Artifacts & Details, Horse Equipment, Material Culture, United States

US Civil War Federal Ranger Saddle

One of the real treats that occasionally happens for the student of old historical artifacts is the discovery of a true rarity.  Not just a hard-to-find item but an item that could be termed a ‘unicorn’ – so rare is it that there is no readily apparent logical reason that it should still exist. 

Such is the rarity of a Civil War period Federal ‘ranger saddle’, a historical artifact that has long been legendary among those who have collected Civil War material.  Distinguished researchers and noted collectors in the past, including Francis Lord, James Hutchins,, have commented on this saddle.   Archival evidence for this saddle type in original US ordnance and quartermaster department documentation have been found. Unfortunately, these original documents aren’t very descriptive and tend to refer to ranger saddles only tangentially – included in lists of other equipment, or how they should be classified in returns.

The short version of the ranger saddle story is essentially one of wartime expediency.  The new US regulation cavalry saddle pattern, the ‘McClellan’, was not being widely produced, and the demand for horse equipment was intense, to supply  the huge numbers of volunteer cavalry units that were forming in the first months of the war.  The McClellan pattern  had only been made by a very small number of firms and the Allegheny Arsenal, and they could not even begin to supply enough equipment to meet the need.  Indeed, many other saddlery firms would have to begin to construct the McClellan as the war progressed – but in the first year or so, the manufacturing capacity was not there.

As a workaround, the frantic purchasing agents of the time accepted a solution where the large saddlery firms would take patterns they were already making and stocking in large numbers, and adapt them to the needs of the rapidly multiplying federal cavalry regiments.   This was the ‘ranger’ pattern, that had been manufactured and shipped all over the northern hemisphere.  It was rather astounding just how far the reach of these northeastern saddlery firms had in the mid- to late-1850s, where many of their products were exported to all points of the Union, including the western coast and even the ‘Sandwich Islands’ (see advertisements below).


Commercial Advertiser, Honolulu, 22 Oct 1857


Daily Alta, San Francisco, 25 Aug 1859

‘Ranger saddle’ was a generic descriptive term for this pattern, used for a somewhat limited time frame  from mid-1850s thru the Civil War, that essentially describes a lightly rigged Spanish or other wood-horned saddle tree.  Indeed, the term became so generic that any type of horned saddle used by military forces has been called a ‘ranger saddle’ at one time or another.  Spanish, Texan, Mexican, California – all are distinct types that have been labeled ‘ranger’ by many researchers in the past.

The Spanish saddle tree is a lighter weight seat, with a more vertical tall shovel-shaped cantle and a ‘slick-forked’ pommel topped with a small wooden horn.  Made by many companies and saddlers for much of the 19th century, and up to the beginning of WW1, the Spanish saddle was well known by 19th century horsemen.  It was NOT a heavy-duty cowboy stock saddle, and with the rise of ‘cowboy’ culture around WW1, the venerable old Spanish quickly faded from popular memory.   A somewhat light structure, the Spanish saddles of the 19th century have a very low survival rate – and being an archaic old-fashioned style, the urge to care for these old saddles was low to non-existent.  To find any old Spanish saddle from the 19th century is notable. 

Federal ranger saddles were made in unknown numbers in the first year to year and half of the war.  By 1863, this expedient form was being replaced by regulation McClellan’s, with remaining ranger saddles being turned in and stored in various ordnance depots.  Where they went from there is anyone’s guess – sold off as surplus, inspected and condemned, trashed… any number of things.  Being saved and cherished as representatives of the great conflict – not so much, as many of those sentiments were reserved for the very military regulation equipment, such as the McClellan.  The old ranger saddles were just some civilian stuff that was used until it could be replaced, at the earliest moment.

‘Ordnance memoranda. no.1 1863’, under the section titled, “Returns of Ordnance Stores, Class VIII, Accoutrements And Appendages For Small Arms, And Horse Equipments For Artillery And Cavalry”. This provided a definitive classification category for horse equiment and related odds and ends that were being found in government storage facilities and arsenals.

So you see, an identifiable military-issue Federal ranger saddle would be one of the rarest of the rare Civil War saddles.  Only used for the very first months of the war, replaced as soon as possible, and not of any particularly notable “martial air” about it.  These would have been tossed, or sold off as surplus and used up – nothing special.

Next – see the Unicorn In Captivity…

When this one showed up, it was as a series of photographs posted on the Society forum – thankfully with  several views that were invaluable in identifying the specimen.  The person that discovered this particular gem noted the military-style mortise plates and correctly presumed that they were an indication of some significance.   A follow-up visit for a close inspection of the artifact only reinforced the identification – plus allowed for additional detailed photography.

Here we see a very typical mid- to late-1850s Spanish tree in relic condition, with some remains of leather and hardware fittings.  Some seams are opening, there are some cracks in the rawhide, and the most noticeable damage is the loss of about 2/3 of the horn cap. There appears to be some leather remains and hardware that is suggestive of the 1859 McClellan. 

To assess this specimen, we’ll start from the beginning, which is to determine what is original to the saddle, and what may not be.  “Original to the saddle” is to say, what was part of the seat when it was first made and issued, and what may have been added or removed later – any variety of shade-tree modifications may have happened in the years since this saddle was made.

The most prominent and identifiable feature of the saddle are the brass mortise plates, used to protect the mortise holes where coat straps passed through the cantle.  In most cases, there would be no way to know if these are later additions, or were ‘OEM’ items – they used the same shape plates for 80+ years.  In this relic, they provide us with a lovely bit of evidence, as shown in the photograph below.

The ‘negative’ aspect (for most collectors) of the split seam, at the center rear face of the cantle, is actually one of the most fortuitous attributes of this specimen.  If you examine the plate pin holes in the rawhide, and compare the sum of the distance from those holes to their respective pins, you’ll find that distance is about the same as the width of the split.  In essence, it is a proof that the plate was installed when the seam was closed and tight – just as it was went it was new.  It is a reasonable assumption that the holes and plates were made when the tree was new, or nearly new.

Another piece of interest are the stirrup loops, as shown above.  These don’t look like McClellan stirrup loops that most collectors and students are familiar with.  Thicker metal stock loop, that is not as oblong or rectangular as most Civil War McClellans and any post-war military examples.  Unless you’ve been fortunate to see extremely early wartime contractor/arsenal production stirrup loops.  These early McClellans have exactly this stirrup loop type – heavy wire stock, with an opening that is just large enough and not much more – see images of early 1859 Allegheny stirrup loop and late-war contractor saddle stirrup loop below for comparison.

The stirrup loop and bracket, as well as the square nails used to ‘rivet’ it to the tree are nearly identical to the early war McClellan tree.  This horned saddle has a convenient split in the rawhide that shows these square nail heads clearly.

The important detail to note with the stirrup loop – the rawhide is installed over the bracket.  This is proof that the early war McClellan stirrup loops were installed at the time the tree was manufactured. 

Another ‘McClellan’ feature are the three remaining saddle rings, with their characteristic ‘barrel’ type staples.  These heavy gauge rings are identical to other early war McClellan saddle rings.  By examining the bottom of the saddle tree, you can see that the tips of the staples were driven through the tree, and the tips bent over into the wood, in an action called ‘clinching’.  The fact that they do not penetrate the rawhide covers means these rings were installed at the same time as the rawhide.  Rawhide covers were put on starting with the top cover, and the ring staples and rings were installed through the wet rawhide and clinched.  After this, the bottom covers were installed.  Therefore, we have yet another proof that the hardware was installed at the time the tree was made.

The final interesting items are the remains of the McClellan skirts, and the quarter straps.  The skirt remains give the impression that they were cut for an actual McClellan tree, but installed on this Spanish tree that is clearly not a good fit. The screws are cast brass and are typical 1859 McClellan hardware.  There are no holes or evidence of hardware attached to the rear surface of the cantle, and no saddlebag stud, as there is no place to attach one.  The quarter straps are remnants, with screws and iron footman loops. 

All are McClellan type and the quarter straps appear original, although they’ve been used and abused – the rear quarter straps sport large copper repair rivets near their ends that are clearly later additions.  There’s no way to know if this rear strap was a regular McClellan one-piece with saddlebag stud riveted to it, (where it would have been suspended, unsupported in the space between the sidebar tips) or were cut off before or after issue.  

The front quarter strap also appears original to the tree, as the fit to the tree is tight and smooth, and the rawhide near the top is neatly ‘puckered up’ near the rear edge – it’s been there for a very long time, with no evidence on the tree of any other rigging.  The remaining rigging ring is held with larger copper rivets uncharacteristic of Civil War period – more than likely a later repair.  Given that all other hardware is standard McClellan fare, I would suspect that the round ring is a later repair item.

If we view this suggestive evidence as correct and consistent, the complete saddle was a Spanish tree, with all hardware, leather parts, stirrups, girth, etc., being standard McClellan pieces.   The complete saddle would have appeared to be very similar to the 1859 McClellan, with the exception of the taller cantle and horned pommel.  Something to look closely for while examining early US Civil War cavalry photographs.

All of these distinctive characteristics point directly to the identification of this relic as a ranger saddle, made specifically for federal service in the very early year(s) of the Civil War.  Contrary to commonly trafficked ranger saddle tales, where existing saddles were just yanked from the warehouses, this one has been purposefully made using readily available regulation 1859 cavalry saddle hardware and leather parts. 

This makes sense when you consider that the most difficult and critical component of the 1859 cavalry saddle was the tree itself – it took nearly three years before the Ordnance Department managed to bring contractor saddle tree quality to a consistently acceptable level.  Remember that all saddle trees were hand made.  The saddlery houses had craftsman available and capable of putting out this particular style in quantity, with the greater speed that came from familiarity and repetition.  

A Federal ranger saddle – circa 1861 to 1862 – somehow surviving 155 years, with just the right details and conditions to attest it’s authenticity.  It’s truly amazing that it exists at all.


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