In the wake of the Sandy Creek tragedy, the gun control debate has become very emotional. After listening to gun advocates repeatedly declare that the Second Amendment protects their right to own whatever gun they choose, I decided to actually read the Second Amendment. It is as follows:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
In my effort to understand the intent of the Second Amendment, I realized that I did not know what was meant by “militia.” Sure, we all have some rudimentary concept of the Minutemen banding together against the Redcoats during the Revolutionary War, and I’ve come across references to Waterbury’s militia drilling on the Green during the early 1800s, but beyond that, I was clueless. For all I knew, the police could be the modern-day equivalent of militias, or maybe it’s the National Guard, or maybe nothing at all remains of militias other than self-appointed groups who have decided that they can’t count on the government to protect them. As usual, when confronted with my lack of knowledge on a subject, I decided to do a little research.
During the 1700s, each Connecticut town had its own militia company which operated under the authority of the colonial government (unlike modern-day independent militia groups, which are not authorized by any government). The Governor of Connecticut was the Commander-in-Chief of the Connecticut militia. The officers of the militia companies were elected by the company’s members. Many towns had more than one militia company, depending on their size: Waterbury had three. Militia members were unpaid volunteers who trained a couple times a year. When the colony needed militia members to sign up for active duty, a financial incentive was offered.
Throughout the 1700s, Connecticut’s militia members were involved in conflicts with Native Americans, raids in the Caribbean, and the French and Indian War. During the Revolutionary War, Connecticut reorganized its militia to meet the needs of the war. Waterbury’s militia companies became part of Connecticut’s Tenth Regiment.
For decades following the Revolutionary War, the militia and its members were the most highly respected men in society. In Waterbury, the militia companies held general trainings, or regimental musters, twice a year, in May and September. The musters were usually held on the Green, and the whole town would turn out to watch. A banquet was held at the end of the day for veterans, ministers, and town officials.
From time to time, the local regiment would conduct its general training in Waterbury. Too large to fit on the Green, the regiment mustered on the open meadows that lay to the south and to the west of downtown. Edward L. Bronson described one of these events from the 1830s in the December 22, 1886 issue of the Waterbury Republican:
I had come to Waterbury to witness what then was a grand sight, a “general training.” I went down to what is now Bank Street as far as where Earle’s hotel now stands. There the lane terminated at a gate, through which a path led out upon the meadows, where the regiment was maneuvering. And such a regiment! Uniforms like Joseph’s “coat of many colors,” and all styles to suit the taste or convenience of the wearers, who were armed with an equal variety of shot guns, in fact anything to answer the requirements of the law. The officers, however, were gorgeous in gold lace, epaulets and other showy equipments. At a little later date the motley crowd, called a regiment, held their parade on the Green—very unlike our now beautiful Centre square.
Over time, the Connecticut militia groups became increasingly ragtag, nicknamed “Floodwoods” in ridicule of their sloppy condition. The state overhauled the militia system in 1847, establishing two classes of militia: active members and inactive, or enrolled, members. The militia was restricted to able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 (later 45). A tax of one dollar could be paid by anyone wishing to be exempt from service. Existing companies were disbanded. The new militia consisted of two brigades, with a total of eight regiments, one for each county.
Waterbury’s first militia company following the state-wide reorganization was the City Guard, formed in 1854 with 18 officers. They joined the Second Regiment (New Haven County) as Company H. Forty honorary members paid five dollars a year to join. Their first uniformed parade was held on May 25, 1855. The City Guard assisted the town in its Fourth of July celebrations, which in 1855 included a procession to the corner of Grove and Willow Streets, where a balloon ascension was planned (but failed).
In 1858, the City Guard started a tradition of celebrating George Washington’s birthday with a national salute at sunrise, followed by raising the flag on the Liberty Pole on the Green, a parade in the afternoon, and a supper and ball in the evening.
Militia companies joined the Union army during the Civil War. Waterbury’s City Guard was assigned to Connecticut’s First Regiment in 1861, becoming Company D. They were armed with Sharpe’s rifles and Springfield muskets before leaving New Haven to join the Union army in Washington, D.C.
After the City Guard’s departure, the Phoenix Guard was formed, becoming Company D of the Fifth Regiment, mustering in for three years’ service. The Union Guard was also formed, to serve as a home guard company, becoming Company A, Second Connecticut militia on October 1, 1861.
A youth group militia, the Waterbury Zouaves, was organized in June 1861 for young men ages 17 to 20. After proving their worth at a camp in Oakville for three days, they were permitted to carry guns. The following January, they became light infantry Company D. During the summer of 1862, the Zouaves became Company H of the Twenty-Third Regiment.
In July 1863, following draft riots in New York and growing unrest in Connecticut over the military draft, Governor Buckingham issued a call for volunteers for three months’ state service. Waterbury’s Col. Stephen W. Kellogg, Second Regiment, raised a company of a hundred men in 24 hours. Designated Company C of the Second Battalion, they were under direct orders of the governor to deter potential riots. The Company drilled two hours every afternoon and maintained a 24-hour guard at the armory.
Another Waterbury militia company formed during the Civil War was named for Waterbury’s favorite soldier, Col. John Chatfield, who died of war wounds in August, 1863. The Chatfield Guard was formed less than two months after his death and merged with Company A, Second Regiment.
Following the end of the Civil War, Connecticut’s legislature renamed its militia the Connecticut National Guard on July 9, 1865 (and was one of the first states to do so). The new law was drafted by Waterbury’s Stephen W. Kellogg. The eight militia regiments were divided into two brigades, with a total of 4141 officers and men. The officers’ annual drill was repealed, and a six-day encampment was instituted.
The state legislature modified the militia again in 1871, reducing it to one brigade of four regiments and ten companies. During the years following the Civil War, the National Guard regiments held their annual encampments at various locations within their districts. The state began leasing grounds at Niantic for regimental encampments, then purchased the grounds in 1883.
|Field day. Company A, 2nd Connecticut National Guard, Waterbury, Conn. May 1891.|
Collection of The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT
Connecticut National Guard companies remained loyal to their respective towns during the 19th century. A minor feud between officers in Waterbury and officers in New Haven erupted in 1900, when Waterbury’s officers complained that the state was giving preferential treatment to New Haven’s officers in deciding how to ship the officers’ horses to Niantic for their one week encampment.
During the Waterbury Trolley Riots of 1903, Waterbury’s National Guard companies were joined by companies from all over the state, leading the Hartford Courant to write that Waterbury “presents almost the appearance of an armed camp.” The Courant also wrote that anyone in Waterbury five years earlier would “have considered such a spectacle as that of to-night, in Waterbury, absolutely impossible.”
The U.S. Congress passed new legislation in 1903 which redefined militias in extensive detail. The Militia Act (originally known as the Dick Bill, because it was sponsored by Ohio Senator Charles W. F. Dick) prompted a series of reorganizations of the Connecticut National Guard to adhere to the new federal regulations. Members of the U.S. Army inspected the Connecticut Guard in 1907 and found it lacking. The report noted that “guard duty was poorly executed, the men were negligent in dress,” and that the “men do not pay attention to the instructions of their officers and officers allow infractions of the rules to go uncorrected.”
In the years leading up to World War I, the federal government placed repeated pressure on the Connecticut National Guard to meet high standards. In 1916, the Hartford Courant reported that an unnamed officer of the C.N.G. had complained that the war department was “trying to prove the inefficiency of the state militia without giving it a proper chance to demonstrate its effectiveness in the hope that universal military training… will be introduced in the United States to replace the present voluntary system.”
The Connecticut National Guard was merged with the U.S. National Guard in 1934, under orders sent by the War Department. A year earlier, Congress amended the National Defense Act, giving the President the ability to call up the National Guard in the event of a declared emergency (rather than just in the event of an invasion). The President’s military power was expanded by making all state National Guard units part of the U.S. National Guard. The process of calling up state National Guard units for active duty was, in the 1940s and ‘50s, called “federalization.”
Connecticut’s militia began as an organization of town-based companies with democratically elected leadership. Through the 19th century, as warfare became more complex, the militia was repeatedly transformed to keep it a reliable volunteer fighting force. The realities of 20th century warfare led to a transformation so complete that the modern-day Connecticut National Guard bears little resemblance to the militia of the Revolutionary War.
The Second Amendment’s reference to the militia seems antiquated, maybe even obsolete. During the 1700s, militia members frequently supplied their own weapons; today, it’s taken for granted that Guardsmen will be given issued weapons. During the 1700s, the militia were unpaid volunteers; today, joining the Connecticut National Guard is a career option. It’s not surprising, considering how much the world has changed since the Constitution was written, that there is so much disagreement on how to interpret the Second Amendment for the modern world. Perhaps it is time for an amendment to the amendment.