I started my Air Force career as an imagery intelligence analyst (also known as a “1N1X1” or a “squint”). It was my job to examine images taken by any of a plethora of “overhead” military platforms (U2 spy planes, as one example) and determine what was going on in them. American intelligence collection capability is truly amazing, and the origins of airborne intelligence collection were simultaneously humble and revolutionary.
The value of airborne intelligence gathering was pretty well evident in the earliest days of aviation. Only months following the first human’s ascension in a hot air balloon into the sky near Versailles in 1783, the French incorporated a balloon unit into its military. However, despite the notable contributions made during successive European battles, by 1802 the aérostiers were retired.[i] So by the time the US Civil War erupted in 1861, manned balloons had remained almost entirely outside of military operations for the better part of six decades.
At the outset of the conflict, experienced balloonists (called “aeronauts”) like Thaddeus Lowe, John La Mountain, and John Wise petitioned the US government for the opportunity to serve the country with the unique capabilities afforded by their aerial platforms. And while La Mountain was able to establish balloon operations in beleaguered Fort Monroe, Virginia, Lowe distinguished himself from his professional competitors by demonstrating the unique capabilities offered by aerial intelligence directly to President Lincoln. On 16 June, 1861, Lowe ascended in a balloon which was tethered near the White House. He then, using a telegraph machine in the basket, telegraphed what he saw directly to Lincoln’s office.
“This point of observation commands an area near fifty miles in diameter. The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene,” reported Lowe in what could be described, using today’s military concepts, as an exercise intelligence report.[ii] Lincoln was impressed, and appointed Lowe head of the Union’s new Balloon Corps.
From the earliest days of the war through early 1863, the Balloon Corps demonstrated the unique capability afforded by aerial intelligence. An early example of this is actually on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio. Set up in the front of the Early Years Gallery is a hand-drawn map. In April 1861, Union forces at Fort Monroe in Virginia were isolated thanks to Virginia’s secession. John La Mountain managed to get his equipment and a single balloon into the old fort, which was bracing for a possible assault similar to Fort Sumter. Major General Benjamin Butler, in command at Monroe at the time, needed intelligence, and La Mountain was the man to get it for him. On 10 August, La Mountain ascended in his balloon to 3500 feet. From that vantage, he was able to identify troop camps and naval activity. He also provided General Butler with this map, possibly the first example of aerial intelligence mapping.[iii]
The use of these military balloons not only advanced military intelligence collection capabilities, but the Union army was forced to devise new technologies to deploy the assets in the field. Thaddeus Lowe created a mobile hydrogen gas generator, as well as directed the conversion of a Navy vessel into a specialized balloon deployment asset. This vessel, the USS George Washington Parke Custis – a coal barge- was fitted with the special hydrogen generator, and the deck was cleared to allow for balloon inflation. This gave the Union the ability to tow the balloon along the Potomac and adjacent waterways, expanding the range and flexibility of aerial intelligence collection.[iv]
Arguably then, the first military aviation platforms commissioned by the US Army were intelligence collection platforms. Yes, they were used for artillery spotting, but one of the primary drivers for President Lincoln to approve the creation of a Balloon Corps was the promise of real-time intelligence collection and transmission to commanders on the ground. It was not uncommon for an officer (at times, the commander) to ascend with Lowe to get a sense of the land and enemy disposition. The Confederates were vexed by the balloons, and tried to destroy them whenever they were observed rising.
Photographs would not be used with balloons, although some experiments of aerial photography (using kites and balloons) had been conducted by civilians around this time. However, the methodical use of professional intelligence gathering by specially trained aeronauts during the US Civil War is clear milestone (if not the first milestone) in the evolution of American aerial intelligence capabilities. A whole new dimension of warfare was emerging.
[i] I’m not going to pretend that my research into French ballooning goes beyond the reading of a few secondary sources at this point. Charles M. Evans, in War of the Aeronauts, gives a brief overview of the earliest days of ballooning as he lays the ground work for his in-depth telling the use of balloons in the US Civil War. But I found a fascinating and concise article on the subject in All the Year Round, a British periodical and literary journal edited by none other than Charles Dickens. All the Year Round, Volume 1; Volume 21 (27 Feb, 1869) pp297-299.
[ii] Lincoln, Abraham. Abraham Lincoln papers: Series 1. General Correspondence. 1833 to 1916: Thaddeus S. C. Lowe to Abraham Lincoln, Sunday,Telegram from balloon. 1861. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mal1031300/.
[iii] Evans, Charles M, War of the Aeronauts, a History of Ballooning (Stackpole Books, Mechanichsville, PA, 2002), 96-98.
I wrote an earlier version of this article for Yahoo! News several years ago. At the time, the media were reporting on some purported American intelligence failures in the Middle East. The appropriateness (and the conclusions being drawn) aside, I was motivated to highlight some of the significant (acknowledged) successes that American and Allied intelligence agencies had accomplished over the past 75 years or so.
Today, with the Intelligence Community facing political assaults here at home, I thought it’d be a good time to dust off the article and share it again. The American Intelligence Community has a proud history, and while thorough scrutiny of that community is essential in a democracy, those who would undercut the professionals dedicated to the defense of the nation for political gain need to be rebuked at the ballot box.
But I digress.
When the public hears about the CIA, NSA or military intelligence, it’s often not a good thing. Often, we find ourselves uncomfortable with the very idea of secret intelligence, as it seems at odds with the ideals of an open democratic republic. So when questions about data collection against US citizens arise, a shadow is cast over the intelligence community as a whole. In addition, as I alluded to above, significant intelligence failures (e.g., the September 11 attacks), can shake public confidence in our intelligence apparatus. And frankly, questions about the scope of intelligence collection, and whether the IC is fully capable of meeting today’s evolving threats are right and proper. However, we should never lose sight of the fact that the IC has a record of achievement second to none, and that’s just with what is known and acknowledged. Successful intelligence collection and analysis has been instrumental in turning the tide of war, and in some cases has aided in the shifting of the global balance of power.
I’ve collected here five success stories from modern history, each of which demonstrates the critical role that intelligence played in preserving national security. This list is, of course, subjective, and in no particular order. In every conflict, intelligence plays a vital role in victory. I chose these particular examples because of the relatively clear strategic impact these definable intelligence victories had. Also note that this is not a “top 5 of all time” kind of thing. I’ll work on that project sometime later.
Cracking Enigma (World War II): The German military‘s machine-based cryptographic system called Enigma had a ciphering capability that was theoretically unbreakable. And for the early part of the war, it was. Cracking Enigma took a combination of old fashioned spy work, signals collection (meaning the interception of radio transmissions), and cryptography. Polish breakthroughs combined with a German traitor provided by the French resulted in the first successes against Enigma. The British and Americans were able to expand this success into breaking the even more resilient Enigma machines used by the German Navy.
Result: Deep penetration of Hitler’s military movements. Cracking Engima helped save the vital support that the US was sending by ship to Britain by helping to counter the brutal German U-boat attacks. According to Ms. Wilcox, many historians believe that the success against Enigma shortened World War II by as much as two years.
The Battle of Midway (World War II): The U.S. Navy pretty much had one last chance to contain the burgeoning Imperial Navy, and that was at Midway. What transpired from roughly early March – June 4 1942 was a game of cryptographic cat and mouse. But through a mix of diligent signals collection and cryptographic analysis, the US Navy was able to forecast not only the timing of the impending attack on Midway, but also the direction it would come from. In his book Intelligence in War, John Keegan cites a source that describes this as “the most stunning intelligence coup in all naval history.”
Result: Despite the shortcomings of intelligence collection, the U.S. Navy was able to crack Japanese encryption, enabling them to concentrate on defending Midway, giving American forces this most critical of victories in the Pacific Theater.
Further reading: Intelligence in War, by John Keegan.
The Cuban Missile Crisis (Cold War): Leading up to the discovery of the construction of Russian Medium Range Ballistic Missile installations in Cuba, U.S. intelligence had observed a rash of surface to air missile sites popping up at various locations across the island. While this Russian military build-up had been detected using various maritime and other intelligence methods, the smoking gun that brought the world closer to nuclear war than it has even been was uncovered by American U2 imagery intelligence collection in mid-October 1962. Armed with this intel, President John F. Kennedy and his Administration took the evidence public a week later, beginning the tense confrontation that many feared would end in war.
Result: Caught red handed, the Soviets backed down and withdrew the missiles. This prevented the USSR from having the ability to reach the U.S. with its intermediate range nuclear missiles.
Further reading: Trust But Verify: Imagery Analysis in the Cold War, by David T. Lindgren.
Operation Desert Storm: From January 15 to February 24, 1991, Coalition aircraft hammered Iraqi Military and Command and Control targets. On some days, there were as many as 2,500 sorties. These attacks were not random, and except for military equipment found out in the open, were not typically targets of opportunity. The attacks were designed to “cut off the head of the snake.” Logistics lines and Republican Guard command centers were destroyed or evacuated for fear of bombing.
Result: When ground operations initiated on 24 February, it took only 100 hours to completely liberate Kuwait. But an even more far reaching impact wouldn’t become clear until December of that year. Some historians believe that the complete routing of the Iraqi military, which was trained and equipped by the Soviet Union, was the final nail in the USSR’s coffin. Iraq’s overwhelming loss completely discredited Soviet air and ground defense doctrines and weapons systems.
Eliminating Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (Operation IRAQI FREEDOM): As the war in Iraq started shifting into sectarian chaos, the mysterious al-Zarqawi led the way. The leader of what would eventually be called Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQIZ), this brutal terror leader declared war on Western forces and Shi’a Iraqis in a bid to incite country-wide civil war. He also became one of the most wanted men in the country. He eluded Coalition forces for some time, but eventually, through the work of the intelligence community and a special US military task force, this key leader of the Iraqi insurgency was eliminated on June 7, 2006 by a targeted air strike.
Result: While of course, Iraq continues to face instability and had to deal with ISIS in recent years, the death of al-Zarqawi delivered a body blow to the Iraqi insurgency, threw AQIZ off balance, and likely magnified the effects of the soon to come military surge. It proved that the nascent Iraqi Government, the US-led Coalition, and reginal allies (Jordanian intelligence reportedly helped locate Zarqawi) were determined to oppose the ethnic warfare being waged by AQIZ.
Of course, there’s so much more that we outside of this world don’t get to see. But I think it does us good to see from time to time what kind of return out tax dollars are getting from our significant investment in national intelligence.
In the summer of 1862, Captain Milton Graham began to recruit men to form a new volunteer cavalry regiment to defend the Commonwealth of Kentucky from rebellion. He set up camp at Harrodsburg, Kentucky shortly before 11 July 1862. Company A was one of the first four companies of the 11th Kentucky Cavalry (along with D, C, and F).  Volunteers assigned to Company A enrolled primarily between 18 and 22 August (probably after relocating to Louisville), coming mostly from the surrounding Garrand (30 men) and Madison (36 men) Counties, although a handful from Washington, Lancaster, and Boyle Counties were also assigned to the company.
Approximately 75 men (officers and enlisted) comprised Company A when the regiment was mustered into service on 22 September 1862 in Louisville. Interestingly, an additional 30 men were listed as “Within the enemy lines,” at the outset. What is meant by this is not entirely clear. One possibility is related to the first incursion into Kentucky by Confederate forces, which coincided with the formation of the 11th Kentucky. Then-Colonel John Hunt Morgan led several hundred troops north from Tennessee, and actually set up camp at one point outside of Harrodsburg. It was Morgan’s approach that prompted Graham to relocate to Lexington Kentucky on 22 July. In recounting the activity, historian Lowell Harrison notes that while in the area, Morgan boasted of capturing and paroling some 1,200 Union soldiers. It seems plausible that some of these were volunteers that never made it to officially joining the Union army. Their names were accounted for on the regimental muster rolls, but none of them were present when the regiment was officially mustered into service. Most of these would ultimately be removed from the rolls and some charged with desertion (although a handful eventually joined up with the company).
Captain John G. Pond commanded the company (more on him below), and John Milton Cotton (age 27 from Garrand County) and Reuben F. Scott (age 34, from Madison County) were his lieutenants. The average age of the company was 26.22 years at time of muster, somewhat older than I expected. Captain Pond himself was 50 years old in 1862.
Throughout the war, troops being AWOL was a problem. Of the 145 men who enrolled into Company A from 1862 – 1865, 21% (31 soldiers) would be documented as being AWOL at some point in their service. If we consider only the original 75 or so troops, the rate of AWOL remains about the same percentage (15 soldiers, roughly 20%). The desertion rate was even higher, with 39 (25%) of the total number of soldiers who enrolled in Company A being charged with desertion (14 of these were from the original 75, or 18%). As expected, there is plenty of overlap between those that went AWOL and those that deserted. Some of these soldiers eventually returned to the regiment, and after forfeiting pay and taking on extra duties, the charge was often eventually dropped.
The company suffered significant casualties over the course of the war. Of the 75 men present at the mustering in, at least 19 (25%) would be captured over the following 3 years. Over half of those (12) died in prison. At least 24 men from Company A (15%) in total perished before the war’s end. A good number of these casualties resulted from two significant engagements that occurred as part of General Ambrose Burnside’s East Tennessee expedition in October (Philadelphia, TN) and November (Maryville, TN) 1863.
John G. Pond: As mentioned above, the company was organized by Captain Pond, who is arguably the most prominent personality to have served in the company, and possibly the entire regiment. A preacher from Round Hill, in Madison County, he was 50 years old when he joined the 11th Kentucky Cavalry. Described as “eccentric” after the war, he was evidently a staunch abolitionist who was fiercely opposed to the Confederacy. “[M]y greatest difference with the administration is that it is too lenient with Rebels, especially in KY,” he wrote in 1864. Despite his age, he was not one to avoid combat. In July 1863, the 11th KY Cavalry was one of the many that took part in the pursuit of Confederate John Hunt Morgan as he raced across Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. Upon reaching Cincinnati, General Judah was forced to leave the bulk of the 11th behind due to a lack of fresh horses. Enough steeds were pulled together, however, to outfit a single company-sized element. This element was led by Captain Pond. Morgan was ultimately captured, and the 11th was there when it happened.
Eventually, his age bedeviled him toward the end of his service with the regiment. In his resignation letter, Pond stated “I am in my fifty second year and from a fever last fall that fell on my muscles I feel that I am gradually declining.” Interestingly, although Pond resigned from the 11th Kentucky Cavalry, he wasn’t finished with the war. Pond would quickly help found and lead the 117th Kentucky Colored Regiment Infantry as a Lieutenant Colonel in July 1864. Once the war concluded, he not only resumed preaching, but reportedly strove against the Ku Klux Klan in Madison County. He died in 1899, in Boyle County. Clearly, John Pond deserves more scholarly attention.
Solomon Calhoun: This solider caught my attention both because of his colorful name and because his records hint that he may have been either an adventurer or a patriot with a taste for action, or some blending of the two. A 27 year old farmer born in Pulaski County, Kentucky, he enlisted with the 11th Kentucky Cavalry late in the war, during a recruiting push in Louisville in February 1865. The blue eyed, fair-skinned soldier enrolled as a private, and was quickly promoted to corporal. However, the soldier’s status became mired in some controversy, as he was discovered to have previously deserted from the 3rd Kentucky Infantry. In that unit, he started in September 1861 with the rank of sergeant, although he was dinged for losing his musket. His presence with the regiment is unclear until 11 August 1862, when he was given “recruiting duty,” something that lasted several months (at least into December 1862) and was certainly something of a break from combat operations. Evidently he wasn’t quick to report back, as by 1 January 1863 he was listed as AWOL, which was changed to “deserted” status on 31 July 1863. Interestingly, a note on his deserter’s form states that he was “probably to be found in 1st Ky. Cav. Supposed to be in KY.” Another note, dated 20 February 1864, clarifies “Probably to be found with Wolfords Cav.” In other words, he was suspected of abandoning his infantry unit so he could fight with a cavalry unit (this alone begs for some additional research). He was dropped from the 3rd Kentucky Infantry’s rolls 1 November 1863. It was at this point that Sergeant Calhoun was demoted and listed as “Private Calhoun.” Inexplicably, he returned in August of 1864 and was allowed to rejoin his unit, with forfeiture of pay.  On 13 October, 1864, he was mustered out of the regiment. Within four months, he would be with the 11th Kentucky Cavalry.
William P. Pierce: This 20-year old from Garrand County managed to secure the rank of sergeant at the outset, but he wouldn’t remain enlisted for long. Evidently resourceful, he became the acting adjunct for the company within weeks of the regiment mustering into service. This meant he was acting in the capacity of a first lieutenant, which wasn’t officially recognized until May 1865 (backdated to 1 October 1862). On 14 November 1863, he was one of 8 others of the company captured at Marysville, TN, but he was paroled 30 April 1864. After a few weeks of leave, he accepted a promotion to Captain on 6 August, to fill the vacancy created by Captain Pond’s resignation.
The above only scratches the surface of the preceding soldiers, and there are so many others I’d love to highlight. I’ve marked a few more for additional research. I’m trying to block off time this month (September) to visit the Kentucky Historical Society and the Kentucky Military History Museum in Frankfort. They have some research materials there that I hope will provide further insights into the shaping of this regiment, and perhaps into the men who fought within it
This is the first part of a company-by-company look at the Union’s 11th Kentucky Cavalry Regiment. These should be considered works in progress, to which much will be added over the coming months (plus, I need to clean up my footnotes, as some aren’t in proper CMS format). Once we’ve had a chance to look at each company, we’ll roll it all up together to see what we can learn of the regiment as a whole, from the individual soldier on up. We’re kicking off this study with, appropriately enough, Company A.
Methodology: I queried the National Park Service’s (NPS) Civil War Soldiers and Sailors data to extract all soldiers identified as serving under the 11th Kentucky Cavalry (this is how I have this data), then copied the data into a spreadsheet. To make sure I had as complete a roster as possible, I then compared the names in the database query to the roster listing published in The Union Regiments of Kentucky. This helped to clean up the data, as the NPS database contains some duplicate entries and plenty of spelling errors (e.g. one solider was represented 4 times as his name was spelled 4 different ways). The raw NPS data provided great information on each soldier, such as “first name,” “last name,” “Rank in,” “Rank Out,” etc. Then, stepping soldier by soldier through Fold3, I added additional columns to capture data points not contained in the NPS database. This was a mix of demographic data (e.g. age, where the soldier entered service, whether they were part of the original regiment mustered into service, were they captured and/or killed). I’ve posted the combined data into a spreadsheet here. Note on the Fold3 data: you’ll either need an account with them (they charge a fee) or you’ll need to go through a library or university if you want to follow the Fold3 addresses where I pulled the info.
After pulling what insights I could from the NPS and Fold3 databases, I switched gears into old-fashioned historical research, pulling together what I could find for the regiment in general and Company A in particular from the Official Records as well as additional primary and secondary sources. The articles that follow will be updated continuously, as additional primary source research will almost certainly provide expanded insights. Each article will present the statistics gleaned from the database information, then conclude with a few soldier vignettes, where I introduce you to these soldiers mostly obscured by time. My ultimate goal is to produce a scholarly regimental history that captures the stories of as many of the individual soldiers as possible.
 Thomas Speed, R.M. Kelly, and Alfred Pirtle, The Union Regiments of Kentucky, Volume 1 (Louisville: Courier-Journal Job Printing Company, 1887), 224
 County of origin determined by review of Company A member muster rolls.
As a lead-in to a more analytical article I plan on posting here toward the end of the month (hopefully), I thought it’d be useful to highlight this wonderful tool. The National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database (CWSS) is a thing of beauty. With a little info on a relative or subject of interest (say, a surname, a state, and on what side the subject fought), one can find service data on anyone who fought in the US Civil War. This includes what regiment they fought with, what company assigned to, rank in, and rank out. For me, it probably helped that “Greenberry Shanks” is a fairly unique name, because the CWSS immediately gave me the right data.
Then, to add context to this service, one can follow the link to the regiment. This leads to a fantastic summary of major engagements, such as this for the 11th Kentucky Cavalry.
You’ll note that many of these engagements are themselves hyperlinked to even more detail. I selected the first conflict at Saltsville:
The other kind of cool functionality that has one massively frustrating limitation, at least for researchers interested in unit data, is the link under the regiment’s history, View Battle Unit’s Soldiers. This brings you to a page where soldiers are listed alphabetically. That’s okay, if you’re unsure of how a name was spelled and need to page through 20 soldiers at a time.
I first discovered the CWSS through a blog post from another Civil War blog (Dead Confederates). In his post, which was published a couple of years ago, he highlighted another fantastic capability: there was an export button that allowed you to download an excel spreadsheet of the entire regiment. This was very exciting to me, since I’m currently taking a close look at the people who made up the regiment that my ancestor belonged to. So it was pretty aggravating when I went to the CWSS last year and discovered that this feature had been removed for some reason. I searched everywhere, and even emailed the site administrators and the NPS, but unfortunately never heard back.
Well, I was determined to get this data one way or another. I started scouring the National Archives and the farthest reaches of my search engines for anyone who may have stored it somewhere. All I found were broken links. On May 4 of this year, however, I had a breakthrough. After searching the corners of the Google-verse, I eventually turned up the data files used by the CWSS. The search was maddening, at least for me, as it was quite hard to find. I don’t even remember how I finally found it. I just tried to find it again, and the only way I could was to go back into my browser history and locate the download address. Here it is, if you’re interested:
Keep in mind, this is the raw data, over 800 MB of historical goodness, but not anything that is quickly used. Fortunately, I have a little background in SQL and excel, so I converted the data into a SQL table, and now I’m able to query the data in a number of ways. I’m trying to figure out how I can make this data available on my website, but I’m not sure this blog is the right medium. Until I crack that nut, feel free to ask for regimental soldier queries, as I’d be happy to help.
Speaking of which, my next article will be on Company A of the 11the Kentucky Cavalry. I’m using the CWSS data as a starting point to give me the name and rank of each member of the company, and then cross referencing those names in Fold3. Using that, I’m adding additional data to the names: their ages, the county where they’re from, occupations (if known), casualty data, and a few more data points.
This will allow me to get a feel for the men who made up the company, as well as how they fared throughout the conflict. I’m almost a third of the way through the Company A roster (I’m trying to finish one company per month), and I’ve been fascinated with what I’ve learned so far. I look forward to sharing it with you.
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.
A few weeks ago, I published an article that looked at the logistical constraints faced by the Crusader armies and the Muslim Sultanate during the Third Crusade. It was while researching this that I became fascinated with the subject of ancient and medieval naval power. Lacking all but the most rudimentary navigation and communication capabilities, the navies of ancient and medieval kingdoms nevertheless were capable of incredible military feats and breathtaking displays of power and brutality.
Ancient Naval Power
With naval forces of the ancient world largely littoral in nature, there were some similarities between naval strategy and tactics with those of ground forces. However, the unique requirements and capabilities of naval power were appreciated as well. Naval forces were far more expensive and required a certain level of specialized training to be effective. As with land warfare, coordination of efforts between large numbers of forces was critical, and that would seem to be even more so for naval vessels spread out across a wide sea.
Looking at the famous Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., Greek city-states that did not normally fight together somehow worked well enough as a cohesive force to defeat the invading Persians and her allies. This indicates that there was likely a commonality in their training on which these forces based their tactics. In addition, although vessels could be positioned in the darkness of night, actually fighting appeared to be impossible outside of the day. Consider that Xerxes was eager to crush the remaining Greek forces, but had to wait upon reaching them because the day “was too far spent for them to begin the battle, since night already approached.”
In The History of Herodotus, the historian provided a convincing description on why the Athenian Themistocles wanted to
confront the Persians close to Salamis. The Greeks took advantage the narrow sea lanes formed by the straits at Salamis to draw the Persian forces into a choke point that deprived them effective use of their superior numbers. For the Athenians, there was both a combat advantage to battling close to the island, as well as command and control consideration (fighting closer to the isthmus would potentially tempt some of the non-Athenian Greeks to flee so they could defend their home cities). Plus, there were additional considerations that needed to be addressed, such as access to land and allies for the crew if a vessel sank.
Polybius’ description of fleet formations in The Histories some 200 years later during the First Punic War were also incredibly detailed, and indicated significant communication and training requirements. He painted an impressive picture of the battle, from the “six-banked galleys” of the Roman commanders, to the increasing spacing between the following vessels to form a wedge. He included the number of vessels, how they were arrayed, and the effects of the nearby terrain and open ocean on tactics and strategy.
As one seeks to understand Carthaginian or Persian tactical decisions and strategic objectives, however, additional sources from those sides would be much more valuable. Not too many historians would likely ascribe Xerxes’ decision to face off with the Greek navy at Salamis to the prophecies of ancient oracles. So why then did he? If Herodotus’ writing somehow accurately captured the words of warning from Artemisia, did Xerxes truly believe his presence alone would carry his forces to victory?  The play The Persians, written by Aeschylus, has something to offer in aiding our understanding of the events that took place at Salamis (“how hateful is thy name!”). Like all primary sources, this play does provide the identification of men and women, their placement in relation to the events of the battle, and the types of weapons and the outcomes of battles. But as when Polybius and Herodotus get into the minds of the enemy, with no clear idea of the sources used to do so, once should question the veracity.
The Eastern Mediterranean seemed to be uniquely shaped to encourage the development of naval warfare. The comparatively calm, land-encircled Mediterranean Sea, rich in natural harbors and clear sea lanes proved to be an ideal laboratory to develop naval warfare.
Medieval Naval Power
Although naval capabilities, particularly in ship-design and navigation, had advanced significantly since the days of the Romans, naval warfare was still mostly littoral during this period, and usually directly associated with land warfare. Weather, that spoiler of the best laid plans of ground commanders, had an even greater impact on naval operations. The weather and tides in the Mediterranean Sea were somewhat predictable and more advantageous in some respects to European powers than to Arab and Muslim powers on the south coast. Yet, with that said, weather could and did surprise medieval navies. The account King Richard’s conquest of Cyprus even begins with weather woes: “Richard’s ships had been dispersed by the uneven winds and were making for Cyprus.” As they did so, a number of ships were wrecked on the coastline because of this weather.
The effects of prolonged voyages also had a negative effect on the forces being transported. One could imagine this being
particularly true for soldiers simply being ferried to an expected land war (as the Crusaders were) who were not experienced with sailing. When Richard landed at Cyprus, his forces were reduced because many of his troops “were exceedingly fatigued from the continual tossing of the sea.” This degradation was not confined to just the soldiers, however. When Richard’s army pursed the fleeing Emperor of Cyprus, they were conscious of the fact that the horses had been “tossed about at sea for a month,” and therefore did not drive the beasts hard.
In regards to actual sea combat, the accounts of medieval naval battles captured the brutality of this warfare. Writing of the Battle of Sluys in 1340, John Froissart observed “Combats at sea are more destructive and obstinate than upon land, for it is not possible to retreat or flee – every one must abide his fortune and exert his prowess and valour.” And though Salimbene de Adam, in writing of the naval battle between Pison and Geona in 1147, did not make direct comparisons to land warfare, the particular manner of combat he describes makes it clear that combatants either fought or died: “[T]hey tied their ships together in the usual fashion of a naval battle. And there was such great slaughter on both sides at that place that the heavens appeared to weep in sympathy.” Even taking into account expected hyperbole, Frossart’s observation that one had nowhere to run away to during a naval battle makes the likelihood of excessive casualties, compared to land warfare, quite plausible.
 Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History Society, Technology. And War from Ancient Times to the Present, vol. 1, To 1500 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2009) 78-79.
 Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History Society, Technology. And War from Ancient Times to the Present, vol. 1, To 1500 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2009) 279.
Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, ed. William Stubbs, Rolls Series, (London: Longmans, 1864) II, 9-29 (150-83), translated by James Brundage, The Crusades: A Documentary History, (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1962), 166-74
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.