Establishing the militia

The roots of the D.C. National Guard are older than the District of Columbia, older than the active duty military and older than the United States. Before there was a District of Columbia, Citizen Soldiers were forming militia units in Georgetown and Bladensburg. These militiamen were among those who would fight—and win—the American War of Independence. Francis Scott Key was a Lieutenant with the Georgetown Artillery during the War of 1812. During the British bombardment of Baltimore Harbor, he asked and was allowed to be sent to Maryland to negotiate a prisoner exchange. After the negotiations, the ship’s commander felt he had seen too much and needed to stay on the ship through the rest of the attack. As he watched the flag fly above Fort McHenry, he wrote the poem that is now the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner—our national anthem.​​​


The new government had many choices to make, and one of the first was how to protect its citizens. Many of our founding fathers imagined a small standing army and a large system of militias under state control. One of the triggers of the War of Independence had been a sentiment that the British had misused troops in the colonies. Americans believed that a military force by the people—from the people—would be responsible to the people. A standing army would be too expensive and too easily sent to unpopular wars. President George Washington—a former militiaman himself—was one of the supporters of this system. In 1792, Congress officially recognized the militias of the United States, now known as The National Guard, as the backbone of the military establishment.​​​ 

Photo: (From left to right): District of Columbia Militia commanding generals, Brig. Gen. Richard Simms (January 18, 1918 – March 31, 1920), Maj. Gen. Anton Stephan (April 28, 1920 – April 10, 1934) and Brig. Gen. William Harvey (June 4, 1913 – August 17, 1917)


Creating the District of Columbia National Guard

The Residence Act of 1790 established that the country would create a new capital city rather than selecting an existing city. In 1801, The Organic Act designated Washington, D.C. as the capital of the United States and put its governance under the control of Congress. Which militia would protect a city without a governor and under the control of Congress?​​​  


The D.C. National Guard came about in part due to the efforts of President Thomas Jefferson, the first President to spend his term in D.C. He came into office during a time when strife between the two major political parties was threatening to tear the new country apart. Soon, the Commanding Generals of the two closest militia units were members of President Jefferson’s rival political party. At this point, there was only a very small regular army, and they were mostly patrolling the border. If one of the state militias were to try to force political will, there would be no way to keep them from marching on the Capitol and coercing—or even overthrowing—the government. 


President Jefferson saw how vulnerable America’s democracy would be if the will of a military general could keep the legislative body from enacting the will of the people. To prevent this, he created the D.C. National Guard. President Jefferson hand selected his new officer and in 1802, the D.C. National Guard held its first muster. The D.C. Guard is the only local National Guard with a national mission—to protect our Federal Government. 


Unique Law

Normally, American federal law specifically charges the U.S. National Guard with dual federal and state missions. As the U.S. federal government abolished the jurisdiction of the state of Maryland and states rights in Washington, D.C. to establish a federal district, there is no elected governor to command this guard unit. The District of Columbia National Guard is the only National Guard that reports only to the U.S. President.


Supervision and control of District of Columbia National Guard was delegated by the President of the United States to the Secretary of Defense pursuant to Executive Order 10030, 26 January 1949 with authority given to the Secretary to designate officials of the National Military Establishment to administer affairs of the District of Columbia National Guard. The Secretary of the Army was directed to act for the Secretary of Defense in all matters pertaining to the ground component, and the Secretary of the Air Force was directed to act in all matters pertaining to the air component of the District of Columbia National Guard by Secretary of Defense Memorandum, 2 February 1949.


The D.C. National Guard is the only United States military force empowered to function in a state or, in this case, a district status. Those functions range from limited actions during non-emergency situations to full scale law enforcement of martial law when local law enforcement officials can no longer maintain civil control. The National Guard may be called into federal service in response to a call by the President or Congress.


When the D.C. National Guard is called to federal service, the U.S. President serves as Commander-in-Chief. The federal mission assigned to the U.S. National Guard is "To provide properly trained and equipped units for prompt mobilization for war, National emergency or as otherwise needed.