Segment from Call To Arms

Citizen Militias   

Joanne, Brian and Ed talk about the role of local militias in the colonial era and early republic, and how that tradition ended with the American Civil War.


Lanigan’s Ball by Calvert Arms Fife & Drum Corps 

Happiness Is by Podington Bear

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
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JOANNE: We’re back talking about the history of enlistment in America.

BRIAN: Ed, I’m dying to hear about a phrase used in the interview, “militia fever,” but before I worry about the fever, I’d love to hear a bit more about militias in the early republic, Joanne.

JOANNE: Well, of course the militia, Brian, that’s a big American tradition that goes all the way back, even before the early republic, to colonial America. And even before that, back to England. It involves local men who must join if they’re between the age of 16 and 60, and basically they’re for local defense and safety.

Now that sounds really official and formal, but the fact of the matter is they didn’t meet very often, unless there was a threat. And sometimes Native Americans were a threat, and certainly the revolution is its own little period. Generally, they would meet maybe once or twice a year, just to sort of establish the fact that they were there.

ED: Kind of knock the rust off their guns.

JOANNE: Exactly. They had to put on– march around, actually. They got– I’m sure– a great deal of fun out and parading around the town green. And everyone came out and applauded, and sometimes they got to make a fake battle, and there was a heck of a lot of drinking. And really the militia did have the reputation of being a bunch of goofy guys who don’t know what they’re doing, and aren’t really good at handling rifles.

ED: In all honestly, they would have been. Right?


ED: Fighting requires incredible discipline and training, and these guys wouldn’t have had any. So I think the distance between the militia and the real army was enormous.

JOANNE: Well, first of all, the militias weren’t trained. You might not say they’re military units, they’re armed local people who are supposed to be there for defense. I mean in that tradition, that idea that local men will rise up and protect what’s theirs, that’s a sort of Jeffersonian yeoman farmer ideal as well. There were so many fears in the same time period of a standing army as a tool of despotism.

ED: Standing armies, we always say that. Why call it standing armies?

JOANNE: That’s true. Sitting armies.

BRIAN: Sitting armies are so ineffective, Ed. Before they invented tanks, sitting armies just don’t cut.

JOANNE: Running armies? No, it’s true. Standing army, permanent army, right? That would be a better way of putting it, a permanent army. But then the 19th century, Ed, I’m going to toss the ball to you now. So this tradition continues on for a while, what happens then when you get a little further into the 19th century?

ED: Well, for much of the 19th century, after some of the threats that you talk about recede, once the English are defeated in the Revolution, and once the American-Indians had been driven to the West, it’s hard to imagine much of a reason to get together and drill in the town square with your rusty muskets. But it goes from being a joke, to being in the 1850s quasi professional. In the sense that it becomes more like a military unit. The Wide Awakes are not alone in their uniforms, in they’re marching, in they’re gathering, in their discipline. And you’d find Northern and Southern militia are both doing this, enlisting men in even when there’s no crisis.

BRIAN: But, Ed, why do that instead of enlisting in the Army?

ED: Because to be a career Army officer is meant to be shipped off to some godforsaken obscure fort somewhere, where nothing is ever going to happen, and to dash your hopes for a good marriage, and to dash your hopes for a successful career. But you can be a young doctor, or lawyer, or carpenter, and join the militia, and have some of the excitement of the military-like experience without the dislocation that comes from actually joining the Army.

JOANNE: And the enforced discipline and the enforced time that you have to be there and everything else. All of the things that are cast in stone.

ED: It’s all the fun of the Army with none of the risk and costs.

BRIAN: So being all you can be, back in those days, entailed pursuing your private ambitions, and then showing up on occasion to demonstrate your manhood in cool looking gear.

JOANNE: And also, of course, in addition to showing your coolness, you are demonstrating civic awareness of some kind. Whether or not you’re feeling it, you’re definitely demonstrating it.

BRIAN: Yeah.

ED: So, Ed, Brian, I want to throw into the conversation something that we would associate with enlistment, but we haven’t really talked about it. And that’s patriotism.

ED: Oh yeah.

JOANNE: Certainly if you look back to the early period that I write about, local units, like the militia units, were also community things. Many people in colonial and even in early America conceived of their colony and then their state as their country. And they were fighting for their community, and in that sense, their country too. Patriotism was local, but it was no less meaningful or important to them. But that obviously has to change and grow over time.

ED: Well, it doesn’t change up until the eve of the Civil War, because Robert E. Lee famously says “I cannot raise a sword against my own people. I would be patriotic to Virginia, rather than be patriotic to the United States, to which I have sworn a lifetime oath.” But here’s the thing, when the enlistment for the Civil War begins, the militia in each community would go into this Army, both Northern and Southern, and then if they were decimated at a particular battle, that community would just be wiped out back home. All the young men of the place would be killed in a single charge. Right?


ED: And so you have– the thing that was seen as its great strength, its ties to the local community, end up being something that was really just crippling to that same community when those young men went off and died. Now after the Civil War, people talk about the United States as a single entity rather than as a union of states. From then on, people are going to know what enlistment means. Enlistment means you’re signing up for a big national army, routinized, professionalized, that is a career, in a way that it was not before the Civil War.


JOANNE: It’s time to take a short break. When we get back, listeners tell us why they enlisted in the armed forces. But first, this quick message.