The Virginia militia is an armed force composed of all citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia capable of bearing arms. The Virginia militia was established in 1607 as part of the English militia system. Militia service in Virginia was compulsory for all free males. The main purpose of the Crown's militia was to repel invasions and insurrections and to enforce the laws of the colony.
In 1623, the year following the outbreak of the first major Anglo-Powhatan War in Virginia, the Virginia General Assembly commanded, "that men go not to work in the ground without their arms; That no man go or send abroad without a sufficient partie well armed." In 1661 Governor William Berkeley stated, "All our freemen are bound to be trained every month in their particular counties." The British county lieutenant system was employed as the population grew; each county had a lieutenant, appointed as the county's chief militia officer.
The militia system was originally used to defend against Native American tribes in the tidewater area. As the slave population grew in the Virginia Colony, the militia played a role in keeping slaves from running away or from revolting – through the use of militia patrollers. This Virginia militia system was put to the test in 1676 during Bacon's Rebellion. The Crown's militia was victorious over Nathaniel Bacon who tried to seize power.
The English Bill of Rights of 1689 guaranteed colonial Virginians, as loyal British subjects, the following:
- That the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against law;
- That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law;
The French and Indian War
During the French and Indian War (1754–1763), a formal act came into effect.
- "WHEREAS it is necessary, in this time of danger, that the militia of this colony should be well regulated and disciplined...And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That every person so as aforesaid inlisted (except free mulattoes, negroes, and Indians) shall be armed in the manner following, that is to say: Every soldier shall he furnished with a firelock well fixed, a bayonet fitted to the same, a double cartouch-box, and three charges of powder, and constantly appear with the same at the time and place appointed for muster and exercise, and shall also keep at his place of abode one pound of powder and four pounds of ball, and bring the same with him into the field when he shall be required...And for the better training and exercising the militia, and rendering them more serviceable, Be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That every captain shall, once in three months, and oftner if thereto required by the lieutenant or chief commanding officer in the county, muster, train, and exercise his company, and the lieutenant or other chief commanding officer in the county shall cause a general muster and exercise of all the companies within his county, to be made in the months of March or April, and September or October, yearly; and if any soldier shall, at any general or private muster, refuse to perform the command of his officer, or behave himself refractorily or mutinously, or misbehave himself at the courts martial to be held in pursuance of this act, as is herein after directed, it shall and may be lawful to and for the chief commanding officer, then present, to cause such offender to be tied neck and heels, for any time not exceeding five minutes, or inflict such corporal punishment as he shall think fit, not exceeding twenty lashes..." —An Act for the better regulating and disciplining the Militia, April 1757
In 1774 revolution was at Virginia's doorstep when Royal Governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the Virginia House of Burgesses because of their support of the city of Boston against the closing of the Port of Boston by Lord North. On May 15, 1776 the Virginia General Assembly voted unanimously for independence and to have a declaration of rights drawn up. Colonel George Mason became the principal author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights which was published on June 12, 1776. Mason drew from his own previous writings upon his founding of the Fairfax County Independent Company of Volunteers on September 21, 1774. This company was a paramilitary organization independent of the Crown's militia. Article 13 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights which established the militia clause as a fundamental right was based upon three solid English rights: the right to revolution, the right to group self-preservation and the right to self-defense. Under Article 13 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights he wrote:
- "That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state, that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power."
At the beginning of the war, Kentucky County, Virginia was organized with George Rogers Clark as head of its local militia. Clark asked Governor Patrick Henry for permission to lead a secret expedition to capture the nearest British posts, which were located in the Illinois country. Governor Henry commissioned Clark as a lieutenant colonel and authorized him to raise troops for the expedition. The Illinois campaign began in July 1778, when Clark and about 175 men crossed the Ohio River at Fort Massac and marched to Kaskaskia, taking it on the night of July 4. Cahokia, Vincennes, and several other villages and forts in British territory were subsequently captured without firing a shot, because most of the French-speaking and American Indian inhabitants were unwilling to take up arms on behalf of the British. To counter Clark's advance, Henry Hamilton reoccupied Vincennes with a small force. In February 1779, Clark returned to Vincennes in a surprise winter expedition and retook the town, capturing Hamilton in the process. The winter expedition was Clark's most significant military achievement.
The Virginia militia system, as a compulsory service composed of the body of the people trained to arms as envisioned by George Mason, remained intact until the end of the American Civil War. Reconstruction governments forced upon Virginia an all-volunteer militia system in opposition to Virginia's Bill of Rights. The militia became statutorily composed of the volunteer and the unorganized militia.
In 1771, the Virginia Bill of Rights under Article I, Section 13, was changed to the following by popular vote:
- "That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state, therefore, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power."
The current Virginia Militia under Virginia Code § 44-1 states "The militia of the Commonwealth of Virginia shall consist of all able-bodied citizens of this Commonwealth and all other able-bodied persons resident in this Commonwealth who have declared their intention to become citizens of the United States, who are at least sixteen years of age and, except as hereinafter provided, not more than fifty-five years of age. The militia shall be divided into four classes, the National Guard, which includes the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard, the Virginia State Defense Force, the naval militia, and the unorganized militia."
Permanent faculty members of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) are normally offered commissions in the naval or unorganized militia of Virginia. The Superintendent of VMI is normally a Lieutenant General of the unorganized Virginia militia unless he or she is a regular US military officer of higher rank. The corps of cadets also serves as cadet members of the unorganized militia. Staff members of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets also may hold officer appointments in the Virginia Militia, unless they hold higher rank as active or retired US military officers.
- An Act for making more effectual provision against Invasions and Insurrections, February 1727 at virginia1774.org
- Militia Act of 1757 at virginia1774.org
- George Mason Commission at virginia1774.org
- Fairfax Volunteers Company at virginia1774.org
- English, 1:92
- English 1:168
- English, 1:234
- Palmer, IV