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In Defense of the Colonists
Dr. Allison Gilmore
In Defense of the Colonists
When the fighting at Lexington and Concord broke out in 1775, the conflict unleashed a flood of resentment that had been
building over the right of the colonies to govern themselves and became a symbol of the American fight for "life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness." As James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender argue in A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of
the Republic, 1763-1789, the patriotic mythology of a united people fighting the tyrannical British oppressors for basic human
rights permeated historical thought about the American Revolution until recently and obscured the inner conflicts that nearly
destroyed the rebel effort (4). Martin and Lender maintain that the colonists did not develop a sense of national identity until
after the Revolutionary War and that the lack of interest among the colonists in fighting for their cause prompted the use of the
Continental Army to win the war. The authors also clearly regard the colonial militia with a great deal of contempt and spend a
considerable amount of time discrediting them as an effective fighting force. There seems to be a fair amount of evidence,
however, to indicate that some sense of nationhood existed prior to the Revolution, gaining momentum throughout the war but
not firmly taking hold until after the war was over, and it was, in fact, the colonial militia that best exemplified that sense of
When the first settlers arrived in the New World, they attempted to transplant the European societal practices to which they
were accustomed, but learned quickly that the wilderness of North America did not accommodate them. What resulted was
the formation of a new society which was drastically different from those in Europe. Consequently, after more than a century,
the colonists held more than a little resentment for the British who had decided to govern them more closely in the aftermath of
the French and Indian War. While they may not have had a sense that they were united, they knew that they were no longer
Europeans and deserved the right to govern themselves. When the events such as the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre,
and Lexington & Concord broke out, the colonists were united in their outrage against the British, giving credence to the idea
that at least some sense of nationhood existed.
For the first year, a patriotic fervor motivated the "citizen-soldiers," but after that first year there was a sharp decline in
volunteer enlistment. Martin and Lender use this decrease as evidence of a lack of national spirit, but there seem to have been
other factors involved and, in fact, there seems to be some indication that the sense of nationalism grew throughout the
Revolution. The efforts of the militia against the Indians in the West and the efforts in the South, to name a few, enforced the
public ideal of the "citizen-soldier," allowing the colonists to largely ignore the contributions of the Continental Army.
Martin and Lender also point to the growing animosity between the civilians and the soldiers of the Continental Army,
placing a large portion of the blame on the civilians lack of appreciation and their willingness to take advantage of the
Continental soldiers. There are several points that need to be made with regard to these claims. The lack of adequate resources
had led to rampant looting of civilian property by both the British and the American forces. To the civilian land owner, there
was no distinction between the two. Both sides were destroying his home and his livelihood. It seems unreasonable and almost
ridiculous to expect that a man who had fallen victim to violence against his home would support the soldiers who had
perpetrated it. If anything, the looting added to the pervading fear of a standing army.
For the amount of time that the authors spend discussing the philosophical origins of the military-civilian relationship, they
seem to largely ignore what lingering effects the dedication to the original Whig ideals might have. There is a lot of time spent on
how Whig philosophy affected George Washingtons approach to maintaining the army, but not nearly enough
acknowledgement that the strong belief that a standing army inhibited personal freedom may have prevented the civilians from
giving their unquestionable support to the Continental Army. Additionally, the struggles among the officers over rank may have
appeared like the establishment of a military aristocracy similar to those already existing in Europe. Not surprisingly, the
colonists put their faith in the colonial militia instead.
Despite their reliance on the citizen-soldiers of the militia, it was not until after the war that the colonists really began to feel
as though they were part of the nation. Regardless of the actual effectiveness of the colonial militia, it held a very real value after
the Revolution in solidifying the colonists sense of nationalism. First, they were united by the image of the citizen-soldier and by
victory over the British: "What the war effort did, above all else, was begin to create a sense of unity and legitimacy of purpose,
which was essential to the nation-making process that continued through and beyond the war years" (172). Equally important
to unifying the colonists was that through embracing the colonial militia as the true heroes of the Revolution they were able to
believe that their ideals were still intact.
Whether or not the militia held a very important role in the Revolution is an issue that Martin and Lender strongly contest.
While they make a very strong case for the Continental Army as the true heroes of the Revolution, not all of their arguments can
be completely supported. In actuality, neither the Continental Army nor the colonial militia truly exemplified the ideological spirit
of the colonies. There are almost equally good arguments for both sides, but, all things considered, the colonial militia slightly
surpasses the Continental Army. Philosophical considerations aside, there seem to be several main areas where Martin and
Lender find the most fault. They contend that the militia was undisciplined, that it was ineffective, and that short terms of service
displayed a lack of commitment.
Regarding the first claim that the militiamen were undisciplined, there are several elements to consider. Most of the men
lacked sufficient training and even "tents and equipment, particularly muskets and field artillery" (36). Members of the colonial
militia were expected to provide their own supplies, at their own expense. In contrast, soldiers in the Continental Army were
promised that all their supplies would be provided for them. On a larger scale was the overall behavior of the militiamen. "Most
of the patriots failed to see much wrong with the disorderly nature of New Englands republican army. Indeed, these early
citizen-soldiers seemed to revel in the contrasts between themselves and British regulars" (36). There is also considerable
attention paid to the amount of drinking that the militiamen did, fueling the claims that the irregulars were completely lacking in
any kind of self-discipline. The scrutiny towards the drunkenness of the militia seems hypocritical when compared with the
authors admission that "heavy drinking, commonly referred to as barrel fever among the soldiers, was a common practice
among all Americans and all armies of the eighteenth century" (129). While Martin and Lender attempt to justify the
discrepancy by calling drunkenness a "defensive weapon," the explanation just doesnt seem to work. Additionally, as was
previously mentioned, the Continental Army habitually looted local farms where the colonial militiamen, as land owners
themselves, seemed to have considerably more self-restraint in that particular area. The assertion that the militia was
considerably less-disciplined than the Continental Army loses validity when the comparisons made include behavior off, as well
as on, the battlefield.
Based on the track record of militiamen in the French and Indian War and the apparent lack of military discipline,
skepticism about the ability of the colonial militia as a military force abounded among both British and American officers. To the
end of the war, there was a pervading belief that the militia was ineffective. Initially, the colonial militia had a great deal of
success and "the patriots chalked up an impressive early record," including the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the victories of
the Green Mountain Boys, led by Ethan Allen (37). Although the authors view the militia with obvious scorn, they willingly
acknowledge the militias part at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, but only to a point: "[The] militia had turned out in substantial
numbers. They clearly played a vital role in sealing Burgoynes fate, although the Continentals carried the brunt of the fighting on
September 19 and October 7" (87).
Similarly, after recounting the exploits of George Rogers Clark as he led a group of irregulars to attack the Indians in the
west and bring an end to the slaughter ordered by "Hamilton the Hair Buyer," a British officer who encouraged the Indians to
annihilate as many settlers as they could (138), Martin and Lender admit that the militia played a small part in holding down the
Indian threat in the west. Ultimately, they contend, the Continental Army stepped in and secured the area for the colonists, a
claim that does not seem consistent with the evidence they provide. Similarly, the militia provided support in the South, "making
it extremely difficult for a conventional army to conquer that region when that thrust finally came" (153), and again at the Battle
of Kings Mountain which helped to curb the uprising of southern loyalists (166). Many of the battlesand ultimately the war
itselfwould have had very different outcomes without the efforts of the militiamen.
The chief complaint about the colonial militia is that men signed up for a relatively short amount of time and that many of
them left as they saw fit. The latter point can be answered by asserting that there was also initially a fairly high desertion rate
among the Continental soldiers and that there were also many instances of Continental "bounty jumpers" who signed up in one
army unit after another to collect the sign-up monies. Regarding the first half of the complaint, the authors suggest that it was a
matter of economics that drove them back to their farms, suggesting that they got "a better deal" by working their farms. That
may well have been the case for some of them. For others, leaving their farms for extended periods of time meant the very real
possibility of losing everything they had. Where the citizen-soldiers of the militia were volunteers who were paid very little, the
soldiers of the Continental Army were lured to join with promises of money and land, and were, for all intents and purposes,
mercenaries. Not all of them were patriots some were defectors or criminals. Martin and Lender go one step further
denouncing the militia, citing opinions that suggest that the "novelty of the cause wore off" (71). Not only is the statement itself
unfair, it also seems to be largely inaccurate. Most of the militiamen had homes and families to defend. Voicing their allegiance
to one side meant severe retribution from the other, to say nothing of fighting in the militia and the effects that their allegiance
had on their families. Therein lies the fundamental difference the militia had everything to lose and the Continental soldiers had
everything to gain. The men who had everything to lose and fought anyway better represented the national ideals for which they
were fighting and it was for that reason that the public embraced them.
The argument as to whether the colonial militia or the Continental Army deserves the most recognition in the war effort might
never be settled. In some ways, the debate seems unnecessary. Winning the war combined more than just those two elements.
If the French had not started a power struggle in Europe, the results would have been vastly different. If either the militia or the
regulars had had to fight the war alone, the results would have been vastly different. The laurels belong to no single group and
should not be argued otherwise.
Martin, James Kirby, and Mark Edward Lender. A Respectable Army: The Military
Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1982.
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