Embattled Farmers – The Mythology of the American Militia | Independence Week

“By the rude bridge that arched the flood

Their flags to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood,

And fired the shot heard round the world.”

Friederich Steuben (1730-1794) wrote of what he described as the ‘American spirit.’ It was displayed by what Emerson called the “embattled farmer” who left his home to fight the Redcoats. Both have long been considered standard fare in Revolutionary War lore, as is the ideal of the citizen soldier (Minute Man) himself. Many of us were raised on it in our very first history classes, and even during Saturday morning cartoons.

But what is the truth behind that mythology?

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One of the first books I remember reading from cover to cover was from the We Were There series: We Were There At the Battle of Lexington & Concord, by Felix Sutton.

“The number of Minute Men in the town seemed to have nearly doubled since he had entered the tavern a short while before. Some sat on the ground with their backs against trees and dozed, their muskets held upright between their knees…Rob recognized farmers and townspeople from Lincoln, Bedford, Chelmsford, Weston, and half a dozen other nearby towns. Here and there, men were greasing their muskets or checking their loads. A few had old-fashioned powder horns slung over their shoulders, but most carried the more modern cartridge boxes. Some were bare-headed, others wore black three-cornered hats, while still others wore the shapeless, flopping felt hats affected by Yankee farmers…”

That’s not bad prose for a kid’s book but it and other books, movies, and tropes like it perpetuate the militia-citizen soldier mythos. Bill Cosby did a comedy sketch about it (remember the coin toss between colonists and British?) and it even appears as part of the Assassin’s Creed game.

Revolutionary War Militia - by Don Troiani
Georgia Militia – painting by Don Troiani.

Grab your powder, grab your gun and report to General Washington!

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Schoolhouse Rock. But the idea that the colonial militia whupped ’em some Redcoats and established the world’s first democratic republic is far from the truth.

Luckily it doesn’t take much research to get a realistic idea of just what Gen. Washington had to work with. After you read up on the actual training and capabilities of the first American Revolutionaries, you’ll likely be astonished not only that we defeated Britannia (the greatest military and industrial power of its age, whose population of military age males was more than four times greater than that of the Thirteen Colonies), but that we lasted long enough to build a professional army at all.

An American Soldier - 1778 von Germann watercolor
Watercolor painting of a Continental private c. 1778 by Friedrich von Germann, an officer of the Hesse Hanau Regiment during the Saratoga Campaign.

It was a completely improbable victory, even given the massive strategic obstacles the British Empire had to overcome to fight so far from home. Like many significant turning points in history, much of it hinged on a few singular events and people. The attack on Trenton from McKonkey’s Ferry (the “Crossing of the Delaware”) was certainly such an occasion. George Washington was a person of singular importance, of course. There were doubtless others whose significance has been lost to history (if they were even known in the first place). Friedrich Steuben, who wrote of the “American spirit”, holds a place in those ranks perhaps second only to Washington himself.

Among the first militia formations were the ‘Minute Companies’ formed by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in October 1774. It was nearly another year before the Continental Congress ordered the recruitment of the first elements of an actual army (“…six companies of expert riflemen be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland and two in Virginia.”); it was nearly 2 ½ years after that before any sort of standardized training program was established and made institutional.

Think about that for a moment. There was no ‘basic training’, no formal schools for each MOS, AFSC or Rate. There weren’t even that many full-time soldiers and they were organized into companies and regiments whose strength varied so wildly as to defy prediction1. Soldiers varied from farmboys as young as 15 to a few salty veterans of the French and Indian War and Provincial battalions like the ‘Gooch’s American Foot’ and ‘Jersey Blues.’ There was no doubt a handful who’d served in the 60th Royal American Regiment of Foot of specialty irregular companies, like Roger’s Rangers (who later fought against the Continentals during the war).

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Almost none of these several thousand men under arms by July had the slightest bit of training, with officers and NCOs (such as they were) in large part appointed rather than earning the position with experience or training. There was no CSCC, no Sergeants Major Academy, no command staff courses of any kind. The fledgling army was composed of misplaced civilians; Col. Weedon of the 4th Virginia owned a tavern, Henry Knox was a bookseller from Boston, Brigadier John Glover a fisherman and Major General John Sullivan a lawyer.

Add to that a woefully short duration of service; the Rhode Islanders were only enlisted to serve until Christmas. The Connecticut men were to go home even sooner. The same held true with all the other colonial contingents. As you can imagine, the performance of such irregular units was, despite their patriotic ardor, unpredictable and frequently lackluster. Very few of them were the deadeye frontier marksmen so famous in literature and film.

This isn’t to say such men didn’t exist, or those militia units didn’t have the ability to fight well. Washington once issued an order encouraging the “….use of Hunting Shirts with long Breeches made of the same cloth…it is a dress justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who may think every such person a complete Marksman.”

American Long Rifles - War of American Indepedence
Watercolor by Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger of a riflemen clothed in a huntingshirt at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781 (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library.

Such marksmen were effective and a force multiplier in many cases (they all but saved the army at Throg’s Neck after Harlem Heights), but almost always as scouts, skirmishers, sharpshooters, and pickets. They were not suited for delivering a charge or withstanding one. That was left to the rank and file of musket-bearing soldiers. As for the militia, they acquitted themselves well at Breed’s Hill, Saratoga, and other places, but their unpredictability, unreliability and short duration of enlistment led Washington and his staff to agitate for a ‘full time’ army. Half the approximately 19,000 effectives Washington led against Gen. Howe in New York in September 1776 were new recruits; by December there were only 6,000 of them left, divided into 35 battalions, and ¾ of them were due to muster out by New Year’s Day.

Thankfully Washington’s entreaties brought Congress around and “Continentals’ – long-term soldiers recruited to serve ‘during the duration of the war’ (later with a 3-year enlistment option added) – were approved. Thanks to unlikely subsequent victories at Trenton and Princeton, patriotic fervor was renewed and new battalions were raised (though never in the numbers officially authorized).

Revolutionary War legend tells of American colonists who set aside the tools of their trade to risk death and endure incredible misery to finally win our freedom. The legends claim these men triumphed by sharpshooting huge, clumsy formations of British troops in bright red uniforms from behind cover. There is a very small kernel of truth to that. As for the lore that speaks of ‘embattled farmers’ and ‘frontier riflemen’; that’s partially true as well. Minute Men certainly proved their worth in 1775, but by 1777 by no means were they the whole of the Continental Line, and therein lies the largest part of the improbability of the “War of American Independence.”

It wasn’t until February of 1778 that Washington was able to lead a truly professional army comparable to the British or Hessians. That was mostly due to the US Army’s first real drill instructor, an unpaid volunteer who neither spoke nor wrote a word of English. His name, as mentioned earlier, was Friedrich Steuben; or, more formally, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben. He was an unemployed Prussian (well, probably Prussian) officer and combat veteran of the Seven Year’s War, recruited in France by Benjamin Franklin. He arrived at Valley Forge at one of the most crucial points of the war and helped turn the pitiful, starving remnants of those early volunteer regiments into formations capable of facing the finest infantry in the world.

More on the good Baron (who may or may not have actually been a baron at all) later.

Featured image by the late Frank Schoonover.

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1By June of 1775 Massachusetts raised 27 ‘regiments’ of foot and one of artillery; the infantry regiments had an authorized strength of 599 officers and men divided into 10 companies, each theoretically containing a captain, 2 lieutenants, 4 sergeants, 4 corporals, a fifer, a drummer and 46 privates. New Hampshire’s units were battalions (battalion and regiment frequently being used interchangeably) of 648 men, whereas Connecticut’s  first regiments had an authorized strength  of 1,046. Rhode Islands’ first 2 infantry regiments had 8 companies and a 3rd with 7.  Later additional companies were added, giving them 607 men on paper. Of course, almost none of them had any formal training and their actual effective strength was typically just a fraction of their TO&E; when he arrived at Valley Forge Steuben wrote of regiments of just 30 men and companies of just a handful – or only one.

2Desertion by late 1776 in militia regiments was so chronic Gen. Washington wrote, “We shall be be obliged to detach one half of the army to bring back the other.”

The United States Infantry: An Illustrated History Gregory J.W. Urwin

The American Combat Shirt: “kind of armour, being peculiar to America  Neal Thomas Hurst

Arms through the Ages William Reid

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Science in the Enlightenment: An Encyclopedia William E. Burns

Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle John Keegan and Richard Holmes

A History of Seapower William Oliver Stevens and Allan Westcott

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That’s it for today. Go forth and conquer.


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