On Friday evening, September 6, 1861, a company of the Indiana Legion known as the “Perry Rifles” arrived at the Ohio River town of Cannelton. The militiamen were scheduled to board a steamer two days later for a voyage upriver to New Albany and enlistment in the Union army. The night following their arrival, the home guards were treated to a dancing ball at Cannelton’s Mozart Hall, hosted in their behalf by two other local Legion companies. The grandest event of the weekend, however, occurred on Sunday morning when the town was filled with people from miles around to see the militiamen off. After a sham fight between the German Rifles and Newcomb Guards, the editor of Cannelton’s newspaper addressed the home guards with a patriotic speech that drew “cheers for the flag, the Union, the volunteers, the soldiers of the Legion and the ladies.” The crowd shifted to the town levee to bid farewell to the departing company, amid the sounds of martial music and musket salutes, as the steamer Commercial approached.1
Patriotic sendoffs such as the one in Cannelton occurred throughout the North in the opening months of the Civil War. In this case, the main actors of the event were not Union troops, but members of the Hoosier state militia, the Indiana Legion.2 In addition to encouraging patriotic sentiment by [End Page 31] participating in public ceremonies and celebrations, northern home guards, such as those enrolled in the Indiana Legion, served the Union war effort by providing a large reserve force of organized and armed citizens. State militia units often enlisted in the Union army en masse, fought in conjunction with Federal troops; garrisoned fortifications; watched over coastlines, border regions, and frontiers; protected supply and communication lines; guarded government property; served as guards at prisoner-of-war camps; and provided a security force that could be rapidly mobilized during local and state emergencies. They also monitored subversive political activities, hunted deserters, and put down draft demonstrations. Approximately onetenth of the 2,245,000 northern men of military age not in the Union army served as active members of state militias during the Civil War. In 1863, no fewer than 125,000 men were enrolled as members of state organizations. Over 200,000 were enrolled at the close of the war.3 As an entity separate from other northern militia systems, the Indiana Legion made two significant contributions to the Union War effort. First, it served as a vehicle for patriotic Hoosier citizens to serve the Union cause from the home front rather than the front lines. Second, and most important, the Legion was a state defense organization responsible for protecting citizens in southern Indiana from Confederate guerrilla incursions as well as citizens with a sense of psychological comfort and security.
Historians have largely ignored the role of the northern militia in the Civil War. One of the few works concerned with the topic is Robert S. Chamberlain’s 1958 article “The Northern State Militia,” which argues that northern militias “made considerable, and generally overlooked, contributions to the national war effort and to the ever-mounting war potential of the United [End Page 32] States.”4 The subject remains to this day very much “overlooked” by Civil War historians. Although significant, the article was geographically broad in its coverage of the entire North and very brief (only fourteen pages). This article attempts to apply Chamberlain’s argument to a single Civil War state militia system, the Indiana Legion. It illustrates the incredible difficulty of states such as Indiana to maintain efficient and effective state militia systems in the midst of other wartime military demands.
The Legion was certainly plagued by a number of problems including insufficient financial backing, poor arms, lack of public support or interest, manpower shortages, and state-level political divisions. Many of these shortcomings stemmed from Indiana’s struggle to support its troops in the field and simultaneously build and maintain its first state militia since 1833. In 1912, Margrette Boyer argued that the Legion was “a loose aggregation of citizens with little military training or discipline and practically unarmed.”5 However, the Legion was not...