

[13] Ibid., 369.

[14] Ibid., 412.

[15] Ibid., 514.

[16] Ibid., 529.

[17] Ibid., 536.

[18] Ibid., 558.

[19] Hannah Roach, “The Pennsylvania Militia in 1777,” The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine XXIII #3, 185.

[20] Ibid., 186, Note 56.

[21] Ibid., 188.

[22] Pennsylvania Archives, Series I, Volume IV, 604.

[23] Ibid., 624.

[24] Ibid., 633.

[25] Ibid., 640.

[26] Roach, “The Pennsylvania Militia in 1777,”186, 188.

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York County Pennsylvania Militia 1777

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4 Comments

  • Great article, thanks for writing it. And I’m humbled you’ve cited my work.

    If you don’t mind a gentle nudge, there are some relatively minor problems with some of the information above; e.g., the use of “flying camp”–that term never appears in the records you cite. The dialog has some language about forming ‘camps’, but this seems to be about literal encampments; they talk about troops arriving “at Camp” indicating a location, not a military entity like the actual Flying Camp (and its battalions) of 1776. It seems as though you may not know the difference. It’s not surprising given how confusing the Pennsylvania military structure was for the first few years of the war. If you are drawing this (flying camp) from a different letter, I don’t see it cited. Not incidentally (and related to the above), it wasn’t congress that sent the resolution to the county lieutenants, but the supreme executive council. They are two separate entities.

    While you are apt in your synopsis of the letter between McCallister and the council stressing the issues with the 200 Germans rioting, you note, “[if] the colonies lost the struggle, they would be obliged to swear allegiance to the King again.” I re-read the letter you cite from the archives (one with which I’m familiar given I was already writing on the subject myself) and found nothing in there about this. If this is additional information, I’d be interested to know where you found it for my own edification.

    Still, it has been my understanding that McCallister was just covering his own mistakes as County Lieutenant (a new position with new responsibilities that most who were placed into it did not fully grasp or understand) and he actually didn’t really know what was happening (as indicated by his many letters questioning methods and payments, etc…). In fact he was utterly confused by the stipulations of the law itself (because the law itself was confusing and new) and he had to be corrected by the council on a few occasions. He wasn’t alone, as the County Lieutenant in Lancaster and the County Lieutenant in Chester were also raising questions and alerting council to problems in their own counties.

    Also you ask, “Could it be that Congress decided to come to York to thwart the possible uprising?” I doubt it. It seems more than likely an issue of space. Philadelphia had the amenities to house both congress and all the Pennsylvania councils/boards and the assembly. I’d note that it makes prudent military sense to split your state government bodies from the continental bodies–imagine if the enemy had marched on that singular location? Everyone would be captured! This is why supplies sent out from Philadelphia were delivered to different counties and not stored together at one location (e.g., some sent to Lancaster, some to York, some to Berks, and a great deal to Northampton).

    Overall, this article is very important. It stresses the divisiveness of the day; it wasn’t cut and dry, “he’s a patriot, he’s a tory.” In point of fact, as you point out, there is a gray area. A lot of people just did not want to fight or take sides. So it’s a successful article, in my humble opinion. Looking forward to seeing more.

    • Hello Tom,
      I am retired and new at this history thing.
      I used various references and many are online. I could have made a mistake mixing different documents.
      As to the flying camp, I read it was a military strategy of European origin that Washington
      embraced at the beginning of the conflict. Needless to say he dropped it. At this time, I can’t produce that cite.
      I began looking into York County militia because my family lived here for generations and I wanted to know the facts as best I could find them.
      After I submitted the article, while looking at old documents I bumped into the head researcher for Pennsylvania and I shared the article. He read it and gave me other information. Of course he pointed out my errors and I have no problem with that.
      Thanks for the input and the information.
      Denny Ness

  • Hello Tom,
    I spent some time checking out where I got my information on the issues you brought up.
    Flying camp: I referenced that information from the Journals of Congress, Volume I, starting
    at 6/3/76, page 363 to 12/3/76 on page 569. There is descriptions of the flying camp and various
    camps are used sometimes interchangeably. I also read the letters between Washington and Hancock
    during that period and that is how I come to my conclusions; they are probably wrong.
    Call out the militia in 1777: Again I referenced Journals of Congress, Volume II, 4/14,77, page 91.
    Congress knowing Philadelphia is being invaded, takes control of the government. At least that’s
    how I read it. I invite you to read it and give me your opinion. Later on 4/24/77 page 104, congress
    calls for the SEC to call up 3,000 militia. I think because congress is in control of the government
    and they want to defend the city so they say we need troops.
    I welcome your discussion of what I have found. If I am wrong, so be it. I can change my view.
    Thank you,
    Dennis Ness

  • It’s just a matter of how you wrote it, not necessarily the interpretation. For example, Congress asks the Supreme Executive Council to call out the militia; Congress ‘requests’, but the SEC is the entity actually responsible for calling them out. Congress didn’t have the authority at that time to call out state militia.

    Again, no Flying Camp exists at this time in 1777–nearly all enlistments were up in December of 1776 and the Flying Camp disbanded. This is why ‘Flying Camp’ disappears from language except in instances of recounting events that happened in the previous year. Please see my discussion on the Flying Camp here: http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/11/the-spartans-of-long-island/

    Congress does not take control of the government of Pennsylvania. In fact the government of Pennsylvania at this time is brand new; with the new SEC replacing the Council of Safety, and the new General Assembly replacing the old Provincial Assembly. Both new entities functioned as they intended to function (even if they did a poor job) during the whole of this period. This is why Congress acquiesces to let the SEC handle the matter, along with the Pennsylvania Board of War. Congress does not, for example, establish a committee to do this work in place of the SEC. This are important distinctions.

    Congress can request whatever they want; that doesn’t place them in charge of the government. If the SEC doesn’t do its job or refuses, they aren’t getting any troops. That’s the bottom line. At the end of the day, the power rested within the authority of the state, not Congress, when it came to such matters. This reliance on the states actually caused more trouble for Congress and for the troops than it should have, mostly because Pennsylvania authorities were slow to act or acted contrary to its own best interests.

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