In early morning on April 18, 1942, a small Japanese vessel detected a large American
naval force powering toward Tokyo. That the Americans were intent on attacking the Empire was without question: the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, scarcely 4 months prior, was still a recent, searing memory. However, the fleet was still 600 miles from the coast. Because of the limited range of conventional carrier-borne aircraft, detection at such a distance normally would have given the Japanese ample time to intercept the invaders. Yet this invasion was far from conventional.
Shortly after detecting the Japanese vessel, 16 highly modified Army Air Forces (AAF) B-25 bombers took off in rapid succession from the USS Hornet. Led by Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the aircraft skirted over Tokyo at mid-day, dropped their bombs, and egressed toward China without immediate loss. Unable to reach landing strips on mainland China, they were forced to ditch their aircraft. Eight airmen were ultimately captured by the Japanese, with three being executed. One crew, accidentally landing in Russia, were detained there. The rest returned safely.
April 18th 2017 marks the 75th anniversary of this most amazing military feat. As part of the commemoration, 17 B-25s touched down at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, behind the Museum of the United States Air Force, early this morning on the 17th. I walked among the restored aircraft, took pictures, and marveled at the thought of that daring, and highly symbolic, mission. Doolittle was well aware that the likely impact to Japanese warfighting capability would be limited. But what was important was to show America, her friends, and her enemies that even in the wake of such a disaster as Pearl Harbor, the United States could fight. In that, the mission was a powerful success. Doolittle and his Raiders were instant American heroes, and the commander would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the raid.
The 17 B-25s will be on display through the morning of the 18th. Weather permitting, they will then conduct a flyover of the museum, followed by a memorial service, and then a B-1 Lancer flyover. LtCol Richard E. Cole, the last surviving Doolittle Raider (he’s 101 years old) plans to attend.
 Geoffrey Perret, Winged Victory, The Army Air Forces in World War II (New York: Random House, 1993) 150-153.).
On December 7, 1862, in the early morning hours, Confederate forces led by General John Hunt Morgan launched a surprise attack on approximately 2,000 Union soldiers situated at Hartsville, Tennessee. The Union soliders, which included Company E of the 11th
Kentucky Cavalry (the rest of the regiment evidently remained at Gallatin, some 15 miles east) were charged with guarding the Cumberland River where Confederate Cavalry crossed to harass Federal forces. The occupied position was assessed as quite strong, and was only 9 miles from Castalian Springs where 2 Union brigades were located. At approximately 6:45 AM, battle commenced. The bewildered Union force, led by Colonel Absalom Moore (who had only taken command 5 days prior) attempted to organize a defense, but to little avail. Though many of his troops fought nobly, at least one regiment panicked and fled, exposing the Union center which forced Moore to at first attempt to regroup, but then to ultimately surrender. The fight was over in less than two hours, with just over 2000 Union soldiers captured, wounded, or killed. The Confederate casualties were about 125.
The US Army was furious at the humiliating defeat. General Halleck pointedly asked, “What officer or officers are chargeable with the surprise at Hartsville and deserve punishment?” Most blamed Colonel Moore (Halleck certainly did), who would ultimately resign rather than be dismissed from service. Moore gave several reasons for his defeat: the scurrilous use of Union uniforms by the rebels to sneak up on vedettes, a massive enemy force (he estimated Morgan’s strength at about 5,000-6000. The Confederates reported having 1,200 men), the “shameful” retreat of one of his regiments, and popular support from the Tennessee locals. However, one additional reason was of particular interest to me: in his report on the battle (submitted after being paroled by the CSA), Moore states that his force was greatly reduced by sickness. The day before the battle, Moore said that he had sent about 200 men back to Gallatin to escort a provisions train. Between losing those men and “a great many[men] being sick in hospital at the time of the attack, left me but the small force of about 1,200 men to contend with 5,000 of the rebels…”
One of those sick was quite possibly my great-great-great grandfather, who, according to a note on one of his muster rolls, was left in a hospital at Gallatin when the 11th KY Cav departed that town on 26 December, 19 days following the defeat at Hartsville. I’ve come to find that some form of chronic illness bedeviled my ancestor throughout the war, and may have crippled him in the years after. The nature of this sickness has become one of my top research questions in regards to the life and service of Greenberry Shanks.
Making good on the plan I mentioned in the first article of this series, I took to the road in search of more details on the life of Private Greenberry Shanks of the 11th Kentucky Cavalry (Company D). Focusing my search in the part of the state where he had been raised seemed like a good move (although it’s unclear if he was born there). Before leaving, I located the main public libraries that seemed most likely to help me find records not currently available online, namely the Bourbon County and Clark County libraries in Eastern Kentucky. On February 24th, I jumped in my car and drove the 3 hours or so from my home in south-central Ohio, through surprisingly green farmlands (it had been a warm winter) set among the meandering hills of the Bluegrass State, to Paris, Kentucky (the location of the Bourbon-Paris Library). My brother, who is as determined as I am to get to know Greenberry, met me there.
To make a half-day story short, we turned up no new documents around Greenberry or his wife Serilda. Although both libraries were quite impressive, we never located birth or death certificates for either, and no marriage certificate. We poured over local documents and collections of cemetery data, marriage records on microfiche (although in this matter, I realized I had overlooked a clue in the documentation on hand as to the date he and Serlida were married) and family trees donated to the libraries. The only documents to mention Greenberry were the published census documents I had already found online.
But the trip was still enlightening. It was a pleasure to work with the genealogy librarians at both locations, who were knowledgeable and helpful. The librarian working in the Paris-Bourbon library immediately recognized the Shanks name, thanks to an infamous “Shanks family massacre” that occurred in the area in the late 1700s, when Shanks pioneers were attacked by native Indians. I couldn’t find any documentation to connect the survivors to my family, but I’ve got that tucked away for additional research later. In addition, the librarians provided tips on other places (the local courthouse, and a private genealogy library only open during the spring and summer months) that I could research when I return at some point.
Despite the frustrating lack of the aforementioned vital documents, thanks to the online research (fleshed out somewhat by what we learned in the libraries) Greenberry’s life is coming more into focus, and it’s an exciting thing. He lived more than half of his life in Bourbon and Clark counties (it’s possible he never actually moved, as the county lines were evidently being disputed around this time). He worked as a laborer on a farm owned by one Hezekiah Owens, where he likely met Sarilida Owens. Sometime around 1850 or 1851, they married. It’s unclear where exactly the two lived after being married, but prior to 1860, he moved his family west, to Washington County. It was from there that Greenberry would travel to Harrodsburg in 1862 to join the cavalry in defense of the Commonwealth and the Union.
In my last article, I stated that he left behind a one year old son, James, when he went off to war. The evidence now suggests he had five children by 1862: three daughters (Martha, Mary, and Amanda) and two sons (Samuel and James). He would father one more daughter (Annie) before dying sometime before 1880.
He had assumed several different vocations over the course of his life: laborer, stonecutter, school teacher, and soldier. In my research at the Clark County library, there were evidently one or two Shanks enclaves in that area that were classified as stonecutters/masons in the census. The marriage certificate of his youngest daughter, Annie, also indicates her father was a stone mason.
His various professions, large family, movement to Washington County, and his enlistment into the army as a private suggest that Greenberry was not a wealthy man. So far, I haven’t found much in the way of probate records for any Shanks in the region where he was raised, suggesting that that the Shanks were not a family with property. The fact that he was listed on the census as a laborer on another family’s property in 1850 supports this. Of course, I still need to check out the genealogy resources in Washington County where (presumably) he died, to determine if he had any estate.
While I’m eager to unearth any aspect of Greenberry and Sarilda’s lives I’m particularly interested in his wartime service (to include the reasons why a 43 year old man would enlist for war and leave behind a large family). Although a relatively simple exercise, I previously never took the time to assemble Greenberry’s muster rolls into chronological order. I suppose I thought, with the limited information on them, that it wouldn’t yield much information. I was very wrong on that. After lining up his recorded service alongside some of the 11th KY Cavalry’s wartime operations, the scope of Greenberry’s health issues (or, possibly his malingering) became evident:
Three things stand out from the above that will help guide my research now: first, sickness of some sort colored the majority of his service during the war, taking him down at first in Tennessee not four months after the 11th KY Cav mustered in. I’d like to find out if the nature of this ailment was ever recorded in any surviving records in the hospitals in Louisville or Gallatin. Second, although he evidently saw only about a year of active service (plus several months in various hospitals), there’s a reasonable chance Greenberry participated in one of the 11th KY Cav’s most notorious operations, the pursuit and ultimate capture of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan during his raid of Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio in July 1863. I’ve read the Official Reports for the Union pursuit of Morgan, and the 11th was engaged throughout the arduous chase. I’d like to delve into any letters, reports, or diaries of the 11th’s leadership and men to get more intimate details of their involvement. And third, Greenberry was reported away without leave (AWOL) for 10 months (1 Sep 1864 – 3 Jul 1865). Whatever the story is behind that, Greenberry evidently wasn’t punished, as he was allowed to rejoin the unit and collect the remainder of money still owed to him by the US government. Nevertheless, I would really like to know the story behind the AWOL (I assume it has to do with his apparent chronic illness).
My next move will be to visit the library in Washington County, and possibly the main branch of the Jefferson County library in Louisville, Kentucky. Plus, there are medical records that may not be online stored at the National Archives, copies of which are available at a government facility in Chicago. If so, that may give me some insight into what affliction Greenberry struggled with throughout the war. So a trip to the Windy City may be in order later this summer as well.
More to come!
 United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume XX Part 1 Reports (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880 -1891), 43-66.
“Some people say you achieve immortality through your children,” said the minstrel.
“Yeah?” said Cohen. “Name one of your great-granddads, then.”
The Last Hero, by Terry Pratchett.
In the early summer of 1862, 10 days before the first anniversary of the savage battle of
Bull Run during the opening days of the Civil War, Captain Milton Graham worked to assemble a new cavalry regiment to help defend Kentucky against the secessionists. Just outside the town of Harrodsburg, men from Washington, Madison, and Mercer counties flowed in, and Graham quickly organized four companies for the new 11th Kentucky Cavalry: A, D, C, and F.
Walking among the men who answered the call was 43 year-old Greenberry Shanks. Leaving behind his wife, Sarilda, and one year old son James, Private Shanks prepared with the others for a sudden move to the capital of Frankfort, a response to Confederate invasion of the Commonwealth. Move he did, part of Company D, arriving in Frankfort on 22 July. Another company, Company B, was recruited there, and then the men were on the march again, this time to Louisville, Kentucky. The remaining companies were recruited over the following weeks, and on 22 September the regiment was officially mustered into service.[i]
Over the next three years, the 11th Kentucky Cavalry served gallantly and participated in several notable campaigns, including the pursuit and eventual capture of the notorious Confederate General John Hunt Morgan in July of 1863.[ii] But Greenberry, like that of many who fought during this pivotal time of our nation, has largely been swallowed up by history. His military records are sparse, and indicate a service record frequently interrupted by sickness and, once, being absent without leave. He survived the war, and was mustered out with much of the rest of the 11th Kentucky Cavalry on 13 July 1865. Whatever ailment that dogged Greenberry over the course of the conflict evidently continued to plague him, as evidenced by a pension request in 1867 indicating his classification as an “invalid.” By 1880, he had passed away.
After a significant writing and research hiatus, I’ve decided to rekindle my Civil War studies in as personal a way as one can: I’m trying to piece together the experiences of a distant relative (my great-great-great grandfather) who fought on the side of the Union. The above paragraphs are a simple abstract of what I’ve come to know of him. I started with nothing more than an archaic name: Greenberry Shanks. My mother was given some old military paperwork by an aunt. This paperwork found its way to one of my brothers, who told me about it. He had started researching Greenberry on his own at one point, so I decided to help take up the mission.
The papers my brother possessed turned out to be Union Muster Rolls. Greenberry, at the age of 43, joined the 11th Kentucky Cavalry Regiment, Company D, as a private. With that information, I sent a request to the National Archives to send me whatever records they had on hand. I was excited several weeks later to receive a CD in the mail, but disappointed to find that it contained the exact same records that my mother and brother possessed: the muster rolls.
Still, I had my primary documents. Next I wanted to make sure that Greenberry was in fact a relative, and if so, how I was related to him. For this kind of work, genealogy services are fantastic tools. I chose Ancestry.com. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found enough to prove to me that Greenberry is, in fact, my direct relative, and that he is the same man named in the muster rolls. But I’ve reached a point where I’m confident I’ve exhausted primary and secondary sources that are available online, and there’s still so much to learn.
I’m missing two very important documents: a birth certificate and a death certificate. So setting aside the possibility that Greenberry is an immortal and still walks among us (there can only be one!), it seems likely that either these vital records are stuffed in some musty storage somewhere (if I’m lucky), or destroyed. I really hope it’s the former. I’m also missing a proper marriage certificate. I’ve found reference to one that seems like a contender, but I’m not positive. There are actually two leads that indicate his wife was born either the same time as he (circa 1820), or significantly later (1834).
So where do I go from here? I’m going to reach out to the public library system and possibly county historical societies to see if there are records or microfiche available in Kentucky that haven’t been digitized. If I get a reasonably solid lead, I’ll plan a trip to see what turns up. In the meantime, I have some additional research to do on the 11th Kentucky Cavalry in general, and Company D in particular.
Nothing lasts long in this world. Our history books are crammed with names and personalities great and small throughout time. But the number of our ancestors lost to obscurity is exponentially greater. Men like Greenberry shouldered an immensely grave responsibility, leaving the comforts of home to preserve the Union at the risk of life and limb. I feel it an honor to try and revive the memory of his life and sacrifice.
More to follow.
[i] Thomas Speed, R.M. Kelly, and Alfred Pirtle, The Union Regiments of Kentucky, Volume 1 (Louisville: Courier-Journal Job Printing Company, 1887), 224-229.
[ii] United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume XVI (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880 -1891), 668-696
I’ve spent part of this month visiting Civil War sites that are off the beaten path, or at least not as well known as the major battlefields. One of these sites, Fort Duffield, is perched on a hill in West Point, Kentucky, about 30 miles southwest of Louisville. Hastily built over the late-fall and early-winter of 1861-62 at the mouth of the Salt River where it springs out from the Ohio, the purpose of the fort was to defend Louisville and to protect Union supply lines vital to securing the Commonwealth as well as operations in Tennessee.
As the Union started to actively unravel in April 1861, the fate of the slave owning Border States was of particular concern to Washington. Kentucky harbored both passionate Confederate and Union sentiments, and so defense of key cities such as Louisville was as important as it was problematic. A number of fortifications were constructed in and around the city, eventually including a site on Pearman Hill, which provided good over-watch of the Ohio and Salt Rivers. In the relative quiet following the first battle at Bull Run, however, there appeared to be disagreement on the severity of the Confederate threat. By 26 Sept, 1861, when Brigadier General O.M. Mitchell arrived in Louisville, he wrote that the city was in a state of excitement as rumor of attack by Confederate General Buckner had just reached them. Days later, the Daily Democrat ran an article indicating that rebel forces were rumored to the south of West Point, but proclaimed confidence in the growing Union presence in the vicinity of where Fort Duffield would soon be built. And while General Sherman also believed Buckner could target some area near the mouth of Salt River, General Buell soon dismissed the need for it, informing General McClellan that he was not at all worried about threats to Louisville, although the “little work at the mouth of the Salt River…does no harm.”
Later, in 1862, Buell may have rued those comments as the Confederate army under Braxton Bragg maneuvered through Kentucky and appeared to threaten Louisville. Although Bragg instead moved to Bardstown, Buell was compelled to rush to Louisville’s defense. Nevertheless, by the end of that year, Fort Duffield would be effectively abandoned.
No major battles were fought at Fort Duffield, although it may have helped shape how the war in the west played out, as its placement and soldiers (about a regiment in strength) certainly would have been taken into consideration by any potential rebel action. But the story of Fort Duffield is important, as it reveals the human cost of the rapid militarization that the states underwent in the first days of the conflict. To the west of the fort is an area that is believed to have been a parade ground used by the forces garrisoned there. Today, this patch of ground is a memorial to the 30+ soldiers from the 9th Michigan Infantry Regiment who died erecting Duffield. (Note that the official web site and early publications state that over 60 men perished. This number is evidently overstated, and updates are being worked into the official documentation). Disease and a harsh winter took a devastating toll. A look at the headstones there show the men dying between late October 1861 and February 1862, when the fort was completed.
It’s believed that most of fallen were removed and buried in their home towns. The headstones remain as a memorial.
I had the privilege of speaking with the man who has been tending to the site for 20 years. I’m omitting his name, since I forgot to ask permission to share it. But I was struck with the love he clearly had for maintaining this small corner of American history. I told him how impressive his work was, how pleasant the memorial for those who died building the fort. He simply said the most important thing is that “they aren’t forgotten.”
 United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1 Volume IV (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880 -1891), 275.
 United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1 Volume IV (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880 -1891), 336.
Tensions ran high in Virginia in the last week of May, 1861. After the heady rush of victory that electrified the South following
the surrender of Fort Sumter and the seizing of Harper’s Ferry, anticipation of the next clash with the North grew. It was no secret that new recruits were pouring into Washington, and on the 24th, Union forces swept unopposed into Alexandria. Was this how Union General Irvin McDowell would strike the Old Dominion? Or would General Patterson try to leap from Maryland in an attempt to crush General Johnston on the way to Richmond? Or would the Northerners, as then-Colonel John Magruder anxiously wondered, invade via the coast, using the still Northern-held Fort Monroe on the tip of Hampton, VA to stage operations?
On the same day the US Army raised the Federal flag over Alexandria, Magruder received an alarming message from a man “said to be reliable” who had just arrived at West Point, Virginia. Hampton, he said, had been overrun by some 2500 Union troops. Magruder’s next steps demonstrated a levelheadedness in regards to military intelligence that many lacked, both Northern and Southern, in these early days of war. First, he asked that two small craft be dispatched to Jamestown Island, which juts into the James River some 30 miles northwest of Newport News and Hampton, in order to establish communication between the mainland and the area supposedly under Union control. He then also requested that cavalry forces be sent to him at once. “No reliable information can be attained without them,” Magruder wrote.
Within hours of sending this dispatch, additional intelligence revealed that the “reliable” man was actually quite mistaken. In a dispatch that sounded much less frenzied than the first, Magruder relayed that less than half the number of Union troops (1000) had landed at Hampton, and then only briefly. In addition, a small scouting party had been dispatched to Newport News. Only one company of enemy cavalry was noted. Magruder’s quick correction revealed two things: first, his awareness of the need to rapidly convey intelligence up to leadership in Richmond, and second, that he wasn’t letting his ego interfere with the execution of this responsibility. This is in contrast to Lieutenant Colonel A.S. Taylor in Alexandria, who earlier that month took nearly 4 days to communicate the intelligence that prompted his rapid retreat from Alexandria.
The Union withdrawal would be short-lived, however. Days later on the 27th of May, Major General Benjamin Butler lead US troops back into Newport News. Two weeks later, North and South clashed in what would be dubbed the Battle at Big Bethel. Here too, as we will see, Magruder and his subordinate commanders would demonstrate quickly maturing operational and tactical intelligence capabilities that helped blunt Union advantages in troop strength and materiel.
In American Soldiers – Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, & Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 2003), Peter S. Kindsvatter examines war diaries and memoirs to help understand the wartime experiences of U.S. soldiers over the course of half a century. Of specific interest are the individual soldiers and small unit dynamics. To further his analysis, Kindsvatter also incorporates the analyses of other social scientists and psychologists. Interestingly, he also uses literary analysis as he discusses the depiction of the soldier’s experience by wartime novelists such as Ernest Hemmingway. This mix of sources, contends Kindsvatter, allows us to search for a “collective truth.” Although an excellent book, I found the author’s relatively seamless inclusion of fictional accounts in the midst of primary sources – as when discussing white soldier attitudes toward working with their black counterparts – somewhat distracting and unconvincing.
Kindsvatter delves into the formative collective experiences of American soldiers, such as the reasons which prompted the decision to enlist (if voluntary) or to not desert (if drafted), experiences through basic training, and ultimately through combat. The author finds that, contrary to broad-brush understandings of the motivations of soldiers during each war (e.g. soldiers enlisting in the First World War were naïve and gung-ho, the soldiers in the Second World War were more grim but determined, while those in Vietnam were largely disillusioned and unwilling), soldiers entering each conflict were driven by a mix of motives. His discussion on the “soldierization process” – the “tear down” and “build up” that transformed the civilian into a soldier, establishes how citizens from a multitude of backgrounds were brought to a common capability prior to being deployed for war. Following this the bulk of American Soldiers details the experiences of the Army and Marines as they experienced the reality of combat – from dull drudgery to “life-or-death struggle…”
A vital dynamic that gets attention throughout the book is the soldier’s identification with his unit and the Army (or Marines). Basic training laid the foundation for identification as a warrior, but one that existed as part of a larger group. This group psychology was essential to developing loyalty, and “[s]uch loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale.” The relationship between soldiers, both horizontally with peers and vertically with leaders and subordinates, had a significant effect on performance and morale. Nowhere was this more evident than with the experiences of black soldiers. The American military was segregated until 1949, when the U.S. Marine Corps integrated, leading the way towards eventual full integration by the end of the Korean War (Kindsvatter points out that Executive Order 9981, signed by Harry Truman in 1948 and often credited with abolishing military segregation, only directed equal treatment of soldiers).Although the experiences of blacks and other minorities are brought up throughout the monograph, an entire chapter is devoted to analyzing race relations throughout these wars.
“The modern practice of Europe, with respect to the employment of standing armies, has created such a mass of opinion in their favor, that even philosophers, and the advocates for liberty, have frequently confessed their use and necessity, in certain cases. But whoever seriously and Candidly estimates the power of discipline and the tendency of military habits, will be Constrained to Confess, that whatever may be the efficacy of a standing army in war, it cannot in peace be considered as friendly to the rights of human nature.” 
On 18 Jan 1790, Secretary of War Henry Knox submitted to President George Washington a plan for the establishment of American militia to safeguard the nation. Echoing Alexander Hamilton’s warnings of standing armies made almost three years prior, Knox reasoned that “an energetic national militia” was more in harmony with American ideals. Standing armies (as evidenced by his words that began this article) represented a looming threat to national liberty. Three days after receiving Knox’s recommendation, Washington forwarded it to Congress for consideration, and thus codified a distinctive American suspicion of the military that would largely endure until the 20th Century.
This mistrust of large, standing armies was only one factor that has helped shape what can arguably be called an American way of war. Another distinction is the manner in which warfare was executed (more on that in a moment). But if there is a distinctive way of American war, what are its roots, and when did it emerge?
Certainly from the initial establishment of European colonies, the Anglo, French, Spanish, and other Europeans would have brought with them their styles of waging war. In the struggle over Nova Scotia in the autumn of 1710, for instance, John Grenier describes the clash between the British and French at Port Royal as falling within the “context of Europe’s emerging “age of limited warfare,” and so fought for glory and honor to a point, but both sides made certain to restrain themselves so as to not “radically [upset] the status quo…” Jon Latimer, in 1812 War with America, notes that leading up to the conflict that “the Americans’ drill was largely modelled on continental patterns,” although in practice they used a “variety of extemporized manuals.” And yet both the Americans and the British recognized the existence of certain styles of combat that was common to the frontier, before and after 1776, that was particular to the New World. The “skulking” way war, the guerrilla-style combat associated with native Indians and tough frontiersmen, was something both scoffed at and admired by Europeans, who strove to emulate it as much as possible when engaged in combat in America. It was a way of warfare that gave the European populations of North America extreme resiliency, but also possessed notable weaknesses.
This American way of war was shaped by the specific threats faced by European settlers, as well as by the limited resources
and manpower available to meet those threats. This warfare, from a traditional European perspective, was brutal. In 1745, the French settlers living under British dominion in Nova Scotia, the Acadians, became alarmed when the British Governor for the region brought in American Rangers to build blockhouses throughout the region. The Acadians evidently drew a distinction between the European military forces and the Yankees, as Grenier cites correspondence sent to the Earl of Newcastle indicating that they thought the Americans “far more terrible than European soldiers.” Surrounded by often hostile native Indians as well as by competing Old World rivals, the Americans took up a manner of warfare that was, in Grenier’s words, “of unrestrained violence, shocking brutality, and devastating effectiveness.” The particular character of American-style combat was recognized by the British even at this point in time. James Wolfe, who overall looked upon North American provincials with little regard, nonetheless argued for the need to train British soldiers in similar fashion to American rangers.
By the time of the War of Independence, both the Americans and the British were quite cognizant of fighting in an “American” style of war. In the earliest days of the conflict, the performance of the British soldiers trained as light infantry, organized into “flank battalions,” was somewhat lackluster. Relatively quickly, however, they seemed to grow in confidence. Letters from royal soldiers record “fighting in the thick wood, in the very style that the Americans think themselves superior to regular troops.” However, the rebel militia fighters of the deep frontier continued to hold a reputation of ferocity and ability that even the British commanders respected. After one engagement where the British were particularly battered, one solider observed that “European discipline” was of little use in the heavily wooded areas, and that the rebels were “by much our superiors at wood fighting, being habituated to the woods from their infancy.” The important point here is that both those British soldiers who boasted of their own skirmishing skills, and those who thought the Americans superior in that way of combat, seemed to consider “bushfighting” as something particularly American. Matthew Spring, in With Zeal and Bayonets Only, cites a number of such letters which contrast how the Americans fought, and compared British capability to adapt to it (both favorably and unfavorably).
The American way of war held a preference of militia over regular soldiers, and guerrilla-style combat over large-scale, head-on confrontations. It was a style of warfare born from the military requirements of the frontier. From the founding of the colonies, European settlers struggled against native Indians and each other, and the potential for warfare was ever-present. As such, all able-bodied males between the ages of sixteen to sixty were expected to participate in the militia in some fashion, which included at a minimum an annual muster for training or militia-related tasks. This is not to say that European-style warfare was totally abandoned. Population centers had to be defended, and fortifications had to be built and manned. General Washington, at the outset of the Revolutionary War, did attempt to lead American forces into decisive engagements against the British army. But after a number of defeats suffered throughout the period 1776 – 1780, the Americans increasingly relied on guerrilla-style tactics, to which they were much better suited. Spring notes that the militia were most effective when they fought in “broken terrain” and employed this “’skulking’ method of fighting…” With self-governance being regionally fragmented in the New World, both before and after the American Revolution, the North Americans developed a way of warfare that usually leveraged the unique environment in which they lived to deal with local as well as foreign threats. The result was typically small standing armies. At the turn of the century in 1802, for example, the United States boasted an army of just 2,500 soldiers.
Perhaps one of the most fundamental differences in how Americans waged war compared with their European cousins was rooted in how the individual soldier viewed his relationship to his government. While historians debate the extent to which such a distinction truly applied, in general the peoples of British North America developed the view that service to a government was formed by a contract, wherein each side was obliged to uphold the agreement. Abrogation of the contract meant the other side (in particular, the individual) was no longer under obligation to adhere to the arraignment. This contrasts with the royal army, whose soldiers were bound by the traditional European ruler-subject relationship. The resulting impact of relying on contract-savvy militia was that the government, whether colonial, Federal, or state, had to induce citizens to not only enlist, but to stay committed should a prolonged conflict ensue. To illustrate how this impacted the execution of warfare, John Grenier details an incident in 1755 when Anglo-American militia sought to join British regular troops as they prepared for operations against French forces in Nova Scotia. Rumor reached the American troops that the British army intended to extend their service contracts beyond the 12-months they had originally volunteered for. Apparently deciding that this was a breach of the contract to which they had signed, the American forces took it upon themselves to depart from the area regardless of the plans the British had for them. Grenier speculated that the British regulars watched this with “some sense of envy if not disgust…”
George Washington used short contracts that, while continuously saddling the Revolutionary leaders with new, green troops, did help to ensure the militia did not become fatigued by long-term military commitments. As many as half of the eligible adult male population in the American colonies may have served as either militia or army regulars during the war. Most of the service periods for these men were measured mostly in months, and sometimes only weeks. While this method certainly had some obvious weaknesses, it did offer Washington the ability to rapidly call up and field troops. This created a formidable manpower pool for the Americans, and was something the British – restricted by an inability to quickly replace combat losses – simply could not compete with.
This militia, while often denigrated by the British regulars, offered a resiliency not only with manning but also in the area of logistical support. While logistic concerns for rebel armies were of course greatly simplified by the nature of fighting on their home turf, the American militia had an ability to “live off the land” in a way that the more conventional forces of the British Army had trouble replicating. Despite decades of experience in the New World, including multiple small conflicts – such as King George’s War (1744 – 1748) and the French-Indian War (1754 – 1763) – the British regular army struggled to meet their wartime logistical needs as late as the Revolutionary War. This failure has been identified as one of the primary factors which lead to the defeat of the British in this conflict.
As suggested by Washington’s struggle with raw recruits, this reliance on the militia made it difficult to adjust to threats or operations which were better handled by a more conventional force. For instance, at the outset of the War of 1812, the United States had over 700,000 on the states’ militia rolls, but a standing army of less than 7,000 officers and soldiers. Congress acted to authorize an expansion to a 35,000-man army, plus the acceptance of 30,000 militia into Federal service on 1-year contracts and then an additional 50,000 enlisted men with 18-month contracts for the regular army. But it would take time to recruit and train these regulars, and as stated by Latimer, “the militia was everywhere in disarray – inefficient, unreliable, and expensive…” This state of affairs apparently did not dissuade the more exuberant supporters of the invasion of Canada, however. Whether willfully ignorant or unable to see the limitations in the use of militia for projecting power, Governor Daniel Thompkins of New York exclaimed that the United States would become “masters of Canada by militia only.” Despite the confidence, the attempt to wrest Canada from the British was a complete failure.
A related weakness was that the general reliance on militia made it difficult to develop and execute a strategic plan. Jon Latimer, in his assessment of America’s inability to conquer Canada, argues that the government had a “lack of will to dominate the decisive moments.” This resulted in part from the rapid expansion of military officers, from 191 during Thomas Jefferson’s administration to over 3000 by 1814, only a few years later. Many of these officers had little or no prior military training, which hampered the ability of America’s military leadership to execute a coordinated plan.
In conclusion, the unique environment of North America, coupled with the persistent threat posed by European armies – whether rivals of the mother nations or, as with the War of Independence and the War of 1812, against the home state itself – served to cultivate a distinct way of war. This method of fighting emphasized decentralized militia units that could be called upon in times of war – alone or in conjunction with the purposefully small standing army – to defend the nation, the state, or the region. They could also be called upon to project power, although as the War of 1812 revealed, the militia were not particularly strong in this regard. The true value of the American way of war was its versatility. It augmented the standing army as it prosecuted war against the Indians on the frontier, and it provided resilience against conventionally more powerful foes such as Britain.
Grenier, John, The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710 – 1760. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.
Latimer, Jon. 1812 War with America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Spring, Matthew H. With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.
 “To George Washington from Henry Knox, 18 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-05-02-0009 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 10–15.
 Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist #8,” in te Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York, Mentor, 1961), 66-71.
 From George Washington to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 21 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-05-02-0020 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, p. 32.
 John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710 – 1760 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 15.
 Jon Latimer, 1812 War with America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 10.