October 2: The Oldest Military Unit in the United States – 249 Years Sober

 

 

One of the largest and most effusively celebrated civic holidays in 18th century Connecticut was Election Day, when the freemen of the colony gathered in town centers to cast their votes for local officials. Many townspeople viewed Election Day as a fine excuse to gather together and socialize under the guise of exercising their civic duties, but not infrequently these social gatherings devolved into loud and rowdy crowd-fests, replete with plenty of public drunkenness and the occasional fistfight. By midcentury, political candidates had adopted the habit of hiring quasi-military escorts to guarantee their safety as they walked the streets during Election Day. This added an element of pomp to the day’s ceremonies, but in 1768, the company hired to accompany Governor William Pitkin through Hartford became so drunk and disorderly themselves that the Governor had them disbanded.

A few years later, on October 2, 1771, nearly fifty Hartford men led by future Continental Army colonel Samuel Wyllys, submitted a petition to the General Assembly  desiring to form a new “Governor’s Guard.” Their explicit goal was to restore honor to the ceremonial service. With the Assembly’s approval, the Governor’s Guard was charged “to attend upon and guard the Governor and General Assembly annually on election days and at all other times as occasion shall require, equipped with proper arms and uniformly dressed.”

Four years later, a second company of the Governor’s Guard was created in New Haven (then the co-capital city of Connecticut), led by none other than Benedict Arnold, who was then one of the Elm City’s leading colonial citizens. The two groups assumed the respective names of the First (Hartford) and Second (New Haven) Company, Governor’s Foot Guard. To this day, both units are mainstays in parades and ceremonies throughout the state, sporting distinctive colonial-style red uniforms modeled after the First Regiment of Foot Guards in England. Throughout their long history, members of the Governor’s Foot Guard have escorted dignitaries such as presidents George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy as well as foreign heads of state including Queen Elizabeth II. With a history of nearly 250 years  serving Connecticut with honor and distinction, the First Company Governor’s Foot Guards is considered the oldest continuously-operated military unit in the United States.

A 19th century print depicts the First Company, Govenor’s Foot Guard in front of the State House in Hartford. (Connecticut Historical Society)

Further Reading

Our History,” First Company Governor’s Foot Guard

Matthew Reardon, “Forgotten Volunteers: The 1st Company, Governors Foot Guard During the Saratoga Campaign,” Journal of the American Revolution