The Texas Militia: National and Local Implications

January 7, 2007

A few months before Confederate President Jefferson Davis dramatically welcomed some Texas soldiers to Richmond, a Texas Militia captain told his company of just swornin Texans,

The war we are going into will be only a breakfast spell and we are in an awful hurry to get to the front to have a part in whipping the Yankees. It is a fact that one Southern man can whip ten Yankees

No one could accuse the Texans, or most other new recruits of that period, of lacking confidence.

Despite their hurry, Texans had a hard time getting to the front. As was the case in most of the United States, there was little effective militia or full-time military structure to expand to meet wartime needs. The American militia had stumbled along with the rest of the American military system until 1861. The militia, like the regular Army, performed well on some occasions, badly on others. Outside of wartime, militia organizations were social clubs far more than military training organizations. “Muster day, in the period before the Civil War, was primarily a social occasion.”3 It is stating the obvious to say that in the century and a half since, the role of the militia, now the National Guard, has drastically changed.

“Citizen soldier,” the idea that every able-bodied man has the responsibility to defend his homeland and his monarch, goes back to ancient times. The Anglo-American tradition has been traced back to Anglo-Saxon England, well before the Norman invasion of 1066.4 As the system evolved, all men, within certain age limits, owed an obligation to serve when needed in defense of the realm. The Normans adopted a similar system, eventually adding the variation of “trained bands”—volunteers and draftees who received better training—a predecessor to the “ready” militia. Even with these variations, the militia was a home service force, never approaching the effectiveness of medieval knights or of a regular army.

Colonial Americans inherited this tradition and structure. Every man within a range of ages was a member of the ordinary militia. The volunteer militia, the first to be called out in case of crisis, is considered an ancestor of the modern National Guard. The closest recent equivalent to the ordinary militia would be the liability of all men to the draft.

One very significant difference emerged between the American and British militia systems. The American militia was not considered a tool of the central government, but a means of protection from the central government. “‘Democratic’ militia versus ‘tyrannical’ standing army versus emergency volunteers” would be a significant part of the debate over military structure, as common and as vigorous two hundred years ago as today.

Political realities have always interfered with the ability to implement military policy based on purely military needs. Even before there was a United States, during the French and Indian War of 1754–1763, British commanders frequently complained about the alleged, and actual, recalcitrance and lack of cooperation by American political and military leaders in the military aspects of the war. The tide of that war was turned when new British leadership accepted these political realities and gave the local leaders a greater role in planning the war.

George Washington was not happy with the way the American militia performed in the Revolutionary War. Modern historians have both agreed and disagreed. One historian has even offered an interesting analysis of one overlooked role the militia played in the Revolution:

[R]epeatedly it was the militia which met the critical emergency or, in less formal operations, kept control of the country, cut off foragers, captured British agents, intimidated the war-weary and disaffected. . . . While the regular armies marched and fought more or less ineffectually, it was the militia which presented the greatest single impediment to Britain’s only practicable weapon, that of counterrevolution. The militias were often much less than ideal combat troops. . . . But their true military and political significance may have been underrated.5

The United States Constitution compromised between centralized operations and quality control and “the more democratic” control of the states. The government compromised by neglecting the regular Army. By 1784, the official complement of the Army was 80 privates and just a few officers.6 Growing problems with Indian tribes, along with unsettled issues with the British and the French, led to expansion of the regular Army and the 1792 efforts to regularize the militia—the last such laws until 1903. Both forces were put to the test in the War of 1812, which was settled by treaty rather than by force of arms. Militia troops reached their low point when the Maryland militia fled the field at Bladensburg, allowing the British to enter and burn Washington, D.C. The Tennessee militia, however, played a major role in the overwhelming American victory at New Orleans on 8 January 1815, after the war had formally ended. Little had changed 3 by 1835, when the militia was supplementing the small regular Army in meeting the limited military needs of the United States.

The militia formally began in Texas almost at the same time as English-speaking settlers arrived. On 18 February 1823, the emperor of newly independent Mexico authorized Stephen Austin, the leader of the first efforts at Anglo settlement of Texas, “to organize the colonists into a body of the national militia, to preserve tranquility.”7 Soon after, Austin’s militia unit was authorized, basically, to provide homeland security, to “make war on Indian tribes, who were hostile and molested the settlement.”8 Austin’s militia soon battled raiding parties of Karankawa Indians, finally forcing them to cease raiding. According to a study of the Texas militia, however, “Despite this success Austin’s militia remained small and imperfect, relying on mostly small units recruited for the duration of an emergency.”9

The Texas militia did little. Frontier defense was handled by volunteer ranging companies, soon called Texas Rangers. (The Rangers’ formal law-enforcement role did not come until after the American Civil War). The 1835–1836 Texas Revolution depended on Sam Houston, the regular Texas Army and informally organized volunteers, most famously at the Alamo. On 6 December 1836, eight months after the War of Independence ended at San Jacinto, the Texas Congress passed a law organizing a militia.10 However, the Congress refused to appropriate any money to carry out this law.

In 1846, just before the start of the Mexican War, General Zachary Taylor arrived in Texas with regular United States Army troops. Expecting war, Taylor asked the governor for militia troops to supplement his Army. Governor J. P. Henderson replied that the militia was not sufficiently well organized and issued a call for volunteers.

When the Mexican War ended, effectively so did the Texas militia. The regular United States Army took over protection of the frontier. Ranger companies provided a second line of defense. In 1856, the sole remaining formal member of the militia, the adjutant general, was suspended from office. A new militia law was passed on 14 February 1860, at the urging of Governor Sam Houston, who appointed a commanding Adjutant-General, A. B. Norton, and several brigadier generals. Though some units continued to exist, the Texas militia itself was never organized. This likely resulted from a combination of inertia and Houston’s reluctance to help recruit troops that might be used to fight the Federal government.

The military needs of the country, and of Texas, changed drastically in 1861, from repelling foreign invasion to engaging in civil war. The two “national” governments faced similar problems—how to meet massive military needs with portions of the tiny regular Army of about 16,000 men. The enlisted soldiers of the Army, unable to resign at will, remained Federal. Indications are that only 26 enlisted men deserted to go South, though this figure is considered low.11

Able to resign at will, 329 of 1,080 Army officers did so, most of them joining the Confederacy. The figure for the Navy was 287 of 1,457.12 Both sides could also call on West Point-trained and experienced officers who had left the military. This was the source of many of the best known generals on both sides, including Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, George B. McClellan and Ambrose Burnside for the North, and Thomas J. Jackson and Daniel H. Hill for the South.

Recruitment of volunteers provided the bulk of manpower for both armies. When the initial excitement wore off and the hard realities of a long war became known, both sides eventually adopted conscription, the first national draft laws in United States history. Such a drastic measure was not feasible in 1861. A historian of the Civil War military command structures summarizes the problems facing both armies:

Both the Union and the Confederacy followed the same procedures in establishing their military commands and recruiting the huge armies they perceived as necessary for attack and defense. Both relied on new volunteer forces, rather than on the ill-trained militia units, to provide the framework for mobilization. Both central governments depended on the individual states to play a crucial part in the creation and mobilization of the mass armies. This was a natural, and indeed an essential, approach in view of the available machinery of government. . . . In their turn the states depended on a good deal of local and individual entrepreneurship. Notwithstanding the military imperative and the issues at stake, politics had much to do with the raising of the armies. This was natural in an era when people took their politics very seriously.13

This was also natural in a civil war, that most political of conflicts. State power and influence, even in the far more nationalistic North, made it politically necessary to pay close attention to the wishes of the states. States’ rights, the foundation concept for the Confederacy, made things hard for Jefferson Davis and the central Confederate government in Richmond, but this was as real a part of the South’s war as any military necessity.

The same was true for Abraham Lincoln and the North. Northern state political leaders were more responsive to the idea that some things had to be done by a central government. Lincoln, however, still had to take state wishes into account when creating Federal policy. The political realities of the Civil War would often be ignored in some later analysis of the conduct of the war. The best known of the post-Civil War military reformers, it was later said, “never understood the necessities under which Lincoln operated, which forced him to appeal to the governors for aid and to give them something in return.”14 Lincoln and Davis could not afford the luxury of ignoring politics.

When the Civil War ended, the United States had a substantial number of trained and experienced soldiers, both Federal and Confederate. Some militia activity continued after the war. In the South, however, this quickly took on an anti-black tone, resulting in 5 its banning in the 1867 Reconstruction Acts. When Southern militia rights were restored a few years later, it was to fill a law enforcement need, not to function as a reserve for the regular military.

The Federal armies declined drastically in size during the same period. Just over 1,000,000 men (regular and volunteer) were serving in the United States Army in 1866. Just over 57,000 served in 1866, roughly 37,000 in 1869. In 1870, total strength dropped below 30,000, staying below that level until 1898.15 The declining strength of the Army showed the decline in interest in things military among the general public, and among the Congress. “[T]he former citizen soldiers came back home again to become citizens, and after four years of bitter war, to devote little time to soldiering.”16

Even the volunteer militia units, the ante-bellum “cream” of the citizen militia, declined. One historian has noted, “In the decade or so after the Civil War, the militia was at its lowest ebb in our history. Only a few Northern states attempted to maintain a militia organization; and during Reconstruction, Southern states could not do so.”17

Things began to change in 1877. In the South, Reconstruction came to an end as part of the political deal leading to certification of the presidential election of Rutherford B. Hayes. Nationally, a series of railroad strikes began in West Virginia and spread to ten states. “The railroad strike of 1877, and the industrial warfare it induced, was the stimulus that set off the development of the modern National Guard,”18 another historian states.

In some cases, the militia was not able to handle labor violence, and the regular Army had to be summoned. Use of the regular Army to settle domestic disputes did not sit well with the general American dislike of standing armies. In other cases, such as an incident at Pittsburgh in 1877, the militia (which most states were already starting to call the National Guard) was willing to open fire on demonstrators.