A fully updated and revised new edition of this classic on American military policy throughout history.
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Allan R. Millett is Professor of History and Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at The University of New Orleans.
Peter Maslowski is professor of history at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
A Dangerous New World
Crossing the Atlantic during the seventeenth century was a perilous voyage, entailing weeks or months of cramped quarters, inadequate food, and unsanitary conditions. Yet in the late 1500s Englishmen had begun to hazard the venture, and in 1607 they planted their first permanent settlement on the North American continent at Jamestown. By the early 1730s, thirteen separate colonies hugged the seaboard. Although great diversity prevailed among the colonies, most colonists shared a common English heritage and clung to it tenaciously. Their religious attitudes, economic views, political thoughts, and military ideals and institutions were all grounded in English history. In no aspect of colonial life was this heritage more important than in regard to military matters. The colonists' most revered military institution (the militia) and their most cherished military tradition (fear of a standing army) both came from England.
The earliest English settlers arrived in a dangerous New World. The initial colonies represented little more than amphibious landings on a hostile coastline followed by the consolidation of small, insecure beach-heads. The settlers did not take possession of an uninhabited land, but settled in regions controlled by various native American tribes. Fortunately for the colonists, they unwittingly landed in areas that had recently experienced precipitous population losses among the Indians.
Europeans made periodic contact with the natives long before they established permanent colonies. These transient visitors left a devastating legacy of smallpox, measles, and other European diseases, for which the natives had no built-in immunities. But the colonists soon learned that the Indians, even in their weakened state, were a formidable adversary. Nor were Indians the only military threat. The English settled in lands also claimed by their European rivals, and the memory of the raids conducted by the Spanish, French, and English against each other's out-posts in the Caribbean and along the Florida coast undoubtedly haunted many colonists. The fear of pillaging buccaneers and pirates who infested coastal waterways compounded the potential problem posed by European enemies.
Colonists faced these threats alone. Although the English monarch authorized their expeditions and granted extensive lands for settlement, the Crown expected the colonists to defend themselves. With few illusions about their precarious position, colonists came to the New World armed and, anticipating conflict, gave prompt attention to defense. Professional soldiers accompanied the expeditions to Jamestown, Plymouth, and succeeding colonies. Indeed, the first heroes in American history were far from ordinary settlers. The profit-seeking Virginia Company hired Captain John Smith, a veteran of Europe's religious wars, to teach military skills to the settlers at Jamestown in 1607. Other experienced soldiers, such as Lord De La Warr, Sir Thomas Gates, and Sir Thomas Dale, soon followed him. The pious Pilgrims wisely did not rely on God's favor alone for protection, employing Captain Myles Standish, a veteran of the Dutch wars for independence, to ensure Plymouth's success. Although Smith and Standish are the most famous of the soldier-settlers, practically all the other colonies had similar veterans who provided military leadership during the founding period. The importance placed on military preparations could be seen in the attention given to fortifications. Less than a month after their arrival, the settlers at Jamestown had constructed a primitive, triangular fort, and by 1622 the Pilgrims had erected a 2,700-foot-long defensive perimeter guarding their fledgling plantation.
The most important response to the dangerous military realities was the creation of a militia system in each colony. The British military heritage, the all-pervasive sense of military insecurity, and the inability of the economically poor colonies to maintain an expensive professional army all combined to guarantee that the Elizabethan militia would be transplanted to the North American wilderness. No colonial institution was more complex than the militia. In many respects it was static and homogeneous, varying little from colony to colony and from generation to generation. Yet the militia was also evolutionary and heterogeneous, as diverse as the thirteen colonies and ever-changing within individual colonies.
At the heart of the militia was the principle of universal military obligation for all able-bodied males. Colonial laws regularly declared that all able-bodied men between certain ages automatically belonged to the militia. Yet within the context of this immutable principle, variations abounded. While the normal age limits were from 16 to 60, this was not universal practice. Connecticut, for example, began with an upper age limit of 60 but gradually reduced it to 45. Sometimes the lower age limit was 18 or even 21. Each colony also established occupational exemptions from militia training. Invariably the exemption list began small but grew to become a seemingly endless list that reduced the militia's theoretical strength.
If a man was in the militia, he participated in periodic musters, or training days, with the other members of his unit. Attendance at musters was compulsory; militia laws levied fines for nonattendance. During the initial years of settlement, when dangers seemed particularly acute, musters were frequent. However, as the Indian threat receded, the trend was toward fewer muster days, and by the early 1700s most colonies had decided that four peacetime musters per year were sufficient.
Whether few or many, muster days helped forge a link between religious duty and military service, particularly in New England. An integral part of each training day (and of all military expeditions) was a sermon, which invariably fostered an aggressive militancy by emphasizing that the Bible sanctioned martial activity and that warfare was a true Christian's sacred duty. "Hence it is no wayes unbecoming a Christian to learn to be a Souldier," chaplain Samuel Nowell preached to Massachusetts militiamen in 1678, because being a soldier was "a Credit, a praise and a glory." When the colonists unsheathed their swords, they did so in God's name, serene in the belief that the Lord was on their side against their heathen and Papist enemies and that whatever happened was God's will.
Militiamen had to provide and maintain their own weapons. Militia laws detailed the required weaponry, which underwent a rapid evolution in the New World. Initially a militiaman was armed much like a European soldier, laden with armor, equipped with either a pike or matchlock musket, and carrying a sword. But Indian warfare was not European warfare, and most of this weaponry proved of limited value. By the mid-1670s colonial armaments had been revolutionized. Armor, which made it difficult to traverse rugged terrain and pursue Indians, disappeared. Pikes were equally cumbersome and of little use against Indians, who neither stood their ground when assaulted nor made massed charges. At times the matchlock was superior to Indian bows and arrows, but its disadvantages were many. It took two minutes to load, and misfired approximately three times in every ten shots. The weapon discharged when a slow-burning match came in contact with the priming powder, but keeping the match lit on rainy or windy days was difficult, and the combination of a burning match and gunpowder in close proximity often resulted in serious accidents. The flintlock musket replaced the matchlock. Depending on flint scraping against steel for discharge, flintlocks could be loaded in thirty seconds and misfired less often. Swords remained common weapons, but colonists increasingly preferred hatchets for close-quarter combat. Although both weapons were valuable in a melee, hatchets were also useful for a variety of domestic purposes.
Militia laws emphasized the importance of a well-armed citizenry in numerous ways. To ensure that each man had the requisite weapons and accoutrements, colonies instituted a review of arms, imposing the duty. of conducting it on militia officers, muster masters, or other specially appointed officials. Every colony's law detailed how destitute citizens could be armed at public expense, and legislatures provided for public arsenals to supplement individually owned armaments. Colonies also required that even men exempted from attending musters should be completely armed and equipped.
Although the basic tactical unit in all the colonies was the company, or trainband, regional variations and changes over time were as important as the superficial uniformity. No standardized company size existed, some companies containing as few as sixty-five men and others as many as two hundred. Some trainbands elected their officers, but in others the governors appointed them. Southern colonies, with widely dispersed populations, often organized companies on a countywide basis, while in New England, with its towns and villages, individual communities contained their own trainbands. As populations increased and the number of trainbands grew, colonies organized companies into regiments to preserve efficient management. As one last example of the variety and change within militia units, the initial all-infantry composition evolved into a mixture of infantry and mounted units, the latter providing increased maneuverability and speed, which were valuable assets in Indian warfare.
Militia officers, like colonial politicians, overwhelmingly came from the upper class, and men moved with ease from important political positions into high military offices and vice versa. The practice of plural office holding, whereby a man simultaneously held political and military office, epitomized the integration of political and military leadership. For example, in Salem, Massachusetts, between 1765 and 1774 twelve of the twenty-nine active militia officers also held important positions in the municipal government. Similar instances coul...
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