Wikipedia states that:

The Congress of the Confederation created the current United States Army on 3 June 1784.

But how much was it truly a federal force? I assume it had one central command from the start, but on the lower levels, how much was it really a federal force, as opposed to individual US states' armies?

My recollection, from movies, is that during The American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, the units were still drafted and organized at a state level; you have 1st Ohio Infantry, 3rd Missouri Infantry, etc. And that is nearly a century after independence!

More details on Wikipedia: list of American Civil War units by state versus US regular army; if the latter can be considered the truly federal army then it was clearly a minority.

And then you have movies from Korea and Vietnam, where the units were put together from all corners of the US, no more Ohio or Missouri infantry. When did this transition happen?

Are there still remnants of some per state divisions today?

I am mainly asking because if the EU Army is ever going to happen, how much far behind it would be compared to the US ;-)

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    Wouldn't that be the formation of the Legion of the United States in 1792, which was 'composed of professionally trained soldiers, rather than state militias'? Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 21:09
  • 4
    @MarkC.Wallace Once again, two nations divided by a common language ... ;-) Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 21:53
  • 6
    The militia's also still exist, they are now called the National Guard.
    – justCal
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 22:36
  • 4
    Units may have been drafted and organized at the state level during the Civil War, but they were always part of a single command structure that was entirely Federal. It's not like the governor of Ohio had any say in what the 1st Ohio Infantry did.
    – user15620
    Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 0:29
  • 1
    Guys, your answers are fantastic! You exceeded my greatest expectations. I have no idea how I'm going to pick the winner.
    – Espinosa
    Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 23:45

3 Answers 3


At what point did the United States have a truly federal army?

The Congress of the Confederation created the current United States Army on 3 June 1784.

WWI maybe even WWII.

I would disagree with Wikipedia's date. of 1784. That date is more about public relations than it is factual. Under the Articles of Confederation the Federal Government had no reliable source of income. The continental army had been disbanded the year before on the orders of Congress. Congress couldn't afford to pay the continental army veterans who marched on Philadelphia in June of 1783, (Philidelphia Mutiny) and took Congress hostage. The vote in 1784 was a very small group of soldiers basically used as sentries and left the bulk of forces for any national crisis residing in state control. The reason why I call it "public relations" is the current United States Army likes to trace it's history back to the continental soldiers even though the Continental army was disbanded in 1783 with no real replacement in place.

This is a nuanced question. Do a few hundred guys constitute a Federal army? No.. Also is it really a federal army when most of the standing army is left in control of states which are not obligated to commit their forces when called upon.. No. So clearly the 1784 date doesn't represent an answer to the question. Likewise the more widely used 1789 date where congress legalized / recognized what remained of the continental army at George Washington's insistence doesn't fit the answer either because of the previous reasons.

Before I answer it here is the timeline and the facts:

  • Apr 19, 1775 - The American Revolutionary War begins.
  • June 14, 1775 - The Continental Army was established by the Second Continental Congress
  • 1781 - The United States is organized under the Articles of Confederation, which has no provision for funding either a federal Army or Navy.
  • Sep 3, 1783 - The American Revolutionary War ends
  • Sep 1783 - Continental Army is disbanded after the Treaty of Paris.
  • Sep 1783 - The continental Army which was not paid for their service, marches on the Capital Philadelphia and takes Congress hostage. They are talked down by Alexander Hamilton a revolutionary war veteran. George Washington also comes out in support of the Congress.
  • 1789 - The United States is organized under the current United States Constitution with the urging of George Washington includes provision for the United States to Keep a Federal Army with the ability to fund said army. While the newly ratified constitution gave congress this right, congress did not allocate funds to create such a force at that time. So 1789 isn't the date either.

Army Clause article I, section 8, clause 12
The Congress shall have Power To ...raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years.

US Constitution, article II, section 2, clause 1
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

  • August 7, 1789, George Washington writes Congress to motivate them to follow through and create a federal army.

On this day: Congress officially creates the U.S. Army
“I am particularly anxious it should receive an early attention as circumstances will admit; because it is now in our power to avail ourselves of the military knowledge disseminated throughout the several States by means of the many well instructed Officers and soldiers of the late Army; a resource which is daily diminishing by deaths and other causes,” Washington wrote.

  • September 29, 1789, Congress on it's last day of it's first term passes the "Establishment of Troops" bill which allocates funds for the Federal government to maintain a federal army. About 800 men only, the majority of soldiers in a time of war still come from State Militias.

  • December 15, 1791 - Congress ratifies the Bill of Rights

The Second Ammendemnt of the Bill of Rights
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

1794, A (State Militias from New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. ) militia numbering approximately 13,000 was raised and personally led by President George Washington to quell the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. From this experience, a major weakness of a States-based citizen militia system was found to be the lack of systematic army organization, and a lack of training for engineers and officers. George Washington repeatedly warned of these shortcomings up until his death in 1799. Two days before his death, in a letter to General Alexander Hamilton, George Washington wrote: "The establishment of a Military Academy upon a respectable and extensive basis has ever been considered by me as an object of primary importance to this country; and while I was in the chair of government, I omitted no proper opportunity of recommending it in my public speeches, and otherwise to the attention of the legislature.

  • March 4, 1797, George Washington Leaves office giving his farewell address which puts the United States on an isolationist path for the next 140 years. Meaning no foreign alliances. The federal army still consists of 800 men.

  • January 10, 1813 - Andrew Jackson takes 2000 Tennessee volunteers to defend New Orleans from the British. ( congress sends a message to Jackson when his forces are half way to New Orleans to tell him they are not paying for his trip.) Jackson still holds a grudge against the British.

  • Jackson and his brothers were British POW's during the Revolutionary War.

  • Jackson's brother died on a British detention ship.

  • Jackson himself was beaten by the British.

  • Jackson's mother and sister died of starvation while Jackson and his brother were detained.

  • War of 1812, The United States still uses decentralized state militia's as it's primary defensive force. The poor performance by these disorganized militia's motivates the federal government to expand the small federal army.

In the War of 1812, the United States militia, because of a lack of discipline and poor training, were often routed in battle on open ground by British regulars.[32] They fared better and proved more reliable when protected behind defensive entrenchments and fixed fortifications, as was effectively shown at Plattsburgh, Baltimore, and New Orleans. Because of their overall ineffectiveness and failure during the war, militias were not adequate for the national defense. Military budgets were greatly increased at this time and a smaller, standing federal army, rather than States' militias, was deemed better for the national defense.

  • 1860 American Civil War begins

Following the Confederate taking of Fort Sumter, which marked the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln called up 75,000 States' militiamen to retake the seized Federal property and found that the militia "strength was far short of what the Congressional statute provided and required"

Yes during the civil war there was the first draft in the United States, but that was a draft on the states. The states were given a quota for supplying troops.

Even after the colonial period the United States maintained an incredible small underfunded military. in the 1800's it was a provincial force mostly used for fighting indians.
I would say the first truly federal force capable of defending US territory and act as a deterrent to foreign invasion was assembled in WWI, but It was mostly disbanded after that war. In 1938 when WWII began the united States army was about the size of Belgium or Portugal even though the US had the largest economy in the world at the time and was more populous than any of the European combatants. I would say WWII was the real birth of the standing US army as a federal force with a sufficient level of funding and that the modern US Army dates back to this period.

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    After much deliberation I decided that JMS's argumentation to be the most compelling. It's a bit subjective, all responses were great and real joy to read!
    – Espinosa
    Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 23:37
  • Who fought in the Indian Wars?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 23:42
  • @CGCampbell. local and state militia's mostly. When Custer and his 700 men were wiped out at little bighorn in 1876, there were only 28,500 men in the entire US Army. A million men made up of mostly state divisions fought the civil war for the Union. Same with WWI. US maintained a bare bones army and when wars came the US relied on state forces to augment it's meger profesional forces. That basically was the way the US did it until WWII... Really Korea, because after WWII the US again demobilized and almost got smoked in Korea; The military which had defeated Japan was in mothballs.
    – user27618
    Commented May 9, 2020 at 2:27
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    It seems to me that deciding whether or not the US Army is 'federal' depends a lot more on who pays the bills and gives the orders than on the details of how the enlistment process was handled. Washington's army during the Revolution was definitely not federal. But by the Civil War, when Lincoln said "frog!" the army jumped (once he got rid of McClellan, anyway) and Grant was commanding a federal army in all ways that count.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented May 9, 2020 at 15:01


One might reasonably argue that the United States Army has existed since 29 September 1789, and has been a 'truly federal force' since 5 March 1792.

At what point did the United States have a truly federal army?

As @MarkC.Wallace has noted in the comments, some of this is going to come down to questions about definitions. However, there appear to be two main dates that might meet the criteria.

On 29 September 1789 the First United States Congress passed 'An act to recognize and adapt to the Constitution of the United States, the establishment of the troops raised under the resolves of the United States in Congress assembled.'. The act was passed on the final day of its first session and states:

"That the establishment contained in the resolve of the late Congress, of the third day of October, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-seven,* except as to the mode of appointing the officers, and also as is hereinafter provided, be, and the same is hereby recognized to be the establishment for the troops in the service of the United States."

This Act officially established the army under the Constitution of the United States.

Some of the background that led up to that Act is briefly described in the 2016 article 'Congress establishes the U.S. Army, Sept. 29, 1789' in Politico Magazine.

However, the resolution of 3 October 1787 made it clear that the army was composed of state militias, and even gave a breakdown of how those troops were to be apportioned between the states, so perhaps may not quite meet your criteria as a 'truly federal army'.

On 5 March 1792, Congress passed 'An act for making farther and more effectual provision for the protection of the frontiers of the United States'.

This was significant in that the Army it authorised was to be a body of professionally trained soldiers, rather than the state militias which had previously formed the basis of the Army. As such, they were recruited by the Federal government, rather than being raised by the individual states, which is what I suspect you mean when you say "truly a federal force".

This was to be the Legion of the United States.

As the Wikipedia article notes, an Act of Congress dated 3 March 1795 and titled 'An act for continuing and regulating the Military Establishment of the United States, and for repealing sundry acts heretofore passed on that subject' allowed the Legion to grow in size:

"... the legion of the United States be also completed, to the number of four thousand eight hundred non-commissioned officers, privates, and musicians, by voluntary enlistments, for the term of three years"

On 30 May 1796, the US Congress passed 'An act to ascertain and fix the military establishment of the United States' which divided the Legion into regiments and established what became known as the United States Army.

Finally, after the death of the Legion's commanding officer, Major General Anthony Wayne in 1796, Congress passed an Act titled 'An act to amend and repeal, in part, the act, entitled " An act to ascertain and fix the military establishment of the United States."' which abolished the post of Major General as commander of the Legion.

From that date the Army was known as the Army of the United States, or later still, simply as the United States Army.

So one might reasonably argue that the United States Army has existed since 29 September 1789, and has been a 'truly federal force' since 5 March 1792.

I think the names of the Civil War units may be a distraction. Yes, there were certainly States forces, but - as you note - there was also the United States Regular Army which was the 'Federal Army', and all those forces fought under a central command structure under the United States government.

Are there still remnants of some per state divisions today?

The State militias do indeed still exist as the Army National Guard. The situation can appear a little confusing, but the Wikipedia article offers a fairly clear summary of the situation:

"They are simultaneously part of two different organizations, the Army National Guard of the several states, territories and the District of Columbia (also referred to as the Militia of the United States), and the Army National Guard of the United States, part of the United States National Guard."


To Make a Long Story Short 3 June 1784 is an adequate date for the formation of the United States Army - meaning the standing or regular army of the USA. The USA had and has other armies which are not The United States Army.

The Long Story

In colonial times the colonies had a militia military system. Every able bodied man within the legal age limits was legally required to own a gun and ammunition and to attend the periodical training sessions of his local militia company. In times of Indian or other conflicts the colonial government would call out the militia and mobilize it for combat.

In some of the later colonial conflicts the colonies would also raise units of volunteers to be full time soldiers for the duration of the conflict, and sometimes the British government sent regular army units of professional soldiers to fight in the colonies.

During the American Revolution the majority of the fighting men were members of the militia units. But because of problems with using only militia the Continental Congress established the Continental Line, which became a standing or regular army, beginning on June 14, 1775.

When the Continental Army was demobilized in 1783, a single regiment, the 1st American Regiment remained, under the command of Colonel Henry Jackson. In 1784 this regiment was disbanded. A single company of artillery was reassigned to a new regiment, the First American Regiment, the predecessor to the United States Army's 3rd US Infantry Regiment.


So each state in the United States had its own military force, its militia of part time soldiers, which could be mobilized in time of war.

In the generations after the American revolution, the militia system began to decay, and the militia became less and less effective, until it was finally reorganized as the National Guard under joint federal and state command in 1903 and 1933.

The United States National Guard, also commonly referred to as just the National Guard, is part of the reserve components of the United States Armed Forces. It is a reserve military force, composed of National Guard military members or units of each state and the territories of Guam, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, for a total of 54 separate organizations. All members of the National Guard of the United States are also members of the militia of the United States as defined by 10 U.S.C. § 246. National Guard units are under the dual control of the state and the federal government.


National guard membership is part time until units are mobilized.

The regular army was formed on June 3, 1784, with the formation of the First American Regiment, which became the First Infantry in 1791. In 1815 it was merged with other regiments to form the Third United States Infantry, the "Old Guard" of the US army.

The Legion of the United States was formed in 1792 out of existing regular army units and new recruits. It contained four sub legions each having 2 infantry battalions, 1 light infantry battalion, 1 cavalry company, and one field artillery battery.

The Legion of the United States was abolished in 1796, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th sublegions becoming the the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th infantry regiments of the US Army.

During the Northwestern Indian War the US also raised units of levies, temporary units of volunteer soldiers. Richard Butler, major general of levies, killed in St. Claire's Defeat, or the Battle of the Wabash, in 1791, was the highest ranking US officer ever killed by Indians.

During 19th century conflicts, mostly the War of 1812 (1812-15), the Mexican- American war (1846-48), the Civil War (1861-65), and the Spanish-American war (1898) the major United States fighting forces were units of volunteers. Men would volunteer to become full time soldiers in temporary units raised to fight in the war and be disbanded afterwards.

Must volunteer units were raised by the states and territories, and thus had designations like 49th Pennsylvania Infantry or 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery or 7th Michigan Cavalry, etc., etc. Sometimes volunteer units were paid and equipped and under the command of the states and territories that raised them, but most of the volunteer units would be organized by the states and territories and then mustered into federal service to be paid, equipped, & supplied by the federal government and under the command of the federal government.

The federal government also raised volunteer units without any state or territorial affiliation, such as units of sharpshooters, and units of Rebel prisoners, and the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War.

Volunteer units often elected their officers, who were commissioned by their state or territorial governors, up to the rank of colonel. All generals of volunteers were commissioned by the federal government, and are sometimes distinguished from regular army generals by the initials USV (for United States Volunteers) instead of USA (for United states Army).

Among officers of the same rank, regular army officers were senior to volunteer officers who were senior to militia officers.

During the 19th century wars, both the United States Volunteers and the United States Army were paid, equipped, supplied, fed, and commanded by the federal government and were federal armies, despite the state and territorial designations which most volunteer units retained to satisfy state pride.

Even though militia training was legally compulsory, after the American revolution the militia laws became a less and less enforced and more and more men ignored them, and in many locations the militia became more or less social clubs for men who wanted to occasionally drill and wear fancy uniforms.

The regular army was always recruited by voluntary enlistment for a term of years, and the United States Volunteers were obviously volunteers. Conscription was first used during the Civil War, and not again until World War One. During the Civil War only a small minority of federal recruits were conscripted or paid substitutes for conscripted men.

Therefore, the use of "drafted" in the original question implies a belief that the 19th century federal and state governments were far more tyrannical than they were.

Some people would say the United States Army dates back to 1796, but that was just a change of name after the Legion of the United States (1792-96) was disbanded.

(added 04-11-2019) The federal government under the present constitution began functioning and the constitution came into effect March 4, 1789. So as sempaiscuba suggested, some persons may consider that the federal government began to exist and have a federal army on March 4, 1789.

The official foundation date of the federal government's standing army, the United States Army, is June 3, 1784. The Third Infantry, the "Old Guard", dates to then.

(added 04-11-2019) The Articles of Confederation creating a weak central government for the USA came into effect on March 1, 1781, when ratification was completed. Thus there was an officially created central government to have a central army since March 1, 1781.

(added 04-11-2019) the Continental Congress approved the Articles of Confederation creating a weak central government on November 15, 1777 and began submitting them to the states for ratification. The Continental Congress used his powers under the Articles of Confederation during the years it took for them to be ratified, so an ad hoc central government existed since November 15, 1777.

The First Battalion, Fifth Field Artillery, is the oldest unit in the regular army, tracing its lineage back to a unit of the Continental Line founded January 6, 1776.

(added 04-11-2019) The Continental Congress appointed a committee to plan a union of the states on June 12, 1776, thus beginning the process that eventually resulted in a central government of the USA.

The first professional army in the United States and under the control of the Continental Congress, the Continental Line, dates back a little farther to June 14, 1775. But the Continental Line was all disbanded, except for what became the First Battalion, Fifth Field Artillery, in 1783 and 1784.

Many National Guard units date back to colonial times, the oldest being four units of the Massachusetts National Guard tracing their lineage back to 1636.

  • Did a federal government exist prior to the ratification of the Constitution in 1788? Personally, I think I would agree with both the contemporary Federalist and anti-Federalist parties that the answer is "No", but like said in my answer it comes down to a question of definitions. Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 20:41
  • @sempaiscuba - In response to your comment I have added a few other possible dates to my answer.
    – MAGolding
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 16:48
  • I'd counter with the argument that, until the Constitution was ratified, the government lacked tax-raising powers, so couldn't fund a federal military force, and the states remained free to withhold their troops. I'd argue that the Federal government came into existence when the constitution was ratified, and a federal army came into existence when it was recruited as a force distinct from the State militias (which could still be called upon to bolster its strength). However, I guess it remains just a question of definitions. Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 19:14
  • Only during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 Washington had to rely on state militia's (from New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania ) not federal forces to raise the necessary 13,000 troops to put down the rebellion. Federal troops weren't their for national defense or security. State Militia's filled that role and was a constant source of concern for Washington
    – user27618
    Commented Apr 30, 2019 at 20:08

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