The world's mightiest military came from humble beginnings as colonial militias representative of the era’s free, white society. Men between the ages of 16 and 60 were recruited to colonial militia service from all walks of life, including shopkeepers, tutors, small farmers, and smiths. Left out of that recruitment were college enrollees, slaves, most free blacks, and clergy—and, in Virginia, Catholics. Men who were recruited were asked to make inarguably heavy sacrifices during their service, which included operations against Native Americans and supplementing Red Coats in border skirmishes with neighboring European colonies. The colonial militia’s first overseas foray came in 1741 and ended in abject disaster when 4,000 American reinforcements joined an attempted British invasion of Cartagena, Colombia, then a Spanish possession. The invasion failed miserably and only around 600 American volunteers returned home alive from the expedition.

In the lead up to the Revolutionary War, the American militia was prepared to step up in case of emergency for the paid, trained soldiers in the Continental Army (established by the Continental Congress in 1775), although the militia ultimately provided far more soldiers for that effort than the fledgling army. The British Regulars, or Red Coats, assumed this growing military was made up of laborers, criminals, and other struggling members of society, and ill-equipped to handle the brutality of war. That misguided perspective—largely brought about because Britain itself enlisted soldiers from its own, lowest classes—along with a big boost from the French, ultimately cost Britain the colonies during the Revolutionary War.

The U.S. Armed Forces over the last century have played major roles in two world wars, a wide variety of civil conflicts, and dozens of ongoing military campaigns. These efforts have made significant impacts on how our government makes decisions that may affect domestic and foreign affairs. The military itself has undergone a few structural changes in that time as well, including adding new divisions and permitting women and LGBTQ+ people to serve in all military branches.

LOOK: 100 years of military history

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