Lineage Society

My ancestor served in the Army: the three types of Revolutionary War Army service

When we talk about an ancestor’s service in World War I, we’re talking about service in a single unit – the US Army. However, an ancestor who served in the American Revolution could have served in one of three different “units.”

The militia tradition was very strong in the colonies. While the British Army constituted the standing force, each town or county had a citizen-militia that could be called into service in the event of emergencies. Service in the militia was considered part of the duty of the town’s male (usually voting and property holding) residents. The militia thus became a ready force during the Revolution.

It served in the American Revolution in two different ways. The militia could be called out as a temporary defense force if a British unit was believed to be in the area. These “alarms” would call out anyone who was local for service, including the youngest and oldest members of the company. With some rare exceptions, records of these alarms will only be kept locally: supplies may not have been needed from the state, so no information would have been forwarded. The militia could also be asked to serve for longer periods, usually 60-90 days. Those who served for this extended period were usually in their 20s – 40s. Older company members would not have been considered fit for extended service. Rolls from the service were generally sent to the state, as supplies would have been needed.

The Continental government also relied on the militia system to create a third force, the Continental Army. The centralized Federal government seen today is a product of the Constitution, which was not signed until six years after the War. The governing document during the American Revolution was the Articles of Confederation. That document placed most of the power of governance in the hands of the states.

As a result, the states did the recruiting for the Continental Army and were asked to provide a quota of regiments to serve within it. Enlistment was generally for three years or the duration of the War. The typical enlistee was not landed; maintaining a farm would not be possible with such an extended absence. Because supplies and payment came from the central government, records of the Continental Army are typically held by the National Archives.

So to summarize, there were three possible “tiers” of Revolutionary War service:

  • Local militia, called out for alarms.
  • Local militia, called out for extended service.
  • Continental line.

The location of records will depend on the role in which your ancestor served.