History of the Guard

Kentuckians In Action

This is a history of the Kentucky National Guard, a military institution whose existence antedates the United States itself. Although the name "National Guard" was not applied to a State Militia until 1824, the fundamental concept of a state or local Military organization has existed since 1636, when the Colony of Massachusetts formed a regiment of "Trained Bands."

Throughout her history, Kentucky has cherished the tradition of rendering military duty with zeal when called upon. Kentucky's history teems with incidents of self-sacrifice unsurpassed in daring and achievement. Kentuckians have answered the call to arms in all wars of our country.​​​​


1774 - 1824

From First Settlement to the Battle of New Orleans

The Kentucky National Guard, like other state National Guards, has been known under various names but it has the distinction of being one of the oldest military forces in the United States. Its history dates back to 1775, when Kentucky was known as Fincastle County, a part of western Virginia.

Since its inception, the Kentucky National Guard has not only stood ready as an alert fighting force ready to defend Kentucky and America against those who would destroy our Democratic way of life but this voluntary citizens Army has also served in times of national disaster. The skill and proficiency with which the Guard has served Kentucky further contributes to the fact that it is, and will continue to be, a necessary and indispensable organization for the continuing existence of the Commonwealth.

As the Kentucky National Guard prepares to embark on another challenge, let us reflect for a moment on part of the rich heritage and on some of the outstanding individuals whose contributions, while serving as a member of the Kentucky Guard, helped build this country and helped make this State what it is today.

Historically, the first recognized Kentucky National Guard, known in 1775 as the local Militia, was commanded by Captain James Harrod. Then and for a great many years thereafter, all able-bodied men coming into this territorial frontier were presumed to be in the Militia and were expected to serve as the need arose. The primary mission of these early Militiamen was to serve as a self-protective association against the frequent hostile attacks, Indian and foreign. The organization was loosened and tightened as the occasions arose. An unusual feature of the Militia was that there were no designated uniforms and each soldier was responsible for supplying his own provisions, weapons, and if possible, his own horse.

1825 - 1874

From a Time of Peace to a Time of Brother Against Brother

Peace with Great Britain and the end of the Indian peril brought change to the Kentucky Militia. Ever since Kentucky became a state, it had, like other states, maintained an enrolled militia system. This required nearly every man to sign up for militia service, provide himself with a weapon, and attend periodic training sessions called musters. With no serious enemies in view, most Kentuckians paid little attention to the enrolled militia. Musters, when held at all became social gathering that featured more drinking that drilling. Laws, which required participation in the militia, were not enforced.

A new type of militia — the volunteer militia — became popular. Men interested in part-time military service formed the volunteer militia companies. Often the social elite in their communities, volunteer militiamen purchased stylish, expensive uniforms. They competed with other companies for snappy performance of the complicated maneuvers of the 19th-century tactics. Unable to rely upon the enrolled militia, Kentucky and other states called upon volunteers to fill the regiments of soldiers required of the states by the federal government during crises.

The most serious crisis during this period concerned Texas. Many Americans, including Kentuckians, had moved west and settled in Texas, then a part of Mexico, by the 1830s. In 1836 Texas fought a revolution to obtain its independence from Mexico. Kentuckians went west to help the Texans, and many of them met their deaths at the Alamo and Goliad massacres. Kentucky volunteers provided vital manpower for the final Texas victory at the Battle of San Jacinto. For ten years the Republic of Texas was a separate nation.

In 1846 after Texas was granted statehood, an act which was intolerable to Mexico, war broke out between the two countries. Kentucky provided three infantry regiments and a mounted regiment for this war. The Louisville Legion, a volunteer militia battalion, provided most of the men for the First Kentucky Infantry, while men for the Second and Third Regiments came from Lexington, the mountains of eastern Kentucky, and other parts of the state. Many of the Kentuckians fought at the Battle of Buena Vista, where General Zachary Taylor won a decisive victory over the Mexicans under General Santa Anna. A few Kentucky volunteers fought under General Winfield Scott in the campaign which led to the conquest of Mexico City.

The Third Kentucky Regiment was part o the occupation force that garrisoned the Mexican capital until a peace treaty was signed. Many Kentuckians who fought in this war would put this military experience to good use in a much bigger war a dozen years later. Interest in the militia diminished again after the Mexican War. A major reform of the Kentucky Militia system was attempted in 1860. General Simon Bolivar Buckner tried to establish a statewide organization taking in the many volunteer militia companies. He envisioned Kentucky as having it's own miniature army with distinctive uniforms, high quality weapons, and thorough training. He called this force the Kentucky State Guard. Only the name lasted, however. The coming of the Civil War put an end to Buckner's plans.

In 1861 tension between the northern and southern sections of the United States tore the country apart. Kentuckians found themselves caught between the warring factions. Most Kentuckians supported the Union, but they believed slavery was essential to their prosperous economy. It took the state some months to decide which way to go in the war. Governor Beriah Magoffin declared Kentucky neutral and ordered General Buckner's Kentucky State Guard to repel the soldiers of either the Union or the Confederacy should they enter Kentucky.

Individual Kentuckians made their own decision. The State Guard proved to be largely loyal to the Confederacy. Entire companies march away to recruiting camps in Tennessee. Some of the Union men formed Home Guard companies. The federal government shipped weapons, called "Lincoln Guns," into Kentucky to arm them. Others enlisted in volunteer regiments, the first at recruiting camps north of the Ohio River and later at camps within Kentucky.

By the end of 1861, Kentucky State government had declared itself loyal to the Union and federal forces occupied the northern half of the state. The Kentucky State Guard had disintegrated, but Confederate troops were in place at strategic locations across southern Kentucky. Eventually about 100,000 Kentuckians served in the Union Army. They made up 52 infantry regiments, 15 cavalry regiments, and 6 artillery batteries. Black Kentuckians, attracted by a promise of freedom from slavery in exchange for enlisting in the army, filled several Union Regiments.

Kentucky’s Union regiments fought all across the war’s western theater. They saw heavy combat in their home state and in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia. About 40,000 Kentuckians fought in the Confederate Army. Many of them were in the First Kentucky Orphan Brigade, one of the most famous units on either side during the Civil War. Other Kentuckians made reputations as dashing cavalrymen serving under John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Their raids into Kentucky destroyed important Union supplies and facilities and kept thousands of Union soldiers busy guarding railroads, bridges, and warehouses.

The Confederates lost Kentucky during the 1862 campaign. After the Battle of Perryville in October, fighting involving the major armies moved south of Kentucky’s borders. But there was no peace in Kentucky. Guerillas terrorized the state. Some of these bands of raiders supported the Union or the Confederacy, but many were simply lawless bandits who took advantage of wartime chaos to rob or murder their neighbors. Union authorities in Kentucky took drastic measures to control the guerillas measures so harsh that many Kentuckians who had supported the Union turned against federal authority by the end of the war. The Kentucky State Guard was reorganized as a pro-Union force with battalions across the state to hunt down guerillas.

1875 - 1924

From Reconstruction to the War to End All Wars

The end of the Civil War brought a new era of conflict to Kentucky. State Guard companies saw frequent service, on duty to control violence caused by feuds, strikes, and racial conflicts. But service in the Guard was not all grim. Units again dressed up in elaborate uniforms and took part in drill competitions and social events.

War came again in 1898. This time American troops and sailors fought the Spanish and gained an overseas empire for the United States. The Kentucky State Guard provided three infantry regiments and a cavalry regiment. Only the First Kentucky Infantry Regiment reached the combat zone in Puerto Rico during this short war, and hostilities ended before they actually went into battle. Most of the Kentucky guardsmen spent the war in training camps fighting disease and shortages of supplies.

In 1900 Kentuckians almost fought their own miniature civil war, a bitter dispute over the 1899 election for governor. Democratic candidate William Goebel was shot, sworn in as governor, and then died. The Republican incumbents refused to allow the Democrats into State buildings. Both sides called out the State Guard. For a while pro-Republican guardsmen faced pro-Democrat guardsmen on the streets of Frankfort. The courts found a peaceful solution to the crisis, and the Guardsmen went home without firing a shot.

During the early years of the 20th century, state Guard troops served as peacekeepers in the so-called Black Patch War in western Kentucky. Tobacco farmers resorted to violence in their struggle against monopolistic tobacco companies. The Kentucky State Guard became the Kentucky National Guard in 1912, when a new federal law regulating the militia came into effect. The new system set training standards for state units and established more efficient procedures for mobilizing the Guard into federal service.

The procedures were tested in 1916 when violence from the revolution going on in Mexico spilled across the border. Nearly all the Kentucky National Guard joined units from many other states on patrol along the Mexican border. For the first time, Kentucky troops used trucks and machine guns on active duty. Guardsmen returned from Texas in 1917 just in time to be mustered into federal service for duty in World War One.

Kentucky units were attached to the 38th Cyclone Division, newly organized at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Unit titles and functions changed to fit the federal system and meet the needs of modern warfare. The First Kentucky Infantry became the 138th Field Artillery, and the Second Kentucky became the 149th Infantry. After lengthy training, men of the 38th Division went to France to serve as replacements in other units. The division never fought as a single organization, and Kentucky units soon lost their state identity. 7,518 National Guardsmen from Kentucky served in World War One. 890 Kentuckians died in the war.

1925 - 1974

Trial by Fire at Home and Abroad

Americans believed that victory in World War One insured a lasting peace. National Guard budgets were small in the 1920s and 1930s. Little could be done to modernize the Guard, although by the late 1930s the Kentucky National Guard did have its own tank company. A new mounted unit, the 123rd Cavalry Regiment, was formed as well. Guardsmen saw frequent duty near their homes. They helped victims of the great flood of 1937, controlled labor strikes in the coal fields, and attended annual summer training camps. Peace, in fact, did not last very long. In 1939 Europe was engulfed in another war, and Japan had invaded China. Mounting tensions between the United States and Germany and Japan made American entry into the war appear inevitable. Early in 1941, the Kentucky National Guard was mobilized.

Kentuckians joined citizen soldiers from other states in training camps and on maneuvers. Many Kentucky units were again assigned to the 38th Infantry Division. Kentucky’s 38th Tank Company went to the Philippine Islands as the Japanese invaders came. After a long defense of the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island, the American and Philippine defenders were overwhelmed. The Japanese force captured survivors to endure the grueling Bataan Death March and years of mistreatment in prisoner of war camps. Of the 67 Kentucky tankers captured, only 37 came home after the war.

Kentucky National Guardsmen returned to the Philippines in 1944. The 38th Division cleared entrenched Japanese troops from the mountainous terrain of Luzon Island. Fighting was especially heavy in the Zig Zag Pass, where an assault by the 149th Infantry, supported by the 138th Field Artillery, finally won a hard nineteen-day battle. The 38th Division earned the title Avengers of Bataan.

Other Kentucky National Guard units fought in the European Theater. The 103rd and 106th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalions, formerly a cavalry unit, fought from North Africa, through France and Germany, into Czechoslovakia. After the victory in World War Two, the Kentucky National Guard had to face a new world, one threatened by nuclear weapons and split by a cold war between democratic and communist countries. In 1947 an important addition was made to the Kentucky Guard with the formation of the Kentucky Air National Guard. The Air Guard’s pilots have flown F-51, F-84, and F-86 fighters, RB-57, RF-101 Voodoo and RF-4 Phantom reconnaissance planes, C-130 Hercules transports, and other aircraft on missions all over the world.

The cold war turned hot in 1950 when the army of communist North Korea invaded South Korea. Early in 1951 the Kentucky National Guard’s 623rd Field Artillery Battalion was sent to Korea. From an advanced position in the Mundung-Ni Valley the battalion fired its 155mm howitzers in support of the American Tenth Corps and the First Korean Division. Other cold war crises also required mobilization of Kentucky Guard units. The 123rd Armor and other units were activated during the Berlin crisis of 1961. Air Guard photo-recon planes flew over Korea during the U.S.S. Pueblo seizure incident in 1968.

In 1968 the 2nd Battalion of the 138th Artillery went to Vietnam. From hilltop positions such as Fire Base Bastogne, Tomahawk Hill and Hamburger Hill the Kentucky gunners supported troops of the 101st Airborne Division, a regular army unit normally based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The Battalion’s C Battery lost nine men killed and thirty-two wounded when North Vietnamese troops overran Fire Base Tomahawk on June 19, 1969.

Through the decades after World War Two, members of the Kentucky National Guard took on many challenging jobs in their home state. They guarded property and helped repair damage after a wave of tornadoes struck Kentucky in April, 1974. They patrolled the campus of the University of Kentucky during protests against the Vietnam War. They controlled riots on the streets of Louisville, tried to keep the peace during strikes. They now also help in the fight to control the illegal production of marijuana in the state. And all the while they train to be ready on short notice in case of a national emergency.

1975 - Present

Kentuckians In Action

In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait and over 1290 members of the Kentucky National Guard – men and women – were called up during the Persian Gulf War. During Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, Kentucky units provided artillery support fire, processed prisoners of war, purified drinking water, moved supplies, cared for the sick and wounded, and even made video documentaries about the short Gulf War.

The Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Tactical Airlift Wing made significant contributions toward the United States Air Force’s ability to move people, equipment, and material around the globe during the Gulf War. Back home in Kentucky, Guard personnel continued their tradition of peacetime service to the citizens of the Commonwealth during the 1990s.

Every year Kentucky communities call upon the Guard for help. The Guard’s people, equipment, and expertise were especially valuable during harsh winter storms in 1994 and major floods in 1997. Guard involvement helped insure smooth operations at the Kentucky Derby, the Bluegrass State Games, and the Special Olympics.

On the world stage during the mid-1990s, the Kentucky National Guard began its participation in the Partnership for Peace” mission to Ecuador. This program of cooperation and humanitarian assistance continues today. The new millennium brought a new era of warfare – a war against terrorists. On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked on its own soil. Terrorists crashed hijacked civilian airliners into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. Another liner crashed in Pennsylvania. Over 3000 Americans – including Kentuckians – died.

In response, about 3,000 Kentucky Guard troops were mobilized. These Kentuckians took part in Operations Enduring Freedom, Noble Eagle, and Iraqi Freedom. Taken together, these operations were the largest deployment of Kentucky Army and Air National Guard men and women since World War Two – eclipsing Korea, Vietnam, and the first Persian Gulf War. The Kentucky troops were deployed across the United States to help protect airports and army installations. They served overseas too – in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq. Kentucky Guard military police units guarded Al Queda detainees at the American base at Guantanamo, Cuba.

Today, the Kentucky National Guard continues its service to the Commonwealth and to the nation – just as it has for over two hundred and fifteen years. Whether to help a neighbor in need down the road or to defend our nation around the world, the citizen-soldiers of the Kentucky National Guard offer their time, their skills, their dedication – and even their lives.