Alabama National Guard

Alabama National Guard Logo The Alabama National Guard, consisting of both ground and air units, is a military organization that has dual responsibilities at the state and federal levels. The Guard’s primary function, reflective of its roots in the state and local militias of the nineteenth century, is to provide security and restore order during natural disasters, civil unrest, and other emergency situations. The Guard also serves as a reserve force for the regular army and air force of the United States. Guardsmen retain civilian status unless called to active duty by either the governor or the president. When not on active duty, guardsmen train at regularly scheduled weekend drills and extended annual camps. The governor of Alabama commands the Guard through an appointed adjutant general. But the president of the United States, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has authority to call the Guard to active federal duty, thereby removing it from state control. The federal government bears most of the financial burden of the Guard’s military preparedness, and this arrangement has had a substantial financial impact on the state.

State Artillery The Alabama National Guard’s roots reach back to the War of 1812, when residents of what is now Alabama enlisted in militias of the Mississippi Territory in large numbers. The tradition of the citizen-soldier continued through the antebellum period, the Civil War, and beyond. Most of these groups served as an auxiliary police force and were often more social than military in nature. One contemporary Alabama unit traces its lineage to the Civil War era, but the modern Guard descends most directly from militia reforms championed by U.S. Secretary of War Elihu Root and adopted with passage of the Militia (Dick) Act of 1903, as well as subsequent federal laws passed in 1908 and 1916. These legislative changes provided that all National Guard units be trained, organized, and equipped according to regular army (and later, air force) standards, and they brought to the Alabama National Guard a uniformity and regularity that had been absent from the state militia.

After the Spanish-American War (1898), Gov. Joseph F. Johnston authorized the reorganization of Alabama’s militia, and in 1903 Gov. William Jelks officially designated it the Alabama National Guard. At this time, the Guard consisted of three infantry regiments (the First, Second, and Third) and various artillery batteries and cavalry squadrons. By 1911 the cavalry and artillery units, which were expensive to maintain, were mustered out of service. By 1912, the Third Infantry’s inefficient units had been mustered out of service, and the remaining companies had been reassigned to the First, Second, or Fourth Infantry Regiments, the latter of which was organized in 1911. Guardsmen typically trained at regular bimonthly drills and at a two-to-three-week annual camp with regular army troops.

Prior to World War I, the Alabama National Guard’s state duties concentrated on two main responsibilities—protecting prisoners from lynch mobs and policing striking miners in the Birmingham area. Lynch mobs posed considerable problems for sheriffs and other local officials, and when a mob threatened a prisoner, sheriffs usually asked the governor for the Guard’s assistance. The Alabama National Guard compiled a fine record in this duty: Only once did a mob gain control of a prisoner on the Guard’s watch. (This one failure resulted in the mustering out of service of Company F, Third Infantry, Huntsville, in 1904.)

Guardsmen at Camp Taft Alabama governors also called upon the Guard several times to police striking miners, especially in the Jefferson County coal fields during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In July 1908, Governor B. B. Comer dispatched National Guard troops to respond to an outbreak of violence between local law enforcement and striking miners during a massive statewide strike against coal operators. The miners initially welcomed the soldiers, many of whom sympathized with the strike. Nevertheless, the presence of some 900 guardsmen by early August effectively broke the strike, and most miners returned to their jobs.

The Guard also received activation orders from the state during and after natural disasters such as tornadoes, floods, and tropical storms. Troops distributed tents used as temporary shelters, policed affected areas, and protected property. Between 1900 and 1916, all of the duties performed by the Alabama National Guard were in service of the state.

Alabama National Guard Band In 1916, Pres. Woodrow Wilson called the National Guard to active duty for service along the Mexican border, beginning several years of active federal service for Alabama guardsmen. They served in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona as part of the U.S. effort to prevent incursions by Mexican revolutionary leader Francisco “Pancho” Villa. This deployment ended in early 1917, but just as the troops returned to Alabama, the possibility of American entry into World War I prompted President Wilson to cancel demobilization orders. The Guard was then posted around the state to secure lines of transportation and communication. By May 1917, increased recruitment brought the Alabama National Guard up to wartime strength. In August, the War Department selected the Fourth Alabama Infantry Regiment, comprising 3,677 Alabamians commanded by Col. William P. Screws (a former regular army officer), for duty as the 167th Infantry Regiment, Eighty-fourth Brigade, Forty-second (Rainbow) Division. The remaining 1,348 guardsmen became members of the Thirty-first (Dixie) Division, whose troops served as replacements for other divisions. The Forty-second Division was one of the first American divisions shipped overseas, and the men of the 167th served with distinction, earning medals and awards for individual service. The regiment also served a record 110 days without relief on the front lines in France.

After World War I, the Alabama National Guard returned to the state and again performed strike duty and various other state-related activities, but most of its time was spent reorganizing and rebuilding under the terms of the National Defense Act of 1920. During this period, the 167th and the other units became part of the Thirty-first Division, and the air unit was organized as the 135th (later 106th) Observation Squadron. In 1935 the federal Works Progress Administration began construction of armories that now dot cities and towns around the state.

Alabama National Guard in World War II With the start of World War II, the Alabama National Guard entered another phase of active federal service. Most Alabama guardsmen trained at Camp Blanding, Florida, with the Thirty-first Division, and in 1944 they deployed to the Pacific Theater, serving in New Guinea and the Philippines. After the war, the Alabama National Guard underwent yet another reorganization. By 1948 Alabama’s Guard included approximately 12,000 men in 109 units, making it the third largest Guard in the nation. In 1951, the Alabama National Guard again was activated to federal service during the Korean War. The army units served primarily stateside, providing training to other troops in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Indiana, although a few Alabama units deployed to Korea. In addition, a portion of the Air Guard deployed to Germany during the Korean War. In the Cold War era, some guardsmen served in western Europe with NATO forces during the Berlin Crisis of 1961. A small group of Guard aviators also participated in clandestine U.S. flights that supported Cuban expatriates in the Bay of Pigs incident. Only one Alabama National Guard unit—the 650th Medical Detachment (Dental)—participated in the Vietnam War in 1968.

During the 1950s and 1960s the Alabama National Guard saw more active state duty than federal service. Several times guardsmen responded to governors’ and even presidents’ calls to maintain order. In 1954 guardsmen converged on the small east-Alabama town of Phenix City following the assassination of Albert Patterson, the Democratic candidate for Alabama attorney general who had promised to abolish the gambling and prostitution rings in the city. After the governor declared martial law, guardsmen disarmed the local police and sheriffs and closed the gambling halls and houses of prostitution.

Freedom Rides In the 1960s, Gov. George Wallace (and eventually the president) called out the Guard many times during the turbulent civil rights era. In 1961, guardsmen briefly protected some of the Freedom Riders in Montgomery and escorted their bus to the Mississippi line. In 1963, Governor Wallace used guardsman to ensure that order was maintained as he made his “stand in the schoolhouse door” to oppose the desegregation of the University of Alabama. In an unusual action, Pres. John F. Kennedy overrode the governor’s authority and federalized those same troops, who subsequently forced the governor to step aside and allow two African American students to enter the university. Two years later Alabama guardsmen were again federalized to protect participants in the Selma-to-Montgomery March.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Alabama National Guard continued to increase in size and diversity. Women, African Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities joined, and African Americans made up approximately one-third of the total troop strength in 2002. By 1989, Alabama had the largest National Guard in the nation, with 21,551 Guard soldiers and airmen. With decreases mandated by the federal government, however, numbers slowly declined.

Guardsmen Protect Dauphin Island during the BP Oil Spill As the twentieth century came to a close and the twenty-first began, Alabama guardsmen again were federalized for overseas duty, with more than 5,000 serving in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. More recently, approximately 10,000 Alabamians have been deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world. Alabama continues to have one of the largest guard forces in the nation, although its numbers have declined with budget cuts and a drop in recruiting. In 2004, the force was 12,500. In late 2006, the Guard’s strength was about 11,000—6 percent short of authorized strength and approximately half the total numbers for 1989. Even with this decline in total strength, however, the Alabama National Guard ranked fifth in numbers of troops deployed to the Middle East in 2006, surpassed only by Texas, North Carolina, California, and Tennessee. There have been numerous deployments of Guard units to the Middle East and Afghanistan in recent years. A major milestone occurred in July 2017 when Maj. Gen Sheryl Gordon of Selma, Dallas County, became the first woman named to command the Alabama National Guard.

Further Reading

  • Amerine, William H. Alabama’s Own in France. New York: Eaton & Gettinger, 1919.
  • Frazer, Nimrod T. Send the Alabamians!: World War I Fighters in the Rainbow Division. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2014.
  • Land, Frank S. “Alabama National Guard.” Alabama Historical Quarterly 1 (Summer 1930): 51–73.
  • Merritt, Gus. 31st Infantry “Dixie” Division: It Shall Be Done. Paducah, Ky.: Turner Publishing Company, 1995.
  • Straw, Richard A. “Soldiers and Miners in a Strike Zone: Birmingham, 1908.” Alabama Review 38 (October 1985): 289-308.
  • Trest, Warren A. and Don Dodd. Wings of Denial: The Alabama Air National Guard’s Covert Role at the Bay of Pigs. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 2001.
  • Truss, Ruth Smith. “The Alabama National Guard from 1900 to 1920.” Ph.D. diss., University of Alabama, 1992.
  • ———. “The Alabama National Guard and the Protection of Prisoners, 1900–1916.” Alabama Review 49 (January 1996): 3-28.
  • ———. “The Alabama National Guard’s 167th Infantry Regiment in World War I.” Alabama Review 56 (January 2003): 3–34.
  • ———. “Progress Toward Professionalism: The Alabama National Guard on the Mexican Border, 1916-1917.” Military History of the West 30 (Fall 2000): 97–121.

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