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New book examines a white middle-class WWI substitute for the Missouri National Guard

20200305_Petra_DeWitt_0146F.jpg
Tom Wagner
/
Missouri S&T
Petra Dewitt, assistant professor of History & Political Science, and author of "The Missouri Home Guard: Protecting the Home Front during the Great War"

During World War I, Missouri was among a handful of states that implemented a volunteer, unpaid version of the National Guard.

A new book from a Missouri University of Science and Technology historian examines the little-known Home Guard.

The United States didn’t have much of a standing army when it entered World War I. So every state’s National Guard was sent overseas. That left no one available to handle the domestic duties normally assigned to the guard.

Gov. Frederick Gardner responded by invoking a state law that allowed him to establish a Home Guard.

“There is no one single reason why men joined the Home Guard,” said Petra DeWitt, author of "The Missouri Home Guard: Protecting the Home Front during the Great War" and an associate professor of history and political science at Missouri S&T. “For some it was simply patriotism, the willingness to do one’s best to help in the war effort.”

The men who joined who were too old or exempt from the draft. They found meaning in helping with the war effort through the Home Guard while also garnering respect from the community.

Since the members were unpaid and had to purchase their own uniforms and supplies, they were predominantly upper-middle-class professionals.

“The poor schmuck who was working 14 hours in the factory didn’t have that money, didn’t have that time. And it’s also an expression of masculinity. These men that sit at the desk, they feel kind of weak,” DeWitt said. “Putting on a uniform and drilling and marching through their community made them feel strong.”

The Home Guard was an unarmed force tasked with protecting infrastructure from potential enemy activities and maintaining law and order during labor activism common at the time.

The Missouri Home Guard had broad support across the state, especially in urban areas including St. Louis and Kansas City, DeWitt said. But there were pockets of resistance.

“In the Ozarks there were a dozen counties where there was no support for them, where there was no desire to set up Home Guard companies,” DeWitt said. “Because those were the areas where there was general opposition to government involvement in daily lives.”

DeWitt’s research also showed there was a barrier for Black men joining the Home Guard.

“In newspaper reports, I found that the insistence by African Americans to demonstrate their patriotism through membership in the Home Guard reflected their and the NAACP’s activism of the time period,” said DeWitt. “At the same time, the pushback by white leaders in the Missouri Council of Defense and the state’s adjutant general also reflected the persistence of white opposition to racial equality.”

Missouri women also attempted to support the war efforts and Home Guard but were met with resistance.

While the Home Guard hasn’t been activated since then, the law authorizing the force remains on the books, and the governor could activate the force again.

"The Missouri Home Guard: Protecting the Home Front during the Great War" was published this month by the University of Missouri Press.

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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