James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Elbridge Gerry, 25 April 1812

From Elbridge Gerry


Cambridge 25th April 1812.


On the 21st instant, I received a letter from the Secretary of War of the 15th, for detaching, pursuant to your directions, ten thousand of the militia of this Commonwealth;1 & immediately gave orders to the Adjutant General to make the arrangement, & to the Secretary to convene the Council, lest their aid may have been wanted. This day I have issued General Orders for compleating this business; & have given to Major Generals Varnum, Ulmer & Willis, who are firm friends to the National Government, the command of the Divisions, & to Brigadier Generals Hildreth, Lathrop & Irish, who are of the same description, Welles, Bliss & Brewer, who are of different politicks, the command of the Brigades. I regret, that in the adverse state of our political affairs, it was found impracticable to supply, all the places with such characters as the six officers first mentioned; but I think there will be no departure from duty, on the part of the others, & if there should be, it will be in the power of the Major Generals to correct such misconduct. The Adjutant General will be directed to give to the Secretary of War official information on the subject, & details of all the proceedings.

I enclose to you, Sir, a report of the Adjutant General,2 made agreably to my order, on the defects of the militia law; which may retard or obstruct this important measure, & which may be found of a nature, improper to be filed at this time, in the war office. If legislative provission is necessary, Congress can make it.

I have directed the General Orders to be printed without delay, & Expresses to be ready for distributing them.

Accept, Sir, the tender of my highest esteem & respect, & be assured I remain your Excellency’s obedt Sert.

E. Gerry

P. S. Please to inform me of the receipt of this.

RC (DLC); draft (NHi). RC docketed by JM. For enclosure, see n. 2.

1On 15 Apr. 1812 Secretary of War Eustis had sent a circular letter to the governors of the states instructing them, under the terms of the 10 Apr. 1812 “Act to authorize a detachment from the Militia of the United States,” to detach quotas of their militias and to hold them “in readiness to march at a moment’s warning.” The letter specified the proportions of artillery, cavalry, infantry, and riflemen to be detached, and the governors were requested to make returns of the same to the War Department (DNA: RG 107, LSMA; U.S. Statutes at Large description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America … (17 vols.; Boston, 1848–73). description ends , 2:705–7).

2Gerry enclosed a three-page letter he had received from William Donnison, dated 24 Apr. 1812 and described as a “Report on the defects of law, in regard to requisitions for men” (DNA: RG 107, LRRS, D-61:6; docketed as received in the War Department on 12 May). Donnison described the main problem in implementing the president’s 15 Apr. order as “the conditional and eventual nature of the detachment,” which created a conflict with state law that presumed “an immediate detachment.” State law imposed no obligation on any detached militiaman until he was actually ordered to march, and under the president’s requisition, Donnison believed, “there can be no order to march until some immediate danger shall happen.” He therefore predicted that a month after the detachment order, half of the men so detached would never be found in the event of their being ordered to march. The president’s order, moreover, assumed that detached militiamen would be placed under the command of detached officers for discipline and that they would then be separated from “their local corps” until discharged. Donnison pointed out there was no U.S. law or any state law authorizing any militia officer to compel obedience until such time as all the men were ordered into “actual service.” As a consequence, the men could be neither inspected nor drilled until they were ordered to march. Donnison suggested that the U.S. consider paying the local adjutants to perform these duties, as they were costly and time-consuming and unlikely to be performed at all without compensation.

In short, Donnison believed that the U.S. laws were too general in nature and could not regulate the details of making a draft as they applied to individual militiamen. Similar problems, he added, existed with respect to the matter of supplies, to which he could see no answer short of the establishment of a local commissary for provisioning the men. “I could enlarge very much on this statement,” he concluded, “and note the embarrassments growing out of our political situation, which will counteract the intended detachment in every stage of its operation, but this can be easily comprehended by every one knowing the state of the Country.”

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