Farmer Armies

Published by Leave your thoughts

The Five Elements

Our Independence holiday event, “Colonial Faire,” celebrates a very old military and cultural tradition that has roots in both old and new England, and likely most of Europe.  “Training Day,” also called “Battalion Day” or “Muster Day” originated in the need for community defense.  Every man between 16 and 60, usually on pain of a fine, had to appear for military training, and provide his own musket, gunpowder, and ammunition.

Training Day was so important, our second president, John Adams, considered it one of the five main elements of New England society, along with free labor (the right to keep the proceeds of your work), a free church, the district school, and the town meeting.  Although professional military, then and now, mocked “farmer armies” of militia, the New England minute companies represented an extremely efficient way to field an army quickly.  By the evening of April 19, 1775 the various townships of New England amassed so many troops, they dwarfed the British expeditionary force and frightened the bloodied ministerial troops back to Boston.  Nor were these country soldiers without organization.  Their companies fell into several regiments, commanded by a militia general, William Heath, who oversaw a command structure that included militia colonels, majors, and captains.

Before the era of hyper-specialization, before we left war to soldiers, law enforcement to police, and conflagrations to professional fire-fighters, literally everyone was expected to play some role in protecting the community.  Grandmothers rolled cartridges.  Sisters prepared bandages.  Children filled fire-buckets with water.  Many modern day political progressives–thoroughly aghast at the Kyle Rittenhouse story— may grudgingly acknowledge the need for self defense, but they simply can’t abide the idea of a teenager rushing, armed, into a conflict, anxious to protect life and property.

Well, Kyle’s example wasn’t an exception in early American life.  It was the expected norm. yourselves with all sorts of weapons of war

In the many colonial decades prior to the American Revolution, “training day” could sometimes take a deadly serious turn, complete with prayerful appeals.  The early settlers of New England understandably considered their new environment to be a wilderness, fraught with peril.  Consider one Captain Johnson in 1631, addressing the Bay Colony militia..

“You shall with all diligence provide against the malignant adversaries of truth. See then you  store yourselves with all sorts of weapons of war. Furbish up your swords, rapiers, and all other piercing  weapons. As for great artillery, wait on the Lord Christ and he will stir up friends to provide for you ; and in the meantime spare not to lay out your [coin] for powder, bullets, match, and all kinds of instruments for war. See that with all diligence you encourage every soldier-like spirit among you, for the Lord Christ intends to achieve greater matters by this little handful, than the world is aware of.”

By the late 17th century, “Dunton,” an observer and participant in a New England muster, noted the curiously religious character of muster day..

“It is their custom here for all that can bear arms, to go out on a training day. I thought a pike was best for a young soldier, and so I carried a pike—t’was the first time I was ever in arms. Being come into the field, the Captain called us all into our close order, in order to go to prayer, and then prayed himself. And when exercise was done, the Captain likewise concluded with a prayer. Solemn prayer in the  field upon a day of training I never knew but in New  England, where it seems it is a common custom. About three o’clock, our exercise and prayers being  over, we had a very noble dinner, to which all the clergy were invited.

The oldest artillery company in Boston was “the ancient and honorable company of artillery,” formed in 1639. This company was allowed to choose its own officers, but they were strictly enjoined to remain under the command of the governor and his council. The fear of a permanent military establishment, and the fear of the military overriding civil authority, runs deep in American history.

In contrast to the high seriousness of the New England militia muster, a company of intoxicated Maryland militia “annoyed” and then knocked down a Methodist preacher in Baltimore in 1770.  Source  In times of peace, it could be difficult to take the obligations of community defense seriously.  In 1765, and on many other occasions, soldiers were fined for not having the right equipment.  Source

Anyone who has taken in the ponderous strutting of Disney’s soldierly elephants in Jungle Book is reminded that training for war, when no enemy is on the horizon, can make for easy comedy.  (Disney seemed to make it a kind of theme; ponder the pixilated admiral down the street in Mary Poppins.)  The crowds observing Training Day in the colonies had similar reactions, even if they understood the necessity of the task.  Replacing the “left, right, left” of modern military drill, colonial soldiers sometimes had hay inserted in their left shoe and straw in their right, to mark the difference.  The absurdity of such a sight was not lost on one 19th century poet.


Hay foot straw foot
That was what they said
Hardly knew that Eyes right Meant
Look straight ahead
Shambling sheepish clumsy Awkward every way
How they made spectators laugh On Training day

Very well
But after When the fighting came
Was there room for laughter
Was there cause for shame
Grimmer grew the faces
Firmer grew the tread
As hay foot straw foot
Marched straight ahead

Margaret Vandergrift    Source

If you have never served on a marching band, or a drill team, or if you have never re-enacted 19th century line battle, you might underestimate how difficult it is to get 40 people in a straight line, much less in two ranks, first rank kneeling and second rank standing, at the shoulder-arms position.  The timing and the precision of the commands can be so demanding we can certainly understand the Dutch Pennsylvania farmer, and militia captain, who practiced drill in his attic, shouting commands, and then abruptly “about-faced” himself down a flight of stairs.

Training days were not without incident.  At least one fellow lost an arm from a cannon blast, and in 1651, a gun discharge claimed the life of a participant on training day.  Source  In addition, not everyone was required to attend training.  Harvard man John Quincy Adams was spared training day in 1787 on account of his being a student. Source

In general, when actual hostilities were not likely, training day became a mix of prayer, preaching, drilling, dancing, eating, and drinking — sometimes too much drinking. The proximity of taverns to village greens meant that quite a few soldiers had to be coaxed away from the public house cage.  As the temperance movement overtook America in the mid 19th century, many of our Victorian ancestors were scandalized by the sheer volume of drink consumed on training days, and even at church-raisings, but a substantially different set of assumptions were in play.  In the 18th century, rum was seen as a kind of medicine necessary to keep the army moving; it dulled pain and it inspired courage.  While incapacitating intoxication could be severely punished, it’s difficult to imagine, given the sheer volume of liquor being consumed, how these folks could be anything short of decidedly buzzed.  In Ackworth, New Hampshire, rum for the entire company was considered a kind of line item expense.   Source

The festivity of muster days can bee seen in this Pennsylvania account..

“On the appointed day the village was all astir as you may well suppose and it was a grand sight indeed to us boys to see the soldiers and people generally flocking into town from all directions It was in fact the occasion of a general holiday throughout the whole military district and I venture to say that the old English fairs in their palmiest days saw no livelier or happy scene than did Schaefferstown on Battalion Day.”   (George Mays, MD,  Source)

The “fair food” of the time included lemonade, peanuts, ginger cake, and pretzels..  Source

‘The apple carts and peddlers wagons dispensing their stock of apples, sweet cider, ginger bread, and honey and before all the stirring music of the drum and fife were not soon forgotten..” Source

Some tavern keepers were actually charged with milking the thing..

“It was directly charged against some tavern keepers who were also captains in the militia that they sometimes ordered trainings for the purpose of drawing a crowd around their establishments and thereby turning the event into a merry making scheme for their own benefit..”   Source


In this era of pop-up tents and Home Depot delivered pergolas, we forget how ingenious our ancestors were with a few sticks, some twine, and spring branches.

“..families came in from all the country round bringing provisions and dainties of every description Several long tables would be erected and above them would be built a canopy of green boughs cut from the leafiest trees to be found This roof of green not only kept out the sun and perhaps a light shower or two but it lent an air of festivity not found indoors..”  Source

Note to staff: let’s build some rustic shelters this go-round.  The knot-tying on Instagram is weirdly hypnotic.  I plan to make this my new skill..

Fight, pray, dance, and celebrate with us..


Tickets  (Don’t Wait; ticket prices go up the closer we get to the event.)

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This post was written by Jim Riley

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