America's Private Militias of the Nineteenth Century
Since at least as early as the mid-1990s, the term “militia” has been increasingly used by journalists and scholars on the left in connection with alleged “right-wing extremists.”1
Over time, the term “militia” has been used to describe nearly any group of nonleftist armed men, and has been generally used in close connection with terms like “extremism,” “violence,” and “vigilante.” We have been reminded of this in recent years during riots in places like Ferguson, Missouri (in 2014), and Kenosha, Wisconsin (in 2020). In both cases, armed volunteers attempted to assist private sector business owners with protecting their property from looters and rioters. And in both cases, the volunteers were described with terms such as: “violent,” “militia,” “extreme,” and “white vigilante.”
Historically in the United States, however, the term “militia” had entirely different connotations. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, militias were considered to be common institutions central to civic and community life. They were a common fixture of local festivals and celebrations, and they functioned in some ways as fraternal orders function today.
Although some critics of the militia idea have attempted to claim militias existed primarily to suppress slave rebellions, the fact is militias were common and widespread in Northern states where they had no role whatsoever in maintaining the institution of slavery. In fact, militias often served an important role in providing opportunities and community cohesion for new immigrants.
The Local Militias of the Nineteenth Century
What’s more, many militias were independent of a centralized state militia system and functioned largely as private entities. They elected their own officers, were self-funded, and trained on their own schedules. Although they were ostensibly commanded by the state governors, this system of functionally private militias became an established part of daily life for many Americans. These were local volunteer militias with names like the “Richardson Light Guard,” the “Detroit Light Guard,” or the “Asmonean Guard.”2 They were essentially private clubs composed of gun owners who were expected to assist in keeping law and order within the cities and towns of the United States.
They were separate from the so-called common militias, which developed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and which in many cases were staffed with conscripts, were funded with tax dollars, and were commanded by an established state bureaucracy.
But by the Jacksonian period, new volunteer militias began to arise. As noted by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, the United States by the 1830s had seen “a remarkable growth in the privately organized volunteer militia. The number of volunteer units had been expanding steadily since the American Revolution, but after the war of 1812, it exploded. Three hundred sprang up in California alone between 1849 and 1856.”3
These groups were, in the words of historian Marcus Cunliffe, “volunteer companies existing independently of the statewide system of militia, and they held themselves aloof from the common mass. They provided their own uniforms.”4
They also elected their own officers, did their own fundraising, staffed their own governing boards, and sought out for themselves a secure position within the communities where members lived. In earlier decades, especially the 1830s and 1840s, these groups tended to be “elite” in the sense that they attracted upper middle– and upper-class members of the community. This was in many cases because of the cost of funding these volunteer militias.
As a member of the Detroit Light Guard remembered, “at that time the company got nothing from the State. They had to pay for all they got, uniforms and all.”5
But by the 1850s, firearms and uniforms were becoming more affordable to the middle and working classes. This brought in many new members from outside the local elite circles of established families. Moreover, some militias were able to solicit funding from wealthy members of the community who acted as patrons. The case of the Richardson Light Guard (RLG) is instructive:
The RLG came into being in South Reading, Massachusetts, in 1851, in response to a perceived shortage of militiamen in the years following the Mexican War. At the time, all that was necessary for the militia to be regarded as legally sanctions was for the group to “petition the governor” for what amounted to a nod of approval. This was granted. But at that point, the group still lacked funding. Although members paid dues, historian Barry Stentiford notes that “Dues were not enough [to] cover the expenses of the fledgling company, and committee members had to use their own money to carry out its business.”6
Members came up with a plan to offer “honorary memberships” to wealthy members of the community. The largest donor in this scheme was a man named Richardson, after whom the militia was soon named. Funding from prominent community members also added legitimacy to the group and ensured it would continue to be regarded as a community-sanctioned group of armed men.
Although the RLG enjoyed legal sanction, it was essentially a private organization, and Stentiford notes, “At its inception, the RLG belonged to its members, and to prominent residents of the town of South Reading. The town of South Reading, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the federal government occupied a diminishing hierarchy of influence.”7
In other words, while everyone admitted local, state, and federal officials enjoyed some form of control of the militia, this authority was tentative at best.
Massachusetts wasn’t the only place were militias were privately funded and privately controlled. When Iowa became a US territory in 1838, for example, an “official” territorial militia was formed. On the other hand:
The formation of local militia groups was more relaxed in comparison to the State militia service. To form a local militia group one would simply ask for local men to sign up, name the group, possibly elect officials or form by-laws, and then write to the Iowa Territory legislature to introduce themselves and request weapons….If you received a positive letter back and weapons, you were a militia group in the Territory of Iowa.
Indeed, this sort of local—and even private ownership—was an increasingly common method of organizing militias by midcentury. Hummel concludes that “Because many volunteer units were privately organized, recruited, and equipped, the militia became a partially privatized system as well.”
Because of their local nature, many militias reflected local character as well—and access was hardly limited to national ethnic majorities. By the 1850s, immigrants had come to dominate many volunteer militias, with Irish, Scottish, and German militias becoming especially common. The Scottish militiamen wore kilts as part of their parade uniforms. The Italians created a “Guardia Nazionale Italiana.” Robert Ernst notes that the “significance of the immigrant military companies is evident in the fact that in 1853, more than 4,000 of the 6,000 uniformed militia in New York City were of foreign birth.”8
Nor were militia groups limited to Christians. Jack D. Foner recounts in the American Jewish Archives Journal:
Jews in New York City formed military companies of their own. Troop K, Empire Hussars, was composed entirely of Jews, as was the Young Men's Lafayette Association. A third unit, the Asmonean Guard, consisted of both Jewish and Christian employees of The Asmonean, one of the earliest Anglo-Jewish weekly newspapers. “Our employees,” commented the newspaper, “have been seized with this military mania, as they have enrolled themselves into an independent corps.”
As militias became more middle class, their names changed as well. Militias began to refer to themselves with names that might be used for sports teams today, including terms like “Invincibles,” “Avengers,” and “Snake Hunters.”
Dress uniforms were often extravagant and modeled on Napoleon’s troops earlier in the century. These groups were even known to impress foreigners. As one Englishman remarked: “They marched in sections, with a splendid band at their head and…it would be impossible to find a more military-looking, well-drilled body of men.”9
These volunteer militias were attractive to potential members, because these groups served many social functions as well. As noted by historian Briton Cooper Busch, “in peacetime, all [volunteer militias] helped their communities celebrate festivals, holidays, and funerals with marches, balls, and banquets, helping out in emergencies, and often building an esprit de corps which established a basis for effective wartime service and even elite reputations.”10
In many cases, membership in a local militia provided opportunities for social advancement, and “it was not uncommon for individual families to have long associations with these institutions.”11 For newcomers to any community, whether or not of foreign origin, “the militia company provided a means for newer residents to embed themselves into the fabric of the community.”12
The volunteer militias played a similar role to that of the volunteer fire brigades of this period, which in many communities came to be dominated by immigrant groups and served as a way to and advance the social and economic lives of newcomers.13
Militias Replaced by Full-Time Government Police and Centralized “National Guard”
Needless to say, this model of American militias is long gone from the imagination of nearly all Americans. Modern-day journalists and scholars have been hard at work attempting to connect militias, past and present, either to slavery or to fringe groups and vigilantism. Moreover, many Americans now regard the idea of privately controlled bands of armed men with trepidation and fear.
As the size and scope of taxpayer-funded bureaucratic agencies grew throughout the nineteenth century, private volunteer militias were deemed increasingly unnecessary and undesirable. The late nineteenth century was a period during which states and the federal government went to great lengths to end the old system of locally controlled militias, and this was topped off by the Militia Act of 1903 which largely ended state autonomy in controlling state military resources as well. By 1945, the National Guard was well on its way to becoming little more than an auxiliary to the federal government’s military establishment, although some remnants of the old decentralized system remained.
When it comes to urban environments, these militia were in many respects replaced by today’s state and local police forces, which unlike the volunteer militias are on the job full-time and enjoy immunity and privileges far beyond what any militia member of old might have ever dreamed of having. Rather than private self-funded militias called out only occasionally to quell riots and uprisings, we have immense, taxpayer-paid police forces with military equipment, SWAT teams, and riot gear to carry out no-knock raids (often getting the address wrong).
The old militia system was by no means flawless, but this switch to a more centralized bureaucratic system is not without costs of its own, both in terms of dollars and the potential for abuse.
Moreover, as has become increasingly apparent in recent years, National Guard troops and local police forces are clearly inadequate to provide safety and security for private homes and businesses. Half of the nation’s violent crimes remain “unsolved” as police focus on petty drug offenses rather than homicides. Meanwhile—as happened in both Ferguson and Kenosha—National Guard troops focus their protection on government buildings while private businesses burn.
The dominant shapers of public opinion would have us believe that volunteer groups of armed men must be regarded with horror. Yet it is increasingly clear that the institutions that have replaced the militias of the past still leave much to be desired.
- 1. Chip Berlet, Right-Wing Populism: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guildford Press, 2000), p. 289. Berlet asserts during the mid-1990s, “armed militia movements grew rapidly” and labels the growth in these militias a “major U.S. social movement” of the time.
- 2. The term "guard" was common in names for these militia groups. The term, according to Stentiford, "emhpasized the defensive ideals of the American militia." (p. 33).
- 3. Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War (Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1996), p. 157.
- 4. Marcus Cunliffe, Soldiers and Civilians: The Martial Spirit in America 1775–1865 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), p. 218.
- 5. James D. Elderkin, Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of a Soldier of Three Wars, as Written by Himself (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1899), p. 127.
- 6. Barry M. Stentiford, The Richardson Light Guard of Wakefield, Massachusetts: A Town Militia in War and Peace, 1851–1975 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013), pp. 33–40.
- 7. Ibid., p. 39.
- 8. Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City, 1825–1863 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994), p. 129.
- 9. Cunliffe, p. 217.
- 10. Briton Cooper Busch, Bunker Hill to Bastogne: Elite Forces and American Society (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2006), p. 53.
- 11. Busch, p. 53.
- 12. Stentiford, p. 34.
- 13. Cunliffe (p. 89) notes that fire companies in American cities were "linked with military companies" and provided "ready-made recruits" for some militias. They were also closely linked with partisan machine politics at the time.