War of 1812 Possibilities: Exploring social history through military history

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On a recent trip to the Niagara region, I came across the publication printed above, Green Coats and Glory, the United States Regiment of Riflemen, 1808-1821.  It tells a truly fascinating story about the first American attempt at forming a corp of riflemen.

As the essay by scholar John C. Fredriksen acknowledges, we often think of the independent and resourceful riflemen of the Revolutionary War, but in the War of 1812 this loose and independent compilation of men had been regularized into a formal unit.  They were still deadly and independent and resourceful, but they also were issued uniforms and equipment, following the command of officers.

Unlike English counterparts, Fredericksen explains, the American military history of regiments has been neglected in favor of the political as regards the War of 1812.  While military history often gets snubbed and looked down upon by “serious” scholars (in some cases simply because it is regarded as tedious), it is one of great popularity among history-lovers in the general populace.  And further, while it is can be the work of piecing together troop movements and strategic military chess, it can also be an enlightening foray into social history.

This examination of social history is especially true of military inquiries on this side of the pond where military advancement into the officers’ ranks was not unattainable as it largely was among the British units.  Thus, the study of the men in the units is frequently a study of a real cross-section of the population.

Fredericksen’s decade of research through many archives–especially those of historical societies–is one demonstration of many for the possibilities of rigorous historical research in military history that produced an interesting survey of social American history.  Many storylines were revealed as he accessed a more personal account of the War of 1812, especially, beyond the few usually geo-political analyses of a largely forgotten war.

Hopefully, this type of inquiry will garner both more attention from the public and appeal from researchers in honor of the War of 1812’s anniversary.

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4 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Historian's Journal

4 responses to “War of 1812 Possibilities: Exploring social history through military history

  1. This book is a great part of my collection of secondary works on the War of 1812. Riflemen have assumed a legenday status in early US history but in truth most American soldiers wielded smoothbore muskets and fought according to regular European (specifically French) tactics. Unfortunately the book sheds little light on the detachments of the rifle regiments that were posted outside the Niagara and St. Lawrence theaters during the war– probably because we have little documentation about these units.

  2. I was pretty intrigued by the little volume. It is interesting that they effectively retire the riflemen just as the British are beginning to value the units. I would love to track down some more of these stories.

    • Many if not most of the rifle companies fielded during the War of 1812 were militia or volunteer units, many of them mounted. These included a dozen or so companies of US Army Rangers, mounted and equipped like the mounted Kentucky riflemen. Most were equipped with short jaeger rifles from federal or state Arsenals, which were prefered to the long hunting rifles of frontier lore. Most politicians probably thought they could raise volunteer units without having to maintain the 4 regular army regiments in peacetime.

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