American Militias The colonies developed militias for their own defense. Britain could not afford to provide sufficient numbers of His Majesty’s troops. Constantly in debt, the mother country also was too far away to justify sending its army to protect the sparsely populated colonies. In the Crown’s opinion, if colonists wanted to journey to an unknown wilderness, they should be prepared to provide for their own defense. Lacking the tax base to support a professional army of their own, colonists turned to the age-old means of local protection the militia. Duties of the Militia The militia provided more than an affordable means of protection. It was also an important aspect of the burgeoning republican philosophy guiding the American colonists. The citizen-solider ideal, long an important aspect of Western philosophy, influenced the founding of colonial America as it had the Greek city-states.
Participation in the militia was understood to be part of a colonist’s social contract. An individual, in return for his membership in the society, was obligated to render service unto the community. One way in which this obligation could be fulfilled was through militia service. Colonists were skeptical of a standing, professional army, but a voluntary militia that was locally based and could not be sent into service beyond the local community proved acceptable. Although all able-bodied men, ages 16 to 60, were expected to serve in their local militias, class biases influenced the militias’ organization and the quality of service one was expected to perform. Wealthy, elite units, usually cavalry, served in contradistinction to the common foot soldier, who was most likely from the poorer classes. Foot soldiers were required to provide their own weapons, and many could not.
Therefore, it was not uncommon for militiamen to be forced to perform some kind of public service in return for their arms, much like the English working class who were compelled to labor in workhouses in return for charity. In fact, by the time the minutemen began to wage their uphill battle against British regulars for independence, the ranks of the colonial militias shared more in common with the impressed vagabonds, who comprised the bulk of European armies, than the colonists would have admitted. At the start of the Revolutionary War, each colonial militia had its own regimental colors and standard. The Philadelphia Light-Horse Troop carried this regimental flag into several major battles.
(New York Public Library, New York) Despite the simplicity of its legal organization, the colonial militia was anything but static. The composition, as well as the performance, of militias depended largely on their location. New England found it easier to fill the muster rolls and maintain the militia, due to its concentrated population, than did the more sprawled-out settlements of the Southern colonies. Virginia, for example, experienced a fitful history of militia organization. In the early days, when men were still starving, it was difficult to convince them of their obligation to serve. Whereas Boston could draft large numbers of men when Native American wars necessitated it, Jamestown could not. When it tried, as it did in the months leading up to Bacon’s Rebellion, the colonial government suffered a breakdown. Virginians, it seemed, might be compelled to fight if the potential profits were large enough, and Nathaniel Bacon convinced them that they were. Thus, the Virginia militia, in many ways, resembled European mercenary armies more than the citizen-soldiers of Sparta or even Plymouth.
South Carolina provides another interesting counterpoint to New England. With a more scattered population than either New England or the Chesapeake, the colony faced constant problems in readying its militia to defend against Spanish and Native American encroachments. Although the militia had rallied to save the colony during the Yamasee War in 1715, the colony’s assembly reported with apprehension only five years later that South Carolina’s 2,000 militiamen were spread over nearly 150 miles. This was still a problem in 1738, when the colony’s lieutenant governor, William Bull, reported to the assembly that an effective militia seemed Inconsistent with a Domestick or Country Life. South Carolina’s biggest problem, however, was not its sparsely populated backcountry. Slavery had become the most formidable obstacle to organizing an effective militia in the Southern colonies.
As the black population grew, and in South Carolina began to surpass the white population, the idea of arming blacks became increasingly unpopular, especially after the Stono Rebellion in 1739. The threat of a slave insurrection would continue to loom over the South, preventing Carolinians from arming their slaves and inspiring stringent restrictions on their mobility. As a result, the majority of able-bodied men in South Carolina were precluded from militia service. Perhaps even more importantly, this caused the Southern militia, particularly in South Carolina where a black majority existed, to become primarily a means of policing and controlling slaves rather than a means of defense. Later, during the antebellum period, the Southern militias would develop into slave patrols as the focus of law enforcement and military organization in the South turned to defending and protecting the institution of slavery.