Whenever it comes to blows, he that can run fastest will think himself best off.
–British officer, of American soldiers
For General Thomas Gage evidence that the Americans were beating plowshares into swords was not far to seek. It didn’t take the close calculation of Loyalist spies to see what any country boy could see: the urgent and effective raising, equipping and training of the local militias throughout New England. Very nearly a century earlier, in 1676, another royal governor, William Berkeley of Virginia, had complained in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion: “How miserable that man is that Governes a People wher six parts of seaven at least are Poore Endebted Discontented and Armed.” The people of New England were neither poor nor indebted; in fact, they had prospered nicely since William Bradford and his pilgrims had come ashore at Plymouth Bay in the bleak and bitter winter of 1620. But the source of Gage’s present misery, these Yankees, were certainly discontented and armed and becoming more so. Further, a century of warfare had given New England, indeed all of colonial America, both experience and confidence in, if not the profession of arms exactly, at least the practice of arms. From the time of the earliest English settlements, colonial militias had fought first against the native people who had claimed the land long before its rightful possession had become an issue in colonial assemblies and Parliament. Then, in concord with the British, they marched against the French (and their Indian allies) in a series of imperial conflicts for the control of North America, culminating in the British triumph sealed and ratified by the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
Indeed, the American militia system that helped lay claim to half a continent was an English inheritance. Colonial law compelled every able-bodied male from sixteen to sixty to shoulder his own musket and stand his part in the local company. There was no exemption from the duty to serve, wrote the Reverend Ebenezer Gay in 1738, not “for the Righteous, nor the Wicked; for the High, nor the Low; for the Rich, nor the Poor; for the Strong, nor the Weak; for the Old, nor the Young; for the most buisy; the new-married, nor the faint-hearted.” Though white apprentices, Indians, and African Americans, both free and slave, were generally not enrolled, the colonial militias were remarkably egalitarian, a vigorous experiment in practical democracy. And there was a distinctly American and democratic quirk to this system: company officers (ensigns, lieutenants, and captains) were elected by the popular vote of the men, and these, in turn, elected the field-grade officers who commanded regiments and brigades (majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels). The virtues of popular democracy are manifold, but military discipline, the soul of an army, is not one of them. To British professionals who fought beside them, the American militia seemed as often as not an unreliable mob. Still, so long as the emergency was local and a man’s hearth and home were at stake, the typical militiaman would turn out smartly and fight spiritedly until the danger had passed. And that fact pointed to the second flaw of the militia system: not only did the men in the ranks have an unusual degree of power over their officers, but the companies themselves also enjoyed an unusual degree of autonomy. It was enormously difficult, sometimes impossible, to lead them out of their own neighborhoods to fight, regardless of the military threats or opportunities in the larger theatre of conflict.
And a century and a half of colonial experience had not lacked for conflict. This long struggle had taught colonial leaders in their provincial assemblies a great deal about the possibilities and, even more so, about the limits of the militia system they had inherited. In response to those limits, they created a new system that both superseded and supported the old. Under this system, officers were not elected by the local companies but were commissioned by the colonial governor. The colonel of a regiment so commissioned was given “beating orders,” the legal authority to fill out with enlisted volunteers the companies that thus far existed only on paper. His captains then went to the towns and villages, presented to the local men the nature of the emergency, the rate of pay and other benefits, and the terms of enlistment. The man who stepped forward and signed, often encouraged by a bounty, then joined the regiments and brigades already likewise organized on paper, and with some drill and preparation, something like an army was ready to take the field. This volunteer militia system was certainly not as effective as a standing army, against which Americans already had a firm prejudice (a prejudice that was, like the militia itself, an English inheritance). Among other problems, it took time, often a long time, to raise an army and put it in the field no matter how urgent and immediate the threat to the province. But as far as the colonial governors were concerned, it was an important improvement over the armed citizenry of the local militias.
In any case, this militia system had been tried by combat with a fair measure of success, and not only against the Indians but often against French professionals in five major conflicts in America: King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, the War of Jenkin’s Ear, King George’s War, and the French and Indian War. American militiamen had, for example, twice taken Port Royal in Nova Scotia (in 1690 and again in 1710), and a gathering of New England men had reduced and seized the fortress town of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in 1745, perhaps the most impressive single achievement of American arms in the colonial period. But as one student of colonial warfare has observed, for every victory of provincial soldiery, there were two defeats. Some of these were frankly failures of British leadership, as in the disastrous campaigns against Cartagena and Havana in 1741. But the poor performances of colonial militias generally had a deeper and more fundamental cause: the failure of the colonies to cooperate effectively in organizing, supplying, and directing a sustained military effort. The people of the provinces were just that: provincial. By long habit they looked first to local problems to be solved by intensely local institutions: the town meeting, the church congregation, the militia company. It is not to be wondered that Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 proposal to provide for centralized control of the colonial war effort against the French, the Albany Plan of Union, came to nothing but inter-colonial bickering and mutual mistrust. “Without a general constitution for warlike operations,” wrote one shrewd observer, “we can neither plan nor execute. We must have a common council.” But anything like a common council in America was a long way off.
Still, despite the very real failures to exert concerted military strength, American militia regiments in the colonial period defended the vulnerable frontiers and were instrumental in the British campaigns that finally seized Montreal and Quebec and broke French power in North America for good in 1759. And yet the alliance of American militiamen and British professionals was a good deal less than cordial. Although they recognized the ability of some American outfits and officers, by and large the British cultivated a contempt for these democratic and undisciplined amateurs. British officers in particular were astonished and appalled to discover that a man who might have been a barber or a blacksmith back home now presumed the status of an officer and a gentleman. Americans in turn resented the aristocratic pretension of British officers and at best pitied the much-abused British soldier, who was by American lights surely no citizen, generally the off-scourings of British society, and hardly more than a beast of burden and battle. The British officer class was not, however, above learning a thing or two about the science of war from the Americans. In the wild and wooded country of North America, colonial militia units often chose to fight, not in heavy line of battle like their European counterparts, but in open order, relying on light skirmish lines and taking advantage of any cover the terrain offered. This tactical development was a bitter and bloody lesson taught them over the years by their Indian antagonists. In 1762, for example, two of these light infantry regiments–American Rangers, they were called–sailed to Cuba and marched to the aid of 10,000 British troops stalled before Havana in suffocating heat and raging yellow fever. It took several months of fighting, but British Regulars and American Rangers took Havana, avenging the Anglo-American defeat there a generation before. Thomas Gage, as it happened, was among the first British officers to see the possibilities and urge the development of these light infantry organizations and tactics. While still a colonel, Gage led a light infantry regiment in striking hard blows against the French in America.
And now it appeared that Major General Gage must prepare to strike hard blows against many of his former comrades even as they prepared to strike back against him and the eleven regiments he now commanded in Boston. The situation that Gage now brooded over was, if not full-blown rebellion, at the very least revolutionary. It might be argued that Parliament had done its part last spring to provoke this revolutionary situation by closing the harbor under the Boston Port Bill and by virtually abolishing representative government, legislative and judicial, under the Massachusetts Regulating Act. With government under the old colonial charter effectively nullified, the people of the province at large responded by calling into being ad hoc courts and councils in the towns and villages and the First Provincial Congress at Concord. From the point of view of Parliament and the Crown, Gage had not exaggerated when he reported that summer that civil government was at an end in the province. But in the view of an apparent majority of the people of the province, of course, civil government was alive and well and in vigorous operation. And of all the measures now being enacted in Concord, most vigorous and most troubling to Gage was the calling up of the Massachusetts militias. Nor did the trouble end at the borders of Massachusetts: in short order the people of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, their assemblies since dissolved by their royal governors, met likewise in extra-legal congresses and reactivated their militias.
If it were truly in earnest about resisting royal control, the First Provincial Congress of Massachusetts had simply to call up the existing military organization that had been in the field as recently as the French and Indian War. But the situation this congress confronted had not only the makings of a revolution but the possibility of civil war as well. For perhaps as many as half of the battle-tested officers of the militias were Loyalists who wanted no part of a Whig revolution. In theory at any rate only the royal governor had the legal authority to call out the militia, though the last of these, Thomas Hutchinson, had long since sailed to London, effectively deposed. In the midst of this situation the Provincial Congress called first for the resignation of every commissioned officer in the province, then provided for the popular election of company officers who would in turn elect field officers, exactly the militia model first practiced in the colonies and since discarded. The immediate consequence was indeed revolutionary, for, given the predominantly Whig sympathies of the rank and file, the Provincial Congress had effectively purged the militia of all Loyalists. (A second consequence was to send Loyalists and their families from the countryside scurrying into Boston, making that city more than ever a garrison under siege.) Like many apparent solutions, however, the purge produced a new problem that was also an old problem. In its first effort to organize a whole people for a sustained military struggle, the congress had recreated the system under which every man was his own general and every company its own army.
But the response of the Provincial Congress was swift and decisive. In the last week of October 1774, it created the Special Committee of Safety, in essence a war powers committee, charged with the responsibility of reorganizing the entire militia and bringing it under the deliberate control of the Provincial Congress. And the solution to its problem was actually fairly simple: to put into operation the volunteer militia system that had been in practice throughout most of the century. Thus, the Committee of Safety proceeded to frame on paper the structure of a provincial militia that would include the approximately 60,000 officers and men already on the rolls of the local militias, and then selected the ablest and most experienced officers among them for commissions. The whole process would take time of course, but when the Second Provincial Congress met early in the new year, the Committee of Safety commissions would be officially confirmed and beating orders issued to the regimental colonels who would then enlist the rank and file from the local militia companies as before. But in light of both the volatile political situation and the immediate presence and unknown intentions of three brigades of trained and tested British Regulars in Boston, the time required for so thorough a reorganization was a pressing worry for the Whigs of the Provincial Congress. Thus, while the army was in the process of reorganization, the Committee of Safety ordered its field officers to raise companies of Minutemen, so-called by their readiness to respond to the movement of British troops at a minute’s notice. In addition, Alarm companies were formed of men too old for active campaigning, reservists who would serve as armed committees of vigilance. By the time of the incident at the Northfield Bridge in Salem, virtually every Massachusetts town had three companies in a fair degree of military preparedness: the long-standing militia company, the new Minute company, and the Alarm company. Nor had Massachusetts mobilized alone: a parallel raising, purging, and reorganizing of the provincial militias kept pace in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. As winter was loosening its stubborn grip on the New England landscape, its people in their extra-legal congresses were putting real sinews on the skeletons of something like four provincial armies. By April of 1775 four commanding generals were commissioned to lead them: Artemas Ward in Massachusetts, Israel Putnam in Connecticut, John Stark in New Hampshire, and Nathanael Greene in Rhode Island. All were men of intelligence, experience, and ability, and two in particular, Putnam and Stark, were proven fighters.
And yet in the British view of things, despite these demonstrably warlike preparations, there was a fixed unwillingness to believe that the Americans would put their professed devotion to Whig liberty to an actual test of arms. Further, the British were very thoroughly persuaded that if the crisis came to a shooting war at all, their American cousins were in fact a most unwarlike people, no more to be respected or feared on the field of battle than, in the words of one Tory, “an undisciplined multitude of New England squirrel hunters.” Nor was this view mere patriotic puffing or uninformed prejudice; it passed for the best judgment of Britain’s ablest military men. General James Wolfe himself, unquestionably a great general and conqueror of Quebec, dismissed the American militiamen as “the dirtiest, most contemptible, cowardly dogs you can conceive.” Left to their own devices, declared his comrade and commander, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the colonials “would eat fryed Pork and lay in their tents all day long.” Colonial talk of resisting British power, another officer wrote home, was “mere bullying, and will go no farther than words. Whenever it comes to blows, he that can run fastest will think himself best off.” Two regiments of Regulars, he added, ought to smash “the whole force of the Massachusetts province . . . a mere mob without order and discipline.” Provincial militiamen were geese strutting with muskets, one thought. British Regulars, thought another, might geld the whole host of American manhood with hardly a fight. Considering the rising tensions in New England, Major John Pitcairn of the Royal Marines, though not unsympathetic to Americans, was still “satisfied that one active campaign, a smart action . . . will set everything to rights.” In short, hardly a Briton or a Loyalist in America believed that the colonials had either the skill or the spirit to make a real rebellion of their discontent. As for Major Pitcairn, the time was not far off when he would have an opportunity to test his judgment in a smart action on a very long day.