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State Organized Militia - War of 1812

With the start of the War of 1812, the U.S. Army consisted of only 6744 men and officers. The militia of the states was called into federal service and 489,173 militiamen responded. The most famous militia commander during the War of 1812 was Major General Andrew Jackson, whose backwoods sharpshooters defeated British regulars at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. The governors of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island refused to order out militia except for the defense of their respective States; such militia as did take the fichl sometimes refused to cross the frontier, and usually ran away in field engagements. The war of 1812 repeatedly exhibited the melancholy spectacle of large bodies of U. S. troops marching to the battle-field without understanding a single principle of elementary tactics. The army which ignominionsly recoiled at Bladensburg, leaving the capital to a trivial force of invaders, consisted chiefly of militia.

The war of 1812-14 raised a number of questions as to extent of the power over the State militia conferred upon the general government by the Constitution. Some maintained that the power conferred on the President to act as commander-in-chief of the State militia when in the actual service of the United States was a power personal to himself and could not be delegated ; and as the appointment of officers had been reserved to the States, the militia, even when in the U.S. service, were under no obligations to obey anybody but the State authorities or the President in person. The governor of Vermont went so far as to claim the right to order the militia of that State to return home if, in his discretion, he thought they were more needed at home than in front of the enemy who had invaded a neighboring State.

The Americans had no easy task on hand in 1812. There was no adequate military organization; there was a want of trained soldiers and trained generals ; the war was in its inception a war of offence not of defence, and the weakness of a confederation was not, as in the War of Independence, counteracted by the sense of fighting for freedom, for hearth and home.

The nation in fact was divided against itself, and the New Englanders, who had been the most strenuous opponents of Great Britain in the War of Independence, from first to last had not their hearts in the later war. In 1808, the leading men in Boston were opposed to war with England ; and that after a few more months of the non-intercourse policy the New England states would be ready to withdraw from the confederacy. The voting in Congress on the act which embodied the declaration of war told much the same tale. Every representative of South Carolina, both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, voted for war ; every representative of Connecticut in both houses voted against it. A very large majority of representatives in the lower House from Pennsylvania and Virginia voted for war ; a majority from Massachusetts, and a large majority from New York, voted against it. The far southern states, where at the outset of the War of Independence the Loyalist party had been specially strong, were now most unanimous in favor of war with England. The northern and commercial states to whom Non-Intercourse acts without open war had brought disaster, were, with good reason, most opposed to it. On the same grounds, in the later as in the earlier war, the preponderating feeling in New York was, at any rate at first, in favor of peace with Great Britain. Before it ended, delegates of the New England states had, in December, 1814, met at the Hartford Convention, meditating secession from the Union. In short, on the American side as on the British, it was a halfhearted war.

Nearly two months before war was declared between the United States and Great Britian, New Jersey had begun to place herself in a condition to defend her sea, coast and harbor. An Act of Congress called the militia into service, April l0th 1812. War was declared June 18th 1812. Act of Congress authorized the president to organize, arm and equip according to law, a militia to hold in readiness to march at a moment's notice, to suppress insurrection and repel invasions. The said militia not to be compelled to serve a longer time than six months, after arriving at place of rendezvous, receiving the same pay and rations and emoluments as the United States army when in service.

The primary undertaking was to be the conquest of Canada. The American plan of campaign, at the beginning of the war, included invasion of Upper Canada at either end of Lake Erie. The Detroit river was to be crossed at the campaign western end of the lake, the Niagara river at the north-eastern. Montreal was threatened by another American army frontier, coming up from Lake Champlain. The expedition against Montreal in the fall of 1813 was one of the worst fiascoes of the war.

In the beginning of the war of 1812 the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut declined to call out their troops at the call of the president, on the sole ground that their States were not threatened with invasion. The president ordered the militia of the northern states to march to the frontiers; but Connecticut and Massachusetts, whose interests were impaired by the war, refused to obey the command. They argued that the constitution authorizes the federal government to call forth the militia in cases of insurrection or invasion, but that in the present instance, there was neither invasion nor insurrection. They added, that the same constitution which conferred upon the Union the right of calling forth the militia, reserved to the states that of naming the officers; and that consequently (as they understood the clause) no officer of the Union had any right to command the militia, even during war, except the president in person: and in this case they were ordered to join an army commanded by another individual. These absurd and pernicious doctrines received the sanction not only of the governors and legislative bodies, but also of the courts of justice in both states ; and the federal government was constrained to raise elsewhere the troops which it required.

With the outbreak of war came the cry throughout the country of " On to Canada," and General Hull with a mixed force of regulars and volunteers and militia crossed the Ste. Marie River from Detroit n in July, but soon withdrew and permitted the British to invest them in Detroit. At the end of eight days the entire American garrison, without so much as firing a shot, surrendered to a force numbering about 320 regulars, 400 militia and 600 Indians. Hull, the dismal hero of the surrender of Detroit, was tormented by his Ohio mililia. One company amused itself with ridiug its officers on a rail; others fell back on their supposed legal rights and refused to cross the frontier. He said to Miller, the colonel of his only regular regiment, "Without the Fourth I could not march these other men to Detroit." In a skirmish which was remarkable as the first of the war, and which certainly did not furnish a cheering augury, one hundred and seventeen militia fled, with a loss of eight men, carrying along in their panic a considerable reinforcement. In the next skirmish two hundred militia ran away from a troop of Indians, with a loss of seventeen killed and a few wounded, all of whom were abandoned. In a third skirmish six hundred Americans, who differed from their inefficient comrades only in the fact that they were nearly all regulars, defeated an equal force of British, Canadians, and Indians.

Within a month the control of the entire Northwest was lost and the initiative passed to the enemy, who was promptly joined by nearly all the Indians in that region. Hull's surrender was a timorous act, resulting partly from the feebleness of age and infirmity, and partly from a justifiable lack of confidence in the great majority of his troops. A good subordinate officer in the Revolution, he had been twenty-five years in civil life, and he was nearly sixty years old.

The ignominious fiasco of Hull served only to stiffen the American determination to expel the British, to invade Canada and to punish the Indian tribes in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. One expedition of 4,000 Kentucky mounted militia under General Hopkins started from Fort Harrison, Indiana, on October 14th, for the Wabash and Illinois Rivers, but five days later the troops mutinied, deserted their officers and dispersed to their homes., A similar fate attended the expedition to the rapids of the Maumee River under General William Henry Harrison during the same month.

At Queenstown the militia general in command declined the assistance of a regular regiment under Winfield Scott, in order to give the direction of the invasion and the honor of a victory to his own son, also a militia officer. After a successful landing had been effected, some fifteen hundred New York state troops became frightened at the sight of battle, set up a claim that they were not legally bound to cross the frontier, and would not enter the boats. Of the eight hundred in the advance columns five hundred surrendered without fighting, and the others took small part in the engagement. The three hundred regulars present did nearly all the work and behaved with really astonishing spirit, although they were mostly recruits, and were commanded during the greater part of the day by boyish officers of six months' standing.

The melodramatic failure on the Upper Niagara (November, 1812) was the work partly of General Smyth, one of the few incapables who have appeared in the regular army; partly of the Pennsylvania volunteers, who set up a claim that they were state troops, and would not cross the frontier; and partly of the New York mililia, who showed the same reverence for boundaries.

Over and over in this war, as in that of the Revolution, bodies of militia went home on the expiration of their term, no matter how much they might be needed. Meantime their officers posted one another as cowards, exchanged challenges, and sometimes fought duels. The generals, mostly old Revolutionary heroes recalled to war from twenty-five years of civil life, could do nothing with such soldiers but cover the enemy with glory. In the South, where there were only half-civilized Indians to fight, and the militia was always twice as numerous as its antagonists, it gained some victories under an energetic leader, in spite of its tendency to break when charged.

The massacre of the River Raisin and the defeat of Colonel Dudley were militia disasters. The storming of York under General Pike was the feat of four regiments of regulars, supported by a small body of a new kind of troops, - United States volunteers. The storming of Fort George was done by regulars and a few volunteers, led by Winfield Scott. At Sackett's Harbor about eight hundred militia fled after one volley, headed by a still famous officer, who "started first because he was a little lame," leaving their general to give his undivided attention to a small band of stubborn regulars. Eventually a false report of victory decoyed some three hundred of them near the field of conflict; and by appearing on the flank of the English they inadvertently decided the latter to retreat.

The successful defense of Fort Stephenson was conducted by Major Croghan of the seventeenth regulars, with one hundred and forty of his own men and seven volunteers. During the operations of Cockburn on the Maryland and Virginia shore, the local troops ran away invariably, and usually at the first fire, although thev were defending their homes. The battle of the Thames was a militia victory, gained over a very inferior force of regulars and Indians. The English commander committed the fatal errors of forming his infantry in open order to resist cavalry, and of interposing a swamp between his wings, so that they could not support each other.

At Chippewa, the first creditable American field engagement, there were no militia; and the volunteers, although they fought well for a time, eventually left the battle to the regulars. The victory at Lundy's Lane, by far the most honorable American conflict during the war, was won by regulars alone. Fort Erie was triumphantly defended by both regulars and volunteers, and both shared equally in the well-managed and victorious sortie. At Plattsburg the regulars stood firm, while the militia broke and fled, abandoning a ford and nearly ruining everything. The retreat of Sir George Vevost was not due to the resistance by land, but to the destruction of his squadron on the lake, and the consequent impossibility of feeding his column during au advance. Of the seven thousand men under Winder, who gave up our capital to four thousand English, six thousand were local troops.

During the summer of 1814 the British had been able to reinforce Canada and to stage several raids on the American coast. Eastport, Maine, on Passamaquoddy Bay, and Castine, at the mouth of the Penobscot River, were occupied without resistance. This operation was something more than a raid since Eastport lay in disputed territory, and it was no secret that Britain wanted a rectification of the boundary. No such political object was attached to British forays in the region of Chesapeake Bay. On August 19 a force of some 4,000 British troops under Maj. Gen. Robert Ross landed on the Patuxent River and marched on Washington. At the Battle of Bladensburg, five days later, Ross easily dispersed 5,000 militia, naval gunners, and Regulars hastily gathered together to defend the Capital. At Bladensburg they not only broke, leaving the flanks of the regulars uncovered, but they at once sought the peace of their own firesides. No man loves his home more than the militia-man, especially in a period of disorder and violence. The total American loss in that farcical skirmish was twenty-six killed and fifty-one wounded, the militia fleeing ignominiously and so rapidly that the American loss was only 8 killed and 11 wounded. The British then entered Washington, burned the Capitol, the White House, and other public buildings, and returned to their ships.

Baltimore was next on the schedule, but that city had been given time to prepare its defenses. The land approach was covered by a rather formidable line of redoubts; the harbor was guarded by Fort McHenry and blocked by a line of sunken gunboats. On September 13 a spirited engagement fought by Maryland militia, many of whom had run at Bladensburg just two weeks before, delayed the invaders and caused considerable loss, including General Ross, who was killed. When the fleet failed to reduce Fort McHenry, the assault on the city was called off.

Such of the militia as served endured great hardships, and they were almost constantly called from their homes to meet new dangers. Distrusting their loyalty, the general government had witnhefd all supplies from the militia of Massachusetts and Connecticut for the year 1814, and these States were forced to bear the burden of supporting them, at thesame time contributing their quota of taxes to the general government. True, the coast towns of Massachusetts were subjected to constant assault from the British navy, and the people of these felt that they were defenceless. It was on their petition that the legislature of Massachusetts finally, by a vote of 226 to 67, adopted the report favoring the calling of the Hartford Convention. A circular was then addressed to the Governors of the other States, with a request that it be laid before their legislatures, inviting them to appoint delegates, and stating that the object was to deliberate upou the dangers to which the eastern section was exposed, "and to devise, if practicable, means of security and defence which might be consistent with the preservation of their resources from total ruin, and not repugnant to their obligation* at members of the Union."

The proposition to raise a large force by conscription brought matters to a crisis in New England. In some of the other states the matter of local defenses had been left almost wholly to the discretion of the respective governors. But the President, made suspicious of the loyalty of New England because of the injurious action of the Peace Faction, insisted upon the exclusive control of all military movements there. Because the Massachusetts militia had not been placed under General Dearborn's orders, the Secretary of State, in an official letter to Governor Strong, refused to pay the expenses of defending Massachusetts from the common enemy. Similar action for similar cause had occurred in the case of Connecticut, and a clamor was instantly raised that New England was abandoned to the enemy by the National Government.

This opposition finally culminated in the assembling of the convention at Hartford, at which delegates were present from all of the New England states. They sat for three weeks with closed doors, and issued an address which will be found in this volume in the book devoted to political platforms. It was charged by the Democrats that the real object of the convention was to negotiate a separate treaty of peace, on behalf of New England, with Great Britain, but this charge was as warmly denied. The treaty of Ghent, which was concluded on December 14th, 1814, prevented other action by the Hartford convention.

The struggle in front of New Orleans showed the excellences of a militia of marksmen and the defects of all militia. The night attack on the British camp was executed with great spirit; but the assailants had an unusually inspiring leader, and two fifths of them were regulars. In the deciding conflict the troops on the left bank were more than three fourths militia; but they held an unflankable line of field-works, and the result was a slaughtering victory. On the right bank there were no regulars, and the position could be turned, and the result was an easy defeat. It was the old militia tale of a good fight behind ramparts, and a very poor one in the field.

The militia performed as well as the Regular Army. The defeats and humiliations of the Regular forces during the first years of the war matched those of the militia, just as in a later period the Kentucky volunteers at the Thames and the Maryland militia before Baltimore proved that the state citizen soldier could perform well. The keys to the militiamen's performance, of course, were training and leadership, the two areas over which the national government had little control. The militia, occasionally competent, was never dependable, and in the nationalistic period that followed the war when the exploits of the Regulars were justly celebrated, an ardent young Secretary of War, John Calhoun, would be able to convince Congress and the nation that the first line of defense should be a standing army.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 01:36:18 ZULU