When the Military Attacks (Civilians)

military attacked civilians memeCourtesy of Occupy Democrats, with over 16,000 likes and 11,000 shares. Leaving aside the fact that this guy is holding a shotgun, which isn’t exactly “military-grade”, this meme raises an interesting historical question.  Has the US military ever attacked civilians in its history?

In fact, it turns out there are several instances of military attacks, contrary to this meme’s assertion.  Some are fairly well known and others a little more obscure, but the 10 covered here are all important historical events, and something to consider in the gun debate.

1. The Whiskey Rebellion

In 1791, the newly formed US government instituted an excise tax on distilled spirits, which angered many, particularly farmers in western Pennsylvania.  Many of these men were veterans of the Revolutionary War, and considered the new tax on their whiskey to be a new form of taxation without representation.

In a confrontation with tax collector John Neville, who was accompanied by 10 U.S. soldiers, James MacFarlane was shot.  He was a leader of the rebellion, and a Major during the Revolutionary War.  His death intensified the anger, and escalated the conflict in 1794.  In response, George Washington raised a federal militia to confront the rebellion, and even led the 13,000 troops over the Allegheny Mountains.  This federal militia resulted in a couple civilian casualties, including a boy who was accidentally shot, and a man stabbed to death while resisting arrest (although Washington did order the arrest of these soldiers and turned them over to the local authorities).  Eventually, the rebellion fell apart in the face of the large army Washington brought, although the whiskey taxes were still hard to enforce and many continued to refuse paying it.  They were later repealed under Jefferson in 1801.

2. Wounded Knee Massacre

On December 28, 1890, the U.S. 7th Calvary Regiment intercepted Spotted Elk of the Miniconjou Lakota nation and told him, and his 350 followers, to make camp at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.  500 soldiers, under the command of Colonel James Forsyth, surrounded the camp.  On the morning of Dec. 29, Forsyth ordered the surrender of all Lakota weapons.  After confiscating 38 rifles from the camp, some commotion happened (possibly because a deaf man called Black Coyote didn’t understand his instructions) and a rifle was discharged.  A fight then broke out, and while some Indians grabbed their confiscated guns and shot back, most were unarmed and surrounded.  The 7th Calvary had elevated positions with heavy Hotchkiss guns, which were used on men, women and children alike.  At least 150 Lakota were killed and 50 injured, with some estimates of 300.

As Captain Edward Godfrey of the 7th Calvary put it:

I know the men did not aim deliberately and they were greatly excited. I don’t believe they saw their sights. They fired rapidly but it seemed to me only a few seconds till there was not a living thing before us; warriors, squaws, children, ponies and dogs—for they were all mixed together—went down before that unaimed fire…

3. Coeur d’Alene Labor Strike

In 1892, labor disputes at two Idaho mines turned violent.  After the labor unions discovered there were spies hired by the mines in their midst, a violent, armed conflict began with labor members and mine security.  This violence provided the justification for the governor to declare martial law, and send in 6 Idaho National Guard units.  Federal troops were also sent in.  600 miners were put in bullpens, without any hearings or charges brought against them.  These “bullpens” generally had squalid conditions, and can best be thought of as precursors to concentration camps.  The martial law in Coeur d’Alene lasted for 4 months.

4. Pullman Strike

In 1894, labor disputes at the Pullman Palace Car Company, which made railway cars, grew into a massive railway strike and boycott.  The American Railway Union joined in boycotting all Pullman cars, and by June 30, 125,000 workers on 29 railroads had quit.  This resulted in much economic chaos, and after a group of protesters derailed a locomotive attached to a US mail car, president Grover Cleveland deemed it a federal issue.  On July 3, he ordered federal troops into Chicago.

The strikers quickly realized the troops were not neutral, and were there to prevent the boycott from happening.  Enraged, they overturned and destroyed thousands of rail cars.  6,000 federal and state troops, 3,100 police, and 5,000 deputy marshals were dispatched, but the violence continued.  On July 7, national guardsmen fired into a mob and killed at least 4 people.  In total, 30 strikers were killed, and 54 injured throughout the strike.

5. Ludlow Massacre

Ludlow Massacre

Example of tent colony for the strikers

From 1913-1914, there were a series of labor disputes with Colorado coal miners and mine companies.  As strike-related violence escalated, the governor sent in the Colorado National Guard to police the situation, although they ended up taking the side of the mining companies.  The strikers were living in a tent colony, and a fight broke out on April 20th, 1914.  Two dozen people, including wives and children, were killed by the state militia, which was a mix of national guard soldiers and mine guards.  Afterwards, union members rallied and initiated a destructive guerilla war that lasted 10 days.  President Woodrow Wilson finally sent in federal troops to disarm both sides.  The aftermath, called the Colorado Coalfield War, resulted in 75 casualties, making it the most deadly labor conflict in US history.

6. Battle of Blair Mountain

In 1921, the largest labor uprising in US history occurred in West Virginia.  10,000 coal miners battled law enforcement and private coal mine militias in an attempt to unionize the region.  As the conflict escalated, President Harding issued a proclamation authorizing US troops.  When they showed up on September 2, the union leader feared sizable casualties of his men and told them to stand down and head home.

7. Executive Order 9066

On February 19, 1942, just a couple months after the Pearl Harbor attacks, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.  This authorized the Secretary of War to prescribe “military areas”, primarily on the west coast, which could be used to detain and incarcerate citizens deemed to be a threat.  In practice, it was used primarily for Japanese Americans.  Within months, 117,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forced into internment camps, 2/3’s of them US citizens.  In addition, 5,000 German residents and 300 Italians were also interned.  These camps were guarded by armed soldiers.  Not only did these people lose their civil liberties, but in many cases lost their homes, businesses and life savings.  FDR suspended the order in December 1944, but it wasn’t rescinded until 1976 under Gerald Ford.

8. Kent State Shooting

Kent State shooting

The Pulitzer Prize winning photo from the Kent State shooting

After President Nixon announced the escalation of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, there were a series of chaotic protests on and around the Kent State campus in Ohio.  The culmination of this protest occurred on May 4, 1970, where approximately 3000 protesters were in the Kent State commons area, across from 100 members of the Ohio National Guard, armed with M1 rifles.  While attempting to disperse the rowdy crowd using tear gas, a brief flurry of gunfire erupted from the soldiers.  Reports still vary on how it was provoked, but the result was 4 unarmed students being killed, and 9 injured.

9. Ruby Ridge

This was the site of a deadly confrontation in 1992 between the US Government and Randy Weaver, along with his family and friend, Kevin Harris.  The Weavers held devout (and strange) religious views, along with a strong distrust of government.  They lived in a remote area of northern Idaho, where they built their own ramshackle cabin and lived “off the grid”.  In an attempt to infiltrate Aryan groups, which the Weavers had associations with, the ATF tried to leverage a weapons charge to get Randy to be an informant.  He refused, and they proceeded in a ham-handed effort to bring him up on weapons charges, of which he was later found not-guilty.

After refusing to show up for his arraignment, the US government launched a remarkably complex and concerted effort to infiltrate the Weaver’s property.  While it wasn’t the military that attacked, it’s a distinction without a difference.  Far overestimating the danger the Weaver’s posed, this effort included snipers, assault squads with M-16s and submachine guns, helicopters, armored personnel carriers and even a shotgun-toting robot.  The confrontation and standoff ended with the death of Weaver’s son Sammy, his wife Vicki, their dog, and US Marshal William Degan.  A 1995 Senate panel condemned the action and called the rules of engagement at Ruby Ridge unconstitutional.  Weaver and Harris were acquitted of the murder and weapons charges, and the federal government ended up paying several million dollars in settlements to the Weaver family.

10. Waco

Waco siege

Tank used at Waco siege

In 1993, a confrontation between the Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, and the US government, turned into a deadly siege.  The ATF, suspecting the group of unlawful weapons possession, received a search warrant and attempted to raid the Davidian compound on February 28.  Their attempt failed, and resulted in 4 dead ATF agents and 5 Branch Davidians.  A 50 day siege ensued, led by the FBI, that ended on April 19.  There is still much that’s disputed about the siege, but in the attempt to remove them from their compound, a fire broke out and 76 Davidians perished.  In addition to the significant weaponry used by the FBI, there were also weapons and soldiers provided by the US military.  According to a US Treasury report, this included:

  • 15 Active Duty personnel
  • 13 Texas National Guardsmen
  • 9 Bradley fighting vehicles
  • 5 Combat engineer vehicles
  • 2 Abrams tanks
  • 2 UH-1 helicopters


In some of these events, military intervention might have been just, in others it wasn’t.  In either case, there have clearly been many instances of the US military taking up arms against civilians.  It’s worth pointing out that in none of these cases did the civilians prevail against the military with weapons, but that doesn’t mean that standing up with arms has no effect.  Regardless of one’s view on gun control, it must be admitted that the government does not like violent conflicts to escalate, as the fallout of Waco and Ruby Ridge have most recently shown.  It’s bad PR, and no government agency wants video clips of them using heavy weaponry on their citizens, regardless of the crime.  Even totalitarian rulers like to keep the violence concealed from the public, if possible.  In this sense, even ordinary firearms, like hunting rifles, can have an effect on how government approaches conflicts.

This has been shown recently in the Cliven Bundy dispute with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Nevada.  Once several armed supporters joined his cause, the BLM ended up backing off, in fear of escalating a conflict.  Likely, the government did not want another recreation of Waco over something as trivial as cattle grazing fees.  Obviously, being armed had an effect in this case.  Whether or not it’s good to have an armed populace is a worthy debate, but clearly it has some effect on the actions of government.

2 Comments on "When the Military Attacks (Civilians)"

  1. I never got past the meme here to read the article because after reading the meme and looking at the photo I could only think why would the meme use a photo of a man in hunter’s camouflage with a fowl shotgun to make the point? There must be a million photos of civilians with evil black “assault” rifles on the internet instead of a black bird gun (long barrel, vent rib). A rare choice of color for a bird gun too as most are camouflage or woodgrain.

  2. It’s implied but not clear — who carried out the Executive Order 9066 internment? Federal troops? Local police?

Comments are closed.