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Regular, Reservist and The War of 1812,
This review is from: Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812 (Hardcover)
The War of 1812 was a watershed for the United States; it was the first time we declared war on another nation. So, how did we do? For one, we gained recognition as a member of the world community. But more importantly, we relied on the militia to prosecute the war and learned some hard facts about their utility as a main defense force. This is the focus of Professor C. Edward Skeen. CITIZEN SOLDIERS seeks to describe the federal use of the militia to augment the regular army; survey the militia's performance in general; and review the operational aspects of militia participation at the state level (p. 1).
The fifty-five delegates of the Constitutional Convention believed state governments should provide a counterbalance to the national government. State sovereignty and individual liberty were paramount when the time came to provide for the common defense. This resulted in the militia system of national defense, which had its flaws. Although the federal government provided for "organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia" during wartime and could mobilize state militias to "execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions," states reserved the right to regulate the militia and appoint their own officers (p. 5). Thus, the federal government wrote the regulations for the militia while state governments regulated the militia.
Six of the author's ten chapters are devoted to federal-state relations and the organization and mobilization of the militia. The other four chapters are the meat of the book; they evaluate the combat performance of the militia and support Skeen's main treatise: Although the minutemen fought well under the right circumstances, the War of 1812 proved that America could not rely on the militia to serve as its first line of defense.
Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry bested the British on Lake Erie in 1813. This enabled General William Henry Harrison to destroy Tecumseh and break the back of the Indian confederacy. Skeen concludes that the outcome of these campaigns "were attributable to the militia" (p. 95), even if their record in combat was undistinguished.
Meanwhile along the Niagara, General Peter B. Porter of New York rallied the militia and routed the British at Battle of Black Rock. Skeen singles out Porter as the quintessential militia leader of the war: "[Porter] demonstrated persuasively that militiamen, capably led, were effective fighters" (p. 107).
Along the eastern seaboard, the Royal Navy sailed into Chesapeake Bay, put troops ashore at Benedict on 18 August, and invested Washington during the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814. According to Skeen, "The Battle of Bladensburg represented probably the worst example of militia performance in the war. It illustrated in microcosm all of the things wrong with the militia in the War of 1812" (p. 138). They were poorly organized and equipped and they lacked unit cohesion and leadership.
The outnumbered British were opposed by 7,000 Americans led by Brigadier General William Winder, whose "chief qualification [to command] was that he was a nephew of Levin Winder, governor of Maryland" (p. 130). Although Winder's force was predominantly militia, which Winder himself blamed for the eventual outcome of the battle--it was the leadership, not the composition of the American force that led to their defeat. Simply put, Winder was incompetent.
The British withdrew from Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay area in September 1814 and shifted their focus to the southern theater along the Gulf of Mexico. Fortunately--for the sake of the militia--the militiamen in the South performed better than their brothers did along the eastern seaboard. Andrew Jackson's dramatic victory at New Orleans was the major battle in the Southern theater and the capstone of the War of 1812. Skeen believes Jackson's leadership of the militia "showed once again that, under the right circumstances, given proper leadership, discipline, training, and arms and equipment, American militiamen were capable of fighting" (p. 174).
CITIZEN SOLDIERS is at its best refereeing the arguments over the militia between the states and the federal government. For example, the New England states believed their governors reserved the right to decide when the militia should be mobilized, not President James Madison. They questioned the federal government's declaration of war and balked at mobilizing their militia because, they claimed, the war was unconstitutional (pp. 65-72). In fact, many of the militiamen that did fight still refused to cross the Canadian border because they believed it "unconstitutional."
Unfortunately, CITIZEN SOLDIERS assumes a working knowledge of the War of 1812. Although Skeen gives enough coverage of each theater of operations to support his arguments, he does not offer enough depth for his book to stand alone as a history of the war.
In closing, I don't think CITIZEN SOLDIERS has broken any new ground. Donald R. Hickey has already produced the definitive history of the war with his WAR OF 1812: A FORGOTTEN CONFLICT (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1989). Likewise, John K. Mahon has already told us all there is to know about citizen soldiers and the militia with his HISTORY OF THE MILITIA AND THE NATIONAL GUARD (New York: Macmillan, 1983) and THE AMERICAN MILITIA: DECADE OF DECISION, 1789-1800 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1960). Yet, thanks to a Herculean research effort, Citizen Soldiers is a winner. Skeen's endnotes and bibliographic essay evidence his extensive documentary research in state and federal archives. He has done well in marshalling evidence from primary and secondary sources and carries his main argument: "[The War of 1812 showed that] the militia was an unreliable main defense force" (p. 3).