America's citizen soldiers: The better bargain of militias?

By David and Jeanne T. Heidler

The American regular army was too small for its task, a victim of the country’s fear of large standing forces. Last-minute efforts to increase the army yielded fewer than 12,000 men by the time Congress declared war in June 1812, and these paltry numbers were about as incompetently trained as they were incompetently led. They were also widely deployed, compelling the government to rely on state militias.

Militia service was the source of some of the war’s most talented generals, men like Harrison, Andrew Jackson, and Jacob Brown, who emerged as resolute and vigorous leaders for whom men would stand and fight.

The Rise of the Militia

Painting of men blue uniforms crossing river in boats to fight battle with men in red uniforms.
During the Battle of Queenston Heights large numbers of militia refused to cross river to fight.

James B. Dennis, Library and Archives Canada

Relying on state militias was a necessity made seemingly virtuous by the tradition that amateur soldiers could fight just as well as professionals and were better into the bargain because they posed no threat to the Republic. Yet they actually did pose an inadvertent threat, for the militia’s capacity to disappoint was a chronic problem, and it was the cause of some fearsome disasters. The short nature of militia enlistments made lengthy and remote campaigns impossible, and the absence of central authority over various state organizations meant a lack of coordination in the campaigns in which militia did participate. Several New England states, Massachusetts among them, refused to call up their militias at the start of the war, and when they did muster them, governors would not relinquish command of the men to the regular army. New Englanders were the most effective and best equipped of the state military establishments, and their absence contributed to the poor showing of American endeavors in the northeastern theater.

Overall performance was decidedly mixed, in part because of the varied attitudes as well as readiness of different regions. While the best American militia lived in New England, the very place most opposed to the war, the parts of the country most fervent for it—such as Kentucky—often could field only militia more willing than able. When the war went badly, even the willingness began to subside.

A Lackluster American Strategy

Cartoon of American prisoner be paraded around by American Indians while British officers watch
Sometimes militias did well and other times they ended up as prisoners.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Nonetheless, militia could rise to the occasion to fight effectively, as in the Creek War of 1813–1814, and in William Henry Harrison’s pursuit of the British and their Indian allies in the fall of 1813, and most famously in the valiant defense of Baltimore and of New Orleans. In addition, militia service was the source of some of the war’s most talented generals, men like Harrison, Andrew Jackson, and Jacob Brown, who emerged as resolute and vigorous leaders for whom men would stand and fight. Unfortunately, other chronicles of the militia were not so glowing. They often insisted that they were a defensive force meant to protect homesteads rather than gallivant into foreign countries. Worse, when they did fight, they had a disturbing tendency to run away. The most infamous incident occurred when ragtag units tried to stop the British advance on Washington at Bladensburg. That battle on August 24, 1814, was a devastating humiliation as the militia fled at such a breakneck pace that it was later dubbed the “Bladensburg Races.” On the other extreme, frontier militia schooled more in the rigors of the wilderness than the restraint of martial punctilio could match Indian foes blow for vicious blow in committing ugly atrocities.

Even had it not been hampered by lackluster leaders and manpower shortages, American strategy early in the war was at best a muddle. A sensible plan would have been to focus all resources on Montreal, the most populous Canadian town west of impregnable Quebec as well as the region’s transportation hub. Taking Montreal would have meant control of all Canada west of it. Yet Americans wasted time and energy on uncoordinated forays, one launched from Detroit, several across the Niagara River, and yet another up Lake Champlain. All of these invasion attempts failed. On the other side, the British and Canadians acted with dispatch and resolve, seizing control of the upper Great Lakes by taking Fort Mackinac, extending that control south to Detroit and beyond, and defending key points against American assault, such as Queenston.

Last updated: March 10, 2015