Nashville, TN – On December 13th, the Tennessee Military Department will celebrate the 375th Birthday of the National Guard, the country’s oldest military organization.
The National Guard’s Citizen-Soldiers have a long and proud history that took root in the nation’s colonial beginnings.
During the 1630s, British settlements in North America were primarily limited to areas along the Atlantic coast. As colonists expanded west into the interior of the country, they often faced armed conflict with Native Americans. Colonists were often responsible for their own defense and organized into separate militia companies to defend against Indian attacks. They adopted the British militia system, which required all males of a specified age to possess weapons and be prepared to defend their communities.
Rising threats from Pequot Indians against the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 forced the town militias and the colonial government to enhance their military readiness. At the time, the colonial militia forces in Massachusetts consisted of 10 infantry companies that varied from 60 to 200 men per unit.
With the growing Indian threat, the Massachusetts General Court, which functioned as the colony’s legislature, ordered the militia companies around Boston to form militia “regiments” on December 13th, 1636. While most British colonies had organized militia companies before 1636, Massachusetts was the first to organize companies into regiments.
The Massachusetts General Court created the North, South, and East Regiments, organizing units by geography for easier command and control covering the colony. The “regiment” would later become the basic unit structure for the Continental Army and all other colonial military organizations. The act performed on December 13th, 1636, is widely considered the birth of today’s National Guard.
The first regularly scheduled militia drill, known as the “First Muster,” took place in 1637. Although the exact date is not known, the First Muster of the East Regiment occurred on the village green in Salem, Massachusetts, while the other regiments held musters throughout the colony.
Other colonies would soon follow suit to ensure the defense of their settlements. During the Revolutionary war, militia units were a vital part of the struggle for American Independence.
Tennessee’s first known militia mobilization was organized by Capt. Evan Shelby on August 17th, 1774. His company of 49 militiamen, including his son, Isaac, and many prominent citizens of the self-governing Watauga settlement (Tennessee’s present day Sullivan and Carter counties) were called to service.
Attacks from Shawnee Indians along the Virginia frontier were increasing and colonial settlers were fighting back. Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, ordered four regiments of militia and volunteers to be organized to “pacify the hostile Indian war bands.” Shelby immediately organized the Watauga settlement’s first volunteer company and on August 17th they marched from their homes to join the assembling Virginia regiments. This marked the first time “Tennesseans” deployed for war as a militia and stands as the Birthday of the Tennessee National Guard.
By October 10th, the company was fully integrated into Lord Dunmore’s Army and camped on the banks of the Ohio River in Virginia. Early that morning, two of Capt. Shelby’s men were hunting when they discovered and fired upon a hostile Indian force advancing on their camp. The Battle of Point Pleasant began. At day’s end, the Americans had defeated the Indians and won the most vital engagement of Lord Dunmore’s War.
Victorious, the soldiers marched home from a war that created the region’s first local heroes and exhibited Tennessee’s volunteer and fighting spirit. It was the first step to cementing Tennessee’s, now legendary, volunteer tradition.
For the next few years, the militia was called for the occasional skirmish as settlements grew and America’s War for Independence began. In 1776 the region was annexed by North Carolina, thus the Tennesseans technically became members of the North Carolina militia.
By 1780, Tennesseans saw their first major action against the British. In February, North Carolina called for 200 men from the territory to augment a 2,000-man campaign into South Carolina. Newly created Washington and Sullivan counties were to provide 100 men each. Instead of 200 men, 400 answered the call and rendezvoused in North Carolina. Col. John Sevier and now Col. Isaac Shelby would command these militiamen in numerous actions, often engaging soldiers commanded by Maj. Patrick Ferguson of the British Army, until returning home to reorganize.
In September 480 Tennesseans commanded by Shelby and Sevier, assembled with other colonial militiamen at Sycamore Shoals, near Elizabethton. Many more Tennesseans volunteered, but were ordered to remain home to guard against Indian attacks. The next day the forces crossed the mountains to counter Ferguson’s threat that he would “march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.”
These “Overmountain Men” marched south and attacked Ferguson’s Corps, which was protecting the left flank of Lord Cornwallis’ army. The British force was defeated and Ferguson himself was shot and killed by men commanded by Sevier. Known as the Battle of King’s Mountain, it was the turning point against Britain’s southern campaign during the revolution and the most celebrated Revolutionary War battle Tennesseans participated in, creating a distinct regional identity for Tennesseans.
The volunteer spirit shown during the Revolutionary War began a tradition that still continues today and created and supports Tennessee nickname as the Volunteer State.
On June 1st, 1796, Tennessee became the 16th state admitted into the Union, and the Tennessee militia “officially” was born under the Governorship of John Sevier.
Not unlike the militias of 375 years ago, today’s National Guard has become essential to the nation’s defense, more so than ever in history, as its men and women are increasingly called upon to serve in every corner of the world. More than 20,000 Army and Air National Guardsmen have been deployed overseas in support of the War on Terror. Twenty-two National Guardsmen have given their lives.
With the continuing and every-changing threat of terrorism today, the National Guard motto may say it best: “Always Ready, Always There.”