- The Forgotten Revolutionary War in the Middle States
During the first half of the twentieth century, when historians all but ignored the military history of the Revolution, as well as later American wars, military history belonged to the professional soldiers. No officer achieved the influence of Emory Upton, whose The Military Policy of the United States since 1775 (1904) blamed most American wartime mistakes on an undue reliance upon citizen-soldiers, especially the militia, and a consequent failure to maintain a substantial professional army. Since what Upton and his fellow soldier-historians saw as a failed military policy had begun in the Revolution, the Continental Congress received harsh criticism for failing to raise a huge regular army and for relying heavily upon the militia, an institution pictured almost wholly in negative terms. Certainly the evidence existed for a portrait of disorganized, unruly farmers who fled at the first shot, and the Uptonians’ books abound in negative quotations from Washington and his lieutenants.
The post-World War II years have seen academic historians take military history more seriously. The most sophisticated of them, from senior scholars such as Russell Weigley and John Shy to junior scholars such as Fred Anderson and Harold Selesky, have done so in the context of American society. Although the part-time soldiers deserved some slings and arrows, these scholars show that the much-maligned irregulars had their important moments. Thanks to the colonial militias and the provincial congresses that took control of them in 1774–1775, the revolutionists began their struggle with Britain in control of the infrastructures of every colony-state. That turned out to be a formidable advantage that few if any revolutionary movements in modern history have possessed. That also became the principal disadvantage the loyalists faced from the beginning to the end of the eight-and-a-half year struggle. Throughout the conflict militia enforced state laws and served as local constabularies. For example, the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge near [End Page 553] Wilmington, North Carolina, in the late winter of 1776 resulted in a catastrophic defeat for the king’s friends from which they never recovered. The militia not only engaged in guerrilla or partisan warfare against loyalist units but also at times against British armies. This fighting was the kind they knew best. They also proved exceedingly valuable in the winter months as Continental armies contracted owing to expiring enlistments, deaths, and desertion. The part-time soldiers helped man the lines during the winter encampments as Washington and other generals recruited men to appear in the spring and swell the numbers of their military commands.
Mark V. Kwasny, in Washington’s Partisan War, 1775–1783, contends that the militia’s role in some military theaters is better appreciated than in others. He is on target about upper New York, especially the Saratoga campaign of 1777. At Bennington, Freeman’s Farm, and Bemis Heights their sharpshooting and harassing tactics helped spell defeat for General John Burgoyne. The author also correctly points to the well-documented bushwhacking accomplishments of Thomas Sumter, Francis Marion, and Andrew Pickens in the South. And the success of Generals Daniel Morgan and Nathanael Greene in blending militiamen and Continentals in the Carolinas has received substantial coverage in monographs and in The Papers of Nathanael Greene.
Kwasny maintains that the role of the militia in parts of Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey has been neglected and misunderstood. His focus is on the area, broadly defined, extending around the land side of New York City and into the three above-mentioned states. This was the region occupied by Washington’s army from 1776 to 1783. The author seeks to make at least two major points. First, Washington’s view of militia “is perhaps the most misun-derstood aspect of his generalship” (p. xiv). He felt it imperative to use the state forces for temporary or short-term duty, and he recognized they could perform effectively in irregular operations. Second, the war in the Middle States amounted to...