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The Early Militia

South Carolina had a plantation economy, but its settlers came from Barbados and brought a large slave population with them. Its militia followed the example of Barbados and placed a heavy emphasis on controlling the slaves. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, did not pass a law establishing a mandatory militia until 1777. The differences in the militia establishments among these colonies in part explain later variations in organizing units for the Continental Army in 1775-76.

The history of the Army National Guard began on December 13, 1636 when the Massachusetts Bay Colony organized three militia regiments to defend against the growing threat of the Pequot Indians. Patterned after the English Militia systems, all males between 16 and 60 were obligated to own arms and take part in the defense of the community. The National Guard continues its historic mission of providing defense of the nation.

The oldest units in the National Guard and U.S. Army are the 181st Infantry, the 182nd Infantry, 101st Field Artillery and the 101st Engineer Battalion. These units were organized on December 13, 1636, by authority of the General Court at Boston, as the North, South and East Regiments. The 181st and 182nd Infantry Regiments perpetuate the North Regiment. The 101st Engineer Battalion perpetuates the East Regiment and the 101st Field Artillery Regiment perpetuates the South Regiment. These units are among the world's oldest military units.

English military institutions formed part of the cultural inheritance which the first colonists brought to America. Immigrants and occasional contact with the British Army kept the colonists informed about newer developments. The most important of the inherited institutions was the militia, which dated back to Anglo-Saxon times, but the specific conditions of colonial settlement produced important modifications. Other variations crept in as the defensive needs of the colonies began to outstrip the capabilities of the militia.

The Tudors had revived the English militia in the sixteenth century as an inexpensive alternative to a large permanent army. They used the traditional universal obligation to serve in the defense of the realm as a basis for sustaining a body of voluntary "trained bands." The members of the general population acted as a reserve force through their possession of arms, and various fines levied on them in relation to their obligations furnished financial support for the trained bands. The county lords lieutenant provided organization, geographical identity, and central direction.

The first settlements in Virginia, Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Connecticut all recruited professional soldiers to act as military advisers. The colonists recognized from the beginning that both the Indians and England's European rivals posed potential threats. The Jamestown trading post organized itself into a virtual regimental garrison, complete with companies and squads. Plymouth, on the advice of Miles Standish, organized four companies of militia within two years of its founding. The Massachusetts Bay Colony profited from the experiences of the earlier settlements. In 1629 its first expedition left England for Salem with a militia company already organized and equipped with the latest weapons.

During the course of the seventeenth century the colonists adapted the English militia system to meet their own particular needs. Several regional patterns emerged. In the Chesapeake Bay area a plantation economy took root, leading to dispersed settlement. Virginia and Maryland formed their militia companies from all the residents of a particular area. In New England religion and a different economy led to a town-based residential system. Each town formed one or more militia companies as soon as possible after establishing its local government.

South Carolina had a plantation economy, but its settlers came from Barbados and brought a large slave population with them. Its militia followed the example of Barbados and placed a heavy emphasis on controlling the slaves. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, did not pass a law establishing a mandatory militia until 1777. The differences in the militia establishments among these colonies in part explain later variations in organizing units for the Continental Army in 1775-76.

Growth in each colony soon led to innovations. In Massachusetts, for example, an excess of noncommissioned officers over European norms allowed for forming subordinate elements, or "demi-companies," which received a field test in a 1635 punitive expedition against Indians on Block Island.

Another modification of the European heritage occurred in the choice of weapons. Wilderness conditions accentuated the flintlock musket's advantages. By 1675 nearly every colony required its militiamen to own flintlocks rather than matchlocks: American armies thus completed this transition a quarter of a century before European armies. Many colonists hunted, but few had ever fought in a formal line of battle. Militia training consequently stressed individual marksmanship rather than massed firing at an area, which had been the norm in the Old World.

A specific byproduct of this emphasis was the refinement of the rifle - a hunting weapon with German roots - by gunsmiths in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania rifle was longer than the standard musket but had a smaller bore (usually .45-caliber). Grooves, or rifling, cut into the barrel imparted spin to the ball and allowed a trained marksman to hit targets at up to 400 yards. As a military weapon the rifle was effective in skirmishing, but its slow rate of fire and lack of a bayonet placed riflemen at a disadvantage in open terrain.

By the eighteenth century the colonial militia, like the English trained bands, was armed with flintlocks and was organized geographically. The southern colonies with one regiment per county were closest to the "shire" system; the more densely populated northern colonies normally formed several regiments in each county. Most colonies gave both administrative and command responsibilities to the colonel of each regiment and dispensed with the office of county lieutenant. Local elites in both the mother country and America dominated the militia officer positions, whether elected or appointed, just as they controlled all other aspects of society.

The biggest difference between the English trained bands and the colonial militia was the latter's more comprehensive membership. Few free adult males were exempted by law from participating: the clergy, some conscientious objectors, and a handful of other special groups. This situation was the result of the first settlers' immediate need for local defense, a need absent in England since the days of the Spanish Armada.

In the English Colonies the militia's mission was to defend the settlement and colony in case of attack. Each militiaman was required to drill several times a month and to provide his own arms and equipment. As the threat of attack diminished, English colonial authorities began to use militiamen to augment regular troops in campaigns against French colonial possessions. During the French and Indian War several hundred militia officers gained valuable experience which they later used in the Revolutionary War.

During the Revolutionary War that began at Lexington and Concord on April 19,1775, more than 164,000 militiamen from the 13 colonies served under the command of the former Virginia militia colonel, George Washington. Without the militia, American independence could not have been won. While the Continental Army, with militia support, fought the main battles of the Revolutionary War, other militia regiments kept British forces in check by harassing, foraging and raiding parties and limiting the royal troops to the cities.

The colonial militiamen held their fire as seven British regiments, considered the best infantry in the world, advanced on them. One officer cautioned his men, "Do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes!" With discipline and courage the militiamen waited... and fired. The British, anticipating an easy victory, sustained many casualties. The American militia proved to the world that civilian volunteers could be molded into trained fighting men, thus forging the high tradition of the National Guard.

Primarily the militia fought the battles of Bunker Hill, King's Mountain, Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse. The American militia won grudging respect from British regulars. Lord Cornwallis officially reported in 1781, "I will not say much in praise of the Militia of the Southern colonies, but the list of British Officers & Soldiers killed & wounded by them since last June proves that they are not wholly contemptible."

On October 19, 1781, when Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, former militiamen of the Maryland, Delaware and Virginia Lines were there. Twenty-eight of today's Army National Guard units carry battle streamers on their colors embroidered with the names of the battles of the Revolutionary War: Lexington, Boston, Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Cowpens, Monmouth, Guilford Courthouse and Yorktown.

After the war, the militia was governed by the Militia Act of 1792. States were required to enroll men between the ages of 18 and 45 into companies, regiments and brigades. Each state appointed an adjutant general and brigade inspectors. As the enrolled militia declined in importance, the volunteer companies of the organized militia grew in strength. These uniformed, trained and equipped units, grew to a strength of 25,000 by 1804.

In the defeat of St. Clair a vanguard of three hundred Kentucky militia, good marksmen and accustomed to forest adventures, broke at the first fire, and carried confusion into the main body. At Tippecanoe the militia, eight hundred ami fifty strong, was supported by three hundred and fifty regulars, while the Shawnee warriors were not numerous, and their war-chief was absent.

The Marquis de Lafayette, who commanded a Virginia brigade during America's War of Independence, coined the phrase "Garde Nationale" for his French Revolutionary Army during the French Revolution in the 1790's. Lafayette popularized the term in the United States, during a return visit in 1824, by applying it to all organized militia units in America. The term immediately began to appear in newspapers and magazines as popular slang for the militia.

The 2nd Battalion, 11th Regiment of Artillery, New York Militia, voted to rename itself the "Battalion of National Guards" in 1824 in tribute to Lafayette's command of the Paris militia. New York, by state statute, adopted the term National Guard for its militia during the Civil War. Many states followed New York's lead after the Civil War by renaming their militias "National Guard." The term was not recognized as the militia's formal title by federal legislation until the 1916 National Defense Act.

Following the admission of Texas into the Union in December 1845, a dispute rose between Texas and Mexico over the southern border of the new state. This resulted in the Mexican War of 1846-1848, with more than 73,000 militiamen called into federal service. On February 23, 1847, a regiment of Mississippi militiamen, the famed "Mississippi Rifles," led by their commander, Colonel Jefferson Davis, defeated a much larger Mexican force in hand-to-hand combat in the mountains near Buena Vista, Mexico. The defeat of the Mexicans at Buena Vista enabled the U.S. forces to continue their assault, resulting in the capture of Vera Cruz in March 1847 by General Winfield Scott and his 12,000 troops, two-thirds of whom were militiamen.

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Page last modified: 05-02-2018 13:19:26 ZULU