The First McClellan – the Model of 1857

M1857 McClellan
image courtesy Thomas Aagaard

While we call this saddle form the creation of George McClellan, you could make the case that much of the innovation in construction and design features are to be found in the talented workshops of the Philadelphia saddlery firm of Messr. Lacey and Phillips. A relatively new saddlery firm, they submitted material to the 1851 Exposition in London, and won gold medals for their work. This recognition brought significant demand and success to their firm, which became known as the most prestigious supplier of saddlery and harness in the United States in this time period.

After the approval was received for the McClellan pattern submission in 1856, with minor modifications, the first order for 310 sets of Model of 1857 saddles for trial use was issued in February, 1857.  All were built by Lacey & Phillips, showing their continued involvement in the evolution of the McClellan equipment set.

The Model of 1857 McClellan shares many common features with the later M1859, although many other differences can be seen. The most visually obvious difference is the lack of a rawhide cover, as the metal reinforced wooden tree was covered with an thin black varnished leather. This tree covering is really rather unique, and of a type I’ve never seen before on a hardwood tree saddle. The leather is exceptionally thin, installed with seat thongs (like later rawhide covers) and whip-stitched around the edges of the sidebars. There is no way to mistake any later black McClellan variant for the M1857.

M1857 McClellan saddlebags
M1857 McClellan saddlebags
courtesy US Cavalry Museum

The rigging is a common centerfire type and was same as the later M1859. The girth was slightly different, but was operated in the same manner as the M1859. The side skirts, screwed to the sidebars, were a common feature between the M1857 and the M1859 McClellans.  The rear saddle rings appear to be enclosed in chapes, and sewn directly to the rigging straps just behind the lower tips of the cantle.   One of the modifications made by the selection board was to ‘add saddle rings’.  Presuming the 1856 submission piece had rings in the front for the breaststrap, this quick ‘add-on’ to the rear was made in deference to that request.  

The saddle bags are very non-typical of those commonly seen, with a somewhat formal square pouch shape, with a multitude of straps and buckles for attaching to the seat and holding blanket/overcoat rolls. The seat attaching the two pouches together is very short, fitted behind the cantle much like the later style saddlebags although the pouches fit snugly up against the rear face of the cantle.

M1857 McClellan saddlebag pouch - open
M1857 McClellan saddlebag pouch – open
courtesy US Cavalry Museum

Straps were provided for securing a cantle roll over these pouches. Visually, these pouches are very much like the pommel pockets used on the M1912 service and M1917 officer saddles.

The stirrup arrangement was essentially the same as the M1859, with the exception that the hoodless stirrups themselves were covered with thin black leather.  There are no sweat leathers attached to the stirrup straps.

Most hardware were made of polished brass, and show interesting styles that weren’t used in the later M1859. The stirrup buckles were brass centerbar type frame buckles that sported rollers. The multitude of smaller buckles were lovely oval cart-type buckles. The girth and rigging used the same iron D-rings and roller buckles as the later M1859 pattern, although the rigging rings had small safes riveted to the back sides. These superfluous safes were dropped after this pattern.  The coatstrap mortise holes show the common #559 brass plates, and a large shield shape on the rear face of the pommel, like all later McClellans.  The M1857’s used the three numeral size marking of early M1859 saddles – a “1” for 11″ seats, “2” for 11 1/2″ seats, and a “3” for 12″ seats.  The Tojhusmuseet example has a prominent “3” stamped in the center of the shield, between the coat strap slot and the bottom tip.

M1857 Stirrup
courtesy Kenneth McPheeters

The thin varnished leather was prone to cracking and splitting along the edges of the pommel and cantle; these areas being high stress areas for cover material. Most of the McClellan trial saddles built in 1858 were fitted with brass moldings, similar to the Grimsleys, in an effort to reduce the incidence of seam splitting. The Tojhusmuseet specimen does not have these brass moldings, showing a pristine example of what the trial saddles looked like.

Additional large orders for M1857 McClellans were placed in the late summer of 1858 with these companies: Lacey & Phillips of Philadelphia, Knorr & Nece of Philadelphia; and Robert Hartley & Company of Pittsburgh, with 350 sets contracted from each. These were to also have brass pommel and cantle moldings, similar to the Grimsley pattern saddles.

In November, this contract was amended by Brevet Major Peter V. Hagner, commanding officer of Frankford Arsenal, so that all remaining saddles would conform to the new significantly altered M1859 specification. – most significantly with the replacement of the thin leather cover with the familiar rawhide cover. How many brass-bound M1857s were actually completed and delivered is unknown.

About the “Danish Exchange” M1857 McClellan

In the Summer 1984 edition of Military Collector & Historian magazine, there was a wonderful article by Frederick C. Gaede about the US blankets that were in the “Danish Exchange” collection at the Royal Arsenal Museum (Tojhusmuseet), in Copenhagen, Denmark. The background information on the exchange itself is as important as the article subject itself. I’ll paraphrase his excellent research, much of it accomplished via conversations with the lead curator at the Tojhusmuseet.

The exchange originated with Washington Arsenal commander, Major Alfred Mordecai, in the spring of 1852. He had a request for a weapons exchange with the Danish government. Some two years later, they responded favorably, with an additional request for an exchange of military equipment and uniforms. For whatever reasons, the collection of material was delayed for a number of years, until the first orders were sent in February of 1858 to begin the collection of material. All of the equipment was collected, delivered to the Danish envoy, and received in Copenhagen in July, 1858.

For the purposes of our present interest, the horse equipment request was sent to Brevet Major Peter V. Hagner, at the Frankford Arsenal.  Major Hagner was ordered by the Chief of Ordnance, Colonel H.K. Craig, on February 17, 1858, to have made for the exchange and to hold for further orders “… one set of horse equipments complete, McClellan’s pattern.”

This shows that the Ordnance leadership were very cognizant of the upcoming exchange with the Danes, and
that the McClellan was a ‘favored child’ in the on-going horse equipment trial, and depending on the viewer could be considered prima facia evidence that the McClellan trial saddle had already been accepted as the ‘winner’ of the various horse equipments tried.

The fortunate preservation of this horse equipment in Denmark provides us with a glorious example of the very first McClellan saddle type, which for many collectors and students was completely unknown. Indeed, other than the complete equipment set in Copenhagen, I’ve so far only seen or heard to two other pieces of M1857 equipment in existence – a single stirrup in private hands, and the saddlebag set at Ft. Riley’s U.S. Cavalry Museum.

The United States Cavalry Saddle, McClellan Pattern, Model 1857, in Tøjhusmuseet, Copenhagen, Dr. James S. Hutchins, Saertryk af Vaabenhistoriske Aarboger, XVI (1970), 146-162

Summer 1984 edition of Military Collector & Historian magazine, there was a wonderful article by Frederick C. Gaede about the US blankets that were in the “Danish Exchange” c