Militia and National Guard

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Militia and National Guard. Colonial and subsequently state militia systems have played a central role in military affairs for much of America's history. From the first Indian wars of the seventeenth century through the Spanish‐American War in 1898, colonial and state militias raised the majority of soldiers who fought these conflicts. Colonies largely waged war as individual efforts until the 1690s. Thereafter, the colonies provided troops to assist the crown and the states did the same for the United States. Provincial and state units serving with the British army, the Continental army, or the U.S. Army resisted regular military discipline and earned in return the contempt of professional officers. The combination of militia troops and regular forces from America's earliest history engendered what Russell F. Weigley identifies as an American “dual army tradition.”

The militia took root in the British colonies when most European nations abandoned the feudal levy and organized standing armies. Because the private groups that founded the early settlements received no military assistance from the crown, they adopted the fading English militia practice to defend themselves. Virginia, Plymouth Colony, and Massachusetts approved laws that in their general provisions came to prevail throughout the colonies, except Pennsylvania. (There the pacifism of the elite Quakers prevented the organization of a militia until the 1750s.)

Colonial laws levied a military obligation on all able‐bodied white men, the ages of obligation varying from colony to colony. The laws exempted some men due to their occupations or religious beliefs, and usually excluded indentured servants and slaves. However, in times of crisis colonies ignored race or condition of servitude. Obligated militiamen were required to arm and equip themselves, and take part in occasional musters and training sessions. Training in the colonial era was usually perfunctory. Officers inspected weapons and equipment, led their men in close order drill, and sometimes permitted volley firing or individual marksmanship contests.

Informality and inefficiency marked the colonial militia. By nature the institution was intensely local. Militiamen often elected their own officers, defied the decisions of courts‐martial, and ignored orders from colonial capitals. A geographically dispersed farming population produced few men with the time, money, or inclination to make themselves efficient soldiers. Even the ardent were not likely to become skilled with only a few days' annual training. As the colonies matured and immediate Indian threats disappeared, the militia lost much of the military effectiveness it initially developed; yet it persisted because it served important social, political, and community functions.

The very fact that the colonies succeeded illustrates that for all its weaknesses the militia ensured colonial survival and expansion. After the early struggles, however, the militia rarely functioned as a community‐in‐arms. Conquest of Indian territory required offensive operations—a function to which the obligated militia was unsuited. From the late seventeenth century, therefore, the colonies used the system to mobilize provincial soldiers to man expeditionary forces, to maintain frontier garrisons, and to support slave patrols. Colonies used various methods to recruit men: appeals for volunteers, offers of cash or land bounties, and if necessary, conscription. Men normally excluded from the militia, including slaves and Indians, often served in provincial forces.

The Revolutionary War tested the militia as no previous conflict had done. Americans confronted a great imperial power with neither a central government nor a standing army of their own. Although leaders extolled the militiaman as an idealized republican citizen‐soldier whose virtue and zeal could beat the British army, after 1775 state militias generally failed to fight effectively, or to recruit enough men to meet the demands of the Continental army. Militia units called to temporary duty to assist the Continentals often performed poorly, earning the condemnation of Gen. George Washington and his fellow officers, and providing the basis for an antimilitia prejudice that persisted within the army into the twentieth century. Even so, the revolutionary militias served the country well. The Continental Congress lacked the money, bureaucracy, and political legitimacy to raise troops on its own. Without militias to organize men and supplies within the states, there would have been no Continental army.

The militia remained the source of troops for Congress after the Peace of Paris (1783). The ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 gave the federal government the authority to raise an army, while the Second Amendment (1791) guaranteed the states the right to keep their militias. The Federalist administration of President George Washington established a regular army in the early 1790s, but failed to assert federal control over the militia. Congress perpetuated colonial militia practice when it approved the Militia Act of 1792.

Although new states entering the Union enshrined the militia in their constitutions and statutes, over the next three decades the obligated militia faded into insignificance. Few men enrolled in militia formations and few states made efforts to organize the system. Reform groups pressured state legislatures to repeal militia fines and abolish compulsory musters and training; ultimately state adjutants general merely estimated the size of the obligated population. Although Congress approved an innocuous law in 1808 providing $200,000 worth of weapons to be distributed annually to states and territories, it made no effort to reform the state forces after 1792.

Despite the disintegration of the obligated militia, the state soldiery remained central to military affairs. President James Madison's administration called on the militia repeatedly during the War of 1812, when its woeful performance added to its miserable reputation within the regular army. After the War of 1812, the army assumed the central role in protecting the frontier and forming the core around which war armies were built. The regulars, however, could fight neither extended Indian wars nor conventional conflicts without reinforcement by citizen‐soldiers.

With the obligated militia moribund, states called for volunteers when assigned manpower quotas by the federal government—a practice with colonial precedents that survived to the end of the nineteenth century. Colonial practice persisted as well when Congress permitted the states to select officers according to local preference, which usually meant by election. Although adjutants general and other part‐time staff officers assumed important mobilization responsibilities, states generally turned to regimental and company officers at the county and municipal level to organized volunteer troops. The call for volunteers thus invariably animated a system that seemed otherwise defunct and perpetuated the militia as a mobilization system.

State soldiers assisted the army in the Black Hawk War (1832) and the second of the Seminole Wars (1836–42). States organized 40,000 volunteers for the Mexican War and approximately 175,000 for the Spanish‐American War. Though both the Union and the Confederacy utilized conscription during the Civil War, 96 percent of the Union army and 80 percent of Confederate army troops entered service as state volunteers. Volunteer soldiers came to military duty no better armed, equipped, or trained than had their earlier militia counterparts. Yet as the Mexican and Civil Wars demonstrated, time and training made them creditable soldiers. Nonetheless, army officers lambasted the volunteers for their lack of discipline and military effectiveness. Deep dismay with the inefficiency he saw in the Civil War led Emory Upton to write Military Policy of the United States (1904), a polemic against reliance on state militia and volunteers that became a favorite text among army officers in ensuing decades.

State mobilization explains in part why the militia persisted, but it served other functions as well. Until the obligated militia disappeared, states called on it to meet local Indian uprisings; militia also served to suppress urban disorders and real, or threatened, slave insurrections. More important, even as the old obligatory system shriveled, one element—the uniformed militia—expanded.

Uniformed militia could be found as elite artillery, cavalry, and “cadet” units in colonial America and the early republic, but did not become widespread until after the War of 1812. Men with avocational interests in military affairs organized uniformed militia units, voluntarily meeting to train and purchasing their own uniforms. Many voluntary units lasted only a short time, but some became permanent elements of their state militias. A few voluntary companies reflected an elite tinge with their expensive uniforms, high company dues, and costly armory expenses. They sponsored dinners, theatricals, and balls that attracted the socially active in their communities.

The years from 1830 to 1860 were the heyday of the uniformed militia, as middle‐class men—especially, after the 1840s, in towns and cities with an Irish or German ethnic element—became active in forming units. There was much to mock in the activities of these part‐time citizen‐soldiers. Their self‐designed uniforms featured a good deal of gold braid, bearskin hats, and bright colors. They spent most of their money and time on social activities rather than training. Military activities centered on close order drill competitions and marksmanship contests, with an occasional foray into camp to hold sham battles.

On the other hand, by the late 1850s, some 75,000 men demonstrated enough interest in military matters to join a company, support it financially, and gain limited military training. The uniformed militia aided municipalities and states when public disorders or natural disasters required a show of public force. Except for Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York, states neither aided these organizations financially nor supervised their activities. Answerable only to themselves, the uniformed militia nonetheless provided the only martial experience for thousands of otherwise untutored citizen‐soldiers who would volunteer for the next war.

The Civil War swallowed up the uniformed militia. In the decade following the war, however, state voluntary units revived to become the National Guard. Guard units differed from uniformed militia in that state governments gave them financial support. Governors and legislatures also imposed centralized control over local companies and established minimum standards to qualify for state subsidies. Money was forthcoming in part because Guardsmen lobbied for it, but more so because states sought a constabulary force to control urban and industrial disorders. Although a state military revival was underway before 1877, the destructive railroad disorders of that year spurred new interest in the Guard.

In training, arms, equipment, and numbers, the National Guard represented a vast improvement over the uniformed militia. By the 1890s, over 100,000 men in Guard regiments regularly attended summer training camps. Most states made their adjutants general full‐time employees to supervise and administer their citizen‐soldiers. The Guard, however, continued to resemble the uniformed militia in many ways. It still elected its officers, sponsored social and athletic events, and except in some northeastern states, remained largely self‐supporting. The Guard's military efficiency left much to be desired, even in suppressing civil disorder.

Many Guardsmen disliked the constabulary role and presented themselves as an organized volunteer reserve. The National Guard Association, founded in 1879, initiated a campaign to win increased federal aid in recognition of that reserve function. Congress remained unmoved until the calamities of the Spanish‐American War fostered wide‐ranging military reform. Although the Guard had volunteered willingly in 1898, the war demonstrated that it was poorly prepared to fight. Over the next five years, Congress increased federal aid to the states and granted the National Guard a limited reserve role in the Militia Act of 1903.

Although the act gave the state soldiery a legal recognition never granted before, during the ensuing fifteen years it lost its centrality in military affairs. Military reform also created a general staff manned by professional soldiers intent on creating a military policy fully under their control. Army reformers failed to replace the Guard with a federal volunteer reserve but nonetheless gained significant control in the National Defense Act of 1916. Although the National Guard survived the army challenge, use of conscription to meet the manpower demands of World War I drastically reduced the percentage of state‐recruited soldiers serving in the war army. Of these nearly 4 million men, only 10 percent were Guardsmen. The 400,000 called in 1917, however, represent the largest state effort in the twentieth century. For the next fifty years national draftees, not state soldiers, would represent the nation's citizen‐soldiers.

Despite another regular army effort to eliminate it, the Guard survived under the National Defense Act of 1920. The law continued the state reserve role, but placed the Guard under close federal control and limited its forces to 400,000 men. In fact, the Guard never exceeded 200,000 during the interwar years, and poor funding prevented implementation of policy outlined in 1920. A shortage of equipment and an understrength regular force limited National Guard training, and the army displayed little enthusiasm for instructing the state troops. Consequently, when the Guard was mobilized in 1940, it fell well short of combat readiness. Just under 300,000 Guardsmen served in World War II, but their service was vital to the effort. Guard divisions provided the cadre and units that trained millions of draftees, and represented seven of the eleven combat divisions sent overseas in 1942.

In the fifty years since the end of World War II, the National Guard has remained a reserve component to the army and gained a similar function with the air force as well. Federal funding came to total 95 percent of support for the Army and Air National Guard. Despite that support, however, the Guard's part in war has diminished since 1945. The demands of the Cold War led to a much larger regular army that drew its manpower from the Selective Service, men who then met their reserve obligation in the Army Reserve. In the four significant mobilizations since 1945—the Korean War, the 1961 Berlin call‐up, the Vietnam War, and the Persian Gulf War—the Department of Defense mobilized more reservists than Guardsmen except in the very limited Vietnam activation of Air National Guard units.

The army struggled to develop a rational reserve policy after 1945. It had none for the Korean War and out of desperation called thousands of individual reservists rather than mobilize understrength Guard units that were poorly trained and equipped. Reserve policy began to make sense only in the early 1960s. Policies adopted since then have followed a logical trend: reduce the number of reservists and provide sufficient funding to create fully manned, fully equipped, properly trained units that were genuinely combat ready. During the Vietnam War, the army relied on draftees rather than reservists, but the decision not to call the Guard and Army Reserve represented a political, not a military, choice.

Even as the National Guard assumed a more rigorous combat training program in the 1960s, its state constabulary function engulfed it with demands for which it was unprepared. Armed, equipped, and trained for combat, Guardsmen called to suppress urban ghetto riots and campus protests displayed limited knowledge of the legal requirements in aiding civil authorities, and relied too often on firepower. More than once, as during the 1967 Detroit riot, the failure of the Guard to suppress violence led state officials to request federal military aid. Riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968 brought out 40,000 Guardsmen in 14 states. That year the army directed to the Guard to conduct thirty‐two hours of riot control training each year. Use of the National Guard to control war protests engendered irony for many young men who joined reserve components to avoid combat duty in Vietnam.

In the aftermath of Vietnam, the army adopted a Total Force policy that allowed it to maintain a large number of combat units by assigning key combat and service support roles to the National Guard and Army Reserve. The end of Selective Service and budget cuts that seriously reduced the active army led to the policy. Under Total Force, the army could not fight a war without mobilizing reserve components. The Gulf War tested that assumption and it seemed to work. One aspect of Total Force, however, apparently failed in 1990–91: three Guard combat brigades were mobilized but not deployed because they fell short of combat readiness.

The decision not to deploy the Guard brigades initiated a dispute that echoed the complaints of George Washington, Emory Upton, and early twentieth‐century General Staff reformers. Army leaders did not want to commit poorly prepared state forces to battle led by improperly trained officers. The army complaint implied that no unit not fully under its control could be ready for combat. This recapitulation of an argument as old as the republic raises the question of why the ancient institution of the militia endures in the guise of the National Guard. The state soldiery persisted because it exemplified strains in the American experience that honored the self‐taught amateur, the citizen‐soldier, and localism, enshrined in the Constitution through federalism. Militiamen were citizens first but effective soldiers as well who, unlike regulars, did not threaten community freedom. A significant gap often existed between the theoretical martial qualities of the militiaman and the realities of his wartime performance. Nonetheless, the state citizen‐soldiery with its historically established combat record has endured.
[See also Army Reserves and National Guard; Civil‐Military Relations: Civilian Control of the Military; Disciplinary Views of War: Military History; Militia Acts; National Defense Acts; Native Americans: Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans; Volunteers, U.S.]


William H. Riker , Soldiers of the States: The Role of the National Guard in American Democracy, 1957; repr. 1979.
John K. Mahon , The American Militia: Decade of Decision, 1789–1800, 1960.
Russell F. Weigley , Towards an American Army, 1962.
Jim Dan Hill , The Minute Man in Peace and War: A History of the National Guard, 1964.
Martha Derthick , The National Guard in Politics (1965).
Marcus Cunliffe , Soldiers and Civilians: The Martial Spirit in America, 1775–1865, 1968; ed. 1973.
Lawrence D. Cress , Citizens in Arms: The Army and the Militia in American Society to the War of 1812, 1982.
John K. Mahon , History of the Militia and the National Guard, 1983.
Fred Anderson , A People's Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years War, 1984.
Martin Binkin and and William W. Kaufman , U.S. Army Guard and Reserve: Rhetoric, Realities, Risks, 1989.
Charles Johnson, Jr. , African American Soldiers in the National Guard: Recruitment and Deployment During Peacetime and War, 1992.
Jerry Cooper , The Militia and the National Guard in America Since Colonial Times, 1993.

Jerry Cooper