The History of the U.S. National Guard
The National Guard of the United States is not only the only branch of the U.S. military whose existence is outlined by the U.S. Constitution, but it is also home to the oldest units in the U.S. military, tracing back its origin to the first militia regiments organized in North America in colonial Massachusetts, 1636.
Today, more than 1.4 million reservists represent each state of the Union – as well as the territories of Guam, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia – for 54 active units. “Civilian in Peace, Soldier in War,” a Guard Soldier holds a civilian job or attends college while maintaining his or her military training part time. A Guard Soldier’s primary area of operation is his or her home state, and enlistment lasts for 8 years, with varying degrees of training and deployment.
The National Guard is a joint activity of the United States Department of Defense (DoD) and operates under a combined jurisdiction of both state and federal governments. The Guard stands “Always Ready” to mobilize and responds to domestic emergencies, overseas combat missions, counterdrug efforts, reconstruction missions, and more. Any state governor or the President of the United States can call on the Guard in a moment’s notice.
Local militias have been an important part of colonial life in the New World since the first explorers. It is believed the first muster of a militia force in North America took place on September 16, 1565, in the Spanish military town of St. Augustine. Local militiamen were assigned to guard the expedition's supplies while the enlisted troops went north to attack a French settlement at Fort Caroline.
At the same time, civilian colonists, far from their federal government across the ocean, were creating their own reserve military forces that could mobilize in time of need. On December 13, 1636, the Massachusetts Bay Colony organized three militia regiments to defend against the growing threat of the Pequot Indians, an event that today is celebrated as the origin of the Army National Guard. After the birth of the new United States in 1776, the young government continued to maintain only a minimal army and instead relied on state militias – that corresponded to the earlier Colonial militias – to supply the majority of its troops.
This approach remained until the early 1900s, but not without challenges. The nature of state-held militias left room for some discrepancies, not only in regard to training and operation, but in regard to how and when a militia would participate in federal conflicts. For example, during the War of 1812, members of the New York Militia refused to fight the British in Canada, arguing their only responsibility was to defend their home state. In another example, Governor Martin Chittenden unsuccessfully attempted to recall Vermont's militia from the defense of Plattsburgh, believing that it was illegal for them to operate outside Virginia’s state borders.
Finally, after the Spanish–American War in 1898, the U.S. Congress was called upon to reform and regulate the training and qualification of state militias, and to resolve the issue of state versus federal control for state militias. Five years later, Congress passed the Militia Act of 1903, also known as the Dick Act, named after proponent Senator Charles Dick, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and longtime National Guard member who attained the rank of Major General in the Ohio National Guard.
The new act codified the circumstances under which the National Guard could be federalized, and provided federal funds for state militias to update equipment, increase training, and even host annual summer encampments. In return, the National Guard units began to organize their units more like regular Army units, and worked to meet the same training, education, and readiness requirements as active duty units.
During World War I, Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1916, which officially designated the term "National Guard" for the state militias, and authorized the states to optionally maintain “Home Guards” that could operate outside the deployment jurisdiction of the federal government. In 1933, Congress passed the National Guard Mobilization Act, finalizing the split between the National Guard and the traditional state militias, and mandating that all federally funded soldiers take a dual enlistment/commission in both the state National Guard and the National Guard of the United States.
Today, many states still maintain robust state guard programs, like in Texas, where the Texas Army National Guard, the Texas Air National Guard, and the Texas State Guard all operate under the command of the Governor and are administered by the state’s Adjutant General, an appointee of the Governor. Interestingly, the state National Guard for the District of Columbia is under orders of the President of the United States or his designee.
In addition to supporting the national security of the United States, the National Guard may be called up for active duty by the governors to help respond to domestic emergencies and disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. Today the National Guard is also beginning work against cyber intrusions, leveraging the skills National Guardsmen acquire in their civilian roles to help support national security.
The National Guard of the United States continues to serve as an important element in the security of the United States and for freedom-loving people everywhere, ensuring the our nation always stands ready to respond when needed to any emergency, domestic or abroad, thanks to American Guardsmen.
Written by Megan Hammons