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A Rabble in Arms

Massachusetts Towns and Militiamen during King Philip’s War

Kyle Zelner

Publication Year: 2009

While it lasted only sixteen months, King Philip's War (1675-1676) was arguably one of the most significant of the colonial wars that wracked early America. As the first major military crisis to directly strike one of the Empire's most important possessions: the Massachusetts Bay Colony, King Philip's War marked the first time that Massachusetts had to mobilize mass numbers of ordinary, local men to fight. In this exhaustive social history and community study of Essex County, Massachusetts's militia, Kyle F. Zelner boldly challenges traditional interpretations of who was called to serve during this period.

Drawing on muster and pay lists as well as countless historical records, Zelner demonstrates that Essex County's more upstanding citizens were often spared from impressments, while the “rabble” — criminals, drunkards, the poor— were forced to join active fighting units, with town militia committees selecting soldiers who would be least missed should they die in action. Enhanced by illustrations and maps, A Rabble in Arms shows that, despite heroic illusions of a universal military obligation, town fathers, to damaging effects, often placed local and personal interests above colonial military concerns.

Published by: NYU Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

List of Figures, Maps, and Tables

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xv

I am extremely grateful for the support and encouragement of the faculty, staff, and graduate students of the Lyon Gardiner Tyler Department of History at the College of William and Mary, especially James Axtell and Philip Daileader. I must single out James P. Whittenburg, whose patience, understanding, and insight made writing a joyful...

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pp. 1-13

On a late August day in 1675, a lone rider arrived in the coastal town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, bearing dispatches for the local committee of militia.1 The message came from Major General Daniel Denison in nearby Salem, the commander of the Essex County Regiment. King Philip’s War had been raging since June and Massachusetts Bay was mobilizing...

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A Note on Method

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pp. 15-18

King Philip’s War (1675–1676) offers the ideal moment in time to study the character of impressed seventeenth-century New England soldiers and how and why they were chosen for service. This study is built primarily on the techniques of historical prosopography, or collective biography. In order to capture their true identity, I created a social...

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1. “For the bestordering of the militia”: English Military Precedent and the Early Massachusetts Bay Militia

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pp. 19-39

The 1628 Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company gave the company and its “chief commanders, governors, and officers” an order to provide “for their special defense and safety, to incounter, expulse, repell, and resist by force of arms” all enemies of the colony.1 The governor and General Court of Massachusetts Bay took this charge seriously, writing...

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2. The Massachusetts Bay Militia and the Practice of Impressment during King Philip’s War

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pp. 40-69

When King Philip’s War broke out in the Plymouth Colony on June 20, 1675, the authorities in Plymouth immediately alerted their allies in Massachusetts Bay. The Massachusetts General Court was not in session, but during its first meeting after receiving news of the hostilities, on July 9, 1675, the Court began to prepare for conflict, voting for several...

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3. Many Men, Many Choices: Impressment in Essex County’s Thriving Towns

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pp. 70-108

Impressment for active military service was a local matter in colonial New England. The militia committees, which made the fateful decision of who went to war, resided in each community and were made up of local elites who personally knew most of the men they sent off to fight. That was the reason that the General Court established the committees...

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4. Few Men, Few Options: Impressment in Essex County’s Small Towns

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pp. 109-140

Local control of the militia was a hallmark of seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay. As has been demonstrated, the power of locally controlled committees of militia to levy soldiers was nearly absolute in most of Essex County’s large or thriving towns. Militia committees used their impressment power not only to raise the troops necessary to fulfill...

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5. The Pressed Men of Essex County: The Social Identity of the Soldiers of King Philip’s War

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pp. 141-180

Many documents from the period of King Philip’s War and countless sources after—town histories, genealogies, community records, and other sources—claim to record the men who served in King Philip’s War. Yet, scores of the men so listed were never on the front lines; some received payment for services or provisions they supplied, while others...

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6. The Effects of Impressment: War and Peace in Essex County

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pp. 181-212

King Philip’s War raged in southern New England from June 1675 to September 1676.1 While men from Essex County fought in many different units and capacities during the war, soldiers from the county made up a sizeable portion of eight active-duty units, six infantry and two cavalry. The history of these “Essex companies” is essential to forming an...

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Afterword: The Military of Massachusetts Bay Transformed

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pp. 213-217

In the midst of King Philip’s War, although few in the colony perceived it at the time, a major shift occurred in the way that Massachusetts Bay conducted war. The change in the nature of offensive warfare was subtle, but significant. Amazingly, the exact day that the change transpired can be identified, a rare occurrence for such an important but...

Appendix 1.The Soldiers of Essex Countyin King Philip’s War, 1675–1676

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pp. 219-227

Appendix 2. Rowley’s 1662 Tax List: Ranked byFamily with Soldiers’ Families Highlighted

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pp. 229-231

Appendix 3. Topsfield’s 1668 Tax List: Ranked by Family with Soldiers’ Families Highlighted

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pp. 233-234

Appendix 4. An Examination of the Age of Essex County Soldiers and Officers in King Philip’s War, 1675–1676

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pp. 235-237

Appendix 5. The Occupations of the Soldiers of Essex County, 1675–1676

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p. 239

Abbreviations Used in the Notes

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p. 241


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pp. 243-296

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 297-311


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p. 313


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pp. 315-324

About the Author

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p. 325

E-ISBN-13: 9780814797464
E-ISBN-10: 0814797466
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814797181
Print-ISBN-10: 0814797180

Page Count: 344
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 646885684
MUSE Marc Record: Download for A Rabble in Arms

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Subject Headings

  • Impressment -- History.
  • Essex County (Mass.) -- History -- 17th century.
  • New England -- History -- Colonial period, ca. 1600-1775.
  • King Philip's War, 1675-1676.
  • Massachusetts. Militia -- History.
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