Today Wisconsin joins the rest of the nation in celebrating the birthday of the National Guard — a unique, versatile and adaptive force of men and women who live and work in communities across the country. Standing ready to help when called upon, the National Guard has a dual mission, serving the governor as the state’s first military responder, and also serving as the primary combat reserve of the Army and Air Force.
On this date in 1636, men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony — an English settlement spanning parts of modern Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire — assembled for their first muster. This formation of citizens to train and prepare to quickly defend their settlement by strength of arms, in addition to their regular vocations, is considered the birthday of the National Guard.
The militia concept is many centuries older than the Massachusetts Bay Colony, of course. The Saxons brought the concept to England in the 5th century A.D., and the French and Spanish imported the practice of raising community militias to their New World settlements prior to the arrival of English settlers. The first permanent English settlement, Jamestown, had its own militia which quickly adapted from European battlefield tactics to those better suited to confront the guerilla-styled attacks of Native American bands.
For much of its history, militia service was compulsory for free men between the ages of 15 and 60. Militia members also had to supply their own weapons and equipment.
With more settlements being established in the New England region, the Massachusetts General Council directed the formation of North America’s first militia regiments. Fifteen towns raised companies of approximately 100 men each to build three regiments — north, south and east. In August of 1645, after a war with a Native American tribe, the Massachusetts General Council directed roughly one-third of its militia to maintain a nearly constant rate of readiness. The concept of the Minuteman had begun.
After the War of 1812, American militias transitioned from mandatory service to volunteer units, often funded by membership dues. Fancy uniforms and fancier names — think Zouaves, Dragoons and Grenadiers — began to appear, while other militia units organized along ethnic or cultural lines. In 1824, a New York volunteer militia artillery battalion began calling itself the “Battalion of National Guards” after a visit from France’s Marquis de Lafayette, an American Revolutionary War hero. In 1861, Connecticut was the first to call its militia units “National Guard,” and by 1879, most state militias were known as National Guard.
Militia units served in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, and states raised volunteer units for the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. Volunteer units were also raised for the Spanish American War, but the first volunteers were drawn from existing Guard and militia units. As conflicts with Native American tribes waned, militia units were increasingly called upon to enforce the peace and settle labor disputes — particularly after the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act prohibited the regular Army from doing so. But the state militias, led by the National Guard Association, began to push for the mission of being the Army’s combat reserve.
The Militia Act of 1903 finally repealed the 1792 Militia Act. The National Guard officially replaced volunteer militia units, though the Guard would still be governed by the Division of Militia Affairs. Guard units received federal funding and equipment, and Guard units began to conform to federal training and organization standards. However, some Army leaders wanted to do away with the National Guard in favor of a million-man Continental Army to address stateside security matters.
Congress did not support the Continental Army proposal, and a crisis at the Mexican border rendered the issue moot. The National Defense Act of 1916 envisioned an Army consisting of regular, National Guard and Army Reserve components. In a national emergency, National Guard troops would be drafted individually into the Army, and then serve in their Guard units as part of the Regular Army. All state militia were now known as National Guard, and the regular Army gained authority over the composition of Guard units.
Barely two weeks after the National Defense Act became law, National Guard units were called to federal service to protect the southern border as active Army troops pursued Pancho Villa in Mexico after Villa’s deadly raid on Columbus, New Mexico. This massive and rapid mobilization, which would affect the entire National Guard, revealed weaknesses in logistics and preparation, but succeeded in securing the border from reprisals and gave Guard members extensive field experience which would prove valuable in 1917, when the U.S. declared war against Germany.
The ability to quickly compose a massive fighting force by drawing from the National Guard was essential to the United States’ efforts in World War I. Further, of the eight American divisions the German High Command considered especially effective, six came from the National Guard. The Guard had proven its worth in combat.
As war raged across Europe, the National Guard would again be called to federal service in 1940 to augment the full-time military which had been operating at peacetime strength levels. Still at the end of World War II, Secretary of War Robert Patterson said the National Guard doubled the Army’s strength at once, and its conduct in the field of battle reassured the American public.
“The soldiers of the Guard fought in every action in which the Army participated from Bataan to Okinawa,” Patterson wrote. “They made a brilliant record on every fighting front. They proved once more the value of the trained citizen-soldier.”
In 1947 the U.S. Air Force was established, and with it the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard. The need for fully trained Soldiers to respond quickly during the Cold War resulted in National Guard and Army Reserve Soldiers attending basic training on active Army installations beginning in 1956. This freed up time for unit training, and Guard units began to shift their training meetings from weekday evenings to weekends — though the National Guard Bureau did not mandate weekend training until 1966.
The National Guard played a role in integration in the 1950s and 1960s, helping enforce school integration as well as admitting women into its ranks. In response to the Berlin Crisis of 1961, Congress authorized calling up to a quarter-million National Guard and Reserve troops to federal duty. Though reserve units did not deploy overseas, their rapid mobilization and success at training sites sent an important Cold War message.
The end of military conscription in the early 1970s combined with Gen. Creighton Abram’s Total Force Doctrine to establish an all-volunteer military that relied heavily on the National Guard and reserves. The effectiveness of this doctrine was put to the test in 1990, when National Guard units saw their largest mobilization in decades for Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
“Subsequent to the adoption of the Total Force Policy in 1973 and until 22 August 1990, no unit or individual of either the Selected Reserve or the Individual Ready Reserve had been involuntarily called to active duty,” Stephen Duncan, assistant defense secretary for Reserve affairs, wrote in a 1991 report. “The responsiveness to Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm by American reserve forces and their performance, in what has been described as ‘the largest, fastest mobilization since World War II,’ was remarkably successful by any standard.”
In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s, the National Guard entered into partnership agreements with former Soviet bloc nations. That program has expanded globally, and National Guard organizations in each state share their expertise with their counterparts in 84 countries across five continents.
The National Guard was integral to the global war on terror and subsequent operations beginning in 2001, whether patrolling the nation’s airspace or deploying overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan. They also responded to stateside emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As this unprecedented period in the history of the National Guard began to close, the COVID-19 pandemic saw the Guard put to extensive use for state missions — collecting samples for testing, administering vaccines, and even providing medical care for some facilities due to a healthcare worker shortage.
Over the past two decades, the National Guard has clearly demonstrated its value as the first military responder at the state level and primary combat reserve at the federal level.
“The National Guard stands separate and distinct from the other federal reserve forces of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines,” said Michael Doubler in his book I Am the Guard: A History of the Army National Guard. “National Guard troops serve at the direction of the state governors until the U.S. president orders them to active federal service for either domestic emergencies or overseas service.”
Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, explained what makes the National Guard so effective when he became the director of the Army National Guard in 2019.
“From the first muster in 1636 to today, our world has seen an incredible transformation and the introduction of new frontiers never imagined by those who gathered on that December day in Salem, Massachusetts,” Hokanson said. “With all the changes nearly four centuries have brought with them, what has made the National Guard great remains the same — that’s our people.”
Today, approximately 455,000 Soldiers and Airmen in all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia serve in the National Guard, connecting communities across the country with the vital role of national defense.
“They represent a proud patriotic tradition,” Hokanson said recently.