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Milestone centennial marks the transformation of the National Guard

By National Guard Bureau Historical Services | June 17, 2016

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ARLINGTON, Va. – This June marks the hundredth anniversary of one of the most important months in the history of the National Guard.  On June 3, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Defense Act and established the National Guard as first line responders during a national emergency, and then, on June 18, the President mobilized the National Guard of 44 states and the District of Columbia in preparation for a possible war with Northern Mexico.

The “Great Mobilization” would eventually send over 150,000 National Guardsmen to the United States-Mexico border over the next several months and established the dual-mission of the modern National Guard.

In 1910, Mexico entered a period of civil war, and in the ensuing turmoil, Francisco "Pancho" Villa rose to power in Northern Mexico serving as the Governor of Chihuahua and, eventually, as a commander in the Northern Army.  In March, 1916, Villa led a raid on the American city of Columbus, New Mexico, and the United States responded by raising an expeditionary force and mobilizing the National Guard to protect the border and capture Villa.

Following a second raid on Glenn Springs, Texas on May 5, Guardsmen from the border states of New Mexico, Texas and Arizona were placed in federal service to guard the international boundary.  America’s traditional disdain of a large standing army in favor of a militia meant that the U.S. Army had a total strength of only 72,000 active-duty soldiers, and military planners realized that a war with Mexico and protecting the Southwest border would require even greater mobilization of the nation’s reserve forces.  Thus, Wilson ordered the mobilization of the National Guard to the Southwest border on June 18.

The War Department planned to organize the National Guard into ten provisional divisions. Active duty Army major generals commanded the eight provisional elements at other points distributed along the Borderlands, while New York and Pennsylvania Major Generals John O’ Ryan and Charles M. Clement respectively led units based in McAllen and El Paso.

Department of War leadership established “concentration points” in states with National Guard forces already in place: Brownsville, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Llano Grande, McAllen/Mission/Pharr, Laredo, Eagle Pass, the Big Bend, El Paso (all in Texas); Deming and Columbus (New Mexico); and Douglas, Naco and Nogales (Arizona).  The largest encampment was El Paso, where over 40,000 National Guard Soldiers doubled the size of the city.

Though California stationed National Guardsmen along its border, the vast majority of Mexican Revolution conflict occurred in northern states adjacent to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.  Only six units from Oregon and Washington traveled to California posts.  Oregon Guardsmen patrolled the area near San Diego while the Washingtonians assembled near the town of Calexico. By November, both states recalled their Soldiers to restore order in the wake of labor strikes in the Northwest.

States required Soldiers to muster at state National Guard camps within their jurisdiction after publication of the mobilization notice.  This sometimes highlighted deficiencies in physical fitness requirements recently legislated in the National Defense Act. Some units reported 20-25% of troops did not meet fitness requirements, necessitating internal improvements. This slowed Guard strength requirements, most of which did not reach proscribed wartime levels as set by the National Defense Act.

The speed of mobilization created confusion during the process. No fewer than seven states changed their original mobilization camp location. State leadership deemed the site unsuitable or were unable to occupy the allotted space. What worked best was assembling the units, ensuring their readiness upon departure, and conducting training exercises at the assigned border location.

Once hasty arrangements brought the National Guard units to their assembly point, Soldiers set up encampments. Local civic leaders often developed infrastructure for camp sites in order to expedite the construction of Soldiers’ quarters and other buildings, as was the case with Brownsville, Texas. Municipal officials often felt money spent on morale and welfare would prove a shrewd investment for their cities, given the economic upsurge generated by the Guardsmen stationed in the vicinity.

The distribution of military supplies from the War Department became problematic.  Major General William A. Mann, Chief of the Militia Bureau, noted in July 1916 that centralized depots distributing uniforms and other supplies failed to keep pace with the mobilization.  Although Guard units adapted as best as possible, the Department paid special attention to this flaw and convened a board of officers to address the problem.  Paying heed to this aided decentralization measures that took place afterward.

Though not always readily apparent, the time in the Southwest U.S. yielded positive results from a disciplinary and readiness standpoint. Upon arrival along the Border, Guardsmen underwent long marches, sometimes taking several days, and lined into drill formations.  They engaged in housekeeping chores as they swept away dust and vegetation blowing through their quarters. Goggles became a prized work accessory. 

The mission could be dangerous among the 150,000 plus Soldiers. Guard Soldiers sometimes exchanged gunfire with small Mexican rebel detachments at or near international boundary lines.  More commonly, accidental deaths took place among Guard personnel through unintended circumstances. These were caused by fights, auto accidents, drowning, food poisoning, insect-borne illnesses, prolonged exposure to the desert heat and even a mule kick. 

When not engaged in assigned tasks, particularly in camp settings outside cities and towns, boredom set in for Guardsmen. To occupy recreational time, the YMCA provided activities in camp settings.  Movie theaters offered entertainment. Others attended music concerts. Several Guard encampments established regular newspapers or recorded their experiences in a humorous vein, remarking on the repetitive tasks or the typically hot climate.  Off-duty Soldiers also frequented saloons and other establishments, although commanders prohibited alcohol consumption.  The situation remained remarkably similar to Guard personnel serving in a similar mission along the Border during Operation Jump Start 90 years later.

The mobilization reached a peak of over 150,000 on July 31, 1916. Just over 40,000 Guardsmen still trained at their state camps that month, but 15,000 fewer Soldiers processed through training centers in August. This was the first indication that the mobilization pace slowed, but would rise again in September. 

More and more Soldiers left the Border region beginning in fall of 1916.  The very last units demobilized in El Paso were the 33rd Michigan Infantry and Battery A of the New Mexico Field Artillery on March 23, 1917. By the time the Michigan regiment returned to its home state to muster out, it had already been called into federal service after the declaration of war against Germany in April.

Many of the lessons and the added experience of Mexican Border Service would benefit the National Guard. It strengthened the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, and grew into an impressive force which exemplified the very best of the Citizen-Soldier.

The mobilization of 1916 forced the War Department and the U.S. Army to better integrate the National Guard into the whole defense structure. Although many mistakes were made after its declaration, the Presidential order demonstrated that the National Guard could adapt to a changing national role for its Soldiers. In addition, the relative isolation of the region hardened discipline and esprit de corps for the whole Guard.

This action also lessened tensions between the United States and Mexico, who came remarkably close to a declaration of war in June 1916.  Mexico noticed the large military presence on the border at this stage of its Revolution and ceased guerilla raids that undermined U.S. security.  The Guard presence effectively ceased actions such as the Glenn Springs raid. It improved the effectiveness of the Army’s security mission beyond its lone capabilities.

The nation’s military planners took notice of the shortcomings of the National Guard in the nine months that marked the mobilization campaign, ranging from transportation logistics to the establishment of camp facilities. Although the system to synchronize active duty and reserve forces sometimes met with difficulty, mistakes made in non-combat surroundings minimized overall damages.

The Great Mobilization was a bold step taken only days after the newly minted National Defense Act made such a large-scale operation possible through Presidential federalization of the National Guard.  In addition to being the first national mobilization of the Guard without a declaration of war, it ultimately allowed the Army and War Department to learn from mistakes made and execute a much larger mobilization later in 1917.