The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

Regulars versus Militia in Revolutionary War


If you look at the American Revolution as a People’s Revolutionary War, the revolutionaries had two military tools –the militia and the continental army. Both served important political purposes. The continental army forced the British to keep most of their forces consolidated thus limiting their mobility and ability to control ground. They also represented a conventional military capability that won international allies. The militia controlled all the ground where the British regulars were not physically present and thus ensured revolutionary political domination of the colonies.

Which of the two roles was more important? Could one have been successful without the other? Was it impossible for the British to be successful politically, given the problems and limitations of 18th Century military power?


February 17, 2012 - Posted by | H300, military history | , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. In my opinion, no one role was more important than the other, and in fact they were complimentary. Because of the complimentary but distinct roles that each played, one couldn’t exist without the other, nor could the war have been successful without both. This is mirrored in the roles that the National Guard and the Active Duty Army play today. However, the British could certainly have been successful politically, despite the military situation because they still enjoyed a legitimate power base in the colonies that saw themselves as loyalists to their country.

    Comment by Matthew Wilder 17D | February 21, 2012

  2. I agree with MAJ Wilder that no role was more important. Without the continental army, there would not have been any way to gain French support and perceived legitimacy for the revolution. Without the militias, the continental army would not had the means to intimidate colonist into not supporting the British. The two complimented each other and allowed for the continental army not to be defeated by the British.

    Comment by MAJ Johnson 17B | February 21, 2012

  3. I agree with both Matthew and MAJ Johnson that no role was no more important than the other, they all are complimentary of each other. Having that complimentary of each other drives success. In addition assisted with the continental army to have success in defeating the British.

    Comment by MAJ LaShaunda Jackson 17A | February 27, 2012

  4. It is clear that the militias played a crucial role in the American Revolution. They remained a thorn to the British side. They basically controlled the areas where British presence was either limited or non-existent. They were able to derail the British southern campaign. However, their greatest role seems to be in confusing the British to the point where they could not identify our “center of gravity” (and could not understand the nature and characteristic of the problem). The British were dumbfounded at the fact that continued military success did not necessarily translate into outright victory.

    The militia had the same strengths our current COIN doctrine makes reference to: “one of the strengths of insurgent-type elements is their indigenous nature. Their knowledge and ties give them increased support in local areas. Therefore, they have the ability to blend with the local populace. This allows them the ability to be a “local resident” one moment, and an insurgent the next giving them the capacity to operate without being discovered”. This is, in fact, what the militias would do. They would ambush or attack British forces, but even if they just harassed, they would be successful in disrupting the British and would then return to their base of support where they could easily refit.

    It seems that the greatest military power of the time, was not ready for the type of fight the militias represented (sounds familiar?). They not only failed to identify the COG, but simply put, the militias forced the British into a larger, protracted fight that they could not afford. The British National debt had practically doubled from the period of the Seven Years War to the time of the American Revolution. Given these circumstances, the British were not going to be able to succeed politically.
    In the end, they provided the continental army with time and flexibility, resulting, not only in greater attention from overseas, but eventually conferred legitimacy and recognition. This in turn, led to increased financial and military cooperation from other countries that, when added to Britain’s deteriorating economic situation, led to their ultimate defeat.

    Comment by MAJ Ramos 17C | February 28, 2012

  5. As Matthew Wilder pointed out, both the continental army and the militia needed to exist to be successful. The Army we have today is similar to the past, i.e., the U.S. Army National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve forces; with the difference being pay, medical benefits and retirement for the Reserve and National Guard. All three of these forces in the U.S. Army are need to still be successful today.

    Comment by MAJ LaMaudia Bentley, 17D / March 1, 2012 | March 1, 2012

  6. Yes, the British could have been successful despite the limitations of an 18th century military. The British had successfully executed COIN style operations throughout the world in their numerous colonies. I believe that their leaders overestimated the benefit of cultural similarities of the the 13 Colonies and Britain. This overestimation lead to the British to forgot the characteristics of their successful COIN campaigns.

    Once again, we have the advantage, or hindrance depending on your view, of historical hindsight. Even with this in mind, I believe that Britain could have been more successful if they had focused more on diplomatic and economic ways to resolve the Colonial insurgency. With a focus on diplomatic and economic ways, using the military in a supporting role, the British could have won over the estimated 33% neutral population. With the support of the neutral population, the Loyalist, also 33% of the population, could have controlled the Colonial government and slowly reconciled the the disenfranchised population. With a pro-British Colonial government, the British could have played a more supporting role, instead of the direct role that they did play.

    Again, hindsight is 20/20 and quite frankly, I believe it all turned out for the best…

    Comment by MAJ Chris Moore, 17A | March 4, 2012

  7. It is true that both the militia and continental army played vital roles as pointed out in the previous posts. I agree that the militia and continental army were successful because of their integration; however, I believe the militia was the key of the two, ensuring success. Paraphrasing the video we watched it said, “whoever won support of the people, would ultimately win.” By these two complimenting each other it allowed them to be everywhere, and the British were only able to control areas they were physically at.

    Comment by Leif Ibsen, 11C | January 15, 2013

  8. Gee. What about the French Army and Navy that fought on the American side. Also what about all the money, guns etc., that the French supplied. Take the French out of it and the American Revolution fails big time.

    Comment by Michael Zunich | January 31, 2013

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  10. Every redcoat that fell victim to a militia bullet, bayonet, cannon or ax was one less problem for the Continental Army..Raw math,…Buck Private Kick Ass or Die Try’n..

    Comment by Patrick DeMent | July 24, 2013

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