Monday, March 23, 2009

Cavalry, Dragoons and Light Dragoons Pt. II

To continue with our discussion of below...

Okay, now move forward 20 years, with the formation of the new Regiment of Dragoons for the US Army (under legislation submitted by none other than Richard Mentor Johnson, Representative for Kentucky). Although they were officially always referred to as "Dragoons", there is a constant unofficial reference to them as "Light Dragoons", and this is also to be seen in their uniforms, arms and accoutrements. The dress uniform of the US Dragoons was almost a line-for-line copy of the British Light Dragoons (as opposed to the "Heavies"), and in the "stable dress" of the American Dragoon it was even closer a match. They even copied the saber issued to British troops, as the US Model 1833 Dragoon Saber is almost identical, with the exception of the hilt being of brass rather than of iron, to the British Pattern 1822 Light Cavalry Saber. The only real difference between the two when you get down to it is that the US Dragoons were armed with a rather revolutionary new carbine, the Hall's Breech-loading Carbine Model 1833, while the British Light Dragoons were still being issued the older flintlock pattern dating from the Napoleonic Wars. This new Hall's Patent Carbine DID have one rather interesting aspect to it (other than the rather novel breech-loading apparatus), it had a cleaning-rod/bayonet arrangement fitted to the underside of the barrel. That it was awfully spindly suggests that it was only there for emergencies, and it didn't last past 1840, so I don't suspect that it was considered either successful nor particularly useful, or perhaps even needed. But it does suggest that there was SOME attempt to make the Dragoons serviceable on foot, so they weren't completely bound to their saddles.

Another regiment of Dragoons was formed in 1836, and bound for the Seminole War in Florida at that time. They got some horses, but spent much of their time dismounted. In fact, they were dismounted as a regiment in 1842 and "converted" to a Rifle Regiment. But that didn't last long as they were remounted some two years later, and never gave up their horses after that. But in 1846, on the verge of the Mexican War, Congress actually acknowleged that there may be some use for such troops as the Volunteer Mounted Rifles being raised in the Southern states as well as Texas, and authorized the formation of the Regiment of Mounted Rifles. Sadly this regiment during the war only had two of it's companies mounted, the rest of them were, in fact, a rifle regiment. To that effect, when Winfield Scott paraded into Mexico City after it's conquest by American troops in September of 1847, he refered to them as the "Brave Rifles!", a motto which they retain to this day.

Yet again however, we discover that these "Mounted Rifles", once they were actually issued horses for their service on the rapidly expanding Frontier, found themselves reticent to relinquish them for combat on foot, just as their ancestors had done in the years and centuries previous. Time after time we find the Mounted Rifles in combat with the local indiginous population of the Plains being mounted, rather than being some sort of Mounted Infantry. It's a curse.

In 1855, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis convinced Congress to authorise two new mounted regiments to help ease the burden that had fallen on the shoulders of the three older regiments in policing the Far West. Experiments in mounting up Infantry and issuing them revolvers and rifles were only marginally successful, as they usually ended up being mounted on either broken-down ex-Dragoon horses or mules, neither of which were known for being able to catch up with Indian ponies in a pursuit. But these new regiments were to be mounted on blooded Kentucky horses and armed with the latest weapons available, and so they were. In fact the 2nd Cavalry was so doted upon by the Secretary of War that they were referred to as "Jeff Davis' Pets". Not too far from the truth, with their Colonel being Albert Sidney Johnston and the Lt. Colonel being Robert E. Lee, both to rise fairly high in fame a few years later. These were raised specifically as CAVALRY though, with no thought at all to their having to dismount at all during combat.

When the Civil War did finally roll around, Congress actually took stock of the situation as it stood and made sense of it finally: ALL of the Mounted Regiments were converted in name, as well as function, to Cavalry. The First Dragoons as senior became the 1st Cavalry, the Second Dragoons became the 2nd Cavalry, the Mounted Rifles became the 3rd Cavalry, the First Cavalry became the 4th Cavalry, and the Second Cavalry became the 5th Cavalry. Congress, in a fit of generosity also provided for a 6th Regiment of Cavalry. Thus after all these years, name and actual function finally came together in one place, and all of the various US Mounted Regiments were designated Cavalry, as they had acted as from the beginning.

Of course the final irony of it all is that during the course of the American Civil War, mounted troops more and more began to act as true Dragoons and less as true Cavalry as they years went by. Frontal saber charges were noted to be singularly suicidal in the face of rifle-musket fire, while the mobility and extra firepower of mounted units, especially when armed with breechloaders such as the Sharps, or better yet magazine carbines such as the Spencer came into play. So finally, the US Dragoons and Mounted Rifles become Cavalry in name as well as function...only to become morphed into true Dragoons for the first time! Amazing stuff, this...

So next time you read someone pontificating about how the US Dragoons were "trained to fight on foot as well as on horseback" remember that yes, they WERE trained on foot before they were allowed to mount their horses. ALL horse troops were trained like that, and the US wasn't the vacuum that most writers think it was. But more, remember that the US Dragoons were in fact LIGHT DRAGOONS, and fought far, far more often from the hurricane deck of their mounts than they ever did on their own two feet. They were Light Dragoons, By God, not some sort of Mounted Infantry! Until the later years of the Civil War, that is...



1 comment:

Dario T. W. said...

if one would like to read about US Dragoons of the 1850s, recollections of a German immigrant and a Light Dragoon Hartman Lichtenhan are good place to start on the so called trooper level.
As per mounted rifles or mounted infantry circa 1860s against the mounted Amerindians, they did fare badly and came to untimely, rather violent end in the Fetterman Fight, but this was mostly due to the Army (from Grant, Sherman to the cavalryman Cooke) failing them completely on the account of supplies, horses, weapons and training.