First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry

Written By: Joseph Seymour

Members of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry march past fields of sugar cane in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, August 1898. (Museum of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry)

During the Revolutionary War, the militia of the several states provided trained soldiers and officers to the Continental Army, maintained state organizations that could augment the national army on the day of battle, and form a home guard to secure non-combat zones, guard prisoners, and garrison depots, forts, and other military installations.

Militia units also stood ready to defend their states against sudden enemy attack. Readiness was certainly on the minds of the twenty-eight Philadelphians who organized the Philadelphia Light Horse, the forerunner of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, on 17 November 1774. The First Continental Congress had recently adjourned, and everywhere that fall, revolutionary councils known as Committees of Safety had begun to mobilize the military resources for a potential war with England.

The Troop took shape throughout the winter of 1774 and the early spring of 1775, in preparation for a reconnaissance role. The sabers, horse pistols, and carbines that the Troop selected allowed them to fight both mounted and dismounted. Several members of the Troop were merchants and importers who knew the navigable waterways and roads surrounding their city. Others belonged to the Gloucester Hunt, a local fox hunting club. Fox hunters knew terrain and were used to covering it on horseback. In order to hone their martial skills, the Troop hired a fencing master and a riding instructor. A trumpeter was also hired for signaling.

The First Troop was assigned to serve along the U.S.-Mexico border in 1916-17. Here, two troopers are shown at Camp Stewart, Texas. (Museum of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry)

The weeks following the Battles of Lexington and Concord were a very busy time for the military in Philadelphia. In addition to the Light Horse, three battalions of foot and one artillery battalion were organized and training in Philadelphia. The Committee of Safety fortified the Delaware River at the soon-to-be renamed Fort Mifflin. Shipwrights were busy building a small navy. On a national scale, evolutionary leaders such as Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and John Adams met in committee to outfit the newly-formed Continental Army then stationed in Boston. On a more local scale, troopers such as Samuel Morris, James Mease, and Samuel Howell, Jr., helped mobilize their city for war.

There was a great need for combat-ready soldiers, and so the Troop expanded. On 16 March 1776, five new troopers were elected. The Troop now had forty members ready to take to the field. In the spring of 1776, the war shifted from Boston to New York. The Troop spent that spring and summer delivering important news and payroll to the army in the field. In July, Lieutenant John Dunlap printed the first copies of the Declaration of Independence.

In November 1776, troopers answered Pennsylvania’s call for soldiers in the wake of the fall of New York City. The Troop reached New Jersey in time to cover the Main Army’s retreat. On 25 December, the Troop forded the icy Delaware River on horseback during the famous crossing. The next day, at the Battle of Trenton, the Troop stayed close to the action throughout the battle, but suffered no casualties. Following Washington’s victory, the Troop recrossed the Delaware with the Main Army.

In 1942, the First Troop was reorganized as a mechanized cavalry unit. In this 1950s-era photograph, troopers attempt to free their bogged down M4 Sherman tank. (Museum of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry)

On 30 December 1776, Colonel Joseph Reed led a twelve-man detachment of the Troop in the vicinity of Princeton. The patrol captured a body of the 16th Light Dragoons. The British prisoners informed Reed that General Cornwallis had reinforced Princeton and was on the march toward Trenton with the main body of the British Army. This important mission provided Washington with the intelligence he needed to win the Battle of Princeton.

The Troop fought under Pennsylvania Militia Brigadier General John Armstrong at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown. Troopers pledged significant funds to financier Robert Morris’ Bank of North America, and continued to sit on various committees throughout the war to help manage vital wartime production. One trooper established a brewery in Baltimore, Maryland, for the purpose of supplying the American and French forces with beer, an important eighteenth century ration.

Following the war, the Troop continued to train and grow. Several former Continental Army officers joined the Troop at this time, including notable veterans such as Colonels Christian Febiger, Samuel Miles, and Thomas Procter. Although Febiger and Miles would later rise to the Troop captaincy, all initially enlisted in the Troop as privates.

On 8 March 1792, the Troop’s Revolutionary War veterans voted to donate $8,000 to fund a “Foundling Hospital” in Philadelphia, known today as the Pennsylvania Hospital. In 1798, Trooper Robert Wharton and several troopers organized a second troop of horse in the city which helped to escort prisoners of war during the Quasi-War with France. That year, Trooper William Ward Burrows resigned from the Troop to accept command of the United States Marine Corps. During the War of 1812, the Troop stood ready to defend Philadelphia from British attack. The successful defense of Fort McHenry and the repulse of British regulars at the Battle of North Point near Baltimore made such a defense unnecessary.

The Troop nevertheless took to the field with the rest of the Pennsylvania Militia. The Troop contributed officers and men to the United States Army during the Mexican War, and helped quell civil disturbances in the decades leading up to the Civil War. In 1853, the Troop built its first armory. In peace and war, readiness remained an all-important aspect of the Troop’s training ethos. In May 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers for three months service. The Troop fought at Falling Water, an early action in the Civil War, before mustering out in August.

Younger troopers furnished cadre for the 6th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry. Organized 18 June 1863 at Philadelphia, and better known as Rush’s Lancers, the 6th Pennsylvania amassed a commendable service record during the war. The older members of the Troop continued to drill as the First City Troop, Pennsylvania Militia. As an organization, the Troop fought at Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, and Gettysburg. Several other members of the Troop also served in the 2d Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry. At least one Trooper, Joseph Penrose Ash, accepted a commission in the 5th United States Cavalry. Ash was later killed leading troops at Spotsylvania.

Following the Civil War, the Troop continued to lend its experience and expertise to the city, commonwealth, and nation. As had been the case following the Revolutionary War, veteran officers joined the Troop’s ranks as privates, while others left the unit to take commissions elsewhere. Jonathan Williams Biddle resigned from the Troop on 2 October 1876 to accept a second lieutenant’s commission in the 7th United States Cavalry. Biddle was killed in action along the Yellowstone River on 30 September 1877.

At an 1896 rifle match, the Troop scored highest among the three troops comprising the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry. In 1897, the Governor of Pennsylvania ordered the Troop to the Pennsylvania coal fields to maintain peace during a coal miners’ strike. The Troop served in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, and on the Mexican border in 1916.

Within a few months of its return from the Mexican border, the Troop again entered federal service. The United States had declared war on Germany. Many troopers held college degrees and were in high demand as officer candidates. Fifty-six troopers were commissioned in 1917 alone. Many served in the 79th Division, which organized at Camp Meade, Maryland. During World War I, the remaining troopers fought in France as the 103d Trench Mortar Battery. The Troop concentrated at Camp Hancock, near Augusta, Georgia, for training along with the other elements of the newly re-designated 28th Division.

One of the oldest trainers present was the Troop’s trumpeter, Ellis Pugh. Pugh had received his baptism of fire during the Civil War and joined the Troop in 1874. Considered too old for service during the Spanish-American War, Pugh volunteered once again in 1917, drawing on over fifty years of military experience to train young Army musicians.

Following the war, the Troop reorganized as a troop of horse cavalry. On 23 September 1940, the Troop, then designated as Headquarters Troop, 52d Cavalry Brigade, was reorganized and redesignated as Troop A, 104th Cavalry Regiment (Horse-Mechanized), and assigned to II Corps. One horse-mechanized regiment was assigned to each of the nine army corps.

As the name implies, horse-mechanized regiments used horse trailers and other motorized vehicles to transport cavalry to forward battle areas, as well as to support them when they got there. Inducted into federal service on 17 February 1941 at Philadelphia, the Troop departed Philadelphia on 1 March 1941, after having cleared a foot of snow from in and around the horse trailers. By nightfall, the Troop had arrived at its new training area, the Pennsylvania Military Reservation at Fort Indiantown Gap.

The Troop remained at Fort Indiantown Gap until 25 September 1941 when it departed for the North Carolina Maneuvers to act as the opposing force for the 1st Armored Division. With training completed, the Troop returned to Indiantown Gap by 9 December.

On 9 April 1942, horses were exchanged for motorcycles and jeeps. On 16 April 1942, the Troop departed Fort Indiantown Gap for Philadelphia, where it provided security for vital installations and Lend-Lease material along the Delaware River waterfront. Shortly after its arrival in Philadelphia, approximately fifty percent of the Troop’s enlisted personnel left for Officer Candidate School.

As in World War I, the Army sought qualified officer candidates, and once again, the First City Troop provided its share. By the following September, the turnover was 100 percent. Most of the fifty-five Troopers who left the organization in 1942 were assigned to the 166th Field Artillery Regiment, the 28th Division, and other elements of the 104th Cavalry Regiment. By the end of 1943, not one pre-war Trooper remained on the rolls of Troop A.

During the war, 271 troopers served in every branch of the military. Most served in the Army, with one member, Charles S. Cheston, attaining the rank of brigadier general. The Troop additionally supplied thirty-two officers to the Navy, six officers to the Marine Corps, and one officer to the Coast Guard. One trooper even became a war correspondent. On 17 November 1942, Troop A arrived at Camp Jackson, South Carolina. There, it was reassigned to XII Corps, Second Army. On 6 January 1943, the troop arrived at Salem, Oregon, where it patrolled the Pacific coastline. With the reorganization of the 104th Cavalry Regiment into a Group, the Troop was again reorganized and redesignated, becoming Troop A, 104th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, Mechanized, on 1 January 1944.

From Oregon, the Troop departed for California, where it patrolled the beaches from Malibu to Point Conception and trained in marksmanship and commando tactics. In June, 1944, the Troop entrained for Camp Polk, Louisiana, and from there, the New York Port of Embarkation. The Troop arrived at St. Valery, France, in March 1945. On 2 April 1945, the Troop entered the area of operation, serving in the line as infantry between the 44th Infantry Division and French troops. The troop suffered several casualties before the end of hostilities on 8 May 1945. Following V-E Day, the Troop moved to Marseilles, France, for shipment to the Philippines. News of Japan’s surrender was received en route, and the ship changed course for New York City.

Charles P. “Pete” Conrad, Jr., the third man to walk on the Moon during the Apollo XII mission, enlisted in the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry in 1949 before graduating from naval flight school in 1955. (Defense Visual Information Center)

Reorganized and redesignated on 1 December 1948 as the 28th Reconnaissance Company, the Troop mobilized during the Korean War for service in Germany. Two troopers from the 1950s who went on to lead distinguished military careers were Nicholas Sellers and Charles P. “Pete” Conrad, Jr. Sellers served with the unit for several years as an enlisted soldier before accepting a commission in the United States Army Reserve. He later served as an advisor for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and the United States Army Special Forces before retiring as a lieutenant colonel.

Conrad enlisted in the Troop in 1949. In 1955, he graduated from the United States Navy’s Pensacola Air Training Center and subsequently entered the space program. Conrad, commander of the Apollo XII mission and the third man to walk on the Moon in November 1969, received his initial military training in the Troop.

Known as Troop A, 1st Squadron, 104th Cavalry, since 1 April 1975, Troopers currently form an element of the 55th Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division. In 2002 the Troop deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Troopers have served or are serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The unit is currently deployed in the Sinai as part of the Multinational Force and Observers mission. Today, current troopers and veterans of Troop A, 1st Squadron, 104th Cavalry Regiment, lend their experience and expertise, continuing a tradition of providing a trained, experienced force to the Army.