The Horse Cavalry in the United States

by retired LTC Allan B. Bluestone

In spite of a periodic call to bring back the cavalry, this quote made at the beginning of World War II by GEN Adna Chaffee still applies today: “It is often said, and it may be true in the abstract, that the principles of war do not change. It is nevertheless absolutely true that methods do change and are constantly changing. We may study the great captains of the past to learn of their principles and, above all their character, but do not let us be tied too much to their methods. For methods change with every change of armament and equipment.”1

The term cavalry was applied to that branch of military service whose members served and fought on horseback; the word horse was used almost as often and meant essentially the same thing.

Revolutionary War

At the time of the Revolutionary War, there were three types of mounted commands. These included the heavy cavalry (cuirassiers), used primarily for shock effect; light cavalry (hussars), used primarily for reconnaissance, screening and liaison missions; and the dragoons, trained to fight on horseback and on foot. The traditional cavalryman in the U.S. Army has been the light dragoon – a soldier trained and equipped to fight mounted or dismounted, to perform screening and reconnaissance and to act as a scout.

In the beginning of the American Revolution, the Continental Army was composed of infantry with very little artillery and even less cavalry. GEN George Washington’s early experience at war (the Braddock campaign of 1775) had given him no cavalry experience, and at first, he did not comprehend its value. Although the horses, horsemen and forage were there, the fledgling mounted service was not properly used until the southern campaigns near the end of the war. One of the earliest mounted-militia commands available for service was the Light Horse of Philadelphia,2 which was organized in November 1774.

Washington’s experience in the summer of 1776 with this command, and other volunteer horse units, caused him to realize the value of cavalry. He recommended to Congress that one or more mounted units be established in the Continental Army.

A regiment of light dragoons was formed Dec. 12, 1776, with Elisha Sheldon of Connecticut appointed as its commander. Congress authorized 3,000 light dragoons Dec. 27, 1776, and, during Winter 1777, the Army set about organizing four regiments. Constant difficulties in recruiting men and in procuring horses and arms kept the four regiments from ever reaching full strength.

Outstanding cavalry leaders of the time included Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, father of GEN Robert E. Lee; William Washington; Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox”; Thomas Sumter; Charles Armand; and Count Casmir Pulaski, who, by virtue of his appointment as “Commander of the Horse” in September 1778, is often referred to as the first chief of cavalry in the U.S. Army.

When the revolution came to an end in 1783, what was left of the Continental Cavalry was discharged. During the next 50 years, the cavalry existed in the Regular Army only for brief periods in small units.

Indian wars

Only twice during the War of 1812 did American mounted troops play an important part, and both times it was the Kentucky and Tennessee mounted militia. Despite arguments in Army circles for a small mounted force, Congress stood firm in its dedication to economy and a minimum standing army. There was no mounted arm again until 1832, when it was revived for the Black Hawk War on the Western Frontier. The frontier had pushed westward to the Great Plains, and the warlike Indians of that area made use of cavalry a necessity.

To meet the need, Congress authorized a battalion of “Mounted Rangers.” Henry Dodge of Michigan was appointed major, and among its captains was Nathan Boone, son of Daniel Boone.

In 1833, Congress increased the “Mounted Rangers” to a regiment to be called 1st Dragoons. Serving as lieutenants were Jefferson Davis, later president of the Confederacy, and Philip St. George Cooke, later recognized as the “grand old man of cavalry.” The first five companies were organized at Jefferson Barracks, MO, and then moved to Fort Gibson, OK, in December 1833.

In June 1834, 1st Dragoons set out on what was to be a friendly visit to the Indians in the immediate west, the first of many mounted military expeditions into the plains. Disaster struck in the form of heat, bad water and fever. When the dragoons finally returned to Fort Gibson, more than one-third of the men were dead.

Meanwhile, the Seminole Indians in Florida were causing serious trouble, and in 1835, a force commanded by MG Winfield Scott was sent to subdue them. In 1836 he requested that cavalry be added to his command. Therefore Congress authorized a second regiment of dragoons May 23, 1836. In October 1837, they moved to Florida and saw much action.

At the end of the Seminole War, the Army was once again reduced, and the dragoons were cut to one regiment.

In 1844, under pressure from the frontier states, 2nd Dragoons were reactivated and, in 1845, were sent to Texas to join BG Zachary Taylor. As Texas was admitted to the Union in the spring of that year, war with Mexico could not be avoided. The Army was further expanded and, of the 10 new regiments, one was designated 3rd Regiment of Dragoons.

While most of the Army under Scott and Taylor were fighting in Mexico, the commands of COL Stephen Kearny and CPT John Fremont were securing California and New Mexico for the United States.

When the war with Mexico ended, the usual post-war reduction of the Army began. By 1853, the Army, consisting of four artillery, eight infantry and three cavalry regiments, was thinly distributed over a greatly expanded country. Seldom more than two cavalry troops were stationed together; it was impossible to adequately cover this enormous territory with available troops. Several chains of forts were established, where infantry detachments usually did the housekeeping and cavalry troops were a mobile striking force. This was still not enough, and it took Congress seven years, until 1855, to realize it.

The 1st and 2nd Calvary were created in March 1855, contrary to the Secretary of War’s recommendation that all mounted services be organized under one arm. The Army then had dragoons, mounted riflemen and cavalrymen.

During this period, the Army’s main occupation was putting down the uprisings of various Indian tribes. In addition, the Army explored and surveyed the hostile country.

Civil War

When open warfare broke in the Kansas Territory between slavery and anti-slavery elements, nearly all 1st Cavalry and 2nd Dragoons were sent to keep the peace. For the moment, they succeeded. Soon afterward, the same underlying pressures exploded throughout the country and put the Army – and the rest of the nation – through the agony of a four-year-long civil war.

The American Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, produced the next major development in cavalry tactics. Several factors contributed to the lack of effective employment in the opening stages of the war. First, the five Regular Army regiments were scattered across the breadth of the land. Second, many officers resigned from the Army and joined the Confederacy, including four of the five regimental commanders. Most important, however, was the fact that military leaders of the day neither valued nor understood the potential of the horse regiments.

The cavalrymen of the plains had long since learned the futility of a saber charge against infantry equipped with new breech-loading rifles. However, Scott, who had become commanding general of the Army, and others in Washington still thought this was the best way to use cavalry. In addition, they could not see how mounted soldiers could be used in broken and wooded areas. Fortunately, this view did not prevail. By the time the war ended, 272 regiments and 45 separate battalions of cavalry served in the Union Army. Among these hundreds of units, only one regiment was added to the Regular Army, bringing the total to six mounted regiments.

In August 1861, all six mounted regiments were redesignated cavalry and numbered one through six in order of their dates of formation. Their mission was light cavalry.

At the beginning of the war, the Southern states had advantages over the Northern states. For example, most of the experienced officers of the mounted regiments were Southerners. Among these – all of whom were soon to become generals in the Confederate Army – were Robert E. Lee, Albert Johnston, Earl Van Dorn, Dabney Maury, Joseph Wheeler, John Bell Hood and, the most flamboyant of all, James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, commanding the Calvary Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.3

On the Union side, the cavalry units were assigned to infantry divisions and were frittered away as escorts and guards, and other such menial details. However, 1863 proved to be the turning point for Union cavalry. In January, MG Joseph Hooker, commander of the Army of the Potomac, authorized the formation of a cavalry corps. Later that same year, a Calvary Bureau was established. By this time, the Union cavalry had gained the experience, organization, weapons and the remount service it needed. From that time on, its superiority grew steadily under the leadership of MG Philip Sheridan (in the opinion of many, the best cavalry leader on either side), and the cavalry corps became an effective force.

The second best cavalryman in the Union Army was MG James H. Wilson. In March 1865, Wilson made his famous raid through Alabama and Georgia, sweeping away all opposition. It was the longest and largest cavalry march of the war.

Post-Civil War

At the end of the Civil War, things were in bad shape along the Western Frontier. The Indians had taken full advantage of the nation’s preoccupation with the war and were reclaiming territory and massacring settlers. While the volunteer part of the Union Army was being disbanded, Congress increased the Regular Army, bringing to 10 the total of cavalry regiments. These units were desperately needed to get the frontier back under control.

In the period of 1865 to 1890, there was fighting every year, and 11 distinct Indian wars were fought. The most famous and disastrous battle of this era was fought by George Custer June 25, 1876, near the Little Big Horn River in Montana. Popularly known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” it was during this engagement that 7th Calvary lost half its men to a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.

In 1882, the troops of the 10 cavalry regiments were spread out among 55 posts in Indian country. With the forces so dispersed, it was impossible to train major units. However, this liability was recognized, and in the early 1880s, steps were taken to provide intensified training.

The School of Application for Infantry and Calvary was founded in 1881 (the forerunner of today’s Command and General Staff College) at Fort Leavenworth, KS. Here student officers came to improve their professional knowledge. In 1887, funds were provided to establish the Calvary and Light Artillery School, where complete regimental troops and batteries could be trained, as well as recruits, before they reported to their units.

An improvement in troop distribution was made in the late 1880s. One by one, the Indian tribes stopped fighting, and the railroad pushed farther and farther into the former wilderness, so larger concentrations of troops at fewer posts was possible.

The last Indian battle of any consequence was fought in Winter 1890-91 when cavalry battled the Sioux at Wounded Knee Creek in southwestern South Dakota. This marked the end of the Indian wars and the end of the American frontier. The buffalo were gone, the transcontinental railroad was completed, and most of the open ranges had disappeared. The following few years proved to be comparatively quiet for the cavalry.

Turn of the century

The next real fighting came in 1898, when the United States intervened between Cuba and Spain. The issue at hand was Spain’s refusal to grant independence to Cuba. The first important battle of the war took place in the Philippines, another Spanish possession.

Once again the cavalry, as well as the rest of the Regular Army, was not prepared for war. With fewer than 27,000 enlisted men, the Army had to be strengthened. Volunteer units organized from the nation at large augmented the regular force. They were the 1st, 2nd and 3rd U.S. Volunteer Cavalry.

Of these, only the 1st Volunteer Cavalry (Rough Riders), led by COL Leonard Wood and LTC Theodore Roosevelt, saw action. They served dismounted in Cuba from June 22-Aug. 8, 1898, and were mustered out of service on Sept. 15 that year.

At the same time, a small force had been sent to Puerto Rico, and a larger force of 10,000 men departed for the Philippines to take over from Commodore George Dewey, who had defeated the Spanish fleet. Initially this force contained no cavalry, but shortly after its arrival, cavalry was requested. Most of the 4th Cavalry arrived in Autumn 1899. By June 1901, there were eight regular cavalry regiments in the Philippine Islands.

The war with Spain was over in December 1898, but by early 1899, Filipino insurgents had turned on the Americans. No sooner had the Christian insurgents been put down when the Moslem Moros of the southern islands rebelled. CPT John J. Pershing was one of the officers who led a successful expedition into Moro country, which finally helped bring peace.

Two squadrons of 6th Cavalry formed part of the American forces sent to Peking, China, in 1900 to put down the Boxer Rebellion. They joined with troops from seven other nations to relieve the besieged legations.

From 1900 to 1910, the Army settled down to a pleasant routine of garrison life. This was the time when new theories of cavalry organization and employment could be tested and analyzed. Plans were made to concentrate larger forces at fewer posts near centers of population. New drill maneuvers were written and tactics were looked at with an eye to possible future foreign entanglements.

In 1910 the government of Mexico was overthrown. The cavalry and a large part of the Regular Army were sent to the Mexican border. President Woodrow Wilson had been trying to handle the Mexican situation with patience, but things came to a head March 8, 1916, when the Mexican bandit Francisco “Poncho” Villa crossed the border and attacked Columbus, NM.

A punitive expedition was organized under the command of then-BG Pershing. He marched across the Mexican border March 15 to find and kill Villa. This expedition was principally a horse-cavalry action, the last in American history.

One of the innovations introduced during this campaign was use of the motor truck as a supply vehicle. Although many mechanical failures occurred, those with vision could see the obvious advantage of the gasoline engine. Among them was LT George S. Patton, a cavalry officer with Pershing’s force.

Pershing, getting no cooperation from local authorities and not able to catch Villa, withdrew his force and recrossed the border in February 1917.

World War I

Meanwhile, in June 1916, Congress passed the National Defense Act, which established a definite military policy. As part of this act, the cavalry was increased from 15 to 25 regiments. Before this could be completely implemented, we entered World War I with the cavalry numbering 17 regiments.

At this time, trench warfare – with its barbed wire, machineguns and heavy fortifications – had produced a stalemate on the Western European Front. Time after time, the Germans and the Allies tried to break the deadlock and sent crushing artillery barrages and waves of infantry at each other. What was needed was the role traditionally assigned to the cavalry – mobility and shock action – but the trenches and machineguns made use of horses impractical. Only one regiment, 2nd Cavalry, went overseas, and only a small portion of them saw any mounted action. The rest of them were used as infantry.

After the armistice, most of 2nd Cavalry was stationed on the Rhine as part of the occupation force.

At home, there remained the ever-present danger of a resentful Mexico. Still seething from what they considered violations of their territory by the Pershing expedition, the various Mexican factions were always ready to band together against the “gringos.” German agents in Mexico did all they could to encourage these feelings of resentment and bring about another front, so the bulk of our cavalry sat out the war, watching the Mexican border and that potentially dangerous situation.

End of the tradition

In spite of the small part played by the cavalry in Western Europe, all the principal generals of the conflict – including Allenby, Haig, Ludendorff and Petain – were very vocal in stating their belief that cavalry was necessary for a mobile war. Of course they were right, but they were still looking backward, trying to fit a remnant from the past (the horse) into a future requiring new hardware (the tank). The mission hadn’t changed, but the tools and methods to accomplish it had changed.

After the war, the inevitable round of reductions in strength took place. The cavalry regiments were reduced to 14 and placed on half-strength. Many cavalry officers were assigned to help train the National Guard, where they popularized good horsemanship and the mounted sports.

The mounted cavalry made its last appearance in strength during the Louisiana Maneuvers in Fall-Winter 1940-41, in which two regular cavalry divisions and 56th Brigade of the Texas National Guard took place.

After the start of World War II, the Army moved swiftly to convert all remaining horse units to mechanized units. The 2nd Cavalry was deactivated, and 1st Cavalry was sent (without horses) to the Pacific to fight as regular infantry.

The last horse-cavalry unit to fight mounted was 26th Cavalry Regiment (Philippine Scouts). GEN Jonathan Wainwright used them to cover the retreat of his units to Bataan. After suffering heavy losses, they were forced to destroy their horses and fight on foot.

The cavalry’s death notice came four years later. As part of a general reorganization of the Army, remaining cavalry units and individuals were merged with armored forces April 4, 1946. The cavalry disappeared as a separate armed service.

About the author

Retired LTC Allan Bluestone’s military service included various command and staff positions in the continental United States and Europe, including 85th Division (Training) and 714th Tank Battalion, Schweinfurt, Germany. He attended the Armor School at Fort Knox, KY, and the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. He received a bachelor’s of arts degree from the University of Illinois.


1 Armor-Cavalry, Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, Army Lineage Series, 1972.

2 Still active in the Army National Guard as Troop A, 1st Squadron, 223rd Cavalry (First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry).

3 Stuart was married to Flora Cooke, the daughter of Philip St. George Cooke, who remained loyal to the Union. One can only speculate about the “interesting” family dinners they might have had.

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