Massachusetts, Mobilization in

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Massachusetts, Mobilization in

MASSACHUSETTS, MOBILIZATION IN. When Britain forced France to concede its colonies in North America in 1763, Americans were jubilant and proud. While basking in victory, Britain determined to reduce its war debt and to rationalize its expanded colonial holdings. By 1775, Americans' political views had shifted diametrically from taking pride in the British empire to making war against Britain as a result of the headlong conflict between British policies and the colonial experience of political and economic autonomy.


British decisions to limit settlement in the Ohio Valley (Proclamation Line, 1763) frustrated land-hungry colonists. The Sugar Act (1764) and the Stamp Tax (1765) struck at the pocketbooks of colonists across the board. The Sons of Liberty organized to promote street protests that prevented the Stamp Act from going into effect. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, but simultaneously claimed its right to "make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, in all cases whatsoever" (Declaratory Act). They followed up with a series of new taxes on imported goods (Townsend Revenue Act), and attitudes both in America and Britain hardened over who would control colonial policy. What seemed reasonable to Parliament was perceived by Americans as an assault on their traditional constitutional rights.

Massachusetts leaders like Samuel Adams and James Otis turned the new British policies into public debates. In response to British-imposed taxes, women joined men in boycotting British goods. Radical polemicists inundated Massachusetts with political broadsides and pamphlets that drew increasing numbers of ordinary citizens into imperial politics. However, many Americans were reluctant to side with radical critics of Britain. Some Massachusetts merchants with ties to London, office holders, royal appointees, and others with an affinity for Britain, felt that the economic and political interests of the colonies were best served by remaining within the empire. Others, like Massachusetts-born Governor Thomas Hutchinson and stamp distributor Andrew Oliver, considered the rebellious faction as "rabble" who threatened social stability.

British authorities responded to the harassment of royal officials by stationing troops in Boston in 1768, and tensions between Bostonians and British troops flared sporadically into violence (Boston Massacre, 1770). In 1772, Boston political radicals (Whigs) led by Samuel Adams formed the first Committee of Correspondence after a dispute over control of judges' salaries. Their litany of complaints addressed royal tax policies, tax collectors, the quartering of troops, judicial jurisdictions, the independence of colonial assemblies, restrictions of colonial manufacturers, and a controversial British proposal for an American episcopate. New Englanders saw expansion of the Church of England as a direct attack on their congregations. The Committee of Correspondence framed its campaign as a defense of their traditional rights as Englishmen to stimulate popular political debate. Local committees quickly dominated local governance and put pressure on Loyalist sympathizers (Tories). Still, many Americans remained reluctant to disavow Loyalty to the crown, blaming Parliament or other political officials for the ills that had befallen the colonies.

When Parliament passed the Tea Act (1773) granting exclusive distribution to the failing East India Company, public protest ignited, culminating in the destruction at Boston harbor of British-owned tea (Boston Tea Party, 1773). Outraged British authorities determined to punish the people of Massachusetts and the port of Boston with the passage of the Intolerable (Coercive) Acts in 1774. Key provisions of the Intolerable Acts closed the port and suspended local government. Massachusetts activists were poised to respond. They met across the state in county conventions and vowed to defend their liberties and to prepare for armed resistance, if necessary.

In August 1774, royal Governor General Thomas Gage learned that county conventions were meeting to challenge his administration of British policy. Berkshire County was first, but nearly every county quickly followed, to discuss how to respond to what they saw as a royal coup d'etat. After the Worcester County convention in September 1774, 6,000 militiamen assembled on Worcester common to prevent royally appointed judges from opening the courts. Additionally, the Worcester convention voted a series of resolves that rounded out its "revolution" by taking control of the militia. All militia officers with royal appointments were ordered to publicly resign, and the towns were ordered to select new officers. General Gage wrote Lord Dartmouth (William Legge) in London that "the Flames of sedition had spread universally throughout the Country beyond Conception."

The county resolutions demonstrate a convergence of thought rather than simply a top-down inculcation of revolutionary discourse. Popular political activism conjoined with continuous missteps by the British imperial government to produce a cautious consensus among the people of Massachusetts, expressed as concern with "the dangerous and alarming situation of public affairs," and they determined to adopt a course that would "promote the true interest of his majesty, and the peace, welfare, and prosperity of the province." The Massachusetts Provincial Congress continued to meet, despite being banned, and ordered that tax collections be withheld from the royal collector, Harrison Gray. Having taken control of local government, the militia, and tax revenue, Massachusetts colonists decided to arm themselves.

In October 1774, the Provincial Congress drew up a shopping list for some £20,000 of arms, including 5,000 muskets and bayonets, five tons of lead musket-balls, some twenty field pieces, and thirty tons of shot. "Apprehensive of the most fatal consequences" resulting from Britain's warlike preparations, subversions of constitutional rights, and endangerment of "lives, liberties, and properties," the Congress resolved that there ought to be a provincial Committee of Safety responsible for monitoring threats and mustering the militia in defense of the province. New militia officers filled the spots vacated by discredited Loyalists.

Additionally, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress ordered the formation of armed companies comprising "fifty privates who shall equip and hold themselves in readiness, on the shortest notice from the said committee of safety, to march." These "minutemen" were to be rapid response teams, ready to defend against any British incursions into the countryside. While riding through Massachusetts, Ezra Stiles noted that "at every house Women & Children [were] making Cartridges, running Bullets, making Wallets, baking Biscuit, crying and bemoaning, and at the same time animating their Husbands and Sons to fight for their Liberties" (Stiles, 1901, p. 180).


Once a decision was reached to arm its citizens, Massachusetts set out to reinvigorate its militia, which, John Adams wrote, was one of the cornerstones of colonial society. In the seventeenth century the New England militia was a ubiquitous institution that obligated every free, white, adult male from sixteen to sixty, with few exceptions, to serve in defense of his local community. In the eighteenth century, local militias were not, for the most part, a significant fighting force, and they served primarily as a manpower pool for military service in the eighteenth-century British-French imperial wars.

According to the militia tradition, independent-minded colonial recruits enlisted for a fixed time with set pay rates, specified rations, and strict geographic limits. Expedition service was a voluntary contract, while local militia duty was a civic obligation. The French-Indian War (1756–1763) was an important training ground for the generation of American colonists who fought in the Revolution. American governments and merchants had gained experience in meeting the logistical demands of armies. Most importantly, the imperial expeditionary experience provided a traditional model for meeting emergencies and staffing long-term expeditionary forces.


When tensions between the royal governor and the people of Massachusetts erupted in open hostilities at Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775, thousands of Massachusetts militia surrounded the British garrison in Boston. Local militias immediately swept through their locales to neutralize potentially dangerous Loyalists. However, no sooner had the Americans caged up a powerful British army in Boston than the minutemen citizen-soldiers began to return to their farms and spring planting, leaving provincial commanders without enough troops to fortify their lines. The minute companies were only provisioned for fourteen days and were not prepared for a long siege. This first exodus of troops exemplifies a pattern of the ebb and flow of manpower into and out of the American armies that characterized mobilization throughout the eight-year war.

Massachusetts quickly called for an army of 30,000 to maintain the siege at Boston. Enlistments were to last for eight months, on the model of the earlier colonial expeditionary forces. Recruiting efforts were slow, not because of a lack of enthusiasm, but because of the prevailing belief in volunteerism, in limited contractual obligations, and in short-term service. Racial attitudes also slowed enlistment. In May 1775, the Committee of Safety in Massachusetts ordered that "no slaves be admitted into this army upon any consideration whatever," despite the presence of a number of African Americans already serving in militia companies.

In June 1775, the Continental Congress agreed to nationalize the military effort and take responsibility for the Massachusetts army, selecting Virginian Colonel George Washington as commander in chief. The army of 15,000 soldiers that Washington inherited upon his arrival in Massachusetts was an amateur enterprise by every measure except magnitude. The American army was short of everything but manpower, and its most critical shortage was of arms and ammunition. Enough Massachusetts citizen-soldiers had turned out to deter a major counteroffensive by the British. However, the first year of the war caught Americans in the contradiction of committing themselves more deeply to a full-scale war, while maintaining that they were only fighting for the restoration of their rights as Englishmen.

When the opening hostilities did not produce reconciliation with Britain, American leaders had to prepare for a long-term struggle. In the fall of 1775, Congress approved a plan for a "Continental Army" that would constitute a stable and truly national military. The decision was made to recruit men for one year of duty, a compromise between Washington's desire for professional troops and public resistance to a standing army. Year-round soldiering was not part of traditional colonial military experience, and long enlistments hindered recruiting. American mobilization survived the rotation of troops because local militia companies turned out to fill the gaps while regiments were being reformed.

The first year of the Revolution provided a stark contrast between citizen-soldiers and professional European troops, as raw American recruits had to learn military skills and regulations in the field. This accounts in part for the unpredictable performance of American troops, but over time, as soldiers rotated in and out of service, the pool of experienced manpower grew. General Washington celebrated the survival of the colonial army at the end of its first year: "To maintain a post within musket shot of the Enemy for six months together, without powder, and at the same time to disband one Army and recruit another within that distance of twenty odd British regiments is more than probably ever was attempted" (Fitzpatrick, vol. 4, 1970, p. 208).

In the second year of fighting, the war was transformed from a fight to preserve the traditional rights of Englishmen to a war for political independence from Britain, and Massachusetts mobilization developed the procedures it would employ for the rest of the war. Mobilization began with Continental Congress requisitions to the state for troops and materials. State officials divided the quotas for recruits according to county populations, and then spread the quota among the towns, where the ultimate responsibility fell for maintaining the stream of recruits. Town records show improvised and modified incentives for each call for troops, as wary Yankees negotiated the best possible contract for their military services. Towns tailored their contracts to the changing marketplace for manpower, offering the most for longer term Continental enlistments and less for short-term militia calls. The bounties were reduced for service in New England and increased for out-of-state postings.


When sufficient recruits were not forthcoming, Massachusetts employed drafts, but in the Revolution a draft had a different meaning than it does in modern America. The modern draft brings the full power of the federal government to bear directly upon individuals, whereas recruiting in the Revolution left it to the towns to best determine how to raise troops. There was considerable room for negotiation in the context of local government. Not everyone was expected to serve personally, but everyone had a civic obligation to help the town meet its quotas.

The first "draft" in Massachusetts took place on 11 July 1776, the last in March 1782. Towns divided the taxpayer list or the militia roll into "classes" or small groups of from eight or ten up to twenty individuals. Each "class" would then be responsible for producing one enlistee. Individuals in the class often pooled their resources to sweeten the official state or national bounties to entice a recruit. Failure to comply invited penalties that included fines, but in Massachusetts, social pressure was more important and effective than any coercive power, because the drafts were conducted by local officials dealing with their neighbors. In fact, social pressure was the only really effective leverage available, because fines were not easily collected. General Charles Lee once said that Americans would only fight if they wanted to; they could not be forcibly marched off to war.

The absence of coercive power to enforce conscription meant that the transitions of army personnel were unnerving to the officers who contended with a professional British opponent. Each year, after negotiations, Massachusetts men turned out to fill the ranks, but people generally felt that the military obligation ought to be widely shared among all of the able-bodied men. Despite a degree of uncertainty, the continued flow of recruits demonstrates that the recruiting processes, though decentralized and market-based, remained reasonably effective. Civil authorities in Massachusetts towns maintained sufficient credibility and popular support to sustain the flow of men and materials to the army. When recruiting was slow, the militia could be called to fill the shortfalls that typically occurred during the winter months, when regular enlistments expired and new recruits were forming replacement regiments.

In the second year of fighting, Washington pressed for longer enlistments to build a professional army capable of standing up to the British regulars. However, Americans were suspicious of establishing a professional army. They worried about the expense of a standing army, and popular republican rhetoric touted the superiority of the American citizen-soldier over European mercenaries. Despite these reservations, in late 1776 Congress called for a new establishment of eighty-eight battalions (regiments) to serve for three years or "during the war." The task remained to win over the sentiments of potential recruits. In the early months of 1777, the American army sent many junior officers like Lieutenant Henry Sewall to their home towns across Massachusetts to enroll recruits for the new three-year terms in the Continental army. In support of Congress, the Massachusetts General Court issued a resolve "demanding 1/7 part of the Militia to engage for 3 Years in the Continental Service." This call for troops was read in meeting houses across the state, but young men accustomed to the militia tradition of short term engagements were leery of the new call for multi-year tours of duty. To meet the new quotas, many towns ordered a draft. The minutes of a town meeting in Northampton in April 1777 illustrate the process:

The Town then voted that the Officers of the several Companies of the Militia within this Town should be directed to ascertain the number of men that are still wanting in their respective companies and [divide] them in so many classes as there are men wanting … and enjoin it upon each of those Classes to procure one good effective man to engage in the Continental Service. (Holbrook, microfiche 138, nos. 24, 72)

Draftees would be paid the thirty pounds bounty by the town committee.

Even as Washington slowly built a national army, the Massachusetts militia continued to play a critical role. The British surrender at Saratoga in 1777 was arguably one of the war's most pivotal moments, and it was accomplished by an American army reinforced by a large number of militia from Massachusetts. In addition to vigorous militia recruiting, Massachusetts mobilization produced robust levels of recruits for the Continental lines and state regiments. Throughout a steady barrage of calls for recruits and materials in 1777, Massachusetts produced increasing numbers of troops serving for longer terms than before, and the cumulative effect of that upswing carried forward into subsequent years.


In 1778 and 1779 Massachusetts mobilization produced recruits in an uneven stream to the Continental Army, while simultaneously providing state militia to the Rhode Island campaign and the Penobscot Expedition. Meeting the quotas of 1778–1779 required almost continual recruiting in Massachusetts. Requisitions came at a rate of two, three, or four per month, and Massachusetts towns faced increasing difficulty meeting their quotas as the pool of men who had not already served grew ever smaller. Participation rates gradually diminished as the main British threats moved southward in 1779, and the main theaters of operation became more remote from Massachusetts.

The ongoing calls for troops were matched by continuous calls for shoes, blankets, beef, and all manner of things that are the lifeline of an army in the field. Massachusetts found it increasingly difficult to meet the calls for supplies as the wartime economy deteriorated. In Plymouth and Salem, the fishing and merchant vessels lay perishing at the wharves, according to observers, and the men went off to the army or aboard privateers, leaving the local economy and their families in dire straits. Nonetheless, Massachusetts towns repeatedly agreed to fulfill requisitions for the army and to subsidize soldiers' families at home.

During 1780s about half of the Massachusetts soldiers that had been mobilized were serving on active duty with the Continental Army in New York, the remainder in New England. They engaged in constant, small-scale fighting along the coast from New Jersey to Maine. In response to a Congressional request, Massachusetts called for 4,240 recruits to fill Continental vacancies in December 1780. This act authorized towns to classify their inhabitants and increased fines for shortages to £128 per man. The turnout was slow, but steady. Even after the American victory at Yorktown, the British still had two large armies in the field, at New York and in the South, and troop requisitions continued. Massachusetts was called to provide 1,500 Continental recruits on 1 March 1782. Bounties were increased, but deflation exacerbated a difficult situation. Active-duty pay had become nearly worthless. Depreciation so reduced the value of the currency that the town of Beverly offered a recruiting bounty consisting of a hundred pounds of beef, coffee, and sugar, ten bushels of corn, and fifty pounds of cotton.


In the final analysis, the decentralized character of patriot organization was less efficient than the imperial bureaucracy, but the effectiveness of the Massachusetts mobilization lay in the fact that decisions to support the war were ultimately made locally. Younger men took the brunt of service in later years, as families adjusted to the necessity of long term service. Recruits who lived in regions with the worst economic disruption, like Salem, turned to the Continental army to make a living. African Americans and Native Americans strengthened their claims to freedom and citizenship through military service.

Mobilization tapped young men seeking excitement, those with ambition, and others who were attracted by the incentives and promise of army pay during a period of economic disruption. Some rural debtors saw the war as a chance to redistribute power in a legal system that seemed to privilege merchants and bankers. But the strength of the Massachusetts mobilization derived from the sense of Massachusetts soldiers that they had "Something more at Stake than fighting for six Pence per Day." Many were stirred by the rhetoric of liberty, which warned that they must fight or become "hewers of wood and drawers of water to British lords and bishops." Washington never assembled a professional army in parity with that of the British empire, but he was successful, nonetheless, and his success was due, in part, to the fact that Massachusetts primarily mobilized the sons of the Yankee farmers, seamen, and merchants who served as citizens, not as hired mercenaries. In a sense, the successes and shortcomings of the mobilization in Massachusetts amounted to an ongoing popular referendum on the war itself.

The Massachusetts mobilization tapped recruits from across the social spectrum of their communities. A large proportion of them had strong social and economic ties to their communities, through marriage, kinship, and economic stakes in their towns. There were complaints of inferior quality troops, like those voiced by General "Mad Anthony" Wayne, who remonstrated that one-third of his troops were "Negroes, Indians, and Children," but empirical evidence indicates that most Massachusetts soldiers who mobilized were yeoman farmers or their sons. The patterns of enlistments among Massachusetts soldiers in Continental, state, and local militia suggest that the multi-tiered mobilization system of local militia, state regiments, and the Continental army was suited to Massachusetts. Soldiers served at different times in different units—local, state, or Continental—depending on circumstances in their own lives and in the fortunes of the war. Mobilization was most successful with limited-term enlistments, in the militia tradition, and with the wide distribution of the obligations of military service among the adult male population.


As the war wound down in 1783, the new United States set a precedent that would last until World War II, that is, as soon as the fighting was over, the army was dismantled. Besides the deep-rooted suspicion of standing armies, the economic demands of maintaining an army had become almost unbearable during the latter years of the war. As early as March 1780, Massachusetts General William Heath reported that the people in the western counties were overwrought by taxes and were calling conventions, reminiscent of those of 1774, to discuss how to attack the problem.

While the state's war debt and currency policies were the underlying causes of irritation, western Massachusetts farmers felt that the burden fell disproportionately upon them. The discontinuance of wartime paper money meant taxes and debts had to be paid in sterling currency while prices were falling for farm commodities. However, the problem was exacerbated by the fact that farmers had benefited from high commodity prices during the war and had taken on imprudent levels of debt. Battles between farmers and tax collectors became common, and servicing debts during a period of deflation was nearly impossible. The first explosion came in February 1782, when a Hampshire County convention determined to close the county court in order to end foreclosure proceedings. Samuel Adams went out to Hampshire in the summer of 1782 in an unsuccessful attempt to quiet the protests. More than sixty Hampshire County soldiers turned out in June 1782, not on alarm to meet the British, but to defend the new state government against irate citizens, pitting veterans against veterans who felt the government was not considering their interests. The protesters were dispersed, but the underlying problems were not resolved. Within a few years, Continental Army veteran Captain Daniel Shays came out of the hills to lead a larger insurrection of disgruntled farmers. This event so unsettled the Massachusetts elite that they joined the call for a constitutional convention in 1787.

SEE ALSO Bounties (Commercial); Continental Army Draft; Massachusetts Provincial Congress; Minutemen; Sons of Liberty.


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