National Guard August 2012 : Page 32
G UARD R OOTS : W AR OF 1812 Turning Point By Bob Haskell The nation’s ‘second war of independence’ proved to be the beginning of the end of one militia system, and the birth of another HERE’S REALLY ONLY one word to describe the War of 1812: Confusing. We Americans think we won it. The Canadians think they won it. The British don’t seem to care. And no one paid much attention to the Native Ameri-cans, who some argue were the ones who really lost the two-and-a-half-year conﬂict that began 200 years ago this summer when the young United States declared war against Great Britain. It is primarily known in this country for such signiﬁ-cant events as the burning of Washington, D.C., the bom-T | bardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen The Star-Spangled Banner , and the American victory at New Orleans. It also is regarded as a naval war because of this coun-try’s maritime grievances against the British, the USS Con-stitution ’s victory over HMS Guerrière in 1812 that earned the U.S. frigate the nickname “Old Ironsides,” and Oliver Hazard Perry’s decisive victory over a Royal Navy squadron on Lake Erie in 1813. One more thing: It was a signiﬁcant benchmark in the evolution of the National Guard. Our “second war of independence” revealed a major ﬂaw in America’s faith in what was called the enrolled mili-tia to provide for national defense and security. “[The militia] was neither trained nor equipped for war,” says Peter Kastor, an associate professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis. “The War of 1812 showed the militia at its best and worst,” explains retired Col. Len Kondratiuk, an Army Guard historian. “After the war, the War Department and 32 Na tional Guard
The nation’s ‘second war of independence’ proved to be the beginning of the end of one militia system, and the birth of another<br /> <br /> THERE’S REALLY ONLY one word to describe the War of 1812: Confusing.<br /> <br /> We Americans think we won it. The Canadians think they won it. The British don’t seem to care. And no one paid much attention to the Native Americans, who some argue were the ones who really lost the two-and-a-half-year conflict that began 200 years ago this summer when the young United States declared war against Great Britain.<br /> <br /> It is primarily known in this country for such significant events as the burning of Washington, D.C., the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen The Star-Spangled Banner, and the American victory at New Orleans.<br /> <br /> It also is regarded as a naval war because of this country’s maritime grievances against the British, the USS Constitution’s victory over HMS Guerrière in 1812 that earned the U.S. frigate the nickname “Old Ironsides,” and Oliver Hazard Perry’s decisive victory over a Royal Navy squadron on Lake Erie in 1813.<br /> <br /> One more thing: It was a significant benchmark in the evolution of the National Guard.<br /> <br /> Our “second war of independence” revealed a major flaw in America’s faith in what was called the enrolled militia to provide for national defense and security.<br /> <br /> “[The militia] was neither trained nor equipped for war,” says Peter Kastor, an associate professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis.<br /> <br /> “The War of 1812 showed the militia at its best and worst,” explains retired Col. Len Kondratiuk, an Army Guard historian. “After the war, the War Department and Militia realized that largely untrained and poorly equipped militia brigades and divisions did not provide for national defense. It was the last war fought by the ‘enrolled militia.’” <br /> <br /> On the other hand, the forefathers of the modern National Guard did rise to the occasion against the formidable British army and its Indian allies when they were properly led, trained and disciplined, and faced with a crisis situation.<br /> <br /> “What brought everything together was a combination of a sense of urgency and the strength of the leaders,” explains University of Virginia history professor J.C.A. Stagg.<br /> <br /> Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison were two such leaders. They became national heroes and, respectively, the seventh and ninth presidents of the United States.<br /> <br /> The enrolled militia, in which most white, able-bodied men between 18 and 45 were required to serve, was born by two acts of Congress in May 1792: The Militia Act of 1792 and what Guard historian Michael Doubler has called the “Calling Forth Act.” <br /> <br /> Neither statute prepared the militia for war. Although they did authorize the president to call out the various state militias for national emergencies, the statutes left to the states the appointment of officers and the authority for training America’s citizen-soldiers.<br /> <br /> They required the militia members to provide their own weapons, horses and other equipment. The “Calling Forth Act” levied penalties for not attending training. But it was easy to circumvent the law.<br /> <br /> “Government leaders wanted to find ways to put more teeth into it because they realized it left too much discretion to the states. But Congress would never move beyond that,” says Stagg. “Militia men just didn’t bother to comply with the law. They didn’t have to protest. The penalties for noncompliance were often nonexistent.<br /> <br /> “There the matter rested until the War of 1812. People said we must never go to war again, as we did in the Revolution, with an undisciplined militia. But that’s pretty much what they did. They had forgotten their lessons once, and they were condemned to learn them again.” <br /> <br /> The regular Army had fewer than 12,000 soldiers when war was declared. They were primarily deployed around the Great Lakes and along the Canadian frontier. Out of sight, out of mind was the American attitude toward the standing army, Kastor says.<br /> <br /> It was the militia, America’s leaders believed, that would save the day if the going got tough. President James Madison, for example, assumed that the state militias would easily seize Canada and that negotiations with Great Britain would follow.<br /> <br /> That didn’t pan out because of poor leadership and preparations and because many militia units refused to invade Canada, arguing that their commitment to homeland defense did not extend beyond the U.S. border.<br /> <br /> STRANGE WAR <br /> <br /> Politics also played a part during a time when the Federalists were losing clout to the Republicans but still controlled New England. Massachusetts and Connecticut, said to have the strongest militia forces in the country, refused to let them be federalized until late in the war because they were still doing business with the British.<br /> <br /> Fortunately, the British waged purely a defensive campaign over here in 1812 and 1813 until they defeated the French to end the Napoleonic Wars. Then they deployed 15,000 additional troops to America. By then, the American militia was getting its act together.<br /> <br /> That required leadership, training and discipline during what can only be described as a strange war that afflicted every part of the country that extended to the Mississippi Valley.<br /> <br /> Neither side dominated until the Americans won three key engagements beginning late in 1814, when the reasons for waging war in the first place no longer existed and while peace negotiations were going on in Ghent, Belgium.<br /> <br /> As it turned out, the Americans did their worst when the British were weakest and did their best when the British were strongest.<br /> <br /> Neither the Americans nor the British kept any of the territory they occupied during the war, but the defeat of Native Americans did open the western region for American expansion.<br /> <br /> “The militia’s performance during the war ranged quite considerably.” Stagg says. “The conditions under which the militia performed Varied according to the circumstances of time and place. It took some force out of the barrel of a gun, so to speak, to make good.” <br /> <br /> Harrison and Jackson helped make that happen in decidedly different ways.<br /> <br /> “Their methods of dealing with the militia varied widely,” Stagg says. “Harrison tended to flatter the sensibilities of the militia. He was an aristocratic gentleman who sort of nudged them along and allowed for their sensibilities. They went along with that.” <br /> <br /> So well, in fact, that his 3,500 troops, including five brigades of Kentucky militia plus 1,000 volunteer cavalry, scored a decisive victory over about 1,300 British troops and Native American warriors during the Battle of the Thames in Ontario Oct. 5, 1813.<br /> <br /> Jackson, on the other hand, was a respected leader but a stern disciplinarian during the western war against the Creek Indians that historians consider part of the larger war because the British supported the Creeks.<br /> <br /> Jackson threatened to have his regulars gun down Tennessee volunteers, including David Crockett, who were determined to return to their homes because their enlistments had expired. Jackson later let those men go home. He also ordered an 18-year-old Tennessee militiaman, John Woods, executed for mutiny.<br /> <br /> “That was unprecedented at the time,” says Stagg. But that brand of discipline apparently served “Old Hickory” well. His Tennessee militia, as well as the 39th U. S. Infantry and some 600 Indian allies, defeated the Red Sticks, part of the Creek tribe, at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in central Alabama March 27, 1814.<br /> <br /> After suffering as many setbacks as victories, the Americans gained the upper hand by slamming the door on the British in three strategic locations—Plattsburgh, N.Y., in the north, Baltimore in the east, and New Orleans in the south—beginning in late 1814.<br /> <br /> The Navy carried the day on Lake Champlain at Plattsburgh. But the militia was instrumental in the victories at Baltimore and New Orleans.<br /> <br /> QUICK RECOVERY <br /> <br /> Michael Martin, a retired University of Michigan biology professor with a lifelong interest in military history, last September shed fresh light on how the militia accorded itself in a Wikipedia article called “Army National Guard Units With Campaign Credits for the War of 1812.” <br /> <br /> Martin identified 20 modern Guard regiments, battalions and smaller units from 12 states and the District of Columbia whose historical umbilical cords stretch back two centuries to militia units that took part in the war. Three more modern Guard units and a 13th state, Maine, have been added to Martin’s list thanks to Kondratiuk.<br /> <br /> Baltimore’s 5th Regiment of Militia, part of the lineage of the Maryland Army Guard’s 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry, Fled from the British during the Battle of Bladensburg in Maryland on Aug. 24, 1814.<br /> <br /> The rout, considered the Americans’ worst defeat of the war, has been nicknamed “The Bladensburg Races.” It left Washington wide open for the British to sack and burn the Capitol, the Presidential Mansion and other buildings on Aug. 24 and 25.<br /> <br /> Something changed, however, when the British next focused their attention on Baltimore.<br /> <br /> This time the American defenders were ready. The 5th Regiment was part of the well-entrenched militia force that faced the 4,500-man British army when it landed at North Point, Md., Sept. 12.<br /> <br /> The 5th held its position “and then conducted a successful fighting retreat that significantly slowed the British advance on Baltimore,” Martin wrote.<br /> <br /> All British forces departed after the Royal Navy failed to subdue Fort McHenry during a 25-hour bombardment Sept. 13 and 14.<br /> <br /> The Mississippi Army Guard’s 155th Infantry got its War of 1812 legacy, Martin reported, because of “six Mississippi militia units mustered into federal service from September 1814 through January 1815 for service in [Gen. Jackson’s] Coast Campaign.” <br /> <br /> Lt. Col. Thomas Hinds’ light dragoons were most involved in the action leading up to the Battle of New Orleans Jan. 8, 1815.<br /> <br /> “During the night attack Dec. 23 the Dragoons provided valuable reconnaissance that located the British encampment on LaCoste’s Plantation,” Martin wrote, “and during the major battle Jan. 8 they were in reserve just one mile behind the breastworks that comprised Jackson’s front line.” <br /> <br /> Between 3,000 and 4,000 militia from western states and territories were among the 5,000 who defended New Orleans and cut to pieces a larger British force. New Orleans is considered the most important American land victory for the war that was, for all intents and purposes, over because the peace treaty had been signed in Ghent Dec. 24.<br /> <br /> Overall, the enrolled militia did not live up to its original, lofty expectations and the system fell into decline after the war.<br /> <br /> “By the middle of the 1840s, the enrolled militia system had all but faded away into obsolescence,” Doubler wrote.<br /> <br /> Delaware abolished mandatory service in 1831, Massachusetts followed suit in 1840, he added.<br /> <br /> What took its place? The volunteer militia that evolved into the modern National Guard.