Lion Gardiner in Pequot War by Charles Stanley Reinhart (from watercolor previously at the Manor House in Gardiner Island from a July 2007 exhibit by the East Hampton Historical Society on Gardiners Island. Photo by poster in July 2007. Public Domain. Wiki Commons
We’ve been discussing an interesting question in class this week. Allan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, in their book For The Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America, suggest that “six major themes place United States military history within the broad context of American history.” [i] One of these is that “American defense policy has traditionally been built upon pluralistic military institutions, most noticeably a mixed force of professionals and citizen-soldiers.”[ii] Our challenge this week was to make an argument for whether there was evidence of this pluralism in our readings this week about military engagements between American colonists and native Americans.
I contend that there was evidence of a mixed force of professionals and citizen-soldiers early in the history of the North American colonies assuming that the definition of professional soldier is considered to be some what literal, that is militarists who were paid for their services. While a professional army is no doubt intended to mean a paid standing army (with benefit of better training and supply), it is possible to see the impact of those recruited and, in some way, paid for their military expertise before the nation of the United States was formed.
Photo courtesy of The WEYANOKE Association: telling our own story
Millett and Maslowski refer in some detail to the existence of militia in the English colonies. Not only do they label it “the colonists’ most revered military institution,” but they also posit that militias were the “most important response to the dangerous military realities.”[iii] Colonists knew prior to leaving for the new continent that they were “on their own” for defense against dangers they might encounter, whether from indigenous people or rival Europeans. They also had some forewarning of what those dangers would be (I’ll leave that for a later post) from previous encounters between Europeans and Indians. So they came prepared to defend themselves both with recruited military experts and a resolve to fight as citizen-soldiers.
The precepts of militias?
- All able-bodied men within a certain age range were, by obligation, members.
- Training took place during regularly scheduled musters.
- Men brought their own weapons (pikes, muskets, swords).
- Rank was typically determined by class.
- Most men served close to home, etc. When larger engagements were afoot, men would be recruited (effectively by draft) from the local militias to participate in expeditions.
- A tie was evident between soldiering and the Christian traditions of most of the colonists. Sermons were given during musters and before major engagements.[iv]
On the topic of professional soldiers, Millett and Maslowski allude to the colonists’ recruitment of experienced men to provide military leadership and training to the colonists. [v] I would argue that it was these men who formed the beginnings of a “professional military cadre” in the New World. Granted, they were not professionals hired and maintained by a single cohesive American nation, but they were, non-the-less, the “go to” people for colonial military leadership, especially when novice leaders proved ineffective.
Guy Chet (see his vitae here) in his book “Conquering the American Wilderness: The Triumph of European Warfare in the Colonial Northeast,” indicates that not only were professional leaders hired but some rank and file soldiers were as well. Chet tells of a small army led by John Underhill. “This ‘army’ —130 men in all— included forty burgher guards (professional Dutch soldiers), thirty-five Englishmen (under Lieutenant George Baxter), and Sergeant-Major Underhill’s company.”[vi] It is the forty burgher guards I find most interesting for this discussion. [Note: The English settlers of Greenwich had been under Dutch jurisdiction since 1642.]
All of that said, Chet also suggests that close examination of colonial commanders (after the 1650s) taken in aggregate, “indicates that this was a society of military novices, plagued by astonishing carelessness and neglect in military matters and undermined by its own ad hoc approach to military affairs.” [vii] He attributes the winning of King Phillip’s War to a campaign of attrition rather than through a succession of tactical victories. Prior to 1650, the better trained professional militarists recruited by the colonists to aid them, were still in place.
Among the lessons learned during the colonial Indian Wars was that a combination of a professional army and a militia had its merits. According to Chet, the tactical ineffectiveness of colonial forces in the King Philip’s War led colonial officials to seek a closer military cooperation with imperial administrators and professional British troops. [viii] This love-hate relationship with the idea of a professional, standing military no doubt helped to shape the pluralistic military tradition in America.
© 2008 L. Rene Tyree
[i] Allan R. Millett, Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America (New York: The Free Press, 1994), xii.
[iii] Ibid., 1-2.
[vi] Ibid., 1-19.
[v] Guy Chet, Conquering the American Wilderness: The Triumph of European Warfare in the Colonial Northeast [book on-line], Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003, accessed 13 April 2008, available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=105219966; Internet.
[vii] Ibid, 28.
[viii] Ibid., 144.