The Wall Street Journal this week ran a very interesting story on the nationwide phenomenon of National Guardsmen being engaged in a variety of state-commanded missions, most of which go well beyond military or the traditional disaster-relief roles. Guardsmen in a variety of states are dragooned into service as substitute teachers, bus drivers, elder care attendants, corrections personnel, public-health workers, and more. The short-term impetus for the engagement of the Guard is staffing shortages, mostly attendant to labor-market disruptions driven by COVID-policy measures. But the longer-term impetus is something else, and worth a look.
The National Guard is the organic successor to the old state-based system of military units that would, when needed, supplement and eventually form the bulk of the regular United States Army. The per-state allocations started in the Revolutionary era, when the Continental Army was mostly structured around state-based formations, accompanied by state militia outside the Continental structure. In the American Civil War, the overwhelming number of both Union and Confederate personnel were in state-designated units — 5th Mississippi, 20th Maine, and so on. The system persisted through to the era spanning the Spanish-American War through the First World War, when it became clear that the needs of modern, industrial, continental-sized warfare demanded a true national-army establishment. This is, roughly speaking, the period when it began that a young man joining the Army would join the federal apparatus rather than a state one.
My own ancestry provides a case in point. My great-grandfather William Robert Sumpter joined the regular Army in 1910 and ended up in a numbered cavalry unit, independent of any state affiliation, and posted to the Philippines. His younger brother Roy Sumpter also joined, in response to the Secretary of War’s call for volunteers to defend the U.S.-Mexican border in 1916: he signed up with the First Illinois Cavalry. The light-artillery unit in which he served was the next year reorganized into a federal-service unit that operated in support of multiple divisions on the Western Front in 1918. When he was killed in battle, his 124th Field Artillery of mostly Illinoisans was supporting the advance of the 89th Infantry Division, itself mostly manned with men from western-plains states. The regional ties were still present but swiftly weakening.