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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Book sheds light on an important subject

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Notwithstanding its soporific title, its origin as a doctoral dissertation, and its suggestion of a pricey, slickpaper "coffeetable" book, "Evolution of the Missouri Militia into the National Guard of Missouri," by Dr. John Glendower Westover, turns out a surprisingly readable as well as informative volume. A publication of the Missouri Society for Military History, it tells much about an important subject of which most people know far too little.

How many, to begin with, are even clear about just what the "militia" is? It's a question that cries out for an answer whenever the Second Amendment is discussed.

In trying to say how American states differ from mere provinces, as found in other countries, this vital factor is usually overlooked. Alastair Cooke in his series "America" was reduced to citing state authority over such comparatively minor matters as divorce.

In fact, American states exhibit their (at least partial) sovereignty in their retention of the two bedrock attributes of nationhood: the "power of the purse" (the power to levy taxes) and the "power of the sword" (the power to raise and deploy armed forces).

Since primitive times it's been taken for granted that all citizens bear the responsibility to defend their country in time of need. In English speaking countries, this long ago began to mean that all ablebodied males 18 to 45 were required to arm themselves and assemble on call. Wariness of professional, standing armies led to reliance on these "citizen soldiers." The arrangement has been part of U.S. statute law since the Militia Act of 1792, modified by successive acts. The governor commands, unless the militia is "in the service of the United States." A man doesn't "join" the militia. If able bodied and of the right age, he's automatically in it, whether in the "organized militia" (regularly enrolled, drilled units) or the "reserve militia" (everybody else). The name National Guard was first applied to the "organized militia" in 1824, and has been regularly used in Missouri since 1877, and nationwide since 1903.

In early days, most states were remiss in maintaining their militias, and usually these performed poorly when called out. Sometimes militia units refused to fight outside their own states. Often the units were little more than clubs in which social-climbing community leaders gathered for convivial evenings or weekends and strutted in outlandish uniforms. Despite such drawbacks the country stubbornly went on relying on the militia concept. Times when a military force really was needed were less common in early America than might be imagined. And some militia units did perform well. Still, the usual way was for a crisis (such as the Mexican War) to find the local militia moribund and all but useless. It was easier to organize volunteer units from scratch, such as the First Missouri Mounted Volunteers, who blazed a glorious path in Mexico. Farm boys and shop clerks, led by a lawyer, they offhandedly defeated over three times their number of Mexican professional soldiers in the Battle of Sacramento Pass, with one casualty.

A notable militia action that affected the Vernon County area was the so-called Southwest Expedition of 1860.

Alarming raids by lawless Kansas Jayhawkers, such as the John Brown raid on Henry Township in 1858, caused citizens to petition the governor for protection from "lawless Kansas." The state's chief military force, infantry and artillery mostly from St. Louis, passed the winter of 1860-'61 in the Balltown neighborhood, boredly amusing themselves and reportedly doing more damage than the Jayhawkers, who made themselves scarce.

Despite clear signs of coming Civil War, stingy Missouri legislators repeatedly refused to spend money for serious preparedness.

The militia was at the heart of the crisis of May, 1861, when Gov. Claiborne Jackson sent it to its annual encampment in suburban St. Louis. Calling this lawful assemblage a threat to the Federal arsenal, Gen. Nathaniel Lyon moved on the camp with regular troops and German-American volunteers illegally raised in St. Louis, and took the militiamen prisoners.

Alarmed state legislators shook off their lethargy and passed a long-pending Military Bill, basically only an act to regularize the militia, but instantly denounced by Federals as "an indirect ordinance of secession." The state was divided into eight military districts, each commanded by a brigadier general. Sterling Price was named major general in overall command.

In his absence, at Carthage in July 1861, Gov. Jackson became the only governor in U.S. history ever to command his own troops personally in combat.

The name Missouri State Guard became important as distinguishing this pro-Confederate service from the pro-Federal service soon afterwards raised by the "provisional" government of Missouri and known as the Missouri State Militia, though the terms "guard" and "militia" in this usage actually are synonymous. The State Guard was legally raised by the state government the people had elected, but since it wound up on the losing side most historians put it down as illegitimate or insignificant, and treat the State Militia, raised by dubious and extraordinary means, as the legitimate and regular state armed force of the Civil War period.

This despite the fact that it had an unsavory reputation and did more toward leaving a legacy of bitterness in public life in postwar Missouri than any other factor. Violating a basic militia attribute, it was a conscript not a volunteer force. Usually stationed in its home neighborhood, it "served as an excellent vehicle for local factions to settle old grudges."

In fact, there wasn't just one Federal militia service in Missouri, but as many as 19. The original MSM was followed by the "Enrolled Militia" and so on. Some services were made up of Confederates who supposedly had forsworn their old allegiance, though often this appeared not necessarily to be the case. It can be argued that the pro-Federal militia forces in Missouri did more harm than good, and were more liability than asset to their own side.

Their record in the war contributed to a postwar aversion to militias and military service, which was a long time being overcome. It wasn't till the Spanish-American War and other foreign involvements that the military again became popular in Missouri, and the climate was right for the gradual evolution of the militia into today's Missouri National Guard.

Westover tells the story well.

"Evolution of the Missouri Militia into the National Guard of Missouri" is available from the Missouri Society for Military History, 2007 Rentention Drive, Jefferson City MO 65101-1203, for $25 postpaid.