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Citizen Soldiers and The Revolution

minuteman statue
One of the most cherished images from early American history is that of the citizen soldier—the stalwart patriot ready to defend the colonies from British tyranny. As is often the case with history, however, the truth is not quite as simple as the image would have us believe.

Most British settlers who arrived in the colonies were not professionally trained, experienced soldiers. But with a small British military presence in North America and an ocean between themselves and any sort of real protection, the colonists soon realized that they needed to establish their own military forces. Drawing upon the example of British militias, the colonists began to form their own militias. They passed laws that required every able-bodied man to serve and to provide arms. In most colonial Americans’ minds, the notion of an “army” had decidedly negative connotations. It meant something more along the lines of what “mercenary” means to contemporary Americans. Professional, paid soldiers, they believed, were unscrupulous and, even more alarming, could be used by the government for the oppression of the states.

With these fears in mind, colonial militias were typically very localized and had very little training—in some cases, no more than a few days per year. Standards varied from colony to colony. When the American Revolution began, there was no central mechanism for equipping and feeding these citizen soldiers or any of the other multitude of tasks necessary for maintaining an army. When George Washington was given command of the Continental Army—which was then really just an assortment of state militiamen with varying degrees of training—he reportedly said: “Uncertainty weighs on me when all around me are asleep. No one knows the predicament we are in.”

But it was precisely these inexperienced, poorly organized citizen soldiers who would rise to the occasion and defend the colonies against what was then the world’s most significant military power. Though they initially suffered from a shocking lack of discipline and would remain poorly supplied throughout the war, the militiamen who both became and supplemented the Continental Army proved up to the task. Even at the outbreak of war, before the Continental Army was formed, it was Massachusetts militiamen—including the famed Minutemen—who ambushed British regulars at Lexington and then at Concord.

As the war progressed, Washington and other commanders continued to supplement the Continental Army with local militias, often successfully. From April of 1775 to March of 1776, it was furious local militiamen who swarmed in from the surrounding areas and trapped the British inside the city during the Siege of Boston. The siege was Washington’s first significant victory in the war. It led the British to abandon the town and sail for Nova Scotia instead. Elsewhere in the colonies, notably in New York and New Jersey, guerilla tactics employed by militias were highly effective in keeping British troops undersupplied and exhausted from constant attacks.