The Great Militia Debate, part I: The Mercurial Militia

Few discussions on the American War of Independence have been as lively and enduring as that on the militia. Its proponents, pointing at the impact of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill, claim it as the winning factor in the conflict. Detractors bring up the desperate correspondence of US generals decrying the inability of militia to win big battles. So who is right?

As you may have gathered from my previous post, I am unwillingly but irrevocably drawn to the history of the period. What seems to attract my interest most, is the widespread use of militia forces. Let me try to explain my fascination. 

Even more so than in the northern states, militias dominated warfare in the south. First of all, because the main effort by the Continental army was and remained in the north, but also because by the time the British strategy was redirected to the south, the British commanders increased their efforts to enlist loyalist inhabitants to their cause. 

The main problem of the militia was its unpredictability. No commander could tell how many would show up at muster, because most men decided themselves whether the work at home was more pressing than duty in the field. Militiamen deserted when it suited them, perhaps considering the enemy either too far away from their homes, or too close. As Washington once quipped: “here today & gone tomorrow”.

Similarly in battle, militia units could not be counted upon. The quality of the units varied depending on who turned up and discipline tended to be lax. Later in the war, militia units might be bolstered by returning veterans from the Continental army. So a unit could run one battle and stand the next.

At Camden, the Virginia and North Carolina militias almost entirely ran without putting up a fight. But not much later, almost the same militia forces achieved a notable success at Cowpens where they were handled with consideration for their specific character and in combination with Continentals.

Still, the role of the militia off the field of battle was probably more important than on it. Maintaining military control over areas ensured political control, which in turn harnessed supply of men and materials for the wider war. Knowledge of local terrain and situation made the militia an indispensible partner on an operational level.

And given the scarcity of regular troops, especially in the south, the allegiance of large parts of the colonies was in the hands of regional militia forces of both sides. And this contest was generally won by the revolutionaries.

So while the militia on its own could not have forced the British Empire to acknowledge American independence, a regular army on its own could not have sustained itself.

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