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Naval Infantry in US Military History

Two if by Sea – The New York Naval Militia: Homeland Security’s Nautical Roots
By Steven Christopher Ippolito

Dedicated to Major General Robert L. Wolf,
New York State Naval Militia,
- and -
The Patriotic Men and Women of the New York Naval Militia,
-- and --
Commander John Joseph Trombetta, Ph.D. (U. S. Navy, Ret.; New York Naval Militia)

In ancient Rome, “sailors and marines were free men, invariably citizens!”[1]
(Archer et al., 2002, p. 87).

The concept of militia -- a time-honored tradition of warfighting originating in the feudal period of Medieval Europe – would prove critical in the defense of colonists in the New World of America as well ((Frank, 2006; Lynn, 1996; Millet & Maslowski, 1984/1994; Morton, 1958; Shy, 1963). Militia formations – fighting units of citizen soldiers -- were conceived, initially, as a land warfare concept. Of critical importance, too, was the militia’s role in the defense of the homeland, long before the concept of homeland security would be articulated in the post-11 September 2001 (9/11) security environment (Gaddis, 2002). Equally significant, however, was the adaptation of the militia concept to the maritime dimension in the late 19th century, when New Yorkers were first privileged to serve as citizen-sailors, in a lawfully authorized Naval Militia[2] (Haunss, 2004). Operating within the waterways of the Empire State, the deployment of the New York Naval Militia (NYNM) would prove interesting, not simply in the historical sense, but as a pragmatically-effective component of the State’s Defense Forces, particularly in the post-9/11 world of non-state actors and terrorism (Haunss, 2004; Ippolito, 2013; Kilcullen, 2004).

The two prior installments of this essay have sought to introduce the reader to the concept of a naval militia, but also to the successful realization of this concept by the New York State Naval Militia (NYNM), beginning in 1891. Accordingly, the purpose of this essay’s third installment is to explain some of the early history of the militia concept, in general, from Europe to America, and the adaptation of this land-based type of warfighting to the needs of homeland defense within the riverine environment of New York State. Since there is no more famous American militiaman than our first Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, some of the first President’s activities in the Virginia militia will also be discussed.

The Militia and Naval Militia Concept in History

Early North American colonial militias operated in a political system, predicated upon the divine rights of kings. By 1776, however, the colonial conceptualization of militia had undergone a marked change in self-understanding. The new American militia-of-the-people, grounded in a political philosophy of freedom and liberty, was staffed by a new kind of warfighter. Never again would the post-colonial American militiaman function as an aristocrat’s vassal. The Revolutionary era militia volunteer was a man-under-arms, informed by transcendent natural law rights, self-evident to rational men through the agency of the intellect and right reason. The new American militia was also a political vehicle, the means by which English colonists-turned-Americans would resist the yoke of British tyranny (Millet & Maslowski, 1984/1994).

The Western military tradition was formed by both evolutionary and revolutionary developments throughout its martial history (Lynn, 1996). Military historian, John Lynn has described a multi-stage “evolution of army style in the West…on a continuum of change stretching back over a millennium” (Lynn, 1996, p. 505). Inter alia, the fall of the Roman Empire led to the elimination of the great, tactical, military formations of classical times – legions, phalanxes, slingers, cavalry, and heavy infantry (Hanson, 2001). Military history and practice would change dramatically after the waning of the Roman Empire (Sidebottom, 2004). Indeed, it would be centuries before Western military institutions could approach the size, abilities, or sophistication of the classical military formations and institutions (Lynn, 1996). Yet, a distinctly occidental character would tend to characterize military forces in Europe for more than a millennium (800 A.D. – 2000 A.D.), the fall of the Roman Empire, notwithstanding. This was discernible in the West’s regular “emphasis on discipline, drill, and ability to suffer losses without losing cohesion” (Lynn, 1996, p. 508). For historians and classicists like Victor Davis Hanson, this feature, above all, would come to characterize the combat fighting institutions of the West, over the course of history (Hanson, 2001; Lynn, 1996).

Hanson (2001) advanced the Western Way of War hypothesis in an attempt to explain Western successes throughout history; his views are controversial notion, and not without both detractors and adherents. Nevertheless, Hanson’s discussion of the 10,000 Greek mercenaries in the service of Cyrus the Younger of Persia, in the summer of 401 B.C., is one of the more striking manifestations of the dynamics of the Western Way thesis (Hanson, 2001). In recounting the history of the 10,000 in Persia, Hanson drew on Xenophon’s account in Anabasis (Hanson, 2001). The death of Cyrus, at his brother’s hand, left the Greeks without a patron or an employer. They were now alone, without funds, without material support of any times, and surrounded by enemies of every imaginable kind. The seriousness of their plight was compounded, too, by the capture and outright murder of all their immediate officers by the Persians. This outrage was followed by a demand for unconditional surrender – a demand to which the Greeks steadfastly refused, despite the situational dangers threatening them from all sides.

Men given to gambling might not have given the Greeks much chance of survival, under such circumstances. Yet, in the midst of what can only be described as an existential crisis of the most extreme kind, the Greeks did what Greeks routinely did -- they drew upon their political patrimony: the 10,000 were men who understood the notion of citizenship; they were part of a political transformation that ushered in the concept of democracy. As part of the classical demos, the troops promptly transformed themselves into a democratic, marching city-state. Assembling as Greek citizens might have done in the agora[3] , the 10,000 mercenaries immediately began a vigorous debate on the current state-of-affairs, followed by a democratic vote on the all-important matters bearing on their survival (Hanson, 2001).

Results were predictably Greek. Almost to a man, the soldiers elected to fight the Persians and other tribes they would encounter in the Middle East, while they marched home in good order. In the process they weathered hunger, attacks, environmental dangers, and the hostility of local tribes, including the Kurds, and general uncertainty. The Anabasis is a remarkable tale of survival, military cohesion, and discipline. But what is more remarkable is that the Greek plan was successful: virtually all of the 10,000 mercenaries returned to Greece, safely, even victoriously and in glory. For Hanson, as well as Xenophon, however, the Greeks’ escape from Persia could not have been accomplished without the extraordinary cohesion and various intangible factors that have characterized the occidental fighting man down through the centuries (Hanson, 2001).

The Anabasis makes it clear…that the Greeks fought much differently than their adversaries and that such unique Hellenic characteristics of battle – a personal freedom, superior discipline…individual initiative, constant tactical adaptation and flexibility…the [were the] murderous dividends of Hellenic culture at large. The peculiar way Greeks killed grew out of consensual government, equality among the middling classes, civilian audit of military affairs…freedom, and individualism, and rationalism (Hanson, 2001, p. 4).

Hanson has proposed that the cohesion of the 10,000 was – and is -- a hallmark of the Western warrior, even as military organizations changed in response to changing political and military realities (Hanson, 2001). This reality would apply to militia formations as well. In the era of the feudal European lords, military forces were essentially composed of “part-time warriors” (Lynn, 1996, p. 515). It was in this manner that the militia concept -- a perennial characteristic of the organizational structures of western war fighting throughout the early modern period of European and American history – was born (Frank, 2006; Lynn, 1996; Morton, 1958).

In the 12th century, the “urban militia served sovereigns…as required by their municipal charters” (Lynn, 1996, p. 515) (emphasis added). “The obligation of every male who could carry arms to perform military service in the defense of his community was an ancient English tradition” (Morton, 1958, p. 76). The formalities and tenets of the militia system, moreover, were enshrined in such venerable British documents as the “Assize of Arms (1181), the Statute of Westminster (1285), and the Instructions for General Musters (1572)” (Morton, 1958, p. 76).

The English militia system regarded all able-bodied men as potential soldiers. Each militiaman was obligated “to train and drill in military formation at stated intervals” (Morton, 1958, p. 76). Militia members were also required by law to possess arms and equipment, in the event the aristocracy called them into service (Morton, 1958). Militiamen, as per the feudal system, were aristocratic vassals, but the militia served a mitigating purpose beyond that of serving the great lord of Europe.

The militias also functioned as a restraining factor on any potential dictatorial behavior of tyrannically oriented aristocrats, heedless of the rights of his vassals. In fact, this regulatory behavior exercised by militiamen, against their feudal lords, was intentionally built into the foundation of the militia’s charter. This is an example of a growing political awareness of the inherent rights and dignities bequeathed upon all men, as a result of the foundational underpinnings of the vera lex, the natural law (Plouffe, 2008). This same unfolding natural law tradition that later would come to inform the founding of the American nation (Plouffe, 2008). Early feudal militias, therefore, operated under a concept that much later in the American polity would come to be known as checks and balances (Volkomer, 2011).

Checks and balances are a political construction; they are a system of political mitigation by which political thinkers sought to curtail “the concentration of powers in any one branch of government” (Volkomer, 2011, p. 33). Hence, militias not only served their sovereigns, they sought to preserve their own freedom, and that of the people (Morton, 1958). In this sense, the militia was never understood to be a royal instrument, per se. In medieval Britain, the local officials of the towns, shires, and counties, and not the king, represented the true power and administrative center of militia affairs (Morton, 1958).

The English “militia, as originally conceived, was a military system designed for short-term emergencies in defensive situations” (Morton, 1958, p. 76). Yet, its organizational structure demonstrated a remarkable longevity over time; and it would eventually be transplanted to the New World by brave and enterprising 16th century Englishmen, who struck out across the Atlantic to colonize an untested continent (Frank, 2006; Morton, 1958). However, in the age of wooden ships and sail, colonization was a highly uncertain undertaking -- failure, sickness, and death -- in a myriad of forms – were all real possibilities in coming to North America.

The voyage to the New World – always a costly affair, economically and, potentially, militarily, meant that hard-eyed London entrepreneurs, who underwrote such adventures, did not wish to see their financial ventures wiped out by pirates, native tribesmen, or the armies of Britain’s enemies who also maintained colonies in the New World (e.g., France, Netherlands, Spain) (Frank, 2006; Morton, 1958). By means of the militia, colonists from England were given the authority to resist conquest or invasion in their new home. Men, women, and children who faced the rigors and dangers of colonization were obliged to mount their own defense, in the eventuality of military crisis. Self-reliance was a critical necessity in this new living experience, and only the militia could offer a modicum of defense in the new homeland. For the settlers and for their descendants, who sought a new lease of life, liberty, and opportunity in North America, the militia would one day be the tip of the spear of American freedom in the Revolutionary War, and a critical actor in United States’ military history throughout the settling of the continent.

Early colonial militias in the new world. The ships that carried the colonists and their worldly possessions to the New World also carried the weapons of war, military ordnance, and professional warriors like Captain John Smith, and Captain Myles Standish, “hired by the Pilgrims to accompany them to Plymouth” (Morton, 1958, p. 76). Indeed, the militia concept that would come to define the martial institutions of the New World was honed by the experience and expertise by men like Smith and Standish in colonial America’s early days (Morton, 1958).

British migration to the New World was especially large in the period “between 1607 and 1730, when men and women, overwhelmingly from the British Isles, crossed the Atlantic to establish thirteen colonies in North America” (Frank, 2006, p. 3). By and large, these new immigrants “carried in their mental baggage… a visceral abhorrence to standing armies” (Frank, 2006, p. 4). Englishmen believed “a republic was best defended by citizen soldiers” (Frank, 2006, p. 4) (emphasis added). This understanding insured that British men understood their civic obligations “to perform military service in the defense of [the] community” (Morton, 1958, p. 76). “The colonial militia, in particular represents the happy uniqueness of America, where Englishmen in the seventeenth century revived this military relic…just as…it was sinking beneath the superiority of the…mercenary army on the battlefield” (Shy, 1963, p. 175).

By the 1700s, “the militia system was firmly established in the American colonies” (Morton, 1958, p. 82). In the pre-Revolutionary period, the homeland security of the time was the responsibility of local militia forces, temporary volunteer formations” (Lynn, 1996, p. 531) (emphasis added). Not surprisingly, the militia experience would give rise to a powerful American archetypal image in literature and in the American imagination, the backwoodsman who had come to terms with a rugged and uncertain environment. Thus, “the central figure of deep mythology in American military history for almost three hundred years was the yeoman farmer…[with a] long rifle” (Frank, 2006, p. 5). Even after small regular armies were formed, the American military would continue to “be supplemented by local militia” (Lynn, 1996, p. 531).

The US militia tradition remained strong, and combined with the generally low level of threat to the United States, it forestalled resort to a large standing army and a federal reserve fed by conscription…the United States turned to selective conscription only during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War (Lynn, 1996, p. 531).

For three hundred years, citizen soldiers would guard the American homeland as members of militia companies, as explained in Article 1, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution (Dwyer, 2012; Frank, 2006, p. 4).

To provide for calling forth the Militia and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress (The U.S. Constitution, 1787, p. 46).

New world militias -- The revolutionary period. Militia volunteers were self-sustaining war fighters, generally, providing their own arms and equipment, though by the time of the War of 1812, a good many men summoned to duty in the militia “might appear without weapons” (Norwich University, 2006, p. 5). In the 18th century Revolutionary period, and in the early days of the Republic, many men preferred not to risk their own Pennsylvania rifles “when the public might provide him with a weapon for free. In other cases, militiamen may have only owned small fowling pieces, hunting weapons, that were not suitable for the rigors of 18th century combat (Frank, 2006). Weaponry and ordnance in American militias, therefore, frequently had an ad-hoc character in the field. What was always a constant, however, was a uniquely developing self-understanding of the person within the New World’s political and philosophical order.

Politically and philosophically, a spirit of democracy permeated the cultural foundation of militia formations. Local militia companies elected their own officers, whose commissions were bequeathed from the governors of their colonies (later, the states). In time, however, the local militia Commander would also assume great political significance in the local communities (Morton, 1958). Overwhelmingly, George Washington is the most famous American example of a militia commander-turned-politician, in the service of the Virginia Militia.

George Washington and the Virginia Militia

The future president, who began his first employment as a teenaged surveyor, would eventually be appointed to the position of Official Surveyor of Culpeper County, a position he attained, in part, through the patronage of the powerful Lord Fairfax, for whom modern Fairfax County, Virginia is named today (George Washington, 2014). However, by the early 1750s, Washington demonstrated an interest in a more uncertain profession: soldiering. As a consequence, “Virginia's Lieutenant Governor, Robert Dinwiddie, appointed Washington adjutant with a rank of major in the Virginia militia” (George Washington, 2014, p. 1).

“Whence this secret passion for the profession of arms possessed George Washington is not exactly known” (Leckie, 1992, p. 130). An early influence may have been an older neighbor, “Jacob van Braam, a retired Dutch soldier” (Leckie, 1992, p. 130). The historical record indicates that young Washington practiced the art of the sword with van Braam (Leckie, 1992). It is possible, too, that the former Dutch soldier “may have enchanted him with tales of warfare” ((Leckie, 1992, p. 130). Another possible inspiration upon the future president may have been Washington’s own great-grandfather, John Washington, a colonel of Virginia militia. John Washington once led “a punitive campaign against local Indians with such success that in admiration his enemies dubbed him ‘Conocontarius,’ or ‘destroyer of villages’” (Leckie, 1992, p. 130). In the end, however, the chief influence on Washington’s decision to don the uniform of his native Virginia, may have been the future president’s elder half-brother, Lawrence Washington, who, above all, ignited Washington’s martial passions, thereby leading him to become a Virginia militia officer (Leckie, 1992). If so, in Lawrence Washington, the future leader of the America, had an exemplary role model.

Lawrence Washington. Lawrence Washington (1718-1752) had served in the British Royal Navy under a distinguished commanding officer, Admiral Edward Vernon (12 November 1684 -- 29 October 1757), a sailor and naval commander of great skill, known for his concern for the average British seaman, a reality that was not precisely common in the 18th century British Navy. Vernon’s legacy includes his meteoric rise within the ranks of the Royal Navy. An immensely popular skipper, Admiral Vernon -- who was nicknamed “Old Grog,” by his men -- so greatly impacted Lawrence Washington, that Lawrence would subsequently name his family estate, Mount Vernon, for his former commanding officer (Leckie, 1992). Amongst the voyages that Lawrence undertook with Admiral Vernon was the wildly unsuccessful expedition to Cartagena, in modern-day Colombia (Leckie, 1992), during a nearly forgotten conflict, the War of Jenkins’ Ear[4] (1739-1748), a conflict that would exercise considerable impact on American colonial life, as it involved land claims between England and Spain in the New World. One of Lawrence’s duties under Admiral Vernon was to function as Captain of Marines.

In 1740 the British government authorized a powerful expedition of 176 warships and troop transports, commanded by Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon and army brigadier general Thomas Wentworth. The fleet included eight eighty-gun ships-of-the-line, five seventy-gun ships, fifteen fifty-gun ships, and smaller warships including fast frigates, fire ships, and bomb vessels. This squadron escorted eighty-five merchant ships that transported six marine regiments…artillery, munitions, and a great quantity of supplies needed to undertake protracted sieges (Archer et al., 2002, p. 333).

Vernon and Wentworth commanded an initial force of approximately 14,195 troops. However, the British casualties in the War of Jenkins’ Ear were staggering: of the nearly 15,00 men who set out for Cartagena, the expeditionary force would lose 10,126 men. One thousand men would die in combat; the rest would either desert or succumb to illnesses common to sailors during this period, “scurvy, typhoid, typhus, smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, dysentery, mange, heat stroke, and venereal diseases” (Archer et al., 2002, p. 333). However, in the short term, military matters would continue to devolve for the British. After Cartagena, Vice-Admiral Vernon would make “unsuccessful attacks on Puerto Bello at Panama and Guantanamo, Cuba” (Archer et al., 2002, p. 333). But the ill fortune that dogged the British after Vernon’s unsuccessful Cartagena expedition would eventually dissipate; the British, despite some serious setbacks, would ultimately prevail in the War of Jenkins’ Ear, but not for another eight years of fighting.

Admiral Edward Vernon would eventually leave military service, after a distinguished military career, his failures at Cartagena and elsewhere, notwithstanding. Returning to civilian life in England, the erstwhile sailor would enter public service in Parliament’s House of Commons. Ironically, perhaps, Lawrence Washington would follow a similar life path upon his discharge from the British Navy. Back in Virginia, Lawrence, too, entered political life, displaying his not inconsiderable leadership gifts. Fairly quickly, he rose to prominence in the colony’s political-military-social establishment. The elder Washington’s departure from a life at sea did not sunder his military affiliations with his home colony, and he would eventually be promoted to “adjutant general of the Virginia militia, [where Lawrence also became] a member of the House of Burgesses” (Leckie, 1992, p. 128).

Lawrence’s personal life, too, seemed to be on the ascendant, after his return home from the sea. His marriage to Anne Fairfax, for example, was an enduring union, but it brought other benefits, too. Anne was “a cousin of Lord Fairfax, [who possessed] 6 million acres of land” (Leckie, 1992, p. 128). Matrimony, therefore, was a powerful boon to Lawrence’s social and financial situation. However, it was not only Lawrence who enjoyed a movement upwards in his social status, after his military discharge and marriage; Lawrence’s younger half-brother, George, would also profit considerably as well.

George Washington was still a callow adolescent when Lawrence returned home to Virginia. But being somewhat in thrall to Captain of Marines, Lawrence Washington, George, now, all of 14 years of age, opted to go to sea like his brother and serve the British Crown. How different American history might have been had Washington become a sailor, is a purely academic question. What is beyond question, however, is the Washington family’s resistance to George’s naval ambitions. Mary Washington, George’s mother, would not agree to her son’s decision. Mary’s brother, Joseph, had warned his sister that: “British ships were floating hells; and George could not be promoted without influence in London. Therefore, “it would be better off, [advised Joseph], to apprentice him to a tinker than send him off to sea” (Leckie, 1992, p. 129). Joseph’s accounts of British naval life genuinely frightened Mary Washington, and she would not give permission to her young son to become a sailor. Disappointed that he had no alternative but to abide by his mother’s wishes and see his naval career was cut short before it ever began, George did not despair excessively. Certain advantages naturally accrued to him, as a result of his brother Lawrence’s good offices: The younger Washington was able to successfully ingratiate himself with the Fairfax family, to include the powerful patriarch of the clan, Lord Fairfax of Greenway Court, all courtesy of Lawrence’s good offices, all of which provided assistance to him socially (Leckie, 1992).

George continued working in Virginia, where his reputation as a competent and successful surveyor grew within the colony. The passage of the years also saw the future Chief Executive’s grow to sturdy manhood, even as he came to be highly respected by his neighbors, his clients, and the powerful men of Virginia (Leckie, 1992). Lawrence Washington’s future, however, was more tenuous, however.

In 1751, the elder Washington contracted tuberculosis while he was in Barbados, a common enough malady in the 18th century. George would visit Lawrence in Barbados, where the elder brother was even now in the most acute throes of tuberculosis. Nevertheless, Lawrence – ever the solicitous elder brother -- composed letters of introduction on his younger brother’s behalf to “Robert Dinwiddie, the new governor of the colony” (Leckie, 1992, p. 130). Afterwards, both Washington brothers would return to Mt. Vernon in 1752, though Lawrence’s health would never improve; he died in July 1752, a loss that George Washington reacted to with considerable grief, “as though he had lost a loving and wise father” (Leckie, 1992, p. 131). Nevertheless, as Lawrence had wished, George set aside his grief long enough to visit the State House of Virginia where he would meet Governor Dinwiddie. For the future Commander-in-Chief of the United States, the meeting was a fortuitous one, and Robert Dinwiddie would prove to be an important figure in the life of the ambitious young man. Thus, through the good offices of two significant men, one a blood-relative, the other a significant political figure and entrepreneur, and the social thrust afforded him by the family of Anne Fairfax, the young life of George Washington went into its next important phase; he was about to become a militiaman (Leckie, 1992).

Governor Robert Dinwiddie – Washington and the Virginia militia. When George Washington met Robert Dinwiddie over dinner in 1752, he met a political leader who was not only a successful politician, but a prominent businessman as well. A Scotsman by birth with an entrepreneurial flair, Dinwiddie had made a sizeable fortune in West Indies trade. The dinner conversation was no doubt interesting on many levels, but for the future of George Washington, one topic of importance, above all, was raised over the clinking of glasses and fine china. In their first meeting, Robert Dinwiddie and the future president of the United States discussed Virginia’s military future.

“Virginia,” Governor Dinwiddie explained to his young guest “was to be divided into two military districts for the training of militia” (Leckie, 1992, p. 130). Almost, immediately, George Washington found himself overcome by the same martial sentiments that had gripped him as a young adolescent of 14 years of age. But now there was a marked difference: George was no longer a minor, nor was he subject to Mary Washington’s fears and maternal restraints. In the days after the dinner, Washington wasted no time; he sent a letter to Governor Dinwiddie and requested an appointment as adjutant in one of Virginia’s two military districts. Upon receipt of the Washington letter, Dinwiddie, who had been rather taken with his young guest, would prove receptive to the request.

In December of 1752, with rather little difficulty, young George Washington received a major’s commission in the Virginia militia, “quite a plum for a young man not yet twenty-one, even though it was for the southern, rather than the northern district, which he desired” (Leckie, 1992, p. 130). However, now that he had been granted his wish; now that he could wear the uniform of Virginia with pride, the young major would have to earn the respect of the Virginia Militia and Governor Dinwiddie by his leadership ability. More importantly, just as he had earned the respect of his fellow Virginians, by virtue of his abilities as a surveyor, young Major Washington would have to demonstrate his competence in the field, possibly in battle. Governor Dinwiddie, moreover, would soon have vital need of George Washington. As the decade of the 1750s unfolded, war appeared to be a distinct possibility, once again, between England and France. But for a young militia officer like George Washington, war was very good news.

War, in the 18th century, was an important vehicle by which one rose to prominence in militia circles, and in military life, generally. Thus, Washington did not fear war – of course, he was very young and knew precisely nothing of what war entailed. In fact, it was peace, not war, that Washington feared. Peace was the mysterious variable that could now derail Washington’s martial career. If peace did prevail between France and England, Washington might well live out his military career in Virginia training the militia and not doing much more than that (Leckie, 1992). Thus, like the child Napoleon, who is reported to have declared: “I am for war!” Washington looked forward to his military career as a warfighter. His wish would be granted, too; peace was no longer a possibility between France and England.

In a short time, George Washington would come to see combat first hand, in all its dimensions. Years before in European history, political instability between France and England had led to war, including the War of Jenkins’ Ear, where Lawrence Washington saw the violence and sickness of the Cartagena campaign. But this ongoing conflict that had raged between France and England was terminated in 1748, when George II and Louis XV signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, after both sovereigns had battled each other into exhaustion, and both had become “weary of the dreadful costs of war” (Leckie, 1992, p. 131). However, the conflicts and political questions that never quite seemed to have been resolved between the two nations were heating up once again.

Domestically, however, the Washington family would soon experience its own private turmoil in 1752 with the inevitable death of Washington’s elder brother, Lawrence, just as the political situation in Europe took a final turn for the worse; and war now seemed inevitable. Nevertheless, the gods of battle [5] seemed to be pouring martial graces upon George like life-saving manna from Heaven, after all -- George Washington, militiaman, was going to get his war.

In the emerging conflict, France’s strategy was to contain the British presence west of the Mississippi River, by creating French settlements in the Ohio Valley. The plan also called for restrictions on British colonies “between the Allegheny Mountains and the sea” (Leckie, 1992, p. 132). Thus, when the French constructed a fort at Presque Isle, (present day Erie), Governor Dinwiddie and the British authorities -- understandably alarmed at these strategic developments -- decided the French provocation could not be tolerated (Leckie, 1992). Dinwiddie was also concerned for personal financial reasons.

The governor and a number of other prominent Virginia colonists had formed the Ohio Company in 1747 (Lawrence Washington was a stockholder, too) “to settle and exploit the Ohio Valley” (Leckie, 1992, p. 132). But the French presence in what the British perceived to be their territory would not satisfy either London or Dinwiddie and his partners’ financial interests. After consultation with his superiors about the escalating situation, Dinwiddie summoned George Washington to a meeting, on 22 October 1753. At that meeting, the governor ordered Washington to march with the Virginia Militia to the contested French outpost; there, he was to deliver the British demands in unambiguous language, devoid of diplomatic euphemisms that the French must withdraw. In this mission, Washington both succeeded and failed – if one takes the long view of history.

The French would eventually leave North America, though not in the way that either Dinwiddie or Washington might have imagined. Verbal demands issued by a young, inexperienced militiaman were hardly effective; the French were not impressed, and they frankly refused to leave. Diplomacy, even the rough, backwoods type of diplomacy that Washington was ordered to engage in with the French was not the answer. Tragically, it would require a massive international bloodletting on a scale rarely seen in Europe at that time on either side of the Atlantic. Indeed, the conflict that would emerge from the French and British collision in the New World, and in which George Washington played a starring role, would also spill out into the Caribbean, Africa, and even India. That, however, was for a future moment in time. But when war did eventually come, George Washington would not only be in the midst of it, to a certain extent – though not entirely -- he literally ignited the entire conflagration. History remembers it as the Seven Years War, though it is frequently called the French & Indian War in the United States. Winston Churchill, in his analysis of the Seven Years War would refer to it as the First World War (Seven Years War, n.d.). In the next section, George Washington’s place in this war, along with his leadership role in the Virginia Militia, will continue to be explored, along with the manner in which the militia concept would ultimately give rise to the naval militia concept in the 19th century, and on into the present day.


The militias of Europe were born within a system of kings, lords, and vassals, and, ultimately, humble citizens, who sought to defend their homeland from external invaders, and, when necessary, to rein in power-seeking aristocrats with no understanding of the rights of the people. The American militia, however, whose patrimony included the martial DNA of the Old World’s citizen-soldiers, based its raison d’être, not on the divine right of kings, but on the natural law, transcendent rights of citizens and loyal subjects, as articulated within its founding documents. What is more, in order to render the emergence of the militia, as a land-based reality more comprehensible, it is essential that students of history and war grasp the evolutionary-revolutionary trajectory within the so-called Army Style of the West, particularly after the demise of the Roman Empire.

Prior to the Roman era, the Greeks epitomized the Western martial tradition. For cultural school military historians, like Victor Davis Hanson, the Anabasis demonstrated, the role of Western values in organizing and facilitating Occidental military institutions. After the Roman period, the feudal era saw the rise of the militia, part-time, citizen-soldiers, serving not only their sovereign lords, but the dignity and rights of their own lives, against the depredations and usurpations of power-hungry aristocrats. Various ancient documents attest to the principles that undergirded the militia as an emergent military reality in the complex environment of Medieval Europe; these principles would eventually be transplanted to the New World of America, along with the militia concept that they nurtured.

By 1700, the militia was a regular part of the American experience. Indeed, the militia would remain a fixture of the political and military expression of the New World quest for security and defense for almost three centuries. Militias were necessary in this wondrous continent; the new American land was an inviting environment, but one that was frequently unpredictable in its natural dangers. Equally, to the early settlers of the British settlers, North America was an explorer’s cornucopia, a veritable horn-of-political-plenty, separated from the European and British mainland. For this geographic and geopolitical reason, the New World of Columbus probably always – at least for some -- exuded the promise incipient nationhood – a siren song of nationalism. However, to achieve this goal, the Militia would be forced to play a vital role.

Many unknown colonists -- and later citizens of the United States -- would participate in the militia experience. Some were rather famous by the end of their lives. Among them -- the first Commander-in-Chief of the United States, George Washington -- who served first with the Virginia Militia, and later as the nation’s first president. Washington’s experiences as an officer of militia would have a powerful impact on his subsequent career, one that would serve him well in the American Revolution. But prior to that experience, Washington’s role in the Seven Years War would ultimately play a powerful role in bringing the young militia officer to the forefront of subsequent American history. These and other matters pertaining to the militia experience, culminating in the genesis of a Naval Militia, matters will be discussed in a subsequent section.

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Show Footnotes and References

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© 2024 James Hinton

Published online: 01/22/2015.

Written by Steven Christopher Ippolito, Ph.D. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Steven Ippolito at:

About the author:
Dr. Steven Christopher Ippolito, Ph.D., who spent most of his life in Manhattan and the Bronx, New York (Go Yankees!) is a retired law enforcement officer for the State of New York with nearly twenty years experience. A full-time professor of Criminal Justice and Homeland Security at Monroe College, New York City, Steve has two Masters Degrees, one from New York University; the other, from Norwich University, VT., in the very first Military History class of 2007. In August 2017, he earned his Ph.D. from Northcentral University, from the School of Business Administration and Technology, with a specialization in Homeland Security, under Committee Chair, Kimberly Anthony, Ph.D, and Committee member, Meena Clowes, Ph.D. His dissertation was based on mixed-methodological research into the phenomenon of convergence, the intersection of crime, terrorism, war, and other forms of conflict (the crime-terror nexus; crime-terror pipeline), as both a homeland security and educational problem. All his professional research is dedicated to God, Country, and Family, including the wider family of students and academic colleagues. To all of these, and to all first responders, police, fire-fighters, military personnel, emergency medical personnel, homeland security and emergency management operatives, Steve sends best wishes. May God bless America, now and forever!

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