Dragoons, Mounted Infantry, and Cavalry

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Dragoons, Mounted Forces, and Cavalry

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Dragoons, Mounted Troops, and Cavalry History


US Dragoon History
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Dragoon and Soldier in Mexico

Originally designated as United States Dragoons, U.S. cavalry traces its origin to the American Revolution. George Washington had observed the employment of the small force of British 17th Light Dragoons, which panicked his militia infantry at White Plains. Appreciating the ability of the horsemen, he asked the Continental Congress for a light cavalry force to be added to the fledgling Continental army. On December 12, 1776, Congress authorized Washington to establish a mounted force of 3,000 men.
The "United States Regiment of Dragoons" was organized by Act of Congress approved March 2, 1833, but the unit was redesignated the "First Regiment of Dragoons" when the Second Dragoons was raised in 1836. Its designation was again changed to "First Regiment of Cavalry" by the Act of August 3, 1861. The first order announcing appointments in the regiment was dated March 5, 1833, and gave the names of the colonel, lieutenant-colonel, major, four captains and four lieutenants, stating that the organization of the regiment would be perfected by the selection of officers from the "Battalion of Rangers." Headquarters was established at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.

Fundamentally, the Dragoons were an auxiliary arm supporting the Infantry. While they were not expected to make long marches on foot, it was necessary at times for them to hold a position dismounted, until the Infantry could arrive to secure the ground.

(Right) A dragoon and an infantry first lieutenant wear uniforms typical of Regular Army soldiers during the Mexican War (1846-1848). The soldiers are depicted in H. Charles McBarron’s The American Soldier, 1847, and are part of Major General Zachary Taylor’s army in northern Mexico. Army Art Collection.

Throughout United States history, especially during the nineteenth century, mounted troops served as the advance guard of the United States Army. They helped to strengthen security in times of peace and served as protectors and watchdogs in times of war.

In the mid-nineteenth century just prior to the Civil War, three different types of mounted troops existed simultaneously in the United States Army: cavalry, dragoons, and mounted riflemen. While all traveled on horseback, theoretically, there were enough distinctions between the various units to merit them being called by different names.

During medieval times, two distinctions of cavalry had emerged: heavy and light cavalry.

Heavy cavalry referred to those soldiers who were heavily armored and used as shock troops, charging their enemies with lances. Knights often charged in close formation, similar to the shoulder to shoulder tactics of infantry charges in 19th century American Armies. The sight of a line of heavily armored knights charging at full gallop had a profound psychological impact on the enemy.

Light cavalry carried less armour and were more of a reconnaissance force, used for scouting, screening and skirmishing.

By the 1700s, heavy cavalry still played a role as shock troops, and light cavalry were still used as reconnaissance, but a new type of unit, regarded as a medium cavalry, dragoons had emerged. Whereas cavalry did most of their fighting on horse, dragoons rode into battle and then did most of their fighting dismounted, although they were actually trained to fight on horseback or on foot. The term "dragoon" came from the nickname for their weapon, the carbine or short musket, called "the dragon", which referred to the fire that emits forth out of the gun, hence the term "dragon" or dragoon soldiers.

In the United States, there were four regiments of light dragoons and other mounted forces that fought in the Revolutionary War. Dragoons also fought in the War of 1812, but by 1815, all of the mounted forces had been disbanded. In 1833, when the first regiment of dragoons was organized, there were no other mounted forces in the United States Army. In fact, heavy cavalry never existed in the United States Army in the 19th century.

A battalion of mounted rangers was organized in 1832, but it was soon disbanded and the dragoon regiment was organized in its place. They may have been treated like second-class cavalry in the European armies, but not in the United States. As mentioned above, when the dragoons were first organized, they were the only mounted troops in the United States. They were considered an elite fighting force trained to fight both on horseback and on foot.

The First Dragoon Regiment was composed of ten companies, but after the first five companies were recruited, they were sent to Fort Gibson under their Colonel, Henry Dodge, to winter. The others followed later.

The American Army in 1844 consisted of 8573 men of which the ten companies of the First Dragoons numbered about 623 men. Each company at full strength had a captain, a first lieutenant, a second lieutenant, four sergeants, four corporals, two buglers, one farrier and blacksmith, and fifty privates. The men were armed with Hall's carbines and, later, musketoons, Dragoon sabers called "old wristbreakers" of the Prussian pattern, and horse pistols.

All of the weapons had drawbacks. The carbine when carried muzzle down lost the charge from the chamber and could not stand much wear. In Indian fighting, the sabers were simply a nuisance. They jingled abominably, were difficult to keep sharp in metal scabbards, and when a soldier was "close enough on an Indian to use a saber," it was about even "as to which goes under first."

Civil War Dragoons
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US Dragoons during Mexican-American War

(About) In H. Charles McBarron’s 1945 watercolor/gouache on illustration board, Remember Your Regiment, a squadron of the 2d Dragoons led by Captain Charles A. May slashes its way through the Mexican lines during the American victory at Resaca de la Palma, 9 May 1846. Army Art Collection.

Besides dragoons, there were also mounted riflemen. The United States Army organized a regiment of mounted riflemen in 1845, for defense of forts along the Oregon Trail. This regiment fought in the Mexican War and then was later assigned to duties in the far West.

The difference between mounted riflemen and dragoons was in their weaponry. Dragoons were armed with carbines, sabers, and pistols. Mounted riflemen had no sabers and had, as the name implied-rifles.

The U.S. Army organized two cavalry regiments in 1855, so by the late 1850s, the army had two regiments of dragoons, one regiment of mounted riflemen, and two regiments of light cavalry. To simplify matters, in 1861, all of the mounted regiments were redesignated or renamed cavalry.

The differences? Cavalry of the 1860s was more of a reconnaissance or a screening force and was considered the eyes and ears of the army. Commanding generals relied on cavalry to know the enemy's troop strength and movements. While cavalry did most of their fighting on horseback, dragoons, on the other hand, did most of their fighting dismounted. The horses provided them with mobility but for the most part they dismounted when they went into action, using their carbines or musketoons. However, they were armed with sabers and thus were trained to fight both mounted and dismounted.


US Dragoons charging headlong into battle
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US Dragoons slashing through the Mexican line during Mexican War

On March 2, 1833, acting on a measure presented by Richard Johnson, Congress created the United States Regiment of Dragoons. With the creation of this unit, the U.S. Cavalry was born.

The size of the U.S. Regiment of Dragoons was fixed by Congress, at 34 officers and 1,715 men. Henry Dodge was appointed the colonel in command. Other noteworthy officers were Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny, Captain Edwin V. Sumner, First Lieutenant Philip St. George Cooke, and Second Lieutenant Jefferson Davis.

For the Mexican War it was clear that the U.S. needed more mounted troops: the distances in Mexico were so great. There was some expansion in the Regulars, but many of the units were volunteers that were dissolved at the end of the war. In 1850 the Federal government followed suit. Only two Dragoon regiments and one regiment of Mounted Riflemen (created in 1846) survived the government postwar reductions. But five years later, on March 3, 1855, Congress authorized the raising of two regiments of horse. These were needed to handle the expanding western frontier, especially as settlers pushed more and more against the Indians.

The 1st and 2nd U.S. Cavalry were the first regular American military organizations to bear the title of "cavalry". It was rumored among the Dragoons and Mounted Riflemen that Secretary of War Jefferson Davis purposely received this special designation to enable him to appoint many of his Southern friends while disregarding seniority among the older mounted units. Whether this rumor was true or not, the disproportionate number of Southern officers in the new units would definitely affect the forming of the Union cavalry in the Civil War six years later.

The 1st Cavalry was assembled at Fort Leavenworth and commanded by Colonel Edwin V. Sumner. Five of his officers were later to play a significant role in the Civil War: Lt. Col. Joseph E. Johnston, Maj. John Sedgwick, Maj. William H. Emory, Capt. George B. McClellan, and Lt. J. E. B. Stuart.

The 2nd Cavalry was trained at Jefferson Barracks. Albert Sidney Johnston was the Colonel, and some of his officers were: Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, Maj. William J. Hardee, Maj. George H. Thomas, Captains Earl Van Dorn, George Stoneman, Edmund Kirby Smith, Lieutenants John Bell Hood, and Fitzhugh Lee. The 2nd was nicknamed 'Jeff Davis's Own,' and over the next four years clashed with hostiles nearly forty times. The regiment's most successful sorties were directed by its senior captain, Brev. Maj. Earl Van Dorn.

At the onset of the Civil War in 1861, there were five regiments of U.S. cavalry: the 1st and 2nd Dragoons, the 1st Mounted Rifles, and the 1st and 2nd Cavalry. Shortly after the 3rd Cavalry was organized in 1861, all the regiments were renumbered from one to six and the twelve troops organization adopted.

Out of the 176 officers of the five original regiments, 104 cast their lot with their native Southern states when the Civil War broke. As a result of this, not only did the Union cavalry have many green and untested troops, their officers were inexperienced too. In contrast, the Confederate cavalry had more experienced leadership which contributed to several years of battlefield superiority.

The model 1840 heavy dragoon saber was manufactured by N.P. Ames in Springfield, Massachusetts, although many were made in Prussia. Blades were slightly less than 36 inches long and about 11/4 inches wide, and the saber knot was lightweight white buff leather at 1 inch wide and 18 inches long over-all.
For centuries the arm considered most essential to cavalry had been the saber. Oddly enough, the U.S. Army, from its beginning, rarely saw fit to emphasize the training of its mounted men enough to make them sufficiently proficient with the saber to be deadly swordsmen in battle. Of course there were saber exercises in the dragoon and mounted riflemen regiments, but these were hardly on a level with the training European cavalrymen experienced. In spite of the general disenchantment with the saber as an effective cavalry weapon, all the mounted units of the US Army, from the Continental Dragoons to the modern cavalry , were armed with one type of saber or another, until that weapon was finally discontinued as a cavalry weapon in 1934.
The 1840 saber had the nickname of "Old Wristbreaker" because it was fairly easy for the soldier to break his wrist in combat if he held the saber wrong, The proper way to hold the saber was inverted and away from your body. Sabers were not sharpened because they were intended to be a thrusting weapon not a slashing weapon. The saber was used exclusively from horseback in close combat. The saber knot would be used as a strap and wrapped around the wrist to prevent the saber from being lost if it should be dropped in battle.

Confederate Dragoon
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Confederate Soldier with Baby Colt Dragoon revolver and D-guard Bowie knife

Union Dragoon
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Union cavalryman with Colt Dragoon revolvers and sword

Two flintlock pistols issued to the dragoons and carried in a saddle holster were the S. North Model 1819 army flintlock pistol and the Johnson Model 1836 army flintlock pistol. Both were .54 caliber pistols; both were smoothbores with brass sights and pans and iron mounts. The North had a 10 inch round smoothbore, while the Johnson had an 8.5 inch smoothbore. Both had a swivel ramrod which prevented the dragoon from dropping the ramrod when reloading on horseback.
The US Model 1842 percussion pistol was issued to all dragoon units by 1845 and by the late 1840s some of the dragoons may have been issued Walker-Colt revolvers pictured above on the right. The Colt revolver eventually replaced all of the older "horse pistols" and was issued to all dragoons and mounted riflemen. (The mounted riflemen were formed in the late 1840s to patrol the Oregon Trail.)
The flintlock system of ignition was not replaced by the percussion lock until about 1845 on dragoon pistols, in spite of the fact that the dragoons were armed the first year with the very first percussion firearm to be adopted by the US Army - the Hall breech-loading carbine.
Dragoons, until late in the Mexican War, used single shot pistols, when a few may have been issued Colt revolvers. It is a fact though, that at least part of the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen received Colt revolvers in 1847.

Tracking the Federals
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Confederate Cavalry Tracking Union Soldiers

The US Model 1833 Hall carbine made by S. North in Middletown, Connecticut was the first breech-loading rifle to be used in the United States mounted service. It was a smooth bore weapon and was a .58-caliber. The barrel is 26.125 inches in length, and all metal parts were browned with a lacquer finish for protection. Made specifically to arm the Regiment of Dragoons authorized in 1833, it was fitted with a sliding bayonet.
In 1836 Hall, at Harpers Ferry, brought out a somewhat heavier carbine that was made up with rifle components. Also a percussion arm, it had the rifle’s offset sights that have misled many into considering the arm a conversion from an original flint lock carbine. Barrel length was 23 inches long, with a rod-bayonet.
Beginning in 1840, Simeon North delivered Model 1840 carbines, which were characterized by an improved opening device (either an elbow lever or fishtail lever), and a 21-inch barrel with a conventional rod, which was used for cleaning the bore. In 1843 North brought out the most common of the Hall models, the Model 1843 side-lever carbine, still with the 21-inch barrel and rod.
To complete the tally, there was the Model 1842 carbine made at Harpers Ferry which can be recognized by its brass fittings; butt plate, trigger guard, and barrel bands. It had a fishtail opening lever similar to North’s Model 1840 fishtail-lever arm. All carbines were delivered to the government as smoothbore weapons; later, during the Civil War, many carbines of all models were rifled.

In 1861 the two existing U.S. Dragoon regiments were redesignated as the 1st and 2nd Cavalry. This reorganization did not affect their role or equipment, although the traditional orange uniform braiding of the dragoons was replaced by the standard yellow of the Cavalry branch. This marked the official end of dragoons in the U.S. Army, although certain modern units trace their origins back to the historic dragoon regiments.
Although dragoons were replaced by cavalry, mounted infantrymen would serve and fight like dragoons during the Civil War (1861-1865). While mounted infantry fought while dismounted, one soldier was responsible for securing four horses during battle, allowing three dismounted infantrymen to engage the enemy with an assortment of rifles.
While Union cavalry of the Civil War was armed with rifles and sabers, the 1860s also focused on more rapid firing small arms, and the exchanging of the ceremonial sabers for two or more pistols for additional firepower. Cavalry would evolve into a strike force with the capability of unleashing quick, devastating blows against the enemy. The troopers beyond the 1860s, particularly during the Indian wars, consisted of many veteran cavalrymen of the Civil War, who were skilled rifleman and pistoliers, and they could unleash an unprecedented rate of fire. New inventions and technology from the 1870s to 1890s, meant that cavalry would engage the enemy under the fighting principles of "distance and shielding."

With the invention of "smokeless powder" in the 1880s, U.S. cavalry abandoned "black powder" and adopted tactics to fully utilize the new invention. While black powder produced a smoke cloud obscuring the rifleman's view, it exposed the position of even the best sniper. With smokeless powder, troopers could dismount and fully appreciate greater distances without compromising their position. Shielding, which optimized stealth, allowed the trooper to dismount and engage the enemy from a ridge or behind a tree. Smokeless powder would cause major changes in the role and tactics of U.S. cavalry.

See also

Sources: Fort Scott National Historic Site; Steffen, Randy. The Horse Soldier, 1776-1943, Vol. 1,  University of Oklahoma Press, 1977; National Park Service; Library of Congress; National Archives; Arms and Equipment of the Civil War, Coggins, Jack, Doubleday & Company, New York 1962; The United States Cavalry; An Illustrated History, Urwin, Gregory J. W., Blandford Press, Poole Dorset, 1983; The Cavalry, Part IV, A photographic History of the Civil War, Miller, Francis Trevelyan, Castle Books, New York, 1957.


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