Menu

The Society of Descendants of Militia Officers

serving from 1607 to 1861

Why The Militia

Why should anyone want to study the Militia in the period from early colonization up to the start of the Civil War?  Why should anyone be proud of having descended from officers of the Militia?  After all, we know that the Militia:

... was indifferently organized, with no standardization of equipment or training, and only a minimal adherence to uniform regulations (and that only by its officers),

... was undisciplined in the camp, on the march, at musters,

... was fundamentally unreliable - a call for the Militia resulted in unpredictable numbers appearing for duty, with a propensity for desertion,

... could not stand in the field against regulars,

... was loathe to serve for any extended period of time, and generally reluctant to leave the precincts of its community,

... and was officer heavy, especially with contentious individuals who wished the social prominence of being a general officer.

These criticisms dogged the general levy Militia in the Colonial wars, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812, and in some measure were thoroughly justified.  However, this does not tell the whole story.  The Militia was a reflection of its times and of the priority government and the citizenry paid to national, state, and local defense.  Think about the problems of:

... no logistics support system - the Militia provided its own clothing, weapons, transportation, medical care, in short everything an army required to go into the field.  And, because there was no funding or centralized supply system to do this, the results were unfortunate.  If you did not have a musket or rifle, you went to war without a weapon.  Different calibers of weapons meant that soldiers had to cast their own bullets.  Surgeons went to war with their own medical kits and own supply of medicines (and when those were lost or exhausted they improvised the best they could).  Clothing that wore out was not replaced.  As long as the service demanded was local and of short duration, these were significant inconveniences but not necessarily fatal flaws.  But they meant that the Militia could not stay in the field for long periods of time as an effective force without a significant and unfamiliar logistics effort.

... no personnel system - company Captains were supposed to record those residents of their districts that could be called to duty.  But there were no centralized records; if  a unit's records were lost in a battle, they were lost for good.  This had consequences later as the records needed to prove service for pensions or land grants might well not be available.  With this there often was no payroll system.  For example, the initial Militia levies for the War of 1812 in North Carolina simply were not paid.  Militia soldiers who served in July 1813 in response to British landings on the North Carolina Outerbanks was paid as much as 10 months later.    

... and none of the tools needed to be an effective fighting force.  Occasional militia musters were more social occasions than serious military training.  Soldiers lacked bayonets or muskets designed to accept them - a fatal flaw in a day when the push of bayonet could decide the battle.  Artillery was generally lacking or of only small calibers and not drilled to a professional standard of performance.  Officers had only the most rudimentary training in their duties.  And at the most basic level, infrequent musters and class systems of mobilization meant that Militia units never developed the trust and sense of identity required to build the espirit de corps of successful combat units.  

Under these conditions the wonder is not that the Militia performed poorly; rather it is that they stood and fought at all.  Faced with a British regiment of foot marching forward and deploying into line, drums beating and colors flying, crashing volleys on command, and the steady advance of disciplined veterans with a gleaming line of fixed bayonets, the urge to be somewhere else must have been nearly overwhelming. 

And yet they did fight, and with good officers and commanders who understood their capabilities and limitations, they fought well.  Militia won the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge in what was reported at the time as about 3 minutes, stopping British and Loyalist plans to conquer North Carolina.   Militia won the Battle of Kings Mountain with a significant impact on the later British campaigns in the Carolinas.  The Militia was a vital component of armies in the many wars against Native Americans.  Militia were generally successful in suppressing internal insurrections.  And when used creatively as parts of integrated forces with state troops and regulars, their performance could be critical to the outcome, the best examples being the Battle of Cowpens, the defense of Baltimore, and the Battle of New Orleans.   

In the aftermath of the Revolution, there is a slow emergence of a more professional militia force - the uniformed companies of elite militia.  These volunteer military units formed part of the regular Militia, but met and trained on a regular basis, were uniformed and equipped with standard weapons, and developed a high degree of unit cohesion.  By 1861 the elite militia was the primary military force of the states, and the ranks of the state regiments that formed the majority of the fighting forces of both the United States and the Confederacy were filled by these units.  The general levy militia that fought the Colonial wars and formed part of the armies of the Revolutionary War armies simply was no longer a viable fighting force.

Why was the Militia the primary military force for so long?  The answer is complicated, but there are common threads throughout.  Like many things, money was a major factor.  The British, including the various proprietary schemes for colonial management, were interested in the new world as a source of revenue.  Having to send regular regiments of the British Army to defend colonists was costly; better to let the colonists defend themselves.  This was possible because the Colonies faced only a limited threat from the French to the north and the Spanish to the south; the major threat was the continual friction between the colonists and the Native Americans, which was probably best met by colonial forces and Native American allies. 

After the Revolutionary War, the new United States wanted little to do with maintaining a standing army.  The regular Army shrank to one regiment of infantry and one battalion of artillery, 600 officers and men.  This occurred in the midst of ongoing political strife over whether to actually pay the soldiers who had fought the war their back pay and the officers pensions and grants.  Although the  mix of troops varied over the following years, the Congress and the states refused to expand the regular Army to any useful size.  The outcome was a small force with officers of dubious capability, the ultimate cost of which was the debacle of the first year of the War of 1812.  The exact reasoning for military unpreparedness at any particular time varied, but key themes were that:

... the first line of defense should be the Militia (thereby avoiding cost to the states for their share of upkeep for a standing army, and preserving the value of senior militia appointments as social and patronage rewards),

... a standing army was a threat to liberty - a solid case can be made that this was not in the sense of the army seizing power but rather that it could be used to coerce politicians and the states, and would expect to be paid (and might well become unruly if it was not),

... the Militia was adequate to meet the Native American threats that existed,

... it was simply too expensive to pay for a larger army, and

... a misplaced belief that, despite plentiful examples to the contrary, the civic virtue of volunteers with minimal training would be able to meet any serious threat to national security. 

It is worth noting that at the same time, the United States Navy was allowed to decay to a critical degree.  New ships were not built in the quantity to protect either the coast or the country's merchant fleet, and a flirtation with gunboats manned by local volunteers as a naval militia equivalent was advanced as the solution to maritime defense for very little cost.  The result was that the Royal Navy was able to exert command of the sea with minimal effort in 1812-1815. 

As a result, the United States entered the War of 1812 with an Army of approximately 11,744 officers and men, along with 5,000 new recruits.  This relatively small force had to be expanded rapidly.  The same process occurred at the start of the Civil War, with a 17,000 man regular Army being completely inadequate to fight a major war.  By the end of the Civil War no one seriously advocated that the general levy militia was a useful fighting force.  Although the militia, as all male citizens of a set age range, remained on paper (even today as the unorganized militia provided for in state laws), the elite volunteer units formed the only militia force.  These were eventually the basis for the modern National Guard.

Sources:

Eichner, L. G.; The Military Practice of Medicine During the Revolutionary War;" [meeting paper]; presented at a meeting of the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club, 2003-10; at http://tehistory.com/hqda/pdf/v41/Volume41_N1_025.pdf ; accessed 2015-08-22. 

MacGregor, Morris J., Acting Chief Historian; American Military History; [Internet edition of book];  Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, District of Columbia, 1989; at http://www.history.army.mil/books/AMH/amh-toc.htm; accessed 2015-08-02.

Rausch, Steven J.; The Campaign of 1812​;​ [Internet edition of book]; Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, District of Columbia, 2013; at http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/074/74-2/CMH_Pub_74-2.pdf; accessed 2015-09-22. 

Who Were The Militia?

Exactly which units formed the militia at any time is a complicated and especially fuzzy question.  Depending on the time period and the specific law, the militia was composed of all adult males in a jurisdiction who were free (not including slaves or indentured servants and sometimes even apprentices) and who did not perform any of a range of exempt forms of work (typically government officials or functions essential to communities).  As originally conceived, individuals were liable for militia service in short term increments, typically 3 months, and for operations within their colony or state.  This was essentially a home defense force.

Early on military leaders and government officials realized that this system was inadequate to provide defense against significant threats.  The frontier defense problem of maintaining peace with Native American  populations required a standing force of paid soldiers.  The result were Ranger units, with a regular enrolled body of soldiers, either on extended active duty or subject to short notice call (some Ranger units appear to have been more militia than full time).  But for major wars the small Ranger contingents were not adequate.  The answer was three fold: (1) Volunteer units enrolled for longer periods of service (6 months to a year) and without geographic restrictions, or (2) Detached Militia, volunteer or drafted units of militia that could be sent across borders, and that were no longer under state control, but rather subject to national orders.  The term Detached Militia appears to originate in the early 1800s; Colonial militia operated in a similar fashion, but without the formality of a specific name.

Which units were truly relatively long service volunteer, and which were militia, is a difficult and particularly hazy distinction.  The terms were sometimes used interchangeably, even for the same unit.  Probably the largest distinction is that Volunteers were raised for longer service and not as part of the militia system.  Although the volunteer units were often locally raised, and were manned by individuals subject to militia service, they were not mobilized through the militia Regimental and Company system, were subject to deployment anywhere, and did not have the home defense orientation of the militia.   One volunteered to join a volunteer unit, but everyone was a member of a militia unit whether or not he was called to active service through volunteering, being called up by class, or drafted as militia member.  This becomes even more confused as elite uniformed companies start to appear in the 1800s, gradually become a large portion of state's military forces, and are recognized as meeting militia service obligations.  These units form the backbone of State Troops regiments on both sides early in the Civil War.

The question is further confused by the existence of a very small number of independent military organizations that evolved out of the militia system or of the volunteers.  At some point they evolved so that their members went to war as members of the militia or the volunteers or the regulars, but not as members of the unit.

The next level of service was the State Troops, regularly enrolled long service units, outside the Militia, not of the Continental Line or Regular Army, but trained and equipped to standards approaching the regulars.  State regiments could be expected to perform at a level equivalent to the regulars on the battlefield, but remained under the administrative control of the states.

Bottom line - there is no universal answer, and each unit deserves scrutiny to determine where it fit in the military organization of the time.