Militias in the Revolution

Part-Time Soldiers with a Vital Role

Who They Were

Two militiamen talking
Militia reenactors (Credit: Jim.henderson / CC BY-SA [])

The word “militia” refers to people who fought in the Revolutionary War but were not officially in the regular British or Continental armies. Militias existed for decades prior to the war, to protect settlements against raids by the French, Spanish, pirates, and Native Americans and frequent slave revolts. North Carolina militias participated in the French and Indian War of 1754–63 and the War of Regulation. There were also “minutemen” trained to respond quickly to local incidents, but those units were disbanded in 1776.[1]

During the Revolution, militia units we call “Patriots” or “Whigs” formed to support independence, and others formed to oppose it, called “Loyalists” or “Tories.” Both sides were organized into companies by county, and sometimes into larger armies, by local leaders who often had limited military experience. However some of the leaders, on both sides, had served with the British army or royal governor in those earlier actions.

Many militia members signed on to their unit for a set period of time, while others showed up for a specific action and then went home. On the Patriot side, the state created formal county regiments within multi-county “districts.” If there were not enough volunteers, the local commander could draft more by law, thus sharing the burden of local defense more evenly. All white males 16 to 50 were subject to being drafted, though draftees could hire substitutes. Of course, Tories defied those orders.

Militia firing
(Credit: 1976 Illustration by Don Troiani, National Park Service)

Captured militia were often “paroled,” meaning they were released to return home after signing written pledges not to fight again for their side. Those pledges were often broken. There were also cases of men paroled only if they would fight for the other side, which they often did half-heartedly until they could desert. Breaking one’s parole was considered dishonorable by many on both sides, and sometimes became the pretext for a hanging if the person was captured again.

Regular army commanders viewed militia as unreliable yet necessary additions to their forces. Battles were often delayed, won, or lost based on what the militia did. Militia also fought each other independently, especially after the two regular armies left North Carolina in 1781, leading to a vicious “Tory War.”

A lack of experienced officers played a big role in these problems. Militia leaders were usually just local landowners-turned-politicians, often with limited or no military background. An army lieutenant colonel wrote in 2014: “Both sides experienced a critical lack of military leadership. The social and political nature of militia leadership made importing leaders from outside colonies nearly impossible. It was worse for the British and Tories because the Whigs had spent 1777-1780 effectively killing, co-opting, or dislocating the most capable Tory leaders.”[a]

Life in the Field

Militia soldiers did not wear regular uniforms or receive much training, and carried whatever arms they happened to own, usually muskets and knives. They did not generally have tents, and even decent blankets were hard to come by. To identify themselves, Tories would put pine twigs or red paper or fabric in their hatbands, and Whigs white paper or fabric. Not surprisingly, in a melee this could lead to people on the same side fighting each other.

North Carolina militia almost always traveled by horse, most of them as “mounted infantry.” That is, unless designated and trained as cavalrymen, they would not fight from horseback. Instead they used horses as transportation and dismounted to fight. A few men would be detailed to guard the collected horses during battle. When you read of militia “marching” on this Web site, it is safe to imagine them actually riding unless told otherwise.

Militia reenactors
(Credit: John Foxe / CC BY-SA [])

In the western part of the state, today’s Foothills and mountains, “Men wore hunting shirts, short breeches, ‘leggins,’ (sic) and moccasins. They grew long hair, usually clubbed or in a queue.”[2] William Lenoir wrote, with a reference to Brig. Gen. Griffith Rutherford:

“At that time, if a gentleman could procure a hunting shirt made of good tow linen and died black, with a motto across the breast in large white letters ‘liberty or Death’ and a pair of stout breeches and leggins of the same texture, and buck’s tail on his wool hat for a cockade, he was fine enough for anything, and in fact, our good Gen’s. hunting shirt was inferior.”

Their lack of battle discipline relative to regular soldiers showed up in camp as well. Patriot militia Col. Joseph Graham reflected in his memoirs, referring to any commander and the militia: “While he kept moving, and they expected to meet the enemy, they kept with him; but whenever they came to attend only to the dull routine of camp duty, such as mounting, relieving and standing guard and enduring privations, they became discontented, and those in convenient distance went home, and others to the houses of their acquaintances, having no camp equipage or utensils but what each brought with him.”[3]

Their officers were not always so deprived, however. Continental Army Col. Otho Williams, after joining 2,100 N.C. militia in 1780 before the Battle of Camden (S.C.), wrote of the officers’ baggage with apparent disgust. “‘Tables, chairs, bedsteads, benches, and many other articles of heavy and cumbrous household stuff, were scattered before the tent doors in great disorder,'” he reported.[4]

Nonetheless, North Carolina Patriot militia were crucial to the victories at Moore’s Creek Bridge, King’s Mountain (S.C.), Ramsour’s Mill, and smaller actions that stopped Loyalists from rising in greater numbers. This, in turn, prevented the first British invasion of the state in 1776, and contributed heavily to the failure of the second in 1781.

More Information

  • Dunkerly, Robert M., Redcoats on the Cape Fear: The Revolutionary War in Southeastern North Carolina, Revised (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012)
  • East, Lt. Col. Jackie, Lessons from the British Defeat Combating Colonial Hybrid Warfare in the 1781 Southern Theater of Operations (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, 2014)
  • Graham, William A., General Joseph Graham and His Papers on North Carolina Revolutionary History (Raleigh, N.C.: Edwards & Broughton, 1904) <> [accessed 27 March 2020]
  • Phifer, Edward William, Burke County, a Brief History (Raleigh, N.C. : North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, 2000) <> [accessed 23 April 2020]
  • Rankin, Hugh F., The North Carolina Continentals (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1971)
  • Sherman, Wm. Thomas, Calendar and Record of the Revolutionary War in the South: 1780-1781, Tenth Edition (Seattle, WA: Gun Jones Publishing, 2007) <>
  • Smith, Austin, “‘Neighborhood in Constant Alarm’: The Battle of Ramsour’s Mill and Partisan Divisions in the Carolina Backcountry Communities during the American Revolution” (unpublished Bachelor’s Honors Thesis, University of Arizona, 2010).
  • York, Maury, The Many Faces of Fort Defiance, Office of Archives and History Research Reports (North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1979) <> [accessed 14 April 2020]

[1] Dunkerly 2012.

[2] York 1979.

[3] Graham 1904.

[4] Quoted in Rankin 1971.

[a] East 2014.