Founding of the National Guard
December thirteenth is the anniversary of the National Guard, the state militias that form the backbone of the reserve military forces of the United States and the troops who have fought most of our wars since colonial times.
On December 13, 1636, the Massachusetts Bay Colony organized three regiments of militia to defend the colony against the growing attacks by the neighboring Pequot Indians.
The order by the government of the colony required that all males between 16 and 60 years of age own a gun and be ready to defend the community against attacks.
The Pequot War that followed had its origins in the tensions that arose between the Pequot and the colonists.
Pequot Indian Lands Squeezed by English in Massachusetts & Dutch in New York
As the English colonists of
Massachusetts, located to the east of the Pequot lands, expanded west
and the Dutch colonists in New York, located to the west, expanded
east, the Pequot watched as their lands shrunk. This naturally led to tensions between the Pequot tribe and the two sets of colonists. It was only a matter of time until the Pequots lost their patience.
A minor incident between a white trader and a small band of Pequot flared into a major territorial war. Failing to get other tribes to join them, the vastly outnumbered Pequot were soon vanquished and the tribe, as an entity, disappeared.
Thus began the American tradition of local militia.
Nearly a century and a half later, our Founding Fathers enshrined the tradition of a dual state and federal military for defense by making provision in the Constitution for the states to continue to maintain their militias.
Massachusetts Colonists Fighting Peuot Indians
George Washington Served as Commander of the Virginia Colonial Militia
Up until the American Revolution, it was the local militias that defended the frontier against attack and it was the local militia that fought alongside the British army against the French during the French and Indian Wars.
George Washington gained fame as a military leader while commanding the Virginia militia in the battle against Ft. Duquesne (site of modern Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). During the American Revolution it was the militia of the various colonies that provided the bulk of the troops that fought with the Continental Army, which was created by the Second Continental Congress, commanded by George Washington in our fight for Independence from Great Britain.
National Guard Has Fought Most of Our Nation's Wars
Following the American Revolution, the armed forces of the U.S. were small most of the time and it was the state militias that formed the bulk of our national defense.
Rather than having a large standing army, the nation relied on citizen soldiers who drilled in their spare time and left their homes and jobs when the nation was threatened.
This decentralized system was not only efficient but is also a recognition that the states are semi-sovereign entities that help counterbalance excessive centralization of power by the Federal Government.
General Custer was a Member of the Michigan State Militia
During peacetime the state militias, or National Guard as they are now known, are under the command of the governors of their respective states and the officer’s commissions, known as brevet commissions, are granted by their respective state legislature rather than Congress.
During wartime or other national emergency the President can nationalize National Guard units of one or more states and assign them to duty wherever necessary. The President of the United States then becomes the commander-in-chief of these units while they are in federal service. Officers in units that have been nationalized during a crisis are often given commissions by Congress as officers in the regular Army or Air Force reserves.
These Federal ranks are often lower than their state rank. General George Armstrong Custer, of Little Big Horn fame, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve but held the rank of Major General in the Michigan State militia.
Air National Guard Created After World War II
State militias originally consisted of army units. With the splitting off of the Army Air Corps into the Air Force following World War II, state militias (by then known as the National Guard) expanded to include Air as well as Army units.
While the militia in most states consists of just Army and Air Force units, a few states - New York, New Jersey, Alaska, Ohio, South Carolina an Texas also have an active Naval Militia to compliment their Army and Air Guard units. California also has an active Naval Militia but instead of sailors and ships the California Naval Militia consists of a small unit of military lawyers.
As mentioned above, the bulk of the soldiers in most of our Wars have been volunteers in their respective state militias who were mobilized for the war. It wasn’t until World Wars I and II and the Cold War that the regular military was expanded by conscription, also known as the military draft, to a size larger than the National Guard. Even in World Wars I and II there were numerous National Guard units fighting alongside the regular Army.
Complaints from Korean War Led to Near Exclusive Use of Federal Troops in Vietnam War
Following World War II it was again the National Guard and part-time citizen soldiers who make up the regular military’s reserve units (U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines – the Coast Guard is a part of the U.S. Treasury Department but, like the state militias, is temporarily transferred into service for the Defense Department during war time) who formed the bulk of the troops fighting in the Korean War.
Because of complaints about unfairness of calling National Guard and military reserve units, which were made up mainly of veterans of World War II, to fight again in the Korean War, we switched and relied mainly on the regular active duty military forces to fight the Viet Nam War.
Elimination of Military Draft Has Pushed National Guard to Forefront of Our National Defense Again
With the replacement of the draft with the all volunteer military following the Vietnam War, we again placed major reliance on the National Guard for defense.
As a result, the 1990s Gulf War and the current combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen the National Guard play a major role in providing the troops for these wars.
© 2006 Chuck Nugent