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Profile - Millard Fillmore's Military Dealings

Despite a long and distinguished career in public service, Millard Fillmore (1800-1874), is probably the least well-known of all the presidents.

Fillmore's ancestors were originally from Somersetshire, in England, and were among the earliest settlers in New England.  The family lived variously in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, where his great-grandfather, John Fillmore, served as a captain of militia shortly before the American Revolution.  John Fillmore's son, the president’s grandfather, Nathaniel Fillmore served in the army during the Revolution, and afterwards moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York.  It was there that Millard grew up, working on the family farm.  When the War of 1812 broke out, Millard expressed a desire to join the army – boys of 12 could serve as drummers – but his father would not allow it, needing him to work the farm, which was a poor place.  When Millard was 15, his father indentured him as an apprentice to a wool carder.  Millard learned this trade, and also helped with the bookkeeping, while also still helping out on the family farm from time to time.  When he was 17, Millard joined a local lending library, and began to read extensively.  Within a year he was hired to help teach younger children.  When he was 18, Millard enrolled in the New York State militia, under the terms of the state’s compulsory service law.  The following year he enrolled in an “academy” or high school, in New Hope, New York, where he met his eventual wife, Abigail Powers, one of the teachers, who was a couple of years older than he.  Although he had little formal education, Millard's father decided that lad might make a good lawyer.  So he bought back Millard’s contract from the wool carders, and arranged for the young man to read law.  In 1823, having moved to Buffalo, Millard Fillmore was admitted to the bar.  At about the same time Fillmore was commissioned an officer in the militia.  Fillmore was apparently an excellent militiaman, and over the years rose to be a major and the inspector of the 47th Infantry Brigade, in the Buffalo area.  In 1830 he resigned from the militia, when his military duties began to interfere with his business and political interests.  By then Fillmore had become very active in politics.  He later served in the New York State legislature, and then in Congress.  In 1848 he was chosen as Zachary Taylor’s running mate. 

Upon the death of Zachary Taylor in July of 1851, Fillmore became president. 

Although politically Fillmore's presidency was caught up in the rising national debate over slavery, militarily it was a rather quiet time.  To help settle the then acrimonious question of the western boundary of Texas, Fillmore sent some 750 troops in New Mexico while prodding Congress to "compensate" the state for its "lost territories."  Although there were continuing clashes with the Apache and Comanche in Texas and New Mexico, and with other Native American tribes in California and the Oregon Territory, Fillmore was able to conclude the Treaty of Fort Laramie (September 17, 1851), which secured peace on the North Great Plains for most of the rest of the decade.  The most far-reaching military undertaking of Fillmore's administration was the dispatch of Commodore Matthew C. Perry on his famous mission to "open" Japan,

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Mexican War several states restructured their militia systems.  Most states abolished compulsory militia service and increased financial support for volunteer militia, which in several states, such as Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, became quite proficient.  Recognizing the need for increased training, militia officers in some states formed organizations such as The Militia Association of New York; created in January of 1853, shortly before Fillmore left office; MANY still exists, and is the oldest professional military society in the country.

Fillmore was not nominated for re-election, and left office in March of 1853.  He remained politically active, however, and even ran for re-election in 1856 as a third party candidate, losing to James Buchanan. 

Fillmore was a political opponent of Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans.  Nevertheless, on the outbreak of the Civil War in April of 1861, he was the first citizen of Buffalo to donate money to support soldiers’ families.  He also became chairman of the Buffalo Committee of Public Defense, which assisted in raising troops for the war.  In addition, that May, Fillmore, although well past military age, organized the “Union Continentals,” a militia unit composed of about 150 men all of whom were over 45, and all reportedly former officers in the Army or the militia.  The “Union Continentals” performed local security, home guard, prisoner-of-war, and ceremonial duties.  Although the unit continued in existence until the end of the Civil War, Fillmore, who served as its commander with the rank of major, resigned in November of 1862.

Fillmore had one son, Millard Powers Fillmore, an attorney and life-long bachelor, who did not serve, and a daughter, who died young.

BookNote: The 2008 volume Millard Fillmore - The Accidental President (Biography) is the only reliable recent work on Fillmore, who has been the subject of several tongue-in-cheek treatments of late.

 


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