A War without Rifles: The 1792 Militia Act and the War of 1812

A War without Rifles: The 1792 Militia Act and the War of 1812

by James N. Gibson
A War without Rifles: The 1792 Militia Act and the War of 1812

A War without Rifles: The 1792 Militia Act and the War of 1812

by James N. Gibson


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A War without Rifles: The 1792 Militia Act and the War of 1812 turns an eye to the conflict most overlooked by historians, even in a decade marking the bicentennial of the first declared war fought by the United States of America. James N. Gibson remedies this oversight by presenting his investigation of the interplay between the Militia Act, passed by Congress in 1792, and the conduct of the War of 1812. Despite the common perception that the act was never implemented, A War without Rifles documents its post-1792 history, noting, for instance, the requirement that each able-bodied American man own a military musket and the connection between the act's caliber clause and the shortage of rifles in the War of 1812.

After reviewing the "silent wars" with European powers in the years preceding the War of 1812, this history turns its attention to the war years. Plentiful and careful documentation roots the narrative in numerous primary sources. In addition, four appendices provide the full text of the Militia Act of 1792, records of debates, information on federal arms production, and lists of federal arms contracts with civilian manufacturers. One hundred figures provide an extensive gallery illustrating the history.

A War without Rifles: The 1792 Militia Act and the War of 1812 explores the 1792 Militia Act and its ramifications for the War of 1812, America's first declared war and the last time its soldiers supplied their own weaponry.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480832459
Publisher: Archway Publishing
Publication date: 06/22/2016
Pages: 338
Sales rank: 864,503
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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A War without Rifles

The 1792 Militia Act and the War of 1812

By James N. Gibson

Archway Publishing

Copyright © 2016 James Norris Gibson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4808-3245-9


The Years before 1812-The Silent Wars with Europe

The War of 1812 has long been associated with certain issues: the ending of European support for the Native American tribes, the conquest of Canada, the seizure of American sailors and ships by England, and the American demand to be respected as an independent nation.

Of these four issues, the most prominent was the United States' desire to be distinguished as a powerful country in North America. In this regard, the outcome of the war saw the United States become a true nation and not just an association of small, quasi-independent states.

The Native Americans

The conflicts between the Native American tribes and the United States had been Britain's thorn in America's side since the revolution. It was part of Britain's foreign policy to supply arms and support to Native American tribes along the Great Lakes — land England ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris, which ended the revolution. These tribes would be England's proxies, preventing the United States from truly occupying the territory.

And England wasn't the only country doing this. France, which still held visions of reclaiming portions of North America, maintained trading posts along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. In these areas, French forces gave arms and powder to Indian tribes to prevent the United States from expanding to the Mississippi River. Rounding out the European presence was Spain, who claimed Florida and all the territory bordering the Gulf of Mexico.

Conflicts with various tribes extended the length and breadth of the new nation. In the south, the Chickamaugua Cherokee and other tribes raided Georgia, South Carolina, and Kentucky from their base in northwestern Georgia. In the great Northwest Territory, which would eventually become the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, Chief Little Turtle of the Miami tribe led his people, along with the Shawnee, Hurons, and Delawares, in several battles with units of the United States Army and Militia.

Of course, the European powers' reasons for doing this were hardly noble: By using the tribes as proxies, they were destroying the tribes while also weakening the United States. In the Europeans' minds, over time the fighting would leave both sides too weak to prevent a European move back into those territories.

However, before the United States could engage this European and Native American alliance, another conflict had to be settled — namely, the internal US conflict over who owned the territories in question. Following the revolution, the states argued with each other over who had the better claim to various western territories. This issue stalled the westward expansion until 1785 and even prevented Maryland's ratification of the Articles of Confederation until 1781. The following map shows many of these conflicting land claims.

One of the best examples of the various land claims is the territory we now call Vermont. Originally it was part of French Canada, but following the French and Indian Wars, Vermont became a British possession. Almost immediately three northeast colonies laid claim to the territory. Massachusetts laid claim based on the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter of 1629. New York laid claim based on a land grant issued by the Duke of York in 1664. New Hampshire finally laid claim based on a decree from King George II in 1740.

England could have avoided this power struggle if King George II had decreed the territory New Hampshire's. Instead, in 1741 he fixed the boundaries of Massachusetts, leaving New York and New Hampshire to fight it out with each other over who owned Vermont. The result was a land war, with both colonial governors issuing land grants and titles on the same Vermont property. By 1770 the situation had reached such a level that Ethan Allen formed his legendary Green Mountain Boys to protect the New Hampshire settlers from New York settlers.

Early in the revolution, the disputed territory became the Republic of Vermont. This didn't settle the claims held by New Hampshire or New York, but both colonies had other, more pressing problems. After the war, Vermont became a sort of Casablanca for men trying to escape the law. One of these was Daniel Shay, leader of the legendary Shay's Rebellion of 1786 and 1787 (see chapter two).

The Vermont situation was of such prominence that it is mentioned in Federalist Paper Number 28, "A National Army and Internal Security," by Alexander Hamilton.

If, on the contrary, the insurrection should pervade a whole State, or a principal part of it, the employment of a different kind of force might become unavoidable. It appears that Massachusetts found it necessary to raise troops for repressing the disorders within the State; that Pennsylvania, from the mere apprehension of commotions among a part of her citizens, had thought proper to have recourse to the same measure. Suppose the State of New York had been inclined to re-establish her lost jurisdiction over the inhabitants of Vermont, could she have hoped for success in such an enterprise from the efforts of the militia alone?

Granted, this comment by Hamilton was written to gain the support of the people of New York for the new constitution, not the people of Vermont or New Hampshire. Yet these words also show the strength of emotion these land claims prompted in the people of the various states. Thus, until 1785 there was no western expansion and therefore few confrontations with the tribes. After 1785, however, the gloves were off, and with the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, confrontation between the United States and Native American tribes was inevitable. The following letters make the point.

Letter from Colonel Benjamin Wilson to Governor St. Clair, Harrison County, October 4, 1789. On the 19th of September last, a party of Indians killed and scalped four persons, and captured four; the family of a certain William Johnston, within about nine miles of Clarksburg. On the 22nd, the Indians killed John Mauk's wife and two of his children, and burnt his house; the same evening, burnt Jacob Flotzer's house; the family hardly escaped. On the 23rd, burnt Jethro Thompson's house; and on the 26th, burnt John Simm's house; and on the 28th, stole from Randolph county, ten or eleven horses. The number for horses taken from this county, is not yet truly ascertained: but certain, five horses taken — cattle, sheep, and hogs killed. Some part of this mischief done eleven or twelve miles in towards the interior parts of this county. Sir, be assured, the people of this part of the county are much alarmed and much confused; and in my humble opinion, if something more than treaties made with part of the Indian tribes, is not done shortly, it will be with difficulty the frontiers of this county can be kept from evacuating their settlements.

Letter from the Governor of Georgia to Edward Telfair, Secretary of War, April 29, 1793. From the deposition of Benjamin Harrison and Francis Pugh, and from the information of Joseph Dabbs, there is little expectation of avoiding a general war with the Creeks and the Cherokees. Blood has been spilt in every direction on the extended frontier of this State, and one man killed in the State of South Carolina. I have directed fourteen block-houses to be erected, each to be garrisoned by one commissioned officer, two sergeants, and seventeen Privates.

Battles, raids, ambushes, and skirmishes were an ever-present part of life in the western lands from 1780 to 1796. One such example was Fort Nashborough, the foundation for today's city of Nashville, Tennessee. For fourteen years, from 1781 until the Treaty of Tellico Blockhouse in 1794, the fort was under regular attack by the Chickamaugua Cherokee. The beginning of the end for the southern tribes was the establishment of the states of Kentucky in 1792 and then Tennessee in 1796. With these states firmly established the United States now controlled the south bank of the Ohio River to the Mississippi, as well as a major section of the eastern bank of the Mississippi.

In the Northwest Territories, military expeditions sent by President Washington to put down the native resistance twice ended in dismal failures. Of the two, the force lead by Arthur St. Clair would produce the Battle of Wabash on November 4, 1791 — the worst military defeat the United States Army would suffer for the next one hundred years. Of his 1,120 troops, St. Clair lost 97 percent to Little Turtle's warriors. On hearing the news, President George Washington was said to have lost his temper and sworn out loud. Washington's next general would not let him down.

Mad Anthony Wayne wouldn't be as rash as his predecessors, and under the cover of peace negotiations, he prepared his troops throughout the winter of 1793. Using a new concept called a legion, he formed his forces into four groups. Each group consisted of four companies of musketmen, two companies of riflemen, one company of artillery, and one troop of cavalry.

Wayne didn't fight in the European style but in a manner similar to Emperor Trajan of Ancient Rome. As he advanced from Fort Washington (now the city of Cincinnati), he built forts and blockhouses along the way. These ensured a strong line of supply and communication while denying the Indians more and more territory. One such fort was Greenville, site of present-day Greenville, Ohio. Other forts built by Wayne's order were Fort Recovery (built on the site of St. Clair's defeat in 1791), Fort Defiance, and Fort Loramie. Including Forts Jefferson and Hamilton (built by St. Claire), Wayne had many strong defensive positions to use to maintain supplies and men.

After several skirmishes and a major attack on Fort Recovery in June, Wayne's legion finally confronted 1,300 Indians at a place called Fallen Timbers (near Toledo, Ohio) on August 20, 1794. Here Wayne administered a crushing defeat using his combined force of artillery, cavalry, and infantry. In 1795 the defeated Western Indian Confederacy signed the first Treaty of Greenville, putting an end to the conflict over the Ohio Territory and setting the stage for statehood in 1803. The treaty distinguished a clear border between Indian land and settlement land.

The end of Little Turtle's war did not end the disputes between Native Americans and the United States. There was still the issue of the Michigan and Indiana territories with the tribes, particularly the Shawnee. Then in 1803, Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. Now the territory of the United States did not stop at the eastern bank of the Mississippi. New Spain was pushed back to just south of the Red River and then westward to the Rocky Mountains. The border then went northwest along the mountains to Montana.

The purchase of Louisiana reinforced the need to properly control the Mississippi, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois territories already claimed by the United States. Standing in the way in the north was Tecumseh and a new confederation of tribes supported by the British. In the south were the Creeks and Seminoles, supported by Spain.

The first confrontation would be in the north against Tecumseh's Indian alliance. Tecumseh had been battling US expansion since he was born. Tecumseh's father had been killed in 1774 battling the forces of the royal governor of Virginia. In 1780, US Army troops destroyed his childhood home. After that, his older brother, who fought with the Chickamaugua Cherokee, raised Tecumseh until his death during a raid on American settlers. Following this, in 1790 Tecumseh returned to Ohio, where he fought at Fallen Timbers as part of the Shawnee contingent serving under Little Turtle.

Tecumseh is said to have not signed the treaty of Greenville in 1795; given his estimated age of twenty-seven, it is hard to think of him as a chief. After 1795 he moved to what is today Greenville, Indiana. There, with his younger brother (the prophet), he began a nativist religious revival movement to build tribal alliances against white expansion. These activities brought them into conflict with Chief Black Hoof of the Shawnee, who was trying to maintain peaceful relations. The conflict eventually forced Tecumseh to move further west to the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers in 1808, where he established Prophet Town.

The governor of the Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison, set the stage for open conflict. Harrison wanted to build the population of Indiana as quickly as possible in order to qualify for statehood. To do this, he needed land for settlement, and in 1809 he succeeded in getting the tribes to cede 2.5 million acres in Illinois and Indiana to the United States. Called the Treaty of Fort Wayne, it was supported by Chief Black Hoof of the Shawnee but was violently opposed by Tecumseh.

Tecumseh threatened to kill all the chiefs who signed the treaty. He traveled around the territory urging warriors to renounce the chiefs who sought peaceful negotiations with the United States and join his coalition. He then went south to gather support from five major Indian nations: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. It was while he was away that Harrison decided to launch a preemptive strike.

Fearful of the growing tribal alliances Tecumseh was putting together; in August of 1811 Harrison launched an all-out war against the unofficial capital of the alliance, Prophet's Town. First he marched to the treaty line of 1809, where he built Fort Harrison to cover his lines of supply. There he received permission from Secretary of War William Eustis to enter Indian territory and engage the Indians. With this approval, Harrison marched north, and on November 6, 1811, he camped outside of Prophet's Town. The next morning found the two sides engaged in battle, with the Indians defeated by that afternoon. Harrison's forces then razed the town and returned to Vincennes before the winter set in.

The Battle of Tippecanoe was essentially the first battle of the War of 1812. Tecumseh was politically hurt, but he wasn't dead — he wasn't even there. He withdrew with his remaining followers to Canada, where they received support from the British government. His activities in the south would also lead to the Creek civil war, where the Red Sticks and the Creeks from the Upper Towns would rise against both the United States and friendly Creek tribes after the start of the War of 1812.

The Conquest of Canada

The conquest of Canada is probably the least understood of the reasons for why the United States went to war in 1812. For many years, it was listed as simply the United States' desire for land that pushed for the seizure of Canada. But following the purchase of Louisiana in 1803, additional land was hardly on the minds of either the US government or the American people.

The issues that prompted the call for the invasion of Canada were more political in nature. These issues included securing the northern borders against British support of the Native Americans. Then there was the fact that Canada was originally a French colony taken by Britain during the French and Indian Wars.

Excerpt from the Congressional Record: Debate on a Bill for a Detachment of the Militia, June 1797. Mr Dayton: He did not, however, think we should have a war; and, if such an event were to take place, he did not think there was a probability of an invasion. Our situation in 1794, he said, was very different. We were then not only depredated upon by the British at sea, but Lord Dorchester had issued his warlike proclamation; the Indians were counted, and had their tomahawks in their hands uplifted and ready to strike.

The call for invading Canada is in fact older than the United States. There were several invasions or forays into Canada during the revolution, in an attempt to weaken the British hold and possibly stimulate a French uprising. Then in 1777, the Continental Congress signed the Articles of Confederation, the initial governing document of the United States. Written in this document was the following article.

Article XI. Canada acceding to this confederation, and adjoining in the measures of the United States, shall be admitted into, and entitled to all the advantages of this union; but no other colony shall be admitted into the same, unless such admission be agreed to by nine States.

Thus, it was the view from the very foundation of the United States that Canada was to be allowed to enter the union at any time, without even the approval of any of the other states. This was a special privilege that showed the strong desire on the part of the founding fathers to have Canada as a state in the United States. It is more than possible that after thirty-five years of wanting this, the remaining founding fathers, Jefferson and Adams, may have become convinced that they could force this union. Jefferson is reported to have said about the planned 1812 invasion of Canada, "The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us the experience for the attack on Halifax, the next and final expulsion of England from the American continent."


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Table of Contents


Introduction, vii,
Chapter 1 The Years before 1812- The Silent Wars with Europe, 1,
Chapter 2 The 1812 Army and Militia, 33,
Chapter 3 The First Year of the War, 86,
Chapter 4 The Year 1813, 117,
Chapter 5 The Spring and Summer of 1814, 152,
Chapter 6 Washington, Baltimore, and Plattsburg, 186,
Chapter 7 Monroe's Proposal and the First Draft Law, 229,
Chapter 8 The Final Year, 1815, 265,
Appendix I: The 1792 Militia Act with Amendments, 295,
Appendix II: From the Congressional Record, June 1798: Arms for Militia, 305,
Appendix III: Arms Production at Federal Armories, 315,
Appendix IV: Federal Arms Contracts to Civilian Manufacturers, 319,
Sources, 323,
Index, 325,

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