Fire and Be Damned: Historian to Discuss American Militias

Posted: April 12, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: April 8, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Zachary Schrag

Zachary Schrag, assistant professor of history, is the featured speaker in the next Vision Series lecture on Monday, April 19, at 7 p.m. The title of his talk is “Fire and Be Damned: The Militia in 19th-Century Riots,” which will be presented at the Center for the Arts Concert Hall on the Fairfax Campus.

Americans may recall the outrage following the May 1970 killing of four students at Kent State University by members of the Ohio National Guard. Both the students and the guardsmen were heirs to an unpleasant American tradition: the use of lethal force against crowds by largely untrained, part-time soldiers.

Historian Schrag will explore the origins of this tradition in the 19th century. Militia companies of the period functioned as social clubs. Yet in time of urban unrest, elected officials charged them with the grave responsibility of restoring order, using musketry if necessary. Schrag tells the story of specific riots, such as those in Baltimore in 1812, Philadelphia in 1844 and Pittsburgh in 1877, when militias fired into crowds, shedding blood that may have been spared had cities invested more in civilian police.

This talk is derived from Schrag’s research for a new book he is writing, titled “The Militia and the Mob.” The book will trace the involvement of American militia and National Guard units in urban rioting from the 1790s to the present. Though riot control constituted one of the main missions of the militia, especially between 1830 and 1970, militia and Guard commanders were reluctant to acknowledge this role and often failed to prepare for riot duty. The book will ask what Americans wanted from their militia when they summoned it to the streets, and how well the militia met those expectations. Schrag worked on this project in 2009 as a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress.

Schrag also wrote “The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro,” which was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2006. He is currently working on “Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2009,” which will be published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, and he tracks current events and scholarship in this area on his Institutional Review Blog.

Schrag is the editor of Washington History, the journal of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. He is also serving as the guest editor of a special issue of the Journal of Policy History on human subjects regulations, to be published in 2011.

Schrag received his PhD from Columbia University. He joined Mason in 2004.

This lecture is free, but tickets are required. See the Center for the Arts web site for more information.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu