Houston Light Guards

By: Bruce A. Olson

Type: General Entry

Published: February 1, 1995

Updated: November 9, 2020

The Houston Light Guards, one of the oldest national guard companies in the state, became the first uniformed militia company in post-Reconstruction Houston. It could not form until elimination of the Republican state administration seemed imminent. Confederate veterans began to organize the unit in the fall of 1872. By April 6, 1873, the necessary signatures appeared on the roll, and city officials notarized the charter. Members completed a petition that requested state approval of the charter on April 21, 1873, San Jacinto Day, which is now celebrated as the unit's organization day. On April 25, 1873, Edwin Fairfax Gray became the first company commander; Henry B. Johnson, first lieutenant; and Decimus U. Barziza, second lieutenant. On May 8, 1873, the company filed the charter in Austin.

Between 1876 and 1903 the Houston Light Guards mobilized three times to restore or maintain peace during race crises in Southeast Texas, twice during political feuds, four times during labor strikes, once for the Galveston hurricane of 1900, once to break a yellow fever quarantine strike, and numerous times for crowd control and protection of property during fires and public executions. During this period the unit also served as an honor guard at official city and state functions. In May 1898 the company entered federal service because of the war with Spain; it served with occupation forces in Cuba and returned to Houston in April 1899. The Light Guards was one of several militia units that had opposed activation for federal service because the members believed that no emergency existed. Initially, the members voted on grounds of states' rights and economic self-interest not to go, but when the adjutant general informed them that the company would be disbanded if it failed to comply with the mobilization order, the unit reorganized and answered the call.

The unit's brilliant reputation in military drill competition dated almost from its organization. The Houston Light Guards won its first prize at the Austin Capital Fair in 1875, and by 1885 the company enjoyed renown like that of a sports team; it retired from drill competition in 1889. During its drill career the Light Guards won about $30,000 in cash prizes and $10,000 in flags, trophies, silver cups, and jeweled medals. The prize money defrayed operational expenses, and the unit's drill success encouraged other militia units to form in Houston and across the state. The majority of the cash prizes, augmented by a $30,000 bond issue, went toward erecting a $50,000, three-story armory on the corner of Texas and Fannin streets in 1893. The armory was a social headquarters for Houston's economic, political, and social elite through at least 1910.

The Dick Militia Act of 1903 reorganized the militia along regular army lines with companies carrying letter designations instead of the regional identities. The Light Guards maintained its historic identity by forming a veterans' organization in 1902. From 1903 through 1940 the unit continued to perform traditional militia missions. Tensions with Mexico resulting from the Mexican Revolution caused the company to be activated in 1913, 1914, and 1916 and deployed to the Rio Grande valley to protect citizens and property. The 1913 and 1914 activations were under state auspices and the 1916 mobilization under federal direction. The formation of the Texas Department of Public Safety in the 1930s and expanded city police forces diminished the need for such "law and order" missions.

In 1925 the Houston Light Guards sold its original armory and with the proceeds built a new $125,000 building at 3816 Caroline Street. It was denied a property-tax exemption, and an increasing burden and insufficient outside income forced the Houston Light Guards' Veterans Association to convey the property to the state on May 27, 1938; it became the first state-owned armory.

The Light Guards served in both world wars as an infantry company of the Thirty-sixth Infantry Division. During World War I the unit was consolidated with Company E, Fifth Infantry, Texas National Guard, to become Company G, 143d Infantry Regiment, Thirty-sixth Division. Fifty-four Light Guards became officers, and the unit fought in the Meuse-Argonne campaign. It was mustered out of federal service on May 9, 1919, at Camp Bowie, Tarrant County, and reorganized at Houston on May 11, 1922.

The guards entered federal service again on November 25, 1940, and experienced prolonged and bitter fighting during seven campaigns in Italy, France, Germany, and Austria in World War II. After deactivation the unit reorganized in Houston, on April 24, 1947. In 1968 the company reorganized as Company A, Second Battalion, 143d Infantry (Airborne), Seventy-first Airborne Brigade (Separate), and in 1978 it became Company G (Airborne-Ranger), 143d Infantry, one of only three Airborne-Ranger companies in the reserve system. It was part of the Texas National Guard assigned a mission in Germany with the Fifth United States Army Corps.

From 1873 to World War I the Houston Light Guards mustered the social elite of Houston's young men. Subsequently, the establishment of the Reserve Officer Training Corps and the army reserve offered these men the prestige of the officer corps. Consequently, after 1922 the enlisted membership of the unit represented the working class.

The desire to avoid the draft motivated enlistments from the end of World War II through 1972. As a result mostly White, middle and upper class membership became the norm. The first Hispanics joined in the 1930s and the first Blacks (aside from John Sessums, a drummer for the unit in the 1870s and 1880s) in the mid-1960s. After the draft ended in 1972, the unit strength fell to 50 percent of authorization. At least half the unit membership was Black, and 5 to 10 percent was Hispanic. The resurgence of nationalism in the 1980s caused the pendulum to swing back to a mostly White membership, and minorities declined to between 10 and 20 percent.

The unit produced two adjutant generals of Texas—Thomas Scurry and Dallas Matthews; two assistant adjutant generals—Jonas S. Rice and Milby Porter; as well as Maj. Gen. Robert M. Ives and Brig. Gen. David M. Frazior. In addition, at least fifty-eight members have held elected or appointed city, county, and state political offices.

Bruce A. Olson, The Houston Light Guards: A Case Study of the Texas Militia, 1873–1903 (M.A. thesis, University of Houston, 1975). Bruce A. Olson, "The Houston Light Guards," Houston Review 7 (1985).

Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Bruce A. Olson, “Houston Light Guards,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 11, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/houston-light-guards.

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February 1, 1995
November 9, 2020

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