Military records have importance beyond that of bragging on your ancestors. They can help you to find them. The emphasis on this site is this latter function, so don't look for tales of exploits in battle.
The genealogical value of militia muster rolls is that they establish the presence of an individual in a particular place at a particular time, especially in the mid-18th century when few other records can be found. However, the data may not be especially precise; some of these records are poorly dated and districts not well described, or described in terms of little modern meaning. Much analysis & interpretation is required to bring meaning.
Early American Armed Forces
We celebrate the "Minute Men", the Massachusetts militiamen who fought the battles of Lexington & Concord. The militia tradition of North Carolina (and other states) was equally strong; it had been honed in the French & Indian Wars of the mid-1700s.
Until after the War of 1812, America had few regular Army or Navy troops or officers. When armed forces were needed, the colonial or state militias were called up to serve. While the Army was upgraded after the War of 1812, the Civil War was fought mostly by state militia units on both sides.
For example, when the port of Beaufort was attacked by Spanish privateers in 1747, it was the Carteret County militia that resisted them.
In the War of 1812, the entire initial West Point cadet corps -- all six cadets -- was pressed into combat. And, the US had no Navy to speak of in those early days; it relied on private ships and the French Navy in the Revolution and the subsequent War of 1812.
A little-known but interesting nautical tradition survives from this time: Under official US flag etiquette, the only flag which may be flown above the United States ensign is a private yacht's or yacht club's burgee. It is to be flown from a gaff, not the mast or stay on which the US flag is displayed.
Militia Service Required
In the colonial era, militia service was required of able-bodied North Carolina males age 16 to 60. Something like the modern National Guard, the militia responded to all sorts of community emergencies.
Militia men were expected to supply their own weapons and, for the cavalry, horses & tack. Occasional notes "appeared without arms" refer to men failing to meet this expectation.
In the muster rolls, we sometimes see notes that certain men listed are "exempt due to age". Exemptions were also granted for certain professions, such as clergy and ferry-men. If your ancestor is not listed on a militia roll, look for a court record granting an exemption.
Each county had a regiment of militia, commanded by a colonel & composed of two or more companies. Militia infantry ("foot") companies were organized by area, in order to facilitate quick response and encourage attendance at musters. Companies were commanded by captains. (There is an overlap here with intra-county political boundaries; tax districts are often referred to as "Captain So-and-so's District".)
Calvary ("horse") companies ("troops") tended to be based county-wide, unless a county was particularly affluent and could have more than one cavalry troop. The cavalry required two elements in short supply:
- Horses used to a saddle & rider. Most horses were used to pull plows or wagons and unaccustomed to being ridden. A sleek riding horse was a luxury that not all could afford.
- Skilled riders, who could keep their mounts in the necessary military formations.
We're ignoring, for the moment, "dragoons" — a sort of combination infantry & cavalry. Dragoons rode to the place of battle, then dismounted to fight. Militarily, they had the advantage of rapid movement to the battlefield, but did not require the maneuvering precision horsemanship of cavalry. We've found no dragoons in this area.