Known by several names over the years, the Kentucky National Guard is among the oldest military organizations in the United States. Its history goes back over two hundred years to the frontier days of the 1770s, when Kentucky was part of Virginia.
During those early days, nearly every able-bodied man was considered to be a member of the militia. Militiamen were part-time soldiers. They were farmers, merchants, or tradesmen who took up arms in emergencies.
There were plenty of emergencies. The Indians saw the new Kentucky settlements as the beginning of an invasion of their priceless hunting grounds. They responded with violence. Kentuckians and the Indians fought each other, off and on, for nearly fifty years.
The Indians sent fast-moving raiding parties into Kentucky from their villages north of the Ohio River. They burned homes and crops, slaughtered livestock, and killed or kidnapped settlers. The opening of Kentucky to settlement happened at about the same time that the American Revolution began. Kentucky became a battlefield in that war.
The British, who also opposed the movement of settlers into Kentucky, gave the Indians weapons and other supplies and leadership. Sometimes their soldiers joined the Indians on raids into Kentucky.
Kentuckians responded by fortifying their settlements and by organizing militia companies that could be called into action quickly. Often they conducted their own raids against Indian towns.
George Rogers Clark provided the Kentucky Militia with leadership and strategic vision. He obtained gunpowder and soldiers from Virginia and took the fight to the British and Indians.
He captured Vincennes and other British strongholds in the Old Northwest. His patrols along the Ohio River, with men on horseback and in boats, help protect Kentucky settlements from British and Indian attacks.
But nothing could protect Kentucky completely, as the last bloody episode of the war in Kentucky showed. In 1782 a force of about 360 Indians and Canadians loyal to Britain slipped into Kentucky. They attacked the fort at Bryan's Station, near Lexington. Unable to capture the fort, they headed back north.
A pursuing force of Kentuckians walked into their ambush at Blue Licks. In this battle about 66 Kentucky militiamen were killed. The battle had no influence on the outcome of the war, which ended in 1783 with independence for the former British colonies.
That first generation of Kentuckians built a reputation for Kentuckians as natural fighters. Men like Daniel Boone, James Harrod, and Simon Kenton gained international fame as officers in the Kentucky Militia.
The long, deadly-accurate rifles carried by these men later came to be known as "Kentucky Rifles," partly because of the exploits of Kentucky militiamen. Later generals of Kentuckians tried to live up to this combative image- not always with success.
Neither the end of the Revolution nor the achievement of Kentucky statehood separate from Virginia in 1792 brought lasting peace to Kentucky. The British remained in place near the Canadian border and continued to support the Indians in their opposition to American growth between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. The new United States government sent several expeditions, which included many Kentucky militiamen, against the Indians.
Troops led by Generals Harmar and St. Clair met with disastrous defeats. Better-trained forces won important victories tat the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 and the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.
In 1812 the United States again went to war with Great Britain. Kentuckians supported the war, hoping to defeat the Indians once and for all, and to take Canada away from the British. The war began with tragedy for Kentucky. Overconfident but unprepared militiamen took part in the loss at the Battle of the River Raisin, in what is now southern Michigan, early in 1813.
The British allowed their Indian allies to kill many of the wounded and captured Kentuckians after the battle had ended. Outraged Kentuckians made "Remember the Raisin!" their battle cry for the rest of the war.
Kentucky's most important victory came in October 1813. An American army defeated a British and Indian force beside the River Thames in Canada. Colonel Richard M. Johnson's Regiment of Kentucky Mounted Rifleman charged through the enemy lines.
The great Shawnee Indian leader Tecumseh, who had attempted to unite many tribes against the Americans, was killed. This battle finally ended forever the Indian threat to Kentucky, but the goal of conquering Canada was not achieved.
The war's most famous battle lay ahead. The Battle of New Orleans was fought in January 1815, after the treaty ending the war of 1812 had been signed, but before word of it reached the armies. Kentucky sent about 2,500 men to assist with General Andrew Jackson's defense of the city.
Only about half of them had guns, but those who were armed played a critical role in stopping the British invasion force. In one of American military history's most one-sided victories, the Americans killed or wounded over 2,000 British soldiers while losing only 13 killed and 58 wounded.