Major General George B. McClellan, inventor of the McClellan military saddle
In the mid-1850s Jefferson Davis, a dynamic and capable Secretary of War, began planning a number of trial evaluations with the purpose of determining the most efficient and practical equipment for its mounted troops through the use of large scale field testing.
The recently formed 1st US Cavalry Regiment was to be the test bed for many of these equipments and weapons.
Equipment was acquired in sufficient numbers to allow two to three cavalry squadrons – about 250 to 300 troopers – to subject each pattern to the most rigorous conditions that early frontier service had to offer.
Designs were selected for testing that showed a mix of tradition vs. innovation. The Campbell ‘ flexible tree’ saddle attempted to use spring steel arches to impart a form-fitting function into a saddle. Specially designed accoutrements were a feature of this one. In general appearance, it is likely that these looked very similar to the Grimsley, where the major visual difference was the oval cantle edge.
There was a Jones saddle, which used a metal frame with adjustable ‘ turnbuckle’ type adjustment hardware to achieve a variable fit tree. These is some speculation that these may have never actually been manufactured, though the 1856 report to the Secretary of War claims that these were in the process of being made.
An interesting addition to this list of unusual patented designs was the consideration of a truly historic frontier saddle design. This style was popular for much of the 19th century, with clearly identifiable examples from the Mexican War all the way through the turn of the century. Perhaps one of the major reasons for this choice was that one of the very earliest examples that is still extent was actually Jefferson Davis’ personal saddle, used during his time as the commander of the famed Mississippi Rifles regiment. In the text of the reports, this is called a “Hope” saddle. This is a very specific name, associated with a particular Texas saddle maker, however the name ‘ Hope’ is merely one of a number of names that have been used for this style. It was much more commonly called a ‘Texas’ saddle, occasionally modified to ‘Texican’ .
This Texas saddle was extremely popular and prized for its very light, strong yet inherently compromised construction. The pommel was usually made in two halves, with a wooden horn nailed to the top – covered with rawhide in the fashion of many American saddles coming from the Spanish/Mexican tradition. Definitely NOT a roping saddle.
Unlike most every Texas-Ranger-Hope saddle of this time, the evaluation saddles provided to the 1st Cavalry Reg. were completely covered with black leather.
Into this mix a young engineering captain, recently assigned to the regiment after a tour as an observer of the Crimean War, injected himself into the fray. Capt George B. McClellan had been involved in an exchange of correspondence with the Secretary of War in an attempt to bring about the integration of Russian cavalry practices. He was requested by the Secretary to present an example of an improved saddle design, and did so. McClellan claimed that he would use features of a Hungarian design, combined with some features of other European equipment he had reported on, though when his design model was actually submitted, he made no similar claims.
There has been much speculation as to the veracity of McClellan’ s claims, with some outright mocking his correspondence nothing much more than marketing for his design, which they say was essentially a modified Mexican/Spanish/rawhide frontier style. The McClellan did take some of the features of the existing western saddles, namely a low, oval cantle shape, and relatively heavy wooden components. American frontier designs did not, as a general rule, use metal reinforcement pieces, which might be a takeaway from the Hungarian design.
The whole issue of what design he drew from most is rather pointless navel-gazing. It was similar to, and drew individual details from, many existing types. McClellan developed a unique synthesis of all these elements. Little considered is the input he may have utilized from the saddlers at Lacey & Philips, in Philadelphia, who actually constructed his trial submission saddle.
McClellan’ s design was approved for the trial by a board of distinguished officers in Feb 1857, and several hundred saddles were made and sent out to the new cavalry regiment for use. Minor alterations were made including the addition of four saddlerings, a carbine loop, and the removal of stirrup hoods, sweat leathers and breaststrap.
What would be the deciding factors in saddle selection then? It is rather difficult to say, however in the end, it became apparent that cost cutting, in addition to serviceability, were the deciding factors in the adoption of the McClellan saddle. Budget frugality is reflected throughout the life of the McClellan saddle, and was the main reason for its longevity. It was recommended for replacement any number of times – with all recommendations failing in the face of huge stockpiles of saddles remaining from wartime contracts.
Examination of the Texas/Ranger/Hope saddle reveals that it had most of the prerequisites for a contender in this sort of competition. It had been in wide use since before the Mexican War, and was quite popular with military officers. Indeed, the T/R/H may be considered as the only close competition that the McClellan design had. Its rawhide cover gave great strength to the tree, while the leather cover (of the field trial version) would have contributed to the longevity and serviceability of the saddle.
In examining the reasons for the discontinuance of the Grimsley saddle, and the non-acceptance of the Campbell (flexible) saddle, cost likely would have been a deciding factor. The Grimsley is known to have been an excellent and expensive saddle. Its construction shows a product that used a substantial amount of leather and brass fixtures (increasing its weight and cost). The Campbell was very similar to the Grimsley, and despite later changes, the saddle still retained some of the same “problems” of the Grimsley. Both had numerous and sometimes complicated accessories (especially the Campbell) which would have only driven the cost up, as well as increasing the risk of unserviceable equipment in the field. In regards to the Campbell, if it actually retained the ‘ flexible tree’ design with metallic hinges, we can safely assume that this feature did not survive the trial with any success.
Throughout this series of articles we will look at the many variations of the McClellan military saddle, it’s continuing evolution in response to hard military service. Used throughout the world, the McClellan is one of the most popular and enduring military saddle designs ever created.