The Army National Guard Begins

The National Guard Begins

The National Guard will turn 378 years old this year. The history of the National Guard is really the history of America itself. The roots of the Guard go back to the various colonial militias organized by English colonists in the 1600s.

Continental Army
Militia in the French & Indian War

The name “National Guard” was first applied to units of the New York State Militia. It was a tribute to the Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de Lafayette, during his visit to the U.S. in 1825. After the American Revolution, the Marquis returned to France where he commanded the Paris militia, the famous “Garde Nationale,” during the French Revolution (Snook 2001).

Whether as militiamen or Guardsmen, citizen-soldiers have played a central role in every major military conflict in our nation’s history. The topic of National Guard history has been generally overlooked by professional historians. There are only a few good general histories of the National Guard, the most notable being “The Minute Man in Peace and War” by Jim Dan Hill. It is the objectives of my blog posts this week to, at least partially, fill that void.

The Roots of the Militia

In the history of Western Civilization, the concept of armed citizens finds its roots in ancient Greece. As seen in the movie, “The 300,” the Greek city-states required military service of all able-bodied, free male citizens. Such service was usually of short-duration (a few months at most because many of the militia were farmers) fought locally to defend their own lands and city-state. The word militia comes from the Latin word miles, meaning “soldier,” (Doubler 2001).

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the tradition of the militia endured in Britain. The basic tenet of the British militia was two points. The first was citizen-soldiers had to provide their own weapons. Second, the real value of the militia was its ability to mass a great number of armed citizens at critical points on short notice (Doubler 2001).

Over the next several hundred years the British monarch never had a standing army for fear of being overthrown of in a coup. Each shire (county) required a local noblemen called a “Lord Lieutenant” to be responsible for arming and mustering the local militia and to conduct periodic training.

Early in the 17th century as England began to turn its attention to the New World it relied more and more on foreign mercenaries for its overseas adventures. This was due to the restrictions placed on the militia from serving away from its local geographical area.

The Militia in the New World

The Spanish were the first to introduce European military institutions to the New World. Almost 80 years before the English established its first militia the Spanish founded St. Augustine, the oldest permanent European settlement on the North American continent. An early militia roster in 1578 carries the names of 43 citizen-soldiers (Doubler 2001).

Over the next 100 years Spain relied on local colonists to defend St. Augustine and Spanish Regular Soldiers (full-time) to defend its colonies from Indian uprisings and various intrusions by the English and French.

Eventually late in the 17th Century the French began committing soldiers to its ventures in the New World as the population of both the English and Spanish settlers grew.

The National Guard is Founded

The military organization known today as the National Guard came into existence with a direct declaration on December 13, 1636. The Massachusetts General Court in Salem, for the first time on the North American continent, established that all able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60 were required to join the militia. Simply stated, citizen-soldiers who mustered for military training could be & would be called upon to fight when needed (Snook 2001).

The First Muster

The history of the United States National Guard is parallel to the development of the Western military. The American military is a hybrid of European traditions, democratic revolutions & unique that has continued to serve the same democracy for over 200 years.

The American Revolutionary War

In the American Revolution a ragtag group of farmers defeated what was considered the best army in the army at that time. During the colonial period (1607-1775), the militia of the various colonies defended the settlers while they were establishing themselves in America & helped England eliminate the French from North America.

This approach of warfare was perfected in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the name for the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War. This world-wide conflict was fought between Britain and France forces (Powers 2014).

Many of the leaders of the future Continental Army, including a young Major Washington, would get their first taste of combat fighting under British generals as American Militia. When the American Colonies decided to revolt the English the King sent 30,000 British Regulars to deal w/ the Americans.

The American Way of Fighting

A common myth is that the American militia won the war firing from behind the cover of wall, trees & houses. The lore states American militia pored musket fire into the advancing Redcoats who stood there & died. When the American Revolution happened the British had 75 years of experience fighting in North America & were used to guerilla tactics.

Behind the Wall

General Washington did use a strategy of harassment to grind down the British forces instead of seeking a decisive battle. Most battles were fought using linear tactics, they would fire volleys & often stood in lines engaging each other. The Continental Army & the militia mastered the art of 18th century warfare at Valley Forge under the instruction of Baron Frederick von Steuben, a Prussian Officer (Doubler 2001).

The Continental Army won the war by standing in ranks, trading volleys & capturing battlefields at bayonet point. In Europe at the end of the 18th Century & the beginning of the 19th Century a serious of battles occurred known as the Napoleonic Wars. Great Britain & France fought for European supremacy, and treated weaker powers heavy-handedly.


War of 1812

The U.S. attempted to remain neutral during the Napoleonic period, but eventually became embroiled in the European conflicts, leading to the War of 1812 against Great Britain. 24 current units of the Army National Guard perpetuate the lineages of militia units mustered into federal service during the War of 1812.

The Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1815 and was the final major battle of the War of 1812.[
The Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812
Throughout the 1820’s & 1830’s territorial legislatures decided that militias were needed. The formation of units was haphazard. In a town, township or county, a group of men would form themselves into a company of infantry or cavalry to decide on a name then send a letter of introduction to the territorial governor requesting weapons & supplies. The unit names often were quite colorful: Bend Rangers; Polk Cavalry Guards; or Portland Rifle Company; Mounted Dragoons (Snook 2001).


Doubler, Michael D. I Am The Guard: A History of the National Guard, 1636-2000. Washington D.C. : U.S. Government Printing Office , 2001.

Powers, Rod. History of the Army National Guard. April 1, 2014.

Snook, David L. History of the Iowa National Guard. New York : Simon & Schuster, 2001.

State University of New York, Albany. HIstory of the Army National Guard . Albany, New York : State University of New York Press, Albany , 2006.