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Founding of the National Guard

Citizen Soldiers

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.

National Guard Logo (Public Domain image courtesy of

National Guard Logo (Public Domain image courtesy of

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

Early engraving depicting Massachusetts Colonists fighting the Pequot Indians

Early engraving depicting Massachusetts Colonists fighting the Pequot 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.

Lt. Colonel George Washington of Virginia Colonial Militia during French & Indian War (Public Domain Image courtesy of

Lt. Colonel George Washington of Virginia Colonial Militia during French & Indian War (Public Domain Image courtesy of

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.

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General George Armstrong Custer (Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives

General George Armstrong Custer (Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives

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.

Logo of the Air National Guard (Public Domain Photo, courtesy of

Logo of the Air National Guard (Public Domain Photo, courtesy of

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


Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on September 15, 2012:

You are correct about the Federal funding of the National Guard. However, except when the President of the U.S. calls a state National Guard unit into Federal Service, the Governor of a state is the commander of that state's National Guard. It is my understanding that, unlike the members of the reserve units of the U.S. armed forces who can be called to duty individually or as a unit, the President must call up an entire unit rather than individual members. Also, officers in the National Guard receive their commission from the state and that rank is not recognized outside of the state unless the individual has a Federal Commission as a reserve officer from Congress as well.

Granted, today's National Guard is not an exact duplicate of the original seventeenth century colonial units but it is still in the tradition of citizen soldiers and our tradition of power divided between State and Federal governments.

Lukn on September 11, 2012:

How can any one believe the Hype about the National Guard even Resembling the "State Militas", the True BackBone of indivigual state first responder forces founded in the 1600s.. In 1916 the "National Guard" came into being,, They are Federally Funded, Housed, Clothed, and ARMED by the Federal Government, Not under the jurisdiction of Our US Military Command OR Even State governments, But a federal police force Answerable to the current president/and or current administration,, Search it out,, Do Not just swollow the swell poured down your throats By politicians that are Just as CLUELESS as are Most Americas Citizens!!!!

frogyfish from Central United States of America on May 23, 2009:

Good job Chuck. We owe a lot for freedom!

Astride Knighted on April 22, 2009:

Good Job! I'm a Guard retiree and have been exposed to a lot of the history that you recounted. keep them coming.

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