Revolutionary War militia

America was aroused by expectation of awful conflict and mighty change. New England, upon which the first violence of the storm seemed likely to descend, was agitated by rumors and alarms, of which the import and the influence strikingly portrayed the sentiments and temper of the people. Reports that Gage had commanded his troops to attack the Massachusetts militia, or to fire upon the town of Boston, were swallowed the avidity of rage and hatred, and instantly covered the highways with thousands of armed men, mustering in hot haste, and eager to rush forward to death or revenge. Everything betokened the explosion of a tempest; and some partial gusts announced its near approach, and proved the harbingers of its fury. In the close of the year there reached America a proclamation issued by the king, prohibiting the exportation of military stores from Great Britain. The inhabitants of Rhode Island no sooner received intelligence of this mandate than they removed from the public battery about forty pieces of cannon; and the Assembly of the province gave orders for procuring arms and martial stores, and for the immediate equipment of a martial force. In New Hampshire, a band of four hundred men, suddenly assembling in arms, and conducted by John Sullivan, an eminent lawyer and a man of great ambition and intrepidity, gained possession by surprise of the castle of Portsmouth, and confined the royal garrison till the powder-magazine was ransacked and its contents carried away.

These violent demonstrations provoked new measures of oppression in Parliament. Lord Chatham, indeed, after seeking the counsel of Benjamin Franklin, introduced a bill calculated to remove the causes of disaffection in America. But this bill was rejected, and one introduced by Lord North was passed, which virtually extended the measures of the Boston Port Bill to all New England. As it soon appeared that the other provinces supported New England, the provisions of the bill to restrain commerce were extended to them all, with the exception of New York, Delaware, and North Carolina. But this exemption failed to produce its designed effect, since the exempted colonies at once declared their intention to accept the restraints imposed on their neighbors.

The example of Massachusetts in preparing for defence was followed by the other provinces; and warlike counsels were boldly broached in the provincial Assemblies and Congresses. When some members of the Virginia Assembly urged the postponement of those preparations, reminding their colleagues of the power of Britain and the comparative weakness of America, and insisting that it would be time enough to fly to arms when every well-founded hope of peace had entirely vanished, Patrick Henry, with vehement and victorious eloquence, contended that that time had already come. "It is natural," said he, "to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are prone to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that enchantress till she transforms us into beasts. There is no longer any room for hope. We must fight. I repeat it, sir, we must fight. An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us. They tell us that we are weak, and unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be when our supineness shall have enabled our enemies to bind us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak, if we make use of those means which the God of nature has placed in our power. Three millions of people armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as ours, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Nor shall we fight our battles alone. That God who presides over the destinies of nations will raise up friends to aid us. The battle is not to the strong alone, but to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, we have no longer a choice. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery. Our chains are forged; their clanking may be heard upon the plains of Boston. The war is inevitable, -- and let it come ! Gentlemen may cry, `Peace! Peace!'-- but there is no peace. The war is actually begun. The next gale which sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms."

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 2)