Vehicle of the Revolution

The Relationship Between the Continental Army and the Militia During the American War of Independence


Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary has five entries for the definition of revolution: the first three deal with physics and celestial bodies; definition four states “a total or radical change;” and definition five is “a fundamental change in political organization…the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another, by the governed.”   Inherent to all of revolutions of the political change-type characterized by definition five is the use of violence by both revolutionaries and the existing government, often taking place on a large scale.  This violence becomes the means by which the ideas of the revolution are transferred in to actions – the actual revolution itself.  Using terms from physics as a metaphor (in keeping with Webster’s first three definitions or revolution), the ideas espoused by revolutionaries (liberty, free trade, independence, etc.) represent the potential energy of the revolution, generating tension between the movement and the existing political structure.  When released, this tension becomes kinetic energy – energy in motion, or the action of the revolution – involving the violence necessary to overcome the resistance of forceful objection posed by the political establishment.  But unlike other expressions of violence involving large groups such as bread riots, pogroms, and lynching, which are shorter in span and more anarchical in nature, the violence of revolution (if it is to be successful) is directed, controlled, and sustained over a longer period of time and against determined opposition.  To achieve this, revolutions utilize military structure to provide the necessary means of organization and control; the kinetic energy of revolutionary violence is guided toward the realization of the revolutionary goal.  An army, then, can be considered a vehicle of revolution, giving leaders a structural mode, enabling them to drive the course of revolutionary violence toward independence.  Such was the function of the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

Subordination of the new military establishment to Congress was the crucial factor in enabling American revolutionaries to sustain and control the progress of the American Revolution, which, of course after 1776 defined its success solely on the achievement of independence.  As long as the British maintained a military presence within the new United States, independence could not be realized.  So long as the Americans were able to resist the British military, they would be actively pursuing independence.  This resistance could have been accomplished without a standing army, of course, and the American Revolution did have a substantial, and effective, guerrilla aspect to it, especially on the frontiers and in the South, but as Don Higginbotham, citing the German General von Clausewitz, notes in War and Society, while “rarely indeed are orthodox forces ever successful against guerrillas” partisan action alone “seldom brings about total victory in war.”  Thus for the Americans to realize success, “the final blow” would have to be “delivered by large, well-organized armies working in smooth harmony.”  Higginbotham points out that this turned out to be the case when “French and American forces in cooperation with the French fleet trapped Cornwallis at Yorktown and hammered him into submission.”[1] Yet even with the realization that an army was necessary for victory, many scholars of the American Revolution consider the adoption of a regular army to be a great leap on the part of the revolutionaries given “the ingrained Anglo-American distrust of the military,” and their favoring of a yeoman militia over the danger of a standing army.[2] Don Higginbotham suggests that this glorification of the militia may be more a product of rhetoric and idealism than true practice of the time.  He states “that militia reflected the ‘country’ (or classical republican) ideology which was appealing to the revolutionists [and early American historians]” while “standing armies mirrored the ‘court’ (or Walpolian consolidated-mercantilist) ideology.”[3] The fact is, however, the colonies were keeping semiprofessional forces at the ready even in the early 1700s.  Following Queen Anne’s War, for example, “Massachusetts maintained a small, permanent military establishment, which occupied frontier posts in Maine and garrisoned Castle William,” and Connecticut had “switched from militia drafts and other compulsory steps to enlistment bounties as early as 1710.”[4]  Both instances demonstrate an acceptance of regular military practice, rather than absolute distrust.  In 1756, a young colonel Washington sought the recognition of British authorities, insisting to Lord Loudoun that the Virginia Regiment (which Washington commanded) “were not militia – for which they [the provincial officers], like Washington, had great contempt – at the same time they argued for regular status.”[5]

This is not to dispel the fact that many revolutionaries who took up the cause included a distrust of standing armies (like the one the British were maintaining in Boston and New York) in their list of grievances and as a motivation behind the revolt.  Charles Royster emphasizes in A Revolutionary People at War that for many Americans the concept of a regular army ran counter to their concepts and ideas of virtue and liberty.  Jonathan Rossie cites the 1775 writings of “Caractacus” which were printed in a Philadelphia newspaper and “not only condemned regular armies but also a paid militia – by accepting pay, a militiaman was transformed into a mercenary.”  The acceptance of pay would erode the principles and warp the loyalties of the fighting man, so the contention went, thus a “standing army would subvert and ultimately destroy the very liberties it was meant to protect.”  “Caractacus” extolled the benefits of a ready militia “capable of responding at a moment’s notice to any move of the enemy,” vigilant and virtuous, the militia embodied the ideal union of citizen and soldier.[6]

But were the two, militia and Continental, so dramatically different?  Were the militia truly composed of yeoman farmers while the Continental Army was drawn from the dregs of society, ready to follow any general promising enough pay and trounce upon the very liberty revolutionaries were fighting for?  Royster acknowledges that through “careful collation of enlistment rolls and civil records, scholars are drawing composite pictures of” the class of men who filled the ranks of the regular army.  He draws particularly upon the work of Edward Papenfuse and Gregory Stiverson, “General Smallwood’s Recruits: The Peacetime Career of the Revolutionary War Private,” which examines the muster rolls of recruits in Maryland in 1782.  They conclude that the majority of the men in their study “enlisted in the army not because of a sense of duty or patriotism, but because Maryland society offered few other opportunities for employment.”[7]  Taking exception with this premise, Royster contends that “able-bodied young men who sought their own material well-being above all else had alternatives better than service in the Continental Army,” among which were privateering and farm labor.  Faced with the threat of death or disfigurement by combat or disease, Royster asserts, “the distinguishing feature of the [regular] recruits was their willingness” to serve in the army.[8]  John Resch, in Suffering Soldiers, concurs with Royster and disputes the conclusions of “most historians” that “Continental soldiers came largely from society’s poor, propertyless, transient, and marginalized,” taking particular exception with the “forceful” position of historian Charles Neimeyer that the majority of regulars were “low class.”  Resch bases his contrarian position upon his study of the Revolutionary soldiers from Petersborough, New Hampshire, “Continental and non-Continental.”  “Rather than being segregated by class,” he contends, “enlistments from Petersborough throughout the war represented a cross section of the town’s society.”[9] Essentially both Royster and Resch, and to some extent Richard LaCrosse in Revolutionary Rangers, suggest that the men who joined the ranks of the Continental Army, though serving for pay, demonstrated just as much patriotism as the state militiamen who mustered for only brief periods.  The advantage for the militia was that once the operations concluded, they were able to go back to their homes and resume their employment.  Those regular soldiers serving longer enlistments followed the enemy as the war progressed southward through the states, leaving homes and the ability to earn money outside of the military behind.

It is important to note that only in rare instances did the American’s face their enemy with a force composed solely of either militia or Continental troops.  A few notable victories such as Bennington and King’s Mountain stand out as examples of militia only successes, but the majority of campaigns fought by the American army required the contributions of both elements.  Don Higginbotham notes, that “in Washington’s view, the Continentals and militia had separate, although mutually supportive roles to play.”[10]  The militia were best at hit-and-run tactics, and though there were times when they were required to support the Continental line in formal engagements, “performing against redcoats in open combat” (a function in which, Higginbotham notes, the “militia were at their worst”), the “amateur” soldiers proved extremely successful at denying extensive British and loyalist areas of control and creating a generally hostile environment which forced the British to receive substantial amounts of their “supplies and provisions…from the mother country.”[11]  The Continental line would provide continuity to the war effort, following the British as the war moved from theater to theater.  As Higginbotham writes, “the presence of the Continental Army intact offered Americans a symbol of unity” creating a “national feeling” and presenting “a sign of conventional military strength” to the new country and the rest of the world, “where patriots hoped to get tangible support.”[12]  Militia participation, not surprisingly, would increase and decrease with the threat posed by the enemy in a particular region.  Here John Resch’s study of the Petersborough soldiers provides a convincing illustration of the wax and wane of localized participation in the Revolution.  After the initial wave of enlistments at the outbreak of war in 1775, the Petersborough “contribution to the war effort dropped substantially in 1776 following American defeats in Canada and British evacuation of Boston.”[13]  The following year, in which Burgoyne invaded New York, saw the “highest proportion of Petersborough men at any period of the war” under arms, bolstering the militia at Bennington and Saratoga.  In the subsequent years, as enemy action progressed further south, the participation of Petersborough men likewise decreased.  This increase and decrease in participation by militia demonstrates its part in the “mutually supportive roles” of the militia and regular army, as noted above.


Consider the physics metaphor I introduced at the beginning of this essay.  If the violence required for the revolution were transformed into a roller-coaster car, converting potential energy at the top of the coaster into kinetic energy (the action of the revolution) then guiding the violence of the revolutionary effort would be accomplished by the rails of the roller-coaster (the regular army providing the necessary continuity).  The rails of a roller coaster can not stand alone, so vertical girders lend elevation and stability for the guiding rails, just as the militia contributed reinforcement to the Continental line and secured the area of military operations from British domination.





In comparing the contributions of the militia and the Continental line to the outcome of the American Revolution, it is easy for historians to place more credit upon one over the other.  Higginbotham offers a sagacious caution that while “the pendulum has swung back toward a more favorable image of the militia and their contributions to American Independence…we may wish to halt its movement before it swings too far, before it denies Washington’s Continentals their just desserts.”[14]  I would contend that the two are elements of the whole.  The army of the American Revolution was comprised of both Continental regulars and militia units, directing the energy of the revolution through the crucial violence necessary to affect a break from England, both serving “mutually supportive roles” as a vehicle of the revolution.



[1] Don Higginbotham, War and Society in Revolutionary America: The Wider Dimensions of Conflict (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), 149-150.

[2] Rossie, Politics of Command, 213

[3] Higginbotham, War and Society, 36

[4] Ibid., 28-29

[5] Ibid., 33

[6] Rossie, Politics of Command, 63

[7] Edward Papenfuse and Gregory Stiverson, “General Smallwood’s Recruits,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., XXX (1973), 117-132

[8] Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 268

[9] John Resch, Suffering Soldiers: Revolutionary War Veterans, Moral Sentiment, and Political Culture in the Early Republic (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 9-10

[10] Higginbotham, War and Society, 115

[11] Ibid., 118-119

[12] Ibid., 115

[13] Resch, Suffering Soldiers, 25

[14] Higginbotham, War and Society, 123


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