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FILI – A Fayetteville Tradition

There was a time when the members of the Fayetteville Independent Light Infantry stood armed and ready to go into battle if the militia was needed. These days their role is largely ceremonial but still important.

Often referred to as “the Grande Olde Company,” the FILI has participated in patriotic events in Fayetteville and beyond since it was organized in August 1793. When Lafayette came to town in 1825, the members of the unit were there in their impressive regalia to greet and escort the French hero to functions in his honor. Most recently, still impressive in their period uniforms, the FILI took part in Memorial Day observances at Freedom Park and at the Lafayette statue in Cross Creek Park.

And in the years between those appearances, the FILI has participated in inaugural events for presidents and governors, hail and farewell ceremonies for dignitaries at Fort Bragg, parades, and hundreds of other occasions.

Designated North Carolina’s official historic military command, the FILI was active as a military unit from George Washington’s time through World War I, according to Bruce Daws, who holds the rank of major and has been commander since 1984. Daws is Fayetteville’s Historic Properties manager. It is the South’s oldest independent militia company in continuous existence and the second oldest in continuous existence in the United States.

The FILI was one of several volunteer military companies raised in Fayetteville and various other places at a time when war seemed imminent in Europe and the hostile attitude of Spain toward the United States filled people, particularly in the South, with indignation. In 1797 with war threatening between the United States and France, the FILI again stood ready if needed. During the War of 1812, each man was assessed $5 to go to Wilmington to protect the port. In 1861, members of the FILI, along with the LaFayette Light Infantry, also a militia company, were among the first to volunteer and were engaged in the Battle of Bethel. There followed service in the Spanish-American War, the Mexican Border Dispute of 1916, and World War I.

Daws is proud of the fact that the FILI records have been preserved going back to 1793. Many old Fayetteville families have been represented through the generations to recent times, among them the Broadfoots, MacRaes, Huskes, and Haighs. Among the long-time members is Herman Bishop, who joined in 1939 and served in all the ranks. Now a trustee, he does not miss a meeting, according to Daws. Bishop, a World War II veteran, is among many members who have seen military service. Some of the present members are in the military or reserves.

The FILI enjoys a close relationship with Fort Bragg and with the National Guard, Daws said.

The organization has regular practice drills, and every year on its anniversary members muster in full dress on the parade grounds on Cool Spring Street.

Buried on the parade field near the bank of Cross Creek is Isaac Hammond, for many years the fifer for the FILI. The fife, Daws said, was used to keep the troops in step. A barber by trade, Hammond was a free black man. It’s said that it was his dying wish to be buried – with his fife in his hands -- on the parade grounds so that in spirit he could be near the company he loved and served.

The uniforms are similar to those worn by the militia when Lafayette visited the town, according to Daws. All wool, they are warm in the summer and hardly combat attire, he said. White trousers are worn with dark blue jackets. The headgear is a shako, a tall cylindrical hat with red and white plume.

Adding to the pageantry of the group are a bagpiper wearing Scottish dress and a drummer. The bagpipe is a link to Fayetteville’s Scottish heritage.

Members of the FILI served as a color guard at the inauguration of Lyndon Johnson and presented the colors for the elder George Bush. It served as a color guard at Gov. Terry Sanford’s inaugural parade and participated in inauguration ceremonies for Gov. Easley.

It isn’t all pomp for the FILI. It also plays an educational role. The organization maintains a museum at its headquarters on Burgess Street that is open by appointment for groups. Here, visitors can learn about the ancient customs of the militia and see how the military has evolved through exhibits that range from the earliest days of the militia to modern times. Many artifacts were gifts of military members who have served in various wars. World War I and World War II are well represented. Among the many visitors to the museum each year are students studying local and state history.

The museum also is home to the carriage in which Lafayette rode during his visit to Fayetteville.

The Burgess Street building dates to the 1930s. Before that the armory was located in a building behind the Arts Center but was razed to make room for parking. The group is self-supporting, receiving no grants or money from the government. Revenue comes from a rental property owned by the unit in downtown Fayetteville.

The FILI ranges from 75 to 85 men who volunteer their time to make sure the organization continues.

For them, it’s all about tradition.