RETHINKING THE SOCIAL ROLE
OF THE MILITIA
In Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner introduces the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi, located in the equally fictitious Yoknapatawpha County. Central to his story, set in the 1830s, is the capture of a gang of ruffians: “A gang—three or four—of Natchez Trace bandits … [was] captured by chance by an incidental band of civilian more-or-less militia and brought in to the Jefferson jail because it was the nearest one, the militia band being part of a general muster at Jefferson two days before for a Fourth-of-July barbecue, which by the second day had been refined by hardy elimination into one drunken brawling which rendered even the hardiest survivors vulnerable residents.”1 The story continues as Jefferson's residents struggle to find a suitable place to secure the “bandits,” but of greater historical significance is the brief appearance of the local militia. Faulkner's portrayal of the volunteer soldiers conforms to popular perceptions of the early national militia. Incompetent at best, dangerous at worst, militiamen are usually depicted as drunken buffoons who stumbled into a crooked line, poked each other with cornstalk weapons, and inevitably shot their commander in the backside with a rusty, antiquated musket. Caricatures of the over-accoutered captain and his clownish part-time charges are familiar to even casual scholars of the new republic.
Yet even in Faulkner's amusingly inept company of Yoknapatawpha “more-or-less” citizen-soldiers, there are hints of something more at work. His militia had mustered in preparation for the upcoming July Fourth celebration, an occasion that typically included men in uniform. Militiamen frequently organized the day's activities, made patriotic speeches at the afternoon barbecue, and concluded the day with a long series of toasts. The Jefferson militia company had also deemed it necessary to curtail further celebration to capture the wandering felons, car