Celebrating 17 years

Soldiers of the Colonial Militia

Many soldiers of the British regular army believed the colonial militia consisted of low-quality soldiers who came from the dregs of society. Most were sure the militia would make little difference in the outcome of the war. In reality, the soldiers of the colonial militia came from all walks of life, endured many hardships, and contributed greatly to the war effort. All of this was done according to strict terms set by the colonials.

The ranks of the colonial militia were usually filled by average citizens. They came from all walks of life and different ethnic groups. Many of them were native-born colonists, British immigrants, as well as free blacks. However, a majority of the men were Scotch-Irish, as seen in the Pennsylvania regiments (Stephenson-205). The average soldier of the militia served alongside Rangers, Highlanders, Iroquois Indians, and British regulars (Dillard-50).

Much of the British regular army was recruited from the lowest social classes. The enlisted were often petty criminals, beggars, common laborers or subsistence farmers (Anderson-499). Because the British officer's own troops often consisted of these types, they were more than willing to believe the same about the colonial soldier. British officers showed contempt for both the colonial enlisted soldiers and colonial officers alike (Anderson-501).

While it was true that many of the militia came from the lower social classes, more than a few were from middle income families. A soldier's social status and civilian occupation depended greatly upon where he was recruited. Soldiers who came from Pennsylvania were usually laborers. The surviving muster rolls show that about sixty percent of the soldiers listed were laborers. The remaining forty percent were either artisans or skilled workers (Stephenson-206).

The majority of the artisans from the Pennsylvania colony worked in the cloth, wood, or leather trades. Most of the artisans were cloth workers, while the remainder came from the cooper and carpentry trades. Evidence of this can be seen from the statistics for those soldiers recruited from the Philadelphia area (Stephenson-206).

Those who were recruited from outside Philadelphia had a higher percentage of manual laborers in their ranks. Only about half the number of skilled trades seen in the city were present in the rural areas. About twice as many skilled artisans came from the cities of colonial America. (Stephenson-207).

Those who enlisted from other parts of the colonies had almost the exact opposite percentage of laborers versus artisans. Only twenty six percent of those soldiers who came from the colony of Massachusetts were listed as laborers before entering the militia. About fifty two percent of the Massachusetts soldiers were skilled artisans before enlisting. Quite the opposite of those from Pennsylvania (Anderson-512).

Many of the colonial soldiers came from landed families. These were not men who saw the army as a steady source of income. In fact, they certainly did not need a military income to survive.

Reasons for Enlistment

If this were true, then why were so many young men enlisting? The answer to this question may lie in the inheritance practices of colonial Massachusetts (Anderson-519). Many eastern towns had an average population density of sixty to one hundred people per square mile (Anderson-519). Since a workable farm could be no less than forty or fifty acres, many fathers resisted the urge to divide their farms into equal portions among their sons. The most reasonable thing to do was keep the land intact, and give it to one heir upon the father's death. The other sons received their inheritance in different ways which ranged from cash to securing an apprenticeship (Anderson-520). This practice kept the farm intact and ensured his sons an opportunity for a better life (Anderson-520).

Because the acquisition of land was the primary way a young man became independent of his family, he needed a means to buy the land without having to wait for his inheritance. One way to do this was to enlist in the colonial army. While a young man would not get rich, he could save enough money to pay for a good piece of land. A colonial soldier usually served eight months in the military. He was not paid until his enlistment was completed (Anderson-523). In addition to receiving eight months pay in a lump sum, the colonial soldier usually received a bonus upon enlistment. The amount of this bonus varied from one to eight months pay. A private usually earned a total of fifteen pounds by enlisting. This sum could buy thirty acres in Andover, Massachusetts, or as much as one hundred fifty acres in less populated areas (Anderson-523).

Although many of the colonial soldiers did come from the lowest ranks of society, they were by no means the only ones who enlisted. Many of the sons of middle class colonial families enlisted as well. In fact, many young men saw enlistment as an opportunity to gain early independence from their families. During the course of the war thirty percent of those who were born between 1725 and 1745 served in the military (Anderson-526). Between the years 1755 and 1762 Massachusetts alone supplied over 15,000 men for the colonial army (Morgan-512).

Terms and Conditions of Enlistment

Colonial soldiers served under different conditions than the men who served in the British regular army. A term of enlistment for colonial servicemen was usually measured in months, not years. Early in the war colonial often served terms of six months or less (Stephenson-201). The most common term of enlistment throughout the war for the colonial soldier was eight months (Anderson-406).

Enlistment was viewed by the colonial soldier as a contract, or covenant, between himself and the officer he enlisted under (Anderson-400). The colonials had a deep devotion to covenants which could be seen in the marriage between a man and woman, church covenants between congregation members, and most importantly the salvation covenant between man and God (Anderson-401). The British officers did not understand this contract mentality, and found they could do nothing to discourage it (Anderson-414).

The colonial soldier saw the contract of enlistment as a binding agreement between himself and the officer he served. This contract involved a specific term of service for which the soldier received specific compensation (Anderson-414). If either party made an attempt to alter the terms of the contract, then the agreement became void. If this occurred, the colonials saw themselves as no longer bound by their contract, and therefore free to leave (Anderson-414).

Hardships of the Soldier

Even though the provincial soldiers protested sharply when they believed they had not been treated fairly, they performed admirably in combat. Similar to the American colonists who served with the British, the French army was supplemented by Canadian irregulars. These irregulars aided the French in their efforts to defeat the British at strategic battles like the siege of Fort William Henry (Nicolai-58).

The American colonial soldier endured many hardships during the siege of Fort William Henry. The French general, Montcalm, and his forces defeated the British and took the fort on August 9, 1757. Colonel Monro and his troops received generous surrender terms (Purvis-71). In return for their capitulation, the British were allowed to leave the fort with their arms and their personal equipment as long as they agreed not to bear arms against the French for eighteen months (Purvis-71).

Many of the British troops were not as fortunate as their comrades. The Indian allies of the French - who felt cheated out of their plunder because of the surrender terms - began harassing Monro's men after they vacated the fort (Purvis-71). Some of the Indians' anger was vented by murdering the wounded soldiers and Indians who were left behind at the fort (Purvis-71). The black soldiers who fought for the British were not killed, but they fared no better in the end. They were captured by the Indians and sold as slaves in Louisiana for the high price they brought (Purvis-72).

Because of the loss at Fort William Henry, several hundred British regulars and colonial militia were taken prisoner by the Indians (Purvis-71). The terms of imprisonment could vary greatly for the soldiers. Some were sold by the Indians to the French, and quickly exchanged to the British for French POWs. Others, like Sgt. William McCracken were not as lucky. He was bought by the French and then shipped to France where he served his sentence (Purvis-73). Although he was imprisoned for two years, Sgt. McCracken fared better than other POWs captured by the Indians at Fort William Henry. A French priest reported seeing the Ottawa kill and eat one of their prisoners (Purvis-70).

Military-Civilian Relations

While many of the American colonists readily joined the colonial militia, relations between the military and civilians were often strained at best. This occurred for a variety of reasons. First, the attempts to house British and provincial soldiers in private quarters. Second, the impressment of private wagons for military use. Third, the recruitment of indentured servants.

Of the three reasons listed above, the billeting of soldiers in private quarters caused the most strain. Citizens of Lancaster Pennsylvania resisted attempts to billet the military in private quarters by refusing to house the soldiers. Outraged by this, British general Montgomery solved the problem by using force (Brodine-217). The townspeople protested this action to the new commander-in-chief General Jeffery Amherst. Amherst responded by stating that billeting soldiers in private quarters was unavoidable when adequate public housing was unavailable. In doing so, Amherst made it quite clear that citizens' rights were subordinate to wartime needs (Brodine-218).

Conclusion

The soldiers who fought during the French and Indian War came from many different walks of life and joined the military for different reasons. Some enlisted because they were living on the edge of society as unskilled laborers and saw the military as an opportunity to gain a steady income. Others were searching for a way to gain independence and make a life of their own without having to wait for their inheritance. No matter what their reasons for joining the military, these men fought bravely, endured many hardships and played a key role in the war between the French and the British on the American continent. They not only endured hardships, but faced the risk of imprisonment or death. The militia also encountered disdain from their fellow soldiers in the regular army as well as resentment from citizens whose personal property often had to be appropriated for the war effort. The soldiers of the colonial militia endured all these hardships while fighting bravely in a bitter war. Provided they could do it on their own terms.

 

Bibliography

1. Anderson, Fred. "A People's Army: Provincial Military Service in Massachusetts During the Seven Years' War." The William and Mary Quarterly 40.4 (1983): 499-527.

2. Anderson, Fred. "Why Did Colonial New Englanders Make Bad Soldiers? Contractual Principles and Military Conduct During the Seven Years' War." The William and Mary Quarterly 38.3 (1981): 395-417.

3. Brodine, Charles. "Civil-Military Relations in Pennsylvania, 1758-1760: An Examination of John Shy's Thesis." Pennsylvania History 62.2 (1995): 213-233.

4. Dillard, Annie. "The French and Indian War: A Memoir." American Heritage 38.5 (1987): 49-53.

5. Morgan, Kenneth. "The Impact of the Seven Years' War on Massachusetts Provincial Soldiers." Reviews in American History 13.4 (1984): 512-517.

6. Nicolai, Martin, L. "A Different Kind of Courage: The French Military and the Canadian Irregular Soldier During the Seven Years' War." Canadian Historical Review 70.1 (1989): 53-75.

7. Purvis, Thomas L. "The Aftermath of Fort William Henry's Fall: New Jersey Captives Among the French and Indians." New Jersey History 103.3-4 (1985): 69-79.

8. Stephenson, R.S. "Pennsylvania Provincial Soldiers in the Seven Years' War." Pennsylvania History 62.2 (1995): 196-212.

1. Anderson, Fred. "A People's Army: Provincial Military Service in Massachusetts During the Seven Years' War." The William and Mary Quarterly 40.4 (1983): 499-527.

2. Anderson, Fred. "Why Did Colonial New Englanders Make Bad Soldiers? Contractual Principles and Military Conduct During the Seven Years' War." The William and Mary Quarterly 38.3 (1981): 395-417.

3. Brodine, Charles. "Civil-Military Relations in Pennsylvania, 1758-1760: An Examination of John Shy's Thesis." Pennsylvania History 62.2 (1995): 213-233.

4. Dillard, Annie. "The French and Indian War: A Memoir." American Heritage 38.5 (1987): 49-53.

5. Morgan, Kenneth. "The Impact of the Seven Years' War on Massachusetts Provincial Soldiers." Reviews in American History 13.4 (1984): 512-517.

6. Nicolai, Martin, L. "A Different Kind of Courage: The French Military and the Canadian Irregular Soldier During the Seven Years' War." Canadian Historical Review 70.1 (1989): 53-75.

7. Purvis, Thomas L. "The Aftermath of Fort William Henry's Fall: New Jersey Captives Among the French and Indians." New Jersey History 103.3-4 (1985): 69-79.

8. Stephenson, R.S. "Pennsylvania Provincial Soldiers in the Seven Years' War." Pennsylvania History 62.2 (1995): 196-212.