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


We Are the Militia: The People and the Right to Bear Arms

On April 17, 2013, a gun control bill introduced in the U.S. Senate failed to secure enough votes in that chamber to pass.  A visibly irritated President Obama vented his frustration in a press conference, bitterly accusing a minority of 46 senators of placing politics over the good of the country for not supporting his legislative agenda regarding firearms in America.  They had, according to the president, succumbed to the “willful lies” of the “gun lobby and its allies.”  Others, who are generally categorized as “pro-gun advocates,” would argue that the 46 senators (mostly Republicans) had fulfilled one of their roles in upholding the Constitution of the United States – specifically the Second Amendment.

This essay offers an analysis of the intent on the part of the authors of the Constitution regarding the Second Amendment and the right of the people to bear arms.  To paraphrase one historian on the topic: even if historical perspective fails to resolve the “modern debate over gun control, it does serve as a useful reminder of the dangers of ceding the study of the constitution to lawyers and activists.”[1]

With any discussion about the Constitution, it is important to note that American revolutionaries who later became founders of the new nation considered rights as inherent and inalienable.  Rights come from God, not from government, thus government could not grant rights – only restrict rights if not properly monitored by a virtuous citizenry who balanced rights with responsibility (or duty).  Following this line of thought, the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States (known as the Bill of Rights) do not grant rights, rather the Constitution enumerates, or lists, them.  Some historians argue that the Constitution was actually intended by elite founders to serve as a check on popular democracy and the leveling tendencies of the American Revolution by reining in the power of the common folk.[2]  Fearing that the revolution had perhaps gone too far, and to protect their economic interests, argues Terry Bouton, “America’s elite founders dedicated themselves to remaking the new nation according to the demands of their former masters.”  According to Bouton, the “most important element of this attempt to scale back democracy was replacing the Articles of Confederation with a new federal Constitution in 1787.”[3]

The ten amendments were added by those who supported the federal Constitution (known as Federalists) to triangulate those who opposed (aptly named Anti-Federalists) during ratification crisis.  It was over “fears of sparking popular revolts,” writes Bouton, which “had convinced the men who sat in the 1787 convention to back off from the more extreme checks on the people…”  Indeed, it was only the “popular pressure during and after the ratification struggle that produced a strong Bill of Rights, which not even James Madison had originally wanted.”[4]

But, as noted above, the Constitutional amendments did not grant rights, merely enumerated specific rights that that Federalists were guaranteeing, to a skeptical public, that the new federal government would not – and by design, could not – infringe upon.  Supporters and skeptics would continue to debate the nature, merits, and meaning of the Constitution well into the early nineteenth century.  “In the period between 1776 and 1828,” notes Saul Cornell “Americans from all walks of life were drawn into a wide-ranging debate about the nature of constitutional government.”[5]  As we do today.

The Constitution of the United States

Amendment II

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Much focus has been placed by anti-gun advocates and scholars upon the qualifying clause at the beginning of the Second Amendment – “a well regulated militia” – to show that the intent of the founders was not for individual ownership of arms for private purposes.  They tend to interpret the militia as a military organization maintained at the cost of the state or nation, equating it with the modern National Guard.  This interpretation is a flawed anachronism due to its “presentist” view and is a misunderstanding of what, and who, the militia was, and were, at the time of the writing of the Constitution.[6]

The militia tradition in America during the colonial period held that “membership was nearly universal, consisting of able-bodied men between the ages of sixteen and sixty, who were required to possess their own firearms and other military paraphernalia…”  The structure and make-up did not change much over the course of a century-and-a-half leading up to the Revolution as “…the English colonies had included most free white males within the militia structure, and this near universal requirement did not change in 1775 or 1776”[7]

The militia, then, was every citizen – in so much as what constituted the contemporary definition of citizen.  This definition generally omitted slaves, free blacks, native Americans, women, and others depending upon the time-frame.  Yet, taken in the context of the period, membership in the militia was overarching, imposing upon a significant portion of society the duty of maintaining arms and readiness to participate in the common defense.  Where scholars and others display confusion about the nature of the militia is in their association of the militia (the near universal body of white-male citizens charged with the requirement to train with their weapons) and the select militia and provisional armies raised by the colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth wars for empire in North America.  These provisional armies were temporary military units raised by drafting men out of the larger militia pool.  Historian Fred Anderson provides an excellent explanation: “The militia was defined…not as an army per se, but as an all-purpose military infrastructure: a combination of home guard, draft board, and rear-echelon supply network.”  In short, the militia served as the “manpower pool from which the volunteers [for active military service] could be raised.”[8]

This understanding of the nature of the militia is evident in comments made during the Virginia Convention’s debates about the Constitution, June 2 through June 27, 1788:

George Mason: “Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers. But I cannot say who will be the militia of the future day. If that paper on the table [the Constitution] gets no alteration, the militia of the future day may not consist of all classes, high and low, and rich and poor. … ” (Monday June 16)

Francis Corbin: “Who are the militia? Are we not militia?” (Saturday June 7)

Patrick Henry: May we not discipline and arm them, as well as Congress, if the power be concurrent? so that our militia shall have two sets of arms, double sets of regimentals, &c.; and thus, at a very great cost, we shall be doubly armed. The great object is, that every man be armed. But can the people afford to pay for double sets of arms, &c.? Every one Who is able may have a gun. But we have learned, by experience, that, necessary as it is to have arms, and though our Assembly has, by a succession of laws for many years, endeavored to have the militia completely armed, it is still far from being the case. (Sat June 14)

Nicholas: If war be supported by militia, it is by personal service. The poor man does as much as the rich. Is this just? What is the consequence when war is carried on by regular troops? They are paid by taxes raised from the people, according to their property; and then the rich man pays an adequate share. (Sat June 14)

James Madison: [showing the contrast between “select” militia and “militia-at-large’]   His friend had mentioned the propriety of having select militia, like those of Great Britain, who should be more thoroughly exercised than the militia at large could possibly be. But he, himself, had not spoken of a selection of militia, but of the exemption of the highest classes of the people from militia service (Monday June 16)

These examples typify the frame of reference for the patriots-turned –Federalists regarding the militia as they wrote the Constitution in 1787 (and for everyone else in America at the time, for that matter).  Having just emerged from the eight year war with Britain to secure independence, Americans, especially patriot leaders, tended to emphasize the role of the militia over the regular troops of the Continental Army in winning the war.  It was the ordinary citizen they chose to celebrate; accordingly they focused upon the yeoman farmer, the artisan, merchant, and mechanic who left the plow and workshop to confront and defeat the professional soldiers of standing European armies – standing armies that Americans generally abhorred.  So averse to the concept of standing armies were the majority of Americans, the post-war recommendations of Washington and his subordinates for the establishment of a national military establishment garnered “little public support and were not adopted by the Congress.”  The public was the focus, not a professional army, and in this “the revolutionaries implicitly rejected the [Continental Army] officers’ claims that the country would owe its future survival to the army.”[9]

Not only did the public reject the Continental Army’s claim on a superior patriotic virtue in winning independence, they rejected any future standing army’s claim as the guarantor of security.  Having thrown off the yoke of tyranny in the British king and Parliament, the revolutionaries-turned-founders sought to guard against future tyranny and that notional tyrant’s use of the military against the people.  “As civil rulers,” wrote Tench Coxe in 1789, “not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.”[10]

Faith in the virtue of the public as guardians of the state and themselves is apparent in the provisions written into the constitutions of the individual states regarding the right to bear arms:

1776, Virginia: That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free State; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, civil power.

1776, Pennsylvania: That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the State; and as standing armies, in the time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; And that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.

1780, Massachusetts: The people have a right to keep and bear arms for the common defense.  And as, in time of peace, armies are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be maintained without the consent of the legislature; and the military power shall always be held in an exact subordination to the civil authority, and be governed by it.

1817, Mississippi: Every citizen has a right to bear arms, in defence of himself and the State.

1819, Maine: Every citizen has a right to keep and bear arms for the common defence; and this right shall never be questioned.

1820, Missouri: That the people have the right peaceably to assemble for their common good, and to apply to those vested with the powers of government for redress of grievances by petition or remonstrance; and that their right to bear arms in defence of themselves and the State cannot be questioned.[11]

In this context, “bearing arms was not only a right, but it was a legal obligation.”[12]  Citizens were responsible for protecting the state against foreign threats, domestic insurgency, and federal tyranny.  In 1792, in fact, the US Congress went so far as to require “every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective states, resident therein, who is or shall be of the age of eighteen years and under the age of forty-five years…be enrolled in the militia.” And that “every citizen so enrolled…provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and a belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch with a box therein to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges…”[13]

“Who are the militia? Are we not the militia?” asked Francis Corbin during the Virginia Debate on the Constitution.  Clearly we are the militia.  And just as the concept of who comprise the citizenry of the United States has evolved, expanding from white males with property to all Americans, so too we must accept that the body encompassed by the term “militia” and “the people” in the Second Amendment now includes anyone eligible to vote.

[1] Saul Cornell, “Beyond the Myth of Consensus: The Struggle to Define the Right to Bear Arms in the Early Republic,” in Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic (Chapel Hill, 2004), 267.

[2] Terry Bouton, Taming Democracy: “The People,” the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution, New York, Oxford University Press, 2007.

[3] Ibid, 175-176.

[4] Ibid, 261.

[5] Cornell, “Beyond the Myth of Consensus,” 253.

[6] Paul Finkelman, “’A Well Regulated Militia’: The Second Amendment in Historical Perspective,” Chicago Kent Law Review 76 (2000): 195-236.; Keith A.Ehrman & Dennis A. Henigan, The Second Amendment in the Twentieth Century: Have You Seen the Militia Lately?, 15 U. DAYTON L. REV. 5 (1989); Gary Willis, “To Keep and Bear Arms,” The New York Review of Books, September 21, 1995.  Available Online:; For rebuttal of Willis’ argument, see Randy E. Barnett, “Was the Right to Keep and Bear Arms Conditioned on Service in an Organized Militia?”, Georgetown University Law Center, 2004.

[7] Don Higginbotham, War and Society in Revolutionary America: The Wider Dimensions of Conflict, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, (1988): 22, 109. For more on the militia tradition, see John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed,

[8] Fred Anderson, A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War, Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1984, 26-27.  See also, Fred Anderson, The Crucible of War.

[9] Charles Royster, An American People at War, 332-333

[10] A Pennsylvanian (Tench Coxe), Remarks on the First Part of the Amendments to the Federal Constitution, PHILA. FED. GAZETTE, June 18, 1789

[11] Cornell, “Beyond the Myth of Consensus,” 265-266

[12] Ibid, 255.

[13] Second Congress, Section I, Chapter 33, An Act more effectually to provide for the National Defense by establishing an Uniform Militia throughout the United States, Available Online:

Royster’s “A Revolutionary People at War”

A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783.  By Charles Royster. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979.


One of the essential books for any student of the American Revolution (and perhaps any scholar of exceptionally well written history) is Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War.  In it, Royster gives the reader a sense of the patriotic mentalité and the development of the American national character during the eight year period of the War for Independence.  Based upon the premise that the “prevailing sentiment” of most Americans was generally favorable toward independence, Royster asks the critical question, “what was the relationship between the ideals espoused during the revolution and the actions of Americans?” (p. viii) His conclusion is that while the ideals preached by revolutionaries were lofty, their actual conduct failed to measure up, and in fact proved to be “flawed and often gravely deficient.” (p. ix)  This disconnect is best illustrated in the study of the Continental Army and the experiences of those revolutionaries who joined the army and those who did not.

American revolutionaries, argues Royster, were convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the preordination of its outcome.  Many “believed that God had chosen America to persevere and exemplify self-government for the world.” (p.5) As such, the war, in their eyes, represented the juxtaposition of British oppression, tyranny, and corruption versus American benevolence, disinterestedness (or lack of self-interest in the public arena), and virtue.

Possessed with this religious certitude, and flushed with the initial, dramatic successes at Lexington, Concord, and most especially Breed’s (Bunker) Hill, “Americans announced determination to surpass the British in military prowess as in virtue.” (p.25) Royster’s term for this initial “passion for arms” at the outset of the war is rage militaire.  This fervor which characterized the first months of the war would wane by the end of 1776, according to Royster, “never to return” with the same intensity despite the desires of revolutionary leaders to reignite the same passion through out the conflict.  And as rage militaire faded, with it faded the possibility of a short war won by popular resistance, a cornerstone to the patriots’ conviction in their righteousness and preordination of victory as the product of the virtue of their revolution.  The alternative, as Royster demonstrates, would be a dependence (reluctantly so) upon a professional, standing army. 

The creation of this standing army – the Continental Army – challenged the sensibilities of many revolutionary leaders.  Like most Americans at the time, Royster notes, “Samuel Adams was proud of the…militia and suspicious of a regular army in war as in peace.”  There was an inherent distrust of standing armies, and in a virtuous republic there would be no need for an army, as the homeland would be defended by self-sacrificing men of character and innate courage (both physical and moral).  The waning of rage militaire, and the failure to sweep the British away in a whirlwind of popular uprising, changed the minds of the revolutionaries.  “One year’s experience,” according to Royster, “convinced most American officials that they needed a standing army to fight the war.” (p.67)  He cites Adams again writing several years later in 1780 to former militia general, James Warren, “‘Would any Man in his Senses…prefer the temporary and expensive Drafts of Militia, to a permanent and well appointed Army!’” (p.37)   Royster further explains the inner conflict the decision to accept a standing army posed:

“The revolutionaries often said that freedom could not survive with out virtue.  If people were not willing to put the public good ahead of personal interest, power would pass to those who could, in the selfish free-for-all, buy or coerce the most support” (p.67)

This goes to the heart of the conflict between the ideal of virtue as the noble sacrifice of personal interest for the welfare of society, a concept held dear by the revolutionary Americans.  Virtue is a term continuously tossed around by the revolutionaries, but by the end of 1776, as Royster points out, the virtuous public had not wiped the British from the American continent.  In fact, complacency and self-interest seemed to trump sacrifice as the populace in general began to behave as if independence had already been achieved.  The establishment of a Continental army illustrated to the more fervent adherents to the patriot cause that very failure of self-sacrifice and virtue:

“A standing army – even one created to defend the country’s freedom – brought an individual’s virtue and freedom into conflict…[it] departed so far from the Americans’ ideal of personal freedom that they were unable, in conscience of in fact, to force a man to serve for as long as was needed, even while they could explain why he ought to want to do so.” (pp.67-68)

To bridge the gap created by this conflict of personal freedom subjugated for public virtue, Royster explains, revolutionaries relied on money.  But, as he demonstrates, this brings the ideology of the revolution and its participants into question:

“Suppose a man who does not want to serve in the army pays another man who will serve.  Both can claim to have done a virtuous act.  Each can accuse the other of being less virtuous, or even selfish, for evading service or for extorting a large bounty.  In fact, one man has kept his personal freedom and given up money, while the other has gained money and given up some of his personal freedom” (p.69)

In fact, this scenario does play itself out during and immediately following the War for Independence, as soldiers and officers become more professionalized over the course of the war, and a sense of pride and esprit de corps is developed.  Keenly aware of the hardships they have endured, regulars in the Continental Army come to regard themselves as the true patriots of the Revolution in whom the rage militaire was preserved.  Royster explains: “The uniqueness of the army’s revolutionary experience and in other revolutionaries’ reliance on the army lay a potential claim to superior revolutionary merit.” Revolutionaries, on the other hand, chose to regard the victory of America in the War for Independence as a victory of public virtue, a manifestation of the righteousness of the cause in which all supporters of the revolution sacrificed.  “Civilians rightly feared” the soldiers’ claim of superior merit, “perhaps because their dependence on the army entailed a strain of envy of the army’s more conspicuous communal heroism.” (p.247) 

In studying the Continental Army and its relationship to the broader American society, we find that the myth of unity in sacrifice, the Revolution as a “triumph of public virtue,” owes its creation not as much to worshipful generations of Americans who admired the Founders, rather it is the Founders themselves who molded the interpretation of their deeds for posterity.  The American Revolution, we find, is comprised of more than one vision of independence, the requirements of independence, and who is to contribute to that independence and in what degree.  Royster spends much of his book focusing on the officers and the development of an office corps of professionals.  And while the development of their professionalism naturally created a sense of esprit de corps, the desire on the part of American officers to preserve that spirit and sense of brotherhood in the form of the Society of the Cincinnati, smacked of elitism to the civilian patriots because they perceived that the officers were staking a greater claim on the revolution. 

Royster does not draw the conclusion for the reader, but it is easy to come away with a sense that a superior claim upon revolutionary merit is deserved, especially for the common soldier, the “privates” who Roster often contrasts with the officers.  He details the suffering and depravation endured by the common soldier and marvels not at the number of mutinies that occurred, rather how few these incidents were and how quickly they were resolved, evidence of the Continental’s desire to remain in service.  The composition of the line is presented in the Appendix.  “The Continental Army consisted largely of young, poor men,” writes Royster, but he then goes on to challenge the argument posed by other historians (especially Edward Papenfuse and Gregory Stiverson) that because of their poverty, the regular soldier was motivated by economics rather than the spirit of the Revolution.  He points out that the British were offering the same, if not greater opportunity for the “dregs” of society, yet Americans did not flock to the English Army in numbers any where as great as those to the Continental Army.  He sums the experience of the regular private thus:

“Considered as a people rather than as socioeconomic entities, soldiers had as much to lose as anyone had; they chose to risk it and, in many instances, to lose it.”(p.378) 

As Royster shows, many Americans chose to partake of the benefits of independence well in advance of the actual winning of that independence, often profiting at the expense of the Continental Army.  He makes the case that the private did have a choice; army pay was not very enticing and certainly not a sure bet, if it was otherwise then there would have been little difficulty in recruiting.  There were options for men who enlisted in the ranks, and it was a serious challenge for the army to convince soldiers to enlist for longer terms (three years of for the duration of the war), but there were men who did sign up for those lengthy terms, which does support Royster’s assertion that factors other than pure  economics were at play for the lower class who typically filled the privates ranks.  In light of this, we might agree with the enthusiasm of Colonel Jean Baptist Ternant, whose response to those soldiers “who exclaimed when called upon by name, ‘for the war!’ was to “respectfully” bow, and “raising his hat,” say “‘you, Sir, are a gentleman I perceive, I am happy to make an acquaintance with you.’” (p.223)

Anyone serious about understanding the American Revolution and the War for Independence will, likewise, be happy to make an acquaintance with A Revolutionary People at War.

Daniel Morgan – America’s Frontier General

Daniel Morgan is one of the most fascinating and exciting characters of the American Revolution.  His biography by Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan, Revolutionary Rifleman, is the best treatment of the victor of Cowpens, whose life “sheds light on frontier conditions in colonial Virginia. (Although, the best book about the battle of Cowpens itself is, unequivocally, Lawrence Babits’, A Devil of a Whipping)

Morgan’s biography affords an opportunity to study the hit-and-run backwoods fighting that American Revolutionary soldiers knew best.  It presents a unique vantage point to view such prominent patriot military figures as Benedict Arnold, Horatio Gates, and Nathaniel Green – to see them as their subordinate, Morgan, saw them.  It gives new information about the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion.”(p.vii)  As the 43rd brigadier general out of the 48 who attained that rank in the Continental Army, Daniel Morgan represented a the unique breed of American leaders during the War for Independence; not one of the low-country, landed elite, rather, her was a hardy-frontiersman from the edge of Anglo-American eighteenth century civilization.

Morgan was the son of Welsh immigrants who may have settled in New Jersey in the early 1700s.  Higginbotham notes that little is known for certain about the general’s background, “the size and fortunes of his family are shrouded in mystery.”(p.2) However, when he arrived in Winchester, Virginia in 1753, alone and in his late teens, with no money and little, if any, formal education, he was certainly a member of the “motley processions of people” migrating “to the back country to preserve their national traits, avoid paying high prices for land…or to acquire farms where acreage was cheap.”  Morgan, “without family or friends in the hinterland,” must have belonged among those “merely caught up in the movement [west] following the rest and trusting to luck.”(p.3)  He gained employment as a farm laborer, eventually becoming a teamster, at which he excelled, and having saved enough was able to “purchase his own team and enter the hauling business for himself.”  Pressed into service with other teamsters, Morgan hauled supplies at the outset of the French and Indian War for British Major General Edward Braddock’s ill-fated campaign against the French at Fort Duquesne, during which the raucous, young frontiersman was given 400 lashes as punishment for knocking down a British officer or non-commissioned officer.(p.4)

Whipped as a commoner, a farm hand turned teamster, know for his drinking and brawling (as demonstrated in the order books and suit papers of Frederick County, Va., cited by Higginbotham) and living for ten years with his future wife prior to actually marrying her in 1773, Daniel Morgan certainly was not a member of the Virginia gentry, although his purchase of farmland and ten slaves by the eve of the American Revolution attest to his rise from poverty toward prosperity.  But this is evidence of the enterprise and ingenuity of a self made man, working to better himself. During the French and Indian War (after his involvement in the Braddock Campaign) and Dunmore’s War, Morgan served in the Virginia Militia where, similar to his experience as a waggoneer, he demonstrated his excellence, this time as an Indian fighter and rifleman.  Morgan, his neighbors, and men of similar ilk, adept at frontier combat and living in the backwoods region of western Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania would come to form an elite corps of fighters during the American Revolution.  Experts with the Kentucky long rifle, these frontiersmen were members of a “motley crew” even more rough-and-tumble than the sailors or urban wage workers and tradesmen.  Higginbotham cites Richard Henry Lee describing these men as “known for their ‘amazing hardihood’ gained through ‘living so long in the woods.’ These veteran hunters and Indian fighters had traveled long distances with out provisions and displayed remarkable ‘dexterity’ with the rifle.”(p.19)

Organized as special rifle companies and light infantry, the method and manner of fighting employed by the frontiersmen was a uniquely American convention.  We recognize the success of their tactics in our reverence for battles such as Lexington and Concord with the celebrated “minuteman” patriots who achieved success firing on marching columns of British regulars from the cover of trees and stone walls.  The reality, however, goes much deeper than the celebrated lore, and the light unit tactics proved well suited to the North American terrain and its populace.  This was a fact understood by the British (they employed light infantry units and “rangers” in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution) but never fully appreciated by the commanders who continued to attempt European-style, linear warfare.  Americans were more willing to embrace the lighter unit tactics, and Morgan mastered them, to become the foremost leader among Continental Officers at the use of rifle companies, which was combined with an exuberant style of leadership.  He would quickly be elevated to become a colonel in command of an elite, independent rifle corps, comprised of hardy, independent-minded frontiersmen.  In this capacity Morgan proved vital in protecting the main body of Washington’s forces in New Jersey in 1777.  Later that same year, he would play a crucial role in the defeat of British Major General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, rivaled perhaps only by the dynamic personal performance of Benedict Arnold.

In January, 1781, Daniel Morgan, now a confirmed brigadier general, promoted by the Continental Congress, secured “one of the most decisive American triumphs of the war” (and one might argue, one of America’s most decisive battles ever) against the force led by Banastre Tarleton at Cowpens, South Carolina.(p.142)  The battle is significant in that Morgan displayed one of the most artful and effective uses of both militia and Continental regular soldiers by any American general, again demonstrating the success of the American method of warfare.  Aside from being a tactical masterpiece (wherein a partisan commander with little education executed one of the classic military maneuvers, studied by commanders since antiquity – the double envelopment of the enemy’s flanks) Cowpens is also significant, and perhaps under appreciated, for its strategic importance.  The total destruction of Tarleton’s Legion, Major General Cornwallis’ elite light force, deprived the British commander of a rapid maneuvering unit to match against Morgan.  Out of necessity, Cornwallis was left with no recourse but to “strip his army of all non-essentials and employ it as a light force” destroying his “baggage, provisions, and rum” risking “the future efficiency of his army.”(p.147)  Chasing Morgan, and then Nathaniel Green’s main force, through North Carolina in to Virginia, Cornwallis would exhaust the few supplies he had and eventually become trapped at Yorktown – an oversimplification, perhaps, but the strategic consequences of the Cowpens victory significantly contributed to the ultimate defeat of Cornwallis.

Clearly Daniel Morgan was an exciting persona who played a critical role in several important battles during the American War for Independence, but what do his actions reveal about the  Revolution, or America in general?  Higginbotham presents some convincing conclusions.  As noted above, the method of fighting employed by Morgan (and other Americans), was unique and itself a revolutionary departure from the traditions of imperial European military tactics.  “The British,” writes Higginbotham, “despite the creation of light regiments under Simcoe, Tarleton, and Ferguson, were slow to understand the importance of mobile forces.  Not until too late did most royal officers realize that America was ill-suited for the conventional warfare of the Old World.”(p.210)  The abandonment of “conventional” warfare would become a common characteristic of revolution from 1776 through the present, where local insurrectionist fighters would resort to guerrilla tactics as the most effective means of wearing down the occupying forces of larger powers.  In his book, War and Society in Revolutionary America,  Higginbotham identifies Morgan as a America’s foremost guerrilla fighter, citing Clauswitz’s observation that “rarely indeed are orthodox forces ever successful against guerrillas.”(War & Society, p.149)  From the resistance led by Toussaint and Bolivar to Ho Chi Min, the partisan commander had the example of the American Revolution, the success of which Daniel Morgan significantly impacted, to refer for inspiration.

Higginbotham also maintains that Morgan, by virtue of his rise “through the officer ranks” in eighteenth century society, represents the success of the democratic ideal fostered by the young United States.  Rank in the British system was purchased for sons by families that “possessed money and influence,” and for a teamster in the backwoods of Virginia, the chance to become one of the “officer class would have been remote indeed.”(p.211) Opportunity, though of course never perfect, was vastly greater in Revolutionary America, as Higginbotham concludes: “Morgan’s advancement, to say nothing of his increasing social and economic stature and his election to Congress, forcefully testified to the democratic spirit already beginning to permeate America.”(p.211)  To be sure, many marginalized groups in America remained so: women, slaves, etc.  But many were able to profit from independence, the emancipation of many northern blacks is indicative of this, as is the advancement of common men, such as Daniel Morgan, from wage laborers to prosperous land owners.

Morgan’s example also illustrates the conservative reaction that is characteristic to all revolutions since the eighteenth century.  Lest the “democratic spirit” noted above get far out of hand, allowing too drastic a change in the social fabric, those men who were able to seize power after encouraging participation of all classes in insurrection invariably established a means of control to preserve the new social order.  In America the creation of a strong central government under the Constitution placed “firewalls on democracy” to prevent the general populace from disrupting the establishment of the founders’ sense of order.  The Federalists were the strongest advocates of the central governments power, and Morgan became an ardent Federalist, supporting, as a Congressman, bills to increase the navy, and favoring “passage of a sedition measure” which became the Alien and Sedition Act.(p.206)  He would also march an army unit into the Pennsylvania backcountry to suppress the Whisky Rebellion of 1794. And though he opposed the actions of the Pennsylvanians, whose example Morgan felt would render the Constitution “worthless if men violated federal law whenever they chose,” (p.189) the backwoods sense of fair play had not completely left the general with his rise to success, as Higginbotham relates.  Upon finding a tavern keeper charging “whiskey to soldiers at an exorbitant price,” Morgan reprimanded the man.  The tavern keeper’s “subsequent failure to reduce his charge made Morgan furious.” He broke the man’s jaw.(p.191)  Despite success as a general, a businessman, a landowner, and politician, Daniel Morgan remained a man of action from the Virginia frontier – a uniquely American mix.

Homage to Don Higginbotham

I first encountered the work of Don Higginbotham back in the early 1990’s when I read Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman as an undergraduate.  This was the start of a twenty-some-odd-year tutelage under a scholar whom I’ve never met, but whose work has had a profound influence upon my approach to the study of history.

It is a truism that as scholars we are indebted to the historians who have come before us – we stand on the shoulders of giants, as the saying goes.  And within the field of the American Revolution and the War of Independence, Higginbotham is indeed one of the giants.   Along with John Shy, Higginbotham can be considered one of the early pioneers and proponents of the “new military history” – the integration of social, intellectual, economic, political, and cultural aspects of warfare into the study of the American Revolution.  For anyone interested in learning just what comprises this school of thought, there are few better starting points than Higginbotham’s essay, “The Early American Way of War: Reconnaissance and Appraisal.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., Vol 44, No. 2 (1987), 230-73, which will provide a comprehensive overview of the field up to the late 1980’s.

Higginbotham died in 2008, and as mentioned above, we never met.  I would have liked to have contacted him to discuss a few topics I am exploring, especially my work with the Continental Army officer corps.  Perhaps he might have even indulged me in reading some article drafts.  In any event, I thought is appropriate to acknowledge the significance his scholarship has been in shaping my interests and pursuit in the field of American History.