Militia Immediately Prior to the American Revolution
In the first post in this series on militia in the American Revolution, which may be read here, we looked at American militia in the Colonial period. In the years following the French and Indian War, as Great Britain and her colonies increasingly clashed, several of the colonies began to beef up their militias as an armed clash with Great Britain moved from unthinkable to likely. Massachusetts took the lead in this process with the formation of minutemen companies. This was not an innovation. The Massachusetts militia had fielded minutemen companies since 1645. These were young men, no more than 30, chosen for their physical strength and endurance, and formed into picked companies.
The necessity for putting the Massachusetts militia on a war footing was underlined in 1774. General Thomas Gage was appointed military governor of Massachusetts in early 1774. He embarked on a campaign to disarm the Massachusetts militia. In an event that is largely forgotten today but was a huge event throughout the colonies in 1774, on September 1, 1774 Gage sent an expedition of British troops to seized the powder at the arsenal located in Sommerville, Massachusetts. The British succeeded in their mission and almost started the Revolutionary War. Militia units formed up in alarm throughout Massachusetts and surrounding colonies in New England, thinking that a war had begun while wild rumors flew, and it was several days before calm was restored. This Powder Alarm caused the militia in Massachusetts and the colonies to take steps to protect their arsenals for fear of a deliberate British policy to disarm them and leave them helpless before the redcoats. The stage was set for Lexington and Concord.
The Massachusetts Provincial Congress sent out a circular to the other New England colonies stressing the need for the formation of minutemen companies: They recommended to the militia to form themselves into companies of minute-men, who should be equipped and prepared to march at the shortest notice. These minute-men were to comprise one-quarter of the whole militia, to be enlisted under the direction of the field-officers, and divide into companies, consisting of at least 50 men each. The privates were to choose their captains and subalterns, and these officers were to form the companies into battalions, and chose the field-officers to command the same. Hence the minute-men became a body distinct from the rest of the militia, and, by being more devoted to military exercises, they acquired skill in the use of arms. More attention than formerly was likewise bestowed on the training and drilling of militia.
Similar efforts were undertaken in colonies outside of New England as it became ever clearer that war was coming. For example, following his return from the First Continental Congress in 1774, Colonel George Washington, Virginia militia, began organizing picked companies of militia in Northern Virginia that became the basis for the Virginia regiments of the Continental Army.
The colonies were fortunate that quite a few men, like George Washington, who had served in the French and Indian War were still in the prime of life and constituted an officer corps with, in many cases, combat experience. Major Andrew McClary was typical of these men. After serving as an officer in Roger’s Rangers during the French and Indian War, and single-handedly throwing six British officers out of a tavern window during a loud “discussion” on a memorable evening, he had settled down as a farmer outside of Epsom, serving as a selectman of that town, a member of the New Hampshire legislature, and, always, as an officer of the New Hampshire militia. When news of Lexington and Concord reached him he immediately marched off with a company of 80 militiamen to the siege lines around Boston. Although the American militia was an amateur military force, by the time of the Revolution it was often led by men who were no strangers to war, and that was a considerable aid to the Americans in their lop-sided coming struggle against the British. Our next post will concentrate on the performance of the militia in the opening engagements of the American Revolution.