The Forgotten History of Freedmen Militias from 1776 until the Civil War

The United States militia is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the Constitution. And while the militia movement of today is widely known, its history – and the history of independent Constitutional militias stretching back to the dawn of the republic – is far less well known.

Why does this matter nowadays? Because understanding the historical roots of America’s militias helps modern-day members appreciate the role they play in our federal system of government. Because since inception, militias have been tasked with stopping those who hold public office from exceeding their authority or those seeking to enact legislation outside of their operating charter – a crucial check against incremental encroachment by the state, as James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers on January 29, 1788:

“Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of.”

The militia is the final means of recourse in this cycle of self-government – and arguably the most important. Thus this is the first in a two-part historical series on America’s militias. The second part, American Militias after the Civil War: From Black Codes to the Black Panthers and Beyond, looks at additional changes this American institution underwent from Reconstruction onwards.

The Colonial Origins of the United States Militia

The vision of an American militia goes back even before the United States Constitution or the founding of the United States. In most states in colonial America, all able-bodied men were considered to be part of the militia – through which the individual towns and cities would provide for the common defense.

A militia is explicitly mentioned in the United States Constitution, prior to the Bill of Rights. Article I, Section 8, drafted around the same time as the founding of the Springfield Armory (ground zero for American ammunition manufacturing), mentions it three times alone:

  • To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
  • To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
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Article II, Section 2 designates the President of the United States as the “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States.”

While the 1903 Militia Act is a relatively recent innovation to the world of the American militia, it is worth referencing, even if briefly, as we dive into our long history. The Militia Act of 1903 separates the militia into two groups:

  • Organized Militia: These are the forces that comprise the National Guard, which are the organized militia forces of each state. It is not synonymous with the National Guard of the United States, which is a reserve military force under joint control of the federal and state governments.
  • Unorganized Militia: This is virtually every other man in the United States. Men are not part of the unorganized militia if they are part of the organized militia. All other able-bodied men between the ages of 17 and 45 are considered part of the militia. This is an important concept to remember, even as we work through the part of militia history predating this Act.

In the pre-1903 Militia Act era, the line between the two is not so clearly defined. Many of the militias discussed below are organized and subject to statute, but not “organized” in the sense that they have official membership rolls, uniforms, or even significant involvement from their respective state and territorial governments. Much like the later independent or “Constitutional militia” movement, there is a rank, structure and a chain of command, but the organization is not necessarily subject to government oversight – other than having to comply with all relevant statutes. In the case of the militias of the Revolutionary War period, this is very fuzzy.

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The militia is an outgrowth of an English common law institution. The word itself dates back to 1590. Originally, the word simply meant soldiers in the service of the state. By the mid-17th Century, however, it had taken on connotations of a civilian military force. It carried additional connotations in terms of a military raised in temporary service to respond to some kind of an emergency.

The early militias, on both sides of the Atlantic, served the purpose of both security and defense. These were particularly important in the New World, where attacks from hostile Indian tribes were a constant threat. Indeed, these militias played a key role in the French and Indian Wars, including the primary one taking place concurrently with the Seven Years War between the years 1754 and 1763.

During these periods, militias organized by towns were also the pool from which the Provincial Forces were drafted. This was, in fact, a rare occurrence. The Provincial Forces were one of the best-paying wage labor opportunities available to American colonists, so their ranks were rarely short.

While the Provincial Forces were very professional and disciplined, the militias were not. Indeed, no less an authority than George Washington (at that time the adjutant-general of the Virginia militia) noted that the militia was largely disorganized. He considered the militia fit for times of peace, but ill-equipped for times of war. Even during peace, the bulk of the colonial military were what are today Army Rangers – well paid, professional, highly disciplined, and accomplished.

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