How were mounted infantry (like dragoons) used in battle?

How were mounted infantry (like dragoons) used in battle?

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During the Napoleonic Wars, Some troops performed as "mounted infantry", i.e. they rode horses to move, but dismounted and fought like infantry. Dragoons are usually given as examples. How was this force actually used in battle? Cavalry normally use their speed and momentum as advantage, e.g. by charging into infantry flank or rear. But dragoons kind of gave away this advantage by dismounting and fighting like infantry.

Also since they are train to fight like infantry, they most probably will be easily defeated by regular cavalry. And since infantry is normally more numerous and fire better than cavalry, they would be outgunned by regular infantry. In any case, there were no advantage.

How was it used in battle? Any example of battles in this era where mounted infantry played an important part?

If you are looking for Napoleon's Dragoon's.

Horses and Weapons

The dragoons were armed with straight sabers and muskets. Their muskets were longer and had longer range of fire than light cavalry's carbines. While a light cavalryman's eqipment included a carbine sling as a means of keeping his weapon readily available for use, the greater length of musket issued to dragoons made a sling impractical. Thus the stock of the musket was seated in a boot attached to the saddle, and irs barrel restrained by a strap attached to the pommel. When the dragoons expected to go into action they drew sabers and muskets slung on their backs. In 1814 they gave away their long muskets for the infantry.

Napoleon had problems to find the right horses for his dragoons. In 1805 approximately 6.000 of them were without mounts and were organized into 4 foot dragoon regiments. Their duty was to guard the artillery reserves and the baggage trains. After the 1805-campaign Napoleon mounted the foot dragoons on captured Austrian horses. Then after the 1806-campaign Napoleon mounted the rest of the "walkers" on captured Prussian and Saxon horses. The hardships of war in Spain, plus poor horsecare killed thousands of dragoons' mounts. For example in May 1811 the 3e Dragons had only 139 horses left out of 563 ! The situation was so desperate that in 1812 was issued an order that all officers in infantry regiments have to give their horses to the dragoons.


Use at battlefield:

The cavalry of the line was composed of Dragoons [… ] in practice they were increasingly used as battle cavalry, though they also acted as flank guards, and when needed, as in Spain, in their original role as mounted infantry.[page 141]

The cavalry was stationed at the wings and its primary mission was to counter the enemy's horse. On occasion, especially if the opposing infantery was not yet deployed, such as at Rossbach (1757) horse was launched againts foot with excellent results. Also if cavalry drove its opponents off the field and was able to rally [… ] it could be hurled against the enemy's unprotected flank or rear. These missions were duties of heavy battle cavalry, cuirassiers and dragoons, while light cavalry were used to… [page 15]

Reference The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon by Gunther Erich Rothenberg

An example of an achievement

In the first phase of Napoleonic Wars they served on the primary theater of war, in Central Europe, charging in numerous battles and skirmishes. In November 1805 the dragoon brigade under Sebastiani took 2,000 prisoners at Pohrlitz.


Internal conflicts:

Colonel Elting writes: "The assignement was sensible, but troopers caught up in the shuffle remembered that veteran dragoons, who hadn't walked farther in years than the distance from their barracks to the nearest bar, ended up in the dismounted units, while their mounts were assigned to raw recruits. The results were rough on everybody: hospitals filled up with spavined veterans, recruits got saddle sores. Also, J.A. Oyon wrote gleefully, matters turned ugly when mounted and dismounted elements of several regiments bivouaced together. The limping veterans crowded over to check on their old horses and found them neglected, sore-backed, and lame. Blood flowed freely, if only from rookies' noses."


The natural conflict inherent in the dragoon concept was widely recognized even at the time; namely that to be a fully trained infantry formation, the men most absolutely believe that an infantry square cannot be broken by cavalry; and to be a fully trained cavalry formation, they must absolutely believe that only the very best infantry units can resist a cavalry charge. Clearly any one unit can never hold both beliefs.

In Europe, with it's long tradition of sabres drawn cavalry charges on relatively open battlefields, (Napoleonic Era) dragoons were treated and trained as cavalry who occasionally dismounted. Throughout the continent, Dragoons (except Light Dragoons, who were equivalent to Chasseurs) were treated as Medium cavalry, consisting of larger men on larger horses, but unarmoured, and saw themselves as such.

In North America, the concept of the sabres-drawn cavalry charge never really caught on. This can likely be explained by the absence of a knighthood tradition; the prevalence of rifles instead of muskets as dominant firearm; and the much greater cover on the battlefields that increased the importance of, and need for, skirmishers. In consequence, North American Dragoons were generally treated as, and saw themselves as, mounted infantry.

The use of cavalry depended on the state of infantry armament.

In the days of blade weapons, a cavalryman (post-stirrup) mounted on a horse carrying a sword or spear had greater momentum, and hence greater value than a similarly equipped infantryman without a horse.

In the days of (slow-loading, single shot) muskets, there was a balance. The infantryman had superior firepower, the cavalry man with the blade weapon had the superior speed. To partially compensate for inferior firepower, cavalrymen were given carbines, shorter lighter guns than muskets (or rifles). Such horsemen with both fire- and blade- weapons were known as dragoons. Overall, the combination of horse, sword, and carbinegave a cavalryman a slight advantage over a musketeer, even though none of these weapons used singly, or in pairs, would do so.

The introduction of the rifle, a gun with long range that became a "repeating" weapon around the middle of the 19th century, changed the equation further. Now a cavalryman with a blade weapon was at a clear disadvantage to an infantryman with a rifle. (And rifles couldn't be used properly by horsemen controlling a horse). Cavalry's only advantage was its greater speed; you could get troops to a critical point faster than with infantry. But once "arrived," cavalry fought at a disadvantage, insofar as one out of four men had to "hold the horses" of three others, while those others dismounted and did the actual fighting on foot. So then the equation became, was a cavalry unit with 3/4 strength arriving in a "timely" fashion more valuable than a full-strength infantry unit that arrived later? (Confederate) cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest answered in the affirmative when he said, "I get there fastest with the mostest."

German cavalry in WWI fought as mounted infantry?

Post by curiousabouthistory » 16 Dec 2009, 08:19

The best trained units in the German military in WWI were the cavalry, they were the elite. When fully mobilized they totaled 550 squadrons, the equivalent of 60 divisions.

And they were thrown away with 1800s tactics and arms.

Nathan Bedford Forrest had proven how best to use cavalry during the US Civil War. Forrest's cavalry fought as mounted infantry and used their speed to "get there fustest with the mostest" as Forrest said. Heavily armed and accompanied by horse artillery, Forrest's cavalry moved fast and hit hard.

The Schleiffen plan nearly succeeded, it failed partly due to not adhering to von Schleiffen's maxim "When you march into France, let the last man on the right brush the channel with his sleeve". The German advance just didn't have the overwhelming strength on the right. MacArther would have said "be where the French aren't and be there with everything you've got". Forrest would have said "get there (on the right) fustest with the mostest".

The German cavalry were largely ineffective during the war. This always struck me as odd because the German general staff studied Forrest, so what if they had applied his style to German cavalry and massed all 550 squadrons on the right and fought as mounted infantry? I believe that the German cavalry could have continuously ouflanked the Allied left flank making the von Schleiffen plan succeed.

The French had cavalry too but Forrest showed what happens when mounted infantry backed up by horse artillery meet cavalry brandishing sabers, the saber wielding cavalry loses and loses badly.

Re: German cavalry in WWI fought as mounted infantry?

Post by Polynikes » 17 Dec 2009, 01:32

No arguments about the failure of the German plan in August 1914.

However just what is the difference between mounted infantry and cavalry?

As far as I can see, if you mount an infantry unit on horses, you have just created a cavalry unit.

Cavalry started discarding their sabres and lances (though incredibly the British army re-adopted the lance in the early 20th century after having withdrawn them).
In the US civil war, sabre charges were not uncommon but firearm use from horseback was used increasingly - it appears Southern cavalry made great effective use from shotguns.

In the wars against the Plains Indians, US cavalry fought almost exclusivly with firearms - Custer ordered that sabres be left behind when he marched his regiment out to Little Big Horn.

History shows that one you mount soldiers on horses, they display a reluctance to dismount to fight (the same is true of vehicles too). The orgiginal mounted infantry were the dragoons mounted on cheap horses used to simply transport the soldier to the place of battle - however they soon started fighting on horseback (except the poor French dragoons who invariably had a dismounted squadron or two due to lack of anything approaching a serviceable mount).

The Australian Light Horse were used in the 2nd Boer War and fought mounted as well as dismounted - whilst some claim there were a seperate arm to cavalry they were quite clearly part of the cavalry arm - even going so far as to issue cavalry trappings such as the crossbelt. Interestingly the Australian light horse after its charge in WWI with bayonets (since sabres were not issued) did actually issue sabres before the end of the war confirming them as cavalry.

Re: German cavalry in WWI fought as mounted infantry?

Post by curiousabouthistory » 17 Dec 2009, 01:58

>>However just what is the difference between mounted infantry and cavalry?

Mounted infantry move around on horse back but they fight as infantry. Cavalry move and fight on horseback. Their tactics are very different. When mounted infantry met cavalry in combat the cavalry almost always lost. Forrest never lost an engagement against Union cavalry until the final days of the war when Wison adopted Forrest's tactics.

Shotguns were used by cavalry units in skirmishing against other cavalry units.

For a detailed description of how mounted infantry fought study the battle of Brice's Crossroads where Forrest's 3,200 man mounted infantry corps trounced Sturgis' little army of 8,500 cavalry and infantry.

Forrest's troopers did not use shotguns, each trooper carried two rifles and 3-5 pistols. One rifle was slung over the shoulder on a strap, the other was stuck in a saddle holster. When Forrest's men had to fight from horseback they would reign up and use the rifle from the saddle holster, then move forward pulling the rifle held by the strap around to the front, then they would reign up again and fire that rifle. Then they would move foreward to get into pistol range. With 3-5 six shooters, they could fire 18-30 times before being forced to reload.

When fighting as mounted infantry, they would dismount, form up as an infantry unit and move to position with 1 man out of 4 remaining behind to hold the horses. Sometimes they fought both ways in the same battle.

Re: German cavalry in WWI fought as mounted infantry?

Post by Ironmachine » 17 Dec 2009, 09:10

Re: German cavalry in WWI fought as mounted infantry?

Post by curiousabouthistory » 17 Dec 2009, 09:49

Re: German cavalry in WWI fought as mounted infantry?

Post by nondescript handle » 17 Dec 2009, 22:59

Re: German cavalry in WWI fought as mounted infantry?

Post by Polynikes » 18 Dec 2009, 01:18

I'm not sure this is an adequate distinction - soldiers mounted on horse to move quickly across the battlefield and then dismount to fight were called Dragoons who are part of the cavalry without question.

The issue is that soldiers, once mounted, invariably wish to remain mounted when in combat - this was true of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, who attacked Turkish positions in a mounted charge - using bayonets as makeshift sabres.
Prior to WWI, the British cavalry were slowly accepting that their days as the arbitors of the battlefield were over and whilst some still dreamed of cavalry-on-cavalry actions, the cavalry were equipped like infantrymen and issued the standard infantry rifle with which they trained infantry tactics (they were also issued a universal cavalry sabre which was virtually unused).
They were to fight on the Western Front in the trenches and were far more akin to infantry than any of the units of Australian Light Horse who were far more mobile in the Middle East.

British cavalry prior to WWI practiced infantry maneovres - troopers seeking to find cover and adopting good shooting positions.
My point is that by the mid 19th century - classic cavalry unit actions were nigh on impossible - the US Civil War rammed home this lesson. Waterloo proved that cavalry attacks are wasteful and that infantry can easily ward them off. the US Civil War with its rifled muskets and minnie bullets, showed what suicide a cavalry attack is.

The best cavalry learned how to fight on foot.

The British had to wait for another sobering war to learn this lesson: The 2nd Boer War. In this war they formed a Mounted Infantry (MI) arm as it was realised that the cavalry regiments were still firmly wedded to Napoleanic tactics that they were unusable in many actions.
Lord Roberts changed things and British cavalry became like Forrest's.

How were mounted infantry (like dragoons) used in battle? - History

Fundamentally, the Dragoons were an auxiliary arm supporting the Infantry. While they were not expected to make long marches on foot, it was necessary at times for them to hold a position dismounted, until the Infantry could arrive to secure the ground.

(Right) A dragoon and an infantry first lieutenant wear uniforms typical of Regular Army soldiers during the Mexican War (1846-1848). The soldiers are depicted in H. Charles McBarron’s The American Soldier, 1847, and are part of Major General Zachary Taylor’s army in northern Mexico. Army Art Collection.

Throughout United States history, especially during the nineteenth century, mounted troops served as the advance guard of the United States Army. They helped to strengthen security in times of peace and served as protectors and watchdogs in times of war.

In the mid-nineteenth century just prior to the Civil War, three different types of mounted troops existed simultaneously in the United States Army: cavalry, dragoons, and mounted riflemen. While all traveled on horseback, theoretically, there were enough distinctions between the various units to merit them being called by different names.

During medieval times, two distinctions of cavalry had emerged: heavy and light cavalry.

Heavy cavalry referred to those soldiers who were heavily armored and used as shock troops, charging their enemies with lances. Knights often charged in close formation, similar to the shoulder to shoulder tactics of infantry charges in 19th century American Armies. The sight of a line of heavily armored knights charging at full gallop had a profound psychological impact on the enemy.

Light cavalry carried less armour and were more of a reconnaissance force, used for scouting, screening and skirmishing.

By the 1700s, heavy cavalry still played a role as shock troops, and light cavalry were still used as reconnaissance, but a new type of unit, regarded as a medium cavalry, dragoons had emerged. Whereas cavalry did most of their fighting on horse, dragoons rode into battle and then did most of their fighting dismounted, although they were actually trained to fight on horseback or on foot. The term "dragoon" came from the nickname for their weapon, the carbine or short musket, called "the dragon", which referred to the fire that emits forth out of the gun, hence the term "dragon" or dragoon soldiers.

In the United States, there were four regiments of light dragoons and other mounted forces that fought in the Revolutionary War. Dragoons also fought in the War of 1812, but by 1815, all of the mounted forces had been disbanded. In 1833, when the first regiment of dragoons was organized, there were no other mounted forces in the United States Army. In fact, heavy cavalry never existed in the United States Army in the 19th century.

A battalion of mounted rangers was organized in 1832, but it was soon disbanded and the dragoon regiment was organized in its place. They may have been treated like second-class cavalry in the European armies, but not in the United States. As mentioned above, when the dragoons were first organized, they were the only mounted troops in the United States. They were considered an elite fighting force trained to fight both on horseback and on foot.

The First Dragoon Regiment was composed of ten companies, but after the first five companies were recruited, they were sent to Fort Gibson under their Colonel, Henry Dodge, to winter. The others followed later.

The American Army in 1844 consisted of 8573 men of which the ten companies of the First Dragoons numbered about 623 men. Each company at full strength had a captain, a first lieutenant, a second lieutenant, four sergeants, four corporals, two buglers, one farrier and blacksmith, and fifty privates. The men were armed with Hall's carbines and, later, musketoons, Dragoon sabers called "old wristbreakers" of the Prussian pattern, and horse pistols.

All of the weapons had drawbacks. The carbine when carried muzzle down lost the charge from the chamber and could not stand much wear. In Indian fighting, the sabers were simply a nuisance. They jingled abominably, were difficult to keep sharp in metal scabbards, and when a soldier was "close enough on an Indian to use a saber," it was about even "as to which goes under first."

Civil War Dragoons

US Dragoons during Mexican-American War

Besides dragoons, there were also mounted riflemen. The United States Army organized a regiment of mounted riflemen in 1845, for defense of forts along the Oregon Trail. This regiment fought in the Mexican War and then was later assigned to duties in the far West.

The difference between mounted riflemen and dragoons was in their weaponry. Dragoons were armed with carbines, sabers, and pistols. Mounted riflemen had no sabers and had, as the name implied-rifles.

The U.S. Army organized two cavalry regiments in 1855, so by the late 1850s, the army had two regiments of dragoons, one regiment of mounted riflemen, and two regiments of light cavalry. To simplify matters, in 1861, all of the mounted regiments were redesignated or renamed cavalry.

The differences? Cavalry of the 1860s was more of a reconnaissance or a screening force and was considered the eyes and ears of the army. Commanding generals relied on cavalry to know the enemy's troop strength and movements. While cavalry did most of their fighting on horseback, dragoons, on the other hand, did most of their fighting dismounted. The horses provided them with mobility but for the most part they dismounted when they went into action, using their carbines or musketoons. However, they were armed with sabers and thus were trained to fight both mounted and dismounted.

The Rangers on the Old Sante Fe Trail

The First United States military aid extended to the Santa Fe traders was in the form of escorts, the troops accompanying the traders through Indian country, but remaining permanently stationed in Missouri, Indian Territory, or at Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri River. In other words, instead of guarding the Trail, as the later military posts did, the military escorts guarded only the trade caravans which they accompanied. There were at least six such United States Army escorts during the pre-Mexican War era: The first in 1829 was led by Major Bennet Riley - a War of 1812 Rifle Regiment officer - with four companies of the Sixth Infantry (in which the Rifles had been merged).

What happened essentially was this. Several days after the caravan proceeded unescorted beyond the Mexican boundry (Arkansas River) "The frightened traders requested Riley and his troops to come to their aid, and, although it meant taking United States soldiers into Mexican territory, Riley did not delay. He led his command across the river and proceeded to the besieged caravan. Arriving at the train during the night and establishing a suitable guard, the soldiers witnessed the withdrawal of the Indians the following morning. The traders, fearing to continue without escort, begged Riley to accompany them onward. He complied, and escorted them for two days, to Drunken Creek (twenty-four miles from the scene of the attack), and then refused to go farther into foreign territory. After resting in camp for one day, the troops returned to the Arkansas and remained on the Mexican side for ten days before recrossing the river and going into camp opposite Chouteau's Island. For the duration of their encampment, the soldiers moved camp when necessary for cleanliness or to find grass for the oxen or buffalo for food. They were almost constantly harassed by Indians until August 11, but the remaining two months of their stay on the Arkansas were passed practically without incident. Since they were infantry, Riley and the soldiers found it extremely frustrating not to be able to give chase to the hostile Indians. Despite the limitations placed upon them because they were not mounted, the soldiers withstood the Indian attacks. The command lost only four men during the entire expedition. For defensive purposes they were effective and successful, but their experiences demonstrated the need for cavalry if they were ever to take the offense against the Indians. This lesson apparently had its effect, because the next escort was comprised of United States Mounted Rangers. Senator Benton submitted Major Riley's report to the Senate in 1830 in support of legislation to provide further protection for the Santa Fe trade. The report may have been influential in securing passage of an act, in 1832, establishing the United States Mounted Rangers." - source Indian Attack on Charles Bent at Bear Creek Pass

Mounted Infantry

I would like to learn more about how these troops were used and if they ever just fought on foot in some engagements(such as marching in on foot) or did they ride up with some dismounting and others on horse. How were these men used and would they also picket and or engage in fighting in forests and terrain with cover

Buford’s dismounted cavalry stalled the Confederate advance on the first day of Gettysburg. Likely saved the battle, and the war, for the Union, as Gettysburg could have turned out much differently had the Rebels been able to take the high ground on the first day

Thank you. I know of this engagement and I thank you for your effort but it didn’t necessarily answer my first question though unfortunately. I could be wrong but from my understanding Bufords men were dismounted Cavalry soldiers but I was asking about mounted infantry. Basically infantrymen who rode on horseback. Your comment though likely provides context to the later part of my original question but regardless of your answer it’s effect is still appreciated!

You should read up more on the Wilder Brigade's actions during the Chickamauga campaign. Infantry armed with Spencers and mounted, and I believe some breechloading arms as well- but I'm not super versed in their armaments. But for sure they're famously known for their privately purchased Spencer rifles.

Cavalry fought as cavalry in the classic sense several times during the War- Brandy Station comes to my mind immediately.

But fast movement, dismount, fight, and move again definitely happened by the cavalry forces during the War- Gettysburg as mentioned before.

When I saw the question, Wilder's Brigade immediately came to mind. You beat me to it!

I just did a few minutes of cursory research on the subject and it echos what others have said re the Lightning Brigade etc, I did find a Virginia unit named mounted infantry as well. from my brief informal research it looks like mounted infantry units were barely a thing during the war, in favor of formally designated cavalry units.

Like many have said though, cavalry often fought dismounted in the style of mounted infantry- and more so as the war progressed- so it seems like any practical distinction was just nomenclature and cavalry fulfilled both roles.

Just recently I believe I read for prewar horse units there were two cavalry, two dragoon, and one mounted infantry, and they added one cavalry right before the war and I think they were all converted to standard cavalry (hence why one cavalry unit retained their orange in lieu of yellow stripes for the first few years of the war- honoring their earlier dragoon heritage).

Interesting. I was always under the impression that mounted infantry became a popular thing especially with the CSA.

Maybe just terminology here but are you asking about what’s typically called the Calvary? Or something more specific?

I'm not nearly as well informed as most on this sub. That being said it my belief that generally speaking most Calvery during the war fought dismounted most of the time. So I wouldn't think that mounted infantry would ever fight on horseback unless forced to do so.

From my research I have found evidence that mounted infantry would be more likely to be armed with standard infantry arms such as the 3 or 2 band Enfield- compared to calvery which would normally have a shorter carbine that would be breach loaded compared to the muzzle loaded Enfield. . This would make fighting from horseback very difficult.

I was always under the impression that these men rode towards the fighting but dismounted to fight. I could never really picture that though

There was a lot more cav units acting as mounted infantry than you would think. Almost all of the cav actions in Western Virginia (now West Virginia) were mounted infantry actions as very little of the terrain was favorable for traditional cav actions.

The CSA version of the cavalry tactics manual:

There was also a lot of battles where cav would arrive on, then fight dismounted to hold a position until infantry arrived.

If you look at a battle like Brice's Crossroads, the cav on both sides basically fought as mounted infantry. Use the horse to move faster than infantry could march, but then dismount and fire from cover.

I appreciate your comments and I will need to read that later but my question pertained more towards the actual mounted infantry units. I would presume that they must have operated like the Cavalry but without sabers even though they were rarely used. I have known of Cavalry fighting dismounted and etc especially at Gettysburg but I’ve also heard of separate mounted infantry regiments. I’ll probably have some questions about the Cavalry soon so just keep your eyes peeled and be safe if the weather is bad in your area as it is in mine

Yeah they just fought on foot, think of them as infantry that move quickly. They could be used to swiftly secure vital areas. They're just infantry on horses and I haven't read of them doing serious cavalry duties like screening and operating detached from the main body of the army for reconnaissance. Many units operated mounted only for a short period of time and after the fact became regular infantry again. Cavalry were often misused and pressed into infantry roles, so its really surprising to me that there weren't more mounted infantry regiments.

" would they also picket" They certainly did picket as did all other infantry and cavalry. ***"***engage in fighting in forests and terrain with cover" I believe you're describing skirmish drill, and yeah sure, it was done by both infantry and cavalry though in a few infantry regiments you had certain companies designated as flank companies, who were usually sent out as skirmisher for the regiment. Normally in regiment where most companies had smoothbore muskets and the flank companies had rifles, though this changes with the widespread use of rifle-muskets.

How were mounted infantry (like dragoons) used in battle? - History

Posted on: 04 . 30 . 15 by R.S. Fleming

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“Horses are taught not by harshness but by gentleness.” Cavalry: Its History and Tactics, Captain L.E. Nolan, 1853.

Anyone who reads my articles will probably notice a leaning toward the military and in particular the cavalry a tendency certainly understandable for a retired soldier with a love of horses. I received a request to do a piece about horse tack during the Victorian era, but the saddles, bridles, bits, and reins weren’t very different from modern English equestrian seats and accoutrements. However, the intricacies of the cavalry, which existed as common knowledge while Queen Victoria reigned, may prove a mystery to readers in our times. This article will serve as an explanation and glossary of the British horse soldiers and include pertinent foreign terms.

15th Light Dragoons, most wearing their pelisses because of the cold, charging across difficult ground at Sahagun, Spain, 1808. The 15th, at a strength of 400 men, fought French regiments of twice their number. The French were utterly defeated.

The cavalry inherited by Queen Victoria when she took the throne in 1837 was still very much resting on its laurels from the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). During those years, the British heavy cavalry consisted of three regiments of guards, seven regiments of dragoons guards (1st to 7th), and five dragoons (1st to 6th less the 5th disbanded for mutiny). The dragoons were sometimes considered a middleweight because they didn’t wear defensive armour. The light cavalry included twenty-one light dragoon regiments (7th to 29th) and two regiments of German cavalry. Campaigning on the Continent led to the British cavalry learning from their enemies and allies, adopting specialities, four regiments becoming hussars, and three lancers. The heavies didn’t wear breastplates into battle during the Napoleonic Wars, but did don helmets, and steel reinforced jackboots. After the wars many regiments were disbanded, the most junior retained being the 17th Light Dragoons. This was the cavalry on strength in 1837, and included three Household cavalry regiments (The Guards), six dragoon guard regiments, four dragoon regiments, four light dragoon regiments, four hussar regiments, and four lancer regiments. By 1861 the heavies included three regiments of guards, three of dragoons, and seven of dragoon guards, while the lights were nine regiments of hussars and five lancers.

Troopers of the 1st Dragoon Guards, 7th Hussars, and Royal Horse Guards, circa 1812. Note the helmets and jackboots on the dragoon and guardsman, the slung carbines of the dragoon and hussar, and the extremely long, heavy, hatchet-pointed sabre of the guardsman.

As with any long spell of relative peace, the expertise of the veterans is lost. The fighting skills and practical common knowledge learned while on campaign slowly erodes until the average officer is more concerned with the cut of his uniform than the cut of his sabre. The troops become efficient at doing as little as possible as quickly as possible, while not giving combat any serious thought, concentrating on garrison duties. Queen Victoria’s cavalry looked fantastic on parade, but by the time the regiments were called into action for the Crimean War (1853-56) they were a far cry from the hardened terrors who charged against Napoleon’s legions. The Commanding Officers of the 1840s wanted tall men in their regiments, believing the goodness of the cavalry consisted exclusively in the “height of the man and horse” whether they could ride and handle a sabre or not. Some officers who soldiered abroad and then returned to British regiments decried the lack of professionalism. Probably the most renowned was Captain L.E. Nolan (1818-54) of Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava fame. Nolan served with the 10th Austrian Hussars in Austria, Hungary, and Poland, then transferred to the British 15th Light Dragoons, knowing they were about to deploy to India. (The Austrian Army refused his resignation and he wasn’t stuck off their roles until 1899.) He studied cavalry tactics and was well known for his outstanding horsemanship. By 1853 Nolan was back in Britain, promoted to captain, and had written two books on horse care and cavalry theory.

Officers of the 3rd Light Dragoons 1840, 10th Hussars 1844, and 16th Lancers 1846, clearly revealing glamorous and impractical uniforms harking back to the Napoleonic Wars. Note the long stirrups and straight legs of the men depicted, their heavily embroidered and ostentatious sabretaches and shabraques.

Nolan’s highly acclaimed and influential Cavalry: Its History and Tactics led to reforms throughout the British Army, but mostly after his death. He was quoted verbatim in military articles and books again and again. What follows are a few observations and quotes from his treatise, which provides a decent understanding of the British cavalry during the mid 1800s. The book opens with a recounting of battles in which cavalry were or were not effective and why. Nolan makes clear that quality horses, expert horsemanship, speed, and decisive attacks without hesitation were key components in many victories. He quotes the Prussian military writer Georg Heinrich von Berenhorst (1733-1814) “When the cavalry in order of battle, like a pent-up flood, is held ready, and, at the first signal, poured down in torrents, floods the field, sweeping all before it, then has the cavalry reached the ideal of perfection.” Nolan expands on this to include discipline and coordination with the infantry and artillery the cavalry should attack, but then reform immediately and not charge off harum-scarum away from the rest of the army, unless the entire enemy force is in retreat. In regards to officers he wrote “The qualities requisite in a cavalry leader are, a good eye for country, and a quick one for the enemy’s movements, great energy, courageous decision, and rapid execution.” On troopers he stated “We have seen that individual prowess, skill in single combat, good horsemanship, and sharp swords, render all cavalry formidable. That light and active horsemen have, in the long run, prevailed over heavily-equipped cavalry, and that speed and endurance are qualities to be highly prized in the horseman.” He goes on “the present riding drill makes few good horsemen. The swords, blunted by steel scabbards, are not efficient weapons. Speed and endurance cannot be expected from horses that are over-weighted.” Nolan felt light cavalry imperative, as they were “the most important in the field… called upon to watch over the safety of the army… constantly hovering in advance, on the flanks, and in the rear of the columns, to prevent all possibility of a surprise on the part of the enemy… they are constantly employed in cutting off the enemy’s supplies and communication, in reconnoitring, &c.” He opined that “Heavy cavalry should have the largest and most powerful horses, but the men and their accoutrements should be light.”

Nolan wrote that the ideal hussar or dragoon be “active, intelligent, and quick-sighted… with great physical strength… not exceeding five feet four inches.” He felt their equipment should be minimal, and was a great proponent of wooden scabbards, echoing General Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853) “The cavalry steel scabbard is noisy, which is bad it is heavy, which is worse and it destroys the weapon’s sharp edge, which is worst.” (The steel scabbards were handy cudgels, and useful in defence if a sabre blade snapped.) Nolan felt uniforms should be simple and practical, the exact opposite of the elaborate costume he wore as a member of the 15th Hussars. He felt a soldier could be well-dressed and smart in appearance donning a plain outfit, but with distinctive colours to differentiate regiments, particularly important after a charge or skirmish and a rally is sounded. “To me it appears that we have too much frippery – too much toggery – too much weight in things worse than useless.” He then went on to list plumes, bandoliers (the decorative shoulder belt and cartridge pouch of the era), sabretashes, sheepskins, shabraques, &c., as useless when on campaign and having to “rough it.” Nolan felt a sort of metal bracer to protect the forearm would be beneficial, and steel strips sewn into the outside of the overall legs. In the use of lances he pointed out they were only effective at speed, the horses at full gallop, so the weapon should be retired.

The horse furniture used by troopers in the mid 1800s hadn’t changed much from the Napoleonic era. Cavalry saddle trees (frames) were made of hardwood, entirely uncovered, and consisted of side-boards, with a front and rear arch or fork attached by mortises, and the underseat (also known as a wolf or straining strap) strung between them. The underseats were made of thick strong leather about 10 to 15 inches (25-38 cm) long, and roughly 4 inches (10 cm) broad at the hind arch, narrowing toward the front arch, usually secured by nails. Rawhide lacing ran along both sides of the underseat to the side-boards. The saddle seat, crafted of leather, padded and quilted, draped over the tree and underseat. There were variations in design between the branches of the mounted branches of the British army, in particular between the heavies and lights, but the above description outlines the basic saddle used during the Crimean War, and retained by some cavalry regiments up until the mid 1860s. However, the initial issue all-purpose saddle arrived in 1856. This new saddle, based on the designs of Nolan, was still a wood arched saddle with flaps, crafted to carry a total weight of about 220 lbs (100 kg). It served through the campaigns of the 1860s and 70s, and used by some territorial home guard (yeomanry) units until the end of the 1800s. The shape of the saddle brought the cavalryman closer to the horse, allowing improved contact between the rider’s legs and flanks of the animal. The previously applied stuffed pad was replaced with felt fastened to the side-boards and a blanket, alleviating the heat and stress suffered by the horses. The training of troopers to balance in the saddle with long stirrups (the legs straight) Nolan derided and recommended bent knees with firm squeezing of the thighs to ensure a safe seat. He criticized equitation schools that taught fancy dressage like croupades and caprioles, and suggested quick starts and stops and sharp turns (pirouettes) the most important skills to teach cavalrymen and to train their horses for the field of action.

This drawing depicts Bavarian light and heavy cavalry saddles, but it is an excellent illustration and the models are similar to the British seats of the mid 1800s.

A new saddle came into use in 1872, known as the Flat Iron Arch model the first to be constructed with metal arches. It proved an utter disappointment, the arches spreading, which led to the seat resting on the horse’s spine. Experiments with metal led to the Angle Iron Arch saddle of 1878, which was trialled by the 1st Dragoon Guards and 17th Lancers during the Anglo-Zulu War (1879). It failed too, the men preferring the old wooden arched saddles. In the early 1880s steel was used instead on iron, leading to more improvements, and in 1891 the Steel Arched Universal Pattern Saddle Mark I appeared, followed by the Mark II (1893) and the Mark III (1898). These saddles were a success, with single piece seats, high cantles, and wider flaps, making them more similar to an English hunting saddle.

17th Lancers, 1870s, showing the practical multi-purpose uniform and kit that all British cavalry carried, less the lance. Khaki uniforms was the next step.

Regiments selected horses for uniformity dark brown the most common. The Royal Scots Greys (2nd Dragoons), mounted on dapple greys, serve as the most obvious exception, but there was also the Queen’s Bays (2nd Dragoon Guards) who, of course, rode bays (reddish brown bodies with black manes and tails), and for awhile in the late 1800s a squadron of the 7th Dragoon Guards rode black horses.

Captain Nolan served and died in the Crimea before his suggestions were adopted, but many of them shaped the cavalry of the 1860s and 70s as troopers became versatile mounted infantry. By the 1870s all the British cavalry regiments were carrying sabres, carbines and pistols, and some retained lances. Armour was only worn during ceremonial duties. Their uniforms became more practical with each passing campaign. However, despite the improvements, by the close of the Victorian era the cavalry role in combat had dwindled. Truly, it was the improvements of firearms that precipitated the removal of heavy cavalry and any sort of armour from the battlefield. British Army command realized only light fast troopers armed with a complement of weapons on decent horseflesh were to be of any use in modern warfare. In name and for ceremonial purposes the cavalry retained much of their traditions but, for the field and combat, practicality and common sense prevailed. Of course, the weapons and vehicles of the 21st century ensured the demise of mounted soldiers in warfare, and thank God for the poor bloody horses!

Kate Tattersall thought highly of the light cavalry, pretended to be a despatch rider as a child, and thought she possessed the necessary attributes and skills to be one as an adult, despite the restrictions of Victorian society.

There are still some elite military units who are specialized for mounted patrolling, their horses exceptionally trained and valuable members of their respective armies.

Ballotade a French term for when a horse leaps straight up off all fours, bending both knees and hocks, showing its hind shoes without kicking out. A somewhat useless skill taught at some equitation schools throughout the 1800s as a step to training a horse for the capriole.

Brigade in regards to cavalry, indicated three or four regiments operating together, under the command of a senior colonel (brigadier).

Busby the hussar headdress, a cylindrical fur cap, having a bag of coloured cloth hanging from the top and down to the side, typically to the right within British regiments.

Details of The Ballotade and The Capriole, Ludwig Koch (1866-1934).

Capriole a French term for when a horse leaps straight up off all fours, bending both knees and hocks, then lashes out with its hind hooves. A somewhat useless skill taught at some equitation schools throughout the 1800s, and a throwback to when warhorses were trained to kick and bite. Now-a-days taught for dressage shows.

Carbineers the first cavalry squadrons to be armed with carbines, when firearms were still quite new. This term was used within the British army more commonly in the 1700s.

Croupade a French term, during the 1800s it was used for when a horse hops and kicks back hard and high with its hind legs, or when a horse jumps up parallel to the ground with its legs tucked tightly under, as a step to training for the capriole.

The Croupade With Posts, J.A.H. Bird (1846-1936), nicely shows a lady riding side-saddle on a powerful mount performing the kicks.

Czapka (plural: czapki) pronounced shapka, a Polish word for cap, evolved from a tall square topped shako worn by Austrian uhlans during the Napoleonic Wars designed to protect from the downward stroke of a blade. During the Victorian era the lancer headdress took the form of a brimmed skullcap with the regimental crest on the front, the square of protective armour mounted above by a sort of stem. British soldiers called czapki lance caps.

Chasseurs French for chasers or hunters, a light regiment equipped for rapid movement, also a designation applied to certain elite infantry units.

Chevaulegers from the French for cheval (horse) and léger (light) to denote light cavalry regiments. The term was used by several European nations.

Cuirassiers a heavy regiment with troopers each wearing a cuirass (an armour breastplate and backplate) and usually helmets.

Detail of The Dispatch-Bearer, 1879, by Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931), shows a French despatch rider a small active man on a superior mount.

Despatch (dispatch) riders usually small troopers with outstanding horsemanship abilities on superior mounts who act as message deliverers, sometimes over long distances, sometimes under fire in the heat of battle.

Dolman came from the Turkish word dolaman, which means robe, and was a long loose garment. By the Napoleonic Wars it was a military tunic, particularly for cavalry regiments, worn over a shirt. It was the day-to-day jacket, to which might be added a pelisse, a rain cape, or a greatcoat.

Dragoons mounted infantry armed with carbines and sabres, the name comes the early 1600s when French cavalry were first armed with a brace of pistols, the hammers of which resembled dragons, or that the troopers were like dragons, spitting fire and quick on the wing. By the 1800s there were middle and light dragoon regiments, the former similar to the guards (usually known as Dragoon Guards, who wore helmets but not body armour) and the latter akin to the hussars. Nolan observed: “Dismounted cavalry have done good service in covering a retreat, in defending defiles and passes against cavalry, and in pushing forward to seize bridges and halting to maintain them but they would be quite out of place if used in storming positions, or if expected to take their post in line of battle with the infantry.”

Guards heavy cavalry who wore defensive armour (breastplates and backplates, helmets, jackboots) and wielded the longest heaviest sabres, and rode the largest horses.

Heavy cavalry large men in defensive armour, mounted on big powerful horses, held for decisive charges. The horses being slow and overweighted, the charges had to be short, and supported by light cavalry. They performed no foraging or reconnoitring. Nolan stated derisively: “They are calculated only to show an imposing front in the line of battle, and their history proves them to be more formidable in appearance than in reality.”

Hussars from the Hungarian huszár, in Victorian times they were light cavalry, famous for elegant uniforms. Heavy hussars did exist in the Kingdom of Poland from the 1570s to 1776 when the regiments were reformed as uhlans. They were known as husaria, wore armour and carried lances, and made up the elite wing of the cavalry.

19th Hussars by J. Charlton (1849-1917). The men depicted in their dress uniforms, late 1800s, a corporal trumpeter on the left, a troop sergeant at centre with sabre drawn, and an officer on the right. They don’t have pelisses and wear the Austrian style dolman which was adopted after the Crimean War.

Lancers light regiments armed with lances and sabres, czapki headdresses.

Light cavalry average to small but strong men, mounted on fast nimble horses, skilled in the cut and thrust of skirmishing. The eyes and ears of an army, the tasks of advance patrols and reconnoitring, guarding the flanks and rear of the columns, cutting off the enemy’s supplies and communication, &c., fell to the light cavalry regiments.

Pelisse waist-length tightly tailored jackets, lined with fur and decorated with galloon, worn by hussar regiments. They usually were worn like a cape on the left shoulder and across the back to protect from sabre slashes, and known informally as slinging-jackets. They were very expensive pieces of kit, running about fifty guineas at the onset of the Crimean War.

Regiment two squadrons operating together, with a commander holding the rank of light or full colonel, who rides at the front of his regiment with the adjutant close by. Two majors command the flanks (the wing-leaders) and repeat words of command, their trumpeters sounding when ordered. All trumpeters join in during a charge or rally. The sergeant-major (most senior other rank) rides at the rear.

Into the Valley of Death by J. Charlton, highlighting the 17th Lancers during the charge of the Light Brigade, Balaclava, 25 Oct 1854. After thrusting their lances into an enemy, they drew their sabres to skirmish with the Russian artillery.

Sabretache originally similar to a sporran and serving as a pocket, by the late 1700s it was a flat stiff leather case hung from a belt. By the mid 1800s they ranged from plain to fancy, some functional others purely decorative, worn by cavalry regiments, often to carry despatches on the battlefield. They contained paper and pencils, maps, ruler, &c, and served as a portable little writing surface.

Shabraque (shabrack) a large cloth made to cover a cavalry saddle, crafted of regimental colours, rounded front corners and pointed rear corners, regimental crest or royal cypher on the rear corners. Upon the shabraque would be placed a sheepskin, bearskin, &c. Many records show the shabraque only being used for ceremonial parades and not on campaign, although it often appears on artwork of battles.

Squadron two, three, or four troops of cavalry riding together, commanded by a major (squadron-leader) or a senior captain (brevet major). The major leads from the front with captains on the flanks, and operate similarly as a regiment. The senior troop sergeant-major rides at the rear.

An officer of the 8th Hussars, 1854, showing the busby, dolman, pelisse (slung), sabretache (red), and shabraque, all exquisitely trimmed and lavishly embroidered. A photo of Capt A. Hutton, 1st Dragoon Guards, 1871, in stable dress a forage cap (pillbox) and stable jacket with hercules ribbon, toggle buttons, and soutache knot-work on the cuffs.

Stable jackets were crafted of very dark blue or black and designed to be worn by officers over their elaborate dolmans to protect them from dirt. They were long, coming to the knee, and became a favourite item for day-to-day wear. By the mid 1800s they were tricked out with galloon and other trim.

Subaltern a term for commissioned officers below the rank of captain, within the cavalry of the 1800s including cornets and lieutenants.

Troop the base cavalry unit of roughly forty to fifty men, commanded by a captain (troop-leader), assisted by two subalterns, discipline provided by a troop sergeant-major and his sergeants and corporals. The captain would lead, the subalterns taking positions on the flanks, each with a trumpeter behind them, the troop sergeant-major at the rear.

Uhlans from Turkish ōlan meaning a brave young man or warrior, this term was adopted by the Polish, German, and Austria-Hungarian armies to denote a light cavalry regiment armed with lances, sabres, and pistols.

Vedettes/videttes mounted sentries who patrol beyond an army’s outposts to observe the approach or movements of enemy forces. Usually light cavalrymen on superior mounts, like despatch riders.

“God forbid that I should go to any Heaven in which there are no horses.”
Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham (1852-1936), Scottish adventurer, politician, journalist and writer.

Do you give the horse his strength or clothe his neck with a flowing mane?
Do you make him leap like a locust, striking terror with his proud snorting?
He paws fiercely, rejoicing in his strength, and charges into the fray.
He laughs at fear, afraid of nothing he does not shy away from the sword.
The quiver rattles against his side, along with the flashing spear and lance.
In frenzied excitement he eats up the ground he cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.
At the blast of the trumpet he snorts, ‘Aha!’
He catches the scent of battle from afar, the shout of commanders and the battle cry.
Job 39: 19-25

* Interestingly, all German cavalry regiments took up the lance, and carried them into WWI (1914-18), and the French Cuirassiers were still wearing armour at the start of that horrific conflict.

The Horse (Cavalry)

C avalrymen were organised in troops like infantry companies. Each troop was commanded by a captain and consisted of between thirty and one hundred men. Although some cavalry troops operated independently, they were usually brigaded together into a regiment of around six troops under the command of a colonel.


Cuirassiers were the lineal descendants of the fully-armoured men-at-arms of the Middle Ages. They rode into battle encased in a suit of articulated armour, with the exception of the lower leg (which was protected by a long boot) and the back of the thigh.

The invention of the wheel-lock firing mechanism made it practical to use firearms on horseback, so cuirassiers discarded the heavy lance in favour of pistols, carbines and swords. Mounted and armoured pistoleers, called reiters, dominated European battlefields during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Although it was fashionable for officers and noblemen to sit for portraits in full armour, very few cuirassier units served during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Not only were cuirassiers expensive to equip and maintain, it was also difficult to find horses strong enough to bear their weight. Their cumbersome armour became steadily less effective as firearms improved, which is consistent with the general decline in the use of protective armour during the 17th century. Individual commanders on both sides sometimes went into battle equipped as cuirassiers but the only regular cuirassier units were Parliamentarian.

The cuirassier lifeguard troops of the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Bedford and Sir William Balfour played an important role at the battle of Edgehill in 1642. The most famous cuirassier unit of the civil wars was Sir Arthur Hesilrige's regiment, the "Lobsters", which was active during 1643 as the heavy cavalry of Sir William Waller's army but was reformed as a harquebusier regiment after Waller's defeat at Roundway Down.


Most civil war cavalry were equipped as "harquebusiers". Originally, harquebusiers were foot soldiers who had exchanged the crossbow for the arquebus (or harquebus), an early form of matchlock firearm. During the French religious wars of the 16th century, harquebusiers were mounted on horseback. By the early 17th century, they had evolved into the light cavalrymen of western Europe.

Ideally, harquebusiers were armed with a carbine or harquebus, a pair of pistols and a sword. During the civil wars, the carbine or harquebus was likely to be carried by officers only. The carbine is distinguished from the harquebus by being of larger bore and firing a larger, heavier bullet. Both types had a barrel length of around three feet and were carried suspended from a shoulder belt. The pistols, carried in saddle holsters, had a barrel length of around twenty inches. Cavalry firearms were of the firelock pattern, either flintlocks or the more expensive and less popular wheel-lock. Harquebusier defensive armour consisted of a light breast- and back-plate and pot helmet, sometimes with a "gorget" to protect the throat. A thick leather buff-coat was usually worn underneath the armour, and often replaced it altogether. A distinctive feature of English harquebusier arms was the three-bar pot helmet with articulated neck-guard.

Harquebusiers were classified as light cavalry, in contrast to cuirassiers who were regarded as heavy cavalry. In practice, however, cavalry tactics developed during the civil wars so that harquebusier regiments such as Prince Rupert's horse and Cromwell's Ironsides fought as shock troops, the role usually associated with cuirassiers.


Dragoons were mounted infantrymen who rode small horses or cobs to move into position and then fought on foot. They wore no armour and usually carried a musket or carbine and sword.

The practice of mounting musketeers for greater mobility probably originated during the late 16th century in the French Huguenot armies of Henri of Navarre. Dragoons were used in the Dutch armies of Prince Maurice of Nassau and one theory for the origin of the name is that it is derived from the Dutch word "tragon", used to describe mounted infantry. Another theory is that it was derived from the "dragon", a short-barrelled carbine that was later replaced by flintlock muskets.

Typical dragoon actions during the civil wars were to cover the approaches to a position or to guard the flank. Initially, dragoons were organised in distinct regiments, but as the wars progressed, the practice grew of attaching a company of dragoons to some of the larger cavalry regiments to provide supporting fire in action and to act as sentries. A full regiment of dragoons was raised on the formation of the New Model Army in 1645, which played a significant role in the early stages of the battle of Naseby by disrupting Prince Rupert's cavalry on the Royalist right wing


By the mid-17th century, the heavy lance used by medieval men-at-arms was obsolete in European warfare, yet the light lance remained the special weapon of the English borderers or reivers. During the civil wars, it was used extensively by Scottish cavalry, particularly in regiments recruited near the border regions. Initially, Scottish cavalry regiments were organised in two squadrons, one equipped as harquebusiers, the other as lancers. The proportion of lancers steadily increased as the wars proceeded, partly because horses suitable for harquebusiers became more difficult to find.

At the battle of Marston Moor in 1644, David Leslie's Scottish lancers used their superior mobility in a decisive intervention against the Royalist horse. After this, the Scottish cavalry were all equipped as lancers, turning their lighter horses to advantage and relying upon speed and manoeuvrability rather than the weight and firepower of harquebusier units. Body armour was abandoned except for a steel cap. As it was no longer necessary to maintain a long unbroken frontage in battle, Scottish lancer regiments were organised in three troops rather than the more usual six or more.

Despite the effectiveness of Scottish lancers in campaigns in England, Scotland and Ireland, no attempt was made to re-introduce lancers into English armies during the civil wars.

How were mounted infantry (like dragoons) used in battle? - History

The 5th Troop, Virginia Light Horse, was raised in 1776 by "Light Horse Harry" Lee. It contained 30 troopers and joined Washington in New Jersey in October, 1776. This elite unit had a glorious record in the Northern theater of the war. It served for a time as Washington's body guard, and was intimately involved at Paulus Hooke, Brandywine and Stoney Point. In 1780 it became Lee's Partisan Legion and served throughout the South with great distinction particularly at Guilford Courthouse, NC.

The history of Lee's 5th Troop of Dragoons is best studied from the Memoirs of Harry Lee, himself. These were written some time after the war and published in 1821. Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Harry's youngest son, introduced the 1869 edition of his father's book. Lee's memoirs serve as a major source of information about the Revolutionary War in the Southern theater, and about the historical unit itself. The Orderly book of the 5th Troop is also available in manuscript form, as are the Virginia stores records which serve as excellent evidence of what the unit wore and how they were armed and equipped.

The historical unit was raised in 1776 by the 19 year old Lee in the area of Alexandria, VA from among his aristocratic friends. Lee's cousin Theodoric Bland, the regimental Colonel of the 1st Dragoons, had received a request from Congress to raise one of four Regiments of Continental Horse (six Troops)and had approached Harry with the offer of a Captaincy if he could raise a troop of 30 men. The recruits supplied their own mounts and, initially, their own weapons. Nonetheless, Lee spent a good part of his own fortune providing the "blue and red" uniforms for his troop.

The Virginia stores records show that as the 1st Dragoons was forming both a green and brown, and a blue and red uniform were being used. A lieutenant of the 5th Troop is recorded as specifically drawing blue and red cloth with gold buttons for his uniform. Also, the Dragoons were required to supply themselves with hunting frocks in the way of a battle or fatique dress. The diary of a New Jersey resident later describes the 5th Troop in these colors. The stores records also evidence the fact that the regiment was supplied with 292 slashing swords taken from the royal governor's place in Williamsburg. Leather breeches, French style top boots, capes, and leather Dragoon helmets finished the equipment. Initially carbines seem to have been in short supply and some troopers carried muskets and rifles, as well as their own pistols.

Lee's men traveled north with the 2nd and 3rd Troops, forming the first squadron of Virginia Light Horse, to join Washington in New Jersey. From October to the end of the year Lee's troops executed fifteen recorded raids on Britrish supply trains capturing 24 carts in a single operation. The total loss to the 5th Troop was two wounded troopers and a wounded horse. Also during this period Lee's men are generally attributed with having scouted the Christmas attack on Trenton (although they took no active part in the battle). Thereafter, they were stationed near Bound Brook, NJ, and small detachments scouted across the Raritan River toward British held New Brunswick.

In May 1777, Lee's troop was detached for temporary duty with General Lincoln and ordered to Chatham to cover the army's northern flank. In June they were manuvering around Woodbridge and Short Hills, NJ. They then moved southward toward Wilmington, DE to defend Philadelphia from the British who were landing at Head of Elk. At this time Lee attacked and captured a British scouting and foraging party bringing in 24 captives. Thereafter Washington chose Lee for several special assignments. Nonetheless, the 1st Dragoons (whether Lee's men or not is questioned) failed to detect the British build-up on the right of Washington's army at Brandywine Creek, PA although Col. Bland himself discovered the envelopment in time to meet it. Lee's Memoirs give no details of the stubbornly fought withdrawal of the Dragoons on that day.

Shortly thereafter, Lee and four Dragoons were dispatched with Washington's aide, Alexander Hamilton, to burn some flour mills near the Schuykill River in PA. Unfortunately elements of the 16th and 17th British Light Dragoons had already secured the mills, and Lee and Hamilton found themselves cut off and in danger of capture. Hamilton became separated from the others during the ensuing skirmish but was able to escape by recrossing the river. It was in recounting this encounter that Lee commented on the "innocence" of mounted gunfire and his the reliance on the sword. In October at the Battle of Germantown, Lee's Troop was detailed to act as Washington's body guard. During the rest of the year, the unit scouted the Jersey bank of the Delaware River and harassed enemy foragers and scouts. In December Lee combined with Daniel Morgan's riflemen in a series of small raids.

By the end of 1777 Lee's Troop had gained some measure of notoriety. The New Jersey Gazette of Jan. 14, 1778 wrote: "A troop of dragoons in Bland's regiment, seldom having more than 25 men and horses fit for duty, has since the first of August last, taken 125 British and Hessian privates, besides four commissioned officers, with the loss of only one horse. This Gallant Corps is under the commanded of Captain Lee, Lt. Lindsay and Cornet Peyton, whose merit and services it is hoped will not be passed unnoticed or unrewarded".

Throughout the revolution Harry Lee was given commands that enabled him to exercise independent initiative. In recognition of his success Col. Bland presented Lee with a small blue cavalry pennant decorated with white stars. This was a banner that Lee kept with him throughout his career as his personal guidon. Washington was so pleased with Lee's actions that he allowed him to mark all correspondence between them as "Private." Nonetheless, Lee's individualism ran afoul of the army establishment, and Washington's open regard for him brought Lee enemies. In 1778 he refused to rejoin Bland's command, and Washington wrote to Bland excusing Lee from doing so. Washington also wrote to Congress regarding an independent command for him. "Captain Lee's genius particularly adapts him to a command of this nature." Lee would never again serve under Bland's direct command.

In Jan. 1778 Lee's Troop established its winter quarters at Scott's Farm at the top of Mount Joy in PA. This was an advanced outpost of the wintering army, and Lee's Troop had many opportunities to harass the enemy. Lee activities so enraged the British commanders that Simcoe, the outstanding Loyalist officer, was sent with a party of the Queen's Rangers and a detachment of the 17th Light Dragoons to surpress him.

On Jan 19, 1778 Simcoe's force of more than 200 men evaded Lee's videttes and attacked the rebel camp at Scott's Farm. Most of the Troop were out foraging, but Lee and seven others barricaded themselves in the farmhouse and held off the British attack. After killing or wounding eight of the attackers, Lee successfully bluffed the British commander into thinking that American support had arrived. Lee led a counterattack of seven men from the house shouting that they would "capture them all." Being inside enemy lines the Rangers and 17th Dragoons discretely retired. In this action only one Dragoon, Lt. Lindsay, was wounded in the hand.

Although he had successfully coordinated his activities with riflemen and infantry commanders, these exploits left Lee with the reputation of being a "glory hound" unable to work with other mounted units. Nonetheless, both Gen. Lincoln and Gen. Washington considered him an exemplary officer. In April 1778 Lee was made a Major and immediately planned and led a successful raid against the Crown outpost at Paulus Hooke (Elizabeth, NJ). At the last moment a certain Major Clarke joined the expedition. When Clarke claimed the right to command based on an earlier commission, Lee lied about the date of his own. Subsequently, Lee was court martialed for not turning over the command. However, the court's finding were inconsequential in the face of Lee's success. Congress awarded him a gold medal (the only such award given to any man in the war below the rank of General).

In the Spring of 1778 Lee's Troop was given a new designation, The Partisan Corps. The 5th Troop became the 1st Troop, the Maryland/Delaware Troop of Capt. Allan McLane became the 2nd Troop and a 3rd Troop, made up entirely of native Americans of the Onieda nation, with their own horses and officers was later authorized by Congress. The Partisan establishment was continued until it was officially declared a Legion, with two infantry companies being attached, and sent to the Southern theater of the war. Nonetheless, Lee, now a Lt. Colonel, continued to refer to the Legion as "Partisan" in documents and letters. The Partisan Legion received recruits from throughout the Continental Army, and a position in Lee's command was highly regarded.

In 1779 and 1780 the war moved to the Southern theater, and Lee's Troop's (now a Legion) moved south with it. In the Carolina's, Lee served under the fighting Quaker, General Nathaniel Greene, who he believed was the finest American officer of the war. Greene led the British force under General Cornwalis through a protracted cat and mouse game. When forced to fight, Greene generally failed to overcome the superior British force, but he made the British victories so costly that they were weakened by their success. Lee's troops generally served as advanced guards or rear guards for the American army. They combined mounted and dismounted tactics into a form used by Legionary forces.

Lee's men were now dressed in dark green uniforms with black cuffs and collars. These were described as being exactly like Simcoe's Queen's Rangers. The lack of differentiation among the uniforms seems to have caused a good deal of confusion. Lee's major antagonist in the south was Major Banistre Tarleton, "the Green Dragoon." Tarleton was infamous for his cruelty, and he served as the model for the evil British Dragoon portrayed in the movie "The Patriot." Lee was mistaken for Tarelton at least once when he boldly rode into a British supply depot and requisitioned supplies and ammunition. Lee also captured or killed as many as 400 southern Loyalists by posing as Tarleton and springing an ambush on the men as they stood at attention to be reviewed by Tarleton.

Lee served closely with such southern partisan leader as Marion and Pickens. He fought at Hobkirk's Hill and Fort Mott, but never came into direct contact with Tarleton.

Mounted warfare

Cavalry soldiers on large, heavy and strong horses were used to break enemy formations. Some cavalry, and later mounted infantry, also gave commanders mobile firepower on the battlefield.

Small, light, fast horses were used to scout, patrol and pursue. Scouts were trained to spot signs of the enemy and track their movements while staying hidden. They also became specialist marksmen who could shoot very accurately from long distances.

Soldiers on swift horses carried important orders and news (despatches) between commanders and officers. In the event of defeat, horses could also provide a quick getaway.

A horse gave extra height. This allowed generals and their staff to move around a battlefield encouraging and directing their soldiers. They could be seen more clearly by their troops but also by their enemy, making them prime targets for sharpshooters.

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Indeed, at Culloden some of the most effective units were not Highland ones: the Forfarshire Regiment held its shape and retired in good order most of the men made it home safely to Angus. And some of the bravest actions of the battle were carried out by Lord Lewis Gordon’s brigade from Aberdeen and Banff, Lord John Drummond’s Royal Scots in the French service and Viscount Strathallan’s Perthshire Horse. Army orders were given in English, not Gaelic.

The battle of Culloden was fought between Catholics and Protestants – MYTH

Statistically, the most likely recruit for the Jacobite army was from the north east of Scotland and an adherent of the Scottish Episcopal Church, which was roughly equivalent to the Church of England. Episcopalians supported the Stuarts because they believed that if they were restored, Presbyterianism would be disestablished in Scotland. Most of the Highlanders who fought for the Stuarts were Episcopalian too.

Though there were a number of Catholics, these were a minority of the army, and a small minority once the Scottish and Irish troops in the French service are excluded.

The battle of Culloden was a victory of muskets over swords – MYTH

This is one of the foundational myths of the battle, and accounts for why the clash has such importance in British history. From the 1740s onwards, the conflict has been presented as the inevitable victory of modern Britain over backward Scotland. Although we think (wrongly) of the Jacobites as Highlanders rather than Lowlanders (thanks to the creation of these categories in the 19th century), in the 18th century Scots in general were typically depicted wearing the kilt in political cartoons and satires. So initially Culloden was seen as a victory over all “rebellious Scots” (as the National Anthem put it, in a verse now no longer sung).

In fact, the Jacobite army at Culloden was heavily armed with French and Spanish muskets, as well as captured British ‘Brown Bess’ Land Pattern muskets. The diameter of the musket ball is slightly smaller in the French and Spanish guns, so it is easy to tell these apart (Brown Bess was 19mm with a 17.5mm ball and French/Spanish patterns were 17.5mm with a 16.5mm ball). It appears that the Jacobites fired many rounds at close quarters with the British front line (one British officer had six musket balls through his coat alone) to dislodge the British from flanking positions, and likewise to slow down the British cavalry advance in the final stages of the battle. Because British cavalry and dragoons (mounted infantry) typically used swords rather than guns as they attacked, the battle can be more accurately described as a victory for British swords over Jacobite muskets than the other way round.

The battle of Culloden was fought on a badly chosen site, and this was the fault of Charles Edward Stuart and his Irish officers – MYTH

Three sites were scouted in the 48 hours leading up to the battle. The first was at Dalcross Castle, which John Sullivan, the Irish adjutant and quartermaster general, rejected, because the distance across the ravine would have been too small to protect the Jacobite army from British musket fire from the other side.

The second was on the south side of the Nairn, chosen by Lord George Murray. This was poor ground, did not protect the road to Inverness and was vulnerable to British mortar fire from the other side of the river. It is clear that this site was a prelude to retreat and the dissolution of the army, because it was not an effective battle site.

The third site was about 1km east of where the battle was eventually fought, and John Sullivan drew up the army there on 15 April. It was on higher and less boggy ground than the final battlefield, and both wings of the army could see each other, which they could not in the next day’s sleet and rain. No one ‘chose’ the site of the battle on Drummossie Moor as a preference: it was the line closest to headquarters at Culloden House which could defend the road to Inverness.

Many of those soldiers who were asleep after the failed night attack on the 15th had retreated to the grounds of Culloden House, and there was little time to form them up as the British Army approached on the morning of the battle.

The battle of Culloden was fought to end a British civil war – MYTH

The Jacobite army was constructed and paid on the lines of the pre-Union Scottish army. Its officers described themselves as fighting the English, and French officers serving with the Jacobites saw matters in this light also, describing the conflict in Scotland vs England terms, as did many in England. Although many Scots fought against the Jacobites (though many less than joined them, and there were more deserters from the British Army to the Jacobites than vice versa), this was equally true in the wars of Wallace and Bruce, and in the American and Irish wars of independence.

The battle of Culloden was a defeat for Scottish nationalism – MYTH

The Jacobite leadership was not ‘nationalist’ in the modern sense. The Stuarts wished to be restored to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland and to be kings in London, but the Britain they and their supporters conceived was very different from the one that developed in the 18th century. Instead, there would have been a more confederal multi-kingdom monarchy, with capitals and parliaments in Edinburgh and Dublin (Dublin still had a parliament at this time, of course).

A Stuart Scotland would probably have been ‘independent’ and have had its own army, but would likely not have had much room to pursue a separate foreign policy from London. In this sense, it would have been in a position close to that enjoyed by the British Empire’s dominions, such as Canada and Australia, in the 19th century.

Murray Pittock is one of the leading scholars of Jacobitism and Romanticism. He is the author of Great Battles: Culloden (Oxford University Press, 2016)

History explorer: the historic Culloden battlefield

Julian Humphrys visits Culloden’s evocative battlefield and a fort that was built to subdue the highlands after the battle

If battles really are, as Winston Churchill once said, “the punctuation marks of history”, then Culloden has to be one of its full stops. For the brief but bloody battle fought on this bleak moorland on a bitterly cold day in April 1746 marked the end of Jacobite ambitions of reclaiming the British crown for the Stuarts.

Since the 1930s much of this evocative battlefield has been in the care of the National Trust for Scotland and in recent years much has been done to restore the site to the way it was at the time.

Culloden battlefield: audio guide

Flags mark the positions of the two armies, and you get a good sense of how the uneven and in places boggy ground affected the fighting. Hand-held audio-visual guides available from the splendid new visitor centre use GPS to determine your position on the battlefield before delivering the relevant information.

Enter the visitor centre and, unless your eye is caught by one of the costumed interpreters who put on daily living history presentations here, the first exhibit you’ll probably see are the splendidly-named Great Pipes of Baleshare.

According to family history the pipes were played at Culloden not, as you’d expect, by one of Prince Charlie’s highlanders but by a piper in the government army – a reminder that Culloden was not just a simple battle between English and Scots. French and Irish fought for the Jacobites while thousands of Scots, highlanders as well as lowlanders, fought on the government side.

The centre’s displays tell the story of the build-up to the battle and conclude with a 360‑degree film that puts you at the centre of the fighting.

I finished my day by making the short drive up the road to Fort George, one of the finest 18th‑century fortifications in Europe. It occupies a spectacular position, on a promontory jutting out into the Moray Firth, and was built after Culloden as part of a concerted government effort to ensure that the highland clans could never again rise up in support of the exiled Stuarts.

By the time it was completed in 1769 the Jacobite threat had evaporated but the fort continued in use as a recruiting and training base and still functions today as a working army barracks.

Visiting Culloden: what to look out for

Culloden battlefield

Although a road was built across the battlefield in 1835, attempts have been made by the National Trust for Scotland to restore the parts of the site in their care to how they would have appeared to participants in the battle.

Archaeological investigations, including the use of metal detectors to recover musket balls and other battlefield debris, have pinpointed the spots where the heaviest fighting took place. It seems that the Jacobites were using muskets in greater numbers than was first thought, while the recovery of heavy iron shell fragments shows that the government army fired mortars in a bid to halt the onrushing Jacobites.

Visitor Centre

Interactive ‘character stations’ tell the story of individuals who witnessed or were involved in the battle, while an animated ‘battle table’ shows how events on the day unfolded. The 200 exhibits on display include a sword seized from Bonnie Prince Charlie’s baggage.

Research had shown that the previous visitor centre actually stood where part of the government army had been drawn up, so the new building has been built in a less conspicuous spot a little further away from the action. Its roof offers an excellent viewpoint from which to take in the battlefield.

Clan Graves

Headstones bearing the names of the clans who fought in the battle mark where the Jacobite dead, of which there were over a thousand, were buried by local people. Many were identified by their clan badge, a plant sprig worn in their bonnet. The exact site of the graves of the government dead is still unknown.

Memorial Cairn

This 20-foot-high memorial cairn was erected by Duncan Forbes in 1881. Forbes was the owner of Culloden House (now a luxury hotel), which had been in the hands of his family since the 17th century, and was the descendant of a key figure on the government side in 1746.

Well of the Dead

The stone marks the place where Alexander MacGillivray of Dunmaglass fell leading Clan Chattan.

Cumberland Stone

Traditionally this marks the spot where the Duke of Cumberland, the commander of the government army, directed the battle.

Leanach Cottage

This heather-thatched cottage sits on the Culloden battle site and has been restored several times since the clash.

Culwhiniac Enclosure Wall

The National Trust for Scotland have rebuilt this section of wall to mark the approximate position of the Culwhiniac Enclosure on the right flank of the Jacobite line. The Argyll militia tore down part of the wall to enable government cavalry to pass through and threaten the Jacobite rear, and then fired on the retreating Jacobites as they passed by.

Fort George

This is one of Europe’s finest 18th‑century fortifications. Walk the extensive ramparts and enjoy the spectacular views of the Moray Firth (don’t forget to look out for dolphins) and visit the Highlanders’ Regimental Museum (see above).

You can also explore recreated 18th and 19th‑century barrack rooms, inspect the fort’s ammunition magazine and priceless collection of 18th‑century weaponry, and visit the garrison chapel with its flags, galleries, and triple-decker pulpit.

Highlanders’ Regimental Museum

Housed in one of the fort’s 18th-century buildings, the museum tells the story of the historic regiments that make up today’s highlanders. It displays items from regiments such as the Queen’s Own Highlanders, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, and the Lovat Scouts.

Travel information: Culloden battlefield and visitor centre are off the B9006, eight miles east of Inverness. Fort George is ten miles north of the battlefield, also off the B9006.

Julian Humphrys is a British military history expert and author

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