The Ringgold Military Saddle

The Ringgold dragoon saddle is a unique piece of gear in the history of early US mounted forces.  It set the design trend for American military horse equipment for well over 15 years, during watershed events such as the Mexican War, exploration of the far west, and the increased escalation of conflict with civilians and native american populations.  Given it’s very short lifespan in service, something like a year or two at the most, and the likelihood that most were expended in Mexico during that war – the artifacts remaining have a uniquely appealing character.  There are actually a number of specimens still in existence, which is somewhat astonishing considering that some issued US military saddles from much later periods are far rarer — a striking design purposefully made to look like a popular French saddle, yet uniquely American in its construction.  

The Ringgold horse equipments also represent the first mass-issued equipment set that was made to coherent Army specifications, whereas earlier gear was a bit of a mish-mash of common civilian gear, or slightly modified/customized versions of the same.   

Ringgold horse equipt. not yet sanctioned – March 1842.[1]
Capt. Samuel Ringgold, after returning from Florida service during the Seminole War, was tasked with founding the Light Artillery School at Carlisle Barracks, Penn.  This would have brought him into close association with the commander of Carlisle Barracks and the mounted services school, Capt. Edwin Vose Sumner.  The Ringgold saddle was in some manner  a collaborative effort with Capt. Sumner (see note to left).   

At the root of the story for the Ringgold horse equipment was the transfer of responsibility for horse equipment acquisition from the Commissary-General of Purchases to the Ordnance Dept. in February, 1841 (following the death of Commissary-General Calendar Irvine).   Almost as a natural reaction, there came an effort to make changes…

The horse equipment pattern of 1841, tried and specified in that year, was an apparent failure.  The new Chief of Ordnance, George Talcott, was still juggling changes and improvements with the primary contractor Fairbairn & Co. in the spring of 1842, even as Ringgold and Sumner were politicking for their new faux hussar specimen. [1]  From the middle of 1842 through 1843, military expenditures were slashed to the bone, and no new equipment was purchased.  Manpower of existing units was reduced by nearly a third in many cases, and the 2nd Dragoon Regiment was dismounted.  Official acceptance made and contracts let had to wait until funding was again made available in 1844.  

The Ringgold was an attempt to construct a very strong saddle, simple in use, that looked very much like the French hussar objet d’envie , yet without the pitfalls of the classic hussar saddle — a large collection of pieces and parts that occasionally comes together as a set of usable horse equipment, before the pieces start getting lost or destroyed.   The French were also moving away from that classic parts collection, with an integrated design that has an amazing resemblance to the Ringgold.[2]

By all accounts, the saddle was a loser from the start.  After a short hiatus as a ‘rifles’ regiment, the Second Dragoons were restored to horse-mounted status, and ordered to the Texas frontier after the annexation with the United States in 1845.  They were issued Ringgolds, which were generally considered to be a ‘miserable failure’.  The saddle may have been indirectly responsible for several dragoon deaths on that first march, as it sored horses backs causing the dragoons to walk, several dying from heat stroke as a result.[3] This tendency was the most common complaint with the Ringgold design.  The unfortunate death of Capt. Ringgold at the Battle of Palo Alto precluded any improvements to the design by it’s primary advocate.  This loss, and the declaration of war with Mexico allowed an enterprising St. Louis businessman to bring forward a replacement for the Ringgold.

Ringgold Saddle Patent
[4]
 You may view the Ringgold saddle patent here ( Patent via Google Patents ), where you will see the odd like figure at the right prominently displayed on the first page.  You will also see a rather well done line drawing of the actual saddletree itself.  The main ‘innovation’ of this patent was the use of morticed pommel and cantle pieces.  Ringgold’s comments throughout the application are straightforward and illustrate those points that concerned him most in the new design.

Ringgold Saddle US Patent 3779 - Saddletree
 UNITED STATES PATENT OFFICE
S. RINGGOLD, OF FORT MCHENRY, MARYLAND.

CONSTRUCTION OF SADDLES.

Specification of Letters Patent No. 3,779, dated October 7, 1844.

To all whom it may concern;
Be it known that I, SAMUEL RINGGOLD, major of the U. S. Army, at present station at Fort McHenry, near the city of Baltimore, State of Maryland, have invented a new and Improved Saddle-Tree, and that the following is a full-and exact description thereof, reference being had to the annexed drawings of the same, making part of this specification.

Figure l represents a perspective view of the saddle tree. Fig. 2 is a perspective view of one of the pieces forming the pommel, detached from the other piece. Fig. 3 is one of the pieces forming the cantle. Fig. 4 shows the manner of uniting the pieces of the cantle.

The saddle tree is composed of six pieces; that is to say, two side bars A A; two pieces B B forming the pommel, and two pieces C C forming the cantle. The side bars A A are constructed, so as to bear on the ribs of the horse, leaving the vertebra untouched and free; and to this end the bars are made of a convex form on the lower side. The two pieces forming the pommel, overlap and` interlock; and; are firmly riveted together, securing great strength; and the pieces are joined at such an angle and the arch of the pommel constructed in such mode as to leave the withers entirely free from any pressure of the said saddle tree. The two pieces forming the cantle are constructed in a similar manner. The pommel and cantle are respectively united to the bars by being overlapped, and firmly riveted together by copper or wire or other metallic pins or fastenings. The pieces composing the cantle and pommel are braced by metallic arches D D fastened on the outer sides thereof. The side bars A are extended beyond the pieces composing the pommel as at A2, A3 and are rounded off and shod with metallic plates V on top bent so as to unite with the cantle and pommel respectively. The pommel and cantle are perforated with oblong perforations E, E., for the insertion of straps to hold up the cloak and valise. The outer edges of the cantle and pommel are bound with thin plates of brass Gr.

To construct a military saddle and arrange the equipments appertaining thereto the side bars A A must be supplied with four rings I J K L behind-two I J to attach the crupper and horse-shoe pouches– two K L` for the nose bag, forage `cord &c. Also three rings in front M, N, O, two 1M for the breast strap and one N for the carbine socket. The rings are attached to the bars with iron or copper staples and with burrs or perforated plates or other suitable fastenings. The side bars in front of the pommel and behind the cantle are covered with sheet iron plates or other suitable material for strengthening the wood when the staples or rings are inserted as before stated. Staples P are inserted in the bars in front for the cloak and holster straps. Other staples are passed through the cantle to support the valise against it and prevent its touching the horses loins. An iron plate Q, is attached to each side bar to hold the girth straps. Mortises R are made in the side bars through which the stirrup leathers are passed, strengthened by plates of iron S secured to the pommel and affording a strong brace. The tree has a brass molding on the pommel and cantle to protect the wood of each. A small staple ‘I passes through the side bars to secure the stirrup leather in its place.

The seat of the tree is covered with webbing strongly stretched and over this raw horse hide-both firmly fixed to the tree with copper nails or other fastenings which secure the covering without liability to rest.

The flaps of leather extend sufficiently low to prevent the riders legs from being soiled and cover two interior flaps which protect the horses sides from the girth buckles. The said flaps are secured firmly to the side bars with copper or other nails or fastenings.

In constructing a military saddle and arranging the necessary equipments belonging thereto there are certain conditions that must be fulfilled-such as protection to the horse from injury by a proper formation of the saddle, convenience of transportation of the effects of the soldier without embarrassment to man or horse, embracing maneuvering and the use of weapons, durability and strength and at the same time due economy, fitness for campaigns and war, ease and comfort to the rider at the same time preserving a correct military seat-the cantle being no higher than is necessary to sling a valise clear of the loins-and the pommel no higher than to raise the arch over the Withers and carry the holsters and cloak free of pressure on the horse. These ends the subscriber believes he has attained by the peculiar construction Of his saddle as before described. This saddle-tree will answer for saddles for pleasure-for horse or foot artillery-light Or heavy dragoons for carrying packs and indeed for almost every description of saddle-by so arranging the various necessary appendages as to accomplish the end in view.

What I claim as my invention and which I desire to secure by Letters Patent is l. The construction of the pommel, by the union of two pieces for the formation of the arch of the pommel; and the construction of the cantle by the union of two pieces for the formation of the arch Of the cantle; and the Combination Of the several constituent parts Of the saddle-tree in union to give to the rider the position and ease as` herein set forth-the same giving comfort to the horse; and to the saddle a marked character by which this saddle may be easily distinguished from all Others known.

SAMUEL RINGGOLD.

Witnesses:

WM. P. ELLIOT,
A. E. JOHNSON.


West Point Specimen - Pre-Acceptance Ringgold Saddle
Col. James Duncan
The very earliest Ringgold saddle in existence appears to be the one located at the West Point Museum, donated to the museum  by the family of Col. James Duncan, one of Ringgold’s proteges.  It shows some minor construction detail variations, and appears to have been heavily used.  In at least two places, it displays a very large stamped marking, “2nd Arty/Co. A/ No. (?)”, the number being illegible.  This is significant as Co. A, 2nd Artillery was Ringgold’s own light artillery company of the 2nd Artillery Regiment, located at Ft. McHenry, Baltimore, MD.

This particular piece pre-dates the final accepted pattern, and would explain the difference in pommel and cantle shape from later specimens.  Ringgold and Edwin V. Sumner were both pushing for acceptance of this saddle type as early as 1841.  It seems likely that some number of these precursor saddles were in use before 1844 with Ringgold’s famed ‘Flying Artillery’ battery that was well-known from public displays and various training camps.   This particular saddle has no visible evidence of the necessary hardware for use with battery gun harness.

Some minor details – this early saddle used a fabric webbing for the ground seat, clinched staples in the front sidebars, and showed minor differences in the pommel/cantle reinforcements, and brass molding ‘nailer’ tabs.  The seat cover with its large brass nails seems out-of-place, and could very well be a later replacement or repair, particularly if this was acquired and used by Col. Duncan as his personal saddle.


The Accepted Pattern 1844 Ringgold Saddle

Most Ringgolds were made by John Fairbairn Co., of Philadelphia, PA, in 1844 into early 1845.  No great numbers – not much over 1,800 , and likely only a ONE-TIME issue to the main dragoon regiments and a few light artillery organizations.   Other mentioned contractors include Magee & Taylor, and John Young Co. 


There are quite a number of these still in existence (that I’m aware of), which are very similar, with very minor differences that may lend credence to multiple contractors.   Legend has it that most of the extent Ringgold saddles came from a group that was held by famous surplus dealer Francis Bannerman, acquired by some individuals from his storage island ‘castle’ sometime after WW2. This would explain the relative similarity of all of them, as they were likely acquired in a single purchase from some old military store of dragoon/horse artillery equipment.  

The design shows a slight outward shaping of the pommel and cantle tops.  The iron reinforcements visible on the pommel and cantle faces are more refined and somewhat lighter than the earlier West Point example.  While they are visually apparent, and might give the view the impression of adding weight to the saddle, the metal is quite thin and probably of dubious worth for its intended purpose.  The hammock seat is formed with a heavy piece of rawhide, laced through small holes in the top edge of the sidebars – in much the same manner of the hussar saddles this was inspired by. 

A couple of interesting details with these production Ringgolds – there is a small horizontal strap sewn to the skirt immediately below the stirrup bar, through which the inside descending strap of the stirrup leather could be threaded.  The Ft. Sill example shown here was well used, and these straps are missing, but the stitching still shows.  

One of the most noticeable differences in regulation Ringgold saddles can be found by looking at the ground seat from the underside.   Most appear to have been the specified heavy rawhide, but a number of these saddles have also been seen with pieces of heavy webbing – usually a natural linen color, with small blue stripes.  

Another interesting touch is that most of the skirting leather (top and bottom) has been roll-embossed with a very light graining, which looks almost like pigskin pores.  This sort of graining was common to the later Grimsleys as well, although the pattern used was different.


Existing Specimens
  
(Permissions being requested – your patience appreciated, thanks!
Here will be a selection of some of the Ringgolds that are still in existence – some of these are in private collections, others in museums.  There seems to be a trend in recent years for these rarities, where several have come out of the dark of private collections into public display at a number of public and private museums.  Where the locations of publicly displayed specimens is known, this is included with the photo – privately held specimens will not be identified.  


Sources:
[1]  National Archives, RG92, Entry 3 Volume 33 Page 349. 

[2] See L’inspiration de l’Europe, The Military Horse.

[3] ‘From everglade to cañon with the second dragoons’, Rodenbough, Theophilus F.,New York : D. Van Nostrand, 1875, pg 93.

[4] S. Ringgold, CONSTRUCTION OF SADDLES. Specification of Letters Patent No. 3,779, United States Patent Office, October 7, 1844.