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Defenders of order and infringers of rights: the mixed record of the Minnesota Home Guard

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Minnesota Home Guard on parade in St. Paul, 1917.

When the Minnesota National Guard was federalized in the spring of 1917, the state was left without any military organization. To defend the state’s resources, the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS) created the Minnesota Home Guard. The Home Guard existed for the duration of World War I. Units performed civilian and military duties.

The MCPS created the Home Guard on April 28, 1917. The Home Guard was meant to ensure public safety and protect citizens’ lives and property. Unofficially, the Home Guard was created to enforce the MCPS’ orders, many of which infringed on the rights of citizens.

Home Guard volunteers served for the duration of World War I. They were not paid unless they committed to extended active duty. Only men over the age of twenty-six were recruited. The Home Guard operated under the command of Minnesota Adjutant General Walter F. Rhinow and under the ultimate authority of Governor J.A.A. Burnquist.

Guard volunteers were armed with some weapons from the federal government, but most procured arms from military academies in the state and their home communities. Uniforms were provided by Adjutant General Rhinow or were manufactured and paid for through fundraising. Officers purchased their own uniforms. These uniforms followed the U.S. regulation pattern.

Eventually, twenty-three battalions exceeding seven thousand men were recruited. After petitioning the governor, African Americans formed the Sixteenth Battalion—the only one that allowed men of color to enlist.

In 1918 the Home Guard was augmented by a Motor Reserve Corps. Though organized in a military fashion, the Motor Corps was not recognized by any government act. Members volunteered themselves and their vehicles to the state. They performed duties alongside the Home Guard and many considered them to be part of it. The Motor Corps numbered over 2,500 men in ten battalions.

The Home Guard performed a number of basic duties during its existence. Units marched in parades and participated in patriotic gatherings. They provided honor guards at funerals, sold liberty bonds, and supported the Red Cross. Members of the Home Guard harvested crops and escorted enlisted men to the train station when they left to serve. A number of units conducted “slacker raids” in which they tracked down men who were not abiding by the laws of the draft. The largest of these took place in St. Paul, where over five hundred men were arrested.

The Home Guard played an important role in disaster relief in 1918. On July 1, 1918, a tornado swept through the town of Tyler. General Rhinow commanded the relief effort, which was carried out by members of the Home Guard and National Guard. On October 12, 1918, a devastating fire destroyed thirty-eight communities in Northeastern Minnesota. Units of the Home Guard from Duluth and the Iron Range fought the fire. Afterward they provided first aid, security, and buried the dead.

The MCPS employed the Home Guard as a de facto police force to quell labor disputes. Most famously, the Home Guard was used to break a strike of Twin City Rapid Transit workers in the winter of 1917. After dispersing a crowd of thousands, the Home Guard closed off six square blocks of downtown St. Paul. Most pro-labor advocates saw the Home Guard as a tool of business interests and the private army of a dictatorial governor. Use of the Home Guard helped lead to the unification of the Nonpartisan League and labor interests. In addition, with temperance movements on the rise, the Home Guard was used to force the closure of saloons in Blooming Prairie.

At times, the Home Guard helped bring stability to Minnesota during the World War I years. However, it was also a wedge that further divided opinion on issues like sedition and free speech, labor and business, loyalty and disloyalty, and race. Many people felt it was necessary; others thought it infringed on the rights of citizens. When the armistice with Germany was signed, Home Guard units began to muster out on their own accord. In December of 1920, the MCPS was officially dissolved and all of its orders, including the Home Guard, were voided.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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