Photography By Jim Graham

Feature

Meet First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry

It’s the oldest mounted unit in the United States military.

By Lora Bilton Englehart |

First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry is the last of the so-called “champagne” units of the National Guard, where members wear dashing 18th-century uniforms and are skilled equestrians. But First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry is more than a ceremonial institution or a social fraternity. It’s also a combat unit. Alpha Troop, 104th Cavalry Regiment, 28th Division is part of the National Guard. For deployment, members wear Army-issue fatigues and serve in places like Bosnia, Kuwait and Iraq. 

For more than two centuries, Philadelphia-area professionals, philanthropists and diplomats—with wives and children vying for their time and attention—have carved out large portions of their busy lives for First City Troop, as it is known. It’s the oldest mounted unit in the United States military—one that traded its mounts for tanks in 1942. 

Steeped in rich tradition and selfless service, the story of First Troop Philadelphia is fascinating but not well known. Two books offer a peek inside its 242-year history. Joseph Seymour’s First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry (Images of America), and G. Andrew Meschter’s The Gentlemen of Gloucester, A New Look at the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, are both entertaining and informative reads. 

Billy Wolffe
Billy Wolffe

Seymour has been a member of the troop since 1996. He is currently an Army National Guard historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C. For his book, he catalogued First City Troop’s large body of photographs. Unlike the troop’s previous detailed tomes, the image-heavy format uses captions to tell the story. “It’s easy to digest,” Seymour says. 

By contrast, G. Andrew “Drew” Meschter took a first-person-narrative approach to his book, weaving his own story with that of First City Troop. As a boy growing up outside Philadelphia, Meschter was fascinated with all things military. While completing a master’s degree in modern British history at the University of Durham, England, in 2001, he watched the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks on television. Returning home, he enlisted in the National Guard and also applied for membership in First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry. Its focus on military history and military service was a perfect fit for him. 

Fran Jacobs, Richard Walkup, Andrew Meschter
Fran Jacobs, Richard Walkup, Andrew Meschter

In his book, Meschter takes the reader through the process of becoming member No. 2383, beginning with his application and election to First City Troop and his first attempt at riding a horse. Meschter subsequently served on combat and peacekeeping deployments in Iraq and Egypt. The Gentlemen of Gloucester is interspersed with hilarious stories that illustrate one of the traditions and revered attributes of troopers—a well-developed and wicked sense of humor. 

First CityTroop’s story begins on Nov. 17, 1774, when 28 young men from prominent Philadelphia families met in Carpenter’s Hall to organize a cavalry unit that would serve the newly formed Continental Congress and protect the city from any threats by Great Britain. The men easily transferred the skills they had developed as members of area hunt clubs—navigating unfamiliar terrain, making quick decisions and taking calculated risks—to excel in their new roles as cavalry scouts. 

Their first assignment was to escort Gen. George Washington in 1775 as he rode to Boston to assume command of the Continental Army. Since that first mission, the troop has escorted U.S. presidents on visits to Philadelphia and participated in every major U.S. conflict up to and including the present. 

The troop’s original look was brown, buff and gold. When the Marquis de Lafayette visited America in 1824, he tweaked the full dress uniform to include a Prussian blue tunic, white breeches, black boots and a helmet with a distinctive bearskin swath. Troopers wear this same uniform today and view it as a visual reminder of the unity of all generations of troopers. 

The unit’s original regimental flag may have inspired Betsy Ross’ later creation. It’s one of many historic artifacts the troop safely guards in its archives. Other items include the muster roll (with the signature of every trooper from 1775 to the present), the original bylaws, and a chair sat upon by George Washington. Among the photographs and memorabilia large and small is a bullet-riddled “souvenir” sign pointing the way to Baghdad.

America’s Bicentennial in 1976 was a busy time for First City Troop as they escorted national and international figures in the City of Brotherly Love. Bill Buchanan, a trooper since 1965, remembers them escorting Queen Elizabeth II, Prime Minister Ted Heath, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the king and queen of Sweden, and others. Troopers also re-created Washington’s ride from Philadelphia to Boston for a National Geographic Bicentennial photo spread. “As a First City Trooper, you get to see and meet people on the world stage,” Buchanan says. 

Richard Walkup with his son of the same name.
Richard Walkup with his son of the same name.

“First Troop Philadelphia is like the mafia—you can never get out,” jokes Ohio native Jim Tevebaugh, a retired architect who now lives in Wilmington.

Tevebaugh candidly admits that he, like so many other young men of the day, was looking for a way to avoid the draft. After he earned his master’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1964, a friend told him about First City Troop. Tevebaugh was smitten. “The history is absolutely glorious,” he says. 

Legacy is another strong component of First City Troop. Many close-knit Brandywine Valley clans can name the men in their families—grandfathers, fathers, uncles, brothers—who’ve been troopers. Richie Walkup and his son are third- and fourth-generation members. Walkup’s father-in-law and brother-in-law are also members. The three DeReimer brothers are another example. Newton, the oldest, was platoon sergeant. Neil was a Navy officer following college. In 1973, he joined First City Troop instead of continuing with the Navy Reserves. “I never got dirty in the Navy, and I wanted that experience,” he says. 

Peter DeReimer served with the U.S. Army in Germany prior to joining First City Troop. He volunteered for duty in Bosnia and Serbia.

The romantic, French Foreign Legion quality of First City Troop has always attracted potential recruits. Outwardly, the troop might appear to be exclusive and elite. “Even though we embrace diversity, we tend to be self-selecting,” says Meschter. “We donate our National Guard pay to the troop to help pay for programs and maintenance of the artifacts. We’re required to ride horses and learn classic cavalry skills. It’s not for everyone.” 

Narrowing the potential membership pool further is the time commitment. Troopers are required to participate in annual activities and monthly maneuvers, in addition to attending standard monthly drills and two-week summer camp with the National Guard. 

Breathtaking ceremonial parades with mounted troopers in full-dress uniform clip-clopping through Center City always attract crowds. First City Troop parades at least three times a year: prior to its anniversary dinner in November, prior to George Washington’s birthday dinner in February, and on the day of the church service commemorating George Washington’s death in December. 

“We’re not here simply to put on re-enactments or to read about activities that others have done before us,” said Eric Guenther during his command of the troop’s 2002 peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. “We’re not an anachronism. We’re a very active organization that thrives today 

The Hunt Summer 2018  Issue

This article was published in Feature from the Summer 2018 issue.
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