So I finally finished my second militia unit in March. There was a point I thought it might never happen, even though the minis were close to completion. But then I overcame painter’s block, dipped and immediately started out on my Continentals. I was happy with the progress and happy with the results.
While I was painting these troops, I wondered what made these men put their life on the line for something ephemeral as liberty, in what was arguably one of the most liberal environments of its time. Surely some of these men will have been ideologically motivated, but I haven’t come across recent literature that suggests this was more than a minority of combatants. What gave the militia its strength were its firm roots in local communities, and motivation to fight was maintained by family ties and larger networks of patronage.
For a long time after the revolution, it was not done to acknowledge the existence of a large part of the American population friendly to British rule, or even indifferent to the cause of the revolution. These days this fact is a much more commonly accepted, and estimates of loyalist population range from one in six to one in three. British commanders at the time were convinced that the majority of the population in the southern colonies would welcome them. This was the reason they shifted troops and resources from the north southward in 1779.
However, they found it hard to rally local support unless British troops provided security. Part of the reason for that is that the same pitfalls which made the militia such an unreliable military instrument, made it so effective politically. Widespread military presence secured political control of the area. There is ample evidence that patriot militias exacted a heavy toll on loyalists in their communities, appropriating their goods for the cause of liberty.
And indeed, the opposing militias treated each other harshly. Prisoners could expect physical abuse and risked being executed; and each incident invited retaliation. Especially in the south local conflict escalated into a civil war. Not for nothing did tens of thousands of loyalists flee the area as the British left, including about 20,000 that had served in the British army or loyalist militias.
As most militia didn’t wear uniforms, it was hard to tell the difference between combatants and civilians. It allowed them to harass the enemy and blend into the population afterwards. In frustration, the British sometimes took retribution on communities, thus creating a circular dynamic of retaliation. In a sense, this blending of civilian and military roles thus drove the conflict towards total war. Some later commentators, argued that therefore it was truly a revolutionary war, presaging the ideas of Mao and Che Guevara….
This blog was first published on the Wargames, Soldiers & Strategy blog on March 18th 2016