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The world’s mightiest military came from humble beginnings. 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, enslaved people, most free Black men, 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 the Redcoats 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 colony. 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 Redcoats, assumed this growing military was ill-equipped to handle the brutality of war. That misguided perspective, 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.
Stacker looked at information from the Defense Manpower Data Center, the U.S. Census historical population tables, and the St. Louis Federal Reserve to see how the military has changed over the years. By comparing data sets (last updated 2021) we were able to determine the percentage of Americans enlisted in the military and the number of Americans in each military branch every year from 1918 to 2021.
[Pictured: Selected senior American commanders of the European theater of World War II.]
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