The History of the Military Police

Even within the Army, crimes and accidents happen. Fortunately, the Army has their own law enforcement, security and emergency specialists to handle crimes committed on Army or Guard property or any illegal activity that involves Army personnel. On base, Military Police patrol, control traffic, secure the perimeter, and assist with emergencies and investigations. On the battlefield, they conduct area security, guard senior officers, and work with intelligence personnel in dealing with prisoners of war. Here is a brief History of the Military Police.

The Military Police Corps achieved permanent status in the U.S. Army on 26 September 1941, yet its traditions of duty, service, and security date back to the Revolutionary War. The Military Police Corps traces its beginnings to the formation of a provost unit, the Marechaussee Corps, in the Continental Army. Authorized by Congress in 1778 with a name borrowed from the French term for “provost troops”, the special unit was assigned by General George Washington to perform those necessary police functions required in camp and in the field. The first American Military Police unit was organized along the lines of a regular Continental Army company with one captain, four lieutenants, one clerk, one quartermaster sergeant, two trumpeters, two sergeants, five corporals, 43 “provosts”, and four executioners. Reflecting the unit’s special requirements for speed and equipment, the corps was mounted and classified as light dragoons. 

Washington appointed Bartholomew Von Heer provost marshal of the Continental Army and commander of the Marechaussee Corps as a Captain. Von Heer and his men were expected to patrol the camp and its vicinity in order to detain fugitives and arrest rioters and thieves. During combat the unit was to patrol behind the Army’s so called “second line” where it would secure the rear by rounding up stragglers and preventing desertions. It also assumed what in later times would be called the “early warning” responsibility, that is, keeping watch against enemy attack from the rear.

The Civil War created an urgent need for provost marshals and military police units within the federal Army. As early as 18 July 1861, Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, the Union Army’s first field commander, authorized the commander of each regiment in the Department of Northeastern Virginia to select a commissioned officer as regimental provost marshal along with a permanent guard of ten enlisted men.

World War I marked a significant step in the military police’s journey toward permanent branch status within the Army. Once again the Army organized units both at the War Department level and in the field to carry out military police duties. Again, the paramount mission of the units was to administer a selective service law. Finally, in 1918, the War Department created yet another military police organization on the Army staff, the Criminal Investigation Division (CID).

The Korean War also introduced a new duty for military police. The war witnessed a dramatic increase in black market activities associated with an army fighting in a third world nation. In previous decades control of the black market fell to civil affairs units, but the massiveness of the problem that began to appear in 1951 quickly involved the resources of the military police and, eventually, the corps added control and eradication of black market activities to its list of responsibilities. Noting that the destruction caused by military operations and the usual local shortages of supplies in occupied territories created an extensive demand for items such as cigarettes, gasoline, food, weapons, and vehicles, the Department of the Army called on the military police, subject to the Uniform Code of Military justice, to detect and apprehend military personnel and civilians participating in black-marketing.

The Harper’s Ferry Army Arsenal flint lock, Model 1906, caliber .54, were adopted as the insignia of the Corps of Military Police in 1923. The initial design consisted of crossed billy-clubs because that was the primary weapon of the MPs at that time but that symbol became confused with the field artillery crossed cannons. The next proposal was crossed maces, the medieval clubs, but they appeared to be potato mashers. The third proposal was crossed M-1911 .45 caliber automatic pistols but they appeared to be carpenter’s squares. Then they agreed on the 1806 Model of the Harper’s Ferry pistols and it was adopted. The order was signed by the Chief of Staff, General John J. Pershing in 1923 and became official. 

There are a few theories as to how the Military Police Corps acquired the colors of green and yellow. The uniform coats of the enlisted dragoons during the American Revolution were green with black trim and yellow buttons and button holes. In World War I, the military police of the American Expeditionary Force in France wore a yellow and green cord on their hats. The MP Corps has the same lineage as the Calvary, both having originated with the Dragoons, thus the yellow of the Calvary was retained. The green was taken from the staff of the Provost Marshall Branch. In any case, in 1921 the colors of green and yellow were officially adopted for the Army Military Police with green on the field of yellow. In 1941 the colors were reversed with yellow on green.

As you can see, the Military Police Corps has a strong and proud heritage.  If you have ever served in this great branch, please leave a comment and share your experience with us.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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8 thoughts on “The History of the Military Police”

  1. Funny story about the MPs: My dad was a lifer, 30 years in MI, so when my brother entered active duty from ROTC, he put down MI as his first choice to honor Dad. The truth, though, was that he always wanted to be an MP, so he put that as his second choice, and lo and behold, he ended up getting to be in the Military Police. However, the vast majority of his Army career, he spent doing things other than what you might normally consider police work. He was physical security for MI. He was warehousing commander for the MP school. He really only ended up performing actual MP duties for about three years. He loved every minute of it though and was proud to serve in such a valuable sector.

  2. Thank you for yet another enlightening article! One of my best friends serves as a member of the military police and it’s great to know a little more about his branch. Your outline really shows how much they have adapted and developed to meet the needs of each war that has arisen.

  3. When I was younger I remember how professional and confident the MPs looked on base. When we’d go through the gate and show our ID if we didn’t have the sticker. It was a good feeling to know that they were there protecting us. Even though I was just a Brat I still felt pride and respect whenever I saw them around the base. You knew they took their position seriously and were committed to their post.

  4. I had a good friend who was in the original Iraq conflict. He was an M.P. and was guarding prisoners of war for hours upon hours. I was surprised to hear that MP’s were guarding prisoners.

    This shows that MPs have a very diverse role to play.

    With all that, I must mention the time I was “picked up” by MP’s. My Dad was stationed at Yokohama, Japan. Little 5 year old Greg wanted to see the planes and found a hole in the fence, so i went out onto the runway. The MPs took me to Dad whose hand hit my backside every other step until we got back to our base housing. I really didn’t like MPs that day.

  5. I think something that most people don’t understand is the diverse role MPs have been playing between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have seen and heard of MPs out on patrol just like their Infantry brothers. Not only that, I think because MPs had such an integrated role, we had women serving in Combat roles which has really supported a lot of the convictions leaders have about women serving in combat arms such as Infantry and Armor…

    1. Candace Ginestar

      Justin, exactly. One of my friends is an MP, and her second deployment, she was out doing patrols just like anybody else. She really liked it and said it gave her a lot of eye opening experiences.

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