Cavalry Fighting Dismounted

Eric Wittenberg recently made a very interesting post in his series of Forgotten American Cavalrymen of Brig. Gen. Louis H. Carpenter.  In the November 1888 issue of the Journal of the U.S. Cavalry Association (my readers will recall it’s one of my favorite sources) Carpenter wrote a very revealing and detailed piece about how cavalry prepares to fight dismounted.  Mike Nugent passed the piece on to me, reminding me of this great description.

Most folks who have read about actions in which cavalry fought dismounted are familiar with the generalization that one cavalryman held the horses of three of his comrades in the rear, while those three comrades skirmished dismounted at the front.  However, the procedure was very specific and regulated.  When a column or line of cavalry came on the scene, which troopers would dismount and which troopers would be horse-holders was determined very quickly, as you’ll see below.  The description, in fact, will likely remind you of your days in gym class when everyone “counted off” in, say, fours.  Think of that, and you’ll be able to easily picture the scene that Carpenter paints below.

Numbers 1, 2 and 3 of each set of fours, both front and rear rank, dismounting, linked their horses,… No. 3 handing his reins to No. 4, who remained mounted, and three-fourths of the command became available for the work in hand.  The men then formed quickly into line, and were deployed in extended order upon the center skirmisher or the right or left skirmisher, by each man obliquing at once to gain the interval…

In less than half a minute a troop could dismount and deploy as skirmishers.  Sometimes the line would be reinforced to about one man to the yard, but never heavier, and this answered all purposes.  It is surprising when we consider how much was accomplished by this long, thin, apparently weak line of carbineers.  How steadily it could advance under heavy fire, or deliberately retire, flexible, bending, but rarely breaking, keeping up its continuity, and showing a wonderful power of resistance… The soldier becoming accustomed to losing the touch of his comrade, became more self-reliant and dependent upon his own resources, taking advantage of all the over and shelter possible, and more difficult to be persuaded that he was whipped… Reserves and supports were provided for, and kept in hand to render timely aid and to be sent in when necessary.

When the cavalry was dismounted, the horses were sent to the rear to take advantage of the nearest shelter from the enemy’s fire, No. 4 having no difficulty in managing the three horses entrusted to him, or in moving them from place to place at any gait.  In case a retreat became necessary, portions of the dismounted men would fall back alternately, taking new positions in rear, assisted by artillery, until it was possible to mount and retire without interference; or, in other cases, some of the line would be withdrawn and mounted, and then deployed as skirmishers to cover the retreat of the remained, with mounted charges made occasionally on the flanks or front.

So whenever you read about cavalry conducting a skirmish, cover action, or fighting withdrawal dismounted, just think of this wonderful description and it will help you picture both the standard procedure and the effectiveness of the maneuvers.

(Painting by Mort Kunstler, “Hold At All Cost.”

Published in: on November 9, 2007 at 3:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Flags and guidons!

Also by Mike Nugent (see post on saddles below) this information on Civil War flags and guidons is the most comprehensive ever put together.  Now when you see the mounted arm’s flags, you’ll be able to determine a bit of their history and symbolism.  It’s interesting to note (for those of you who watch historical auctions) Gen. Custer’s personal guidon (pictured below) just came up for sale recently by the private owner.

Throughout history, armies have carried flags.  Flags provide a sense of identity for a unit and build pride and morale.  In combat, flags serve a practical purpose as a means of identifying unit locations and as a rallying point for soldiers in the confusion of battle.  Flags are also used to identify specific individuals, and mark important locations such as unit headquarters and field hospitals.

The U.S. Army Regulations of 1861 called for infantry regiments to carry two flags, the National colors and the regimental colors.  Both were nearly six feet square, made of silk and fringed in yellow silk.  The regulations called for embroidered white stars and embroidered unit designations on the center stripe of the National colors.  In practice, silver and gold paint often substituted for the regulation embroidery.  Since silver paint tended to tarnish, it was abandoned in favor of gold.  No pattern was set for the placement of stars on the flag and they appear in rows, circles, and ovals.  There was little standardization and manufacturers made flags according to their own interpretation of the regulations.  Volunteer units frequently carried National colors embellished with a State motif.  Some added the coat of arms, eagles, mottos, and other designs.

Infantry regimental colors were dark blue with the Coat of Arms of the United States in the center.  Artillery regimental colors were yellow with two gold-colored crossed cannon barrels in the center.  Both infantry and artillery colors had a red scroll noting denoting the unit’s designation below the central design.  Regimental colors showed even greater variations than the National colors and feature a number of different designs of eagles, stars, and scrolls.  Again, volunteer units often adorned their flags with symbols from their home state and region.  In 1862 the Federal Government assumed the responsibility for supplying the State units but the regimental colors made by the depots in Philadelphia, New York, and Cincinnati still showed numerous variations.

The large flags carried by infantry regiments would have been unmanageable on horseback.  Cavalry regiments therefore carried much smaller flags than the infantry.  Called “standards,” a cavalry regiment’s colors measured roughly 2 by 2 feet.  Regulation cavalry standards were similar in design to infantry regimental colors.  They featured the United States Coat of Arms on a blue field with a red scroll bearing the unit designation.  As with their infantry counterparts, however, there was little standardization and cavalry units often carried a variety of non-regulation flags featuring state and regional designs.

In addition to the regimental standard, individual cavalry companies carried swallow-tailed flags called “guidons.”  At the beginning of the Civil War cavalry guidons featured two horizontal bars, red over white.  In 1862 the regulations changed and cavalry guidons featured red and white stripes with a blue canton in the same design as the National colors.  The canton featured a painted gold star in each corner, with the remaining stars arranged in two concentric rings.  Company letters were painted in the center of the ring of stars and the regimental designation was often painted on the guidon’s center stripe.

Although the regulations did not authorize cavalry regiments to carry the National colors, many did, carrying either a scaled-down version similar in size to their standards, or a swallow-tailed guidon in the pattern of the National colors, but without company or regimental designations painted on.

Cavalry standards and guidons were flown from nine-foot long staffs capped with a brass spear point at the top and a brass butt cap on the bottom.  Color Bearers would attach a small leather cup or “boot” to the stirrup leathers on the off side of their saddle (see post on saddles below) to facilitate carrying the flags while mounted.

During the course of the War, corps, divisions, and brigades adopted non-regulation flags to mark the location of their headquarters.  Several systems to standardize these headquarters flags were attempted.  In 1862 Major General George B. McClellan devised a system of red, white, and blue flags and flags divided into bars of red, white, and blue to designate various higher headquarters.  Numbers added to the flags distinguished the regiments within a brigade.  McClellan’s complex, confusing system was replaced in 1863 by a simpler system that identified commands by the shape of the flag.  Corps headquarters were designated by a swallow-tailed flag, divisions by a rectangular flag, and brigades by a triangular pennant.  Within a corps, divisions were differentiated by use of the distinctive corps badges developed earlier in 1863 by Major General Joseph Hooker.  A red badge on a white field distinguished the 1st division, a white badge on a blue field the 2nd division, and a blue badge on a white field the 3rd.  Within divisions, brigades were designated by the borders of their triangular flags.  A plain pennant with no border denoted the 1st brigade, a stripe along the “hoist” of the pennant denoted the 2nd brigade, and a border on all three sides of the pennant the 3rd brigade.  This model gradually became the standard for armies in the east and was adopted with some variation by the western armies when the 11th and 12th Corps were transferred to Tennessee to reinforce General Ulysses Grant late in 1863.

When these guidons and pennants were adopted and flown, for instance during the Gettysburg
Campaign, the top standards designated General Buford’s division.  Colonel Gamble’sBrigade
would have flown the 1st Brigade pennant at the bottom left, Colonel Devin’s 2nd Brigade the one
in the middle, and General Merritt’s Reserve (3rd) Brigade the one at lower right.

Despite the attempts at establishing a standard system, variations in flag designs persisted and it was not uncommon for units to carry non-standard flags.  General officers often adopted “personal” flags, like General Custer’s below.

Cavalry commands in the Military Division of the Mississippi continued to use red and white, and red and blue swallow-tailed guidons at corps, division, and brigade level.  Cavalry divisions in the Army of the Potomac continued to use a red and white swallow-tailed guidon emblazoned with the division number in both bars.  The crossed-saber insignia was not standardized and differs widely, sometimes even within the same division.

Regimental flags were returned to the states at the end of the War.  Many bore the scars of battle, some riddled with dozens of bullet holes.  Many Civil War flags were proudly displayed in state capitol buildings for years afterwards.  Sadly, the open display of these fragile artifacts hastened their deterioration and today, many of them have literally fallen apart.  Several states have initiated programs to protect and save their treasured colors, carefully preserving and displaying them under controlled, archival conditions to honor the veterans who risked their lives to defend them.

Mike Nugent (as Colonel William Gamble) and J. David Petruzzi (as Colonel Thomas C. Devin)
with their guidons and pennants atop McPherson Ridge in Gettysburg.
Left to right, the flags are:  Devin’s 2nd Brigade pennant, Gamble’s 1st Brigade pennant,
Buford’s Division guidon, and the National colors guidon.
Taken in April 2001, this was likely the first time these flags have flown at McPherson Ridge
again since Buford’s stand here on July 1, 1863.

Published in: on May 30, 2007 at 11:28 am  Comments (7)  

The McClellan Saddle

Quite often (maybe a half dozen times a year) I get a question or email about the McClellan saddle.  My buddy Mike Nugent, who is a retired Armored Cavalry officer and descendant of 6th US Cavalry trooper Pvt. Joseph Charlton (wounded at Fairfield), wrote a great piece on the saddle for my “Bufords Boys” website.  Since the website isn’t back up and running yet, I thought I’d put up the saddle page here.  Hopefully my readers will be interested in this detail and that it will answer a lot of questions.  Mike also did a great page on cavalry flags and guidons, which I will reproduce here shortly.

The 1859 McClellan Military Saddle

During the American Civil War there were a variety of saddles in use by the Federal Cavalry.  The Model 1847 Grimsley saddle remained popular, especially among Dragoon veterans, and the Hope saddle and Model 1861 Artillery Drivers saddle saw cavalry service as well.  The Model 1859 McClellan, however, was by far the most common saddle used by Union horse soldiers.

Figure 1: “Near”  side view

Six years before the Civil War, then Captain George Brinton McClellan served as a member of a military commission to study European military tactics, weapons, and logistics.  While in Europe, McClellan observed battles during the Crimean War, focusing on the organization of Engineer and Cavalry forces.  On his return to the United States, McClellan proposed a cavalry manual adapted from the Russian Cavalry.  He also developed a cavalry saddle which was a modification of a Hungarian model used in the Prussian service and included features found in Mexican and Texan saddles as well as characteristics of the Hope, Campbell, and Grimsley saddles.

Under Secretary of War (and future President of the Confederacy) Jefferson Davis, the Army conducted field trials to determine the most practical and efficient equipment for the Cavalry and Dragoons.  In addition to the new saddle developed by McClellan, a number of other styles were considered including the standard service Grimsley, the Hope, Campbell, and a Jones “adjustable tree” saddle.

Serviceability and cost were factors that contributed to the Army’s adoption of the McClellan saddle over its competition.  The “horn” on the Hope saddle was undesirable for a military saddle and construction of the Campbell and Grimsely saddles used large amounts of leather and brass, increasing both cost and weight.  The McClellan saddle was simple, less expensive, lightweight, sturdy, and durable.  Its open-tree design allowed one of three sizes to comfortably fit most horses.  The saddle was adopted by the War Department in 1859 and nearly half a million were produced before the end of the Civil War.

Figure 2:  “Off” side view with saddle bags and side fenders attached

The McClellan saddle features an open, metal-reinforced wooden tree.  Saddle skirts of harness leather are screwed to the sidebars.  The rigging is similar to that found on the Hope saddle.  Stirrups are hickory or oak.  The prototype Model 1857 McClellan saddles had the wooden tree covered with a thin, varnished, black leather cover.  The stirrups were hoodless and also covered with varnished leather.  All hardware on the saddles was made of polished brass.  The Model 1859 (the model selected for adoption) featured a more durable rawhide-covered tree.  Stirrups were of bare wood and stirrup hoods were added.  The 1861 Ordnance Manual called for the brass hardware to be replaced with “blued” iron, although in practice the iron hardware was usually “japanned,” covered in a durable black varnish.

Accessories for the McClellan saddle included small saddle bags, a nose bag for the horse’s grain, a curry comb, picket pin, and lariat.  A thimble or “boot” on the right or “off” side of the saddle held the muzzle of the cavalryman’s carbine.

Figure 3:  Detail of the rawhide-covered, open tree

Three slots in the cantle (reinforced with brass fittings) allowed leather straps to secure a blanket roll.  Similarly, the saddle’s pommel had a slot and two iron fittings where three more straps could secure a blanket roll or overcoat.  Iron rings allowed for the easy attachment of canteens or other accouterments.  Although contrary to regulations, cavalrymen frequently attached their sabers to the left or “near” side of the saddle.  The saddle was generally used with a Model 1859 Dragoon saddle blanket, blue and bordered with an orange stripe (the Dragoon branch of service cover), rather than with the more ornate shrabraques or saddle coverings.

Confederate cavalrymen prized captured McClellan saddles.  By 1862 saddlers in the Confederacy were manufacturing copies with russet leather and even tarred or painted linen rigging.

After the Civil War the McClellan saddle went through a number of modifications.  Budgetary concerns and the huge stockpile of saddles in the Army’s inventory ensured that it remained in service despite several recommendations that it be replaced.  The Model 1904 and Model 1913 McClellan saddles were again produced in large numbers during World War I, and remained in service until the Army disbanded its mounted units at the dawn of World War II.  After serving the Cavalry for more than 80 years, McClellan saddles are still commonplace in mounted police units around the United States.

Published in: on May 30, 2007 at 11:19 am  Comments (34)