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The McClellan Military Saddle

As has been recounted in numerous other works, George B. McClellan developed this saddle over a number of years. This saddle has its beginnings in the Crimean War, where Capt. McClellan was sent, like many officers, to observe the activities of the combatants. During this time it is surmised that he was able to observe, and perhaps test for himself, a great variety of foreign military equipment. This seems to have been the case, as he was spurred to suggest a wide range of changes to the equipment then in use by the U.S. Army.

For the first time, the U.S. Army (pushed by the dynamic and capable Secretary of War Jefferson Davis) was conducting 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 testing. This was particularly true of the newly formed cavalry regiments. 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.

In the evaluation of saddles, there were quite a number of styles tested. The Jones adjustable tree saddle, the Hope, the standard service Grimsley, the flexible Campbell, and the new style offered by Capt. McClellan. In the evaluation of these saddles, it was no doubt difficult to choose a positively superior saddle, as all of these saddles (except perhaps the Jones) had their vociferous supporters. Style and habitual preference would have had as much to do with the decision-making as with the suitability of the saddle for military service.

What would be the deciding factors in saddle selection then? It is rather difficult to say, unless it is made clear that the military of the 19th century had almost nothing in common with the current military purchasing structures, where cost may be a minor concern. In the end, it became apparent that cost cutting, in addition to serviceability, were the deciding factors in the adoption of the McClellan saddle. Indeed, budget "frugality" is reflected throughout the life of the McClellan saddle, and was the main reason for its longevity. It was recommended for replacement a number of times - with all recommendations failing in the face of huge stockpiles of saddles from the Civil War, and later, from WWI contracts.

Examination of the 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 Hope 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. The one undesirable feature would appear to have been the "horn" of the saddle. This would have been a detrimental addition to the military saddle, as the wide cap would have made the use of the common saddle roll method of packing equipment on the pommel very awkward. On Hope trees, it has been noticed that the horn cap is a separate piece, and therefore would lack the strength of many other types of "horned" saddles that were common at this time.

In examining the reasons for the discontinuance of the Grimsley saddle, and the non-acceptance of the Campbell (flexible) saddle, cost would have been a deciding factor. The Grimsley is known to have been an expensive, although excellent, saddle. Its construction shows a product that used a significant 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. Design complexity also increased the labor costs involved in producing these saddles. The McClellan, on the other hand, was a much simpler and stronger design. In its first incarnation, the Model 1857 trial saddle, it resembled the Grimsley and Campbell saddles to some degree. Rather innovative steps were taken, however, to gain some advantage over these other styles.

There is a slew of 'stories' about the McClellan saddle design and how it came about. Most are pure mythology, with nothing more than supposition and poor scholarship by a wide variety of authors. Indeed, the mythology of the McClellan is like much historical information that is just passed off as fact and repeated (sometimes inaccurately) until the oddest things are accepted at face value.











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1931 Whiting