New York boasted the largest state military force in the nation. The Militia Act of 1792 created the militia. The state government directed training and operations.
President George Washington directed Henry Knox, Secretary of War to devise a plan to use the state militias in war and national crisis. Knox’s efforts resulted in an act to “more effectively provide for the national defense by establishing uniform militia throughout the states.”
Militia Act 1792
The act passed in two phases. The first passed 2 May 1792 gave the President authority to call out the militias of the several states “whenever the United States shall be invaded, or be in imminent danger of invasion from any foreign nation or Indian tribe.” The President was also authorized to call forth the militia “whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed or the execution thereof obstructed in any states, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by powers vested in the marshals by this act.”
Congress passed the second part of the act on 8 May 1792; President Washington did not sign the second act until 28 Februasry 1795. The second act dealt with recruitmen, organization, ranks, company organization and training. All eligible males eighteen to forty-five were enlisted into the local company in his place of residence. Captains of companies were required to enroll all such men upon reaching their eighteenth year. His non-commissioned officers (NCOs) went door to door with forms annoucing the men eligible to report for duty. Failure to appear or refusal to do duty, resulted in a fine. If a man was unable to pay, the constable or marshal would jail the offender for ten days. The act directed states how to organize the militia into divisions, brigades, regiments, and companies were organized, the number of officers and NCO authorized to a company, staff officers and NCOs for regiments, and the number of staff officers authorized to a brigade and division.
An interesting point within the act was at the regimental level. Lieutenant Colonel commandants commanded a regiment rather than a colonel and two majors commanded the battalions within the regiment. A regiment was to designate one company of the regiment as either grenadiers, light infantry or riflement. Divisions were authorized an artillery company and a cavalry company drawn from volunteers of the regiments assigned to it.
Congress amended the act 20 April 1816 stating lieutenant colonel commandants would be colonels of regiments. New York implemented the change 8 July 1816 when the Council of Appointments promoted all Lieutenant Colonels to Colonels; the senior or first Major of a regiment was advanced to the grade of Lieutenant Colonel.
NY Militia Uniforms, Equipment and Arms
A militiaman was required to arm and equip himself at his own expense. The basic outfit was a good, serviceable musket, bayonet and belt, two spare flints, cartridge box with twent-four cartridges and a knapsack; riflemen needed a powder horn with a quarter pound of powder, twenty rifle balls, shooting pouch and knapsack. Officers to have sword or hanger and espontoon. Officers and men of cavalry were required to provide his own horse, at least fourteen and half hands high; saddle, bridle, and in place of knapsack a mail pillon, valise, two holsters with bearskin caps, two pistols, saber, breastplate and crupper, pair of boots with spurs, and a cartouche box with twelve pistol cartridges. Artillery to arm and equip themselves as infantry until their field pieces were issued. The act specified no additional equipment or clothing. Miltiamen equipped themselves with canteens, plate, cup, knife, fork, spoon, and possibly a frying pan or camp pot to cook with. Uniforms were not specified except for artillery and cavalry, who would wear “regimentals” color specified by the brigade or division commander. The infantry within New York City and County were authorized a uniform of cap with cap plate and feather, tight blue coat, with yellow metal buttons, white vest and pantaloons, black gaiters or half boots. Field officers to provide regiments and battalions with state and regimental colors. Company officers to provide a drum, fife, or bugle.
Discipline and Training in the NY Militia
The militia were governed by the Articles of War as in the Regular Army. New York’s militia command used a series of fines and penalties for officers, non-commissioned officers, privates and musicians who appeared at muster with accoutrements and weapons in “disrepair” The militiaman unable to pay, had his property seized to satisfy the claim; if a minor or worker, than the property of his parents and master was seized to satisfy the fine levied.
Training was conducted twice a year in the Spring and Fall. Brigade Inspectors to attend all division, brigade, regimental and battalion drills to supervise the training and inspect the arms, accoutrements, and enforce discipline. New York City and County paraded twice a year also; one with the regiment and the other by company. The officers and NCOs of the New York City and County units were required to attend eight additional sessions for “military improvement.” Three classes called by the brigade commander and the remainder by the colonel commanding the regiment. Every drill conducted by the militia companies in the cities and towns was street fighting.
- Hugh Hastings, Military Minutes of the Council of Appointments of the State of New York, 1783-1821 (Albany, NY James B. Lyons, 1901)
- State of New York, An Act to Organize the Militia, Passed April 23,1823, with Rules and Regulations, Forms and Precedents, Prescribed by the Commander-in-Chief, for Use and Government of the Militia of the State of New York (Albany, NY, Leake and Croswell, 1823)
- Donald R. Hicky, War of 1812, A Forgotten Conflict (Urbanna, University of Illinois Press, 1989)