Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Why militias sound good in theory, but don't work in fact.

One of my ancestors was a member of the Pennsylvania Militia during the War for American Independence. He was in it from the start and was at Valley Forge and Morristown. But he's not on the records for Valley Forge.


Probably because as the youngest son he went AWOL to tend the farm back in Lancaster County (Older Brother is on the NPS records at Valley Forge. We've been trying to get Younger bro on the NPS records).

The Militia system means that most males between 18-50 were supposed to serve. But it's hard to do for a few reasons. Somebody has to tend the farm in an agrarian economy (or keep shop). Toss in people want exemptions, and can get, from service. The rich would buy their way out of serving, which led to Conscription Riots during the US Civil War.

Anyway, It's significant that my ancestor was part of the Pennsylvania Militia There is a lot of mythology in the minds of most Americans that surrounds the Revolutionary War. One of These is the myth that Continental soldiers underwent unspeakable hardship for want of clothing and provisions, but persevered only to win the war against all odds. It wasn't exactly like they were grinning and bearing it.

As early as 1777, General Anthony Wayne, commanding the Pennsylvania Line, exhorted his superiors to address the lack of supply for his men. In a letter to Washington in December, 1777, he refers to the “Distressed and Naked Situation of your Troops.” While the Pennsylvanians faced the cold of Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778, Washington constantly wrote the Continental Congress pleading for an amelioration of the army’s condition. The following is an excerpt from a letter dated 23 December, 1777 from Valley Forge:
I am now convinced beyond a doubt, that, unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place in that line, this army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things; starve, dissolve, or disperse in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can. …Since the month of July we have had no assistance from the quartermaster-general…
Whatever shortages were created by a fledgling wartime economy were compounded by government corruption and ineptitude. In writing Congress, Washington accused the quartermaster-general of corruption and sought his removal. Anthony Wayne made similar accusations in letters to the Pennsylvania executive council. In January, 1778, Wayne wrote that, after buying cloth at his own expense, the government stalled his efforts to have uniforms produce.

There is a reason Article I, Section 8, clause 16 of the Constitution requires that the feds "provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia". The Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation wasn't doing a great job of running the War (there is an aside here that the war was an idiotic idea to begin with since the British Taxes were imposed to pay in part for the French and Indian War, which was started by Washington).

Anyway back to the Story, the discontent of the Pennsylvania Militia really began to show in November, 1780, when the Continental Army went into winter quarters in camps that were dispersed in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.  The Pennsylvania Line was living in the log huts that had been used by the Connecticut Line the previous winter. Major-General Arthur St. Clair, the senior officer of the line, was nice, warm and comfy in Philadelphia, a practice not uncommon for senior officers. On the other hand. the 2,473 Pennsylvania officers and men at Mount Kemble made up eleven regiments of infantry and one of artillery. The winter was mild and the huts were about as comfortable as log huts can be, but clothes, food, and pay were in short supply.

In mid-December, Brigadier-General Wayne wrote to Joseph Reed, President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council:
we are reduced to dry bread and beef for our food, and to cold water for our drink. . . . Our soldiery are not devoid of reasoning faculties, . . . they have now served their country with fidelity for near five years, poorly clothed, badly fed, and worse paid; of the last article, trifling as it is, they have not seen a paper dollar in the way of pay for near twelve months.
A year.  I challenge anyone to work any job, let alone endure the harsh life of a Continental soldier that long without pay and not want to revolt. But not being paid was only part of the complaints.

Another major issue arose because the Executive Council planned to consolidate several regiments of Pennsylvania Line effective 1 January 1781.  Many soldiers had enlisted in 1777 under the somewhat confusing terms of “for three years or the duration of the war.” Focusing on the first clause, “for three years,” some soldiers believed that the reorganization would conclude their enlistments.  But the regimental officers focused on the second clause, “or the duration of the war,” and denied the soldiers’ requests for discharge.

Think of my ancestor going AWOL to tend the family farm during the Valley Forge winter.

Anyway, the shit hit the fan on the First of January 1981 with one of the largest revolts the Continental Army had faced (it would face many mutinies due to an inability to properly supply and pay the troops).  But unlike the previous mutinies, the size of this one presented more than disciplinary problems.  The Continental Army could ill afford to have so many soldiers exit the ranks.  Worse, for all the American commanders knew, the mutinous group could “turn Arnold” and join the British forces that were only about 20 miles away near New York City. British General Clinton sent emissaries to see if the Pennsylvania Troops could be turned against the Continental cause.
Wayne sent two officers speeding to Philadelphia to alert Congress and the Executive Committee and dispatched an aide-de-camp to inform General Washington, who was at the army camp at New Windsor, New York.  In his return letter, Washington approved of Wayne’s actions and directed him to identify the mutineers’ grievances for Congress to address.  Washington was also concerned that the mutiny could spread to other units and stayed put to keep a lid on things at New Windsor.

On January 8th, Reed and the Board reached an agreement; a committee would review the enlistment of each soldier and discharge those eligible.  Also, the men would receive proper uniforms as well as warrants for their back-pay that Pennsylvania would honour as soon as it could raise the money (note: these were IOUs, not real payment, something that would cause more problems later on).  The next day, the mutineers marched to Trenton to begin executing the settlement’s provisions.  The mutiny was over, but not fully resolved by a long shot. There would be another one by the Pennsylvania Militia that May as well as many, many more which culminated in Shays' Rebellion and the adoption of the US Constitution.

The mutiny was a wake-up-call to the Pennsylvania Line on its lack of professionalism, but the offenders were the officers, not the enlisted soldiers.  Except for the violence on the First of January, the mutineers conducted themselves with an impressive level of discipline.  They kept a strict military camp at Princeton and gained the support of the local population.  The soldiers also promised to fight under Wayne in the event of an enemy attack.  And as soon as the negotiations ended the sergeants handed British General Clinton’s emissaries, Mason and Ogden, over to the Congressional committee, an act that Gen. Washington called, “an unequivocal and decided mark of attachment to our cause.”

Even with the problems shown by the militia during the War for Independence and other conflicts, the distrust of standing armies led to the system being given constitutional imprimatur in the Second Amendment. However the system was one which was disliked as the passage which is often misquoted points out. Here is the George Mason’s quote as recorded in the transcripts of the Virginia Ratifying Convention:
“I ask, Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers. But I cannot say who will be the militia of the future day. If that paper on the table gets no alteration, the militia of the future day may not consist of all classes, high and low, and rich and poor; but they may be confined to the lower and middle classes of the people, granting exclusion to the higher classes of the people.”
Unfortunately, the exclusion was common in Mason's time, as my ancestor, a poor, Pennsylvania farm kid would attest. Dislike for the Militia was pretty much what killed it off, as this passage from Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution 3:§§ 1890 (1833) points out:
And yet, though this truth would seem so clear, and the importance of a well regulated militia would seem so undeniable, it cannot be disguised, that among the American people there is a growing indifference to any system of militia discipline, and a strong disposition, from a sense of its burthens, to be rid of all regulations. How it is practicable to keep the people duly armed without some organization, it is difficult to see. There is certainly no small danger, that indifference may lead to disgust, and disgust to contempt; and thus gradually undermine all the protection intended by this clause of our national bill of rights.
Like so many things that sound good in theory, but are unworkable. The militia system and the Second Amendment it was intended to protect, are not relevant to modern society with a large, professional military.

Which is not the poor, conscripted militia member that was the reality of the militia system. The founders militia never existed and they were fools to try and keep it as a constitutional entity.

BTW, kudos to Michael Schellhammer whose "Mutiny on the Pennsylvania Line" was a source for a lot of this. I think he understands what my ancestor was thinking when they did this.

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