Volume XIX · Spring 1964 · Number 3
The Militia Myth: Letters from Lt. William B. Rochester on the Niagara Frontier, 1813
--EDWARD L. TOWLE
When the United States declared war on Great Britain late in 1812, the public generally concurred with Jefferson's optimistic estimate that since our citizen army was always ready, the "acquisition of Canada... as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching." There was, as it turned out in the months that followed, plenty of marching but precious little in the direction of Canada. The following year, 1813, was only slightly less discouraging from a military point of view. For the American forces "defending" western New York it was a year best forgotten since it started with the promise of a successful spring invasion of Canada and ended with an ignominious withdrawal, the Canadian capture of Fort Niagara, and the burning of Buffalo and the neighboring villages.
It is this botched campaign on the Niagara frontier that furnishes this essay with its primary focus upon the militia myth. An interesting series of letters from a militia aide-de-camp named William B. Rochester, who served on that frontier in 1813, has survived the vicissitudes of time and is in the manuscript collection of the University of Rochester.1 These candid letters written to William Rochester's father, Nathaniel, provide us with some valuable insights into militia performance and ideology.
Nathaniel Rochester, who first took up residence in the Genesee country, some seventy-five miles east of Buffalo, in the year 1800, was part of a large wave of land speculators and settlers that swept over the western sections of New York State during the first two decades fo1lowing the adoption of the new Constitution in 1789. Along with such promoters as Charles Williamson and James Wadsworth, Nathaniel Rochester plunged into that frenzied maelstrom of building mill sites, dams, roads, bridges, stores, and vast land empires that characterized the first decade of the nineteenth century on both sides of the Niagara frontier. When a war situation emerged out of the complex set of conditions confronting Great Britain and the United States in 1812, it was only natural that the aging Colonel Rochester-he was then sixty years old and living in Dansville-should send his two sons, John and William, off to take their rightful places as officers in the militia forces of the State of New York. John first became a recruiting officer at Geneva, then served as a company officer near Albany and later moved to the northern frontier at Sackets Harbor. His letters home describing his view of the war from that northerly vantage point have already been published.2 But the letters William Rochester sent to his father from the Niagara frontier have, until now, escaped attention. They are especially relevant here in that, through them, one can gain a fairly realistic view of both a militia force in action and the "field education" of a young, tactically illiterate, militia officer.
The early phases of the 1813 spring offensive by the American forces had seen sparsely manned Canadian outposts, such as Fort Erie and Fort George, fall to the more numerous American invasion forces. The Canadian troops had fallen back in good order to a secure position at Burlington Heights near present-day Hamilton, Ontario. The summer passed, however, without any serious American attempt to exploit the spring successes. All hopes for any such move were ruined when, in early October, the American regular and militia troops under General James Wilkinson, occupying the territory captured earlier in the year, were ordered by Secretary of War John Armstrong to leave their positions in the hands of a caretaker force and march to the Sackets Harbor area for an anticipated attack on Montreal. This sudden withdrawal of Wilkinson's forces left the territory and forts held by the Americans on the Canadian side of the Niagara River to be defended by a portion of the New York militia under the immediate command of Militia General George McClure. It is at this juncture that we join the twenty-year-old Lieutenant William B. Rochester as he answered his country's call and made his way west from his home in Dansville to serve in the hastily gathered militia contingent as an aide-de-camp to General McClure.
Batavia, 5th Oct, 
. . . Arrived here this morning and expect to arrive at Niagara tomorrow night. Wilkinson with a proportion of Regulars passed by the mouth of the Genesee River yesterday towards Sacketts Harbor. McClure will be stationed at [Fort] Niagara.
Four days later William wrote to inform his father of a change in plans but gave no hint of the impending difficulties which were to plague the militia and frustrate its defensive efforts.
Niagara, 9th October, 1813
This day the General [McClure] & his suite go over to Fort George to take up his Headquarters; about 350 or 400 of the militia will go over this afternoon. There are now over there about 600 militia, with these and about 300 Indians the General means to make a push tomorrow morning ag[ain]st the foe at the crossroads about three miles west of Fort George....
Actually nothing but inconsequential raids and skirmishes punctuated an otherwise stalemated "front" while the militia forces slowly, almost casually, drifted in. Fortunately additional support was expected to arrive almost daily as Major General William Henry Harrison was marching east from the Detroit frontier with a small but seasoned force of western reinforcements. Notice in Lieutenant Rochester's next letter how efficaciously the militia troops spent the time which hung heavy on their hands.
Fort George 15 Oct, 1813
The British have all retired to Burlington Heights at the head of Lake Ontario where I expect Harrison will take them. If he does not, the British will return & take this Fort without any doubt.- The regulars have all gone. We have about 800 militia here, who are completely raw, untrained and lawless. There is not at this time 200 men in this fort, they are generally out gathering in public property such as flour, port, salt, arms, etc., of which immense quantities have been already found.
Should Harrison not come to Burlington Heights, the enemy can at any time come down in boats and surprise us....
What Lieutenant Rochester was describing here in a rather euphemistic fashion was simply militia plunder of both public and private property. Three-fourths of the total force had abandoned the defense of the fort and made themselves unavailable for training of any sort. Those who were particularly fortunate at finding items of value simply headed for home with their loot. Notice that Lieutenant Rochester's next letter shows a net loss of a hundred men in the four days following the "gathering of public property" by the "raw, untrained and lawless" militia. On the nineteenth, when McClure was preparing to stand off an anticipated attack, our young militia lieutenant wrote unenthusiastically to his father the following note:
Fort George, 19 Oct, 1813
. . . Finly [sic] McClure starts in the morning . . . the British army is returning [to the Niagara frontier] and will no doubt . . . be here in forty hours with about 1000 Regulars and 1000 Indians. This turn they take in consequence of Harrison's declining his pursuit.
Our force about seven hundred-they undisciplin'd . . . my hopes are not very lively . .
Fortunately the attack never came, and the militia went back to plunder, or to drink at the nearest tavern. Hope springs eternal, however, and when General McClure and General Harrison, who had arrived from the west on October thirtieth, planned a surprise assault on the British positions to the west, Lieutenant Rochester undertook to raise some new militia volunteers. "Let them bring arms if possible," he urged his father. "Good rifles well handled by determined soldiers will do much."3 No training, no practice, no drill, no rules, no tactics- just "come as you are" and be determined! Later in the same day Lieutenant Rochester drafted a more urgent second letter again soliciting his father's assistance in the search for new volunteers. That things were not going as well as they might is clearly evident from his concluding remark on the militia troops that had already gathered at Fort George.
Fort George, 1 Nov, 1813
. . . McClure has 800 who will march out - how many volunteers will come in time is quite uncertain - say 500 - . . . Gen'l. McClure has also ordered out a Regiment in masse from Niagara. I question if they will all come over. . .
From the more easterly vantage point of Geneva, New York, the picture was no different. Colonel Robert Troup, former Revolutionary War officer and later agent of Sir William Pulteney in western New York land speculation, commented on the planned Harrison-McClure attack against the British forces that had prompted Lieutenant Rochester's recruiting efforts.
Geneva, Nov. 10, 1813
My information from Fort George is direct & I think authentic. [General William Henry] Harison [sic] has only between 7 & 800 men with him-& they are said to be in a most miserable plight. . . . No great things therefore are to be expected from Harison's cooperation at Burlington heights. The British are reported to have from 1 to 2000 men- regulars & militia & Indians together. Harison & McClure having a desire to attack. . . in this quarter... . Cap. Dox's company here have refused to obey. No volunteers offer. The expedition is. . . likely to fail.4
Apparently not all the residents of western New York were this pessimistic, for small groups of militia detachments and volunteers did answer McClure's appeal. By the fourteenth of November, Harrison's regulars and the various militia units had nearly completed preparations for the long delayed move against Burlington. Alas, even as they prepared to march the whole project had to be abandoned. Lieutenant Rochester gloomily wrote to his father in Geneva:
Fort George 15. Nov. 1813
Commodore Chauncey arrived [from the eastern end of Lake Ontario] with ten sail last night. Gen'l Harrison and all his troops are now embarking and will doubtless be off by morning bound for Sacketts Harbor leaving the militia once more alone to shift for themselves.
We have only about 300 volunteers under the late call. . . .
Left to his own devices by Harrison's departure, McClure called an emergency council-of-war of his militia staff and subordinate regimental commanders. His decision, according to Lieutenant Rochester who attended the meeting, was ". . . to march out with all the force he has to spare. . . ." Throughout the next four days of hasty preparations, Lieutenant Rochester's pessimism continued to mount. The evening of November twenty-fifth, as bitter cold air settled upon the Niagara frontier bringing hard ground underfoot and snowflakes in the air, William Rochester sat in his drafty barracks room and hastily dashed off a "night before the attack" letter to his father. For McClure's advance force of two hundred mounted volunteers supported by some artillery pieces Lieutenant Rochester held out some promise. But as for the rest, he concluded,
Fort George, 25. Nov, 1813
I fear . . . that many of the detached militia will obstinately refuse to go . . . the paymaster just arrived . . . they will certainly march reluctantly. .
Lieutenant Rochester's estimate of the situation was not far from the mark. McClure's force of sixteen hundred militia and the two hundred mounted men plus a scraggly assortment of Indians left the Fort the following morning and pushed westward to the heights near Twenty Mile Creek where they encamped for the night. Colonel Wilcox with the mounted troops had pushed on ahead to probe the enemy's main line positions, searching for weak points that could be exploited in the main attack the next day. The required information was received from Colonel Wilcox's reconnoitering detachment sometime after sundown. It was not encouraging. Instead of waiting for the assault, the British appeared to be advancing east with a force of between two and three thousand men to meet McClure's militia army. What was to be done? A midnight council-of-war of the jittery militia officers was convened and produced a decision to await the morning reports from the outlying contingent units before making the choice to stand at Twenty Mile Creek or withdraw to the relative safety of Fort George.
In the first weak light of dawn, it was obvious that a command decision was no longer needed. The militia troops had collectively and individually made their own choices. Empty tents, abandoned rifles, and missing horses made it apparent that between six hundred and seven hundred militia had deserted during the night.5Confronted by these wholesale desertions which left him with less than a thousand men, McClure hastily retreated to Fort George where he went through the motions of preparing for the expected attack by the advancing British force. His heart was not in it, however, for in his own words:
. . .About this time the militia demanded their discharge, their term of service having expired. I did everything in my power to induce them to remain in the service a few weeks longer, until provision could be made for the defence of the frontier. I offered a bounty, but in vain-some few received it, and afterwards deserted. . . 6
There seemed to be no alternative but to withdraw. General McClure's decision to abandon Fort George was immediately followed by a somewhat less rational and panicky order to burn the nearby town of New-Ark [Newark] as he departed the Canadian shore. This unfortunate and senseless destruction invited the disastrous year-end retaliatory raids by British and Canadian troops that left the entire American side of the Niagara frontier a smoking, corpse-scattered ruin. By the first of January of the new year McClure had himself withdrawn as far east as Bath, New York, where he desperately sought to enlist new troops for the defense of the interior should the British raiding parties push beyond Buffalo. Every gain of the previous spring campaign had been lost, every advantage thrown away. Fort George and Fort Erie were back in British hands. Smoke still curled up from the gaping cellar holes and piles of rubble that had once been the American settlements along the Niagara River.
Yet from that same frontier zone less than two months before, Lieutenant Rochester could write a recruiting letter saying: "Good rifles well handled by determined soldiers will do much." What had gone wrong?
One man, General McClure, who had repeatedly experienced the frustration of trying to fight using militia forces, correctly diagnosed the problem, or at least part of it. Seeking to answer his critics in a brief pamphlet published in 1817, McClure wrote:
The melancholy fact of [a] large corps of Militia (of New York and Vermont) going to the field of battle without. . . being able to perform a single evolution, have [has] left unfavorable impressions upon the public mind, respecting such aid in a Republican war.7
But McClure realized that there was more to it than this. Concerning the failure of the 1813 campaign he not inaccurately pointed out:
. . .no nation was less skilled in the knowledge of fortifications and camp discipline-and no troops so raw as mine ever presented themselves for battle under more forbidding circumstances. .
These men had known no more of arms, than the mockery of tactics exhibited on a few annual militia holidays, . . . yet a glorious national spirit impelled them on to meet the foe.8
But more than spirit was demanded of the flesh. Lacking previous training, the volunteers compounded the difficulty by contemptuously rejecting any disciplined training function during the actual call-up or mobilization. Barracks gambling, boozing it up at the nearest tavern, and plundering the countryside were far pleasanter ways to pass the time while awaiting the arrival of the enemy than listening to some ill-educated militia lieutenant attempt to explain enfilade fire, seige tactics, or scouting procedures. Still and all, a competent officer corps could have overcome these difficulties. Yet one militiaman expressed his general contempt for most militia officers in this fashion:
. . .some are courting popularity and are afraid to incur the displeasure of their men; all distinction is done away; they place themselves upon a level with their men; and consequently neither command respect nor obedience. . .9
And what use have the historians made of this set of events? Many have been all too quick to use the 1813 Niagara disasters to condemn the militia and the public's ill-founded faith in the citizen soldier.10 Proof enough they say of the need for a more substantial, more professional standing army. The resultant dialogue between the "unrealistic" militia supporters and the "realistic" regular army protagonists has succeeded in obscuring one salient point that deserves attention. A militia soldier needed training in direct proportion to the dimension of the span between what he was and what he thought of himself as within the context of the frontier ideology. Yet the idealized conception of the citizen as a rugged, individualistic, go-ahead, resourceful frontier type persisted as a universal ingredient. Farm hands, well diggers, land speculators, millwrights, farriers, coopers, carpenters, city slickers-their name was legion, but there was hardly a genuine frontiersman in the lot. Yet they came when called into service, even if reluctantly. But to ask them to accept discipline, to behave like soldiers, was to ask them to believe in different gods. "I will not," said a militia soldier, "be commanded and ordered about by such and such an officer-I am as good a man as he is."11 What he was saying in effect was,"Never mind that I come to you an ex-farmer or loom tender; I was born into a frontier tradition and there is Indian fighter blood in my veins. I am a man of the forest, a rifleman, a hunter, a conqueror of the wilderness. Bring on your Goliath!"
The American's innocent reliance upon this concept with its supporting metaphors has repeatedly prevented him from perceiving the element of myth or unreality in the image. This he was not and perhaps is still not prepared to do.
- Nathaniel Rochester Papers, 1813-1815, University of Rochester Library, Special Collections. All the letters of William B. Rochester cited in this paper are from this collection, which was acquired from Mrs. Howard Osgood in 1933.
- Gladys G. Nelson, "The Battle of Plattsburg," The University of Rochester Library Bulletin, III (Winter, 1948), pp. 30-34.
- Congress had been as lax as the states in providing arms and equipment for the militia, perhaps on the mistaken rationalization that the militia, as in the frontier days, would bring its own weapons when called out. Although nearly a million dollars had been appropriated by 1813 to provide arms, only $94,792 had actually been expended by the Federal Government, and the several states had received but 26,000 stands of arms. American State Papers: Military Affairs, I (July 8, 1813), p. 337.
- Robert Troup, Geneva, to Abraham Van Vechten, Attorney General of New York, November 10, 1813. ALS, as quoted in Manuscripts from Goodspeed's, Catalogue 510. Boston: , pp. 95-96. This episode suggests that the "land hunger" expansionist hypothesis concerning the onset of War with Britain in 1812 needs to be viewed with more skepticism than has generally been the case. At least it would appear that large numbers of western New York settlers were generally disinterested in the conquest of the Ontario peninsula.
- Militia troops had little to fear from courts-martial proceedings since the Act of 1792, providing for calling forth the militia, stated unequivocally that "courts-martial for the trial of militia shall be composed of militia officers only." See I Statutes 264 (May 2, 1792). Since militia officers were generally elected by the units they commanded the troops had little to fear from them.
- George McClure, Causes of the Destruction of the American Towns on the Niagara Frontier, and Failure of the Campaigns of the Fall of 1813. Bath, New York: 1817, p. 17. This pamphlet was written by McClure to clear himself of the blame for the burning of the town of New-Ark. His major criticisms were aimed at Secretary of War Armstrong.
- Ibid., p. vi.
- Ibid., p. v. For a summary of the criticisms leveled at the militia training plans and practices see John K. Mahon, "A Board of Officers Considers the Condition of the Militia in 1826," Military Affairs XV (1951), pp. 85-94.
- George McClure, op. cit., p. 29.
- There is, admittedly, sufficient evidence to indicate that the administration of the militia training program in peace and the militia forces in wartime was excruciatingly difficult. See Lena London, "The Militia Fine, 1830-1860," Military Affairs XV (1951), pp. 133-144; also William H. Riker, Soldiers of the States, Washington, 1957, Chapters 3, 4, and 5
- George McClure, op. cit., p. 28