From colonial times through the nineteenth century, the colonies and later the United States usually eschewed creating large formations of regular soldiers to engage in wars and skirmishes. This was due, in large part, to historical antipathy toward the expense and to fear of maintaining a regular standing army.
colonial military units
As a result, three early types of units were organized for both defensive and offensive colonial military operations: local militia, provincial units, and rangers. During the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the colonies supplemented the regular royal regiments sent to North America with these types of troops. The militia and provincial soldiers, with the notable exception of a ranger force established by Robert
Rogers of New Hampshire, did not enjoy an especially high reputation with the regular British military establishment. However, historical scholarship has demonstrated that the colonial militia was an effective defense against Native American or local military threats on a variety of occasions.
The standard militia laws of nearly every colony required all able-bodied adult white males between ages sixteen to sixty to serve in the militia. (In most colonies, the laws made it illegal for slaves, indentured servants, and Native Americans to serve as part of any militia organization.) They allowed some conspicuous exemptions from service for community members deemed critical to the economic health of the locality, such as political leaders, judges, bakers, and millers. The militia usually trained in a formal session at least once a month, with each man providing his own weapon, powder, and shot. They were paid from local treasuries for their training time and were sent, if ordered by the colonial governor, on campaigns that usually did not extend beyond a single season. In reality, they were best suited for local defense for periods of short duration.
However, ranger forces, such as that of Rogers' Rangers, were paid on a full-time basis. Rogers trained his rangers in the tactics and style of Native Americans, fighting in loose formation; he also adapted their dress and weaponry for woodland fighting. Rangers could operate in austere wilderness conditions for extended periods of time, a tradition continued by modern U.S. Army Rangers and Green Berets. While colonial rangers proved to be effective against the hit-and-run style of their Native American opponents, they were very expensive to maintain on a long-term basis; therefore, most colonies opted to rely on their own local militia.
Of the three types of units, provincial forces had the worst reputation for discipline, morale, and battlefield effectiveness during the colonial era. They were usually recruited from the lowest rungs of society and were essentially contracted for a specific period of service or campaign duration. Most had only rudimentary training in the use of their weapons and in military drill. In order to attract men to such dangerous service, colonial officials usually offered enlistment bounties and promised to clothe and feed these provincial soldiers for the duration of their service. When these promises failed to materialize, many of these soldiers deserted.
During the first year of the American Revolution, the colonies relied nearly entirely on local New England militia forces. However, it soon became apparent, after a disastrous winter campaign to seize Canada, that the lax discipline and irregular military habits of part-time soldiers would no longer do and that welltrained, long-termed, disciplined soldiers were now necessary. Commanded by General George Washington, Congress created a Continental Army of eighty-eight battalions. Each state was given a quota based on its prewar white adult male population. All the states failed to meet their quota for Continental troops, forcing Washington constantly to harangue state governors for augmentation of the Continental Army with state militia units, which were usually available for only very short durations of service.
In return for their agreement to serve faithfully and continuously for three years (or the duration of the war), Continental recruits were initially given an enlistment bounty of approximately $20, promised an annual suit of clothes (a uniform, shoes, and a blanket), and a specified ration of three daily meals in addition to a monthly salary of about $6.67. Many men formed informal "messes" and combined their rations in order to barter for supplements to their bland and meager daily diets. A typical soldier's mess consisted of anywhere from four to eight soldiers who would share just about everything they had in camp. As the war lengthened and inflation robbed soldiers of the value of their bounties and salaries, the difficulty of finding agreeable recruits increased and enlistment bounties being offered for both Continental and state service skyrocketed. Life in Continental Army camps like those at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and Morristown, New Jersey, proved to be especially arduous. Frequently lacking adequate shelter, clothing, and food, the soldiers were known to have suffered from great privation and desertion. Occasionally, Continental Army command even had to contend with mutiny.
Following the Revolution and indeed throughout much of the nineteenth century, the United States continued its traditional policy of maintaining a miniscule regular army establishment, and the federal government called for state militia and volunteer augmentation only during times of national emergency or to fight local Native American wars. However, these units began to be augmented by state "volunteer" units that were clothed and equipped by either the state or federal government. Regular soldiers still served for lengthier periods of service than state regiments or militia units, were furnished a monthly salary, and were provided with an agreedupon ration and regular replacements of military uniforms.
A typical day in the life of a soldier in camp during this era consisted of reveille in the morning, followed by camp police details (cleaning), breakfast, morning guard mount (where soldiers detailed to guard posts received their assignments, usually for a period of twenty-four hours) for some and drill for everyone else, dinner (in the afternoon), more drill and other details, supper and evening "tattoo." Life on the march during wartime was more arduous. During the War of 1812 (1812–1815), Captain Henry Brush noted that soldiers were given "unbleached, tow-linen hunting shirts and trousers. On their heads they wore low-crowned hats, on the left side of which were black cockades about two inches in diameter." Each soldier carried a musket, bayonet, a cartridge box, a knapsack, and a "quart-sized tin canteen." The knapsack and blanket were covered with an oilcloth to protect them from rain. "A soldier's arms and pack weighed about 35 pounds, and troops traveled about 25 miles a day on foot." Despite official attempts to standardize army clothing and equipment, most soldiers modified their outfits as they saw fit. Militia units were the most notorious for this practice and arrived at the Battle of New Orleans (1815) wearing a wide variety of apparel and carrying equally diverse weaponry.
The practice of combining regular federal, state militia, and volunteer units for military service during wars and emergencies and using small numbers of regular forces as constabulary units on the American frontier between wars continued until the end of the nineteenth century. It was not until nearly the beginning of World War I that this hodgepodge system was eschewed in favor of a more professional and "regular" standing military force.
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Charles Patrick Neimeyer