Harold W. Hurst - April 2006
Militia Companies of Old Delmarva
The founding fathers harbored a strong dislike of the idea of a large standing army and feared the development of an elite officers corp. Hence, in 1792, they provided for the national defense by establishing a uniform militia consisting of all able bodied white male citizens between the ages of eighteen and forty-five.
In 1803, Congress strengthened the military establishment by requiring the government to keep in readiness a detachment of militia not to exceed 80,000 officers and men. This law also authorized state officials to accept, as part of the detachment, any corps of volunteers that would engage for a period not exceeding six months. In 1808 Congress began the appropriations of funds to arm and equip the militia.
The growth of militia and volunteer companies grew rapidly in the early 1800s. Volunteer companies, especially, multiplied quickly throughout the country as many communities formed their own local military organizations. In the Southern and Border states, particularly, local militia companies were popular because of the regional fondness for uniforms and titles and the increasing fear of slave insurrections. After John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 the number of companies spread rapidly, especially in small towns and sparsely settled counties in the Southern and Border states.
The volunteer militia companies served many needs not directly associated with the national defense. They maintained order and performed patrol duty in an era when most small towns and rural areas had no organized police department. Moreover, membership in these companies provided prestige for many local citizens. The local gentry, who filled the officers rank, acquired titles that they kept for the remainder of their lives. The South was full of captains, colonels and majors.
The militia also thrived because of the love of uniforms, many of which were colorful, even elegant. The social life of many small towns centered about the activities of the volunteer companies which frequently sponsored picnics, dinners, balls, and steamboat excursions.
Finally, these outfits provided an outlet for male camaraderie. Whereas women and older men in the antebellum era often sought fellowship in churches, lodges, and literary societies, many young males preferred the rustic activities of the local military companies. Target practices, drills and parades were more to their liking.
Militia companies played an important role in the life of 19th century Delmarva. During the early 1800s they formed part of the regiments which served in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. When British forces invaded the Peninsula in 1813 the 38th regiment of militia consisting of 244 men from Queen Anne’s County engaged the enemy in the battle of Slippery Hill near Queenstown.
Kent County militiamen participated in another famous battle in 1814 when the 21st regiment of the Maryland militia fought British forces at Caulk’s Field on the night of August 30th, forcing the enemy to retreat.
The heyday of militia companies, however, were the years preceding the Civil War. Sectional tensions stemming from the turbulent political activities of the period and the increasing fear of slave revolts resulted in the formation of many new volunteer companies throughout the nation. Delmarva was no exception.
Events in Talbot County in Maryland highlight the panic which followed John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. It was rumored that Brown, disguised as a woman, was seeking recruits among the slaves on the great estates surrounding the town of Easton, the county seat. Hysteria ensued as vigilante groups patrolled the area and Easton officials proclaimed a town curfew. A black man was killed while fleeing from an alleged illegal meeting of slaves.
To make matters worse, a letter was found on November 30th that revealed that “something terrible was going to take place that night.” The county militia groups, the Home Guards and the Smallwood Guards, were mustered for drill and remained under arms until the crisis passed.
There was also intense excitement in neighboring Queen Anne’s County in the summer of 1859. The county officials hastily established the Scott Rifles in June under the leadership of Robert Goldsborough, Jr., the scion of one of the Eastern Shore’s great families. The boys in Centreville organized the Centreville Cadets. The States Rights Advocate in Centreville noted that there was a revival of the military spirit in the region.
In Chestertown, Kent County, the Reed Rifles had already been founded in 1857. The company consisted of thirty-five men under the leadership of Captain E. F. Perkins. The Kent County News referred to the Reed Rifles as “one of the finest companies in the state.” This crack outfit was often seen on parade or drilling the streets of Chestertown where they were instrumental in the erection of the town hall.
Many new companies were formed during the election crisis of 1860 and the ensuing secession movement in 1861. Delaware became an armed camp as militia companies began drilling in every part of the state. In Wilmington the Home Guards were called out after a Massachusetts regiment was attacked by pro-Southern mobs in Baltimore.
New militia companies formed in this period included the City Guards and he Delaware Blues. Residents of the Blue Hen state were determined to defend themselves against invaders from both the Union and Confederate armies, although Unionist sentiment prevailed in most parts of the state.
Sussex County, a slaveholding district in lower Delaware, was pro-Southern in sympathy and harbored some secessionists. The local militia in Seaford supposedly fired guns to salute the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. Many men in the Kenshaw Blues of Laurel, the Georgetown Infantry and the Seaford Cavalry were suspected of being secessionist in sympathy. But even this pro-Southern county remained loyal to the Union throughout the Civil War and men with secessionist sympathies were forced to flee to Virginia to serve in the Confederate Army.
Meanwhile, the martial spirit was escalating in the counties of Eastern Shore, Maryland. By 1861 Kent County had formed several militia units for protection against outside interference. In addition to the Reed Rifles, Chestertown sponsored the Chester Blues, organized in January of 1861. Millington formed the Marion Blues, while the town of Galena provided manpower for the Cadwalder Guard.
At Washington College in Chestertown a company known as the Washington College Cadets was established. The Trappe Blues, founded in 1859, were the only company to serve together as part of Company H of the First Eastern Shore Regiment. The Maryland Military in Oxford, instituted in the 1840s, organized the cadets into a military company. Salisbury, on the lower Eastern Shore, also supported a town militia.
Militia companies in the 1850s fostered the martial spirit by sponsoring parades and holiday celebrations on George Washington’s birthday and the Fourth of July. Their colorful uniforms were a chief feature of these events. The Scott Rifles of Centreville wore gray uniforms trimmed with yellow stripes. The Home Guards of Easton sported winter pantaloons of light blue color with wide yellow stripes. The Reed Rifles of Chestertown were equipped with “handsome uniforms and beautiful plumes.”
The Salisbury town militia provided its officers with blue uniforms decorated with a profusion of brass buttons, but the enlisted men were forced to parade in civilian clothes as they were apparently unable to afford expensive attire.
The cadets in the military academy in Oxford wore uniforms modelled on those used at West Point. They consisted of “round-about” jackets and white pantaloons lined with black stripes in the winter months.
Women furnished the companies with flags and banners. The ladies of Wilmington presented the City Guards with a “handsome flag” in the spring of 1861. In 1859 the women of Centreville furnished the Scotts Rifles with a flag in a special ceremony presided over by the companies officers. The Reed Rifles in Chestertown received a flag once carried by Philip Reed at the Battle of Caulk’s Field in 1813. The ladies of the town presented the company with a new flag during that same year.
The social life of many small towns centered about the activities sponsored by the local volunteer companies. The Fourth of July celebration in Easton in 1859 featured a parade of the county militia companies accompanied by bands from the locality and nearby St. Michaels. After the parade there was a “collation” at the court house where fifteen kegs of beer were consumed. The evening was marked by fireworks, including rockets and roman candles.
On a Sunday morning in November of 1860 the Easton Home Guards paraded in the morning and amused themselves in the afternoon by target practice. The Easton Star was annoyed that such activities “be observed on the Sabbath.”
The Reed Rifles of Chestertown celebrated the Fourth of July in 1857 by chartering a moonlight excursion to Crumpton which was followed by a dinner at Church Hill.
In July of 1860 the Scott Rifles of Centreville enjoyed a steamboat ride to Annapolis where they were received by high officials including the President of St. Johns College. Later in the year the Centreville Cadets, Easton Home Guard, and Scott Rifles celebrated the Battle of North Point (War of 1812) with a military parade followed by a festival and a dance at the Easton Armory.
By the summer of 1861 when the Civil War was well underway, many of the local volunteer companies had been absorbed into regiments of the Union Army while others continued to serve as guard outfits in their respective communities. The companies on Maryland’s Eastern Shore were largely merged into the Eastern Shore Regiment of Infantry, Maryland Volunteers. Delaware militia companies were absorbed by the First and Second Regiments of Delaware Volunteers. The Delaware Light Dragoons and Red Lion Guards of New Castle County formed the First Delaware Cavalry.
After four bloody years of conflict the martial spirit faded away in many parts of America. Some militia companies continued to exist, but their numbers and influence waned. The modern day “citizen soldier” is a member of a state unit of the National Guard. Gone are the days of the local, independent volunteer companies with their colorful titles and uniforms.