Militias and Militia Service

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The United States of America emerged from the War of Independence in 1783 with two decidedly conflicting images of the militia and the role it should play in the new nation. One side saw the militia as the bulwark of American liberty and freedom, a force of citizen soldiers investing their very lives in their new Republic. The other saw the war as having been won through the skill of the regulars and despite a bumbling and incompetent militia. Too much reliance on the militia could result in disaster.

Those that saw the militia in a positive way strongly believed that a standing army was an unmitigated threat to freedom and liberty. True, America lived in a hostile world still dominated by autocratic monarchs. And there was no guarantee that the Atlantic Ocean could contain the troubles of Europe or that the English to the north and the Spanish to the south would respect American independence. But supporters of the militia argued that a standing army could not possibly traverse the vast expanses of territory to adequately defend the new nation from foreign enemies. Instead, they chose to rely on the citizens themselves to protect and defend their country.

To veteran commanders of war, George Washington foremost among them, the militia performed poorly on the battlefield and could not be given the sole responsibility of defending the nation. In April 1783 the Continental Congress appointed a committee that asked Washington for a formal report on the future of the American military. Washington recommended the establishment of a regular army that would pull troops from state-organized militia forces. Under Washington's plan, the militia forces would receive from twelve to twenty-five days of training annually. In essence, his proposal called for a permanent standing army in the mold of the Continental forces during the war. Congress, however, failed to enact his plan. In 1784 an army was created to go into the Northwest Territory; its seven hundred troops had been culled from the militias of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

A tax revolt known as Shays's Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786–1787 proved to many that the militia was unreliable. Massachusetts called up local militia and sent it to restore order and protect the courts, but the militiamen defected to the rebels. When Shays and his men marched on the Springfield armory to gain more weapons for their growing forces, a private army consisting of militiamen and others raised mainly in unsympathetic eastern Massachusetts and financed by merchants dispersed the rebels in a short battle, ending the revolt. The incident in Massachusetts played a leading role in motivating Americans to adopt a stronger national government. The Constitution looked to federal-state cooperation in the militia through its grant of authority in Article I, Section 8 to Congress to call out the militias in cases of invasion or domestic insurrection and to restore law and order when needed, and later, with the Second Amendment and its guarantee of the right to bear arms as a way of promoting militia efficiency.

After the ratification of the Constitution, the militia continued to play an important role in the defense plans of the United States. In 1790 and 1791 President George Washington dispatched militia forces into the Northwest Territory to battle Native Americans. Twice the force was defeated with embarrassing results. Washington learned his lesson and in 1794 dispatched a force made up of regular troops led by General Anthony Wayne, who defeated the Native Americans at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.

uniform militia act of 1792

In 1792 Congress passed the Uniform Militia Act of 1792, a compromise measure that left President Washington dissatisfied. He advocated a plan put forth by Secretary of War Henry Knox in 1790. The Knox plan divided the national militia into three grades based on age and physical condition. The youngest group of approximately thirty-two thousand men would provide an immediate reserve force for the standing army after going through a basic training program to last two weeks. Knox wanted to tie the right to vote to successful completion of the training program. The older groups would be called up in case of grave national emergency. Knox's plan and its $400,000 annual price tag was too controversial for Congress. Instead, the Uniform Militia Act assigned responsibility for organizing and maintaining the militias to the states with almost no standards, minimum training requirements, or federal oversight. White men aged between eighteen and forty-five were required to serve and supply their own weapons and equipment. (The law prohibited free blacks from serving in the militia.) States were asked to turn in a report to the adjutant general on the status of their militia, but most ignored this provision. The Uniform Militia Act did nothing to create an adequate defense force and set the stage for subsequent failings. On the whole, Washington and the Federalist Party lost any faith in the militia and sought to build up the regular army.

The state-organized militias varied in many aspects. Some states had muster dates written into their laws, while others left it to local captains to call their men. Some had fines for failing to show up to the mandatory musters, others did not. Some provided for elected officers all the way up to commander of the state militia, but others gave the governor wide latitude in appointing officers. Most states allowed the men themselves to vote on their immediate officers. Some provided weapons, others required the militiamen themselves to supply their own firearms and accoutrements. In general, units varied in size and were not interchangeable with those from other states.

President Washington did secure from Congress a law that gave the president the power to call out the militia. The new executive power was first used to summon up the militias of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New York to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. Over 12,900 men responded to the call. However, there was widespread resistance, including riots in Philadelphia that led to the unpopular drafting of men. As in Shays's Rebellion, local militia forces supported the rebels, attacking and capturing a small contingent of regular army troops. Although Washington had a low opinion of the militia, he preferred the citizen soldiers to restore order because it was politically less controversial than using the regular army, especially with the support of the governors. As Washington had hoped, the overwhelming display of force ended the rebellion.

In 1798 President John Adams had less success with the militia in suppressing a domestic insurrection known as Fries's Rebellion. Following the creation of new federal taxes on property to finance the Quasi-War with France, rebellion spread through Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Once again the militia sided with the rebels and attacked the federal tax assessors. Adams was forced to use regular troops to restore order. To make matters worse, Virginia made some moves towards preparing its own militia to fight against the federal government, because the state opposed the unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). This was not the first time a state looked to its militia to defend itself against the federal government. In 1794 the Georgia militia and the regular army had almost come to blows over Indian policy.

If the Federalists of the 1790s distrusted the militia and praised the value of the standing army, Thomas Jefferson strongly held the opposite beliefs. When he became president in 1801, Jefferson greatly curtailed the size of the army and navy and placed more reliance on the militia to defend the nation. Small gunboats consisting of a single cannon and coastal fortifications manned by militia replaced reliance on large naval frigates. During the Embargo of 1807–1809, Jefferson assigned the unenviable task of enforcement to the militia. As with other militia operations, general disorganization and confusion prevailed. Several states refused Jefferson's request to allow the federal government use of their militias to enforce the law. Despite a renewed interest in the militia, little was done to improve efficiency. The one exception occurred in 1808, when Congress voted to provide $200,000 a year to supply militiamen with weapons.

militia service

A carnival-like atmosphere, more than a martial one, dominated militia musters. In general, musters occurred only four times a year to train on the local commons or the courthouse grounds. After gathering in some sort of formation, the captain inspected the men, who were dressed in their regular clothes. Some did not have weapons. When they were armed, there was no uniformity in their firearms, which ranged from rifles to muskets to shotguns, all in varied calibers and conditions. Sometimes target practice and drilling followed inspection. On other occasions, the men voted to adjourn early. In any event, training never lasted more than a couple of hours, after which the men visited the many tables hosted by salesmen who peddled all varieties of products, including alcohol. Drunkenness became a significant problem and something of a running national joke prominent in the literature of the day. Women baked pies and cooked food. There were games of chance, races, and other sporting events. Politicians flocked to the militia musters to build support for their upcoming electoral bids. A militia officer's commission was a valuable asset in politics. Their popularity as militia commanders catapulted Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison all the way to the presidency.

Not all states had a mechanism to enforce attendance at muster. Also, in states that had a fine, those who could afford to pay it did so and tended to stay home or provide a substitute to take their place. Quakers and other conscientious objectors avoided service in this manner. The Uniform Militia Act provided for some exempt occupations and states added to the list. Generally, these included lawmakers, teachers, tradesmen, and ministers, among others.

war of 1812

The true test of the militia as a defensive force came during the War of 1812. Much like contemporaries of that conflict, historians are not in agreement in their assessments of the erratic performance of militia. To some, the militia was a complete failure as a defensive force. To others, these failures were caused largely at the political level. When the war began there were technically 100,000 militiamen available for service, but disorganization at the state level and poor morale and training made them of dubious value. On the eve of war, Congress strengthened the courts-martial system to better discipline the militia and required militia forces to serve six months from the time they met at their gathering points.

The militia performed best when led by a commander who could motivate them and did not expect much from them. General Alexander Smyth had no faith in his militiamen and his public statements to that effect got him run out of western New York. The most successful was General Jacob Brown, who used the militia skillfully to defeat the British at the Battle of Sackett's Harbor in May 1813. The militia also served well at the Battles of Baltimore (1814), Horseshoe Bend (1814), and New Orleans (1815).

In many other battles, however, the militia performed poorly and at times disgracefully. The Battles of Detroit (1812), Queenston (1812), and Bladensburg (1814) were the lowest points. Poor battlefield performance was only one part of the general failings of the militia system during the war. Only Massachusetts had a peacetime quartermaster general for the militia. Other states had problems supplying their men. Kentucky marched 2,300 militiamen all the way to New Orleans with less than one-third armed, for example. Moreover, the militia was often poorly led by officers who were either political appointees or were elected by their men without regard to their ability to lead. Even before the battles, the militiamen were notorious for not answering their mobilization. When New York State called out its militia in 1813 to defend Plattsburgh, only 300 showed. With the nation's capital under attack in 1814, only a few thousand militiamen out of the 93,500 called to service were present, and they fled the battlefield as soon as they arrived. Failure to get enough volunteers to fight against the Creek Indians in the Old Southwest required a draft of militiamen. Such a measure, however, did not solve the problem, and entire companies refused to show up at their gathering points.

Cooperation was also hampered by partisan opposition to the war. Federalist governors did not support what was often called "Mr. Madison's War." In New England there was a tendency to retain militia units for use in their own states. Connecticut, for example, used its militia to man coastal fortifications. Rhode Island federalized one company, but would not allow it out of the state. Although Massachusetts provided more volunteers for the regular army than any other state except New York, the militia forces were kept in the commonwealth. This was a severe blow to the war effort, since Massachusetts had the best-trained militia in the United States. New York militia units were willing to fight alongside the federal forces to defend their state but refused to cross over to Canada even in the middle of battle.

In general, the militiamen presented a disciplinary problem as well. Commanders feared that the rowdiness and ill will of the militia would contaminate their regulars. Militia felt the federal government took advantage of them. Army volunteers received 160 acres for their service (later raised to 320 acres), yet militiamen were generally paid only a few dollars a month, and in many cases they did not get paid for several months at a time. Some states provided bounties and bonuses, others did not. When their service was up, militia simply left, marching out as a unit. Even a strong-willed leader such as Andrew Jackson eventually had to yield and allow his militia to march back home in the middle of a campaign. These depletions made it difficult for Jackson or any other commander to keep an offensive force in the field.

regular versus volunteer militia

After the war, the Army Reduction Act of 1815 limited the size of the army and shifted the primary responsibility of defending the nation from the militia to the regular army. Between 1816 and 1835 the various presidents asked Congress no less than thirty-one times to reform the militia, but no substantive action was taken. In 1820 Secretary of War John Calhoun recommended the creation of an expandable army and the phasing out of the militia, but this plan was not acted upon. In 1826 Calhoun's successor James Barbour created a board chaired by General Winfield Scott to examine the state of the militia. The board recommended that the federal government enforce a standard table of organization for the militia, appoint an adjutant general at the War Department specifically for the militia, distribute drill manuals, and operate a ten-day mandatory training camp at federal expense. Despite the soundness of these proposed reforms, they were never acted upon. In fact, the militia became increasingly ineffective. The militia also became a target for social reformers who saw it as a burden on the workingman that was avoided by the wealthy.

Neglect caused the regular militia to fall out of use. By 1850 nine states had ended mandatory militia service and four more had lifted any penalties for failing to be present for muster. Volunteer, privately organized militia companies picked up the slack. Although the oldest volunteer militia was formed in Boston in 1638, most were formed after the War of 1812 ended. Made up predominately of the middle class and the well-to-do, the volunteers spared no expense, presenting a marked contrast to the regular militia. They drilled in elaborately decorated and colorful uniforms. Their equipment was often the best and most extravagant that money could buy. They took their drilling seriously and met on a much more frequent basis than the regular militia did. Often there was competition between the many volunteer companies in a city. In New Orleans, which had ten volunteer companies in 1843, the most common form of competition was a marksmanship contest. States could and did integrate the volunteers into the regular militia and occasionally paid them as well. It was the municipal level, however, that came to rely most heavily on the volunteers, as they were called upon to perform a wide range of duties from guarding prisoners, providing honorary color guards at important events, marching in parades, manning fire brigades, and suppressing riots.

the south

The situation in the South was a little different because the regular militia was called on to act in slave patrols. Much like every other aspect of militia service, the assignment of this duty varied from state to state. Some states and localities placed this responsibility in the hands of the volunteer militia and others in the hands of the police, but in most, the regular militia took on this burden. Each militia company provided two volunteers, who served two nights a week for three to four months during which they patrolled in groups of four. In some areas, slaveholders compensated the patrollers. The duties of the slave patrols included searching slave quarters for contraband, breaking up meetings of slaves, hunting down fugitives, and checking traveling slaves for passes. In urban areas, militias acted as sentries for courthouses and other important public buildings. The patrols had authority to carry out summary punishment and whipped slaves who violated the law. The greatest fear in the South remained slave insurrections. Both volunteer and regular militia forces were called out during threats of slave revolts. Militia troops played an important role in suppressing both the Denmark Vesey (1822) and Nat Turner (1831) revolts.

See alsoContinental Army; Fries's Rebellion; Shays's Rebellion; Slavery: Slave Patrols; War of 1812; Whiskey Rebellion .


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Gregory J. Dehler