Early Colonial Militias Established in North America

How does a nation defend a spacious new land to which it just laid claim?  Consider a land that began with a trickle of settlers, only to surge into a steady stream of immigrants, each year’s population surpassing the next by leaps and bounds; a territory teaming with merchants, farmers, and artisans, who quickly fanned out over vast stretches of a wilderness from which villages and cities began to emerge.  How did the Crown provide protection for its burgeoning populace?  The answer was simple.  It didn’t, and in doing so, it sets the foundation of its own ruin.

John Endecott (c1588-1665) organized military operations in Salem, Mass.

It was what the English government chose to do from the first chartered settlements in North America. England did not have the manpower or money to provide for the protection of her growing colonies on the mainland.  She was stretched thin, maintaining her growing fleet and by garrisoning her island colonies in the West Indies from the threat of her old rivals, France, Spain, and The Netherlands. Add the strife of civil war with the Cavaliers and Roundheads who were literally bashing heads, and the new American colonies quickly became low on the British agenda. However, the threat from intrusion on the mainland by England’s enemies, including the indigenous peoples already habituating the land, was a concern. A solution was sought and found in the very first settlements.  The charters of the Royal Providences, which would ultimately become the thirteen colonies of the Americas, were given authority to organize for their own defense.  Henceforth, the militia, organized and managed by local provincials, emerged in the shadow of British oversight and blessings.

Militias rapidly formed based on the Assize of Arms in England, which was a proclamation dating back to 1181 made by Norman King Henry II. It held that it was a universal obligation of select classes to have arms and to serve in the defense of their kingdom. From the Puritans to Jamestown residents, the early settlers were convinced that the peace and safety of their communities could only be maintained by organizing militia forces.

In 1623, the Virginia General Assembly decreed, “that men go not to work in the ground without their arms…” and Governor William Berkeley said in 1661 that, “all our freemen are bound to be trained every month in their particular counties.” Immediately after the Massachusetts Bay Colony received its charter in 1628, Captain John Endecott, the appointed governor of the “plantation” at Naumkeag (Salem), was ordered to undertake the military organization of the trading post and settlement. At his orders, a shipment was sent over in 1629 that included 100 uniforms, 60 corselets (upper torso body armor), 100 swords, 83 pole arms, 100 firearms and 8 cannon.

All along the east coast, freeman within set age limits were ordered to muster at predesignated times and training days were held. Cannon and firearms were purchased and English veterans were hired to act as instructors for the militia. Watch and Alarm companies were assembled at the firing of a cannon or the burning of a beacon. Colonies established militia systems based on the British county lieutenant system that appointed a lieutenant as the chief militia officer of the county. Some used the contemporary European norm of 1 captain, 1 lieutenant, 1 ensign, 3 sergeants, 3 drummers, 1 corporal and 90 privates.

Coldstream guardsman

Though the colonies received little military aid, conflicts arose to give the growing militias practical experience in warfare. The first body of British troops, a mixed battalion of the First and Coldstream Guards arrived in Virginia during the Bacon Rebellion of 1677. In 1689, the first British troops were seen in Boston. The Peace of Utrecht in 1713 gave Newfoundland and Acadia to England, whereupon England increased its garrisons in America, though the combined strength never exceeded 900 men. In 1710, a British fleet, with a regiment of marines including four New England regiments, took Port Royal; it was the first time that the British stepped into the longtime and ongoing disputes between the colonists and the French. When war erupted between France and England in 1754 over territorial claims in the American colonies, British regiments were sent. Provincial militias were called out and local ranger units were formed, each usually organized into companies of a hundred men who furnished their own arms and equipment.

By the mid 18th century, militia law of most colonies required that all free males between the ages of sixteen and fifty be enlisted. These men were organized into companies of thirty two to sixty eight men. Companies were organized into regiments and the Governor appointed the regimental officers. All militia in a county were under the direct command of a County Lieutenant holding the grade of colonel who, upon taking the field, outranked all colonels commanding individual regiments.

Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Conn. He served as governor prior to and after the Revolution.

As the Revolutionary War neared, the colonies had fully organized military units ready at the calling. For example, Governor Trumbull of Connecticut reported in 1774 that he had 26,260 men and that each town had its own units that drilled four times a year. New Jersey reported 26 regiments of infantry and 11 troops of cavalry and Pennsylvania, in 1775, had 53 battalions of foot.

France, interested in the growing dispute between England and her colonies, sent Baron de Kalb, latter famed American Major General, on a covert mission to investigate. He reported that there were neither arsenals nor magazines, but the colonies had cannon and large stocks of black powder; that they were not lacking in mines of metal and the men to work them, or in saltpeter. The colonists were well supplied with firearms and he estimated that there were 200,000 young men enlisted in militias who could be called upon to fight without interrupting the necessary civil occupations that supplied provisions and economy to wage war.

Thus, for well over a hundred years, the British promoted and encouraged the self-defense of provincial militias, the very system that planted the seeds for what would prove to be its ultimate demise in a growing conflict that could have but one result.

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Massachusetts Militia Roots: A Bibliographic Study,” by Captain Robert K. Wright, Jr.  116th Military History Detachment Virginia Army National Guard.  July 19, 1986

“The American Colonies in the 17th Century,”  Osgood. I, 496-508; II, 378, 385. 2 Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1914, Vol. XXII, 57.

“Some Notes on the Continental Army,” by John W. Wright.  The William and Mary Quarterly, Second Series, Vol. 11, No 2 (Apr. 1931), pp. 81 – 105

“Memoir of the Baron de Kalb,” by John Spear Smith.  Maryland Historical Society, J.D. Toy, 1858.

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