We Will Fight
Them On The Beaches:
The US Army Special Militias, 1812-1813
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In Part 1 of this series we reviewed the circumstances that led President James Madison to form the U.S. Army’s so-called "special militia" units prior to the War of 1812; their operations in the first months of that war; and the British army’s establishment of its own squads of irregulars. In this second and final chapter of the series we’ll look at the use of asymmetrical warfare by both sides affected the Battle of New Orleans and how Madison’s creation of the special militias has affected American combat tactics in later conflicts.
In early September of 1813 President Madison hatched what would prove his boldest plan yet for the special militias of the US Army. His strategy called for simultaneous strikes along three fronts at British military installations in Quebec and Ontario, with the most severe blows to be aimed in the direction of British army outposts near the Quebec provincial capital, Montreal. A fourth detachment, stationed in Ohio, would make diversionary raids on British outposts on the other side of Lake Erie; put together, these attacks by the special militia troops would throw a rather sizable monkey wrench in the British Army’s North American operations.
The first shots in this campaign were fired just after 8:40 AM on the morning of September 12th, 1813. The main British army garrison in Montreal proper, and two auxiliary outposts on the outskirts of the Quebec provinical capital, came under swift and vicious attack from the American special militia units; however, attempts to enlist the support of French-Canadian citizens in these raids proved futile, as many of these citizens had bitter memories of the reprisals Britain had exacted against their kin for assisting American troops during the American Revolution.
Just over an hour after the Montreal raid started, the British Army’s Ontario headquarters in York(now Toronto) also came under fire from US Army special militiamen. The headquarters C-in-C sent dispatch riders to summon help, but much of that help was already tied up with either trying to beat back the Quebec raids or defending the British Army’s Lake Erie garrisons from the American diversionary attacks. "It seemed as though Fate itself were playing a twisted joke on us." one British officer would recall of the militia raids twenty years after the fact.
The diversionary strike at Lake Erie was supported by offshore cannonades from a small craft flotilla under the command of US Navy commodore Oliver Hazard Perry; shortly after retrieving the militia troops that conducted the diversion raid, Perry sent the triumphant message "We have met the enemy and he is ours." While many months of long, hard fighting remained before that statement could be considered definitively true, it was a reflection of the high morale in the ranks of the American forces in the wake of the militia raids on Quebec and Ontario. It would be several months before the Royal Navy could impose a blockade on the American coastline, and by that time the tide of the ground war had turned largely in favor of the United States.
In the spring of 1814, in a desperate attempt to regain the initiative on land and in hopes of avenging the slight he perceived the American raids on Ontario and Quebec had done to his nation’s honor, King George IV dispatched two additional British Army regiments to North America. Among their first targets: Washington, DC...
....where they laid waste to most of the US government’s most important buildings, including the White House and the Library of Congress. Had first lady Dolly Madison not made sure to pack up the most valuable artworks and documents before British troops reached the city, they probably would have been consumed in the flames that burned the American capital to the ground.
If the politicians in London thought sacking Washington would force the Americans to quit the war, though, they were in for a rude shock. If anything, it provoked the American forces to seek vengeance on the British by any means available; at least one of the especially belligerent members of President Madison’s cabinet even went so far as to recommend the deployment of American troops to Britain to march on London and sack Buckingham Palace the way the British had sacked the White House. Fortunately for both countries, Madison promptly vetoed the idea. Still, the fact such a suggestion had been made was a fairly accurate measure of the level of anger the British Army’s actions in Washington had provoked within the American public.
By the early autumn of 1814 the war between Great Britain and the United States had dwindled to a series of low-level skirmishes and US and British diplomats were meeting in Belgium to negotiate an end to the hostilities. But there was still one last major battle to be waged on North American soil...
...and it would take place amid the swamps and marshes surrounding New Orleans. Immortalized in song and tall tale, the final major clash between British and American land forces in the War of 1812 would see the most extensive use yet by both sides of special militia forces in combat. It would also turn out to have been quite unnecessary, because by the time it was fought Great Britain and the United States had long since concluded a peace treaty-- news that didn’t reach the combatants at New Orleans until a few days after the battle was over.
Since Andrew Jackson had been involved in the special militia campaign at the beginning, it seemed only fitting that he would be there for the end. He commanded a motley assortment of roughnecks which included French pirate Jean Lafitte, who in his day had been just as much of a thorn in Britain’s side as Jackson if not more so; oddly enough, the ranks of Jackson’s militia also included a handful of disaffected British troopers who’d deserted to the American lines when they could no longer tolerate the brutally harsh discipline that was a British Army enlisted man’s lot in life. These defectors would prove to be the most difficult enemies for the regular British troops to face; the defectors, knowing they would be hanged for treason if they were captured, would not quit fighting until they’d either driven the enemy from the battlefield or been killed themselves.
The first shots in the Battle of New Orleans were fired early on the morning of January 7th, 1815 when Jackson personally led a dozen or so men on a raid against supply positions behind the British lines. The attack threw the British into confusion and allowed American regular troops the opportunity to mount an offensive against the right flank of the British lines near the city. Edward Pakenham, the commander-in-chief of the British Army regiments attacking New Orleans and a cousin of the Duke of Wellington, was incensed by this act and dispatched two of his own special militia units to stage a counterassault on Colonel Jackson’s rear flank.
But Pakenham’s special troops weren’t quite so effective in the heat of battle as Jackson’s: in fact, some of them took advantage of what Clausewitz once referred to as "the fog of war" to either desert to the American side or vanish into the Louisiana bayou before making their way by sea down to Mexico to begin new and (for some at least) more prosperous lives under assumed names. A few survived the battle and went on to hire themselves out as mercenaries in the postwar era, finding new wars to fight as revolutions convulsed Latin America in the latter half of the 19th century.
Most of Pakenham’s special troopers, though, would be dead when the Battle of New Orleans was over. If American gunfire or the swords of Jean Lafitte’s buccaneers didn’t cut them down, they were victims of "friendly fire" mistakes as incorrectly aimed bullets from their fellow troopers killed them; there were also many such troops lynched by American civilians full of rage at the depredations the British had inflicted on their country. Some fell prey to wild animals; as late as 1985 archeologists were finding bone fragments from British soldiers who’d been mauled to death by bears or attacked by alligators.
The battle lasted well into the early morning hours of January 9th and ended with the remnants of Pakenham’s assault force retreating, as a certain folk song put it, "on down the Missisippi to the Gulf of Mexico". Not until January 12th, three days after the Battle of New Orleans was over, did anyone on the American and British sides finally learn that American and British diplomats had signed a peace treaty in Ghent, Belgium; had the news reached New Orleans sooner, the battle would never have happened-- and the special militias on both sides would have missed out on what proved to be their final opportunity to hear a shot fired in anger.
With the end of the War of 1812 came the disbanding of the US Army special militias; the last of these units was discharged from active duty in April of 1815, just over three months after the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent formally declaring peace between the two countries. Yet the idea of military units specifically trained and deployed for asymmetrical warfare had captured the minds and hearts of the Army’s top generals, thus in the years after the war there were numerous proposals put before Congress to create a school where the basics of this style of combat could be taught to incoming recruits.
While it would take almost a century for those proposals to become reality, special operations units were raised and saw action numerous times during that span. Some of the militia officers who fought in the War of 1812 would be pressed back into service in the Mexican War over three decades later, and in the American Civil War both the Union Army and the Confederate Army would employ squads of irregulars to strike behind enemy lines; when Theodore Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders made their now-legendary charge up San Juan Hill, the way was first cleared for them by specially trained soldiers fighting alongside Cuban rebel forces and using tactics similar in many respects to those which were employed by the Cuban insurgents themselves.
The concept of a US military college expressly dedicated to teaching asymmetrical combat finally came to fruition in 1911 when Congress passed the Unconventional Military Doctrine Instruction Act, establishing what is now the US Special Warfare School in Georgia. The new academy’s first graduating class would get the opportunity to put their skills to use six years later when the United States entered the First World War. In turn, many of those graduates would return to the school as instructors in the 1920s and 1930s and train those who would serve in the Army’s Rangers branch during World War II.
The school continues to play an active role in shaping American defense doctrine today and also helped inspire the Navy, the Marines, and the Air Force to set up similar schools of their own. Fittingly, the first thing visitors and incoming cadets to the Special Warfare School see when they arrive on campus is a bronze statue of special militia veteran-- and seventh President of the United States --Andrew Jackson.
Special operations units were permanently enshrined in the US armed forces’ basic structure during World War II, and since then they’ve been in the thick of combat in every major modern war the United States has fought overseas. They’ve also participated in a number of crucial peacetime military operations, most notably the Mayaguez rescue mission of May 1975 and the Panama invasion which toppled Panamanian military dictator Manuel Noriega in 1988. Today, with America engaged in high-profile conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the lessons learned in the establishment and deployment of the first special militia groups are piquing a renewed wave of interest not only among defense experts but also among the general public.
Also reviving interest in the special militias of the War of 1812 is the upcoming 2009 bicentennial of the organization of the Charleston special militia. In honor of that occasion, a new museum dedicated to the special militia’s history is being opened in downtown Charleston-- an event which would have no doubt struck the original critics of that militia as the height of irony.1
1It’s certainly been the subject of media controversy; the museum was originally intended to open in May of 2008 as part of the commemoration of the 220th anniversary of South Carolina’s admission to the Union, but wound up falling several months behind schedule and experiencing a series of major cost overruns. As of press time at least two South Carolina state legislators are facing the possibility of being voted out of office over the issue.