Current historiography claims that voluntary state militias were a joke as to their degree of real military preparedness. Further, these militias and their elected officers were often considered detrimental to the formation of both the Federal and Confederate armies in 1861. In William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, the noted southern author poked fun at the local militia company of fictional Jefferson, Mississippi. The story is set in the 1830s, two days after the annual Fourth of July barbeque. A muster has been called for local troops, and although they appear only fleetingly, the volunteers are lampooned as incompetent, “more-or-less militia,” tipsy wielders of flags and pikes instead of actual weapons. But for those involved, and for their communities, this caricature was not always accurate.
Research indicates that there was no single level of preparedness for either side. Militia units varied greatly as to their readiness to assume a place in either the Union or Confederate army. This series will add to the existing historiography by examining the antebellum experience of two units in particular: the Virginia Black Horse Cavalry and the U. S. Zouave Cadets. Both of these militia units were examples of militia units that made a smooth, orderly transition to their respective armies at the very beginning of the Civil War. Additionally, although both were formed and commanded by amateurs, the focus and discipline were excellent examples of real military preparedness.
In the period before the American Civil War, local volunteer militias often organized according to state and local militia rules rather than national Militia Acts. As colonies matured and communities evolved, the provincial orientation of its citizens also evolved. These militia companies represented the people of the town from which they originated and, as such, their friends viewed them with pride rather than derision. Militia companies established community identities and social structures, participated in politics, often helped keep the public peace, and encouraged economic activity.
Often one or two militia companies sponsored an invitational event, usually over a period of several days. Other companies, even those from neighboring states, received invitations to celebrate and compete in a variety of events, with a Grand Ball capping off the festivities, and prizes being awarded. These regular get-togethers, whether North or South, provided much to their respective community. In fact, they were highly instrumental in creating such communities. Whenever the militia mustered, men and women, rich and poor, black and white, all joined in a celebration of community and patriotism. Days like Independence Day, blatant in its nationalism, further defined and reinforced unity and common purpose.
Militia musters made explicit the social significance of the celebrated occasions, and the social hierarchy of the celebrants. The experiences may have been shared, but not the tables of barbeque. Although joined by symbols and ideologies, expressions of class differences still separated citizens. Militia officers often served the community as leaders in the political and economic spheres. Militia members uniformly came from the “best young men” in any area, from families of privilege and some degree of wealth. Recruits needed the means to provide their own uniforms, accouterments, and often a mount, or a series of mounts, before they would be considered for the local company. Necessarily high membership fees helped the better militia units build and maintain an armory. This frequently included a place to eat and drink, a library, and a large gymnasium area in which to drill in inclement weather.
Militia events underscored the elevated status and influence of local leaders by providing them with a platform from which to address the larger community. “Access to the stage equaled access to power, and only the elite found the podium open.” Even a parade’s order paralleled status and wealth: town leaders and politicians, militia officers, and veterans filled the most prominent positions in the order of procession. The rest of the populace followed at the end, or cheered from the sidelines, anonymous spectators.
In the 1850s North, the powerful draw of jobs, as well as a chance to redefine themselves as “self-made men,” drew young men to cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Their ideas concerning the militia, which had been conceived in small villages or towns, came with them. The type of militia a man joined depended largely on his social class. In New York City, a young gentleman of parentage and means joined a group such as the 7th Regiment of the New York Militia, which during the Civil War, became known as the 7th New York, or the “Silk Stocking Regiment.” Their Park Avenue armory was the finest in the city, and not only had an indoor parade ground, but a bar, pool table, and library.
In the South, young men had different types of experiences, and their concept of a militia differed accordingly. Southern militias often drew their members from those who participated in hunt clubs and jousting/ring tournaments, both staples of an upper class southern lifestyle. The South organized many mounted militias, as riding was an integral part of the culture. This had the effect of de facto class segregation, as poorer white men frequently could rarely afford the blooded horses or the elegant uniforms deemed necessary for membership in a militia.