Militia in the North

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Militia in the North

MILITIA IN THE NORTH. The opening shots of the Revolutionary War brought the local colonial militia into the spotlight, forcing the local militiamen into a combat role against the army of their king. However, even as these local civilians took up arms, they also shouldered other responsibilities that would prove critical to the overall success of the American rebels in this war against the British Empire. Militia soldiers were used not only to fight alongside the Continental soldiers and to serve as partisans in a guerrilla war throughout the northern states; they also served the local political needs of the rebel Whig leaders, spy on enemy activities, act as enforcers for political leaders, round up enemies of the state, and generally do whatever task had to be done when there was no one else available to do it. The militia proved to be versatile and adaptive in this revolutionary war fought throughout the northern states.


The months following Lexington and Concord saw the militia emerge quickly as a ready source of social control for the emerging rebel governments in the northern colonies. Even as Whig committees and conventions passed regulations to restrain and punish colonists who remained loyal to the British government, the politicians turned to the local militia forces to enforce them. Anyone speaking out against the Whig-controlled colonies became targets of Whig militia forces. Also targeted were those who provided information or supplies to the British forces stationed along the coast, notably in New York City and Boston. Local militia forces were well organized and prepared to fulfill this vital role in the opening months of the war, whereas the British authorities did not make full use of pro-British Loyalists, who were less numerous and more scattered throughout the northern colonies. Local committees, backed by the armed might of the Whig-controlled militia, were able to intimidate the Loyalists, forcing many to take oaths of allegiance to the newly forming Whig governments and imprisoning and exiling those who refused. This form of social and political control was directed by local and colonial authorities.

Loyalist leaders faced a serious danger posed by the local Whig militia. One of the most notorious Whig militiamen in the early war was Isaac Sears of New York. Contrary to General George Washington's orders, Sears attempted unsuccessfully to kidnap New York's royal governor, William Tryon, in August 1775. In November 1775 Sears entered New York City with about eighty volunteers, took the Loyalist James Rivington's press, and then disarmed some Loyalists in Westchester County. In New Jersey, militiamen held the royal governor, William Franklin, a prisoner in February 1776; later, in the summer of 1776, New Jersey militiamen arrested Franklin and sent him to prison in Connecticut, where he stayed until his release in 1778.

In general, Washington fully supported efforts to suppress the Loyalist population in the northern colonies. Militia forces were used to suppress Loyalist threats, especially around New York City, in the spring and summer of 1776. The arrival of the British forces in July and August 1776 increased the threat from internal anti-revolutionary resistance and thus led to increased use of Whig militia to maintain control of the Loyalist population in the area. New York established a secret committee to counter any Loyalists who tried to influence people to support the British or resist the new Whig government. Militia soldiers were responsible for seizing anyone accused of treason against the newly formed United States, and they tried to prevent all communication between British forces on the coast and Loyalists in the interior.

Throughout the middle states, in particular, militia forces were used to disarm suspect people because of a heightened fear that they might try to join the British forces in the area. Dealing with such threats often took precedence over filling recruitment needs for the Continental army. For example, in the summer of 1776 New Jersey's Provincial Convention excused the militia of Loyalist-infested Monmouth County from providing its quota to fulfill a request from the Continental Congress. Washington at times even supported militia activities against Loyalists with detachments of the Continental army. At other times, he released militiamen from the army to return to their home counties in order to suppress Loyalist activities.

The movement of suspected people was monitored by militia troops. Connecticut required people to have certified passes to travel throughout the state, and militia soldiers inspected these passes. This helped prevent Loyalists from forming larger forces and also helped prevent them from sending intelligence and supplies to the British forces stationed nearby.

At times, the local need to control dangerous people took precedence over the military needs of the army. In September 1776, as Washington fought desperately to hold Manhattan Island and prevent British landings along the coast, the New York Convention refused to call out all of the militia from the southern counties of the state because of the large number of Loyalists and slaves in the area. Connecticut also retained militia units for internal control and defense during the summer and autumn. Washington understood these local needs and accepted these actions. In fact, he would at times detach militia units to help suppress Loyalists. In October 1776 he sent a detachment of Massachusetts militia from Manhattan Island to help the New York Convention stop an anticipated Loyalist uprising along the Hudson River. As his army retreated across New Jersey in November 1776, Washington detached a regiment of New Jersey militia to go to Monmouth County to prevent a threatened Loyalist insurrection. Washington even allowed his scouts, both Continentals and militia, to plunder Loyalists and keep the plunder as a reward for their service, but by 1777 Washington had stopped this practice. He preferred to leave it up to the state governments to deal with Loyalists and their property.

The presence of the large British force in New York City heightened fears of Loyalist trouble, so the state government created the Committee for Detecting Conspiracies and authorized it to use militia forces as necessary to prevent hostile uprisings within the state. Other states had similar committees, which used militia troops to maintain a watch on suspected people within their states.

Ultimately, once the Whigs had established control of the state governments in 1776, the militia became the main policing force for these new governments. For the rest of the war, they used militia detachments to hunt down suspected Loyalists. Militiamen were especially active in performing this duty during the lulls in the active campaign seasons of the main armies. For example, in the spring of 1777 New York militia troops scoured the region known as the Highlands and the area between the American and British lines for Loyalists, breaking up Loyalist bands and generally trying to intimidate those hostile to the United States. In fact, throughout the early war years in particular, the state governments had to carefully balance the needs of the war itself with the need to maintain internal control, including the suppression of Loyalist dangers. Fortunately for the war effort, the governments of the northern states proved very good at maintaining this balance, making militia forces available for the field even while retaining others at home in the state to keep the peace.

The internal threat from Loyalists had largely ended by 1778. States like New York and New Jersey had recurring problems near the British stronghold of New York City, but elsewhere throughout the northern states, the threat of Loyalist uprisings had mostly ended by then. Monmouth County, New Jersey, and the Neutral Ground in New York between the American and British armies remained the only places that faced any kind of threat from Loyalists. The threat in Monmouth, however, remained so intense that as late as November 1779, Washington sent a detachment of Continental soldiers into Monmouth to support the local militia in its endeavors to suppress the remaining Loyalist danger. As the militiamen went home, more Continentals were sent into the county to control the population. Thus, Washington understood the critical need to prevent any Loyalist uprising to gain any foothold within the states and had learned to use regular soldiers from the Continental Army when necessary to support the militia in this vital work.

The other area that remained a dangerous zone right until the end was Westchester County, New York, along with western Fairfield County, Connecticut, the site of the infamous Neutral Ground. As soon as the British army occupied New York City in September 1776, the area around it became a scene of constant raids, larceny, and brutality. Much of it was loosely connected to the armies and the campaigns, but the presence of numerous Loyalists made it imperative for the state government to suppress them. Loyalists raided, took livestock, and forced inhabitants to flee the area. Sometimes these raids were intended to help the British, but often they were made just for the sake of plunder and revenge. The New York government, headed by Governor George Clinton, maintained a constant presence of Whig militia in Westchester County until the end of the war. By 1781, as with Monmouth County, Washington began to increase the Continental presence to relieve the exhausted militia forces, which had stood guard for the previous five years.

Militiamen not only helped hunt dangerous persons, but also helped escort endangered people from areas about to be overrun by the enemy. This duty became especially important on eastern Long Island after the British landed and captured Brooklyn in late August 1776. Even as some militiamen skirmished with the British forces advancing eastward across Long Island, others helped move people, goods, and livestock across Long Island Sound to Connecticut.

The Highlands of New York, situated along the Hudson River north of New York City, also contained many lawless bands. The Committee for Detecting Conspiracies sent militiamen into the area to hunt down these robbers, but with little success. Only the end of the war, and with it the loss of the British market in New York City, brought an end to these outlaws' careers.


Another balancing act that the state and national leadership had to maintain in relation to the militia was the very real need for the militiamen to be available for farming. During the spring planting season and the late summer and autumn harvest season, these men were needed to produce the food necessary to feed not only the army, but also the civilian population. Washington and his generals learned early in the war that to call out the militia in the spring or late summer was usually an exercise in frustration, and if the militia was in the field when these key farming seasons arrived, the it tended to melt away quickly. By the latter years of the war, Washington often planned his militia requests by the season, and at critical times in the agricultural cycle he expected the militiamen to turn out only in a military emergency. State governments also understood the vital logistical significance of planting and harvesting and therefore allowed units, or at least parts of them, to go home when farming needs called. When Washington tried to coordinate as large a force as possible to meet with expected French forces later in the war, he would hold off calling out the militia until after spring planting, or if some militia were already mustered and it became clear the French were late or would not arrive, he would release them for the harvest.

In addition, Washington had to learn to respect the local needs that the state governments had for their militia. As he did when he released militia units to suppress Loyalist activity, he also had to learn to leave militia available for the other duties so critical within the states. He did, in fact, learn this after the 1776 campaign. In 1776, when he tried to draw out every available militiaman from the neighboring states, Washington found the state governments reluctant to part with all of their internal strength; he also found that the militia soldiers were reluctant to leave their homes undefended from enemy soldiers and internal dangers and that they also hated to leave their farms untended. Washington quickly became aware that the militia worked best when left for local duties, military and nonmilitary alike. Over the years, he and the other army generals learned to use the militia for reinforcements sparingly, leaving them available for all of the local duties so vital to securing the states.

The militia of New Jersey provided another service to the army outside of the latter's campaigns. In January 1781 the Pennsylvania Continentals mutinied, and Washington feared that British leaders might try to induce the mutineers to join the British in New York City. Governor William Livingston of New Jersey immediately ordered General Philemon Dickinson, the commander of the eastern New Jersey militia, to station militia detachments along all of the roads between the Pennsylvanians' camp in Trenton and Staten Island. Thus, the militia not only guarded against any move by the mutineers toward the British but helped prevent the British from contacting the Pennsylvania troops. Fortunately for the Continental army, this mutiny ended calmly, but it was followed almost immediately by a mutiny of the New Jersey Continentals. When these new mutineers learned that a substantial force of New Jersey militia had already assembled nearby, they returned to their barracks. Thus, the New Jersey militia helped avert two major crises in the early months of 1781.


As the war drew toward a close in 1782–1783, the militia began to take on new roles, even as it continued to perform some of its traditional functions. Militiamen continued to guard areas such as the Neutral Ground, trying to stop plundering and raids by outlaws loyal to neither side. Efforts by the British commanders in New York City, Washington, and New York's Governor Clinton to stop the brutal raids of Whig and Loyalist forces against each other proved only partially successful. Occasional raids occurred throughout the summer of 1782 as partisan soldiers from both sides captured and plundered each other. As late as the early spring of 1783, Whig militia launched attacks on Loyalist bases, including the key one at Morrisania, New York.

Finally, in April 1783, orders for a cease-fire were issued from the British and American headquarters. As the war came to an end, the state militia began to make the transition to a peacetime role. In Connecticut, for example, militiamen remained on guard in southwestern Connecticut to protect equipment and defensive works, mainly from plundering by local inhabitants. Throughout the summer, militiamen guarded forts along the coast to prevent people living nearby from stealing supplies and hardware. Three men stood guard in New London as of September 1783, and their officers asked to be relieved because the locals not only kept stealing state property but also threatened to blow up the fort along with its men. Even after the British evacuated New York City in November 1783, militia officers were authorized by the Connecticut state legislature to enlist men to continue to stand guard, no longer against British or Loyalist threats, but against dangers posed by local inhabitants.

Meanwhile, in Westchester County, the New York state government found it could not immediately regain control of the dangerous and volatile situation caused by lawless bands. As the British and American armies contracted their lines, the Neutral Ground was unguarded by soldiers from either side, thus leaving the door open for an escalation of raids and plundering by the bands that infested the area. Governor Clinton wanted to reestablish civilian control as quickly as possible, and so naturally he turned to the militia of the area to help him achieve this important purpose. Washington, understanding the importance of a swift and peaceful transition from civil war to civilian government, sent a Continental detachment to support the New York militia in the area. Despite the best efforts by the British commander, General Sir Guy Carleton, Washington, and Governor Clinton, the outlaws in the area continued to raid. These plunderers clearly worked for neither side, but only for themselves. A clear example was Captain Isaac Honeywell and his group of fifty men, who refused to obey commands from Governor Clinton to stop all activities. Such activities by Honeywell's and a few other bands continued throughout the summer of 1783, even as New York militia moved into the area to hunt them down and protect local political authority.

Committees began to emerge, especially along the war-torn coastal areas, that used militiamen to hunt down and harass Loyalists in the area. As a result, an increased number of Loyalists asked General Carleton for permission to leave with the British army, which in turn delayed the British withdrawal from New York, which in a vicious cycle delayed efforts to reestablish civilian control of the affected areas.

A similar situation existed in Monmouth County, New Jersey, where local militia formed a Committee of Retaliation to control the Loyalist element in the county as the war drew to an end. The committee had control of the local sheriffs and courts and thus could treat inhabitants pretty much as it pleased. The committee's men plundered people accused of being Loyalists and made sure they never won any local election. Others were jailed only on the basis of a simple accusation. Former Brigadier General David Forman was one of the leaders of this committee. Complaints against it were numerous but largely ignored.

Such activities were at their worst in Westchester County. The New York government set up commissioners to deal with the area's Loyalists, who were allowed to leave with a minimal share of their possessions. These commissioners used local militia to force Loyalists who resisted into leaving. In the process, many pro-British Americans received brutal treatment and lost most if not all of their goods, and some were prevented from getting to their homes and families. Honeywell was one of the most notorious of these commissioners, brutalizing many Loyalists, some of whom simply fled to the British army in New York City. Governor Clinton sent in other militia to try to establish some control, and Washington even sent in some light infantry from the army to help. By late summer, Washington reported that some order had finally been established.

Finally, the British army completed its evacuation of New York City in November 1783, and when George Washington and George Clinton rode triumphantly into the city, they arrived with an escort of Westchester Light Dragoons. Thus, the militia of the state of New York provided the honor guard for the moment of victory.

Questions existed then and have persisted concerning the efficiency of the militia in its many combat roles during the war. However, there is little doubt that the local militia of the northern states proved very effective in its primary role of protecting the states from internal dangers posed by the pro-British Loyalists. Whig militia suppressed the Loyalists from the start, and British sympathizers never gained a real foothold within the states. As the war progressed, the need to suppress Loyalists declined, but right until the end of the war, and even into the postwar period, militiamen prevented Loyalists from ever posing any real threat to Whig control of the northern states. Another vital aspect of the success of the war in the North was the cooperation between Washington and the state governments. The commander in chief understood the very real needs of the state governments to maintain internal control, and not only did he release or avoid calling the militia when it was needed elsewhere, but he also proved increasingly willing to detach Continental forces to support the militia in its efforts to suppress dangers.

SEE ALSO Clinton, George; Franklin, William; Hudson River and the Highlands; Neutral Ground of New York; Sears, Isaac; Tryon, William.


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