PHILADELPHIA— Gregg Connell’s enlistment into his National Guard cavalry unit went like this:
Already well-lubricated at the armory bar, members of the troop passed around a wooden box. Those who wanted to accept Spc. Connell dropped in white marbles. Those opposed, black marbles.
White marbles outnumbering black, Spc. Connell was summoned into the armory’s mess hall, where, beneath oil paintings of bewhiskered men in silver-buttoned tunics and helmets topped with bearskin crests, the captain pinned a fabric rosette to his blue blazer. Spc. Connell saluted and signed a muster roll with names dating back to 1774.
Then he stood on a chair and sang a selection from the troop’s big book of bawdy songs: “Take It Out at the Ballgame.”
So it was that the 24-year-old aspiring architect joined what is probably the most idiosyncratic unit in the U.S. military: First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry.
Part blue-blooded fraternity, part olive-drab fighting force, First Troop is a throwback to a time when militias were democratic entities raised by local luminaries, and it still operates under rules that would make most Army commanders splutter with disapproval.
It is the only unit in the U.S. Army that elects members after a series of rush-week-style fancy dinners and boozy parties. It is the only one in which all soldiers vote on who gets to be an officer, at meetings that operate under Robert’s Rules of Order and can be hijacked for hours by the lowliest private. It is one of the few that require members to ride horses and handle a saber.
First Troop is also struggling to attract gentleman-soldiers at a time when its rigorous schedule of socializing, steeplechasing and drilling is increasingly interrupted by actual wars. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Philadelphia troopers have been deployed to Iraq, Bosnia, Egypt and Kuwait, and recruiting has taken a hit. There are now just 35 active members in First Troop, down from 86 men in 2000. As a ground-combat unit, First Troop remains an all-male bastion under military rules.
“It’s tough to find people like us,” said Greg Colella, 24, who studied international affairs and Mandarin Chinese at Princeton University, and who may well be the only soldier in the U.S. Army holding the title of cornet, an antiquated position akin to a third lieutenant.
The unit was formed as the Light Horse of the City of Philadelphia in 1774, filling its ranks from such upper-crust social organizations as the Schuylkill Fishing Company, the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, and the Gloucester Fox Hunting Club.
During the Revolutionary War, troopers fought at the Battle of Princeton and escorted Gen. George Washington at Trenton in 1776. They saw action in the War of 1812, skirmished near Gettysburg in 1863 and manned the honor guard for Abraham Lincoln’s body two years later.
After the Vietnam War, the unit had settled into a more prosaic National Guard routine—one weekend a month of drills, plus two weeks of exercises during the summer. Except that members are expected to donate their drill pay to the upkeep of their private armory building in Center City, an imposing stone-faced facility with a sauna and indoor parking for tanks.
For a first lieutenant, that means surrendering $350 per weekend and $1,500 for the summer exercises, a practice that helps limit recruits to those who don’t need the money.
The prestige and fraternal fun drew members from the cream of Philadelphia professional classes. More than one tycoon has signed the troop roster. The current captain, Oxford University-trained lawyer Garri Hendell, moved to Kansas for family reasons and still pays his own way to Philadelphia twice a month to attend meetings. He sleeps at the armory, which contains both a yellow unit flag from the Revolutionary War and a bullet-pocked road sign pointing the way to Baghdad.
By law, First Troop retains certain rights and distinctions because its existence predates the Militia Act of 1792, including its democratic approach to rank.
“These are the men who represent the best of the American aristocracy,” said Ned Greene, 63, the retired chief executive of a company that provisions yachts and private jets.
Mr. Greene, who was assistant press secretary on Gerald Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign, was wounded by gunfire and shrapnel while serving as a Marine in Vietnam. He retired from First Troop’s active roll in 1999—there are some 600 troopers who are no longer active guardsmen—but still shows up at the armory for events, such as the evening on which Spc. Connell was inducted.
While active troopers were casting their marbles in the mess hall, Mr. Greene coached Spc. Connell in the Non-Commissioned-Officers’ Club, where a copy of the Social Register sits next to the telephone.
“It’s kind of a buzz,” Mr. Greene told him about the enlistment ceremony. “And you’re generally buzzed by the time you get up there.”
Spc. Connell heard about the troop from a family friend, and was sold at his maiden recruiting event, a black-tie casino night at the armory with roulette, blackjack and strippers.
He joined the National Guard and waited to get the nod from First Troop.
“I’m a little nervous,” he admitted, knocking on the wood of the table. He reflected on the troop’s blue-blooded tradition. “There’s nothing wrong with being white collar,” said Spc. Connell.
He was warned he would be penalized if caught hesitating when asked for his membership number, which marks him as the 2,438th Philadelphia trooper in 240 years. One trooper told a story about how an elderly member spotted his rosette and forced him to do push-ups on a rainy sidewalk.
What Spc. Connell dreaded, however, was the horse-riding requirement, a fear put to the test when the soldiers gathered for a steeplechase at a trooper’s horse farm in West Chester, Pa. A highlight of the day was the cavalry-skills competition, in which the troopers practiced attacking a watermelon with a saber.
The expert riders, such as Sgt. Llewellyn Hunt, the descendant of French generals and a student at Sciences Po in Paris, cantered past the post where the watermelon was mounted, slicing it neatly in two.
Less-experienced cavalrymen, such as PV2 Mikal Catus, a University of Pennsylvania student and the first black trooper in recent memory, rode well but took several tries to cut the melon.
Spc. Connell, who had never ridden before, was helped into the saddle of an easygoing horse, who ambled toward the enemy fruit. Spc. Connell took a mighty swing and nicked off a piece as he knocked the melon to the ground.
“Never had a chance,” someone commented. “The watermelon, that is.”
After Spc. Connell dismounted, the other troopers initiated him into one final cavalry tradition: Opening a bottle of champagne with a saber.