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A Rabble in Arms: Massachusetts Towns and Militiamen during King Philip’s War (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 73, Number 4, October 2009
pp. 1320-1322 | 10.1353/jmh.0.0409

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In common mythology, men in colonial Massachusetts Bay towns voted, prayed, and fought wars together as a community. However, New England was not a static society, and in the decades following settlement towns became increasingly stratified socially, politically, and economically. King Philip’s War (1675–1676), arguably the bloodiest war Americans have fought in terms of percentage of the population involved or killed, came at a time when many areas, particularly along the coast, had lost much of their frontier egalitarianism. Kyle F. Zelner’s book provides a well-researched social history and community study of Essex County, on the north shore of Massachusetts Bay, during the war, showing that the forces raised to fight the war reflected that stratification.

While colonial militias were representations of their society due to the almost universal male obligation to serve, expeditions drawn from the militia were not. For Zelner, the key question towns faced was in determining who would be impressed from the general militia to fill quotas for expeditions. Using property records, muster and pay lists, and other historical records, Zelner has reconstructed the social composition of expeditionary forces from Essex. He shows that older, wealthier men dominated Essex towns, while the “rabble” was overrepresented in the towns’ quotas. Zelner explicitly breaks with the commonly accepted view of towns raising men for expeditions presented by Douglas Edward Leach in his 1958 book Flintlock and Tomahawk (p. 5), long the standard account of raising forces in that war. In Leach’s description, raising expeditions was haphazard, relying on local volunteerism, incentives, and personal pressure; turning to impressment only when all other methods failed. Zelner takes aim directly at that interpretation, emphasizing the role of each town’s committee of militia in choosing men for impressment based largely on how much anger would be directed at committee members if the men so selected should die in service.

Zelner believes these militia committees, an institution created in New England, are an overlooked key to understanding how New England towns raised their quotas for expeditions. Militia committees, comprised usually of three local military and civic leaders, sent men whom committee members felt were expendable and kept home those seen as vital to the community, or at least those whose families had greater influence in society. Men impressed tended to be young, unmarried, and not first born. They tended to have no strong ties to the church or government. Farmers were underrepresented. Instead, men impressed for expeditions were mainly of two types: troublemakers whose transgressions had brought God’s wrath on the community in the first place, and men whose death would not concern the more influential in the community.

Zelner has done exhaustive work in breaking down the composition of Essex’s contribution to expeditionary forces. The weaknesses are in the larger implications he draws from his data. The role of the militia committees is stressed throughout the book, although no records from such committees exist (fn 35, p. 254), and the records from the town selectmen, which do exist, contain little about the war (pp. 46–7). Zelner ascribes the indifference of the selectmen to their loss of power due to the increased importance of the militia committees, but offers little support for this assertion. A more fundamental problem is in assessing how representative Essex was of New England as a whole. Coastal communities were longer settled and faced little immediate threat. He describes Andover, on the western border of Essex County, as more typical of New England towns than others in Essex (p. 109), but asserts that Andover’s contributions were based more on volunteers from the middle and upper groups (p. 121). Substitute Leach’s “local authorities,” for Zelner’s militia committees, and Andover’s method of raising forces sounds like Leach’s description, which he based on Reading, directly south of Andover, in Middlesex County (Leach, p. 103).

That said, Zelner has done meticulous research on the social composition of the Essex men who went to war in 1675–76. He has done a model job of mining sources to show the complexity of social and economic forces at work in raising military expeditions in Essex County. His work will have to...

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