Importing Napoleon: Engineering the American Military Nation, 1814-1821
Jonathan M. Romaneski
Ohio State Univ., 2017
As the War of 1812 drew to a close, the American nation was economically exhausted and politically upended. The great crisis of the war loomed over the American shorelines from mid-1814 onward, when British reinforcements under a new and more aggressive British commander threatened offensive thrusts into U.S. territory at multiple points. Americans were completely unprepared to meet the British invasion attempts; the United States parried all British thrusts in 1814 almost in spite of itself. Thus, by the end of 1814, the Madison administration (with strong input from James Monroe) began to seek to reform the American military establishment to ensure a more disciplined and uniform militia system, a better-educated and “professional” officer corps, and a stout system of seacoast fortifications. The reformers looked no further than the Napoleonic military system for all their answers.
In order to convince the American people and their congressional representatives that greater investment in a Napoleonic-style army was necessary, the reformers relied on a narrative of the War of 1812 that emphasized the frailty of the militia and the heroism of the regulars. Complicating the reformers’ narrative was, first, the strong antimilitary ideological traditions that Americans had held so closely since the Revolutionary era, and second, a counternarrative of the war that arose from Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans. Despite the abounding case studies to which reformers could appeal in support of their position—most notably the regulars’ performance at the Battle of Chippewa and the militia’s apparent failure at the Battle of Bladensburg—the single case of Jackson at New Orleans carried greater emotional weight and had the additional benefit of reinforcing Americans’ pro-militia, anti-army biases.
This dissertation covers the difficulties that a relatively small group of men in the executive branch of the U.S. government faced when they tried, between 1814 and 1821, to strengthen the federal apparatus by adopting Napoleonic military practices. It is a study, therefore, of top-down policy implementation and of the role of war’s memory in that process. “Importing Napoleon” proved difficult in the political arena because Andrew Jackson’s folk-heroism seemed to repudiate the need for such measures, but it was comparatively more successful within the U.S. Army itself because the military structure lent itself better to top-down change. By 1821, when Congress rejected Secretary of War John C. Calhoun’s “expansible army” concept and the army was reduced in size, it was a political setback for the reformers. Within the regular army, however, a new generation of competently-educated officers was emerging from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point—they were the agents who would engineer the United States’ path westward toward its imperial destiny.