Organizing the Carlisle Light Infantry
The Carlisle Light Infantry was organized in early 1784 in Carlisle, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania by Robert Magaw, who was a Colonel in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Magaw began his service in the war as a Major in Col. William Thompson’s Battalion of Pennsylvania Riflemen and later Colonel of the 5th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. He was known as “the Defender of Fort Washington” where after a stout defense of the fortifications there, was overtaken and captured along with roughly 3,000 of his men. After the war, he returned to Carlisle and began the practice of law.
In early 1784, Robert Magaw with other veterans of the Continental Army and various citizens in Carlisle, held a meeting from which the private volunteer militia was officially organized, with Robert Magaw as it’s Captain. A constitution and bylaws were drafted and approved, and from this gave birth to the Carlisle Light Infantry.
A few months later on Independence Day, July 4 1784, the Carlisle Light Infantry paraded through the streets of Carlisle on their first official debut as an organized body of militia.
From that point onward, the Carlisle Light Infantry would drill and parade on a monthly basis between April and October, optioning to forgo organizing in the winter months for obvious reasons.
Death of Colonel Robert Magaw
On January 7, 1790, Robert Magaw passed away in Carlisle; he was in his early fifties. According to The Carlisle Gazette and the Western Repository of Knowledge (dated January 13, 1790,) “The funeral was perhaps the most respectable ever seen here.” A rather large precession escorted the body of Magaw led first by a troop of dismounted cavalry, followed by the “Corps of Infantry, lately commanded by Col. Magaw…” – this was a reference to the Carlisle Light Infantry. The pall bearers were six gentlemen, “…late officers of the American Army.” Following the pallbearers came the “Trustees and Faculty of Dickinson College, Justices of the Court of Common Pleas, Attorneys at Law, Students of Dickinson College, Officers of the County and Principal Officers of the Borough of Carlisle, […followed by citizens of the town.]” Minute guns were fired by the Artillery during the procession. “At the grave a pathetic discourse was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Davidson. Three vollies from the [Carlisle Light] Infantry, closed the scene.”
This ended the first chapter of the history of the Carlisle Light Infantry. Stepping into Magaw’s place was Mr. George Stevenson. Stevenson’s Lieutenants were Robert Miller and William Miller respectively (probably brothers.)
Stevenson’s rise to Captaincy of the Carlisle Light Infantry is important to mention because he commanded the company when it was called into action during the Whiskey Rebellion roughly four years later.
Stevenson was born in York county in 1759, making him about thirty-one years-old when he took command of the company. When the Revolutionary War began, Stevenson was a student at Dickinson College at the time. He and many others like him, (including his teachers) rushed to the defense of the northern colonies by joining what would become known as the Continental Army. He was with the army through it’s many trials and tribulations, including the battle at Brandywine, and spending the long winter of 1776-77 at Valley Forge. After his discharge, he returned to Carlisle, completed his medical studies and re-enlisted as a Surgeon, he war ended not long after. He returned home after being discharged, where he took up his career in the medical profession.
At the time of Magaw’s death in 1790, historical document does not make it clear if Stevenson was already a member of the Carlisle Light Infantry. If he was, he would have been elected to fill the Captain’s post. If not, given the nature of his background, it seems most likely that he would have been brought into the company solely for the purpose of leading it.
Capt. Stevenson and the company would maintain a relatively relaxed posture as time advanced, and it remained this way for the next four years until 1794 when the Whiskey Rebellion broke out.
The Whiskey Rebellion
When protests against the Whiskey Tax in Western Pennsylvania turned violent, namely in the city of Pittsburgh, President (General) Washington called forth a militia force of over 12,000 men. As General Washington gathered militia along his route towards Pittsburgh, he stopped in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. While in Carlisle, he paraded down the streets with what militia he had raised thus far. As Washington approached the center of the town, the Carlisle Light Infantry had been drawn up in formation – waiting to join him.
A private in the Carlisle Light Infantry named Andrew Holmes, Esq., remembered that “…together with [about] 3,000 to 4,000 troops, cavalry, rifle and infantry, [we] marched from Carlisle to Mount Rock.” From Mount Rock they proceeded through the town of Shippensburg to points westward.
When Washington with the militia reached Pittsburgh, the offenders of the rebellion had dispersed. Only a handful of individuals were rounded up who participated in those rebellious acts. These people were tried and only two convicted; but were later pardoned by Washington. The historian Joseph Ellis wrote, that this was “the first and only time a sitting American president led troops in the field.”
While it was the goal of Washington’s militia to capture the city of Pittsburgh, the city of Pittsburgh ended up capturing one of our own. As the Carlisle Light Infantry crossed the mountain’s westward, it’s beauty was keenly noted by many who made the journey. In Captain Stevenson’s case, he was “captured by the picturesque city.” So enthralled was he by the beauty of the area, he decided he would move there. Upon returning home to Carlisle with the Light Infantry, he immediately resigned his Captaincy of the company. He wasted no time in packing up his family and moving them to Pittsburgh, where he “immediately opened his office there.”
The War of 1812
The War of eighteen-twelve was also known during that time as “the second war with Great Britain.” The war began in June of eighteen-twelve and Pennsylvania was quick to respond to the President’s call for troops. Among the first to answer the call was the Carlisle Light Infantry. The Captain of the company at this point was Captain William Alexander, with his executive officer being Lt. Lindsey Spotswood. Together with another company from Mechanicsburg, they went to the Niagara Frontier. “Both companies participated in most of the battles and sorties of that hard fought campaign. In the battle of Chippewa they were a part of the detachment of 250 Pennsylvanian’s under the command of Col. Bull, of Perry County, who were sent with fifty or sixty regulars and 300 Indians, into the woods to strike the Chippewa Creek about a half mile above the British Works. Here they were attacked by a party of 200 militia with some Indians, but so impetuous was the charge with which our troops met them that they were compelled to give way in every direction and were pursued with great slaughter up to the very guns of the fort. This little band of Pennsylvanians here found themselves forsaken by the Indians, and in the face of the enemy’s main force and assailed by four companies on the left and flank. They were of course compelled to retire, but having gone about 300 yards, they reformed and kept up a heavy fire for about ten minutes, when, being raked by a cannon on the right, outflanked and almost surrounded by the entire four companies now brought against them, they were obliged to retreat.
When the war was brought to an end, the Carlisle Light Infantry returned home. Unfortunately for Captain William Alexander, he nearly went broke. Alexander personally paid to ensure his men were well armed, equipped and clothed before they left Carlisle when the war started. He supported the company during its trails, expecting the Federal Government to reimburse him for the cost incurred. However, the Government did not reimburse Alexander, and he nearly went to the poor house.
The Mexican American War
The Mexican American War began in April of 1846, and at that time the Carlisle Light Infantry was commanded by Captain Samuel Crop. Two months later Captain Crop reported that he had a full company ready to be sent off to war, but for whatever reason their company were not accepted by the Federal Government for service. However the Carlisle Light Infantry remained ready to be sent to war for the next year or so until hostilities ended in February 1848.
The American Civil War
Leading up to the dawn of the Civil War, the Carlisle Light Infantry had been in a state of idleness. But shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s victory at the polls in November 1860, it became readily apparent that something was going to happen when states began to threaten to succeed from the Union. Recognizing this, the Carlisle Light Infantry was again brought out from its idle state and began to reorganize. This time it’s Captain would be Robert McGinnis Wright McCartney, who at the time, was the Sheriff of Cumberland County. His Lieutenants were Joseph Stuart and Thomas P. Dwen respectively. Also serving in the company was the Captain’s son, Robert McCartney, Jr.
When Fort Sumter was fired upon in April 1861, and President Lincoln made his call for volunteers, the ranks were swelled. Particularly in the Carlisle Light Infantry – their ranks were absolutely full and could accept no more members.
In May the company was accepted for service in the state’s new “Reserve Corps of the Commonwealth” which was designed to be a “home defense” for the state since most of its other defenses were sent to Washington D.C. to support Washington’s army.
The Carlisle Light Infantry, together with their sister company, the Carlisle Guards, were sent to Harrisburg, and from there sent to camp at West Chester, Chester County where they arrived in early June. Here they trained for war. They remained in this camp until July when they were called into active service in the Federal Service. Before they could embark upon the seat of war, Captain Robert McCartney resigned his seat, and returned to continue his position as Sheriff. Lt. Thomas Dwen stepped up as Captain.
From that point forward, they went from being a “reserve force” to fighting in every single battle fought by the Army of the Potomac from 1862 to 1865. They lost many members during the war, especially towards the end. Lt. Stuart would be killed at Gaines’ Mill in June 1862, and Capt. Dwen would also meet his fate at South Mountain in Maryland in September of the same year. After their initial three year enlistment had ended, a majority of the company elected to re-enlist for another three years to see the war through. Unfortunately weeks later, they were captured as a whole and sent to prisons in South Carolina and Georgia. Many would die there.
After the war ended, and the Carlisle Light Infantry came home in a sad state. The brother of Capt. Dwen remembered, “I was sadly disappointed in then seeing what little was left of its original membership. Tom, its captain for fourteen months, had been dead for two years- my hero, friend, brother, was not among those who had returned. I went home and sorrowed.”
Since the end of the Civil War, with the majority of its membership falling casualty to four years of conflict, the Carlisle Light Infantry fell into a state of idleness. At some point in the beginning of the Spanish American War in 1898, a poor effort was made in Carlisle to bring the Carlisle Light Infantry to life again, but failed.
This was largely due to the fact that the U.S. Army had begun to change the way the army was structured. No longer would they accept groups of soldiers from the same community as it had done in the past. So those who enlisted to fight in the Spanish American war from Carlisle were placed in random units within the army.
So, since then the Carlisle Light Infantry has been waiting to wake up.
In September 2016, several friends in South Central Pennsylvania came together to discuss matters affecting the world. It was decided that it would be conducive, to create a cohesive body of individuals who are determined to protect and defend their community.
Research was conducted, by the soon to be new Commanding Officer, about the Carlisle Light Infantry. He presented the information to the membership and the decision was made to revive the Carlisle Light Infantry. This would take place on February 4, 2017. There was a great response from the public.
Since that day the Carlisle Light Infantry continues to grow in both membership and skill sets. From sending members to aid Hurricane victims to protecting small business. The Carlisle light Infantry has met every month to build a community of citizens what want to give back. Once again the Carlisle Light Infantry is growing and strong…. two hundred and thirty-three years after it was originally organized.