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 History of the Colorado National Guard

The history of the Colorado National Guard began Jan. 23, 1860, when the 1st General Assembly of the Jefferson Territory authorized the formation of two military companies: the Jefferson Rangers and the Denver Guards. These units were later disbanded and the Colorado Volunteers stood up as the official Territorial Militia.

On Feb. 26, 1861, Colorado became a territory of the Union. William Gilpin, the first governor, organized the Colorado Volunteers for the defense of the territory and to oppose the looming invasion of Confederate forces during the Civil War. The 1st Colorado Volunteers met and defeated the Texas Confederates at La Glorieta Pass, New Mexico, March 26-28, 1862. Colorado’s 2nd Volunteer Cavalry served with distinction against Confederates in Missouri and Kansas while also responding to Indian attacks in the area.

With Arapaho and Cheyenne aggression reaching a boiling point on the Colorado plains in the 1860s, a militia was raised in an attempt to quell violence. While there are various accounts in the history of the Battle of Sand Creek, the 3rd Colorado Cavalry successfully stemmed the killings of settlers in the area.

After Colorado became a state in 1876, the Colorado State Militia was activated dozens of times for the protection of public rights, safety, and property during the miner strikes between 1889 and 1922.

The Colorado Guard mobilized for the Spanish-American War, and on June 14, 1898, sailed for the Philippines. Colorado units participated in numerous battles and were the first to enter, and eventually capture, Manila. During this campaign, the Colorado Guard’s only Medal of Honor recipient, Lt. Col. William R. Grove, earned the military’s highest honor for valiant action against the enemy.

In June 1916, the Colorado Guard mobilized for Mexican Border service. They were stationed on the border of Arizona, protecting the area from Pancho Villa and his army until returning home in February 1917.

War was declared against Germany on April 6, 1917, and by the beginning of August, nearly all units of the Colorado National Guard were mobilized for service in France. Colorado’s combat arms units provided replacements on the front lines as well as crucial artillery support in most of the major campaigns near the end of the war, including the Meuse Argonne campaign.

During World War II, Colorado National Guard units served with pride in both the European and Pacific theatres. Colorado’s 157th Infantry Regiment provided a significant contribution to the invasion of Italy and southern France, eventually liberating the notorious Dachau labor camp on April 29, 1945 after 511 days in a combat zone and four beach landings as part of the 45th Infantry Division. The majority of Colorado’s artillery units served in the Philippines for two years.

Following the war, on June 30, 1946, the 120th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the Colorado Air National Guard was federally recognized as the first Air National Guard unit in the nation, one year prior to the establishment of the U.S. Air Force in 1947.

In 1953, the 120th Tactical Fighter Squadron organized an aerial demonstration team called the "Minute Men," making it the first  and only  Air National Guard precision aerial demonstration team. At the height of its popularity, the Minute Men performed in more than 100 air shows for more than three million people in 47 states and five foreign countries.

Elements of the Colorado Guard were recalled for federal service in 1950 for the Korean Conflict, in 1961 during the Berlin Crisis and again during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1968, during the Vietnam conflict, the 120th Tactical Fighter Squadron became the first Air National Guard unit to be called to combat duty as a whole, flying more than 5,900 combat missions from Phan Rang Air Base.

After the Cold War, the Colorado National Guard mobilized for Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-91, as well as Operations Northern and Southern Watch. Colorado Army National Guard Special Forces units were sent to Haiti to help stabilize that country in 1994-95. When the Balkans became a hot zone in 1999, Colorado’s air ambulance and military police units responded as part of Operation Joint Forge. During the late 1990s, the Colorado Air and Army National Guard were the first Guard units to stand up around-the-clock space missions in defense of our nation.

Hours after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Colorado Soldiers and Airmen were activated to provide additional security at sensitive sites across the state, including Denver International Airport. Dedicated aircrews launched defensive aircraft to guard America’s skies in support of Operation Noble Eagle, an ongoing mission that continues today. Following the 9/11 attacks, every deployable unit in Colorado has been mobilized (some more than once) in support of the Global War on Terror.

In the 10 years since the 2001 terrorist attacks on America, Colorado National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have deployed more than 6,000 times in support of overseas operations while continuing to defend their homeland.

Since 2005, more than 3,000 Soldiers and Airmen have provided defense support to civil authorities during state emergencies and national special security events. 

Over the years, the Colorado National Guard has supported thousands of counterdrug and search-and-rescue missions, as well as dozens of call-ups for floods (including the Big Thompson Flood and Hurricane Katrina), wildfires, blizzards and tornadoes. Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen have aided authorities for prison riots and pursued escapees, bank robbers and murderers (including the Cortez manhunt), as well as the Columbine High School shootings. Additionally, they have supported massive state missions such the Pope’s visit as part of World Youth Day in 1993, the G8 Summit in 1997 and the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

The Colorado National Guard also supported humanitarian relief operations in Haiti and Japan following the devastating earthquakes there.

For more than 150 years, the Colorado National Guard has served our nation and communities across Colorado anytime, anywhere, and is always ready, always there.

9/11 rememberance


  U.S. Army Center of Military History
  U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center
  National Guard History
  National Guard heritage series paintings
  Lineage and Honors
  Colorado Military History Center (CMHC)
  Colorado Air National Guard History
  This Month in Colorado National Guard History Archive