Forged by Necessity, Strengthened by Resolve and Purpose: the National Guard celebrates its 377th birthday

  • Published
  • By Bill Boehm
  • National Guard Bureau
The National Guard as the organized militia of the United States was born in Boston, Mass, on December 13, 1636. On that day, the Mass, General Court declared that the colony's existing militia companies were to be organized into three regiments: the North, South, and East regiments. Four Army National Guard units are descended from these original regiments, and are the oldest units in the United States military. They are the 101st Engineer Battalion, the 101st Field Artillery Regiment, the 181st Infantry Regiment, and the 182nd Infantry Regiment.

Citizen-Soldiers assembled for military training on the Salem common in spring 1637 at the "First Muster" of a militia regiment. This event is commemorated by the Massachusetts National Guard every first Saturday in April. It is a harbinger of the spring throughout the Commonwealth and New England, alongside Patriots Day on April 15.

Living amidst a rugged landscape, and with the specter of disease and poor sanitation rampant, the populace of the Massachusetts Bay Colony realized their salvation lay in unity. Maintaining one common defense and a emphasizing a shared purpose to survive proved most critical. Once the colonists fulfilled that initial basic set of needs, they could then make the settlements thrive beyond the provision of essential wants.

England then offered no additional protections. Self-sufficiency proved instrumental. At this time in the early 17th century, other European nations could not be relied upon for any sort of protection since they pursued their own colonial aims elsewhere in North America.

Colony leaders taught the latest military tactics. Men in the regiments exercised per instructions and practiced to ensure proficiency in case some peril intervened. The nearby Pequot Indian tribe became the first threat in 1638, as they raided settlements in both Massachusetts and Connecticut. The effectiveness of militia training enabled the settlements to withstand these incursions. Self-defense established a measure of confidence to small villages. This common goal of stability, bonded through regular preparedness training, enabled colonists to provide defense to their own communities.

From those simple beginnings, the militia system grew among the other colonies along the East Coast. Continually functioning militias in Virginia, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maryland, and Rhode Island used their own local customs to defend their populations. Such expansion typified the rise of the original 13 colonies as a force with which the British crown had to reckon, as political and social conflict prompted the Declaration of Independence in July 1776. By then, it was not just the threat of native populations that occupied militias, but also the threat of standing forces that exacted a range of hardships toward a population once wholly loyal to the Crown.

By the 19th Century, militias remained a local fixture. The term "National Guard" came to replace "militia," first prompted as a tribute to the Marquis de Lafayette's 1825 visit to the United States. Lafayette, General George Washington's trusted confidante, belonged to the "Guarde Nacional" in France, and as the nation grew, states assembled militias or defense forces that became known as National Guards, each representing the states and territories.

The National Guard still holds true in upholding the unique characteristics that enabled its success from the bleak Massachusetts frontier of the mid-17th century. Advances in transportation, communication, disease mitigation and other changes have made readiness and preparation central to a common defense. This in turn has prompted the institution of high standards of professionalism and diverse proficiency, which evolved over three centuries working in communities across the United States.

The National Guard of today consists of Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen that provide protection from natural disaster and other hazards, who train regularly to sharpen readiness skills in the name of benefitting their local communities. It has also developed into an active, ready force deploying to faraway countries to protect the national interests of the United States abroad. That unique dual-status posture remains constant.

But the Guard's core remains that of a community institution, whose primary concern is to provide ready and trained forces for times of crisis. One recent example of this took place on April 15, 2013 in Boston, when soldiers from the Massachusetts National Guard answered the call to action when two bombs detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon that afternoon. Guard members present at the road race immediately responded those people impacted at the scene of the bombing. They provided aid to wounded spectators, and also lent necessary assistance to all branches of law enforcement in the bombing's aftermath along with their brethren from New York and Rhode Island. The Guard serves as an unbroken chain of service to community, state, and the United States of America, a light of assurance in the wake of traumatic events.

In September 2013, the united effort of National Guards from neighboring Wyoming and Utah helped steady the state of Colorado from some of its worst flooding in recorded history. In an ironic twist, this weather event occurred months after devastating wildfires stripped bare the forest landscapes of the Centennial State. Certainly, the presence of the Oklahoma National Guard exemplified the hallmark of neighbors helping neighbors around Moore, Oklahoma, after a catastrophic tornado touched down on May 20, 2013. Amid tragedy, local National Guard men and women provided a needed ray of hope.

These contemporary examples utilized sophisticated equipment, operated by men and women trained at the highest levels by polished instructors. Yet the principles of responding to peril remain consistent. Those simply assembled regiments enabled the Massachusetts Bay Colony to meet the challenges lying beyond the boundaries of their familiar communities. Just as those forces existed for those pioneer settlers, the forces that exist beyond the observable horizon still persist today. And as one country, we must be on watch for this presence.

In turning 377 years young, America's National Guard is always ready... always there.