American Militias in the War of Independence

The militia units that fought at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill fought with courage and audacity, and their exploits are rightfully legendary. As the American Revolution progressed, however, the militias called up for service in various parts of the country often did not live up to the standards set by the citizen-soldiers of Massachusetts in 1775. Civilian and military authorities alike began to question the effectiveness of militia units, as those soldiers called up sometimes failed to appear and, when they did heed the call, often broke and ran when faced with British bayonets.

Those militia units that performed admirably may have done so when fighting near their own homes, like the men at Lexington and Concord, since they understood that they were protecting their own homes and families. However, I feel that the single greatest factor in whether or not these citizen-soldiers fought well and bravely was the quality of their regular officer leadership. A Continental officer who knew how to keep their morale up and how to utilize them most effectively stood a much better chance of having his auxiliary troops perform at a high level. Perhaps no other situation demonstrated this axiom better than Daniel Morgan’s leadership at Cowpens, South Carolina.

When Morgan realized that Tarleton was closing in on his little army, the American general hastily selected a plot of ground upon which to meet the British. After conceiving of a plan and briefing it to his officers, Morgan explained the concepts and mechanics to his militiamen. Additionally, he attempted to buoy their spirits with bawdy humor and stories of the rousing welcome they would receive back home for their glorious labors. Morgan’s battle formation essentially consisted of three lines of infantry, with a cavalry unit in reserve. The first line of foot soldiers were backcountry riflemen who were situated as skirmishers and hidden behind trees; their job was to wait until the British closed to within a few yards, fire several shots, and then make an orderly withdrawal to the second line. This second line of soldiers were militiamen who had instructions to fire three volleys, aiming at British officers if at all possible, and then move behind the third line, which consisted mainly of Continental soldiers. Morgan had enormous confidence in his militiamen, and his trust was not misplaced. They performed remarkably well and exactly as planned, and Morgan’s troops delivered a stunning defeat to Tarleton’s overconfident army. Morgan’s faith in the militiamen no doubt was revealed in his leadership style with those troops, and they rewarded their commander by performing with courage and precision.[1]

Along with this tactical success, and despite many instances of shoddy performance by citizen-soldiers, militias served in a larger strategic role, one that was essential to the success of the American cause. Ferling insisted that “the war could not have been won” without the contributions of militia troops, since they effectively acted as a constabulary in their individual provinces.[2] Ferling also pointed to quality leadership as a factor in their performance, quoting a Hessian officer: “Men are brave only when they are well led.”[3] This observation was both extraordinarily wise and utterly self-evident.

[1] John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 480-83.

[2] Ibid., 575.

[3] Ibid.

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