The Depot

The National Guard Birthday

Painting of early American militia fighting redcoats

The National Guard turns 384 years old on December 13 celebrating the service and sacrifices made by its men and women in communities, states, territories and around the world. The National Guard birthday marks a significant milestone in the nation’s development of military forces.

“The Guard,” as it is affectionately known to many in uniform, has served in all U.S. wars, responded to state and national emergencies, and they are usually one of the first entities to enter natural disaster areas in the aftermath of flooding, hurricanes, fires, tornadoes, earthquakes and other tragic events. In June 2020, nearly 84,000 guardsmen were engaged in domestic efforts involving natural disasters, COVID-19, counterdrug missions and responding to civil unrest across all states and territories and the District of Columbia, according to the Defense Department. As we prepare to celebrate the National Guard birthday, they are still on duty all around the world.

The missions the Guard performs today are far more complex than the role they served centuries ago, but at their core, they are the same in purpose. The Guard supports its local communities no different than the early American militias supported their villages in Colonial America. Like today, militiamen responded to emergencies whenever their towns called them to muster.

Historians in the National Guard Bureau and the U.S. Army Center of Military History claim that the Army National Guard can trace its lineage back to 1636 when English colonial militias were formed to fight against the Pequot tribe in Massachusetts. However, other historians, including the Florida National Guard historian, have argued that the oldest European militias with lineage to current American military forces are the Spanish militias which are a part of the Florida National Guard’s history dating back to 1565 when Spanish militias first mustered in St. Augustine, Florida. Some historians, including some in the National Guard, believe that Spanish Black Legend may have influenced the National Guard Bureau’s 1950s decision to credit Massachusetts militias as the first European militias to muster in North America.

While the date of the National Guard birthday can be debated, the fact that the National Guard is nearly 140 years older than the U.S. Army is a point of pride for the National Guard. In 1636, the first Anglo-Saxon militia regiments in North America were organized in Massachusetts based on an order of the Massachusetts Bay Colony General Court.

The militia was organized into three regiments to defend the colony. The descendants of those first regiments, the 181st Infantry, 182nd Infantry, 101st Field Artillery, and the 101st Engineer Battalion of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, are considered by the National Guard Bureau to be the oldest units in the U.S. military and some of the oldest military units in the world. December 13, 1636, the date those three militias mustered, marks the National Guard birthday, according to the National Guard Bureau and the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

What colonial militiamen called a “muster,” National Guard personnel now call “drill.” The English militias first mustered in Salem, Massachusetts, three months after the general court had ordered their assembly and that date is now known as the National Guard birthday by the National Guard Bureau.

Painting of US national guard helicopter over buring buildings

According to National Guard historians, the militia concept was one used by the Romans. The Spanish used militia, or “milicia” in the 1500s when they explored the world more than 70 years earlier than the English. Citizens were responsible for organizing themselves into military units and providing their own defense against threats. There weren’t uniforms or even uniformity of weapons and supplies.

When conditions for the Revolutionary War began to form, the English militias switched flags, like the colonial citizenry, and they became American militias. It was colonial militia at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts that fired the first rounds in the War of American Independence against British troops in April 1775. Those English militia turned American militias would join the newly formed Continental Army and serve alongside of the newly minted national army which had formed in June 1775. This distinction is often justifiably celebrated during the National Guard birthday.

The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and it created a new nation. Colonists once former British subjects, became Americans. The new American nation, as a whole, did not claim its lineage and birthdate to those first Anglo Saxons who arrived in the 1600s because those English colonists were still subjects of the British crown. America used July 4, 1776 as its birthday. However, the National Guard Bureau aligns its military lineage with the English colonial militias and not April 1775 when the English colonial militias officially took up arms against the British crown and they became American militias. The National Guard Bureau does not recognize April 19, 1775 as the National Guard birthday.

The National Defense Act of June 1916, signed by President Woodrow Wilson mandated use of the term “National Guard,” a term which had been used by New York’s militia before the Civil War. The law expanded the size and scope of the network of states’ militias and it defined the National Guard’s role as a permanent reserve force to augment active forces. The law also brought the militias under greater federal control and gave the president authority to mobilize National Guard forces for national emergencies.

Painting of jet pilot looking on burning pentagon building

The National Guard birthday is separate from the birthday of the Air National Guard which is September 18, 1947, the same as the birthday of the U.S. Air Force. On this date, the National Security Act of 1947 authorized legislation for the U.S. Air Force and the Air National Guard. National Guard Army Air Forces transferred to the Air National Guard as a reserve component of the Air Force.

The oldest Air National Guard unit is the 102nd Rescue Squadron of the New York Air National Guard. This unit was originally organized in the New York National Guard as the Aero Company, Signal Corps, on Nov. 22, 1915. The oldest Air National Guard unit in continuous service is the 109th Airlift Squadron of the Minnesota Air National Guard. It was organized as the 109th Observation Squadron Jan. 17, 1921.

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