We have been hearing a lot about militias lately. Montana, Michigan and other states have sprouted paramilitary groups claiming lineage to the men who fired the shot heard 'round the world at Concord Bridge and blasted the whites of British eyes at Bunker Hill. In the name of the original militia, current members are preparing to defend American independence against those they regard as Washington's encroaching bureaucrats.
Anyone who dares to challenge their historical thinking can expect a barrage of vituperation. Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., who recently called for an investigation of these organizations, has been blasted by constituents and by critics as far away as Tacoma, Wash., for failing to respect the great patriotic tradition these modern militias are supposedly recapturing.
Well, not exactly.
There are some significant differences between the flak-jacketed wielders of today and the militia of 1775-76. For one thing, ,, the first militia members were not volunteers. Every American colony had a militia law, requiring men from 16 to 60 to keep a gun handy and show up at stated intervals for training -- and, if need be, to fight an invading enemy. Any man who failed to appear was liable for a fine.
In most places, the training was perfunctory and a lot of time was spent around the rum barrel. The militiamen who fought at Concord and Bunker Hill were exceptions to this rule. They had been training almost daily for the previous nine months, spurred by the presence of a British army in Boston. Their success inspired the Continental Congress to pooh-pooh George Washington's recommendation for a large regular army. The politicians cut his figures in half and told him the militia would make up the difference.
The difference they made almost lost the war in 1776. At Kips Bay in Manhattan, some 4,000 Connecticut militiaman took one look at an oncoming flotilla of landing craft bristling with bayonet-toting redcoats and did not stop running until they reached Stamford. Washington, on his horse at what is now 42nd Street, threw his hat on the ground in disgust as they raced past and shouted: "Are these the men I am to defend America with?"
When 6,000 British invaded New Jersey later in 1776, the state called out 17,000 militiamen on its rolls. By now Washington's regular army had shrunk through defeat and desertion to 4,000 men. On paper, this still gave the Americans a better than 3-1 edge. But only 1,000 Jersey militiamen responded to the call for a last-ditch fight. The rest stayed home. It was Washington and his handful of regulars who rescued the sinking cause with their daring Christmas night attack on the enemy garrison at Trenton.
Writing to Congress around this time, Washington said if he were asked whether the militia had been more helpful or "hurtful," he would unhesitatingly choose the latter term.
He said militias could not be expected to fight without "an army to look the enemy in the face." They lacked the training, the weapons, the confidence of regulars. They were also hopelessly undisciplined, inclined to ignore rules, regulations and orders.
During the rest of the seven-year war for independence, Washington used militiamen whenever he could persuade them to turn out. But he always deployed them on a battlefield as auxiliaries to his regulars. In postwar years, this led to what historians call "the militia myth." The militiamen told their children and grandchildren and anyone else who would listen that they had won the war.
In the early years of the republic, the militiamen and their representatives fulminated against West Point and the regular army. Congress declined to fund a respectable military establishment. In the War of 1812, the United States fielded huge militia armies routed repeatedly by far smaller armies of British regulars.
The ultimate in militia futility was reached at the battle of Bladensburg, Md., in 1814. There, 6,000 militiamen stampeded for the horizon at the first enemy volley. The 4,000-man British army marched unopposed into Washington and burned the White House, the Capitol and almost every other public building. After that fiasco, Congress decided it might be a good idea to build a strong regular army and forget about the militia.
Maybe we should do the same thing with their modern counterparts. They seem to have the same tendency to talk big and intimidate politicians. But it is silly to think of them as a force capable of defending anything. In a crisis, they would be more hurtful than helpful. The extremist rhetoric and divisive hostility the modern militias display make this conclusion even more foregone. The old militiamen may have been inept soldiers, but they never threatened to harm their fellow Americans.
Thomas Fleming is a historian and novelist. His books include "1776: Year of Illusions."