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The history of militia use in the USA stretches back to the very establishment of the 13 colonies in North America. The English colonists used militia units in their wars against the natives and later against the French. Militias saw plenty of action during the Anglo-French war, the Revolutionary war, the war of 1812, and the Mexican-American war. During the first three wars, despite several victories, the militia never proved itself as an effective or reliable military force.
The British army regarded the colonist militia as undisciplined rabble. Many battles during the War of 1812 were lost due to how incompetent and unreliable militia units were. However, during the Mexican-American war, the militias performed admirably, contributing greatly to many victories for the American army. One of the most successful examples was the battle at Buena Vista. The American militias were much more effective during the Mexican-American war due to improved training and discipline, the quality of high and junior commanding structure, and competent military bureaucracy. The paper will support this thesis by analyzing and comparing the battle of Buena Vista to the battle of Bladensburg.
The Pros and Cons of American Militia
American militias sometimes referred to as citizen soldiers, were men aged between 15 to 50, who volunteered to serve in the standing army in order to defend their homes, answering the president’s call, or for any other reasons. Frequently, they brought their own arms. Like all militia forces around the world, these troops had their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. The American militias were often numerous, outnumbering regular forces 5 to 1.
Their effectiveness varied from one company to another, but as a rule, they fought better if their direct interests were at stake. However, the cons usually outweighed the pros. Militias were notoriously unreliable. They were known for leaving the front after serving for 90 days, they often refused to fight outside of their own state, were fiercely independent, were notorious for lack of discipline and a coherent command structure, and were unwilling to take casualties in order to attack or defend key strategic objectives, if the odds were not heavily in their favor.
The regular military held the militias in contempt, as the units lacked the discipline, experience, and professionalism required to fight wars. Samuel Clemens, a commander of a militia company and a military officer, referred to his men as “cattle herd.” The only reason why militias saw such a wide use during all these wars was that the USA did not have a large standing army for a long time, and thus had to rely on volunteers.
The Battle of Bladensburg
The Battle of Bladensburg is considered “the greatest disgrace to American Arms.” It also highlights the classic weaknesses of a militia force. During that battle, the defenders sported around 6,000 militias from Virginia, Columbia, and Maryland, under the command of William H. Winder. They were poorly trained and equipped. In addition, they had little to no experienced veterans or officers among their ranks. This was the reason for their meager effectiveness during the battle.
Some of the militias abandoned the battle, thrown into a rout by the use of Congreve rockets by the British army. The rest received conflicting orders from the high command and fled. As a result, an almost entire host of 6,000 troops routed or retreated from the battlefield, leaving the small contingents of regular infantry and artillerymen to fend off for themselves. The British lost only around 65 soldiers killed or injured. The defenders’ losses were comparable. As a result, the British took Bladensburg without a proper fight. There are three reasons for such a poor performance by the militia:
- Poor training and discipline, which resulted in a rout when facing a rocket barrage.
- No competent officers, which resulted in a retreat when receiving conflicting orders.
- Incompetent military bureaucracy, which resulted in delivering conflicting orders.
Had the militia forces held their ground and assisted the regular detachments as they were supposed to, this victory would have been a lot more costly for the British army.
The Battle of Buena Vista
During this battle, the army of General Taylor that consisted of 4500 men, 90% of which were volunteers, faced Santa Anna’s military host of 15,000. The outcome of the battle of Buena Vista was notoriously different from the battle of Bladensburg, for several reasons. The militias in Taylor’s army were recruited for 12 months rather than three, which reflected greatly on the overall level of training received by the soldiers.
They were not a hastily assembled bunch of volunteers, but a moderately trained and organized force. This proved to be an important factor, as they faced a much larger force of Santa Anna, with over 15,000 regular troops at his disposal. The position of Taylor’s army, just like in the case with Bladensburg, favored the defenders. The soldiers were required to hold the line to make use of these advantages, which they did.
The militias fighting at Buena Vista were commanded by professional military officers. Many militia leaders have decommissioned officers trained at the military academy at West Point. They had both the respect of their fellow compatriots and the military training and skill to organize their units into coherent battle groups. This reinforced the fact that good leaders could turn regular citizens into excellent soldiers in a relatively short amount of time. The last difference between Taylor’s army and Winder’s army was in its competent military bureaucracy. Orders were accurate, supplies and ammunition were delivered on time, and the army had a coherent chain of command. To summarize, the keys to victory at Buena Vista were:
- Better training and discipline, as the troops did not rout even when facing a much larger force.
- Competent junior officers, who kept the order among the inexperienced militias during the battle.
- Competent military bureaucracy, which established a coherent chain of supplies, timely delivery of orders, and a coherent chain of command.
The success of the US militias during the Mexican-American war is explained by the fact that it was not, in fact, a militia in the common sense of the word. They resembled a professional army, rather than a militia force. The success at Buena Vista was not a singular example of their effectiveness in that war. The armies of General Tailor and General Scott, which were largely comprised of militias, won numerous victories before and after that battle.
The war ended with a victory for the USA, which claimed Texas and other territories as its own. The militias proved themselves so effective due to better training, better command structure, and competent military bureaucracy – something they were sorely lacking during the War of 1812.