Washington Versus Jefferson on the Need for an Army

George Washington’s experiences in the wars against the French taught him the value of irregular tactics in wilderness areas, but his relationships with British officers also taught him that regular army organization was superior in settled areas. In the aftermath of Bunker Hill, when American optimism was at its peak, he was fearful about the abilities of the colonial militias to stand up to units of the British army in organized battle. Although Bunker Hill was seen as an American victory, the British had still managed to clear the area of American militia. The prospect of meeting British regulars in a set-piece battle worried him greatly.

He was right. The defeats of the American “army” in Brooklyn and north of Manhattan Island on the Hudson River in 1776 only served to underscore his conviction that Congress had to train and equip a regular force. For one thing, the militias and volunteers were all committed to serve but short terms before being allowed to return home. The militiamen were also obligated to their own colonies, and the “united” colonies needed a united force, not one where the different parties were almost as likely to get into fights with each other as to oppose the British.

Further, the primary value of militiamen was not so much as a fighting force, but as a force that could stay behind and maintain political control away from the actual fighting. As historian John Shy notes, “[o]nce established, the militia became the infrastructure of revolutionary government. It controlled the community, whether through intimidation or indoctrination.”

The problem Washington faced from the end of 1776 on was one of maintaining a force in the field and then managing to train it for professional duty. Congress often had little or no funds, so vouchers for land and bounty cash were used, to little avail. Militiamen were conscripted, but many bought themselves off with substitutes who themselves promptly deserted. Recent immigrants, British deserters, and the unemployed were taken in. Women disguised as men were accepted for what they claimed to be. Given the terms set for enrollees, the number of soldiers was in constant flux. Racially and ethnically, it was also a mixed bag.

It took almost five years, until the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, for Washington to accomplish this task — and then the Continental Army was effectively disbanded in 1783 because the Articles of Confederation did not provide for its continuation beyond wartime.

The French Revolution greatly affected the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, which in the military sphere meant opposition to any standing army in America as a threat to individual rights. He preferred to rely on local militias for defense. The successful experience of the Yankee militias at Louisbourg and around Boston in 1775 became historical reference points for his military policy. Perhaps more cynically, his views were shared by Southern and Western politicians, who preferred a weaker federal government than a standing army might imply.

Washington relied on more recent experience than that of the minutemen at Lexington and Concord. In 1791, a militia force led by the Governor of the then Northwest Territory was defeated in western Ohio by a coalition of Indian tribes living in what is now Indiana. It was the second such defeat for a militia force in a short time, leaving the area in crisis. Washington had accepted the proposal of his Secretary of War to raise a small professional force in Pittsburgh called the United States Legion. In August 1794, the Legion, trained and led by General Anthony Wayne, decisively defeated an Indian force in northwestern Ohio at the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

In 1796, ideology triumphed over experience once more when Congress abolished the Legion in favor of a smaller group of professionals who, it was hoped, would keep the peace on the frontier. By 1798, with the quasi-war with France having broken out, Congress once again authorized a larger army, only to see it slashed again under Jefferson’s presidency as the emergency waned.

Washington died before Jefferson became president in 1801. Jefferson continued to emphasize the value of local militias and volunteers as the primary defenders of American territory. By and large, the War of 1812 was fought without the participation of the Yankee states, their businessmen and militias largely sitting it out, even though much of the fighting took place nearby.

Meanwhile, the pretense that militias could deal with hardened British regulars and that small gunboats could ward off any British attacks by sea was shown for the folly it was. Many times, the American militias in the Great Lakes region were defeated by smaller bodies of British troops. On the Niagara frontier, the plundering depredations of militiamen and undisciplined volunteers against the primarily Yankee settlers on the British side turned these potential allies against the American effort. The ease of the British amphibious assault that led to the burning of Washington DC proved the uselessness of gunboats.