I offer it again, with only slight stylistic revision, because of the recent public action of Michael A. In reaching this conclusion, Bellesiles makes some equally dubious assertions about the insignificance and incompetence of the American militia of the era. His denigration flies in the face of what military historians, whatever their ideological inclinations, have long known about the pervasive historical role and operations of the militia.
Thus, I present this article as a mild corrective. If I were to revise it, I would primarily take notice of many of the relevant books and articles that have appeared in the intervening fifteen years. But very few of the scholarly gaps in the literature I identified then have yet been fully filled, and almost none of my overall conclusions require the slightest modification.
According to established mythology, American citizens were not conscripted until the Civil War. First the Confederacy and then the Union resorted to the draft to fill their depleting armies. Prior to that, this mythology holds, no draft existed in the United States. The U. Unfortunately, this halcyon portrait is false in nearly every respect. The only U. American governments, state or national, drafted men not only to fight the Revolution and the War of , but also to wage Indian wars and to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion. Because they employed decentralized militia drafts, however, this fact has often escaped notice.
The militia system was originally transplanted to the American colonies from England. Practices differed widely from colony to colony, but everywhere the militia had two coercive elements.
First, it enrolled every able-bodied male between certain ages usually sixteen to sixty , with only a few exemptions. Colonial governments required those enrolled to furnish their own arms no small expense and to muster for regularly scheduled training. Failure to do so resulted in fines. Initially, this mandatory training could be as frequent as once a week or more, but, as the Indian threat receded, most colonies reduced the number of training days to approximately four per year.
The militia thereby provided a compulsory system of universal military training. The second coercive element evolved when the militia was called forth for active military service. Only in dire emergency, and only for a short period, would a militia district deploy its enrolled manpower in toto. Normally, when a colonial government called upon its militia for a military campaign, it would set quotas for each district. The districts would then try to fill the quotas with volunteers, and sometimes the colonies would encourage volunteering with bounties.
However, if volunteers were insufficient, the districts would then meet their quotas through drafts. Generally, the only legal ways of avoiding such militia drafts were by either paying a stiff fine or hiring a substitute.
Thus, the threat of conscription lurked behind every resort to the seemingly innocuous power to call out the militia. Moreover, there were hallowed restrictions upon employment of the militia draft. Consequently, if colonial governments planned long, offensive military expeditions, they generally relied upon militia volunteers who specifically contracted for such expeditions. On occasion, some colonies even established quasi-standing military forces independent of the militia.
Colonial governments nonetheless made frequent recourse to militia drafts during the Indian wars and in imperial wars against France and Spain. In addition, the militia functioned as a standby local police force. American cities did not establish their first professional forces of armed police until the s. The New England colonies merged the militia with the night watch while the Southern colonies assigned it the mission of slave patrolling.
Governments in every locale depended on the militia to suppress insurrections. All such additional militia tasks imposed further compulsory duties upon the citizens. Within this fundamentally coercive system, a volunteer component did emerge. Alongside the common militia, just described, was what came to be called the volunteer militia, consisting of privately recruited military units.
The earliest such unit was the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Boston, organized in and still in existence. At first, these volunteer units were completely independent of the common militia. Later, colonial governments and successor state governments integrated them into the general militia systems. Volunteer units provided much of the cavalry, artillery, and elite infantry within the militia.
Men could gain exemption from the common militia by joining a volunteer unit. But many of these units still remained private fraternities with exclusive memberships. Furthermore, the total number and aggregate size of such units remained relatively small for most of the eighteenth century. Everything noted so far about the compulsory nature of the colonial common militia is well known. Less well known is the fact that the common militia persisted without serious alteration through the Revolution.
As the colonies made the revolutionary transition to states, they refurbished their militias to better maintain order, fight the British, and suppress Tories. Even before the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the colonies increased the number of required training days, tightened exemption lists, and stiffened fines. In Frederick County, Virginia, during the spring of , for instance, the patriot committee increased the frequency of mandatory training days for every male between sixteen and sixty to one per month.
When the states put active military forces into the field, they eventually fell back upon militia drafts. The Continental Army, the military force of the new national government, was initially composed entirely of volunteers. But, as the war dragged on, manpower shortages became acute, despite the monetary bounties and land grants offered by both the Continental Congress and the individual states.
The Continental Army bid for recruits against the active forces of the thirteen state militias.
Massachusetts began employing conscription in the early summer of New Hampshire followed in , and most remaining states fell in line upon recommendation of Congress later that year. The states used these drafts not just to man their own forces but also to fill their quotas for the Continental Army.
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Revolutionary conscription remained decentralized, varying from state to state. Some states used conventional militia drafts; others impressed vagrants and transients. In general, only single males were drafted for short terms, and they could avoid service through the traditional mechanisms of paying a fine or finding a substitute. A local study of Concord, Massachusetts, found that half the males under fifty received at least one draft notice during the war. Some notices went to women, and others even to the old and crippled.
The worst, at Northumberland Court House in , resulted in several deaths. Although no one seems to know the precise number of actual draftees serving in the Revolutionary forces, several studies have determined the relative number of hired substitutes. Within the active militias of Lancaster and Northampton Counties in Quaker Pennsylvania, 38 and 54 percent respectively of those serving were substitutes, while 20 to 40 percent of the New Jersey Line in the Continental Army were draft substitutes.
Actually, the large number of hired substitutes implies that many others must have been conscripted outright. Unless militia drafts discriminated in operation, calling upon only those who could afford to hire substitutes, leaving everyone else exempt, men from the population of potential substitutes could not have avoided occasionally being drafted themselves. Once called, they could hardly have bought their way out. Thus, these percentages undoubtedly would be higher still if draftees who could not afford substitutes were included.
The first two calls garnered 13, draftees and , substitutes—approximately one draftee for every nine substitutes—with 84, paying the exemption fee. Paid substitutes constituted only 22 percent of the total, a proportion at the lower end of those known for the Revolution.
This would suggest that, at a minimum, actual draftees accounted for 2.
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The exemption fee, however, had been abolished for all except conscientious objectors, driving up the price of substitutes. Overall, , men entered the Union army during this period, maintaining the proportion of substitutes at approximately the same level, 21 percent. But the proportion of draftees was now at nearly 10 percent, which gives a good upper-bound estimate for the Revolutionary period. As an alternative to a national army, the states retained full control over the militias. Hence, in , when Virginia commissioned Revolutionary hero George Rogers Clark to lead a military campaign from what became Kentucky against the Indians, militiamen were drafted into his force, touching off widespread evasion, and then organized mutiny.
Although Congress virtually disbanded the Continental Army, national acquisition of the Northwest Territory during the Revolution had shifted the burden of policing that area from the states to a national force of some kind. Consequently, the Continental Congress authorized in a small frontier constabulary to be raised voluntarily from the state militias for one year.
The Southwest Territory, as yet unceded by the states, got along without Congressional attention. When the original enlistments expired in , Congress converted this small force into a semi-standing army of regulars by authorizing new three-year recruits, without any direct reference to state militias.
Recruitment, however, failed to produce many additional soldiers. Federalists such as Washington found these military arrangements unsatisfactory.
Robert J. Cook
They desired a national military strong enough to rival those of the European states and to quell domestic disturbances. They succeeded in putting their military ideas into the new Constitution. Once the Constitution took effect, the Washington administration used trouble with Indians in the Northwest Territory to justify a national army that numbered nearly 4, regulars by Congress, however, hesitated to authorize a force of this size too precipitately, and actual recruiting lagged behind authorizations.
Congress, therefore, delegated to the President the emergency power to call out the state militias for frontier defense. Clair, went down to ignominious defeat at the hands of the Indians. However, because most of the militia in the previous campaigns had been drafted, whereas the regulars were volunteers, his victory could as logically prove the inferiority of conscription.
Indeed, the frequent condemnations of the American militia by professional military officers, from Washington forward, assume a whole new meaning in light of the extensive resort to militia drafts during early U.
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At the same time the Federalists created a standing army, they also attempted to consolidate control over the state militias. Service in the advanced corps would, in fact, become a prerequisite for citizenship. The advanced corps could then be continuously ready for immediate mobilization. Although military historians have tended to denigrate this act because it failed to go as far as Knox wished, the Uniform Militia Act firmly etched into national statute the principle of universal military obligation. It required the enrollment of every free, white, able-bodied male citizen between eighteen and forty-five with some exemptions, to which the states could add in the militia of his state.
Each citizen was to equip himself at his own expense. A second Congressional measure that passed at the same time, the Calling Forth Act, specified the general conditions under which state militias could be called into national service. In a clause all but ignored by historians, the Act instituted heavy fines for failure to report when drafted for national service. Just as when responding to state calls, each militia district had a quota to be filled first by volunteers and then by draftees.