Friday, January 8, 2016

A Proper Militia

Hummel describes the state of the military at the start of the American Civil War.  It is an enjoyable read for the most part, providing even a few laugh-out-loud moments.

Hummel starts with a bang:

Unlike most European and Latin American governments, the United States did not maintain a peacetime standing army large enough to suppress domestic insurrection.

At the start of the war with Mexico in 1846, the Mexican army was four times larger than that of the US.  At the conclusion of the war, the US reduced its wartime forces by over two-thirds, down to 16,000 regulars.  More than one-third of the regular army’s officers were southerners.  In other words, at the start of the Civil War, both armies – north and south – basically were starting from scratch.

In both cases, the foundation for this unprecedented mobilization was the volunteer militia.

State militias had been the backbone of the military in the US, such as it was.  This system entailed the universal obligation of all males to defend their communities.  After the War of 1812, these state militias came under sustained criticism:

Radical Jacksonians condemned militia fines as falling unfairly upon laborers and the poor, while mandatory training increasingly bore the brunt of an effective campaign of ridicule and civil disobedience.

“Ridicule and civil disobedience”; this is getting good.

Abraham Lincoln, during a speech in 1852 recalled how the required “militia trainings” had been “laughed to death.”

At the head of the local militia parade, “on horse-back, figured our old friend Gordon Abrams, with a pine wood sword, about nine feet long, and a paste board cocked hat, from front to rear about the length of an ox yoke, and very much the shape of one turned bottom upwards; and with spurs having rowels as large as the bottom of a teacup, and shanks a foot and a half long.”

I don’t know the meaning of all of the references, however Mr. Abrams sounds more like a circus clown than a military man.

Even better were the “rules and regulations” that Lincoln’s militia unit adopted:

“…no man is to wear more than five pounds of cod-fish for epaulets, or more than thirty yards of bologna sausages for a sash; and no two men are to dress alike, and if any two should dress alike the one that dresses most alike is to be fined.”

The one that dresses most alike?  I don’t even know how this would work…or look.  Sausages?  Once again, clowns.

The unit even had militia flags, with mottoes such as “We’ll fight till we run, and we’ll run till we die.”

Such ridicule and frivolity served a wonderful purpose: the compulsory features of the common militia had disappeared.

Delaware was the first state to repeal some of its militia fines in 1816.  Massachusetts abolished all compulsory militia service in 1840, followed by six other northern states within the next decade.  In several states the fines were no longer enforced or became nominal.  The mandatory training days dropped in frequency and degenerated into more social than military events.

The South maintained compulsory militia duty on the books; Hummel speculates this was due to the slave patrols.

While the compulsory state militias were in decline, voluntary militias sprung up in replacement; the growth was significant after the War of 1812:

Three hundred [volunteer units] sprang up in California between 1849 and 1856.  In the District of Columbia, one out of every twenty-nine people was a member of one or another volunteer company…Even throughout the South, the volunteer militia almost completely supplanted the common militia.

After the War of 1812 and before the Civil War, the American militia transformed from compulsion to volunteerism.  The Mexican War was fought exclusively with volunteer enlistees, with no recourse to a compulsory draft.

An additional feature:

This volunteer system left responsibility for organizing, recruiting, and often equipping soldiers to state or local governments, or even private citizens. (Emphasis added)

At the start of hostilities between North and South, each side called for hundreds of thousands of volunteers.  These quotas were quickly filled; the South – with one-third the white population compared to the population of the North – filled two-thirds as many volunteers as did the North.  The South even turned away 200,000 volunteers because it could not arm, cloth or feed them.

This voluntary and enthusiastic nature of the combatants did not last long – executions and cruel punishments for desertion took their toll; that the anticipated quick victory (anticipated by volunteers on both sides) did not materialize.  Within one year, both sides suffered from a drying up of volunteers. 

In April 1862, the Rebel legislature authorized a national conscription for the South.  In July of the same year, the North enacted a new national militia law – if quotas were not met by the various state governments, the national government would step in to act.  There was no formal Federal draft in the North until March of 1863.  In both the North and South, conscription provided the minority of the military population.


The Civil War drastically changed the nature of government in the United States.  One example is provided in this story of the nature of the military: from voluntary state militias to national conscription and Federal armies. 

Perhaps the roots of the current military empire can be found here.


  1. """Perhaps the roots of the current military empire can be found here.""'

    Yes but because the US was tired of war after the Civil War and since many of the politicians had served in militia units the militia was weakened but not destroyed

    The Spanish/American War weakened the militia even more since militia did not perform that well but on the other hand militia are not designed to be used in Imperial Wars of conquest and especially occupation. Which is why the founders liked militias

    World War 1 was the final knife into the old militia system when the US Army ignored the old militia units and instead created a whole new organization based on Square Divisions" which were huge 30,000 man four regiment units. The Square Divisions proved to be a big failure because they were too big to command but it did manage to destroy the old militia units organization.

  2. Tasty piece,thank you.

    When the Powers That Be saddle too much horse someday.
    (not "if" "but when" it suits there purpose) Are the kids going to go to Canada?Mexico? grandmas basement?

    I remember the S.S. looking for me back in 84
    to sign up for draft.

    Kept putting it off.Too much parting,and hippie lettuce
    smoking to be bothered to want to do it. There are priorities?!

    That ,and ......" !@#$'em!!"

    They would drop by and tale my room mate. Please explain to him all Gov-CO benefits that I would be jeopardizing ,and jail.

    What are they going to do to the poor bastards today when
    "Your call of country needs you"???