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A Rabble in Arms

A Rabble in Arms: Massachusetts Towns and Militiamen during King Philips War

Kyle F. Zelner
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    A Rabble in Arms
    Book Description:

    While it lasted only sixteen months, King Philip's War (1675-1676) was arguably one of the most significant of the colonial wars that wracked early America. As the first major military crisis to directly strike one of the Empire's most important possessions: the Massachusetts Bay Colony, King Philip's War marked the first time that Massachusetts had to mobilize mass numbers of ordinary, local men to fight. In this exhaustive social history and community study of Essex County, Massachusetts's militia, Kyle F. Zelner boldly challenges traditional interpretations of who was called to serve during this period.Drawing on muster and pay lists as well as countless historical records, Zelner demonstrates that Essex County's more upstanding citizens were often spared from impressments, while the rabble - criminals, drunkards, the poor - were forced to join active fighting units, with town militia committees selecting soldiers who would be least missed should they die in action. Enhanced by illustrations and maps, A Rabble in Arms shows that, despite heroic illusions of a universal military obligation, town fathers, to damaging effects, often placed local and personal interests above colonial military concerns.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-9746-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Figures, Maps, and Tables
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    On a late August day in 1675, a lone rider arrived in the coastal town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, bearing dispatches for the local committee of militia.¹ The message came from Major General Daniel Denison in nearby Salem, the commander of the Essex County Regiment. King Philip’s War had been raging since June and Massachusetts Bay was mobilizing its militia as quickly as possible. The rider found Samuel Ward, lieutenant of the town’s militia, and handed over a single sheet of paper. As Ward took the dispatch, he knew that the day he dreaded had finally arrived; in his hand was...

  6. A Note on Method
    (pp. 15-18)
  7. 1 “For the best ordering of the militia”: English Military Precedent and the Early Massachusetts Bay Militia
    (pp. 19-39)

    The 1628 Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company gave the company and its “chief commanders, governors, and officers” an order to provide “for their special defense and safety, to incounter, expulse, repell, and resist by force of arms” all enemies of the colony.¹ The governor and General Court of Massachusetts Bay took this charge seriously, writing that it was as important to the success of the “City on a Hill” as their preparations for a godly church: “As piety cannot be maintained without church ordinances and officers, nor justice without laws and magistrates, no more can our safety and peace...

  8. 2 The Massachusetts Bay Militia and the Practice of Impressment during King Philip’s War
    (pp. 40-69)

    When King Philip’s War broke out in the Plymouth Colony on June 20, 1675, the authorities in Plymouth immediately alerted their allies in Massachusetts Bay. The Massachusetts General Court was not in session, but during its first meeting after receiving news of the hostilities, on July 9, 1675, the Court began to prepare for conflict, voting for several war taxes and empowering local constables to amass supplies for an army. The legislators also ordered that cavalry troopers, traditionally exempt from paying regular county rates, pay the new war tax.¹ The language of this first wartime session, however, exposes the Court’s...

  9. 3 Many Men, Many Choices: Impressment in Essex County’s Thriving Towns
    (pp. 70-108)

    Impressment for active military service was a local matter in colonial New England. The militia committees, which made the fateful decision of who went to war, resided in each community and were made up of local elites who personally knew most of the men they sent off to fight. That was the reason that the General Court established the committees of militia in the first place—to institutionalize the “persistent localism” so cherished in Puritan New England within the military command structure, especially the arm that made impressment decisions. To truly understand how Massachusetts Bay chose its soldiers and why,...

  10. 4 Few Men, Few Options: Impressment in Essex County’s Small Towns
    (pp. 109-140)

    Local control of the militia was a hallmark of seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay. As has been demonstrated, the power of locally controlled committees of militia to levy soldiers was nearly absolute in most of Essex County’s large or thriving towns. Militia committees used their impressment power not only to raise the troops necessary to fulfill their military manpower quotas, but did so in a way that affirmed the community’s (or at least its elite members’) values. Ipswich’s committee continued a long-running battle with town undesirables, while the committee in Rowley dealt with the aftereffects of a religious controversy. Marblehead’s military leaders...

  11. 5 The Pressed Men of Essex County: The Social Identity of the Soldiers of King Philip’s War
    (pp. 141-180)

    Many documents from the period of King Philip’s War and countless sources after—town histories, genealogies, community records, and other sources—claim to record the men who served in King Philip’s War. Yet, scores of the men so listed were never on the front lines; some received payment for services or provisions they supplied, while others were compensated for some now unknown reason. These men were not soldiers. Even leaving these noncombatants aside, from July 1675 to September 1676, well over a thousand men from Massachusetts Bay were soldiers. They served in active-duty militia companies, fighting in the most important...

  12. 6 The Effects of Impressment: War and Peace in Essex County
    (pp. 181-212)

    King Philip’s War raged in southern New England from June 1675 to September 1676.¹ While men from Essex County fought in many different units and capacities during the war, soldiers from the county made up a sizeable portion of eight active-duty units, six infantry and two cavalry. The history of these “Essex companies” is essential to forming an understanding of the nature of the war for the men from Essex. It also offers a glimpse into the minds of the town committees of militia, whose members frequently heard reports about the conditions of the war from their soldiers. The committees...

  13. Afterword: The Military of Massachusetts Bay Transformed
    (pp. 213-218)

    In the midst of King Philip’s War, although few in the colony perceived it at the time, a major shift occurred in the way that Massachusetts Bay conducted war. The change in the nature of offensive warfare was subtle, but significant. Amazingly, the exact day that the change transpired can be identified, a rare occurrence for such an important but almost imperceptible shift. The date was May 5, 1676. On that day, the Massachusetts General Court issued a series of orders to its commanders and militia committees. The first set of commands instructed military leaders to “arme & dispatch the...

  14. Appendix 1: The Soldiers of Essex County in King Philip’s War, 1675–1676
    (pp. 219-228)
  15. Appendix 2: Rowley’s 1662 Tax List: Ranked by Family with Soldiers’ Families Highlighted
    (pp. 229-232)
  16. Appendix 3: Topsfield’s 1668 Tax List: Ranked by Family with Soldiers’ Families Highlighted
    (pp. 233-234)
  17. Appendix 4: An Examination of the Age of Essex County Soldiers and Officers in King Philip’s War, 1675–1676
    (pp. 235-238)
  18. Appendix 5: The Occupations of the Soldiers of Essex County, 1675–1676
    (pp. 239-240)
  19. Abbreviations Used in the Notes
    (pp. 241-242)
  20. Notes
    (pp. 243-296)
  21. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 297-312)
  22. Permissions
    (pp. 313-314)
  23. Index
    (pp. 315-324)
  24. About the Author
    (pp. 325-325)