The Great Militia Debate, part III: The Model Militia

Incredibly, I’ve managed to finish a big unit of Continental infantry since my last post! Less busy-ness at work and more determination saw me accelerate, and I’ve even picked up the next batch of uniformed militia. Enrolling militia into Continental units was a regular feature in the South after the bulk of the Continental units there had surrendered after the siege of Charleston in May 1780.

Slowly running out of militia to paint, I guess I should round off my triptych on the subject, and the best way is to look at the legacy the militia system left. Because as somebody who has a footing in Napoleonic history, the American militia first appeared as an icon that others tried to emulate.

Before the Age of Revolutions, the European battlefield had been dominated by mercenaries. These soldiers served for money, not to protect their homes or their rights. In most cases they were recruited from the lowest classes of society and kept in place by brutal discipline. Of course, remnants of the old chivalric way of war remained among the officer class, but it had been subjected to the demands of the early modern state.

That changed in the late 18th century. With closer identification of the individual to his fatherland, the preferred type of soldier to serve the nation shifted from the professional soldier to the armed citizen motivated by love for his country and ideals. Surely the latter would be more committed to carry the struggle to its successful conclusion?

In this light, the use of German troops on the American continent confirmed the revolutionary frame that freedom loving citizens were suppressed by rigid automatons serving a tyranny. French newspapers and commentators were quick to pick up the image of the intrepid citizen soldier, who elected his own officers and made up for his lack of discipline with revolutionary zeal.

As it was, the revolution provided the first test case for the armed citizen in ages, and rightly or wrongly, to European observers it appeared a resounding success. Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill inspired the Dutch Patriots who formed societies practicing drill. However, those Patriots were easily beaten by Prussian regulars in 1787.

The amateur soldier made a comeback during the French Revolution. First, politically motivated volunteers joined the army in 1791 and 1792. When these proved unable to save the revolution, mass employment of conscripts saved the day. And the Batavian Republic, the spiritual heir of the Dutch Patriot movement, again attempted to build on citizen soldiers for the defence of the state.

Eventually, the limitations of volunteer forces were outshone by the success of conscription in mobilising mass armies. And with the increased convergence between nation and state in the 19th century, the intrinsic motivation of the citizen could now also be assumed to inspire professional soldiers. Accepting the dominance of regular armies on the battlefield, by the 20th century revolutionary movements relied mostly on irregular warfare. 

The historical question whether the militia was the key to the revolutionary victory has always been about more than just the American revolutionary war. As closely as it was linked to the concept of the nation in arms, the answer could never fail to impact the ideological struggle about which type of army best fits a democratic society.

Over time, the lack of success of citizen armies on a voluntary basis has clouded our view of the militia in the American Revolution. But as we have seen, it was the combination of militia and regulars that ensured the final victory. Neither could succeed alone.

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