Mobilization, War for Independence

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Mobilization in the War for Independence is the process by which America raised and organized the military forces to wage war against the British Empire. After the conclusion of the French and Indian War (1756–1763), a decade of political controversy between Americans and Great Britain prompted Americans to reinvigorate their local militias in preparation to defend their property rights and civil liberties. Americans ousted royalist officers from their militia companies, stepped up training exercises, and collected military stores. Volunteers from the militia formed minuteman companies that were to be ready to march at a minute's notice in the event that British troops threatened to use force against Americans. When political disagreements transformed into actual hostilities in 1775, the American people mobilized as citizen-soldiers in the colonial militia tradition of universal male citizen service.

the first mobilization and the new england army

On April 19, 1775, alarm riders alerted American minutemen of a British expedition from Boston sent to destroy American military supplies in Concord. When American minutemen confronted the British troops in Lexington and Concord, gunshots shattered the uneasy peace. As the British withdrew toward Boston, the minutemen used traditional militia tactics, taking concealed positions behind stonewalls and trees to pour devastating fire upon the retreating British. The rapid mobilization at the Concord alarm was an inspiring success for the Americans, and it highlighted the strength of the militia for irregular fighting.

Within days, thousands of American militiamen, who were mostly farmers and artisans, surrounded the British garrison at Boston. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress took charge of the impromptu army and voted to enlist 30,000 militiamen for the remaining eight months of the year. New England governments granted prominent men authority to "raise for rank," by which the award of an officer's ranking was proportionate to the number of men he enlisted. It was an expedient method of mobilizing troops, but it made officers dependent on their popularity and compromised professional military standards.

The New England militia army showed itself formidable at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, when the American citizen-soldiers fought fiercely against the best of the British army. After that bloody battle, British General Gage wrote that the Americans were "not the despicable rabble too many supposed them to be … the conquest of this country is not easy" (Ward, 1:97). But the strong showing of the militia at Bunker Hill hid the militia's limitations when forced to match up against British regulars in the open field.

the continental army

On June 15, 1775, the Second Continental Congress adopted the New England militia army and transformed it into a Continental Army to represent all thirteen colonies. First, they appointed an experienced Virginia officer, George Washington, as commander in chief. Second, the Continental Congress ordered regiments of volunteer riflemen from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania to reinforce the New England soldiers at Boston, making it a genuinely "continental" effort. Washington determined to create a "respectable army" by instituting military regulations. But, even as he undertook that task in the fall of 1775, an alarmed Washington watched his volunteer army disperse as his soldiers' enlistments expired. By January 1776, Washington's manpower dropped to less than 12,000 soldiers.

General Washington complained to Congress that by the time soldiers learned their duties, a little discipline, and a few maneuvers, they were ready to go home, only to be replaced by other untrained recruits. According to Washington, longer enlistments were the solution. Although many members of Congress were concerned that a professional, or "standing," army posed a potential threat to civil liberty, Congress conceded to one-year enlistments for soldiers to fill the ranks of twenty-seven Continental regiments. By February 1776, Washington's troop strength was back up to 20,000.

The first test of the new Continental Army in a large-scale battle was at New York City in August 1776. The American citizen-soldiers were overwhelmed by the well-trained British and Hessian regulars in the open field, and only a heroic retreat saved the American army from capitulation. The failure of the American army at New York persuaded Congress that a regular army of long-term recruits was a necessity.

In September 1776, Congress agreed to establish a regular army to consist of eighty-eight regiments (60,000 troops) enlisted for the duration of the war. Virginia and Massachusetts were obligated to provide the largest contingents, and other states contributed regiments in proportion to their populations. In later years, Congress reduced the number of authorized regiments, mainly because there was never enough manpower or resources to complete all the regiments envisioned in 1776. The Continental Army never fielded more than 30,000 soldiers at one time and often relied on the turnout of the militia when major battles loomed, as at Saratoga in 1777.

Nonetheless, the Continental Army was of critical importance not only because of its military role, but as the focal point of the American cause around which the militia could rally when called.

recruiting: society and soldiers

The public did not respond enthusiastically to open-ended enlistments for the duration of the war, and the Continental Congress quickly offered an option for a limited term of three years. Besides the shorter term, the Continental Congress and the states offered bounties to attract volunteers. Bounties were incentives for recruits, usually consisting of cash, extra pay, and sometimes land grants. For example, the Continental Congress's bounty for a Continental enlistment was twenty dollars plus a grant of one hundred acres of land. Despite a variety of bounties, large numbers of men preferred the shorter terms of service in the militia.

To meet the manpower needs of the Continental Army, Congress requested the states to fill enlistment quotas. In turn, the state legislatures designated quotas for each town in proportion to their population. When bounties failed to produce enough volunteers, legislatures ordered towns to set up committees to divide the town's male population into as many groups as the number of recruits required of them. Each group, or "class," had responsibility to produce a recruit or pay a stiff fine. Hiring substitutes was acceptable, and some young men were drawn to the chance to advance themselves financially.

African Americans and Native Americans also filled the ranks. Free Blacks and American Indians participated in the initial mobilization of 1775, but American commanders were concerned about having Black soldiers fighting for liberty while the majority of African Americans were enslaved. At first Washington lobbied to disallow Blacks and American Indians from military service. However, after the royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, offered freedom to slaves who deserted their masters to serve with British forces in late 1775, Americans reconsidered their ban, fearful that it might drive more Blacks to the British lines. Americans agreed to enlist free Blacks, but declined to enroll slaves primarily because slave owners were generally unwilling to relinquish their property and were fearful of arming their slaves. Nonetheless, thousands of Blacks did join both sides, fighting for their own civil liberty.

American Indians likewise aligned with whichever side seemed to offer them the best chance of maintaining their own lands and independence. Some, like the Abnaki, worked for both sides at different times. Generally, Native Americans within areas of white settlement, including the Wampanoag and Natick of New England, sent soldiers to fight with American forces. However, most frontier American Indians like the Iroquois in the north and Cherokee in the South saw their advantage with the British, who were important trade partners and who promised to prevent Americans from pushing them off their lands.

society in war

More than 200,000 Americans served in the militia and Continental armies, and about 25,000 of them died in the War for Independence. As a percentage of population, the death rate was second only to the American Civil War. Not only did the war exact a toll on America's human resources, but it also disrupted the American economy, especially exports of wheat, rice, and tobacco to Europe, and trade with the West Indies. Likewise, imports were choked off and hard currency became scarce. Within the country, exchange networks between farmers and their markets were interrupted by the passing armies, and the British Navy effectively closed the ports and grounded the fishing fleets. To make matters worse, the cost of mobilization precipitated rampant inflation that devalued the currency so fast that families could barely keep up.

It was an especially difficult economy for the families whose men were off in the service. Some women and their families worked for and traveled with both British and American armies, but most women assumed, in addition to their own work, their husbands' roles in order to keep farms and shops operating. Often, towns contributed to the support of the families of the men who were off in the service. In Plymouth, for example, direct expenses for soldiers' families consumed fully one-half of the town budget presented in September 1779. Everyone contributed to the mobilization.

The War for Independence began with mobilization in the militia tradition. However, as the war grew continental in scope and extended into years of struggle, Americans reluctantly accepted the necessity of creating a regular national army, known as the Continental Army. The Continental Army provided the symbolic center of the American cause, but it remained small and dependent on the support of the citizen-soldier militia. Together, the militia and the Continental Army ensured that the American Revolution would be a "people's war." The country mobilized hundreds of thousands of young men and the resources of their families and communities in the eight-year war for independence.


Calloway, Colin G. The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Higginbotham, Don. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763–1789. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

Lesser, Charles H, ed. Sinews of Independence: Monthly Strength Returns of the Continental Army. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. New York: Norton, 1961.

Royster, Charles. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775–1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution. Edited by John R. Alden. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1952.

Walter L. Sargent

See also:Mobilization: French and Indian War; Camp Followers: War and Women; Association Test.