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FAILURE OF UNTRAINED VOLUNTEERS Washington's meaning was that there should be universal military training and universal military service. He spoke from bitter personal experience. Again and again he testified, in the Revolution, in the "times that tried men's souls," that the greatest difficulty with which he had to contend was not the British Government, nor the German levies. No; but the untrained militia of which his army was so largely composed. Again and again he declared that he would actually be better off and have a stronger army without them. That was not because they were not good patriots and brave men. No; but because they were not trained soldiers. Loyalty and valor are not sufficient. There must be knowledge of arms and of tactics; there must be discipline and obedience; there must be such familiarity with war as will assure steadiness of nerves in the presence of the enemy; there must be the physical training which will enable men to endure the fatigues of campaign and battle. Without these qualities troops are ineffective, and to send them into battle is to imperil them far more than the enemy.
This latter point was repeatedly emphasized by Washington, who declared that it was nothing short of criminal to send untrained militiamen into battle against disciplined and expert soldiers. The same conviction was expressed by Washington's close friend and comrade in arms, "Light Horse Harry” Lee, when he said: “That government is a murderer of its citizens which sends them to the field uninformed and untaught, where they are to meet men of the same age and strength, mechanized by education and discipline for battle.”
THE POLICY OF WASHINGTON Washington left us in no doubt as to what he meant by being prepared for war. He meant compulsory universal military training and compulsory universal military service. This was made clear at the very beginning of his administration. It was in his first annual message or address to Congress, and at the beginning of that address, that he uttered the words already quoted. He said:
"Among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention that of providing for the common defense will merit particular regard. To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace. A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well-digested plan is requisite; and their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories as tend to render them independent of others for essential, particularly military, supplies.”
There was the whole gospel of preparedness and efficiency epitomized in a single sentence. But he did not stop with that. So important did this man—who was first in peace as well as in war-consider the project of universal preparation and service that only thirteen days later he sent to Congress a special message on the subject, urging immediate action and presenting a plan for adoption. This plan was Washington's own, though he modestly gave credit for it to his Secretary of War, General Knox. It provided that all able-bodied male citizens, with certain specified exemptions for cause, should be enrolled by conscription for military duty. They were to be divided into three classes. Those from 18 to 20 years of age were to form the advanced corps, or first line of battle; those from 21 to 45 were to form the main corps; and those from 45 to 60 were to form the reserve.
SERVICE ESSENTIAL TO CITIZENSHIP It was an integral and essential part of this plan that service should be a prerequisite of complete citizenship. Unless specially exempted for cause, no man was to be permitted to vote or hold office of any kind unless he had served his term with the colors. Having served in the advanced corps for three years, on attaining the age of twenty-one the young man was to be received into full citizenship; but if he had not thus served, he was to be excluded from office and from the polls. This was Washington's conception of the functions of the advanced corps:
“The advanced corps are designed not only as a school in which the youth of the United States are to be instructed in the art of war, but they are, in all cases of exigence, to serve as an actual defense of the community. The whole of the armed corps shall be clothed, armed and subsisted at the expense of the United States, and encamped together if practicable, or by legions, which encampments shall be denominated the annual camps of discipline. The youth of 18 and 19 years shall be disciplined for 30 days successively in each year; and those of 20 years shall be disciplined only for 10 days in each year, which shall be the last 10 days of the annual encampment."
A FUTILE SUBSTITUTE Congress rejected Washington's plan, and thereby entailed upon the country loss and disaster inestimable-as we shall see. Instead, it enacted the stupid and stultifying militia law of 1792, contemplation of which reminds us of the genius who was "in favor of the law but against its enforcement." In brief, it declared that all citizens were liable to be called for military service, but it omitted to
provide any means for thus calling them, or for preparing them to render efficient service. It declared that every able-bodied male citizen between the ages of 18 and 45 was a member of the militia. Those who voluntarily formed themselves into military companies for training were called the organized militia, while all the rest were the unorganized militia. As not one in a thousand voluntarily entered the organized militia, the nation was practically left unprepared for war, and its citizens in a condition in which, as Lee said in the words already quoted, it would be murder to send them into the field.
The result of this fatuous policy was seen before that generation had passed away. In our second war with Great Britain, with two or three exceptions, the performances of our army of raw recruits were disgraceful. Poltroonery and rout were the order of the day. When a small British force approached the national capital, it found that city “defended” by two or three times its number of American troops. Yet the latter, under the eyes of the President himself, fired one volley and then fled in disgraceful rout, like frightened rabbits, abandoning the capital to the foe. The one real victory was won at the very end of the war, indeed after the treaty of peace had been signed; by which time, after two and a half years of war, the troops had become disciplined and hardened and therefore efficient. Had the troops at Washington been of the quality of those at New Orleans, the nation would not have suffered the indelible disgrace of having its capital betrayed into the hands of an invading foe. Yet with fatuous folly, in all the years since, we have busied ourselves with raging against the vandalism of the invaders in burning our public buildings, and have had nothing to say about the poltroonery of our own troops or the crass stupidity of the system which thus entrusted the safety of the country to unprepared greenhorns.
JEFFERSON'S CHANGE OF POLICY Jefferson was at first a pacifist, believing in neither army nor navy. So when a United States ship was attacked unawares by a British ship, riddled with shot and shell, and men were taken from it by force, his only reply was to order all American ships to stay in port, where they would not get hurt. Also, at first Jefferson opposed the building of cities, opposed the establishment of manufactures, opposed commerce, and hoped for a revolution every twenty years. But he got over all those crazy notions of his salad days. The disgraceful fiascoes of our militia warfare in 1812–14 opened his eyes. From his retirement at Monticello he wrote to Monroe, regretting that the latter's plan of introducing here Napoleon's conscription system had not been adopted:
“Nothing more wise or efficient could have been imagined than what you proposed. It would have filled our ranks with regulars, and that, too, by throwing a just share of the burthen on the purses of those persons who are exempt either by age or office; it would have rendered our militia ... a nation of warriors. But the go-by seems to have been given to your proposition, and longer sufferance is necessary to force us to what is best. We seem equally incorrigible. ..."
And again he wrote to Monroe:
“We must train and classify the whole of our male citizens, and make military instruction a part of collegiate education. We can never be safe until this is done."