"American Military Saddles"

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Jim Ottevaere
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“The American Military Saddle, 1776-1945”
By R. Stephen Dorsey and Kenneth L. McPheeters
Hardback, approximately 400 pages and 1000 illustrations.
Reviewed By, Jim Ottevaere

This is a book that has received a variety of comments on the “Military Horse Forum”. Many of them negative and some of those have been fairly direct in their criticism, so I thought that I would attempt to review Messrs Dorsey and McPheeters work as I have come to regard it after giving it a thorough read and using it over a number of months to verify pieces from my own collection. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I verified some of the book’s accuracy by comparing it to information that I knew to be correct in my collection.

I have been seriously collecting saddles, military horse equipment and cavalry artifacts for more than 30 years. There are about 100 military saddles in my collection, not counting extras for trade and spare parts, and about 3000 additional cavalry related pieces. Like many serious collectors of my age, early in my collecting I was annoyed and frustrated by the dearth of reliable sources of information on military saddles and horse equipment. In the 1970s, when Randy Steffen began publishing his series, “The Horse Soldiers”, I was overjoyed. Here at last was the definitive work on horse equipment by another serious collector and by someone I knew both through his work in “Practical Horseman”, and casually through his membership in the Company of Military Historians.

Almost immediately after publication of his first volume, Randy Steffen came under fire from many of the same experienced collectors that had once encouraged him to publish his work. An error here, not quite right there, typo on page… and so on. Looking back with just a little bit of shame, I confess to my own arrogance and admit that I too was one of those “critics”. I think that, over time, Randy became a little bit annoyed with the criticisms. He wrote to me many years ago, concerning the errors that I found from time to time in his volumes. “I am sorry for my mistakes there are a few more than I thought.…please keep listing them out whenever you find them, and send them to me all together and some day (I) hope to fix them all at least the ones I know about.” He knew that his work wasn’t perfect, and that it probably never would be, but I know for a fact that he was very proud of his work’s contribution to the preservation of cavalry history. He hoped that by sharing his collection and his knowledge, and by compiling his research in the way he knew best, by illustrating it, he would motivate some of us to dig deeper into our own research.

I am not personally acquainted with either Mr. Dorsey or Mr. McPheeters, but I would suspect that they must feel much the same way about their work as Randy Steffen did about his. Otherwise why spend so much time, money and energy bringing it to print? Like most such works it is flawed, there are errors, and having researched many of the same documents and sources as the authors, I don’t agree with some of their conclusions. But then, who’s to say that I am right in my conclusions either? The point I’m making, of course, is that this reference book is not perfect. Nor do I suspect that it was intended to be so, or it would have never gotten to print.

Some of the most vocal criticism for this work has been; its lack of verifiable source references and a detailed bibliography; its over attention to related horse equipment and accouterments; its limited coverage of Confederate States military saddles, and further down the list; its technical inaccuracies. These criticisms, as observations, are essentially true. However, in the genre of collector’s reference books, the lack of detailed source references and bibliographies is not unusual. Not to say that these would not be useful or that they would not add to the credibility of the work, they most certainly would. It’s just that most experienced collectors have learned to overlook these omissions and extract from the works what is most useful to them. The “taking on faith” of the word of those more experienced than we is a fundamental of learning. Some call it trial and error. What collector hasn’t been burned by taking someone else’s advice on faith?

It is true that the scope of this work is much broader than the title implies. Maybe “American Military Horse Equipment” would have been a more apt title. Those familiar with Mr. Dorsey’s other works will know that he has usually taken a specific topic such as cartridge belts and developed a single work around that subject. Some have suggested, in this case, that Mr. Dorsey, as well as interested collectors, would have been better served if he had taken that approach here and published a number of shorter works instead of one massive volume. On the other hand there are others that would view the added information, beyond saddles, as a welcome bonus. So this seems to be a matter of user preference instead of a material flaw.

The authors’ coverage of Confederate States military saddles and, for that matter, Union military saddles as well may not be to the liking of those mired in the War Between the States as the defining limits of cavalry history. This is understandable from their narrow perspective, but despite that war’s military and social importance it represents only about 2 ½ percent of the historical timeline covered by this volume. (Contrary to what some would wish us to believe, the Civil War did not give birth to the McClellan saddle). As for Confederate States military saddles, this is a decidedly narrow and somewhat esoteric area of military saddle collecting. Thoroughly documenting these particular saddles is best left to someone intently focused on those saddles alone, someone such as Ken Knopp who has such a work in progress. I had the opportunity to visit with Mr. Knopp again this past winter and got another peek at his manuscript. I thought that it is even better than it was a year ago, and if he can resolve his publishing difficulties, his book will be a credible work, but it too will be flawed from its date of publication, for exactly the same reasons that all the others are, but hardly a reason not to add it to your reference library.

More difficult to deal with are the technical errors and the somewhat pat and shallow research conclusions of the Dorsey/McPheeters work. The authors seem to have taken the approach that; if this document, drawing, artifact, says this, than in absence of any of their own research to the contrary, it must also be true for this, or that, other artifact. Some of the shaky conclusions based on this reasoning are painfully obvious and others are subtler. This is the same for many of the purely technical errors, some obvious, some not quite so. I have marked up my copy as I use it, but I am not going to repeat my error of many years ago and wave them in the authors’ faces. Although, on second thought, I will mention just one of their more humorous errors; When describing the specifications of the early hooded stirrup for the 1859 McClellan, the authors’ spend a great deal of precious space pondering on the reason why twelve rivets were called for to attach each hood to its stirrup, instead of the six that we are accustomed to seeing. What the authors had obviously overlooked and something that most collectors know; the specification bills generally gave hardware counts per saddle and not per piece. Hence twelve rivets at six per stirrup. This is not necessarily a fatal error, but it should serve as a caution to beginning collectors in particular.

There are a number of redeeming qualities to this work. The most valuable of which is its extensive collection of about 1000 photographs and illustrations of horse equipment and mounted accouterments from all historical periods in United States military history. These will be useful to the beginner and the expert alike. They are generally well captioned and I have found only a few of them to be misidentified. The book’s format is large, which permits the use of well-sized photographs that show their subjects in considerable detail. This may be objectionable to those who prefer the handbook size format, but I like the larger photographs. It is easy to read and except for a few instances, it is not overwhelmed by collector insider jargon. This is a definite plus for the beginner.

After using this book for nearly a year, I have found that for the most part it is a credible and honest work, on a subject that is vaguely documented at best. One for which official records and collected artifacts are filled with ambiguities and errors in their own right. On this basis alone we can forgive Messrs. Dorsey and McPheeters many of their most innocent errors. As an experienced collector I have no reservations in putting it on the shelf in my library, right next to “The Horse Soldiers”. Well, maybe just a shelf or two down. As for the serious beginner, I would suggest that this book should be the very next horse equipment reference that they buy, after all four volumes of “The Horse Soldiers”. Any work that brings us a bit closer to a better understanding of this subject of military horse equipment before it is lost or destroyed is worthy of notice. This is such a work.

After word:
It is very easy to sit on the fringe and assume the role of a critic, since there is little or no risk in that, other than appearing foolish. It’s by far more difficult to actually produce a body of work and face bravely the inevitable criticisms. George Bernard Shaw liked to think of critics as failures in their craft, bitter in their failures, and more to be pitied than thrashed. I hope that I can escape such a fate with this piece.

Jim Ott….
Joseph Sullivan
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Excellent review, with which I largely agree (and if that isn't a good test for what is excellent, I don't know what is!). I have nothing to add to your survey of the book -- except that the most serious flaw in an otherwise useful but imperfect work is, in my opinion, the treatment of conservation which is fundamentally in error and should be disregarded.