For most of the first half of American history, our country relied primarily on citizen militias rather than large standing armies to protect ourselves and to advance our interests both at home and abroad.
Citizen militias were considerably less expensive to maintain than standing armies. For this reason and others, the traditional approach of American government to military affairs was to maintain a small professional army -- usually led by officers from West Point who were trained as engineers -- and to rely on citizen soldiers when needed.
This approach worked reasonably well when the United States was not stretched by major wars. The American Civil War challenged those assumptions. Both sides in the war -- North and South -- found themselves needing hundreds of thousands of men. By the time the war was over, more than 600,000 soldiers had been killed and thousands more had been wounded.
In the wake of this terrible conflict, the country once again began to turn away from large standing armies and rely on citizen soldiers on an as-needed basis.
This is the story of one of those soldiers. George D. Freeman was born in 1842 in the crossroads village of Ovid in eastern Franklin County.
His parents, Usual and Margaret Freeman, had arrived from New Jersey in 1833. Usual Freeman had fought in the New York militia in the War of 1812. He also had served for a time as assistant city engineer for New York City, where he helped lay out streets and subdivisions in the growing city. But a new life in Ohio beckoned.
George Freeman grew up attending local schools and later went to night school to further his education. But life was hard for him and his family. His father died when he was 6, and by the time he was 16, he was the sole supporter of his mother.
Freeman came to Columbus and became an assistant to D.D. Winchester, who had trained as an artist and considered himself to be one. But Winchester's medium was not paint or pencil: It was the new art form of photography.
To many people at that time, a daguerreotype photograph was nothing less than astonishing. Freeman worked well with Winchester, but he was seeking something more challenging.
Freeman made the acquaintance and gained the trust of Nelson Van Vorhees, the speaker of the Republican House of Representatives. At the time, the Ohio General Assembly was meeting in Odeon Hall across the street from a newly completed Statehouse. As a legislative page, Freeman literally helped move the Ohio General Assembly across the street.
Still seeking to advance himself, he left the Statehouse and entered the dry-goods business of Headley and Eberly, then one of the largest firms of its kind in Ohio. In 1866, after the Civil War ended, he became a partner in a successor company and stayed in the dry-goods business until 1878, when he became a furniture merchant. Eventually, he left the furniture business and formed a mantel-manufacturing company, which became quite successful. Freeman was busy in 1878. The Ohio Militia was reorganized as a "national guard" that year, and Freeman became commanding colonel of the 14th Ohio National Guard. He would stay in command of the 14th for 13 years.
Freeman, like many of the men he commanded, did not have extensive combat experience. They soon would get some.
Ohio, in the years after the Civil War, saw numerous occasions when civil disorder required military intervention. Some of these mobilizations involved clashes between diverse ethnic groups differing over issues of politics, religion and society.
But the greatest challenge faced by the 14th came in 1884 when violence triggered by a controversial murder case in Cincinnati led to mobs of angry people attacking others and destroying the interiors of a number of major buildings.
The 14th arrived with other National Guard units, barricaded the streets and opened fire on the mobs with Gatling guns. A forerunner of the machine gun, the multibarreled Gatling gun could deliver withering fire -- until it jammed. But Freeman had several of them.
Dozens of people died in the 1884 Cincinnati riot. When it was over, the 14th returned to Columbus with one man dead, several wounded and a hero's welcome. Freeman continued to serve as colonel of the 14th until 1890, when he stepped aside to devote his full attention to his business.
In addition to his military and business career, he also served for several years on the Franklin County Board of Agriculture. As a member of that group, he was instrumental in persuading Ohio to transfer its former fairgrounds to the city of Columbus. The land became Franklin Park.
Freeman married Julia Diemer in 1865. Her parents had been early settlers of Franklin County. The Freemans had three sons and one daughter.
Freeman died in 1911. He was buried in Green Lawn Cemetery with military honors.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.