Friday, April 23, 2010

A Rabble in Arms, by Zelner - a review

Zelner's A Rabble in Arms: Massachusetts Towns and the Militiamen During King Philip's War should be indispensable reading to students of New England's 17th century conflict with the Native Americans. Readers already familiar with the organization of American Revolution and French and Indian War colonial militias would be very interested to see how different the practice was during the late 1600s.

The New England colonists did not maintain a standing professional army. Their defense relied on town militiamen. All able-bodied men were required to meet for regular training. Earlier writers on King Philip's War made the assumption that this also meant the troops sent to battle represented an equal cross section of the population. The author's research, however, shows that this was not the case. Those in charge of picking men to fight were actually very calculating in their decisions.

Zelner focused his study on Essex County. It held towns of varied size and economy, which make it a good representative for Massachusetts Bay Colony as a whole. The depth of research is staggering. He identified every soldier who served during the war and uncovered each man's age, residence, profession, marriage status, and personal history. Enlistment patterns show that militia committees made discriminating choices particular to their town.

In general, unmarried second (or younger) sons were favored for battle. If they died there would be no dependents or family estate left in trouble. In a larger settlements vagrants or town trouble-makers were the preferred draftees. It was very amusing to read what the town leaders of Ipswich considered to be criminal. For instance a Mr. John Chubb had run-ins with the law for "excess in apparel, beyond that of a man of his degree." In 1675 a John Brown was fined for drinking, idleness, and stealing cider. A Richard Passmore was guilty of "carrying himself irreverently and Unchristianly on the Sabbath day..." When the colony notified Ipswich's militia committee to call-up men, these sinners were among the first impressed. The author's descriptions of other towns offers a variety of intriguing local factors influencing conscription.

Captains Benjamin Church and Samuel Mosley both commanded all-volunteer companies. Yet, volunteers were exceedingly rare among the militia men. Zelner theorizes why volunteerism was so low during King Philip's War and discusses why it became the standard method of enlistment in future conflicts. A Rabble in Arms covers the organization, training, and equipment of the Massachusetts militias and cavalry troopers. The author also provides a history of King Philip's War with a focus on the involvement of Essex County men.

I found this book to be a very engaging read. Zelner's descriptions of the various towns and people really brought the colony to life. His research dispels old assumptions and presents the 17th century Massachusetts militiaman within the context of his society. The reader comes away with a better understanding of the military force that fought in King Philip's War and the Puritan ways of life.

1 comment:

Garry Bryant / Garaidh Ó Briain said...

My own research into this period is in Connecticut & Rhode Island which were devastated by the war. I wonder if there was different militia stats then that of Massachusetts? My finding of town units is that CT & RI militias were made mostly men with families. Thanks for the post.