The Delafield Commission

From left to right: Major Alfred Mordecai, Lt. Colonel Obrescoff (Imperial Russian liaison officer), Colonel Richard Delafield, and Captain George B. McClellan.

To understand the eventual victor in the saddle trials of the 1850s, a person must be familiar with one of the more interesting events in the US Army of the 1850s, the Delafield Commission, sometimes referred to as the Crimean Commission.  The activities and eventual reports generated by this early group of military professionals are essential to understanding the mysterious origins of the McClellan pattern horse equipments.

Secretary of War Jefferson Davis assembled a trio of officers to visit various European countries and their military organizations, with a special interest in observing the ongoing conflict in the Crimea and report back their findings. He hand-selected the top officers in their various fields, each with particular strengths and abilities. Major Richard Delafield was an extremely talented engineering officer with a great deal of knowledge of fortifications. Major Alfred Mordecai was already world famous for his work in ordnance and artillery. Captain George B. McClellan was a brilliant young engineer officer, recently selected to a position in the 2nd Cavalry. McClellan had worked with Davis before on a some special projects, and had a great natural affinity for learning languages. As an example, he was reputed to have learned German in about three weeks while supervising a remote engineering project that left him with considerable time to fill. Among all the laundry list of requested topics that Jefferson Davis wished the commission to pursue, McClellan would have special interest in cavalry subjects.

The now famous Delafield Commission left the US in April 1855, and had spotty success at best with their primary mission of observing the war in Crimea, finally arriving there long after hostilities had ceased. Their lack of success in observing actual hostilities was more than made up for the sheer volume of varied observations and information gathered as they criss-crossed the continent.

Reading of this journey is a fascinating look at a different world. Many connections were made as they traveled and met wide variety of military and political leaders.  They acquired large amounts of military tactics books, equipment and other material that would provide much grist for  their later reports. The commission returned to the US in April, 1856, taking up residence in apartments in various locations to compose and complete their final reports.

Even before this group left on their adventure, officers in the Army were coming to view this commission as the chosen ones that would go forth to the fount of military knowledge and practices, and return to deliver the answers to all questions and needs. Indeed, before the group left the country they were getting requests from all levels regarding details to inquire about and observe – some inquiries even following them after they had launched their journey.

In this state of perceived inferiority, the officer corps began to view these commissioners as the experts, or soon-to-be experts, in all things military, and particularly in their specific branch specialties. A young engineering officer, only recently billeted to a newly formed cavalry regiment, who had not actually taken command of his company, McClellan was being feted to be the cavalry authority in the army. This is a very important consideration that becomes significant in later developments – speaking in terms of cavalry, McClellan was The Man.

Immediately upon return from Europe, the commission officers began grinding through the process of writing, translating and editing their trove of material to produce their ‘Crimea Report’. It was a herculean task – all the while with an impatient Secretary of War prodding them for their reports, particularly Capt. McClellan. It is also the time when certain viewpoints regarding a much desired and needed ‘system of cavalry’ were being discussed in correspondences with McClellan by other junior and mid-level cavalry officers, particularly Joseph E. Johnston, who was Lt. Col. of 2nd Cavalry Regiment. Correspondence between Johnston and McClellan was very informative, as they wished to see an invigorated cavalry branch, built on a well-planned and executed doctrine – the ‘system’. Long-time senior mounted officers such as Col. Edwin V. Sumner, and Bvt. LtCol. William J. Hardee were seen as the foes to this new future, with stale views emphasizing and preferring experience over this new  enthusiasm for branch professionalism.

There is quite a bit of material available to read concerning the Delafield Commission, which much of it having come directly from the members and their reports. Much less exists that actually analyzes the commission and its reflection of the military organization that created it, and the long-range effects, especially in light of the development of military professionalism in the US. Indeed, the Delafield Commission is commonly viewed as the initial demonstration of this pursuit of professionalism. For those wishing to learn more about the Commission, you would be hard pressed to find a better resource than Dr. Matthew Moten’s “The Delafield Commission and the American Military Profession”. I found it invaluable in gaining a great understanding of the commission and the military culture that sent it out. It is the only source I’ve yet found that actually communicated the apparent reasons for McClellan’s resignation (which are significant in light of the saddle design timeline). 


[1]  Moten, Matthew, The Delafield Commission and the American Military Profession.  Texas A&M University Press, 2000.