Citizen Soldiers

Illustration of one man stretching out to light a cannon by himself.
Citizen-soldier John O'Neill was heralded as a hometown hero after he almost singlehandedly tried to resist a British raid on Havre de Grace on May 3, 1813. © Gerry Embleton
Wary of the cost of retaining a large military in peacetime, the United States kept its military relatively small in the 25 years after the Constitution was ratified.

When the War of 1812 began, most of the regular army was deployed north to the border with The Canadas, as the British colonies of Upper and Lower Canada were then known. This left mostly local citizen soldiers—called militia—in charge of defending the Chesapeake Bay region.

There were more than 700,000 militiamen available in the 17 states, and the federal government called up nearly 460,000 for duty. Militia operated under the jurisdiction of their state, but the federal government could call on them in an emergency (although in some instances governors forbid militiamen from fighting outside state borders).

Most militiamen were poorly trained and led by inexperienced officers. According to the Militia Act of 1792, these men were required to provide “a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges.” But many did not have the means to provide their own equipment and there was no penalty for non-compliance.

Consequently, militia performed with mixed results. During the Battle of Bladensburg, although Americans outnumbered the British, they were less experienced. The US Marines and US Chesapeake flotillamen held their ground, but the panicked militiamen fled. Their performance was later mocked in a poem titled “The Bladensburg Races.”

However, militia also won some victories over the British, such as at the Battle of Caulks Field near Chestertown, Maryland. Local militia twice repulsed British attacks on St. Michaels and Elkton.

Learn more about national defense during the War of 1812.

Last updated: January 13, 2022

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