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.
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 – Ringgold horse equipt. not yet sanctioned – March 1842).
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. 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 acceptances made and contracts let – these 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.
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. This tendency to sore backs was the most common complaint with the 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 named Thornton Grimsley to bring forward a replacement for the Ringgold.
Ringgold Saddle Patent
You may view the Ringgold saddle patent here , where you will see rather well done line drawings 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.
West Point Specimen – Pre-Acceptance Ringgold Saddle
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.