George Washington on the Problems of the Militia

[Excerpted from American History Told by Contemporaries, Vol. II: Building of the Republic, Albert Bushnell Hart, ed. (New York, MacMillan, 1899), pp. 490-492]

Upon the character and service of the various Masses of American soldiers no testimony is so good as that of the commander-in-chief. Yet out of these irregular levies came the armies which defeated Howe, Burgoyne, Clinton, and Cornwallis.

It is the true policy of America not to content herself with temporary expedients, but to endeavor, if possible, to give consistency and solidity to her measures. An essential step to this will be immediately to devise a plan, and put it in execution, for providing men in time to replace those who will leave us at the end of the year, for subsisting and making a reasonable allowance to the officers and soldiers. The plan for this purpose ought to be of general operation, and such as will execute itself Experience has shown, that a peremptory draft will be the only effectual one. If a draft for the war or three years can be effected, it ought to be made on every account. A shorter period than a year is inadmissible. To one, who has been witness to the evils brought upon us by short enlistments, the system appears to have been pernicious beyond description, and a crowd of motives present themselves to dictate a change. It may easily be shown, that all the misfortunes we have met with in the military line are to be attributed to this cause.

Had we formed a permanent army in the beginning, which, by the continuance of the same men in service, had been capable of discipline, we never should have had to retreat with a handful of men across the Delaware in '76, trembling for the fate of America, which nothing but the infatuation of the enemy could have saved; we should not have remained all the succeeding winter at their mercy, with sometimes scarcely a sufficient body of men to mount the ordinary guards, liable at every moment to be dissipated, if they had only thought proper to march against us: we should not have been under the necessity of fighting at Brandywine, with an unequal number of raw troops, and afterwards of seeing Philadelphia fall a prey to a victorious army; we should not have been at Valley Forge with less than half the force of the enemy, destitute of every thing, in a situation neither to resist nor to retire; we should not have seen New York left with a handful of men, yet an overmatch for the main army of these States, while the principal part of their force was detached for the reduction of two of them; we should not have found ourselves this spring so weak, as to be insulted by five thousand men, unable to protect our baggage and Magazines, their security depending on a good countenance, and a want of enterprise in the enemy; we should not have been the greatest part of the war inferior to the enemy, indebted for our safety to their inactivity, enduring frequently the mortification of seeing inviting opportunities to ruin them pass unimproved for want of a force, which the country was completely able to afford; to see the Country ravaged, our towns burnt, the inhabitants plundered, abused, murdered with impunity from the same cause.

Nor have the ill effects been confined to the military line. A great part of the embarrassments in the civil departments flow from the same source. The derangement of our finances is essentially to be ascribed to it. The expenses of the war, and the Paper emissions, have been greatly multiplied by it. We have had, a great part of the time, two sets of men to feed and pay, the discharged men going home and the Levies coming in. This was more remarkable in '75 and '76. The difficulty and cost of engaging men have increased at every successive attempt, till among the present levies we find there are some, who have received a hundred and fifty dollars in specie for five months' service, while our officers are reduced to the disagreeable necessity of performing the duties of drill sergeants to them, and with this mortifying reflection annexed to the business, that, by the time they have taught those men the rudiments of a soldier's duty, their term of service will have expired, and the work is to recommence with an entire new set. The consumption of Provision, arms, accoutrements, stores of every kind, has been doubled in spite of every precaution I could use, not only from the cause just mentioned, but from the carelessness and licentiousness incident to militia and irregular Troops. Our discipline also has been much injured, if not ruined, by such frequent changes. The frequent calls upon the militia have interrupted the cultivation of the Land, and of course have lessened the quantity of its produce, occasioned a scarcity, and enhanced the prices. In an army so unstable as ours, order and economy have been impracticable. No person, who has been a close observer of the progress of our affairs, can doubt that our currency has depreciated without comparison more rapidly from the system of short enlistments, than it would have done otherwise.

There is every reason to believe, the War has been protracted on this account. Our opposition being less, made the successes of the enemy greater. The fluctuation of the army kept alive their hopes, and at every period of the dissolution of a considerable part of it, they have flattered themselves with some decisive advantages. Had we kept a permanent army on foot, the enemy could have had nothing to hope for, and would in all probability have listened to terms long since.

If the army is left in its present situation, it must continue an encouragement to the efforts of the enemy; if it is put upon a respectable one, it must have a contrary effect, and nothing, I believe, will tend more to give us peace the ensuing winter. It will be an interesting winter. Many circumstances will contribute to a negotiation. An army on foot not only for another campaign, but for several campaigns, would determine the enemy to pacific measures, and enable us to insist upon favorable terms in forcible language; an army insignificant in numbers, dissatisfied, crumbling into pieces, would be the strongest temptation they could have to try the experiment a little longer. It is an old maxim, that the surest way to make a good peace is to be well prepared for war.

I am inclined to hope a draft for the war, or for three years, would succeed. Many incentives of immediate interest may be held up to the people to induce them to submit to it. They must begin to consider the repeated bounties they are obliged to pay as a burthen, and be willing to get rid of it by sacrificing a little more once for all. Indeed it is probable, the bounties may not be much greater in that case than they have been. The people of the States near the Seat of War ought to enter into such a plan with alacrity, as it would ease them in a variety of respects; among others, by obviating the frequent calls upon the Militia.

[George Washington, Writings (edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford, New York, etc., 1890), VIII, 393-397.]