Lexington’s Light Infantry

Soldiers of the Lexington Light Infantry marching in the streets of Lexington, Ky., in the 1850s. Established in 1789, the unit is considered the first organized military company west of the Allegany Mountains. (Photo courtesy of the Lexington History Museum)

By John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard

On September 11, 1839, member of the Lexington Light Infantry celebrated the organization’s 50th Anniversary. 

At eleven o’clock a.m., a procession, consisting of the Louisville Guards, Captain Anderson; the Volunteer Artillery, Captain Trotter; the Mechanics Infantry, Captain Forbes; and the “Old Infantry,” under Captain G. L. Postlewaite, marched to the beautiful woodlands of John Love (adjoining Maxwell Spring grounds), where an exceedingly appropriate and interesting address was delivered by General John M. McCalla, after which came a banquet, and then the survivors of the War of 1812 reviewed their hardships and dangers, and fought their battle over again.   

2019 marks the 230th Anniversary of the first organized military company west of the Allegany Mountains.  Numerous conflicts with victories, defeats and massacres, some of the most brilliant military achievements recorded in the annuals of Kentucky’s illustrious military history are associated with the “Old Infantry.”

In 1789 the Lexington Light Infantry became the first organized military company in Kentucky, then a part of Virginia. 

The Light Infantry Company was formed to defend against the frequent Indian raids and was first led by General James Wilkinson, a veteran of the Revolutionary War.  A native of Maryland, Wilkinson had served as Adjutant General in General Horacio Gates’ Army at Saratoga, New York in 1777.  Appointed Lieutenant Colonel, commander, 2nd U.S. Infantry, November 1791, commanding the expedition against Indian tribes along the Wabash River in 1791 and February 1792; promoted Brigadier General March 5, 1792.  He would command the right wing of Anthony Wayne’s Army at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794.  General-in-Chief of the U. S. Army from December 1796 to July 1798, and June 1800 to January 1812.  During the War of 1812 served as a Major General, March 2, 1813 until disbanded June 15, 1815.

From the ranks of the company came many brave, talented, and brilliant men who left their mark in civil and military life of the Commonwealth and the Nation.  Nicknamed “Old Infantry,” the company under Wilkinson’s leadership participated in successful expeditions against the Indians in the Northwest Territory during the years 1789-1794.  It shared in the defeats of Generals Josiah Harmar and Arthur St. Clair, and played a part in the campaign of General Anthony Wayne against the Ohio Indians at Fallen Timbers in August 1794.

Prior to Kentucky statehood, the men of the Lexington Light Infantry participated in the ill-fated campaigns of Generals Josiah Harmar (1790) and Arthur St. Clair (1791) against the Native tribes of the Old Northwest Territory, as well as the successful 1794 campaign of General “Mad Anthony” Wayne, which culminated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and ended forever Indian attacks on Kentucky soil.   

At the time of statehood, June 1792, the company was part of the honor guard at the first inauguration of Governor Isaac Shelby.  When Governor Shelby initially organized the State’s Militia on June 24, 1792, the Company was assigned to the 9th Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division of the Kentucky Militia.  In December 1799, the Kentucky Militia was re-organized and the company became part of the 42nd Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 5th Division. 

During peacetime the company was a ceremonial drill unit.  The uniform adopted by the members of the company was a blue cloth coat, with cuffs, breast, and collar faced in red and ornamented with bell buttons.  The pantaloons were of blue cloth, and the hat was black with a red plume.  The favorite parade ground for the company was located on Broadway in Lexington, and the Maxwell Spring grounds.  A “turn-out” of the Old Infantry was a grand event witnessed by large and enthusiastic crowds.

The Lexington Light Infantry under the command of Captain Nathaniel G. S. Hart, was one of the first companies of volunteers in the War of 1812 (1812-1815).  The “Silk-Stocking Boys,” as the men of the company were referred to at the time, were part of the 5th Regiment of Kentucky Volunteer Militia, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel William Lewis, and marched for the Northwest army in August, 1812.  They met with disaster in January 1813 at the Battle of Frenchtown and the River Raisin Massacre, where half of its members were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.  Surviving members of the company would continue to serve throughout the war.  One of these was Corporal William Orlando Butler, son of then Kentucky Adjutant General Percival Pierce Butler.  William would attain the rank of Captain during the war, and fought at the Battle of the Thames, Upper Canada, in November 1813.  Following the war he would go into politics serving as U. S. Congressman from Kentucky from 1839 to 1843, and was a vice-presidential nominee under Lewis Cass in 1848.  During the Mexican-American War, he served as a Major-General of Volunteers.  General Butler State Resort Park in Carrollton, Kentucky, is named in his honor.    

Following the War of 1812, the company returned to its ceremonial duties, participating in various annual holidays; George Washington’s Birthday, Feb. 22; Jan. 8, American victory at the Battle of New Orleans and Fourth of July celebrations. 

When President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson visited Lexington in October 1832, the Lexington Light Infantry served as the military escort for the President and his entourage, receiving high praise in newspaper accounts of the event:

        Capt. Postlethwaite at the head of the Lexington Light Infantry, the oldest volunteer corps in the Western country, and one of the finest companies we have ever seen, met the procession at the city limits and escorted the General to his lodgings.

As well as when William Henry Harrison visited Lexington in December 1840, while on his presidential campaign:

        The military—the Old Infantry, the Lexington Artillery and the Greys—never looked so well or walked so proudly before.  The Old Infantry recognized in the person of General Harrison their old and valiant commander—and he saw in that company the precise uniform worn by his daring, but unfortunate “Silk Stocking Boys,” and amongst those on parade, there was one—only one of that gallant corps, Mr. Thomas Chamberlain, wearing a uniform, who volunteered when a lad, and entered the service of his country as a private in the Old Infantry, and still parades as a private, holding by general consent, the extreme right, and looks as full of life and fire as when first he saw—and seeing, loving his old General.

In June, 1842, the Old Infantry served as part of the honor guard for past-President Martin Van Buren’s visit to Lexington, and what was termed, “The Great Clay Festival” honoring Kentucky’s illustrious statesman, Henry Clay, on his retirement from public service, the company led the parade through Lexington to the woodland pasture where the reception was held in Clay’s honor.

In July 1845, the company participated in the State Militia annual encampment held at Camp Anderson in Jefferson County.      

We were glad to see the “Old Infantry” or the “Old Reds” as they are sometimes called, from Lexington, among the military corps at Camp Anderson.  This probably, is the most ancient military corps west of the mountains, and has well earned the title of “Reds” by the blood it poured out in the last war on the Western frontier.  The battle of the River Raisin is a memorable day in the annuals of the Lexington Light Infantry.  Some of the bravest and best blood of Kentucky on its muster roll, drenched that unfortunate battle field.

At the commencement of the Mexican-American War, the Old Infantry again took the field, under the command of Captain Cassius Marcellus Clay.  The company was mustered into the service at Louisville June 9, 1846, as Company I, 1st Regiment Kentucky Mounted Volunteers, under command of Colonel Humphrey Marshall, but was also known as the “Lexington Old Infantry Cavalry.”  In that war, the 1st Kentucky Cavalry used as its regimental flag the colors which the ladies of Lexington had presented to the “Old Infantry”, some years before, on an anniversary of the Battle of the Raisin. 

Col. H. Marshall:

       Sir:—By the consent of our company; I present you with our flag as regimental colors.

The company which I have the honor to command was organized in 1789, and is two years older than our State Government.

In 1813, it fought two battles, and at Raisin was cut up to six men.  Since its first formation, it has been in regular organization and known as the “Old Infantry;” it voted to go out as a company, is now mounted, and known as the “O. I. Cavalry.”

In trusting our colors to your protection, we give you the highest assurance of our high estimate of your honor, ability, and fidelity to our common country.  When we return to our homes, may it never be asked, “where are your colors?”

                                                    Respectfully, your ob’t servant,

                                              C.M. Clay, Capt. O.I.C. Camp Owsley, June 16, 1846.

Sir:—In behalf of the regiment of Volunteer Cavalry which I have the honor to command, I receive the flag which your company is so kind as to present, and will adopt it as the regimental colors.

It is needless to assure you that it will not be disgraced whilst in the charge of Kentucky’s sons, and such assurance becomes entirely supererogatory, when I remember that your own company, the successors of the men of 1813, belongs to my gallant corps.

The State of Kentucky has a claim on every volunteer, to which none will prove recreant.  She entrusts to them her military reputation.  If a battle is to be fought, we will follow this flag and remember that its fold were given to the breeze at Raisin; if privation is to be encountered and hardships borne, we will remember the sufferings of those men whose fortitude triumphed over the rigors of the northern climate, and whose gallantry brought victory out of disasters; if subordination is to be preserved, this flag shall prove the halcyon of peace, and will successfully summon every soldier to his duty.

We accept the venerable companions of the warriors of 1813.  If it has been the high privilege of the survivors of the accomplished Hart to bear a flag with the dates of their battles, let it be the ambition of every man in my regiment to return the standard, at the end of our service, with new figures added to the record of the battles from which it has been borne in triumph.

So far as you assure me of sentiments of kind regard and confidence, I receive your communications with the liveliest emotions of pleasure, and shall endeavor by my acts to deserve a continuance of your favorable opinion.

                                     I have the honor to be yours, H. Marshall.    

The members of the Lexington Light Infantry fought bravely at the Battle of Buena Vista, Feb. 22-23, 1847.  On June 7, 1847, at New Orleans, Louisiana, the company was mustered out of service. 

In September 1860, the Old Infantry took its stand in the newly organized Kentucky State Guard, under command of Captain Samuel D. McCullough.  On Jan. 18, 1861, the Old Infantry celebrated its role in the Battle of River Raisin on the forty-eighth anniversary of the battle.  In the summer of 1861, just before Kentucky was drawn into the Civil War then waging in the country, the Old Infantry held a reunion in the densely crowded Odd Fellows’ Hall, on the corner of Main and Broadway.  The company was conducted to the hall by those two noted organizations, the “Lexington Rifles” under command of Captain John Hunt Morgan and the “Chasseurs” under Captain Sanders D. Bruce, headed by the splendid Newport band.  An opening address was delivered by Judge Levi L. Todd, of Indianapolis, a former captain of the Old Infantry, after which a new flag was presented to the company by General Leslie Combs, in behalf of the donor, Mr. David A. Sayre.  The old flag of the Old Infantry, which had gone through the leaden storm of Buena Vista, was then unfurled, a roll of all the captains called, and the Star Spangled Banner sung, after which the meeting adjourned.

Following the resignation of Captain McCullough, Lieutenant Samuel Woodson Price took command, becoming the last Captain of the Old Infantry.  During the Civil War Price was appointed Colonel of the 21st Kentucky Infantry Regiment, Feb. 26, 1862; Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers, March 13, 1865 for gallantry and meritorious service during the war of the Rebellion and for personal gallantry in leading his regiment in the assault of June 27, 1864, on the enemy’s position on the Moulton and Dallas Road and Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, capturing and holding the position although greatly outnumbered until reinforced by the command to which he belonged; honorably mustered out of the service Dec. 9, 1865.

The Lexington Light Infantry was actively engaged in every call for troops in the early history of the Commonwealth until the Civil War, at which time its members divided according to their beliefs, serving gallantly on either side, Union or Confederate throughout the war. The Lexington Light Infantry ceased to exist and faded into the pages of the history of Kentucky.

Commanders:

1789 – General James Wilkinson

1791 – Captain Samuel Weisiger

1792 – Captain James Hughes

1792-1793 – Captain Cornelius Beatty (appointed Aug. 9, 1792; promoted Major, 42nd Regiment, Dec.20, 1793; promoted to Colonel, 42nd Regiment, Dec. 16 1799).

1793 – Captain John Postlethwaite (appointed May 15, 1793; promoted Major, 42nd Regiment, Dec.16, 1799; recommissioned 2 July 1800.

1803-1810 – General Thomas Bodley (appointed Dec. 17, 1803; promoted Major, 42nd Regiment, Jan. 7, 1811). 

1811-1812 – Captain Nathaniel Gray Smith Hart (killed in action, Battle of River Raisin, Jan. 23, 1813).

1812 – Captain Daniel Bradford

1820 – Captain James Gabriel Trotter  

1821-1824 – Captain Adam Beatty

Captain William Logan

Captain Levi L. Todd

Captain Robert Megowan

1824-1827 – Captain Richard B. Parker  

Captain Gabriel Lewis Postlethwaite (1st appointment.) 

1827 – Captain T. P. Hart

1827-1828 – Captain Francis G. West

1828-1839 – Captain Thomas [F.] Smith

Captain R. Morrison

General John Moore McCalla (appointed Adjutant, 5th Kentucky Regiment, Nov. 20, 1812; U.S. Marshall, 1829; Second Auditor of the U.S. Treasury).

Captain Lawrence Daly

Captain James O. Harrison

Captain T. Monks

Captain T. W. Lowry

Captain W. Allison

Captain Lewis Barbee

Captain Joseph Hoppy

1839 – Captain Gabriel Lewis Postlethwaite (2nd appointment.) 

Captain James B. Clay

1846-1847 – Captain Cassius Marcellus Clay (appointed May 25, 1846; Prisoner of War in Mexico, 22 Jan. 22, 1847; returned to U.S. following the war).

1860-1861 – Captain Samuel D. McCullough (appointed Sept. 7, 1860 resigned to join Confederacy, Jan. 19, 1861).

1861 – General Samuel Woodson Price (1st Lieutenant, Sept. 7, 1860 Promoted Captain, 31 Jan. 31, 1861).

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