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Upper Mississippi Brigade articles; photo is UMB at Ft. Osage

A Comparison of Officers and Enlisted Men of the War of 1812

by David M. Grabitske

There are two interesting surveys of the origins and composition of War of 1812 veterans, one on the officers and one on enlisted men. Both lead to some interesting conclusions. All of the information presented herein was derived from William B. Skelton’s “High Army Leadership in the Era of the War of 1812: The Making and Re-Making of the Officer Corps,” in The William and Mary Quarterly 51 (April 1994) and J. C. A. Stagg’s “Enlisted Men in the United States Army, 1812"-1"815: A Preliminary Survey,” in The William and Mary Quarterly 43 (October 1986). The regional breakdowns were mostly consistent between the two. New England consisted of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The Mid-Atlantic was New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The South Atlantic was Maryland, Delaware, Virginia (West Virginia), North and South Carolina, and Georgia. The West included Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana, and all of the territories, including the District of Columbia.

The origins of the officers, men and total white males appear in Table I. Skelton was able to find information on most of the officers who served during the War because close to 80% were professionals or from commercial and governmental backgrounds, presumably where writing was necessary. Interestingly, Stagg found the origins of the enlisted men with nearly the same percentage, as 86% of the 6,243 in his sample group stated a place of origin. Thus a comparison of places of origin can be made with some confidence. Surprisingly, New England contributed proportionately more recruits than its percentage of population. The Mid-Atlantic percentage of recruits is nearly equal to its percentage of eligible residents. Both regions were slightly under-represented in field officers (Major, Lt. Colonel, Colonel and General grades). The South and West, who were more desirous of war in the first place, were of mixed results. The South exceeded in both recruits and officers. The West on the other hand, was grossly over-represented in officers, and woefully low in recruits. This reflects the rise of militia leaders on the basis of ability, and the West’s reliance on militia because its scattered population could not stay away from their homes for extended periods.

Table I All Field Officers Generals Native Recruits 1810 White Males
REGION N % N % N % N %
New England 73 21.4 8 22.9 1,311 33.1 274,813 24.5
Mid-Atlantic 91 26.7 8 22.9 1,239 31.3 371,682 33.2
South Atlantic 115 33.7 12 34.3 1,303 32.9 302,053 27.0
West & Terr. 62 18.2 7 20.0 106 2.7 171,2961 15.3

However, the story changes when Stagg looks at the places of enlistment, rather than the state of birth for the enlisted men. Table II indicates that while New England’s predominately Federalist governments opposed the War, its citizens migrated to other areas to enlist, or had done so prior to the War. See, for instance, Francis Bliss’ story in the July Mudduck. Also, both Mrs. Lydia Bacon, wife of Fourth Infantry Lieutenant Josiah Bacon, and Musician Adam Walker of Whitney’s Company of the Rifle Regiment, attached to the Fourth, mention the expatriate New Englanders they encountered in the Ohio valley in 1811. The cadres of the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota were all of Yankee stock. Thus it seems that a fair portion of recruits in the West and Territories originated elsewhere. These settlers were acquainted with military service in the more thickly settled areas of their native states where militia was able to practice. Frontier areas had more to worry about, such as clearing fields, vast distances between settlements and farms, and the logistics of long distance commerce.

Table II Native Recruits Enlistment by Place 1810 Males 1810 Free Recruits /10,000
REGION N % N % % Pop. %  
New England 1,311 33.1 919 25.0 24.5 24.4 1,908
Mid-Atlantic 1,239 31.3 1,359 37.1 33.2 33.0 969
South Atlantic 1,303 32.9 893 24.4 27.0 27.8 1,739
West & Terr. 106 2.7 478 13.0 15.3 14.9 478

What Table II illuminates quite well is that enlistments in the Mid-Atlantic and West surged, while those in the other two slumped. The first reason which comes to mind is the dominance of military actions in the West and along the New York frontiers. These areas were certainly more threatened, as Rene Chartrand indicated in his book, Uniforms and Equipment of United States Forces in the War of 1812. Of the 76 actions noted in Appendix III, 4 occur in the South Atlantic, one in New England, and the rest were in the West and Mid-Atlantic areas. For the purpose of continuity, actions which occurred in Canada were assigned to the nearest geographic area.

The second reason was noted above: New Englanders tended to migrate to the Old Northwest Territory. What is also apparent is that those south of the Mason-Dixon Line migrated into states and territories south of the Ohio River. Could it be that they like their Yankee brethren were more likely to volunteer for service? Or, is it that the long settled states of Tennessee and Kentucky were stable enough to support recruitment in their own right? Or, a combination of the two? Unfortunately, Skelton does not differentiate between the various areas of the West as Stagg does. Stagg indicated that 68% of those who reported their birthplace as in the West were born either in Kentucky or Tennessee, while only 49% of all Western enlistments occurred there. Thus it seems plausible that Tennessee and Kentucky did have stable populations for recruitment. Perhaps the higher number of non-native recruits in other areas of the West is indicative of Yankee immigrants who were not yet established.

Both articles also provide for a limited comparison of backgrounds between the officers and men. The officers, originating from a higher class, have a wider variety of occupations which were not necessarily open to the men. For the purpose of comparison, “laborer” for the officers are white collar workers in commercial and mercantile jobs. Laborers among blue collar workers worked for such men. From Table III, it seems that the officers shared little in common with the men as far as background is concerned. However, agriculture and seafaring appear to be the nearest of any. Almost 40% of the entire officer corps came from professionals (lawyers, physicians, teachers, etc.) and government service (elected officials, ex-military officers, etc.) These areas were generally not open to the emerging middle class. However, high birth did not automatically mean high command. Skelton stated that only 5% of field officers were appointed directly from civilian life. 44.3% received promotion when new regiments were formed, and 37.5% attained field rank through promotion by seniority.2

But, what both indicate is that for all concerned, those who marched off to the War were the best America had. According to Skelton, 80% of the officer corps were high elite or state and local elite. Likewise, the ‘elite’ among the enlisted constituted almost 80%. These men, unlike common unskilled laborers, were trained farmers and mechanics, skilled in the arts and mysteries of their respective trades.

Both sets did not have the same options for leaving the army. The rank and file could desert, die or be discharged, whereas the officers could be reassigned, cashiered, dropped from the list, or resign from the army. Unfortunately, Stagg and Skelton cannot be compared in this area because the former divided his by occupation, and the later by region. It would be interesting to discover if there is a correlation between the two either by region or trade.

Table III Officers Enlisted Men
Occupation N % N %
Farmer 52 27.8 1,578 39.0
Laborer 49 26.2 578 14.2
Artisan 8 4.3 1,508 37.0
Seaman 4 2.1 211 5.1

The conclusions that can be drawn from a comparison of Officers and Recruits are three. First, the largest number of officers came from the South Atlantic States, but the largest number of enlistees came from the Mid-Atlantic and West, where most of the fighting occurred. Second, of the enlistees, and it may be assumed of the officers, that the older states of the West were stable recruiting bases. But, Ohio, Louisiana and the Territories relied heavily on American born settlers from seaboard states. Third, the officer corps and the enlisted men were drawn mainly from their respective ‘elite’ classes. This certainly paints a different picture of the army than the usual desperate and illiterate soldiers of the early nineteenth century.


      1. The populations of Louisiana, District of Columbia and the Territories were not included in Stagg’s survey.
      2. Skelton, 257.

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