Colonial Militia in Virginia

colonial militia were local defense forces, often used to respond to Native American attacks
colonial militia were local defense forces, often used to respond to Native American attacks
Source: National Park Service, New Archeological Discoveries at Moores Creek National Battlefield

England relied upon local militia for defense through the 1600's. As an island, it was less subject to a land invasion that other European nations which established full-time national armies in the mid-1600's. England invested in the Royal Navy to block invasion by Spain or France, while European monarchs invested in standing armies.

The military revolution in Europe after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia enabled monarchs to seize control of warfare from nobles who had previously directed their subjects to attack rivals. The nobles became leaders in the monarch's army, and the power of centralized governments increased.

Standing armies were better trained and better equipped than the militia and mobs that had previously conducted warfare. In England, however, the elite landowners who controlled Parliament remained reluctant to allow the king to decide when to declare war. Each war required higher taxes. Monarchs were constrained in their ability to get entangled in foreign wars because Parliament would not provide the extra funding required for a military "adventure."

Parliament continued to rely upon the Royal Navy plus the militia for defense against invasion. The elite blocked the creation of a standing army, fearing the king might use it to overpower nobles in England. The Engloish Civil War in the mid-1600's demonstrated the threat.

However, in 1688 the Glorious Revolution established the primacy of Parliament. A standing army was acceptable to England's elite - so long as they controlled it. By the time of the American Revolution, England was dependent upon a professional army as well as the Royal Navy, and in England the militia became a marginal force.

In contrast, the colony of Virginia relied upon the militia for defense into the 1770's and the start of the American Revolution. No American colony maintained a standing army to deter attacks by Native Americans.

The Virginia General Assembly did hire rangers at times to patrol the backcountry. During the French and Indian War colonies creating "provincial regulars," the closest equivalent to the professional soldiers that developed in the English army.

George Washington got his first experience as a military commander trying to defend the western edge of colonial settlement with provincial regulars and militia. His first portrait, painted in 1772, shows him dressed in the uniform of the Virginia Regiment of Provincial Regulars.1

George Washington was an officer in the Virginia Regiment of Provincial Regulars
George Washington was an officer in the Virginia Regiment of Provincial Regulars
Source: Washington and Lee University, W&L, Mount Vernon Announce Mutual Loan of Washington Portraits

The Virginians were not wealthy enough to afford full-time soldiers. Nearly everyone was engaged in agriculture; they needed to be home, especially to plant in the spring and harvest in the fall.

Virginia's plantation owners welcomed their independence from oversight by London officials, and opposed the centralized control that a Royal Governor could exert through a standing army. Opposition to a standing army mirrored the Whig perspective in England.

The General Assembly began to meet in 1619, and it soon began to assign responsibility to local officials to serve as military leaders. After the creation of counties in 1634, the governor and his Governor's Council appointed county court justices of the peace to handle civil affairs. They appointed county lieutenants and subordinate officers to manage military affairs.

The militia was organized by county, and the governor relied upon local leaders to identify who should serve as a county lieutenant. The men required to be part of the militia were reluctant to leave their chores to perform military duty; county lieutenants needed to be respected in order to assemble and lead the militia. Robert Carter was appointed to command the militia in Lancaster and Northumberland counties in 1720. He warned the governor not to appoint subordinate officers until Carter could determine who could be effective leaders in those counties:2

The greatest Difficulty with me at present Seems that it is to be doubted that Some many of the properest men for these Subaltern Commissions will go neer to refuse unless they knew who were to be their Captain...

To assemble the militia to respond to threats, riders on horses would spread the word to various farms. The men would gather as needed, respond to the threat as commanded, and then return to their farms.

In theory, there were regular training sessions of the militia at the county courthouse. In times of peace, however, these became largely social events. The County Lieutenant was often a candidate for the House of Burgesses, and strict discipline of essentially volunteer soldiers was rare. More often, the drinking during the militia assemblies was more intense than the target practice.

In times of war, those with crops to plant and harvest were reluctant to serve for more than a few weeks. When a militia unit received orders to march to another colony, their reluctance was based in part on a desire to return home soon rather than a misguided allegiance to Virginia. Bounties were often offered to attract the "idle poor" who had less to lose, and were more willing to volunteer.

Virginia militia who fought at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781 are remembered on the visitor center's monument
Virginia militia who fought at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781 are remembered on the visitor center's monument
Virginia militia who fought at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781 are remembered on the visitor center's monument

These were rarely the most-disciplined or hardest-working members in the county, however. In addition, they often arrived in camp without the required clothing, guns, powder, and ammunition. Whatever was issued to such soldiers had a tendency to be lost or damaged... though some items were obviously sold or kept for personal profit. The militia motivations were basic, with patriotism towards the colony not at the top of the list.

The earliest colonial alarms which triggered a militia response were created by threats from Native Americans. The General Assembly judged that the militia, together with scattered forts and "rangers," would be adequate to protect the plantation houses in Tidewater, but small farmers ettling near the Fall Line felt too exposed. Nathanial Bacon was able to recruit an army in 1676 and rebel against the colonial government in part because Gov. William Berkeley was seen as ineffective in providing homeland security.

The Virginia elite accepted a high level of risk regarding attack by the Dutch and pirates in the Chesapeake Bay. The plantation owners were dependent upon transatlantic shipping for exporting tobacco and importing manufactured goods, but accepted the deployment of a just small, under-gunned guard ship to the Chesapeake Bay after the Dutch had successfully capture the tobacco fleet in 1673. A more-powerful guardship would have offered more protection, but also would have been more effective at collecting import and export duties. Pirates were able to overwhelm the 16-gun Essex in 1699, after which the 28-gun Shoreham was sent to Virginia.3

During the French and Indian War, George Washington struggled to obtain and trained enough soldiers for a sustained campaign. Some were recruited through financial incentives, while others were forcibly drafted. One author has described the conditions of serving at the front - Winchester, in Frederick County - in 1757:4

Nearly all the militia remained law abiding in their idleness except the contingent from Prince William County who became violently abusive in claiming their superiority not only to the privates but also the officers of the Virginia Regiment. As a result, one militiaman was seized and locked in the guardhouse for his insolence. This insult was not to be endured. A militia officer gathered his comrades, stormed the guardhouse, released their compatriot and proceeded to demolish the building. The leader of the mutiny swore that the Virginia Regiment officers were all scoundrels and that "...he could drive the whole Corps before him..."

Although the Regiment was anxious for reinforcements from the militia, insults were not to be countenanced. The mutinous militia leader was personally acquainted, in a manner left unexplained, with military law and enforcement by irate members of the Regiment. The next morning the chastened militia officer tendered his apologies at headquarters. Washington chose not to punish the leader as the fright he had suffered at the hands of the Regiment "...sufly attoned for his imprudence."

Bedford County militia who fought at Point Pleasant in 1774 are commemorated by a plaque on the lawn of the county courthouse
Bedford County militia who fought at Point Pleasant in 1774 are commemorated by a plaque on the lawn of the county courthouse

The Revolutionary War in Virginia

Virginians in The Continental Army

Links

Virginia militia units, the Overmountain Men who fought at Kings Mountain in 1780, are remembered on a battlefield monument in South Carolina
Virginia militia units, the Overmountain Men who fought at Kings Mountain in 1780, are remembered on a battlefield monument in South Carolina
Virginia militia units, the Overmountain Men who fought at Kings Mountain in 1780, are remembered on a battlefield monument in South Carolina

References

1. T. Cole Jones, Captives of Liberty, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020, pp.27-30, p.35, https://www.google.com/books/edition/Captives_of_Liberty/i1nHDwAAQBAJ (last checked December 27, 2021)
2. "Letter from Robert Carter to [Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood], August 12, 1720," The Diary and Papers of Robert "King" Carter of Virginia, 1701-1732, transcribed and digitized by Edmund Berkeley, Jr.https://christchurch1735.org/robert-king-carter-papers/html/C20h12a.mod.html (last checked February 13, 2021)
3. Thomas C. Parramore, Peter C. Stewart, Tommy L. Bogger, Norfolk: the First Four Centuries, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1994, p.55; Mark P. Donnell, Daniel Diehl, Pirates of Virginia, Stackpole Books, 2012, pp.59-65; "Out of the Sea! Chapter 1," The Virginian-Pilot, August 13, 2006, http://hamptonroads.com/node/66521; "Out of the Sea! Chapter 2: Deception," The Virginian-Pilot, August 14, 2006, http://hamptonroads.com/node/66531 (last checked September 8, 2013) 4. Mayo, Sandra, "Fairfax and Prince William Counties in the French and Indian War," Northern Virginia Heritage, February 1987 (Vol. IX, No. 1) http://www.historicprincewilliam.org/fiwar.html, October 14, 2001


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