Military Subjects:  War of 1812

 

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 13: June 2010

 

Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

Skeen, Carl Edward. Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812. KY.: The University Press of Kentucky, 1999. 229 p. ISBN# 0813120896. $35.00.

The good, the bad, and the reality of the American militia in the War of 1812.

Reviewed by: Carl C. Creason, Murray State University

According to author and historian, Carl Edward Skeen, the use of militia troops during combat has remained deeply implanted in the psyche of the American people since the beginning of United States history.  The American militia, existing as a large colonial force, contributed one in every three men during the Revolutionary War.  In addition, the militia also contributed a substantial number of men during the second war with Great Britain, the War of 1812.  Due to the extent of militia service and the numerous issues that surrounded their utilization, Carl E. Skeen was able to produce a work in which he explores essentially every aspect regarding the militia's role during the War of 1812.

As he mentions in the introduction, several works have been written on the war, however, the majority focus on other themes or topics and exhibit limited scholarship about the American militia.  For that reason, Skeen's purpose in writing Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812 was to contribute a work that would provide due research into an imperative topic about the war.  By means of his soundly researched book, published by the University of Kentucky Press, the author points out examples of both the poor and effective utilization of the militia forces, as well as the contributing factors that led to each.  A consistent theme throughout the work remains the inability for the state and federal governments to collaborate over the deployment, equipment, payment, and leadership of the militia troops.  Skeen's thesis explains how the fate of the militia relied solely on the states in each matter.

Citizens Soldiers in the War of 1812 consists of ten brilliantly researched chapters in which readers will clearly realize the ardent work ethic of Skeen.  In each chapter, Skeen addresses a specific topic or fighting front and arranges each in chronological order.  His arrangement efficiently provides readers with a clear understanding of the state of the militia before the war, the performance of the militia on each fighting front, as well as its transformation following the war.

During chapter one, Skeen provides a brief yet insightful overview of the militia prior to the War of 1812.  He discusses the importance of the militia from the onset of the colonial period through its use during the American Revolution.  Following the American Revolution, in 1794, the militia undertook its first major test when Washington led the unit to put down rioters in Pennsylvania, in what is referred to as the Whiskey Rebellion. Skeen also explains the Knox Uniform Militia Plan, passed by Congress in 1792, which regulated the militia without alteration until 1903.  The longevity of Knox's plan was a direct result of political disputes that embedded their roots during the turn of the 19th century.  With the rise of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, militia reform became a principal topic in Congress.  Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, supported the use of state militia as a means of national defense, however, the majority of Federalists considered them largely inferior to regular troops.  As a result of failed political cooperation, essentially nothing was done to militia reform or American national defense on the eve of a major war.  Skeen clearly makes it evident that this issue largely contributed to the militia's failures throughout the war.

In chapters two through four, readers are exposed to the numerous issues that plagued the state and federal governments regarding the militia.  These issues involved a number of topics ranging from equipping and paying the militia to providing an adequate commanding officer to whom the militia were willing to serve under.  Largely supported by primary quotations, Skeen thoroughly explains the Congressional debates during the time period.  He incorporates the words of renowned men, such as John Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay, along with well-written prose to paint a clear picture of political disorganization.  Skeen explains the situation of militia reform most effectively in stating that "the effort was flawed in the beginning" (p. 38).

Each state's laws and systems regarding militia enlistment, substitution, and desertion are also included within this section.  As a result of each state administering various exemptions, stipulations, and fines, this segment of the book could be considered at times somewhat overbearing and tiresome reading.  Largely consisting of merely facts or examples from each state, the chapter reads similarly to a reference book and includes a minimal amount of the author's contribution.  Nonetheless, I feel the section harbors importance in that it clearly signifies the presence of national nonconformity and disunity.

In addition, Skeen provides descriptions of the militia's experiences during daily camp life.  Members of the militia spent the majority of their time digging breastworks or building blockhouses, thus dedicating minimal time to military drill.  The majority of the commanding officers refrained from drilling or being too strict in fear of militia desertion.  As a result, the vast majority of the militia remained ignorant of military discipline or drill.  Consequently, this issue largely contributed to various, future reports of their inferiority on the battlefield.

Furthermore, Skeen considers the militia's lack of equipment as the most significant blunder regarding their utilization.  According to Skeen, "militiamen lacked virtually every item necessary to conduct a war" (p. 52).  He supports his argument by including officer's descriptions of the militia at rendezvous, which explain how the militiamen arrived without a wide array of items.  Crucial supplies the militia commonly lacked included: powder, balls, flints, blankets, knapsacks, and cooking equipment. Nonetheless, firearms remained the most steadfast concern throughout the war.

Militia regularly entered into battle either armed with inferior weapons, in which many were considered unfit for use, or more shockingly carrying no arm at all.  Plagued by firearm shortages throughout the war, state and federal governments addressed the issue in various matters. Skeen dedicates the second half of his work to closer studies of the militia's contributions within each specific theatre of the war.  The issues that the author addresses during the first half of the book come to light during the remaining chapters as the author provides more specific examples of the ramifications of issues including: the lack of military drill or discipline, placing an unwelcomed officer in command, and the lack of firearms.  More importantly, Skeen proves that under suitable circumstances the militia was capable of performing as a valuable fighting unit.  The author's thesis becomes most evident within these explanations, in which he shows that the fate of the militia clearly relied on their abilities to be well-led, to sustain morale, and to be properly equipped.

The author's best example of the militia suffering from ominous circumstances includes his description of the 1814 Battle of Bladensburg, which occurred in Maryland.  Skeen renders no kind words when he refers to the militia's contribution at Bladensburg as "probably the worst example of militia performance in the war" (p. 138).  Based on the author's explanation, the outcome at Bladensburg should be awarded to a failure of proper leadership. 

Ironically, the American militia entered into Bladensburg outnumbering the British 7,000 to 4,500 under the command of William H. Winder.  Winder's greatest failure can be contributed to his disbelief in the militia's ability to perform.  Due to his immediate bias towards their capabilities, Winder led the militia into battle prematurely convinced that he had no hope of victory. As a result, the outcome of the abortive American defense at Bladensburg was a largely disorganized withdrawal.  The hasty retreat that transpired was ironically named the "Bladensburg Races." 

However, the militia proved their capabilities as a functional force under efficient leadership.  In 1813 at the Battle of River Thames, William Henry Harrison led a force of 5,000 to defeat Tecumseh's Pan-Indian Confederacy in what proved to be the decisive battle in the war's western theatre.  Harrison's force, which consisted of approximately sixty percent Kentucky militiamen, confidently conformed to their leader's orders and crossed the national border into Canada to engage the Indian Confederacy.  During previous conflicts within the theatre as well as other fighting fronts, a major issue that plagued American commanders involved the militia's refusal to cross national boundaries.  As a result of Harrison's popularity among the Kentuckians, the militia willingly adhered to his orders and pursued the enemy across national lines.  Most importantly to the militia, the victory at the Thames catapulted their public appeal.  Most notably, the militia's appeal was highlighted by newspaper reports of the battle, which included Harrison's description of the militia's performance possessing "'the Roman spirit'" (Harrison quoted p. 93).  Largely, the victory at the Thames gave the militia crucial public support in what remained at the time a period highlighted by their inferiority.  Skeen's observations of the Battle of River Thames demonstrate the importance of leadership in determining the outcome of militia success. 

Not only is New Orleans arguably the most popular battle of the war, but Skeen reveals that it also serves as an excellent example of both an effective and disastrous militia performance.  During the main British attack on January 8th, the Kentucky militiamen under the command of Colonel John Davis were ordered to the advance line.  During their immediate engagement with the British regulars, the Kentuckians successfully fired off two shots and then quickly retreated behind the American lines.  Following their retreat, the Kentuckians were ordered to defend the right flank, however, they were almost instantaneously placed under British attack and hence a second retreat occurred.  As a result of the militia's disorderly scamper, General Andrew Jackson became extremely critical of their performance.  According to Skeen, the collapse of the American right flank has remained a "controversy for many years," in which Jackson "clearly blamed the Kentucky militia" (p. 171).

However, the left flank's performance on January 8th fared much better.  The American left flank consisted of battle-tested veterans of the Creek War, who faced the enemy assault head-on under the protection of a soundly defended line.  According to Skeen, the militia's performance on the left clearly resulted from improved circumstances. Militiamen of the left flank possessed two clear advantages over the right flank's militia.  First, they fought alongside experienced soldiers, and secondly, they engaged the enemy behind a soundly entrenched line.  The divergence of performance at New Orleans remains purely an additional example of the manner in which the militia's fate rested in the hands of several issues.  As Skeen writes, militiamen positioned behind secured lines were capable of fighting, however, "once drawn from behind barricades, the militia was no match for professional soldiers" (p. 174).

In addition to the chapters referring to the specific theatres, Skeen includes a chapter in the second half of the book entitled "Federal-State Relations," in which he tackles the issue of state armies.  As a result of a failed militia system established before the war, many state legislators were in the process of establishing permanent state armies.  Skeen argues that "had the war continued another year, it seems certain that a significant majority of the states would have forsaken reliance upon the militia and established permanent (standing) state armies" (p. 150).  In essence, the existence of state armies would have created a major problem of military disunity within the country. Nonetheless, Skeen notes that the war ended just in time.

Skeen closes the book with a chapter discussing the state of the militia following the war.  The primary Congressional concern after the war involved the militia's size.  Almost as quickly as the war ended, the House and Senate began debating over the number of troops to which the militia should be limited.  The Army Reduction Act was passed in 1815, which Skeen acknowledges as "an early indication of a growing disenchantment with the idealized but inefficient and unreliable militia" (p. 178).  Following the Army Reduction Act, militia units largely transformed into social clubs.  Skeen argues that the majority were led by prominent, wealthy gentlemen who remained more focused on vibrant uniforms and zealous drill than actually conforming to a useful military unit.  It was not until the creation of the National Guard that the militia took on the role as a suitable and more importantly reliable force.  A force that Skeen considers was "approximately the intent of our Founding Fathers and preserving their ideal of citizen soldiers" (p. 184).

As I previously mentioned, the work remains soundly anchored in primary sources.  Nearly every page is filled with quotations from the letters, journals, and diaries of legislators and military leaders.  In addition, the author relied heavily on microfilm collections of state records and contemporary newspapers.   Skeen discusses his sources through a bibliographical essay in which he claims that due to minimal secondary writing on the militia's role during the war, he was required to rely largely on primary sources.  Therefore, as a result, Skeen produced a well supported academic contribution.

Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812 should be considered a well researched scholarly book.  I thoroughly commend Skeen for his efforts and am grateful for his contribution in the field.  I would highly recommend the book to history students, political science students, military science students, and especially War of 1812 scholars.  However, I would not highly recommend the book to anyone unfamiliar with the war.  For example, the author includes references of fighting during the Creek War as well as against Tecumseh's Pan-Indian Confederacy.  Although Tecumseh remains a well known and popular figure of the time period, the Creek War, similar to the state of the militia, is a rarely covered aspect of the war.  Skeen expects readers to understand such elements that he refers to without providing background information.  In addition, if I had anything to add to his work, I would pose that Skeen include more information regarding the reasons as to why particular militiamen remained exceptionally willing to answer the call to arms.

The author consistently includes the willingness of Kentuckians to serve in the militia ranks, however, readers are left wondering why.  Based on my previous exposure to the war, I would contribute the willingness of service to Kentucky's geographic location at the time.  During the early 19th century, Kentucky was the "American West" and assumed a large number of Indian raids and attacks.  With that being said, I would attribute Kentucky's overwhelming contribution to that of a sense of self-defense against the British inculcating Indian attacks on the settlers of the frontier. 

Nonetheless, none of the previously mentioned should deter an individual from obtaining a copy Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812, for readers will truly be enlightened over a wonderfully researched and well written work. 

 



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