ARMOR-CAVALRY: Part 1; Regular Army and Army Reserve/Revolutionary War

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  • At the time of the American Revolution, the term cavalry was applied to that branch of the military service whose members served and fought on horseback; the word horse was used about as often and meant essentially the same thing. By the eighteenth century specialization had developed sufficiently in cavalry to bring forth three distinctive types of mounted commands, varying in mission, armament, and weight of horses: the heavy cavalry, used primarily for shock effect in battle; the light cavalry, designed for reconnaissance, screening missions, and messenger service; and the dragoons, trained to fight both on foot and on horse. In actual practice, these distinctions were far from precise, and they tended to decrease in importance in the nineteenth century. In North America, the traditional cavalryman has ever 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 or messenger. True heavy and true light horse have been rare.
  • The Continental Army of the American Revolution was mainly composed of infantry, with very little artillery and cavalry. In 1774, on the eve of the Revolution, some colonies had volunteer mounted units of troop size, but these troops were as much social organizations as military commands. They had select memberships who elected their own officers, furnished their own horses, arms, and uniforms, and made their own regulations.
  • The Continental Army fought through 1775 and 1776 with a few of the mounted militia commands as its only cavalry. Outstanding among these organizations was the Light Horse of the City of Philadelphia, a troop organized in November 1774 and today still active in the Army National Guard as Troop A, 1st Squadron, 223d Cavalry (First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry). That tiny organization served as General Washington's escort in 1775 and in the bitter days of Trenton and Princeton, displaying then, as later in the war, "a Spirit of Bravery which will ever do Honor to them and will ever be gratefully remembered by me," to quote their Commander in Chief. Another such troop was the Connecticut Light Horse commanded by Elisha Sheldon. It, too, had elicited Washington's praise for its service in the summer of 1776.
  • General Washington's experience with cavalry in the summer campaign of 1776 led him to recommend the establishment of one or more mounted units in the Continental Army, and Congress on 12 December 1776 constituted a regiment of light dragoons and appointed Elisha Sheldon of Connecticut as its commander. Congress also authorized Washington to appoint the other officers of the regiment, but he delegated the duty to Sheldon, reserving for himself the right to refuse any officer so appointed if he thought him unfit for cavalry service. Washington indicated that he expected Sheldon to appoint only gentlemen of "true spirits and good character" and observed that gentlemen of fortune and of reputable families generally made the most useful officers.
  • In accordance with General Washington's instructions, the new regiment was to have, besides Sheldon as its lieutenant colonel commandant, one other field officer, a major; a regimental staff of an adjutant, a surgeon, and a surgeon's mate; and 6 troops. Each troop was to consist of a captain, a lieutenant, a cornet[1], a quartermaster, 2 sergeants, 2 corporals, a trumpeter, a farrier, and 34 privates.
  • On 27 December 1776, Congress authorized a total of 3,000 light horse. During the winter and the spring of 1777 the Army began organizing four regiments:
  1. the 1st Continental Light Dragoons (Bland's Horse),
  2. the 2d Continental Light Dragoons (Sheldon's Horse),
  3. the 3d Continental Light Dragoons (Baylor's Horse), and
  4. the 4th Continental Light Dragoons (Moylan's Horse).
  • In January 1777 Washington proposed a new plan of organization for the cavalry regiments. As approved by Congress on 14 March of the same year, the new organization called for a colonel, a lieutenant colonel, and a major as field officers; a chaplain, a regimental quartermaster, a surgeon, a surgeon's mate, a paymaster, a riding master, a saddler, a trumpeter major, an adjutant, and 4 supernumeraries on the staff; and a captain, a lieutenant, a cornet, a quartermaster sergeant, an orderly or drill sergeant, a trumpeter, a farrier, an armorer, 4 corporals, and 32 privates in each of the 6 troops.
  • Although Congress authorized an increase in the strength of the light dragoon regiments in 1778, constant difficulties in recruiting men, procuring horses, arms, and accouterments, and retaining the men once they enlisted kept the four regiments from ever reaching full strength. When Friedrich Wilhelm, Baron von Steuben, Inspector General of the Army, inspected the cavalry in 1780 he found only 1,000 men in all. In the same year Washington and Steuben therefore recommended that the four understrength cavalry regiments be converted to legions-organizations composed of both cavalry and infantry. To back up his recommendation, Washington cited the high cost of horses and forage and the need of mounted troops to work in conjunction with foot soldiers. Another factor influencing the organization of legions was the dragoons' limited firepower. The dragoons were armed with heavy sabers, flintlock pistols carried in saddle holsters, and, when they were available, carbines[2]. Because of the shortage of carbines, the dragoons lacked the protection of long-range firearms and thus were unable to defend their own camps during attacks. Infantrymen therefore had to be assigned to duty with the dragoons to protect them. Cavalry (and armor) throughout modern history have normally worked with infantry in battle. The legion as an organization thus seemed to be a logical solution to one of Washington's organizational problems.
  • Congress complied with Washington's recommendation on 21 October 1780, directing that a legion would consist of four troops of mounted dragoons and two companies of dismounted dragoons. The men of the dismounted companies were to be armed as light infantry.
  • The legionary organization was retained to the end of the war. Outstanding leaders of the legions included Henry (Light Horse Harry) Lee, William Washington, Charles Armand (the Marquis de la Rouerie), and Count Casimir Pulaski. Pulaski, by virtue of his appointment as "Commander of the Horse" in September 1777, is often referred to as the first Chief of Cavalry of the United States Army.
  • By 1780 the center of the war had shifted to the southern states, but large British commands remained in the north. The four, dragoon regiments were split between the areas. In the north, they never again saw service as regiments, but special commands drawn from them raided strongholds and supply lines in New York and Long Island. On 9 November 1782, the 1st and 3d Continental Light Dragoons, then in the south, were consolidated to form Baylor's Dragoons. And when the war ended the regiments that had served in the south together could muster less than two hundred men.
  • Other mounted organizations figured prominently in the war. In the south were the commands of Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, and Andrew Pickens. These partisan units were small organizations that operated independently and usually fought on foot, using their horses chiefly for transportation. Mounted frontiersmen were especially effective in the Battles of King's Mountain (October 1780) and Cowpens (January 1781) in the Carolinas. In the Battle of Guilford's Court House in March of 1781, Washington's dragoons and those of Henry Lee's legion fought mounted, Lee's dragoons having the first encounter with the enemy.
  • When the American Revolution came to an end in 1783, the remaining fragments of the Continental Cavalry were discharged. During the next fifty years mounted organizations existed in the Regular Army only for brief periods and then only as a very small part of the Army. The first such unit, a squadron of dragoons added in 1792, was broken up even before it was organized. Its four companies were assigned one each to the four sublegions that comprised the Legion of the United States. When that organization was abandoned in 1796, the Army returned to a regimental-type organization and the mounted portion was reduced to two companies. Two years later, when American relationships with France became strained, Congress authorized six new dragoon companies for service during the period of the differences between the two countries. The six new companies, together with the old ones, were to have formed a regiment of light dragoons, but for reasons of economy the new companies were never organized. Although the company officers were appointed, no enlisted dragoons were enrolled and no horses provided. In 1800 the two old companies were dismounted and two years later they, too, were disbanded.
  • For six years thereafter the Regular Army had no cavalry. From 1783 on, however, volunteer troops of horse existed in all the states. All volunteer militia organizations were recognized by the Militia Act of 1792. At least one mounted troop was authorized for each "division" of common militia infantry, but numerically the total cavalry was not to exceed one-eleventh of the infantry.
  • Mounted Kentucky militiamen figured prominently in General Anthony Wayne's victory over the Indians at Fallen Timbers in August 1794. There they helped drive the Indians from cover behind the fallen trees and into the open prairie where the Indians were at the mercy of the mounted soldiers.


  1. The rank of cornet was the lowest commissioned officer rank in the dragoons of the time. Cornet in the dragoons was the equivalent of ensign in the infantry. In 1799 both ranks were abolished in the Regular Army and replaced by that of second lieutenant. Cornet, as a rank, survives today in the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry of the National Guard.
  2. The carbine of that period was a short-barreled, smoothbore shoulder arm.

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