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Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812.

Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812. By C. Edward Skeen. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. Pp. ix, 229. $27.50.)

This book is a much-needed addition to the slowly growing literature on a neglected aspect of U.S. history, the role of militia in the War of 1812. Using an array of primary sources, C. Edward Skeen constructs his case methodically. He looks at the state of the U.S. militia before the War of 1812, federal utilization of militia as a major supplement to American military forces during the war, the role of states in militia mobilization and deployment, and the performance of militia.

Congress believed that militia could be used primarily as an auxiliary force, but, due to early failures in 1812, Jeffersonian Republicans in Congress gradually moved to increase the size of the regular force and raise volunteers. But, fear of standing armies and obstructionist tactics of a Federalist minority and dissident Jeffersonian Republicans militated against successful recruitment. Thus, after three years of conflict, Congress had failed to provide an adequate force to prosecute the war.

Skeen also takes up the issue of militia mobilization. He asserts that the dual responsibility of Congress and state governments for the militia bedeviled its use during the war. The Constitution empowered the federal government to use state militias to "'execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions,' and to `provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia,'" but state governments "had the right to appoint the officers and train the militia," according to federal guidelines (1). Though this arrangement envisaged close cooperation between state and federal governments, it created serious operational problems. Some states withheld their militia on constitutional grounds, and other states refused to call out the militia without specific guarantees of payment. The federal government's lethargic response to states' demands did not help matters. Consequently, by the end of the war, some states were close to forming state armies and withholding taxes from the federal government to meet such expenditures. Given all these problems, Skeen maintains, states did a fairly good job of mobilizing the militia for war.

Skeen next focuses on the prosecution of the war and militia performance. On the western front, the U.S. militia attained mixed success. At Brownston and on the River Raising, the militia suffered serious reverses at the hands of the British and Canadians. However, the successful defense of Forts Meigs and Stephenson showed what a well-organized and well-equipped militia could do. On the northern front, where Americans were severely contested by the British, the performance of the militia again fell short of expectations. Early successes were marred by defeat by the end of 1813. Large scale desertions and the refusal of some militiamen to cross into Canada militated against overall effectiveness. On the Atlantic front, the results were no different. The militia was not equal to the task. In the South, where the militia fought against Indians, the results were mixed.

In a letter to Secretary of State Eustis on 20 October 1812, Brigadier General Alexander Smyth summed up the arguments of those who saw the militia as an inadequate force of national defense with his indictment of the militia; he wrote, "Place no confidence in detached militia ... they have disgraced the nation" (101). But, Skeen asserts that the underlying reasons for the poor performance of the militia were to be found in their lack of weapons, shoes, blankets, supplies, and in the problems associated with organization and training. These problems resulted in desertions. They were also plagued by inefficient and untrained officers who sometimes fought, rather than cooperated, with regular officers. Where decisive leadership had been provided and adequate preparations made, as in the case of General Peter B. Porter (Northern) and Andrew Jackson (Southern), the militia performed creditably against the British.

Skeen forcefully points out the plain fact that the nation was not ready to fight when war was declared in 1812. Properly armed, officered, trained, and organized, the militia could have been a more efficient fighting force.

In all, Skeen does a good job of pulling together information from the various states into a complex whole. However, he makes only a passing reference to the role of the Bataria Bay pirates and the free black militia companies in the War of 1812. These criticisms aside, Skeen has produced an excellent book that must be read.

Edmund Abaka

University of Miami
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Abaka, Edmund
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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