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?


January 24, 2013 - Posted by | H300, military history | , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. The Revolutionary War proved that English colonists in America were able to successfully secede from from the British government. With a continental army focused on defending key American ports and the northeast, militias were able to defend and hinder the British advance from the south and cripple Britian’s ability to foster support from British leaning colonists. The success of the Americans during the Revolutionary War was mutually dependent on both the continental army and the militias; however, the militias served as the decisive component of the American Revolution.

    Although the British deployed a small contingent of forces to America to quell the upheaval caused by American Patriots, the British forecasted that they could augment the shortages in its small force by recruiting American Loyalists in the south. The British strategy would have proved successful had British forces been able to build a guiding coalition with the loyalists. Unfortunately, British soldiers could not gain a decisive victory against the militias. Because the patriots/militias had greater mobility in the country side, they could enforce policy and secure the population. This undermined the British army’s ability to display a capability to defend the population and increase its forces. The British forces also conducted savage acts against the population. This turned the loyalists against the Tories and strengthened the loyalists allegiance with the militias. Without the existence of the militias in the American Revolution, the British Army would have been able to increase its Army and build sufficient forces to threaten the defeat of the continental army.

    The continental army did not possess the army to solely defeat the British army. The continental army could protect key infrastructure but could not wage that dealt a decisive blow to the British Army. The British army, although limited in personnel, could have easily defeated George Washington’s continental army. The militias provided the continental army the additional capabilities needed to force the British army to fight a protracted war away from its support bases. In addition, the militias did not have the capability to conduct sustained, deliberate attacks against the continental army. However, the tactics of the militias against the British army proved capable of inflicting significant casualties to the British. Because the militias could not be quelled, inflicted casualties, and controlled the population, America was able to accomplish strategic success and ultimately change their government to a democracy.

    Comment by MAJ Michael T. Jordan | January 24, 2013

  2. The British a were better-trained, equipped and lead military. With the proper forces on ground and the backing by the majority of American’s the British should have easily defeated the continental army and any forms of our militia. The British assumption that they would have large numbers of people augment their forces to support the King proved costly. One reason they failed to achieve these additional forces was due to the militia controlling the territories not occupied by British forces. The militia was able to influence the people (by providing protection) to maintain their loyalty to the colonies leaving the British severely undermanned and unable to effectively fight both forces.

    Comment by MAJ Pete Nienhaus | January 24, 2013

  3. Both the militia and continentals were important and each had an important role, but the militias roles/duties of not only a fighter but an influencer of the population made them more important. Without the militia the continental army would not have been able to decisively defeat the British army. Both the British and continental army’s were small in size and they would have been able to continuously keep fighting each other, but never really defeating one another. With the added force that the militia’s provided the continentals were able to deliver the decisive defeat to the British, but the militia needed the continental army to keep the focus of British army. The continental army also needed the militia to gather the peoples support for their cause. Since the British were small in numbers and were occupied fighting the continentals this allowed the militia to influence the American people in their favor. Also, the militia was made of “regular” people which connects more to the general population, because they are part of it.
    I believe that it would have been possible for the British to be successful politically, if the militia did not get involved, the people only listened to what the British told them, and the British had enough force to quell the militia. But, since the militia had more control over what information was given to the people and the economic gains they could provide (such as; “join our cause and we would not ruin your crops.”) the British were defeated.

    Comment by Doug Serie, 11B | January 25, 2013

  4. The roles of both the militia and the continental army cannot be underestimated and, based on the forces available at the time, created the perfect mix for success. Even if the continental army could be increased in size to provide enough troops to police all the colonies, success would still be marginalized, because it was the familiarity of the militias that provided stability and not the occupation of an army. Therefore, the militia is what won the hearts and minds of the people (even if it was by force). If it wasn’t for the militia, the continental army could have unsuccessfully marched around the country side for years, even after the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, trying to quell a rebellion.
    The British could have been successful politically, if Britain had approached the colonial problem much in the way they did in the late 19th century and early 20th century and create a commonwealth. Instead of focusing on military power to maintain the status quo, Great Britain could have used political power to create a British Commonwealth in the late 18th century. It would have been a very progressive idea. However, the parliamentary government of the time could have established it, even under a Hanoverian king.

    Comment by Bryan J Dutcher | February 6, 2013

  5. As the post indicates, the continental army and the militia enjoyed a mutually supporting role in that the success of one helped set the stage for the success of the other. While one cannot overstate the importance of the militia in supporting the defeat of the British by turning keeping the population from supporting the crown, the continental army served as an important part of making the United States a nation. In essense, I think that the continental army provided a necessary symbol that supported the idea of a larger nation around which the militias could rally. In the same way, the decisive defeat of the army would likely have degraded the morale of the militia and allowed the British to conquer the nation piecemeal. A third factor outside of the militia or the continental army was the sheer size and terrain of the colonies. Within that environment, the militia and the continental army could have gone to ground and prevented the British from successfully controlling the colonies, either geographically or economically. Ultimately, I believe that no one side was more important than the other. Rather, it was the operational environment and the interaction of colonial forces (militia and regular) that yielded success.

    Comment by Kenneth Mortimer, 11A | February 6, 2013

  6. I generally agree with my peers above. I will only add that both tools were important to the overall success. However because of the COIN type of environment the militia play a key role between the two.

    Tactically the militias could not stand toe to toe against the British army. In most cases the British would out number he militias by the thousands. Additionally, the militias did not possess the military discipline and training seen in the Continental Army. Both these points reinforce the advantage of the Continental Army, However, the militia’s tactical advantage came in their ability to have a continuous presence, crippling the British logistically. As a result, the British were never able to control territory, making it impossible to sustain their military on the land.

    Strategically militias were able to suppress loyalists and serving as a pool of potential recruits for the Continental Army. In some cases the militia would defeat or kill local s who remained loyal to Great Britain. This created many challenges for the British. An example of the militia’s strategic effectiveness can be seen in their ability to mobilize the population through mandatory loyalty oaths. This was an effective method to protect rebel political institutions while obstructing governments and auxiliaries loyal to Great Britain. Without the support of the people the British were doomed to fail.

    Comment by Ryan J. Scott | March 2, 2013

  7. I’ll avoid repeating what the others have already stated. The Continental Army won the war by not losing it plan and simple. If you look at Washington’s record he lost more that he won. However by keeping the Continental Army together and in the field it required the British to do the same. The British feed the meat grinder the was the war in the Colonies. So by keeping the Continetial Army in the field made the British do the same. Also the militia played a key role as well. Not only did they control the local population (The British didnt protect them) they provided a great source of intel and foraging. The also provided the non convential hit and run tactic that help bleed the British Army of man power and moral. So both sides needed each other reguardless of how they felt about each other.

    Comment by Scott McLendon | March 16, 2013

  8. I agree with the comments above that both the Continental Army and the militias played an integral role in the American Revolution. Neither would have been successful on their own. The focus here are on the efforts of the militias. There were two primary reasons the militias played a decisive role in the American Revolution. The first was that the British did not have a clear strategy to control the population. The forces and resources were exceedingly limited to govern the people. As a result, the militia was able to fulfill the roles of a policing force. Additionally, the militia filled the power vacuum in towns and cities, with the ability to protect, control, and influence the population. The second reason militias were effective became one of time and resources. Britain was facing an enormous debt during this time. As a result, the militias knew this was a waiting game and time was on their side. It was going to cost Britain enormous resources to equip, train, and fund troops over long periods of time. Simply put, this war was going to cost more than Britain was willing to except. The British population did not support an expensive ‘winning at any cost’ strategy. It was not a deliberate strategic goal of either the Continental Army or militias to influence the population of Britain, however the end result helped end the war.

    Comment by Major Howard Davis 11B | March 24, 2013

  9. The question above presupposes that the only militias operating during the American War of Independence were revolutionary colonial militias fighting the British. The presence of loyalist militias, fighting for the British, is well documented. This begs two questions (at least). First, were loyalist militias less capable/effective than their revolutionary counterparts? Second, did the British fail to use loyalist militias to control the population when conventional forces were not present? On the surface, I find it difficult to believe that loyalist militias were less capable, given that they were likely supplied and possibly minimally trained by the British military. It is possible the British used the militia more as a conventional force, supporting conventional maneuver on the battlefield, rather than as a means to control/shape the population. Nevertheless, I believe we have a romanticized view of the revolutionary militias and ought to study the action of the militias which supported the British Army. The relationship between the militias (both loyalist and revolutionary) and the population may give us more insight into the political purpose of the militias and how the revolutionary militias seemed to be more effective. Or were they?

    Comment by MAJ Stephen Shankle | March 27, 2013

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