We Will Fight
Them On The Beaches:
The US Army Special Militias, 1812-1813
By Chris Oakley
Contrary to popular belief, the notion of asymmetrical warfare is not a uniquely 21st century concept of even a uniquely American one. Indeed, in one form or another it has existed since the days of the Pharaohs of Egypt. But in the early 19th century, the United States would prove to be particularly receptive to this idea and apply it with a verve the world hadnít yet seen up to that time. The impetus for this came with the outbreak of the War of 1812...
But for the Royal Navyís ill-advised practice of impressing American sailors to serve aboard British warships, the War of 1812 might not even have happened. It certainly would not have led to the sacking of Washington D.C.-- or to President Madisonís decision to deploy bands of irregulars to take the war to the British home front. What finally drove Madison to make the risky decision that he did, however, was a matter of simple economics; the British naval blockade of Americaís coastal ports was hurting American trade abroad and robbing thousands of people of their livelihoods. Madison and most of his cabinet were convinced that if the blockade were not broken as soon as possible, the United States would be economically crippled and vulnerable to takeover by its former colonial masters in London. Some of Madisonís critics felt that the economic bind he found himself in was largely of his own making, but thatís a topic for another article.
There was also a fair degree of expansionism involved in his prosecution of this new campaign against the British; President Madison, and many of the men who supported him, were eager to wrest British territory in Canada out of Londonís control. And the more British troops committed to stopping his irregulars from attacking Britainís southern port facilities, the fewer there were to guard the Canadian border-- which made an American invasion of Canada that much easier to pull off.
Madison had been pondering the idea of using special forces in Americaís wars even before he was first elected President in 1808. A year earlier, the British warship HMS Leopard had attacked the USS Chesapeake and impressed several of its crew for service with the Royal Navy; for Americans in general and Madison specifically, the attack was an intolerable insult to American pride.
When Madison was formally sworn in as President of the United States, one of his first official acts was to urge Congress to increase the budgets of the War and Navy departments and to pass a bill which would provide for the creation of what the commander- in-chief modestly referred to as "special militias" that would use Indian-style ambush tactics to fight enemy troops in situations where regular soldiers could not be used.
Many in Congress were somewhat skeptical about Madisonís moves to expand the US military; this skepticism was particularly obvious within the Congressional delegations of the New England states, who feared that Madison, a Southerner, might be using the expansion as a cover for increasing the number of slave states in the Union. Some Southern congressmen also had qualms about the buildup; Europe was a valuable export market for Southern cotton, and there were concerns Madisonís proposed increases in the budget and size of the US armed Forces might trigger a war with one of the continental European powers that would cut the United States off from this market.
Madison had a great many allies on Capitol Hill, though, and with their backing he succeeded in getting most of his military expansion proposals enacted into law; one of the first was his "special militia" act, which was passed by the House of Representatives on March 13th, 1809 and by the Senate two days later. Once the Senate had approved it, President Madison didnít waste a second signing it into law, and with that a new era in American military history had been launched.
Once the Special Militia Act had been enacted, Madison turned his attention to finding recruits for his commando units. Some of the men he chose for his new militias were, to say the least, of questionable character; at least one was described by one of Madisonís aides as "a savage, the sort of uncouth thug better fitted to plunder and pillage as a highwayman than to wear the uniform of our nationís army." But Madison saw them as the perfect breed of man for this new type of army corps; besides, he was certain the British wouldnít hesitate to employ cutthroats themselves if push came to shove.
The first special militia to be formed under the act was organized in September of 1809 near Charleston, South Carolina; predictably, the rough-and-ready militia recruits and the genteel Charlestonians rubbed each other the wrong way when the militiamen were billeted in a local hotel. Had there been a 911 line in the city in those days, it would probably have been kept very busy by the recruitsí off-duty behavior during their first months of training; there are verified records of at least five drunken brawls, two burglaries, eleven knife fights, an attempted rape, and three armed robberies in Charleston by members of the militia unit in October of 1809 alone. One militia member was even dishonorably discharged for being caught plotting arson against a city official whoíd refused to accept a bribe to let him run an opium den out of a local tavern.
To restore discipline among the militiaís ranks and soothe the ruffled feathers of Charlestonians, the Army sent a Revolutionary War veteran officer to Charleston with full authority to impose a strict training regimen on the militiamen and equally strict penalties for failing to comply with that regimen. Gradually discipline and weapons proficiency within the Charleston militiaís ranks improved, and in April of 1810 Congress finally gave its blessing for a second special militia to be organized, this one in Aberdeen, Maryland.
By the summer of 1811 there were at least nine such militias in operational service with the US Army and a tenth was being organized near what is today Dorchester, Massachusetts; as relations between Britain and the United States continued to worse, all these units were busy stockpiling vital supplies and equipment in anticipation of the day when their services would be called on. And that day was coming sooner than anyone expected....
For the White House, the straw that broke the camelís back in its long-running standoff with Britain finally came in mid-May of 1812, when the British frigate Triton fired on the American sloop Iroquois after she refused to let the British vessel search her decks for Royal Navy deserters; five men on the American ship died in the attack and nine others were forcibly impressed into British service. In President James Madisonís eyes this was an even greater atrocity than the 1807 Leopard incident; this time American citizens had been killed.
On May 31st, 1812 President Madison officially called on Congress to issue a declaration of war against Great Britain; within hours, dispatch riders were setting out to spread the word to the special militias that the hour had arrived for them to go into action against the enemy. The men of the special militias needed no further urging on that point; in some cases, theyíd already started marching out to face the British even before it had become officially known that the United States and Great Britain were at war again.
Among the militia commanders called to action when war between America and Britain erupted again was a Tennessee frontiersman named Andrew Jackson. Known to his friends as "Old Hickory" because of his tough demeanor, Jackson would from the very first days of the war prove to be a constant thorn in the side of the British; he seldom if ever missed a chance to strike at the enemy, and when he did strike it caused no end of consternation to the political leadership in London. "God curse the day that man ever first drew breath in this world!" raged Britainís prime minister at the time, the Earl of Liverpool, after Jacksonís first ambush of a British patrol. King George III, still bitter over Great Britainís defeat in the American Revolutionary War and starting his final descent into insanity, screamed like a wounded dog at the mere mention of Jacksonís name and more than once had to be physically restrained from personally going after the wily backwoodsman.
Though President Madison had originally envisioned the special militias as a means to take the War of 1812 to the English home front, it would not be until nearly five months after the war began that a militia unit would finally set foot on British soil. On October 22nd, 1812 a US Army special militia using a captured Royal Navy cutter slipped into the port of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and raided the RN base there, blowing up several tons of food and ammunition and setting fire to at least three warships.1 Once their work was done, the attackers escaped in the ensuing confusion and returned to America the same way theyíd come, making sure to scuttle their stolen cutter once they were back on American soil.
Like the Doolittle bombing of Japan during World War II, the real damage inflicted by the Newcastle-upon-Tyne commando raid was more in the psychological sense than the physical. Until the Newcastle raid the British general staff had complacently assured Britainís political leadership there was no way the Americans could effectively strike at the British homefront; the commando attack jolted this complacency and for a brief time sparked fears that the United States was making plans to form an alliance with Franceís Napoleon Bonaparte. Realistically, of course, the odds of such an alliance were slim, but the fact that British Army officers were thinking along these lines gives some hint to the effect the Newcastle attack had on the British military psyche.
The Royal Navy had barely finished cleaning up the wreckage of the Newcastle raid when another of Madisonís special militias struck Great Britain in early November, this time blowing up a frigate at the docks of Liverpool. The aforementioned frigate had been set to join the RNís blockade line off the US Atlantic coast before she was destroyed; her sinking constituted a blow to British naval operations in the waters off North America.
On November 17, 1812, Parliament issued a decree proclaiming that henceforth all special militia personnel captured in battle were to be tried and executed as spies, effectively stripping militia troops of the rights normally accorded to prisoners of war by the standard laws and practices of military conduct. This made an already risky job that much more dangerous; however, if the MPs in the House of Commons and the House of Lords were hoping to discourage American men from joining the militias, they failed badly-- President Madison still managed to find willing recruits to fill the ranks of these irregular units. In fact, some volunteers enlisted in the special militias exactly because of the Parliament decree just to spite the British.
King George IIIís already precarious mental state deteriorated even further as the militias continued to strike at his armed forces. In February of 1813 Parliament was finally compelled to convene an emergency session to vote on whether the British monarch should be removed from the throne; it was, by all accounts, one of the stormiest meetings in Parliamentís history. For hours, MPs argued vehemently with one another about whether to keep him as king of England or to appoint his son George IV to rule in his stead as Prince Regent. Not since Guy Fawkesí botched attempt to blow the Parliament building up in 1605 had the atmosphere within its walls been so tense. The session lasted the entire night and most of the next day; at least one House of Commons MP had to be taken to a doctor for exhaustion before it was all over. But when the meeting finally ended, the MPs had narrowly decided in favor of appointing George IV to replace his father on the throne of England.
Not surprisingly George III didnít show much emotion when he was told of Parliamentís decision; by the time the appointment was made, he was so far gone he could barely even remember his own name. The man who for years had been the most powerful ruler on earth as well as the leader of the Hanover dynasty would spend most of his remaining days in a secluded Welsh country estate surrounded by a retinue of servants who were handsomely paid by the Crown to ignore the occasional lapses of memory when he forgot he was no longer running the British Empire.2
In June of 1813 the British decided to give Madison a taste of his own medicine, creating irregular troop units to hit the behind the US lines. As had been the case with Madisonís special militias, the men selected for the British Armyís irregular forces could as often as not come from what in modern terms is described as "the wrong side of the tracks". Representatives of the British Army judge advocate generalís office were kept busy around the clock trying to clean up the messes made by the irregulars-- and those messes were huge, to say the least. According to Ministry of Defence archives from that era, no less than three dozen irregulars were court-martialled in a single week in July of 1813 on charges ranging from forgery to second-degree murder.
But that didnít stop George IV from putting the irregulars to use the first chance he got. In September of 1813 three platoons of these irregulars slipped across the US-Canadian border from Ontario and set fire to the town of Buffalo, New York; all but one of Buffaloís public buildings and most of its private homes were destroyed in the attack. True, most of the irregulars were killed as they tried to slip back into Canada, but the raid dealt a serious blow to American morale and put the Madison administration on the defensive.
The irregulars struck again a month later, this time blowing up gunpowder and other munitions stores at a militia outpost in Augusta, Maine; in a diversionary tactic they also set fire to the town hall, killing several town officials who had the ill luck to be holding a meeting inside at the time. This time the irregulars were able to make a successful getaway, with the conspicuous exception of an unfortunate straggler who was shot by town militiamen as he tried to get back to his feet after tripping over a fallen branch.
When news of the Augusta raid got back to President Madison in Washington, it became clear that the British were willing to match the United States move for move in the game of asymmetrical warfare-- perhaps even escalate things a notch....
To Be Continued
1Some accounts of the raid suggest it may have been four, but this has never been confirmed.
2Modern forensic medical experts suspect that the brain disease porphyria, which triggered George IIIís final mental deterioration, may have had something to do with his failure to react to his replacement as king of England.