“Training Day in the Country"

November 17, 1860

Alfred Fredericks

“Training Day in the Country"

Alcohol; U.S. Military, Local Militia;

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This cartoon mocks the training day of a small-town militia.  Its rag-tag members are armed with a pitchfork, umbrella, hoe, broom, and other substandard equipment, while their inebriated leader stumbles out of the saloon, wielding an indented sword.  Rather than military discipline and seriousness, the social atmosphere of the training day is one of disorder and jocularity.  The cartoon was published shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln as threats of secession were increasingly voiced.  It may have been intended partly as a humorous prod toward military preparedness, but, more likely, it is simply a continuation of the newspaper’s previous treatment of local militia. 

In addition to state militia in nineteenth-century America, most communities, large and small, had local militia, also known as target companies.  More populous cities had several target companies, often organized along ethnic, professional, or political lines.  The first target companies appeared in New York City in the 1830s, and numbered tens of thousands of members by the 1850s.  The city was home to a Jewish militia (the Asmonean Guards) and an Irish one (the Meagher Guards), along with groups established by factories and shipyards, and many affiliated with the Democratic Party.  The Americus Engine Company No. 6 sponsored the William M. Tweed Guards, named after the foreman of the volunteer fire company who later became the notorious political boss of Tammany Hall.

Militia members usually elected their own officers and established their own rules.  It was often the responsibility of the more prosperous members to provide uniforms, arms, and meals for the members.  In this cartoon, the poor state of the rural community leaves its members without adequate supplies.  A primary function of the target companies was social, and drunkenness (as depicted here) was a typical feature of their “excursions.”  Harper’s Weekly gently poked fun not only at the rural militia in this cartoon, but at a New York City target company in an illustrated front-page story (1858) in which the reporter observed the organization’s primary function to be eating and drinking.  Some target companies were upfront about this activity, naming themselves the Chowder Guards and the Epicurean Guards.  Their heavy drinking, in particular, generated quite a bit of negative press, but the target companies often served well in the War of 1812, the War with Mexico (1846-1848), and the Civil War (1861-1865). 

Harper’s Weekly was more favorably disposed toward two impressive militia that toured New York City in 1860, the Chicago Zouaves and the Savannah Blues.  Organized by E. Elmer Ellsworth, the Chicago Zouaves were modeled after the French infantry units in Algeria.  Touring the United States in 1860, the Chicago Zouaves attracted large crowds with their colorful uniforms (e.g., baggy pants and fez) and military precision.  Covering their arrival in New York in July, the newspaper noted positively that the company’s rules forbid Zouaves from drinking or entering saloons or brothels.  A month later, the Savannah Blues received even greater praise:  “We have seldom been visited by a military company which has attracted more attention or won higher respect among our people.”

At the end of the Civil War, former soldiers expanded the ranks of target companies to their highest level of membership.  However, press criticism in New York renewed in the late 1860s and early 1870s over the militia’s rowdiness and political character.  The New York Times alleged that target companies blackmailed businessmen and politicians.  In January 1871, Harper’s Weekly asserted that the target companies in New York City exhibited “a wretched perversion of an originally good purpose.  Most of them bear a quasi-political character, and the members are, in fact, nothing more than election brawlers for some local demagogue” Thus, an aspiring politician could provide uniforms, rifles, and alcohol to a group of men, who then used strong-arm tactics to enforce his will at the ballot box.  Coming at the height of the Tweed Ring power, this condemnation had particular potency.  The undisciplined involvement of target companies and the state militia on opposite sides of the Orange Riot in July 1871 helped provoke the formation a few months later of the National Rifle Association, which was dedicated to improving marksmanship, discipline, and firearm safety.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Training Day in the Country"
July 14, 2024

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