Stephen F. Austin State University

Longview's Militia unit knew the drill (September 2013)

Longview's Militia unit knew the drill
By Van Craddock

The community was proud of the Longview Rifles. After all, the militia unit was composed of the Gregg County town's finest young men. Organized by Robert Smith in 1884, the unit was part of the Texas Volunteer Guard. Under the 1879 Texas Militia Act, the governor served as commander-in-chief while an appointed adjutant general was responsible for daily administration of the guard. Members of the Longview Rifles joined for three-year terms and elected their own officers. The group occasionally drilled on the courthouse lawn and was a mark of pride for local residents.

Militia units had been formed in Texas as early as the 1830s to fight Native Americans and the occasional invasion by the Mexican Army. Later, militia members were called out to provide security and to combat civil unrest. In September 1886, the Texas Volunteer Guard was reorganized. The Longview Rifles became part of the state guard's Fifth Regiment, which also included the Reagan Guard of Mineola, Bowie Rifles of Texarkana, Terrell Rifles, Gainesville Rifles, Collin Guard of McKinney, Grayson Rifles of Sherman and two Tyler units, the Douglass Rifles and Bonner Rifles. The Longview Rifles unit in the 1890s was described by a local newspaper as "a very smart-looking outfit in military blue uniforms, fully equipped. No National Guard was ever more perfectly trained nor had a more soldierly commanding officer."

That commanding officer was local attorney Richard B. Levy Jr. His family, quite prominent in Gregg County, had a long history of military service. Levy insisted on discipline and made sure his men were well drilled. In July 1897, Levy took the unit to Austin for the Governor's Day Interstate Drill at Camp Culberson. Reported a San Antonio paper: "Capt. R.B. Levy, of the Longview Rifles, has one of the best-kept camps in the regiment. The camp has been scored 100 every day by the inspectors with the exception of one."

When a member of the Bill Dalton gang was brought to Longview to stand trial in December 1897, Texas Adj. Gen. W.H. Mabry wrote Capt Levy:

"The Sheriff of Gregg County is apprehensive of an attempt at rescue of J.C. Nite, the bank robber, during the present term of Court, and has asked that your company be ordered to guard jail. It is not likely that the friends of Nite will attempt to carry out such a scheme if it is known that the jail and court are well guarded by both the civil officers and the military … and ready to suppress any such movement."

Mabry suggested that "a detachment of say, eight men for guard duty, every 24 hours. This detachment … will be sufficient to defend the Jail or Court, until reinforcements from the whole company can reach the spot, if any emergency should arise requiring the full company."

The Longview Rifles, assisted by several Texas Rangers, guarded the jail for several days, until Nite received a change of venue to Tyler. In May 1898, at outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Levy and the Longview Rifles' 75 members were sworn into federal service. They became Company A of the Third Texas Infantry, U.S. Volunteers. The unit was sent to the Mexican border for patrol duty until the war's end. In 1903, the Texas Volunteer Guard was federalized and became the Texas National Guard. The Longview Rifles and other Texas militia units lost their regional identities and came to be identified by letters of the alphabet. R.B. Levy Jr., who later became a highly respected Texas appeals court judge, died in 1949, a half century after he'd led the Longview Rifles as their captain.