contributed by Sylvia Trein
Veterans Day has its roots in the end of World War I; though the war officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles in June of 1919, the fighting between Allied and German forces actually ended months earlier—at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. As a result, Veterans Day is celebrated on November 11th each year.
It’s a holiday where we take some time to honor all those who have served our country through the armed forces. This year, we want to celebrate our veterans and active duty personnel by looking at some important events in US military history that most shaped life for our military service members.
Prior to the establishment of the Continental Army, the colonies’ fighting forces were made up of civilians like tradesmen, farmers, and shopkeepers, who owned weapons and were organized periodically for training. The Minutemen came next: militiamen who were trained more extensively and who renounced loyalty to the British Crown.
With the burgeoning American Revolution, the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia established an army of professional soldiers—under the command of George Washington—who would be paid and more rigorously trained. The Continental Army was formed on June 14th, 1775, which means the US Army shares its birthday with Flag Day. This army expanded to include soldiers from all 13 colonies, including native-born and immigrant, free and enslaved African Americans, and even some women who disguised themselves as men.
The Continental Army was further strengthened at Valley Forge (1778) under the training of Baron Friedrich von Steuben, who brought his native Prussian technique and discipline to the army. Though the army was disbanded after the end of the Revolution in 1783, it would be reinstated soon after as the new nation came to realize its need for a professional, standing army.
As the US grew in power and influence and its defense needs expanded with technology and global trade, new branches have been established reflecting the military’s increased sophistication and specialization.
Much like the Army, the Navy had its beginnings as the Continental Navy—a maritime counterpart—but was dissolved in 1785. It was reestablished as a standing navy through the Naval Act of 1794 to stave off attacks by Barbary pirates from North Africa. It has grown to become the largest navy in the world—“larger than the next 13 navies combined,” according to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Similarly, the Marine Corps was first seen as the Continental Marines in 1775 during the Revolutionary War, but was disbanded in 1783, then reorganized in 1798 to specialize in amphibious warfare.
The Coast Guard had its first incarnation in 1790 as an armed customs enforcement branch called the Revenue-Marine, then was reestablished in 1915 to serve in security, law enforcement, and search-and-rescue missions.
The Air Force began as the 53-person, 30-aircraft Aeronautical Division of the Army Signal Corps in 1907, early in the development of aviation. It was founded as the Air Force in 1947 through the National Security Act of the same year. It is both the world’s largest air force and the US’s second largest military branch, behind the Army.
As the youngest and smallest branch, the Space Force was founded in 2019 to address new technological security needs as the US has increased its operations in space.
The American Civil War saw the collision of the southern states’ Confederate Army and the northern states’ Union. Precipitated by opposing forces around the legality of slavery, the southern states sought to secede from the Union to form their own Confederacy. The war began in April of 1861 with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and raged for four years, ending with surrender at the Battle of Appomattox Court House.
The historical impact of the Civil War is rich with fodder for investigation and debate. There were pivotal events that led to the Civil War, like the Compromise of 1850, the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown’s Pottawatomie Massacre and raid at Harper’s Ferry. There is the storied Underground Railroad and one of the most important moments in American history, the delivery of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is also littered with well-known names from US history like Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Clara Barton, and Jefferson Davis.
But notably, it remains the deadliest war in American history, with over 620,000 American soldiers killed, or about 2% of the US population at the time. Among many legacies are its tragic deaths, painful divisions—even within families—and the brutal suffering of over 3 million American soldiers on their home soil.
The first use of the US military draft was during the Civil War. Thereafter, it was employed during both war and peacetime, through the Vietnam War. Only American men have ever been drafted, and the ages of those drafted have ranged from 18 to 45 at different junctures.
From the beginning of its use, some were able to dodge the draft through legal payments; Civil War draftees could pay $300 for exemption or find a substitute to take their place. Others who escaped being drafted have included conscientious objectors and those with disqualifying health issues. Some draft evasion has also been carried out illegally, such as draft dodgers who fled the country or failed to register with the Selective Service System (SSS).
While conscription has sparked controversy from its inception in the US (see, for example, the 1863 New York Draft Riots), its use during the Vietnam War provoked such an intensely negative public outcry that the SSS was placed in “deep standby” in 1975 and has not been used since. From the mid-1970s, all American armed forces service has been freely elected.
In 1921, Congress authorized the burial of an unidentified body from WWI battle at Arlington National Cemetery. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier first became a memorial dedicated to the 116,516 American soldiers killed in WWI (many of whom were never identified), then was rededicated to include unknown soldiers from other American wars. As of this date, three unidentified service members have been buried on the site.
It remains an important and poignant memorial for countless unidentified service members whose ultimate sacrifice must be remembered and honored. Guarded 24/7 by the dedicated Tomb Guards, this memorial is visited by around 3 million people each year.
During the Revolutionary War, Congress enacted a law providing pensions to soldiers disabled in the conflict, showing us the early roots of federal veterans’ care and benefits. Veterans’ widows and orphans were added as beneficiaries in 1806. In 1811, the US Naval Asylum in Philadelphia became the first veterans’ care facility, serving elderly and disabled Navy veterans, and after the Civil War, state-run veterans’ homes became more common.
Veterans’ services evolved rapidly between the two World Wars; benefits such as disability compensation, insurance, and vocational rehabilitation were offered, and a growing number of veterans’ hospitals were built. The Veterans Administration (1930) grew into the US Department of Veterans Affairs (1989).
Today, the VA provides a range of services to American veterans, from an updated GI Bill to mortgage assistance to funerary benefits and much more. The VA exists to bring meaningful action to our gratitude; caring for our veterans is a core value for our nation, and the VA is our public investment in their health and quality of life.
As we have covered, women and African American men began serving with the armed forces long before their inclusion as official personnel.
From Crispus Attucks to the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, Black and Native American soldiers played a vital role in the Revolution, and American men of all races and ethnicities have served in each American war since. Early companies of non-white, predominantly African American men—like the Buffalo Soldiers—were segregated from white companies, and their ability to serve fluctuated with changing laws, such as in the Jim Crow/WWI era. Full integration for all service men, regardless of race, came with President Harry Truman’s executive order, stating that “There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin” (1948). Practice followed slowly, with the Air Force the first branch to fully integrate in 1952.
Also in 1948, President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act. While women had served on a temporary basis, notably during WWII, they had not been granted regular permanent status. Today, women make up over 17% of the active duty force and over 21% of the reserves.
The most recent developments in enlistment eligibility have been 2011’s lift of the ban on homosexual men and women from service, then 2021’s lift of the ban on transgender personnel.
Each of these developments has allowed more individuals to serve their country in the armed forces and to be given the same compensation, benefits, and opportunities as their peers.
We send our deep gratitude to all of our veterans this Veterans Day and always.
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