After keeping out of sight for much of Trump’s presidency, the American militia movement is making itself felt. In the last few weeks, the Michigan militias protected monuments in Hillsdale, Michigan and others were involved in a shooting in New Mexico, as protesters tried to tear down a statue. In addition, an Air Force sergeant who is accused of shooting a Federal Security Officer in Oakland, CA. is reputed to be associated with an extremist group.
Most of the recent activity by the militia is directly related to the current spate of unrest across the country. However, the history of the American Militia movement goes back to the settlement of America.
Militias were begun as a protection against raiding bands of Native Americans. Each male settler was required to have a firearm and practice with it on a regular basis. A century later, the militias were called upon to assist the British Army in the North American battles of the Seven Years War (called the French and Indian War in North America).
The golden moment of the American militia movement was on April 19, 1775 at Lexington and Concord. There, 77 American militiamen were present at Lexington when the shooting began. By that afternoon, hundreds of armed Americans were shooting at the British as they retreated towards Boston. By that evening, reports of the time say that about 15,000 American colonists were besieging the British in Boston.
Months later, they would cause the British Army to sustain serious casualties at the Battle of Bunker Hill
It was this militia army that was the first American Army. General George Washington was assigned by the Continental Congress to take command them.
Unfortunately, the performance of the militias after these first skirmishes was not as memorable. They were known for refusing to join battle and even leaving the field of battle in later fights with the British. But their reputation had been established.
No doubt, the militia’s role in the Revolutionary War was a factor for the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which specifically mentioned the need of a “Well-regulated militia” as a reason for Americans to have the right to own firearms.
Militias continued their role as units in future wars like the War of 1812 (part of the Napoleonic Wars) and the American Civil War. However, they died out as the need for a professional army was seen.
The modern militia movement started in the 1980s and grew in the 1990s with the government attacks at Ruby Ridge and Waco. They were seen by the Clinton Administration’s Department of Justice as relatively harmless as they are reactive, not proactive.
While the militia movement grew during the Obama years, they started to decline in the Trump years.
In recent years, the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified a couple of hundred militia groups. Most are statewide and very few are national in character.
Militias see themselves as aiding local communities. However, they do make it clear that they see themselves as a potential insurrectionist force if circumstances call for it.
The reality is that these militias are more of an armed presence than an actual military force. Although many have former military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, each militia has a separate command structure and disagreements on tactics are frequent. Each militia group also has differing agendas – ranging from simply protecting local citizens to seeking an armed confrontation with federal agents.
They also have communications and other logistical gear necessary for sustained operations.
Little is known about these groups. The foremost of these is Oath Keepers, a group of about 3,000 who are either former or serving military members or police, who have sworn that they will not obey unconstitutional orders given by the government.
Oath Keepers created a high profile for itself in the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014 because their headquarters are in Las Vegas and their nationwide network of members was able to quickly funnel money and supplies to the people at the Bundy Ranch. Although not an actual militia, the presence of armed Oath Keepers and their visibility gained a lot of attention for the organization.
Several other militias exist, although their numbers are unknown – although they undoubtedly number less than an infantry company. Other militia groups include the West Mountain Rangers, 912 Movement, and the III%. In most cases, the numbers from each group probably are probably less than a dozen, although many supporters provide logistical support when necessary.
To limit infiltration by federal agents – something that was common in the Obama years – units are usually limited to a dozen or fewer members and usually consist of people who have known each other for years. However, there are larger units.
Most states have statewide militias that even have websites on the internet. The size depends on effective leadership and the politics of the day. Most are conservative – ranging from pro-Trump to small government activists who see Republicans and Democrats as equally bad. They have been involved in patrolling the US/Mexico border to prevent illegal immigration. Some deployed at the Bundy Ranch in 2014. Several units across the country have also deployed recently to protect monuments that have been threatened by protesters.
Many militias work with each other in training exercises. Some even have leadership and “War College” training for potential militia leadership.
Not all militias are right wing. A growing number are more radical and have either Marxist or anarchist political beliefs.
Some units have tried to create a nationwide presence, with more assets than a handful of semiautomatic firearms. One such unit is the Colonial Marine Militia, which deployed a mechanized unit to Hillsdale, Michigan last week. The mechanized unit was the 8th Mechanized Regimental Combat Command, the Colonial Marine Militia. The unit fielded 18 armored vehicles last week at Hillsdale.
The Colonial Marine Militia concept was established in the1980s by US Marine Corps veterans. It was formed in Indiana and has grown to include units in 48 states. They are based on the Regimental Combat Team concept which means each unit is self-sufficient with elements of logistics, communications, and medical support. This gives them the ability to deploy across the nation at short notice.
There are currently 116 Colonial Marine Militia Regimental Combat Teams, with 49 cadres available for expansion. There are four training commands and supporting arms that include mechanized and light artillery like mortars. They also include airborne assets for airborne resupply and small airborne assaults.
The Colonial Marine Militia also has an air force of cargo aircraft and even small jet powered aircraft that could be used in a tactical situation.
This may seem to be a unique threat to the US government; however, there have been such threats since the beginning of the nation. Patriotic organizations, called “democratic republican societies” were formed, which were viewed as subversive by the federal government. President Washington would later write, “I early gave it as my opinion to the confidential characters around me, that if these societies are not counteracted (not by prosecutions, the ready way to make them grow stronger)… they would shake the government to its foundation.”
Although these rebellions may lose, they do have the ability to change government. For instance, the Whiskey Rebellion changed the complexion of the political landscape and led to the creation of the two-party system in America and led to the election of Thomas Jefferson.
Although the 1794 incident was a vastly larger rebellion than the current standoff in Seattle, the situations share important parallels including the use of what many people in each situation considered the disproportionate use of force by the government. It also reflects the differing political views of the people in the more progressive, urban parts of the country and those in more conservative rural areas. In this case, it was the rural parts of the country that rebelled.
The rebellion began in 1791 when Congress passed an excise tax on distilled whiskey with the firm backing of President George Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s plan was to federalize the debt accumulated by the states during the Revolutionary War and pay it off through a variety of measures, including domestic taxation. On top of that, Hamilton wanted to fund a more widespread extension of government investment in the new country’s military and infrastructure. The tax was excessively high--about 25 percent of the value of each gallon of whiskey. It encountered almost immediate opposition.
Opposition was fierce on the western frontier (then around Pittsburgh, PA), where farmers would turn excess corn into whiskey. Not only was whiskey cheaper to transport over the dirt roads, in the money starved west, it was used as a form of money. In addition, frontier people rarely saw the benefits of federal spending. In a quote vaguely similar to the statements coming from supporters of the militia movement, one westerner wrote, “To be subject to all the burdens of government and enjoy none of the benefits arising from government is what we will never submit to.”
Western Pennsylvania rose up. In four western counties of Pennsylvania, excise officers were terrorized; the Pittsburgh mail was robbed; federal judicial proceedings were stopped; and a small body of regular troops guarding the house of General John Neville, excise inspector for western Pennsylvania, was forced to surrender to the rebels.
Historian John Miller would later write that Hamilton “knew that he was committing the government to a trial of strength with Westerners, but he deliberately courted the contest” to display the power and legitimacy of the federal government. Goaded by Hamilton, Washington assembled one of the largest armies built in America up until that time. The president, with the treasury secretary by his side, would lead this force from the capitol in Philadelphia into to wilds of western Pennsylvania. The size of the assembled army was astounding given the threat.
This force, called the “Watermelon army” by detractors, ended up arresting 30 rebels without any resistance. Although the rebellion was quashed, the political damage was enormous.
Some Americans viewed the sudden expansion of government power as a blow to the principles fought for during the Revolution, and worried about a government quick to pull the trigger on legitimate freedom of assembly and protest. The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, attacked the excise tax an “infernal tax” and said that the “conduct of the ‘rebels’ was no worse than riotous.” He and many others called for an elimination or reduction of the hated tax.
From the scattered protests of leaders like Jefferson and others, a new party was formed to oppose the administration. Panicked Federalists, sensing the rise in support for “Republican” opposition, started to become more repressive in their tactics. Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 under President John Adams in response to the Republican protest during the short “Quasi War” with France, which severely curtailed civil liberties. The acts targeted Jefferson’s supporters. The political storm was growing, and Jefferson and Madison wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, calling out the laws as unconstitutional and repressive.
The Resolutions became a political platform for the new party, and a massive wave of supporters was swept into office in 1798. That year’s election became known as the “Revolution of ‘98” and marked a major change in American politics. Jefferson was elected president in 1800 and he appointed Albert Gallatin, who had spoken up for the rights of the western farmers, as his treasury secretary. By tapping into these “patriot” societies of the time, he was able to politically establish a political counterbalance to the Federalist Party.
Although the political parties of that time have disappeared, they have set up the continuing philosophical differences of the two parties of today – one calling for more federal control, and one calling for more state and local control.
Are the Militias a Real Threat?
Given the size of the US military, it seems that the militia movement would be little threat to the US government. However, it must be remembered that the US military has been in Afghanistan for nearly a generation and still has not won.
Although the military has better equipment, the militia and its supporters have the US military vastly outnumbered and can field more firearms. In fact, there are more hunters out on the first day of deer hunting in Pennsylvania than are in the American Army. Although the militia does not have machineguns, many firearms experts say semiautomatic firearms are more accurate and use less ammunition.
The problem that the US Army faces is that they cannot be everywhere. Most of their assets would be used to protect vital government installations like military bases and Washington DC.
Local police are also limited, as is being seen in the current protests. If the police can’t handle the rocks that are being thrown at them, they will be hard pressed to handle militias with training and experience from Afghanistan and Iraq.
At this point in time, the militia is in a reactive mode. A study of militia websites seems to confirm that militias are gearing up for a potential civil war. Others are guarding communities or memorials. Others are advancing their training. However, they all seem to be prepared for the worse – a second American Revolution.
If that is true, they are emulating the words of the commander of the Lexington militia, Captain John Parker, on April 19, 1775. According to accounts, he said, “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”