Call to Arms: Historical Background

Virginia's Militia
Independent Companies
Virginia Regiments
The Second Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army

For almost 170 years, the American British colonies were protected by the British army and a colonial militia system. Each county in each colony was expected to train and maintain a militia that could be called to duty when needed for defense of the colony. As the American Revolution approached, the colonists needed to devise their own methods of protection. Even before the colonists realized that armed conflict with England was inevitable, they began to prepare for war.


Throughout the eighteenth century, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a series of militia laws. In 1771, the members passed a militia law that was to continue in force for two years. This law--An act for further continuing the Act, intituled an Act for the better regulating and disciplining the militia--was based on the 1757 militia law, which had been continued and amended four times by the General Assembly between 1757 and 1771. The law stated that all males above the age of eighteen and under the age of sixty were required to be part of the militia, but there were a number of exceptions. These included several government officials, clergy of the Church of England, professors at the College of William and Mary, members of the government of the City of Williamsburg, keepers of the public gaol, overseers of four or more slaves, millers, and those working in iron, copper, or lead mines.

Each militiaman was expected to provide his own firelock, cartridge box, one pound of powder, and four pounds of ball. Men too poor to provide these materials would be supplied at public expense. All free mulattos, Negroes, or Indians were to be listed in the company and appear at musters without arms. They were to be used as drummers, trumpeters, or pioneers. Militia companies were to muster at least every three months, with a general muster to held in the spring (March or April) and fall (September or October). Each year, an officer and four militiamen were appointed to patrol and visit all slave quarters and other places suspected of entertaining unlawful assemblies of slaves, servants, or other disorderly persons, and to make sure that slaves going from one plantation to another had a pass. After the fall muster, a court martial was held to inquire into the age and abilities of all those who were listed, to exempt those who were judged incapable of serving, and to determine the fines for all those who were delinquent.

On May 26, 1774, Governor Dunmore dissolved the General Assembly before its members could agree on a new militia law. Virginia was left in a poor state of readiness, and there was a great deal of concern regarding the adequacy of the colony’s defense--especially during the escalating conflict with England.


Beginning in the fall of 1774, a number of counties formed Independent Companies. At a meeting of gentlemen and freeholders of Fairfax County held on September 21, 1774, with George Mason as chairman, the following association was formed and entered into:

In this time of extreme Danger, with the Indian Enemy in our Country, and threat’ned with the Destruction of our Civil-rights & Liberty, and all that is dear to British Subjects & Freemen; we the Subscribers, taking into our serious consideration the present alarming Situation of all the British Colonies upon this Continent as well as our own, being sensible of the expediency of putting the Militia of this colony upon a more respectable Footing & hoping to excite others by our Example, have voluntarily freely & cordially entered unto the following Association; which we, each of us ourselves respectively, solemnly promise, & pledge our Honours to each other, and to our Country to perform. That we will form ourselves into a Company, not exceeding one hundred Men, by the Name of Fairfax independent Company of Volunteers, making Choice of our own Officers; to whom, for the Sake of Good-order & Regularity, we will pay due submission. That we will meet at such Times and Places in this County as our said Officers (to be chosen by a Majority of the Members, so soon as fifty have subscribed) shall appoint & direct, for the Purpose of learning & practicing the military Exercise & Discipline, . . . distinguishing our Dress, when we are upon Duty, by painted Hunting-Shirts and Indian Boots, or Caps, as shall be found most convenient, . . . And we do Each of us, for ourselves respectively, promise and engage to keep a good Fire-lock in proper Order, & to furnish Ourselves as soon as possible with, & always keep by us, one Pound of Gunpowder, four Pounds of lead, one dozen Gun-Flints,& a pair of Bullet-Moulds, with a Cartouch Box, or power-horn, and bag for Balls. That we will use our utmost Endeavours, as well at the Musters of the said Company, as by all other means in our Power, to make ourselves Masters of the Military Exercise. And that we will always hold ourselves in Readiness, in Case of Necessity, hostile Invasion, or real Danger of the Community of which we are members.

In November 1775, James Madison wrote to William Bradford in Pennsylvania: "In many counties independent companies are forming and voluntaraly subjecting themselves to military discipline that they may be expert & prepared against a time of need. I hope it will be a general thing thro’ought this province. Such firm and provident steps will either intimidate our enemies or enable us to defy them. And Governor Dunmore, writing to Lord Dartmouth in December 1774, stated that "every county is now arming a company of men who they call an independent company."

As tensions mounted between Great Britain and her colonies, many Virginians began to discuss and debate questions concerning Virginia’s ability to wage war and what the posture of defense should be. In March 1775, the Second Virginia Convention was held in Richmond to avoid interference by British forces. Attending were 120 delegates from all parts of the colony. During the fourth day of the convention, Patrick Henry put forward a resolution--"That a well regulated Militia, composed of Gentlemen and Yeomen, is the natural Strength, and only Security, of a free Government." It was during his speech in support of his resolution that Henry stated: "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!" After his resolution was passed by a close vote, a committee was appointed to prepare a "Plan for the embodying, arming, and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose."

The plan proposed and accepted by the convention put into effect the Militia Law that had been passed in 1738 (which was very similar to the 1757 Militia Law) and recommended to all counties that they form "one or more Volunteer Companies of Infantry and Troops of Horse." Each company of infantry was to consist of sixty-eight men, four officers, four noncommissioned officers, and a drummer. Each man was to have a rifle or firelock, a bayonet, a cartridge box, a tomahawk, one pound of powder, four pounds of ball, be clothed in a hunting shirt, and learn the 1764 Military Exercise for Infantry.

Many of these Independent Companies were under the direction of county committees of safety. They assisted in the voluntary compliance with the directives of the Continental Associations as well as local committees of safety. These companies were all democratic organizations, voting for their own officers and for any actions that the company might take. On two occasions, Independent Companies marched to Williamsburg--once after the gunpowder was removed from the Magazine, and once when Governor Dunmore fled the city--but these companies never demonstrated their effectiveness as a military force.


The Third Virginia Convention, held in July and August of 1775, met in Richmond at the same site as the Second Virginia Convention because members feared that Dunmore would attack Williamsburg. Much of the convention focused on the defense and protection of the colony. An ordinance was passed that set up a three-tiered army.

First, two regiments of regulars were authorized. The regiments consisted of a total of 1,020 privates who enlisted for one year. The first regiment was to consist of 544 privates, under the command of a colonel, lieutenant-colonel, major, eight captains, sixteen lieutenants, eight ensigns, and twenty-four sergeants and include eight drummers and eight fifers. The second regiment was to consist of 476 privates under the command of a colonel, lieutenant-colonel, major, seven captains, fourteen lieutenants, seven ensigns, and twenty-one sergeants and include seven drummers and seven fifers. Each regiment was to have a chaplain, paymaster, adjutant, quartermaster, one surgeon, two surgeon's mates, and a sergeant-major. Within each regiment companies were formed that consisted of sixty men commanded by a captain. All arms and accouterments for these regiments were furnished at public expense.

Second, sixteen minutemen battalions were set up. Each battalion consisted of five hundred men divided into ten companies. Each company had a drummer and fifer whose arms were furnished at public expense. Initial training was twenty successive days followed by four days of training each month. Finally, county militias were formed for men not enlisted as regulars or minutemen. All the Independent Companies were dissolved, and the officers and men were enlisted in the minutemen battalions.

The convention then established rules and articles of war that were to be read publicly at the head of each regiment every three months. The first of these seventy-two articles contained the oath that all officers and soldiers were to take within two days of their enlistment:

I, (name) do swear, that I will be faithful and true to the colony and dominion of Virginia; that I will serve the same to the utmost of my powers, in defense of the just rights of America, against all enemies whatsoever; that I will obey the orders of such officers who may be set over me, and lay down my arms peaceably when required so to do, either by the general convention, or the general assembly, of Virginia.

So help me God.


Between July 1775 and February 1776, Virginia raised nine regiments of infantry. By early 1777, the General Assembly had authorized an additional six regiments, bringing the total number of regiments to fifteen. Many of these early regiments were encamped in and around Williamsburg to receive their initial training. Once trained, the regiments joined the Continental Army under the command of George Washington. This was the first time since the French and Indian War that Virginia had a professional army.

Several orderly books that survive from the time these regiments were stationed in Williamsburg provide a glimpse into what it was like to be a new recruit. The following excerpts come from the Orderly Book of the Second Virginia Regiment:

October 11, 1775
Captain of Each Company is to apply to the quartermaster for Linnen cloth to make a haversack for Each Soldier one yard of Oznabrigs is Supposed to be Sufficient for the purpose of making the sack. The Same Time each Company is to Draw a Sufficient Quantity of Dutch or Quisa Drilling To provide each Soldier with a Shott Pouch with a partition or division in the Middle to keep Buck Shot and Bulletts Sepperate. Each Soldier to make his own sack and Shot Pouch as near one General Size & patern as Possible. Thread Sufficient for the purpose must be drawn, at the same time as much as will make each Soldier a Hunting Shirt.

October 12, 1775
It is Expected that the Officers will remain in Camp Constantly as possible, in order to Exert their Unremitted Endeavours to preserve Order and Decorum & promote Dicipline, the Aurchord men are to be Divided into Small Squads under proper officers to Learn the Exorcise the most Expert men to join the Grand Squade--the Unarmed men may be taught to March &c. at all times when they Can Borrow arms to be Exorcising & Larning the Use of them.

October 27, 1775
It is expected that each Capt. will with all Expedition Provide Legins for his men & hunting shirts Dy’d of a purple Coulour the Quartermaster for the Present to have 16 Cartriges For men Turn’d about 10 inches long to be hallow at one end to Receive half a Bullett, The serjeant of the Guard is to make his Report to the Major Immediatedly after he is Relieved--four men from each Company to be ordered Down to the Court house to Run Bulletts.

November 1, 1775
A General Cort martial is to set to day for the Trial of the prisoners Confined for Sleeping on their posts.

Beginning with the formation of Independent Companies and continuing with enlistments in the initial Regiments of 1775 and early 1776, Virginian were choosing revolution over a peaceful solution to the increasing tensions between Great Britain and her American colonies. Long before a formal declaration of independence was issued, Virginians were preparing themselves for war.