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Militia in the Spanish American War

It is probable that the sentiment, essentially a healthy one, against a great standing army was never more forceful in the United States than on the eve of the war with Spain. There was nothing in the whole organization of society in which the contrast between the nations of Europe and the States of the Union was more strikingly illustrated. In Germany, in time of peace, every male citizen not physically incapacitated, was obliged to spend some of the best years of his life in continuous military service. In the United States, in time of peace, only a very small fraction of the citizens were permitted to enter the military service of the State, and then only in such a manner as to hardly constitute an interruption to their ordinary avocations.

The troops called out for the war with Spain were mustered as volunteers; but many regiments retained the militia organization, and nearly all had officers elected by the men or appointed by the governors of the states. Those who consented to prolong their service in the Philippines until relieved by regulars and United States volunteers were publicly thanked for their "heroic example"; having enlisted only for the contest with the Spaniards.

For years all the military needs of this nation had been amply met by a regular army of about 28,000 men. The gradual disappearance and progressive civilisation of the Indians made the need for soldiery less apparent year by year, and an increasing tendency to employ the United States forces to preserve order in cases of strikes and other labor troubles alarmed thinking people, and stimulated political demagogues.

About this little nucleus of professional soldiers was to be built and moulded into military form and efficiency the volunteer army. For this the foundation was the organised militia of the States, numbering some 410,000. Militia regiments, by the terms of their organisation, were subject only to service when called upon by the governor of the State, commissioning them. To become a part of the army of the United States, they must volunteer in response to the summons of the President. Out of this situation there proceeded some confusion and not a little scandal in the opening days of the Spanish war.

The Constitution authorized the federal government to employ the militia to repel invasion, to suppress insurrection, and toexecute the laws of the United States. It does not authorize its use for general military purposes. Under these limited powers, it could not be used outside of the United States to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, it could not be used to occupy Mexico if such a thing should becomenecessary, it could not be used to invade Canada in the event of awar on our Northern frontier. It was not used in Mexico during the Mexican war because it would have been unconstitutional to use it for that purpose, and it was not used in Cuba, or Porto Rico, or the Philippines during the Spanish-American war for the same reason. It is true that many militia regiments went to the Spanish-American war but they volunteered under the volunteer law of 1898, and thereby lost their militia status. Volunteers are a part of the armies of the United States and are maintained under the unrestricted constitutional power "to raise and support armies," and can, therefore be used in any part of the world and for any purpose whichcongress may authorize.

While the Constitution deprived the federal government of the powers necessary to develop and employ the militia as a national military force, it by no means deprived the government of the necessary powers to wage war and to prepare for it in peace. It gave the new government fatally restricted powers over the militia but it conferred the "power to raise and support armies" absolutely without restriction. The regular army was maintained under this power and the volunteer armies employed in 1846, 1861-65, and 1898 were maintainedunder this power. Indeed, the peace training of the organized militia in 1898 was made available to the National Government through this constitutional power because the volunteer law of that year permitted organized militia units to volunteer as a body into the volunteer army, and by this act they were legislated out of the restricted militia status, and into the unrestricted federal soldier status. After this change of status they were an integral part of the armies of the United States and could be employed in Cuba, or Porto Rico or the Philippines or any other place within the sphere of national interest, for there is no restriction on the powers to raise and support armies.

By the laws of the United States all able-bodied male citizens between the ages of 18 and 45 years, with the exception of such as are exempted by State laws, were bound, when called upon, to do military duty. Thus the liability to render military service extended over 27 years of the citizen's life; but, should peace prevail, not one man in a hundred will ever even play soldier for an hour. The active militia was composed entirely of volunteer organizations. Their discipline must conform to that of the regular U.S. Army. Almost everything else was regulated by State laws.

The military codes of the different States varied considerably in matters of detail. In certain general features, however, there is substantial agreement. The term of service was generally five years. In order to induce men to enlist in such organizations certain privileges were conferred upon their members both during their term of service and after its expiration. One of the most common of these privileges was exemption from the performance of jury duty. But the State relied chiefly upon the fact that a large number of its citizens believed that they can manifest their devotion to law and order and prove their love of country in no other way so conclusively as by becoming members of some military organization. The State also relied upon the strong desire, which is innate in many men, to participate in military display and to receive their share of the admiration which the general public, male and female, extended to a handsome, well-drilled military body. In many cases, also, membership of such a body was, to a certain extent, a mark of social distinction. In almost all the large cities there was one, in some of the larger cities more than one, militia regiment of which most young men would be proud to say they were members. The amount of actual service required by the State in the course of a year did not generally exceed one week; but, of course, any organization which made any pretensions to military excellence devotes, of its own accord, much more than this amount of time to drill and discipline.

According to the laws of several of the States, the State-militia was required to go into camp for one week in each year. During this time they were supposed to conduct themselves in the same manner as the troops of the regular army would under similar circumstances. Whenever the State authorities request it, officers of the regular army are detailed to inspect these encampments and give instruction to the militia. These officers make minute reports of the results of their observations to the AdjutantGeneral of the U.S. Army. During the year ending Sept. 30, 1888, such encampments were held in fifteen States.

On the 23d of April 1898, following swift upon the signing of the warlike resolutions of Congress, the President issued his proclamation calling for 125,000 volunteers. These were to be taken from the States and Territories in proportion to the population of each; and although nothing in the proclamation or the law limited volunteers to the existing national guard or militia organisations, yet in practice this first body of soldiers was made up of men already enlisted in the militia. One month later a second call for 75,000 men was issued, and at this time room was found for specially organised regiments, distinct from the National Guard. By special authority of Congress the army was further increased by the enlistment of ten regiments of "immunes," or men, usually negroes, not liable to contract yellow fever; three special regiments of cavalry, to be recruited among the cowboys and pioneers of the far West; and a special engineering command of 3550 men.

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, close to 165,000 militiamen volunteered for active duty. Although only a few National Guard regiments were sent to Cuba, many Guardsmen were shipped to the Philippines to fight in the Philippine Insurrection.

The troops thus gathered from the great cities and from the farms, from workshops, counters, class-rooms, and fields, were gathered together as speedily as might be in great camps, for instruction, drill, and all the processes of making a soldier out of a raw recruit . These camps were scattered about the country, the largest being at Chickamauga, Tennessee, where some thirty-five years earlier the fathers of many of these men now going to fight shoulder to shoulder for the nation had met in deadly battle. But the most important of the great camps was at Tampa, a small settlement on the gulf coast of Florida, convenient to a harbour near the coast of Cuba. Here, by the end of May, were concentrated about 16,000 men, constituting the Fifth Corps, under command of Major-General Shafter. In the main this corps was composed of regulars, for it was intended for the first invasion of Cuba, and the most efficient troops were naturally selected for it. The great body of volunteers was scattered over the country, Chickamauga, Mobile, Fernandina, Jacksonville, Camp Black, on the wind-swept plains of Long Island, and other points of rendezvous, where officers of the regular army were diligently endeavouring to make the militiaman into a disciplined automaton. In all, before midsummer the army rose to a strength of 274,717 men, of whom 58,688 were regulars. Up to the time of the cessation of hostilities in Cuba less than one-fifth of this army had seen active hostilities, and many regiments were mustered out without having left their camps of instruction. The actual fighting of the war, in the West Indies at least, was done mainly by the little regular army.

One of the most famous regiments of the war were the Rough Riders, made up of Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas Guardsmen who, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, assaulted San Juan Hill. Led by Lt. Colonel "Teddy" Roosevelt, the 1st New Mexico Cavalry, known as the "Rough Riders," actually charged up Kettle Hill. Despite heavy enemy fire they succeeded in reaching the top. Continuing with the attack, they seized the heights overlooking the city of Santiago. This action is known as the Battle of San Juan Hill, which led to the Spanish surrender two weeks later.

America's mobilization for the Spanish-American War demonstrated that both the Regular Army and the National Guard were unprepared for modern warfare. Subsequent battlefield successes notwithstanding, the need for reform was clear to all. The process of reform was initiated, in 1899, by the distinguished Secretary of War, Elihu Root. Advances in weapons, training, financing and organization aided the Regular Army but failed to benefit the National Guard.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 01:36:32 ZULU