MADISON, Wis. — The National Guard celebrates its 382nd birthday today as a vibrant and unique organization of Citizen-Soldiers who shoulder dual missions as the combat reserve to the U.S. Army and Air Force and as the first military responder at home in times of local and state emergency.
The General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on Dec. 13, 1636 formed militia units from all able-bodied men in order to conduct their own defense in a new world 3,000 miles from the protection of England. Today, the Massachusetts National Guard carries the lineage of these earliest units.
The Citizen-Soldier tradition of the colonial militia ready to answer the call continued after American independence. The Constitution stated that the President would serve as commander-in-chief of the “militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States” and that the President could “provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions.”
Wisconsin joined this proud history of service in 1837 when it formed the Wisconsin Territorial Militia; it continued when Wisconsin became a state in 1848. These earliest units volunteered to serve in the state’s first regiments raised for the Civil War and saw service at Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg with the famed Black Hats of the Iron Brigade. The state raised several volunteer infantry regiments that served in numerous battles in the Civil War.
Communities throughout the state re-established militia units after the Civil War and these units later organized in the 1870s as the Wisconsin National Guard. These units stood ready to assist in times of emergency and civil unrest, and in 1898 volunteered for federal service in the Spanish-American War.
Congress more formally described the National Guard’s role in national defense with legislation passed between 1903 and 1916. These new laws authorized the Guard’s use overseas and formalized its role as the Army’s primary combat reserve in times of war or other national emergency.
World War I provided the first challenge for the National Guard under this new arrangement. The Regular Army numbered only 120,000 when the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917 and it was incapable of fighting on the scale found on Europe’s Western Front. The National Guard’s 400,000 Citizen-Soldiers more than tripled the Army’s ranks and formed the backbone of 17 of the 42 Army divisions that served overseas.
Four of these 17 divisions were among the first six to land in France, including the 32nd Division of Wisconsin and Michigan. These early divisions fought in almost every American campaign during the war and became part of the Gen. John Pershing’s list of preferred divisions known as the “Old Reliables.”
On Dec. 13, 1918 — the National Guard’s 282nd birthday — the 32nd Division crossed the Rhine River near Coblenz as part of the American Expeditionary Forces’ Army of Occupation. Joining with the 1st and 3rd divisions of the Regular Army and the 42nd Division of the National Guard, the 32nd Division was part of the AEF’s vanguard on this final mission to ensure that the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918 would hold until the warring nations could sign a peace treaty.
The National Defense Act of 1920 cemented the Guard’s role in national defense and each state reorganized its National Guard in the early 1920s as a force firmly standing ready to answer the nation’s call in times of need. The United States would call the National Guard again in 1940 for training and ultimately for service in World War II. The 32nd Division of Wisconsin and Michigan would serve 654 days in combat in the Pacific Theater in New Guinea and the Philippines — more than any other Army division during the war.
Since World War II, the Soldiers and Airmen of the Wisconsin National Guard have answered the call of service to state and nation. The Wisconsin Air National Guard, established only a few years prior, provided Airmen for service in the Korean War. In 1961, the 32nd Division of the Wisconsin Army National Guard was called up a third time when President Kennedy used it as a projection of force during the Berlin Crisis to help prevent a third world war.
Over the past 50 years, the Wisconsin National Guard has responded numerous times across that state and to Louisiana and Florida assisting communities in times of natural disaster and civil unrest. Hundreds mobilized in 1991 for service in Operation Desert Storm and nearly every unit has deployed several times since 9/11 in support of the Global War on Terrorism.
Like those early colonists of 1636 who mustered on the village green for their common defense, the National Guard stands today as always ready, always there.