The Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812

The War of 1812

The American Military

Company officer of the New York State Militia, in 1812-1813

Caption: Company officer of the New York State Militia, in 1812-1813

On June 24, 1812, a courier from New York reached Montreal bearing the dreaded news: the United States had declared war on Great Britain seven days earlier.

The Americans' initial ambition was to invade and conquer Canada. To do so, however, they would need a strong regular army supported by dependable militias. With a population of some seven and a half million, they had enormous potential. In January 1812 they augmented their regular army by 10 infantry regiments and two artillery regiments. At the end of June this total grew again when Congress voted to maintain a regular army of 35,735 officers and soldiers. The states had at least 600,000 young men capable of bearing arms, and could therefore mobilize tens of thousands of militiamen for active duty to support the regular army.

This military force existed only in theory, however; the reality was something else again. In June 1812 the regular army had only 11,000 men, 5,000 of whom were new recruits who barely knew how to handle a gun. Apart from the artillery and the engineers, the officer corps was rather mediocre. An influx of inexperienced officers, many of whom had obtained their commissions through political favours, did nothing to improve things. And the militias were very uneven in quality. At this time, the militias from the various states were not subject to federal authority, which led to a lack of consistency - for example, a militia general could demand to be placed in command of regular troops! Worse still, a state could refuse to mobilize its militia even in wartime; that in fact was what the New England states did, because they were opposed to the declaration of war. Finally, there was no real army staff to carry out the strategic and tactical planning required. The task was assigned to a politician, the Secretary of State for War, with varying degrees of support from the generals.

Additional Images

Trooper of the United States Light Dragoons during the War of 1812