Originally Posted by Elijah
This morning Thomas Fleming brought us an article renewing the debate over militia vs Continental Army. Just who deserves most of the credit for winning the War of American Independence?
The answer is the Continental Army. Without them the US would have lost. And without French support, the US would probably have lost. At the least, there would have been no Yorktown.
Interesting that the print shown with the article is of trhe 1st Maryland and Washington's 3d Continental Light Dragoons at Guilford Courthouse, 15 May 1781.
'For contemporary Americans the difference between militia and regular, or “Continental,” soldiers is hard to grasp.'
Not if you study the war for more than fifteen minutes.
'Both fought in the war. Both suffered casualties. Both have supporters who claim they won the war. For decades after the Revolution, politicians spouted clouds of hot air on the subject, mostly aimed at denigrating the regular army in favor of the militia.'
That is correct, especially the last sentence.
'The militia long predated the American Revolution. As early as 1691 the Massachusetts charter empowered the royal governor to organize regiments of militia in every county. All able-bodied men between sixteen and sixty were required to serve. Each had to keep a musket, bullets and powder ready to repel an attack by the French or Indians. The militia was a kind of standing home army that met on training days to stay acquainted with handling guns and performing military maneuvers.'
This is something of an oversimplification, especially regarding the militia of the War of the Revolution. And the militia was not a 'kind of standing army.' The use of the word 'acquainted' was interesting. The fact is that many militiamen showed up for service without arms and equipment and had to be supplied with them by the Continentals. Too many times they then went home with them.
'The minutemen were an elite group of militiamen who met and trained hard in the sixteen months between the Boston Tea Party and the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Many people, including members of the Continental Congress, have confused them with ordinary militiamen. The latter never approached the minutemen’s state of battle readiness. As a result the militia performed disastrously in the opening years of the Revolution.'
The Minutemen were not 'elite' troops in any sense of the word. That is a great exaggeration on the author's part. The Continental Corps of Light Infantry was an elite unit, Kirkwood's Delaware battalion was an elite unit, but the Minutemen were not an elite unit by any definition of that overused term.
'In late 1776 George Washington, discouraged by the way militiamen tended to run away at the sight of a British soldier, wrathfully informed the Congress: “If I were called upon to declare…whether the militia had been most serviceable or hurtful upon the whole, I should subscribe to the latter.” Emergency soldiers, summoned from home on short notice, the militia lacked confidence on the battlefield. But Washington eventually concluded that if they had a regular army to support them and “look the enemy in the face,” some of these amateurs were willing to fight and could inflict significant damage on the enemy.'
Sometimes. For example, out of the great stampede of the militia at Camden in August 1780, one regiment stood firm with the Continentals and fought.
'Washington and some of his generals, notably Daniel Morgan and Nathanael Greene, learned to use the militia as auxiliary troops around a core of regulars with triumphant effect at battles such as Cowpens.'
That is because they had to. The Continentals, unfortunately, were never even recruited up to strength, and that was because of the divided efforts of the states who offered larger enlistment bounties for the militia and state regulars and militia service was much easier than Continental service. And that is the basis of the problem.
'At Saratoga the militia poured in after the Continentals had proved they could fight the British army to a standstill. Their raw numbers convinced General John Burgoyne that he was hopelessly surrounded. When the British invaded New Jersey in 1780, the militia, knowing the Continental army was in nearby Morristown, fought vigorously.'
Both inaccurate and an oversimplification. At the battles for Saratoga (there was never a 'battle of Saratoga') it was the Continentals who did the overwhelming amount of the fighting at Freeman's Farm and Bemis Heights and the heavy British losses definitely were a major factor in Burgoyne's surrender.
'When the war shifted to the South and the southern Continental army was virtually destroyed by successive defeats at Savannah, Charleston and Camden, the militia under the leadership of experienced soldiers such as Thomas Sumter, carried the brunt of resistance for a while.'
Sumter's unit was a guerilla outfit, as were the other two who operated in the backcountry. Without a southern army, they would have been hunted down and defeated eventually. It wasn't the partisans that won the southern campaigns, but Greene and his army, which was built around a solid core of Continentals. And Greene also knew how to employ partisan units, one of which, Marion's, many times worked with Continentals, Lee's Legion, which enhanced their effectiveness.
'But their lack of discipline and fondness for plunder alienated as many people as their battlefield valor encouraged. It required the revival of the southern army under General Nathanael Greene to make a decisive impact on the war.'
'At Bennington and Kings Mountain, the militia, again led by experienced officers, scored victories without the help of Continentals.'
John Stark was in command at Bennington, and he was a tough, strict commander, a former officer in Rogers' Rangers in the French and Indian War, and didn't put up with the usual nonsense from the militia.
The 'Over-the-Mountain Men' were not run of the mill militia, but volunteer militia, and not forced into action. Different animal all together.
'When Washington marched to Yorktown, he left New Jersey completely in the hands of the militia.'
'The conclusion seems inescapable: the militia could not have won the war alone but the war probably could not have been won without them.'
Another attempt to rehabilitate the militia. It is true that the militia would not have won alone, but the Continental Army bore the brunt of the war, hardship, casualties and length of service. To say that the war 'probably could not have been won' without the militia is overlooking the problems the militia caused, not the least of which was the number of recruits that were not available for Continental service.
'One of Washington’s officers, who remembered the starvation and neglect the regulars had endured during the brutal winter of 1780 in Morristown, wrote:”l cherish those dear ragged Continentals, whose patience will be the admiration of future ages, and I glory in bleeding with them .”'
That was John Laurens, later killed in action in the south.
'Yet even a sternly impartial historian must confess the appeal of the militia’s simpler, more spontaneous solidarity.'
I would disagree here, as the militia rarely exhibited 'spontaneous solidarity.'
From Citizens in Arms: The Army and Militia in American Society to the War of 1812 by Lawrence D. Cress, 57 (note the differentiation in the title between the Army and the militia-which is a correct differentiation, and one that is generally overlooked):
'Militia soldiers were civilians first and soldiers second. They might be familiar with the manual of arms, but soldiering remained only a part of their role in society. Their ties with civil society also left militiamen ill-prepared for the hardships of camp life and the discipline required for effective military operations. Those factors alone explained why citizen-soldiers were no match for trained regulars. Soldiering was a demanding craft, argued Washington, requiring skills and training attainable only through long and continuous service. Only when the republic separated soldiering form the other responsibilities of citizenship could it be assured of winning its independence from Great Britain.'
'Washington, of course, was turning upside down the radical Whig claim that the militiaman's greatest strength lay in his dual role as citizen and soldier. But for Washington, the nuances of political autonomy and economic independence were of little importance compared with the need to defeat the hardened British regulars on the battlefield. Only a victorious army could guarantee republicanism in America. His concern was for an efficient and dependable military force, and he concluded, as had the moderate Whigs, that an army composed of long-serving regulars was not only compatible with but necessary for the preservation of civil and political liberties in a free society.'
From American Army Life by John Elting, 24-25:
'In addition to the Continental Army, the various states had their own land forces, which consisted of state regulars and militia (Most of the states also had their own navies.) The regulars, often confusingly termed the 'State Line,' were enlisted for from one to three years of service. Usually in uniform, they were employed for garrisons, seacoast defense, frontier operations, and the preservation of law and order; in emergencies, they might ba attached to Continental forces. The militia, consisting of able-bodied citizens of military age, was often called up for varying periods of service, but seldom for more than three months.'
'Regarding themselves as sovereign and independent, the states usually gave their own regulars and militias higher pay than they did their Continental regiments. This naturally made it more difficult to secure recruits for the Continentals-why endure three years of hardship and danger when you could earn far more for a shorter period, under much easier discipline, near your home?'
On active service, the militia (or 'Long Faces' as the Continentals called them) often were more of a hindrance than a help. Washington described them as 'badly officered and under no government. They come in you cannot tell how, go, you cannot tell when, and act you cannot tell where, consume your provisions, exhaust your stores, and leave you at last in a critical moment.' MajGen Nathaniel Greene compared them to the 'Locusts of Egypt' because they wasted the countryside without performing any useful duty. In battle they usually broke and ran as soon as things got dangerous.'
'The militia had to be used in large numbers, however, because of the weakness of the Continental Army. In states like New Jersey that were fought over repeatedly, militiamen acquired appreciable military skills and were very effective in harrying British foraging parties and detachments. they also were useful in suppressing Tory activities, and militiamen formed the guerilla bands of Francis Marion and other partisan leaders in the Carolinas. In the end, the militia were very certain that only its own skill and courage had won the war.'
I have great respect for Thomas Fleming and his Now We Are Enemies is one of the best accounts of Bunker Hill that has been done. However, this appears to be yet another attempt, albeit a short one, to rehabilitate the militia and one which is not deserved.