In 1775, the North American colonies had no professional armies and few leaders with significant military training. What possessed them, then, to believe they could take on the mighty British Empire? Politics and principles aside, two experiences led the Americans to believe they could stand up to the British: the 1745 Siege of Louisbourg and the 1755 Battle of Monongahela. The first dispelled any notion that they were powerless against professional forces. The second dispelled the notion of British invincibility.
In the 1740s, the maritime French colony of Île-Royale and its fortress at Louisbourg guarded the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Today, the two main islands of Île-Royale are known as Prince Edward Island (Canada’s smallest province) and Cape Breton Island (part of Nova Scotia). The French and the Wabanaki Indians were a constant threat to New England. Multiple engagements had occurred during little-remembered wars such as King William's War, Queen Anne’s War, and Father Rale’s War. Louisbourg was (and is) positioned on the east coast of Cape Breton and directly east of the modern state of Maine, which was then part of Massachusetts. Louisbourg itself was a threat to New England: it was a center for privateering and well positioned to interfere with New England’s economically crucial fishing industry.
At the start of King George’s War (known in Europe as the War of Austrian Succession) in 1744, a Franco-Indian force raided and destroyed the British fishing village at Canso, in nearby Nova Scotia. In 1745, Massachusetts Governor William Shirley organized a response. Militia from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, set off on an expedition supported with funds and supplies from Rhode Island, New York, and Pennsylvania. While there were no professional soldiers involved, they did have support from the British Navy.
The Fortress of Louisbourg was thought to be impenetrable from the sea. A land approach, however, provided hilly terrain that allowed for the erection of siege batteries. After a siege of several weeks and a number of raids and skirmishes, the fortress surrendered on June 27, 1745. While the French forces had suffered from poor morale and other issues, the stark fact remained that American militia had taken on and defeated a professional army sheltered in a major fortification.
A decade later, early in the French and Indian War, General Edward Braddock suffered his better-remembered defeat near the banks of the Monongahela. The lesson here was that British redcoats were not invincible. In a report to his mother, Washington wrote, “The Virginia troops showed a good deal of bravery, and were near all killed; for I believe out of three companies that were there, there are scarce 30 men left alive. … In short, the dastardly behavior of those they call regulars exposed all others that were inclined to do their duty to almost certain death; and, at last, in despite of all the efforts of the officers to the contrary, they broke and ran as sheep pursued by dogs; and it was impossible to rally them.”
While the British army was humiliated, Washington’s own reputation for heroism was bolstered, in part because of his own reports. “I luckily escaped without a wound,” he wrote, “though I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me.”
Louisbourg (1745), Monongahela (1755), and the outbreak of the Revolution itself in 1775 are milestones in the colonists’ increasing confidence in their own military capabilities. Though Louisbourg was remote from Virginia, it was not remote from those who began the war in Massachusetts. Braddocks’ defeat was very much front-of-mind to all Virginians at the start of the war. This must have been especially true for men like the 8th Virginia's Maj. Peter Helphenstine and Capt. Thomas Berry of Winchester (Washington's headquarters during the French and Indian War) and Captains John Stephenson and William Croghan who filled their companies with men from the settlements near the site of the general’s failure.
Twenty years after Monongahela, Massachusets’ 1775-1776 experiences at Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Ticonderoga, and the Siege of Boston reinforced New England’s view that militia could take on professional troops. Victories won by militia and green provincial troops at Great Bridge and Sullivans Island indicated the same to Virginia and the south.
This elevated view of their militias’ capabilities must be viewed as an important factor in the colonists’ decision to take up arms against the Crown. It is even more important in view of the prevalent Anglo-American dislike of standing or “regular” armies. Oliver Cromwell had used his “New Model” army to rule by martial law. King James II had attempted to use a standing, professional army to restore the monarchy’s supremacy over parliament. For this is he was deposed and replaced by William and Mary, who accepted a Declaration of Rights (enacted as a “Bill of Rights” in 1689) that specifically forbade standing armies on British soil in peace time.
When Britain decided to leave a standing army in America after the French and Indian War, the colonists reacted in a way that should have been predictable. Peace-time standing armies had been illegal in Britain for nearly a century, universally seen as a threat to the “rights of Englishmen.” And yet there they were, posted in the colonies and quartered in private homes. Colonial charters had guaranteed the rights of Englishmen to the colonists. This was a clear violation. Virginia’s 1606 charter read, for example:
"Also we do ... DECLARE ... that all and every the Persons being our Subjects, which shall dwell and inhabit within every or any of the said several Colonies and Plantations, and every of their children, which shall happen to be born within any of the Limits and Precincts of the said several Colonies and Plantations, shall HAVE and enjoy all Liberties, Franchises, and Immunities, within any of our other Dominions, to all Intents and Purposes, as if they had been abiding and born, within this our Realm of England, or any other of our said Dominions."
Among the 27 indictments against the King in the Declaration of Independence was the charge that “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.” When the war began, it was a war between American militia and British regulars. While some might have seen this as an uneven fight, many more saw it as proof of the justice and moral superiority of the American cause.
The British Army was the most powerful in the world, and there may have been a time when the colonists would not have dared to fight them. In 1775, after the Siege of Louisville, after Braddocks defeat, and with God and Justice on their side, the Americans believed they could win. And they did win, but not until the Continentals themselves were professionalized. Still, consistent with principle, the Continental Army was disbanded at the end of the war.
Read more: "A Campaign of Amateurs: The Siege of Louisbourg, 1745" by Raymond F. Baker.
is researching the history of the Revolutionary War's 8th Virginia Regiment. Its ten companies formed on the frontier, from the Cumberland Gap to Pittsburgh.
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