New Hampshire’s Militia: Gathering for Annual Muster Day

For countless years, in the month of September

Photograph of a militia re-enactment in 2005. Copyright Janice W. Brown

militia belonging to various regiments, comprising those able-bodied citizens, between the ages of eighteen and forty, from the towns throughout New Hampshire, assembled for inspection and review on “Muster Day.”

By definition, a militia is a body of armed citizens, with some military training, who may be called to temporary active military service in times of emergency. Militias are generally understood to be a part-time, nonprofessional fighting force, distinguished from regular troops or a standing army. In the United States, the term “militia” has historically been associated with the colonial and state militias that existed since the early days of settlement. [New Militia FAQ]

The New Hampshire militia was first organized in 1680 by then New Hampshire Colonial Governor John Cutt. Soldiers of the militia served in the Colonial Wars and took part in the capture of the French fort at Louisburg during the French and Indian War in 1745.

New Hampshire soldiers helped secure independence during the Revolutionary War. On December 14, 1774, a group of patriots under the command of Captain Thomas Pickering, of Portsmouth, attacked and captured Fort William and Mary at Newcastle, New Hampshire. The “shot heard ’round the world” was not fired at Lexington, Massachusetts until the following April. Powder taken during the fort’s capture was used during the Battle of Bunker Breed’s Hill [corrected by JB]. New Hampshire militia outnumbered all others at Bunker Hill.

Following the American Revolution, the law required a company parade and drill annually in the month of May, and also for preparation for a regimental parade  on Muster day. An audience of local townspeople gathered to watch the exercises.  Then many times they would go to the meeting house to listen to a patriotic sermon, or watch an entertainment, after which refreshments would be served.  Most towns had a location considered their “muster field.” They were trained at the town’s expense.

From early dawn until late afternoon on Muster Day, the “air resounded with the strains of martial music mingled with the shouts of the peddlers and hawkers crying their wares.”  Wrestling and other athletic sports were popular pastimes on such occasions.

The speeches and addresses of the reviewing officers were calculated to inspire the troops with the impression that is was not a burden, but a privilege and right, to bear arms.

But, somehow, after years of successful application, the old militia law did become a burden. About 1855 the militia organization was abolished and the muster was no longer required.  It become a matter of New Hampshire history, remembered and boasted about by the aging participants.

When the Civil War began, New Hampshire had to start from scratch to recreate a militia. Once formed, they fought bravely during the battles of that terrible war. In 1879 the New Hampshire militia became the New Hampshire National Guard.

In September of 1892, Horatio T. Perry submitted an article called “An Old New Hampshire Muster” to The New England Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 1, a portion of which is repeated here, which will help those of us to better understand what “Muster Day” must have been like….

     “I was born in the pleasant valley of the Ashuelot River, at Keene, in New Hampshire, and among the earliest scenes which my memory retains is that of an old New England “muster” in that beautiful region.


I am in a great field, where is a crowd collected from all the country round. Show booths and hucksters’ stalls, peddlers, peanuts and watermelons, gingerbread and new cider are confused with farmers’ wives and wagons ranged along one side of the field. An encampment runs along the other side, and in front of the tents drawn up in line is a regiment of about a thousand men with muskets standing at ease.

     We occupy the middle of the field, but between us and the line of bayonets is a broad open space kept by men detached from the front of each company, who pace majestically up and down, holding the admiring crowd to its limits. This was “muster day,” the annual muster of the –th Regiment New Hampshire Militia–a holiday before whose glories even “Independence” and “Thanksgiving” pales their lesser lights, and “Election Day” with its varnished buns was wholly out of count. It seems I was old enough to be let go to “muster” and a servant led me by the hand over the field.


Suddenly there was a buzz and a movement–everybody pressed to the line kept by the soldiers. “The general is coming!”   As I was small I was allowed a place at the very edge, and could see down the whole length of the open space in front of the regiment.   Presently a dozen horsemen appeared at the father end of the field, and came on rapidly, brave in colors and floating plumes.  In front rode alone at a hand gallop a tall man on a fine horse, which he sat admirably and to the evident satisfaction of the crowd.
“Hurrah for the general! — Hurrah!” –and they were nearly up to us, when suddenly a little boy not bigger than myself darted out from the mass, and before the servant or the soldiers could stop him was in the middle of the open space, under the feet of the horses, with outstretched arms, crying, “Pa! Pa! Take me up!”


How he was not trampled under foot I cannot explain; but he stopped the cavalcade. The general reined up sharply, and the staff succeeded in doing the same. It is clear that the father must have been guilty of having his boy up on his saddle-bow before that day,–but of this I keep no remembrance. That day, however, something in the expression of the general’s face as the child was taken back safely in arms, and the deprecating tone with which some one explained to the indignant crowd, “It is the general’s little son!” stamped his image upon my memory indelibly.  I see the whole scene as it if were yesterday, and the revulsion it produced in my ideas is not forgotten.  The child was safe, the chief incident of the day was over, and I felt strangely like going home.  The whole aspect of the show was changed.  The idea that a general could also be a father and a kind, warm-hearted man came over me queerly. It took all the wickedness out of the thing.  The aspect of the regiment was different; my conviction that all those men were capable of firing ramrods straight into a crowd of men, women, and children was shaken; my whole conception of the nature of the citizen soldier was overturned. The regiment was still a thing to be patted on the back and feasted, perhaps, but it was no longer to be feared.

The boy who darted out was no other than myself, and the general who reined up in time not to trample his son under his horse’s feet was my father.


Indeed, it is a notable institution–that of the New Hampshire militia.  What boy of three or even four years could ever have recognized in those red-breasted soldiers marching to drum-beat and making such a fearful noise and smoke with their own brown-Bess muskets, the quiet artisans of the village, or the jolly young farmers of the surrounding hills?  In those days every man in uniform wore in his shiny leather hat a tall, round brush of feathers sticking up about three feet high, and officers had each a sort of Prince of Wales arrangement of three black ostrich plumes, most gallant to behold.  Two leathern straps, laid over scale on scale with glittering brass, helped them to keep their hats on in a breeze.  We were told that this handsome head gear was designed for resisting cavalry, and it was clear to me that no horse of any spirit would ever have stood a brush in the face from those far reaching feathers
.

You should have seen them at their exercise, resisting the cavalry.

The first rank, with knee to earth and musket-stock set firm, leaned forward, nodding defiance to the foe; the second laid their heads along their leveled tubes, ready to sweep him from the earth. In that position the whole visible front was but a cloud of waving plumes.  Nothing so effective has ever been invented in China; and even in the epopee of Rome that cloud in which the goddess mother wrapped her hero son whenever things were getting too warm for him was not so dense. Such infantry must have been singularly perplexing to horsemen; and so it happened that no cavalry were ever seen within the limits of the State of New Hampshire.
Unhappily, the whole system has since been criticized as good for nothing practically; but I cling to my early impressions.  Purblind reformers have evidently mistaken the grand object of the New Hampshire militia.  What enemy had those brave battalions ever to meet more terrible than the bevies of bright-eyed country lasses, whom they really did maintain in a state of submissive awe?  If merit is to be measured by success, that soldiery was eminently successful.
The spring, the summer, and the autumn “trainings,” all leading up to the crowning day of “muster,” were simply the bright side of life for thousands of that hardy yeomanry who peopled the New Hampshire hills, and amongst whom it was my good fortune to be born.
The Keene light infantry, the Westmoreland light infantry, the Gilsum grays, the Sullivan blues, the Swanzey artillery, with their two old smooth-bore guns dragged by ropes to which the gallant fellows harnessed themselves, all are part and parcel of my youth; and I have always felt for them a degree of admiration which I could never since accord to any other army,–not even to the Prussians whom I met under the Crown-Prince Frederick in the lines before Paris.
Looking back upon it coolly, I must now confess that there was no appreciable difference between the Keene light infantry and the Westmoreland light infantry, except that the latter wore red woolen braid laid in stripes like a herring bone upon their cotton-padded breasts, whilst Keene wore one broad patch like a full moon of that same warlike color.  But always where the points of difference are few the rivalry is enormous.


It would be difficult to conceive the depth of popular feeling when Keene turned out one hundred and four muskets, and Westmoreland appeared with one hundred and nine.  We boys were naturally in favor of our own light infantry, but there were occasions when we could not but acknowledge that if Keene were out of the way Westmoreland would have had our approval
.

And those days when both met in Keene for the exhibition of marching tactics, each with a big band of bugles, trombones, and ophicleides, set off by clarionets and fifes and at least a dozen drums!  The involutions and evolutions, progressions, retrogressions, and gyrations practised by those crack companies, in and out and up and down the main street and central square of Keene, New Hampshire, can rarely have been equalled elsewhere.  The game must be acknowledged to have been well sustained,–no giving in on either side; both bands blowing and beating each a different quick-step in irreconcilable discord to see whose noise could drown the other; Keene’s files sometimes slipping off into Westmoreland’s step, and anon Westmoreland tripping to the beat of Keene; the men sweaty and breathless, the movement vertiginous,–it was certainly a most admirable display. – Finish reading the article

[Note: the last of the “Old Time Musters” held in Keene was on 2 October 1850]

Janice

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

New Hampshire Militia

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3 Responses to New Hampshire’s Militia: Gathering for Annual Muster Day

  1. Trish says:

    Hi there we are having a town celebration in Fremont on June 21 2014 and we are looking for so historical events to happen as our town will be turnign 250 years old if you could provide me with any information that would be great

  2. Richard says:

    That’s great Trish. as you know, we celebrated our 250th here in Danville a couple years back. The 1st NH regiment was on hand to demonstrate. I am a member of NH oathkeepers. If you have not heard of us, go to oathkeepers.org and check us out I’m sure some of our local members would be willing to help out.
    I hope to attend fremonts celebration. I love our history and happen to be related to Ben Franklin. I am very much into the original teachings of our founding fathers and the original documents they produced. WORD FOR WORD.
    Have a great day and best wishes with your event. I’m sure it will be great.

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