Rebel Militia by John Shy

The British and their allies were fascinated by the rebel militia. Poorly trained and badly led, often without bayonets, seldom comprised of the deadly marksmen dear to American legend, the revolutionary militia was much more than a military joke, and perhaps the British came to understand that better than did many Americans themselves. The militia enforced law and maintained order wherever the British army did not, and its presence made the movement of smaller British formations dangerous. Washington never ceased complaining about his militia - about their undependability, their indiscipline, their cowardice under fire - but from the British viewpoint, rebel militia was one of the most troublesome and predictable elements in a confusing war. The militia nullified every British attempt to impose royal authority short of using massive armed force. The militia regularly made British light infantry, German jäger, and tory raiders pay a price, whatever the cost to the militia itself, for their constant probing, foraging, and marauding. The militia never failed in a real emergency to provide reinforcements and even reluctant draftees for the state and Continental regular forces. From the British viewpoint, the militia was the virtually inexhaustible reservoir of rebel military manpower, and it was also the sand in the gears of the pacification machine.

When we look more closely at the rebel militia, an interesting if obvious fact confronts us: the prudent, politically apathetic majority of white American males were not eager to serve in the militia, but many of them did nonetheless. Their wives were even less enthusiastic; in an agrarian society with a chronic labor shortage, manpower was too important to the welfare, even the survival, of the family. But the sheer busyness of British strategy in the early years of the war - from Boston to New York to Philadelphia, into Long Island and Rhode Island, across New Jersey and Delaware, along the Carolina and Connecticut coasts, up Lakes Champlain and George and down the Mohawk River - made it difficult to know how to be prudent. In the later years of the war, growing British sophistication about the nature of the war made prudence increasingly dangerous, especially from Virginia southward and in a great arc around New York City. Under the circumstances, enrollment in the militia could be a test of loyalty to one side or the other, and it could be a kind of insurance - the readiest form of personal security in a precarious world. But the militia was also a coercive instrument; it was the ultimate sanction of political authority in its own district, and in the mysterious way of all large organizations it kept its own grumbling membership in line. Of course, whole districts might go tory, just as whole militia units crumbled under pressure, but rarely were nearby rebel forces unable to intervene, salvage, and restore these situations. A reservoir, sand in the gears, the militia also looked like a great spongy mass that could be pushed aside or maimed temporarily but that had no vital center and could not be destroyed.


The Military Conflict as a Revolutionary War by John Shy
Essays on the American Revolution edited by Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson, pages 148-149
University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1973