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American Militia in the War of Independence

The powers of American Riflemen were underestimated by the British Government, though not, writes John Pancake, by observers in the field.

John Pancake | Published in History Today

Under the date of April 20th, 1775, Dunlap’s Pennsylvania Packet reported:

‘The first stand made by the country in the late engagement was with only 200 men at Concord Bridge... The soldiers gave the first fire, and killed three or four. It was returned with vigour by the country people, and the Regulars began soon to retire. The country people lined the road... and their numbers hourly increasing, they annoyed the Regulars exceedingly...’

American revolutionaries had made ‘an appeal to arms’ at Lexington and Concord; but they had no army, only ‘the country people’.

This first popular revolution in modern history had to create its armed forces from the civilian population. Eventually a nucleus of veteran troops, the Continental Line, formed the national army, but the immediacy of the crisis of 1775 left little time for drill and training. ‘Regulars’ and militia, citizen soldiers all, frequently received their first instruction on the battlefield itself.

Yet the Americans possessed some advantages that may well have been crucial to the success of their military effort. They had the rudiments of a military organization in the form of the colonial militia, of which more will be said. They were also familiar with firearms. Few Europeans owned guns; but the musket was as familiar on the American farm as the axe. And most Americans were farmers. They hunted either for sport or, more likely, to furnish additional food for the family board.

They were certainly superior to the average British soldier in marksmanship. Yet this admitted superiority has fostered a tradition, perpetuated by latter-day historians, that the soldier of the Revolution was a seasoned woodsman and deadly marksman, whose skill as an Indian fighter enabled him to cut his red-coated cousin to pieces. The tradition is a myth.

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