US Horse Equipment Trials in 1850s

In the mid-1850s Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, proposed a number of trial field evaluations with the purpose of determining the most efficient and practical equipment.  The War Dept during this time was quite keen on testing new material, with all kinds of new weapons and equipment being purchased in small lots and subject to field trials.  

The ‘horse equipment trials’ of the 1850s in the United States have taken on the flavor of being a planned and organized affair, comprehensive testing with some semblance of objectivity.  When you dig into the primary sources, you find that this is a rather imaginary view of the reality.  To say that much objective data was acquired and retained would be another discussion altogether.

The annual reports of the Chief of Ordnance and Secretary of War, printed with other departments of government in congressional annual publications is a great resource for certain kinds of information – such as what was actually in use, approximate numbers, costs, etc.  If you compare some of these reports, especially across a number of years, you also see that they tended to be boilerplate, and like many government reports, a bit on the self-serving side.

How this applies to the ‘horse equipment trials’ is that the idea of ‘trials’ evolved over time, and by 1858 the Ordnance Dept had basically landed upon this vision of the process – where to the outside observer looking at the related events over time, we see that it was a bit more hit-and-miss than that.  Simply put, the Ordnance Dept was trying to replace horse equipment for dragoon and cavalry troops, commanded by a corps of officers that had less cohesiveness of thought on the subject than a herd of cats.  At the end of all the the trials, in the final report of the cavalry board of January 1859, the board president Colonel Philip S. George Cooke himself commented on this peculiar characteristic, saying “It is impossible that men should agree; any new Board would change any established equipage: but it is confidently believed that that now established unites the largest suffrage in its favor.”[1].

While the Grimsley dragoon saddle was the approved pattern and embodied much of the French hussar flavor that had been so in vogue in the 1840s, it had its own negative issues.  It was expensive, relatively heavy, and still had fitment issues that were only exacerbated by inconsistent manufacturing quality control.  Indeed, when the Quartermaster department took over supply of horse equipment circa 1850, complaints of quality only seemed to increase.  A notable incident occurred in 1853, when the department had to stop the Philadelphia arsenal from accepting Grimsley saddles from a local contractor, as their quality had become legendarily bad [2].   The bloom was off the rose for the Grimsley dragoon saddles, and the Army was starting to look at other options.

In 1853, after the election of Franklin Pierce, Jefferson Davis was appointed Secretary of War.  A West Point graduate, Mexican War veteran and experienced Senator from Mississippi, Davis was an excellent choice for this position, which he would hold for the next four years.  A vital and proactive Secretary of War, a history of his tenure in the office would be too expansive for this short article, other than to illustrate that no aspect of his scope of responsibility was beneath his attention.  This included the examination of all the equipment and weapons provided for the Army.

With the expansion of the United States into the new territories acquired after the Mexican War, the pitifully small Army scattered across the old frontier was clearly inadequate for the demands it now faced.  Davis championed and received the authorization to add four new regiments, two each of infantry and cavalry.   Another topic well worth a detailed examination, Davis took this opportunity to create these regiments into model examples for the Army.  On the subject of officer selection alone you see his attention to detail, where he ‘handpicked’ the officers that would lead these new units – more than a few were surprised when informed that they were requested to accept these new assignments, that they had not applied for.

There was a significant report by Maj William J. Hardee, in the late summer of 1854 with recommendations for a new saddle that was favorably received by the Secretary of War, with copies ordered to various organizations throughout the Army (West Point, Carlisle Barracks, other schools of practice)[3].  Until a copy of this report is found, we won’t know for sure if he was recommending our next subject – however, it does show a new impetus at the highest levels to replace the familiar dragoon saddle.

For whatever reason, the Quartermaster Dept had not been able or willing to provide the needed attention to the area of horse equipment.  Indeed, the actual quantities of horse equipment on hand in 1853 and 1854 was extremely limited, which made resupply a sometimes difficult situation.  While you don’t find truly negative assessments in original sources and communications, it appears that the QM Dept did not have the technical capability or experience to adequately sustain horse equipment supply.  By summer 1855, the responsibility for saddlery acquisition and previously allotted funds for this purpose were returned to the Ordnance Dept, which  quickly moved on recommendations from the 9 May 1855 cavalry board for outfitting of new cavalry regiments.   In this milieu of rapid change appeared the first of the trial horse equipments, the Campbell.

[1] Report of Cavalry Board, Feb 1859 * – indirectly from “Cavalry Equipment – Past and Present”, Capt. Edward Davis, Journal of the United States Cavalry Association, Volume 26, pg. 228.

[2]  Maj Ruff, Carlisle Barracks to Maj Crosman, Philadelphia QMD, 15 Nov 1852.  

[3] Aug 1, 1854, Library of Congress (M-444, r2, f496) – Davis approved WJH report on new cavalry saddle, distribution to include light artillery, mtd. rgt, and cav. school.