Revisiting the National Guard’s Lineage Part III

 Painting of early American national guard in battle

In part one of this series, I wrote about the selective American history that has been taught for generations in the United States. This version of history does not accurately portray our history, but as a nation we’re slowly getting a clearer picture.  

Part two of the series covered the fact that the Spanish colonial militias were the first European militias to muster in North America that could claim lineage to the modern National Guard.

I also wrote about how the English colonial militias in the 1600s, are considered to be the predecessors of the modern National Guard. In particular, the Massachusetts National Guard and the National Guard Bureau (NGB) both claim that four English militias from 1636 are the forebearers of several current Massachusetts National Guard units considered the “Nation’s First.” Those modern units have been given lineage honors by the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

I believe that the documents used to support the claim of the “Nation’s First” were created by NGB to ensure that Anglo-Saxon heritage secured its place in American history. Do I believe that there was a sinister plot to suppress the contributions of other cultures to the National Guard? No. Do I believe that implicit bias had something to do with NGB’s positioning of Anglo-Saxon militias in American history? Yes.

At the core of the Guard’s justification are four documents which NGB argues is proof of lineage. These documents are CMH products granting lineage and honors to four English militias dating back to 1636. These papers were created and are based from other historical documents that NGB allegedly has that show continuity from the English militias to modern-day National Guard units in Massachusetts.

Joseph Seymour, an Army National Guard historian with the CMH told me via e-mail: “We have copies of the original documentation for the four units organized in 1636, or references to the documents that are in Massachusetts repositories.”

Although I have not seen them, I don’t doubt that those documents exist. Seymour said that as soon as the government reopened that he would be more than happy to share them with me. Therefore, I do not doubt their existence. As I mentioned in part one of this series, those documents were created in 1956 as a result of the NGB’s request for lineage and honors from the CMH for four Massachusetts units.

My concern is that there are multiple historians, including several who worked for the National Guard, who have stated there is additional documentation showing musters in Florida in the 1500s, as I mentioned in part two of this series. If those documents exist in Florida, why weren’t they ever reviewed by NGB or CMH? Did NGB or CMH ever make a trip to Florida to examine the historical documents in Florida? I asked that question to multiple historians and to a public affairs officer at NGB. It was never answered. I did not take it as some kind of coverup, I assumed they just overlooked the question.

“The National Guard is rooted in law,” said Dr. Richard Dennis Harold Clark, an NGB historian via e-mail. “The earliest legislation creating an organized militia was the 13 December 1636 was passed by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This was the earliest legal document establishing a militia among any of the English, French, or Spanish colonies of North America.”

According to Clark and other historians at NGB, there are several elements that have to be present in order for a unit to be eligible for consideration as a militia. First, the unit must be organized.

“The organized militia is the National Guard and its predecessors,” Seymour said. “It means legally constituted units, and legally sanctioned commissions. The unorganized militia is the population under the Constitutional obligation to provide military service.”

The terminology is key because use of the word “organized” to legally define militias prevents the Spanish militias from being considered as the first militia to muster in America. Prior to 1903, militias in the American colonies were governed by the Militia Act of 1792. Before the 1792 Act, English militias were governed locally by the various colonies under the English flag. The Militia Act of 1792 helped the American colonies organize the militias into a tool that could be used as a federal entity when needed.

The criteria for “organized” militia also included a requirement that military units be structured in regiments. “The militia tradition meant citizens organizing themselves into military units, responsible for their own defense. Organizing the militia into regiments increased its efficiency and responsiveness, which proved critical for the defense of their communities,” according to the National Guard’s website.

In New Spain, comprised of North, South, and Central America, and islands in the Caribbean, Spanish militias were organized and mustered when needed. “In September 1565, the Spanish established St. Augustine,” author Michael D. Doubler wrote in his book, I am the Guard. As part of the organization of St. Augustine, the Spanish created a militia known as a “milicia.” That’s more than 70 years before the English.

“Early Spanish troops and milicias in Puerto Rico, Florida, and New Mexico were the first to introduce European military systems to North America,” Doubler wrote. The Spanish brought the militia system to the Americas, a system that was originally created by the Greeks and Romans, according to Doubler. “In the Southwest, the New Mexico Territory relied upon its Spanish milicia roots to develop a credible force of citizen-soldiers. The earliest militia forces came to New Mexico in April 1598 when Spanish adventurers first crossed the Rio Grande and took formal possession of the region,” Doubler wrote. That’s almost 40 years before the English.

Historians Robert Hawk and Doubler both have written about the early Spanish militias, including one that mustered in 1578. The roster from St. Augustine carries the names of 43 citizen-soldiers. Despite the existing evidence and the fact that those Spanish militias may have been organized, meaning, arranged in a systemic way, they were not structured into regiments and therefore NGB argues they are ineligible for consideration as militias by the CMH.

Somewhere along the way, the U.S. Army decided that unit lineage would be based upon the regiment in accordance with authorizing legislation. “Like British Army practice, Army National Guard unit lineage is further characterized by geographic basing and unbroken continuity of service; unit lineages represent the legal and historical basis of individual units,” according to a 2010 Army National Guard information paper. NGB historians did not explain when this criteria was selected and why.

The Militia Act of 1903, also known as the Dick Act, was authored by Charles W.F. Dick, a man the National Guard considers the “Father of the Modern National Guard.” Dick joined the Ohio Army National Guard in 1885. His regiment mobilized and served in the Spanish-American War in Cuba where Dick rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, he continued his service with the guard.

In 1898, Dick was elected to the U.S. Congress and he served as the chairman of the Militia Committee. Eventually, as a guardsman he attained the rank of major general and rose to become the leader of the Ohio National Guard. He was also president of the National Guard Association of the United States (a lobbying organization) for seven years while sitting as a member of congress.

It was the Dick Act’s language in 1903 that first introduced the concept of organized versus disorganized militia. Prior to that, states and territories could self-regulate their militias. The Dick Act codified what the federal government could do with state militias in times of national crises and it also branded the organized militias as National Guard.

According to the NGB, the language in the Dick Act, which identifies the National Guard as organized militia, and the U.S. Army’s requirement that units considered for lineage honors must have continuity of service and be organized in regiments, are the primary reasons why the English colonial militias were considered the forebearers of the modern National Guard over the Spanish militias.

“St. Augustine is recognized as the oldest, continuously inhabited European settlement in the continental United States,” Alison Simpson, command historian for the Florida National Guard said via e-mail. “At the time of St. Augustine’s founding in 1565, the Spanish laws governing colonial provinces authorized the civil governor and commander-in-chief of the military … to organize a militia.… While it is true that the governing bodies of St. Augustine and thus colonial Florida changed from Spanish to British to Spanish and finally American, in St. Augustine, the colonial capital, some residents chose to remain living in this community after each change of government. These individuals pledged an oath to the incoming government and in some cases, continued their service in the local militia companies. Thus, not only was the civil occupation of St. Augustine continuous, but its service by its resident civilian soldiers was also continuous.”

The fact that NGB historians currently support NGB’s historical posture from the 1950s doesn’t come as a big surprise. American institutions are notorious for pushing inaccurate and incomplete histories and many within those organizations don’t challenge the status quo because heritage is held in such high regard, especially in the military ranks.

Not long ago I interviewed the former national historian of the Civil Air Patrol for an article. As the historian for the organization, he bravely did a deep dive into the organization’s folklore that they had sunk German U-boats during World War II. Documents from the Nazi navy were reviewed and compared to other supporting documents from the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army Air Corps. The end result was that he debunked organizational legends that had been around for 75 years.

The Civil Air Patrol did not lie to the American public and it did not paint itself in a particular light, but somehow over the course of time, a certain culture took hold and the organization's history morphed into less than factual. The historian uncovered the truth and published his work in a U.S. Air Force journal. In my opinion, his research has not taken the luster off of an incredible American institution which contributed enormously to World War II.  

That said, I believe the National Guard has to revisit its birth date. The Dick Act was written by a man who fought against the Spanish so it is open to bias. The English militias currently aligned with the National Guard slaughtered hundreds of Native Americans. The Spanish militias in the 1500s included black militiamen according to historical documents from the Florida Department of Military Affairs and those black militiamen took up arms against the English multiple times, as did the Spanish. Was there a grudge against blacks and the Spanish that prevented them from being considered as having a larger role in the American militia's history? Should we rethink this lineage? At the very least, shouldn’t we reexamine the connective tissue? Is this really what we want the National Guard’s heritage to be and are we bound to history by documents created in 1956?

NGB and CMH use "rules" to determine lineage that were created by a few people a long time ago. What we call history today is the perspective of those few in 1956, a narrow vision of how they chose to view the National Guard’s lineage. Looking at the lineage today, in the historical context we know to be true, inclusivity broadens that picture and we recognize that the narrow view excludes other cultures and prevents them from becoming a part of American history.

We cannot get into discussions about why NGB chose to align itself with foreign militias in the first place. I can speculate that it was to ensure that an Anglo-Saxon heritage was guaranteed, but I can’t prove that. The folks that made those decisions are long gone. Who were they? I’ve asked that question and I was told that someone would get back to me, but that was about a month ago.

Most professional soldiers and historians I’ve talked to over my more than two decades in uniform state that the National Guard’s birth date should be the date when they were first aligned under an American flag, sometime in 1776, when the English colonial militias became American colonial militia. It is the first time that they were tasked with serving an American cause, not an English cause. The Massachusetts units transitioned from English colonial defense, to American revolt. Maybe the birth date of the National Guard should coincide with the birth date of our nation because from 1636 to 1776, 140 years, the militias were purely English, not American.

Like other chapters in American history that are being revisited, the birth date of the National Guard deserves a hard look. Implicit bias could have played a role in the alignment of the English militias to the National Guard. The Spanish Black Legend could have come into play and influenced some of the decisions and actions of National Guard and U.S. Army personnel. We can’t know for sure, but reexamining what we know to be “true” or “fact” might lead us to a more refined picture of what is history.         

In 1956, as the civil rights movement spilled into mainstream America, a historian at NGB filed paperwork requesting lineage and honors for Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, English colonial militias to be recognized as the first American units formed. The chief of the NGB at the time, it should be noted, had fought against Pancho Villa. The English militias that NGB sought to get recognized in the 1950s had not only fought against Native Americans, but also against the Spanish. And according to reports from the State of Florida, black militiamen, both free and slaves, also fought against the English colonies for Spain. It isn’t unreasonable to think that bias could come into play.

Clark agrees and says the leadership of the National Guard in the 1950s likely didn’t consider a lot of factors in selecting Massachusetts as the "Nation's First."

“To some extent, I also think the decision in the 1950s had to do with the black legend,” Clark said. “The black legend colors the opinions of most folks not intimately familiar with Spanish or Latin-American history. History always depends on your perspective.” 

Why would we as a nation, want to align ourselves with English colonies responsible for the massacre of women and children at the Mystic River? We may have ignored the past in the 1950s, but to do so now is a travesty. It is certainly not something that should be supported today. If this is a case of implicit bias, then the National Guard should fix it.

“The English, some may say Anglo-centric presentation of our nation’s history is the result of New England historians’ influence on early publications of U.S. history,” Simpson wrote in an e-mail to me. “The presentation of U.S. history has been biased in favor of the white, male-dominated story line. However, Florida historians and those who study the Spanish borderlands have made great strides in the past century to overcome the oversight of the important role of Spanish, African and other minorities in U.S. history. ... The narratives, transactions, court cases and cultural material that has literally been unearthed over the course of the past century has wielded an enormous amount of information to document how small our world really is,” Simpson added.

I’m not lobbying for the Spanish militias to get credit as the forebearers of the National Guard. I do believe they were the first to muster and that is well documented. Multiple sources support that claim. And I'm not blind to what the Spanish initially did to the people of the Americas in their time here. It was horrible. We just need to tell the complete story of our nation. I also think that the first American militias should be credited to Massachusetts starting in 1776 and not 1636. The National Guard Bureau, the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the U.S. Army and the Defense Department need to take a position on this topic.

Hopefully in part IV of this series, they will.

1 comment

Very interesting article, it appears to have been well researched. Like the author I always believed the Birth of the National Guard dated from 1776. If we go back to colonial times, then Spanish Colonies should be included.

Ricardo Flores,

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