This piece appeared in my now-defunct newsletter POST1791 with my copyright(C) Earl L. Haehl 2011. This may be printed in its entirety provided full attribution is given. Book rights remain reserved.
The term, “well-regulated militia” is one of the most misunderstood in the Constitution of the United States. The opponents of firearms ownership tie the bearing of arms to participation in a “state militia” which is regulated by acts of the legislature and finds itself defined as the National Guard. In some of my earlier writings I have discovered that I at one point subscribed to that interpretation having been influenced by my eighth grade US history teacher. Why Madison used this phrase instead of quoting the Virginia Declaration of Rights language is one of those mysteries probably best explained by his tendency to compromise.
As a cadet I was subjected to a manual known as FM 22-5 Drill and Ceremonies and spent several hours a week engaged in close order drill, with and without weapons. The repetition trained my muscles to respond to the point that when my son showed up with a surplus Garand I immediately did inspection arms, closed the weapon, returned to order arms and did the seventeen count silent manual. I just sort of got caught up in the spirit of the thing and what I had not done in 30+ years came back like riding a bike. Now, if I could just see targets like I did back then. We were taught that this would teach us to obey orders and watching the drill team was impressive as they moved in precision to sharp commands. I was not on the drill team for the same reason that I tended to avoid school dances which is that I was much more comfortable with a slide rule than with my feet but I continued to drill as I was assigned.
The training taught us to face right, left, oblique right, oblique left, and rear. We also learned to march in formation in those same directions. We marched in quick time and double time and learned that you march out of step on bridges so as not to create the vibrations that cause the bridge to give way. We did not learn the slow ceremonial march which burial details use in ceremonies. Our step was thirty inches which made an equilateral triangle with my 30 inch inseam. And we marched crisply, each cadet moving in concert with the rest. The was called regular pace. FM 22-5 has a lineage that goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War Drill Manual which brings us to the meaning of it all.
The way it happened is this. The Kings soldiers were regular, disciplined, full time soldiers—the thin red line of literature. They would march compactly into the field, break into two lines, the front kneeling, the rear standing. With the Enfield Brown Bess musket, they were able in an efficient amount of time to begin laying alternate volleys of fire to the point they could fire up to six volleys a minute. This made the regulars a killing machine.
The hapless colonials, on the other hand tended to walk onto the field, line up and sort of fire at will. This was not a killing machine but a bunch of slow moving targets. Little wonder that during the early years of the Revolution the Colonial victories were few and they amounted to guerrilla raids in lesser populated areas, and the occasional picking off of a few red-coated troops on the march. Contrary to what the militia advocates say when knocking back a Bud, the Pennsylvania long rifle did not exist in sufficient numbers to make a difference except on the frontier. They were slow to load and had to be fitted by hand—the British had stifled industry in the colonies.
Enter the Prussian! In 1777 the Compte St Germain introduced Dr Franklin to an out of work Prussian aristocrat named Frederich Wilhelm von Steuben who styled himself as a Lieutenant General and a baron. Von Steuben was neither a baron nor a general officer and had a checkered past, but Franklin engaged in a policy of don’t-ask-don’t-tell and sent the Prussian to General Washington with a letter of introduction. Washington made Steuben a major general and put him in charge of turning colonials into soldiers. If any European army was a match for the redcoats it was the Prussian. In fact, the British and Prussians were reluctant to engage each other preferring war with the French or Austrians. To do this Steuben wrote the Revolutionary War Drill Manual and began training sergeants—an accomplishment that has imprinted FM 22-5 and the drill sergeant on my non-military brain.
Thus began a slow building, unit by unit, of a colonial army. While some on the frontier had some experience fighting the hit and run attacks of Indians and reciprocating those attacks, the folks on the coast where the fighting was heaviest were not as proficient. Also, contrary to the views of some of my friends who watch a lot of movies, experience in low intensity conflict does not translate to fighting against a real army.
In the Carolinas, Francis Marion provided a hit and run diversion for Tarlton and Cornwallis. This gave General Greene time to move his army into position. The song goes, “Corwallis led a country dance, the like was never seen, sir/ Much retrograde and much advance, and all with General Greene, sir.” The day came when, as the King’s Regulars approached, Col Dan Morgan instructed the untrained militia to fire two rounds and retreat on command. The King’s troops marched into the clearing, the militia fired two volleys and retreated. The redcoats, sensing an opportunity to pursue and slaughter, broke ranks to do so. They pursued as far as the next clearing where Morgan’s “regulars” were waiting with their own Brown Bess and Charleville muskets, in a formation capable of firing up to six volleys a minute. The rout turned out to be the other direction. It was happening all over the colonies. This particular rout lasted a good distance as Lord Cornwallis kept retreating from Green to a position where he found himself confronted by General Washington’s regular army at a place called Yorktown. It had taken five and a half years since von Steuben’s arrival but the colonials were going head to head with some of the finest soldiers and mercenaries in the world.
This is not to denigrate other factors such as the length and inadequacy of supply lines or the effects of the nascient navy on disrupting the seaways. But it was not until there was a well-regulated army that the victories began coming.
So when the anti-federalists clamored for a Bill of Rights they were armed with language drafted by George Mason. Section 13 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights reads as follows:
SEC. 13. That a well-regulated militia, or composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
Madison was also aware of Alexander Hamilton’s objection to a general, undisciplined militia on the grounds that they would be ineffective. For this reason the final language used the term well-regulated militia. The idea was that citizens would gather on the green and drill on a regular basis after which they would repair to the pub for fellowship. This unorganized militia was to be the basis of defense. While this may sound somewhat naïve and archaic, it was a response to having a standing army in the midst of the population to enforce the will of an oppressive government, remembering that these amendments came from the anti-federalist faction.
The Militia Act of 1792, Passed May 8, 1792, providing federal standards for the organization of the Militia was an attempt to standardize the requirements of citizens with the ideal being a musket in every dwelling. The first section of this act reads:
I. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia, by the Captain or Commanding Officer of the company, within whose bounds such citizen shall reside, and that within twelve months after the passing of this Act. And it shall at all time hereafter be the duty of every such Captain or Commanding Officer of a company, to enroll every such citizen as aforesaid, and also those who shall, from time to time, arrive at the age of 18 years, or being at the age of 18 years, and under the age of 45 years (except as before excepted) shall come to reside within his bounds; and shall without delay notify such citizen of the said enrollment, by the proper non-commissioned Officer of the company, by whom such notice may be proved. That every citizen, so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack. That the commissioned Officers shall severally be armed with a sword or hanger, and espontoon; and that from and after five years from the passing of this Act, all muskets from arming the militia as is herein required, shall be of bores sufficient for balls of the eighteenth part of a pound; and every citizen so enrolled, and providing himself with the arms, ammunition and accoutrements, required as aforesaid, shall hold the same exempted from all suits, distresses, executions or sales, for debt or for the payment of taxes.
This is a fairly comprehensive detail of what Congress wanted. As a practical matter it was never enforced and militiamen, when they did show up for call, brought what they had. Quakers and Anabaptists were exempted and the Act was finally replaced by the National Guard Act of 1900 which created the structure we operate under today.
During the undeclared naval war with France, Hamilton served as John Adams’ general-in-chief and formed a small national army. But Hamilton was unfortunately not around in 1814 when “his” regular army was routed from the national capital and the redcoats made the assessment that the defenders of Baltimore were merely militia. As the song goes. “O thus be it ever where free men shall stand, between their loved homes and the War’s desolation….” The militia prevailed because they drilled like Prussians and they deployed firepower like Prussians.
So, should everyone arm themselves and train under FM 22-5? I know there was a version when my son was in basic training in 1989. But the answer is probably not close order drill—how do you do a manual of arms with some of these weapons. Even when I did the cadet thing in the early sixties we marched because it looked good to the community and gave the appearance of leadership while we studied how to win World War II. The current high school cadet programs do close order drill and “leadership” training with the occasional recruitment pitch. Nor was it the marksmanship training that is critical. It was the occasional field maneuvers that went with instruction in small unit tactics.
The technology of warfare has changed since 1783. The idea is the same but the regular movements now involve armor, cover, concealment and firepower. There is even a new rifle that does not need to be aimed directly in development. And there is use of remotely controlled drones. I remember an interview done with General of the Army Omar Bradley in the late sixties, early seventies time period. He was asked whether the Air Force and missile programs had made the Army obsolete. What he said was that unless Infantry has actually occupied ground you have not achieved the mission.
A note here: firepower is a term used in small unit tactics regarding the concentration of fire from multiple sources, not the number of rounds in a particular magazine. The volleys of the redcoats were firepower. The rifled muskets at Anteitam were capable of causing more casualties in four hours then all the modern full auto weapons in Afghanistan since 2002.
Therefore, a well-regulated militia is an armed and well-trained society. While there are those who say modern armies, etc, have made the militia obsolete, I would point out that the decision by the Japanese not to invade the mainland United States was based on the perception of a fully armed population and the experiences they had in the Aleutians with the native population who were armed with .30-30 hunting rifles.
A note here on my qualifications to write this article. In addition to study of the history of conflict and degree in English, I do have a law degree and took coursework in Constitutional Law from Lawrence Velvel and Paul Wilson. I also learned to read from the same sources as late eighteenth century politicians, namely the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.