Kyle F. Zelner. A Rabble in Arms: Massachusetts Towns and Militiamen during King Philip’s War. Warfare and Culture Series. New York: New York University Press, 2009. Maps, illustrations. xv + 325 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-9718-1.
Reviewed by Jasmin L. Johnson
Published on H-War (June, 2010)
Commissioned by Brian G.H. Ditcham
"Able and Fitt Soldjers"?
Specialists in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms have long been aware of the "New England connection" in regard to the civil wars through such figures as the siege master Colonel Thomas Rainborowe and the preacher and regicide, the oft-misspelled, Hugh Peter. This creates an interest in what became of the less well-known colonial fighters for the new order when and if they decided to go home. Reading Kyle F. Zelner's A Rabble in Arms leads one to hope for some enlightenment on these matters.
It has to be admitted that "King Philip's War" is largely unheard of on the British side of the Big Pond other than via revisionist discourse, which tends to cast colonial militias in a very dark manner over their treatment of the Native American people who had the misfortune to fall into their hands. However, Zelner's volume goes some way to examining the facts behind the myths and attempts to explain how militia recruiting practices may have led to some of the more egregious excesses. The book consists of an in-depth study of Essex County, Massachusetts--a community for which very good meeting records, court records, and muster rolls survive. Essex County is a useful model because it contains examples of all the community types to be found in the early modern colonial structure.
Traditional assumptions about colonial militiamen suggest that they were hardy yeomen, professionals, fine members of families of high standing, and volunteers to a man; Zelner's study, however, suggests that these were the very people who generally avoided impressment and that the "rabble" mentioned in the title--the criminals, the drunkards, the poor, and outsiders, those who had least investment in a community and who could be sacrificed with little cost--were the ones who were sent to war against King Philip's forces. As Zelner states: "who was sent [emphasis in original] to fight colonial New England's wars is a deeply complex and important one" (p. 2). The first generation of settlers (as so often) blamed the rising generation for all the ills of the colony; the fulminations of Increase Mather and other senior clerics against the godlessness and criminality of younger colonists led to the impressment of the very sort of men whom the older generation blamed for the existence of the wars in the first place.
Chapter 1 attempts an institutional history of the Massachusetts militia, and it is interesting to note that the military reforms wrought in England by the much maligned King Charles I and even the "new modelling" of the parliamentarian army seem to have largely passed by the authorities in New England. They preferred a deeply conservative model based on the Elizabethan system of impressment with local militia committees playing the role of the English county Lord Lieutenant, apparently unaware of that system's poor results in its English homeland and the evil reputation that this system had come to have. Its shortcomings might go some way to explaining the disasters that befell colonial militias in the opening days of the war. It is striking that none of the senior New England participants in King Philip's War appear to have seen service in the British wars in their youth.
The second chapter examines impressment methods and gives some attention to how volunteers were used as well as the use and abuse of substitution as a means of filling ranks. Compulsion to attend militia training and to assist with building fortifications at first fell upon deaf ears until the threat came close enough to communities to be real. Militia committees were slow to learn lessons. The initial reaction to indigenous people's "skulking and lirking [sic]" ways of war was one of outraged complaint that the enemy was not "playing by the rules," though eventually a learning process saw the development of "Ranger Scout" style units of a sort usually credited to the American Civil War (p. 45).
Chapter 3 examines impressment practices in four of Essex County's more prosperous towns: Ipswich, Rowley, Topsfield, and Marblehead. Why these towns sent particular members of its communities to fight is intriguing. Ipswich used impressment as a means to get rid of "undesirables" (as defined, of course, by town elites). Rowley had an unpleasant religious controversy brewing and the losing faction among the town elite exploited impressment as a means to turn the tables in this dispute. Topsfield had a fair number of volunteers and filled the gaps by impressing outcasts and undesirables, while Marblehead, after experiencing the loss of valuable townspeople in the 1675 massacre of Captain Thomas Lathrop and his unit at what became known as Bloody Brook, was careful to impress only outsiders and those with no real link to the community.
The fourth chapter examines the outcomes of impressment in some of Essex County's smaller communities: Manchester, Beverly, Wenham, and Andover. Many impressments in these smaller communities were on men simply in the right place at the right (or wrong, depending on one's point of view) time. These towns often had very little choice in who was sent to fight and had to obey impressment orders from larger communities.
Chapter 5 is an impressive and exhaustive study of all the men who were sent to fight from Essex County and for whom records survive. What is striking about the 357 impressed men is not so much who they were, but rather who they were not. Very few farmers or their sons were sent to fight--a logical enough decision in a community always at threat from famine or starvation. Most of the men sent to serve were young and unmarried. Married men of good standing largely avoided impressment, which could again be seen as logical. However, it is also striking that few members of recognized elite families or their sons were sent to fight. The overwhelming majority of the pressed men were "criminals" (as defined by the elites), the poor, individuals at odds with their community in some way, outsiders, or strangers. It is not hard to understand why such appalling military disasters followed or why massacres took place when colonial forces finally came out on top in the struggle. There were many reasons why certain members of society went off to war, but being a heroic volunteer in a citizen army was generally not one of them.
The book's final chapter attempts to examine the aftermath of the conflict. What became of the men who survived and came back to the communities that had shown so little regard for them? As with survivors of many a war, men came back disabled in both body and mind or hatefully at odds with a society that had rejected them. The wrecking of the meeting house in Newbury by three veterans of the campaign in an orgy of revenge taking against the community that had put them through so much is a startling example of how war could affect young men. More surprising is that the community stood up for them and asked for their crimes to be treated with leniency.
Zelner's volume contains impressive notes and appendices including muster rolls, tax lists, age profiles, and employment profiles of the men impressed--a useful tool for anyone wishing to attempt further research in this area. The book also contains interesting illustrations and useful maps.
All in all, this is an impressive deconstruction of the populist historical view of colonial militias as a group of citizen soldiers and willing volunteers; it ably demonstrates how far the personal interests of elite groups could be placed above genuine military needs of a conflict with often devastatingly damaging outcomes. It is an open question as to whether the Puritan "city on a hill" was ever to be the same again in the aftermath of King Philip's War.
. The title is a quotation from a document dealing with the first militia levies (p. 54).
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Jasmin L. Johnson. Review of Zelner, Kyle F., A Rabble in Arms: Massachusetts Towns and Militiamen during King Philip’s War.
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