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State Organized Militia in the Civil War

The Civil War opened with a call for 75,000 militia to serve for three months. The disaster which ensued at Bull Run practically put an end to the use of militia during the war. A great Volunteer Army of citizen soldiery was called into being which prosecuted the war as a national force.

The conclusion of the war of 1812-15 and the overthrow of Napoleon Bonaparte were followed, both in America and Europe, by a period of peace extending over a third of a century. The war with Mexico was not a war "to enforce the laws of the Union, to suppress insurrection," nor " to repel invasions," and it consequently afforded the general government no occasion and no opportunity for calling out the militia. No such call was made until the breaking out of the great civil war in 1861. During this long period the interest of the people at large in military affairs and their knowledge of the art of war gradually decayed. The annual meetings for instruction in drill and discipline, the so-called " training days," became mere farces. They were regarded as a sheer waste of time or as something worse, occasions of drunkenness and revelry, profitable only to pedlers and gamblers, and went out of fashion.

The supreme test of the militia system took place in 1861 when Lincoln summoned 75,000 troops to restore the authority of the Union. A few organized regiments were recruited for three months' service under this call; but most of the volunteers served under an improvised organization with officers elected by themselves. The governors of the border states invoked theories of state rights to justify their refusal to send troops, though large forces were drawn from them at a later period. Even the loyal governor of New York claimed the right to appoint majorgenerals so as to prevent injury to "the distinctive character of the militia of the states," and a committee of the Senate opposed the incorporation into the same force of volunteers and regulars on the ground that the Constitution had established a distinction between the troops of the states and those of the Union.

When the great civil war broke out each State had upon its statute books an elaborate code of laws in regard to the militia. But by the great body of the people, and especially among the country-people, those laws had long been practically ignored. In most of the large cities one or two militia organizations existed. Some of these, in the accuracy of their drill, the precision of their movements, and the completeness of their appointments, would have compared favorably with the best regiments of any regular army in the world. But such organizations were wholly exceptional. Massachusetts had an elaborate militia code and regiments permanently organized; but it was only by great zeal on the part of Governor Andrew, supported by special legislation, that 5,593 men were sent to the front in 1861.

Most states recognized the volunteer militia companies - uniformed units that drilled on a regular basis - as the State Organized Militia. In theory the militia consisted of all the male citizens of military age. The militia system of many states in 1861 existed only in the statute books, and in the persons of a few brigadiers and a major-general, whose entire duty had consisted in wearing uniforms at the inauguration of a governor and ever thereafter bearing military titles. A series of Arabic numbers, something more than a hundred, was assigned to the militia regiments that were unorganized, but which, under favorable circumstances, might be enrolled and called out. The county was the unit. To each county was assigned one regiment or more according to the population. Several counties formed a militia district under a brigadier-general, and over all was a major-general.

It was under these circumstances, as regards the condition of the militia, that President Lincoln, on April 15, 1861, issued his first call for 75,000 men for three months' service. The enthusiasm of the people was very great. Had the President called for twice that number they would have been easily obtained. The quotas of the loyal States were quickly filled out. Most of those States, when their quotas were filled, refused to receive any more; other States offered to the general government the services of, far more than they were called upon to furnish. Massachusetts was ready with two and a half times, Rhode Island with four times, Connecticut with three times, Pennsylvania with 60 per cent., and Missouri with three times more than they were asked for.

The great majority of the men were intelligent, brave, and eager to do their duty; but it would probably be an exaggeration to say that 10,000 of the 75,000 had any more knowledge of the duties of a soldier than is possessed by every intelligent citizen of full age. But there was something worse than this. The officers were generally as ignorant as the men. It is not possible here, nor is it necessary, to enter into details.

The disastrous result of the first battle of Bull Bun was necessary in order to convince the people that the attempt to improvise an army, in a few weeks' time, out of men taken from the office, the farm, and the factory, is, in modern warfare, but a waste of treasure and of blood. Disastrous losses occurred in the civil war from placing troops in actual service with worthless arms and equipments and relying upon such troops to perform services assigned them in battle when they were powerless to injure the enemy, sometimes resulting in defeat.

Few of the elements of the militia system were observable in the Army after 1862, except in the state control of the nomination of officers and the consequent multiplication of new regiments. The 2,500,000 enlistments of later quotas were organized as volunteers. A law of 1863 gave the national administration complete control over recruiting the volunteer army by conscription or otherwise; but the states retained the power of appointing regimental officers, who could, however, be displaced by the War Department and not by the governors.

No accurate figure can be determined as to the number of militiamen in the Civil War. The organization of volunteer regiments was based upon the militia system, and, until they were mustered into the United States service, they were governed by the militia laws. The old-time militia regiment usually represented a clearly defined and continuous stretch of country, the resident youth of which composed its companies, and in some States owed by law a certain amount of annual service. When the war came on, the militia was supplanted by the volunteers. In recruiting a volunteer regiment no attention was paid to locality. A regiment did not pretend to represent any special section of the State. Though the companies that formed a regiment may claim a location, that is to say the formation of Company A may have been commenced in city, or town, and its membership may have been recruited in county, yet few of its members may have been residents, and fewer still natives of that city, town or county. Men who aspired to official positions recruited companies on their own account, and recruited them as fully and rapidly as possible for the purpose of securing their commissions as soon as possible. These companies were rarely recruited for a particular regiment.

The figure of 1,933,779 is used for the number of all volunteers who served in the Union Army. Many militia regiments that responded to the call of 1861 remained in service for the duration of the war. Other regiments returned to state status and served as cadres for the many volunteer regiments the states furnished to the federal forces. The initial bulk of the Confederate Army was made up of volunteer militia regiments.

The National Guard is a home guard raised by a State to preserve order within its borders. As regiments, the National Guard cannot properly be incorporated permanently or in the armies of the United States. That they will be available in emergencies, and that large numbers of men and officers of the National Guard will in time of war join the national forces, bringing with them much available military talent, there can be no doubt. But it is none the less true that the individual States will have need of, and will be obliged to retain, their State military organizations. War often brings civil disorder, and troops would be needed at home as well as at the front.

State militia were called out by State governments to preserve order. For instance, during the early summer of 1862 a movement was set on foot by the enemies of the Government having for its object the systematic organization of guerrilla hands throughout the State of Missouri. This movement became so formidable that it was determined by the State authorities to take stringent measures for the suppression of existing disorders. Accordingly Brig. Gen. John M. Schofield, the commander of the Missouri State Militia and also the United States military commander of the District of Missouri, was authorized to organize the entire militia force of the State for the purpose of putting down marauders and defending the peaceable citizens of the State. On July 22, 1862, pursuant to the authority thus conferred upon him, General Schofield issued the following: "An immediate organization of all the militia of Missouri is hereby ordered, for the purpose of exterminating the guerrillas that infest our State. Every able-bodied man capable of bearing arms and subject to military duty is hereby ordered to repair, without delay, to the nearest military post and report for duty to the commanding officer. Every man will bring with him whatever arms he may have or can procure, and a good horse if he has one. All arms and ammunition of whatever kind and wherever found, not in the hands of the loyal militia, will be taken possession of by the latter and used for the public defense. Those who have no arms and can not procure them in the above manner will be supplied as quickly as possible by the ordnance department."

The greatest difficulty experienced in the earlier stages of the civil war was the lack of competent officers. Given a regiment in which the commissioned officers all thoroughly understand their duties while all the rest of the regiment consists of men strong and willing, though without knowledge and experience in military affairs, and it can be brought to a high state of discipline and efficiency in a comparatively short time. But where officers as well as men are obliged to learn their business after being mustered into service, the time required increases in an appalling ratio. To educate officers by means of actual service in time of war is a very costly operation. A large number of militia officers during the civil war achieved high distinction, but as a rule they were those who, from natural inclination, had devoted much time, before entering the service, to the study of military science and to practice in organized bodies of militia; or they were men of far more than average abilities, animated by an enthusiasm and determination which no obstacles could oppose.

The Battle of Gettysburg is considered to be the turning point of the Civil War. One episode, which helped turn the tide, involved the militia from Maine. Josua L. Chamberlain, a former professor at Maine's Bowdoin College, commanded the 20th Maine Volunteer Militia. Organized in the Maine Volunteer Militia in August 1862, the 20th Maine mustered into Federal service several weeks later. The 20th was ordered to hold critical terrain between Big and Little Round Top at all cost. They held off six attacks by determined Alabama regiments. Chamberlain knew his men didn't have the ammunition to fight off a seventh attack. So he ordered his men to "Fix bayonets!" and charge downhill. The assault stopped the Confederate threat to the Union flank and contributed mightily to an important Union victory. Joshua Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1893 for this action. Almost two years later, Brevet Major General Chamberlain, chosen to accept the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, ordered Union troops to present arms to their former enemy as a mark of respect. The heritage of the 20th Maine is carried on today by the 133d Engineer Battalion, Maine Army National Guard.

Chamberlain has emerged as a modern icon, featured in the novel Killer Angels and Ken Burns' series The Civil War. But Chamberlain never actually served in the Guard. The Maine militia was largely inactive until the Civil War, when its ranks swelled with volunteers, like Chamberlain. The 20TH Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment was organized at Portland, Me., August. 29th, 1862, to serve three years as a United States Volunteers unit, and was thus not actually a state militia unit.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 01:36:20 ZULU