Revolutionary War Historical Article

The Birth of the American Cavalry

by Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the January 2008 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter

Prior to the American Revolution, most military planners believed the heavily forested land, few roads or open land so restricted their use that cavalry was deemed impractical in North America. There wasn’t any cavalry used during the French and Indian War. When the Revolutionary War started, British Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Gage employed mounted officers as cavalry during the disastrous raid on Concord.

A few mounted units did exist, such as the Philadelphia Light Horse, which escorted General George Washington from Philadelphia to Boston where he accepted the Command of the American Army. This unit was primarily ceremonial, and numbered
about thirty troopers.

Philadelphia Light Horse Company

On June 14th, 1775, two months after Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress adopted the forty militia regiments besieging Boston as "Continental Regiments". They also established Artillery Regiments, but there was no mention of Cavalry, which apparently wasn’t even discussed.

The following July, a German, resplendently uniformed as a Hussar, came into the Congress meeting room and announced that he and fifty other veterans of the Seven Years War (French and Indian War) were part of the newly formed "Pennsylvania Hussar Company". Impressed by their martial grandeur, Congress approved the unit and ordered it to proceed to Boston. Shortly after receiving their commission, they started submitting extravagant bills incurred by them. Congress, quickly decided they weren’t needed and disbanded them.

When the British were forced to evacuate Boston, the whole complexion of the war changed. No longer a static siege, General Washington realized that cavalry would be useful in patrolling the Atlantic Coast Line for possible British landings, and to serve as couriers. As a result he was pleased to accept Captain John Learys of the Light Horse Troop of New York City, an independent Company of forty light dragoons. On June 21st Washington asked Congress to accept them as a Continental unit.

Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull and the State Assembly created three regiments of Light Horse under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Seymour and ordered them to proceed to the main army and place themselves under the command of George Washington.

This 400 to 500 member Cavalry detachment arrived at Washington’s headquarters on July 11th, 1776. Unfortunately, they had left Connecticut in such a hurry that they failed to bring with them proper encampment equipment. Washington greeted them with mixed emotions. He already had a critical problem securing forage for his draft and artillery animals. He recommended that the troop send its horses back to Connecticut and serve as dismounted troops. The troopers offered to pay for the upkeep of their horses themselves, which Washington accepted.

The Connecticut Troop of Light Horse considered themselves "elite", hence exempted themselves from fatigue duty. Washington, trying to fortify all of New York harbor, needed every soldier he could muster. Over 400 soldiers exempting themselves from this duty caused a morale problem within the army. Washington addressed a straight forward letter to resolve the problem:

"To: Colonel Seymour and Other Field Officers of the Connecticut Light Horse.

New York, 16th July, 1776


In answer to yours of this date, I can only report to you what I said last night & by that is, that if your men think themselves exempt from the common duties of a soldier, will not mount guard do garrison duty or the service separate from their horses they can be no longer of use here where horses can’t be brought to action & I do not care how soon they are dismissed.

I am gentlemen,
Your Most Humble Serv'
G' Washington"

Some historians assert that General Washington’s dismissing his only cavalry Regiment greatly impacted the battle for New York. Cavalry doing reconnaissance may have discovered the British flanking maneuver that contributed to their defeat at the Battle of Long Island.

It is highly doubtful that being so vastly outnumbered by the British forces that anything would have helped.


For the first time, the British deployed cavalry in North America. Lieutenant General Lord William Howe brought with his invasion force Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Birch’s 17th Light Dragoons. This Regiment greatly intimidated the American infantry and was very effective. To offset the impact on the morale of his soldiers, General Washington issued the following Generals Orders:

"White Plains,
27 October, 1776

The General observing that the Army seems unacquainted with the Enemy’s Horse; and that when any parties meet with them, they do not oppose them with the same Alacrity which they shew in other cases; thinks it necessary to inform the officers and soldiers, that, in such a broken Country, full of Stone-Walls, there is no Enemy more to
be despised, as they cannot leave the road; So that any party attacking them may be always sure of doing it to advantage, by taking post in the Woods by the Roads, or along the stone-walls, where they will not venture to follow them; And as an encouragement to any brave parties, who will endeavour to surprise some of them, the General offers 100 Dollars, for every Trooper, with his Horse and Accoutrements, which shall be brought in, and so in proportion for any part, to be divided according to the Rank and pay of the party.

General George Washington"

They very next day, October 28th, during the battle of White Plains, the 17th Dragoons launched a cavalry charge against the American lines. It was too much for
the American militia, who at the sight of two hundred charging cavalrymen with their flashing sabres, broke and ran. Fortunately for the Americans, the Continentals covered their retreat preventing a slaughter, but Washington still had lost another battle.

With the situation around New York disintegrating, Governor Trumbull sent Major Elisha Sheldon and his 125 troopers of the 5th Regiment of Connecticut Light Horse to help Washington. An officer of the Pennsylvania Infantry described the 5th as "Being beyond meridian of life, without uniformity of clothing and discipline, and armed mostly with fowling pieces." Regardless of their appearance and equipment, they were better than nothing, and Washington was pleased to have them.

At the same time, responding to an appeal by Washington, his home state, Virginia, dispatched three troops of cavalry under the command of Major Theodoric Bland. They arrived in early November. One troop was commanded by a 21-year old Captain, Henry Lee, destined to become a cavalry legend, "Light Horse Harry Lee".

On December 11th, 1776 , Washington wrote to Congress: "From the experience I have had in this campaign of the utility of Horse, I am convinced there is no carrying on the war without them and I would therefore recommend the establishment of one or more Corps . . . In addition to those already raised in Virginia."

The General then on December 14th approved the raising of another troop of cavalry by his nephew, George Lewis, then serving as a Lieutenant in his Commander-in-Chief Guards. Many soldiers of the Guard who had their enlistments scheduled to expire on December 31st, elected to join Lewis’s troop of Light Horse. They participated in the battle of Trenton and Princeton, but it is doubtful if they had been equipped with horses at the time.

Prior to the victories at Trenton and Princeton, Congress granted Washington almost dictatorial powers, thusly empowering him to establish a cavalry arm for the American Army. Neither he, nor any of his officers, had any experience in organizing cavalry - - it would have to be a trial and error effort. The first thing Washington did was to re-designate the existing troops of light horse. He promoted Lt. Colonel Bland and re-designated the Virginia Light Horse to become the 1st Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons. Likewise, he promoted Sheldon to command the 2nd Regiment. He choose Lt. Colonel George Baylor from his personal staff to command the 3rd Regiment and Aide-de-Camp, Colonel Stephen Moylan to command the 4th. He permitted these officers to select their subordinates.

Each Regiment was divided into six troops, each commanded by a captain, with one lieutenant, one cornet, 2 sergeants, four corporals and 32 privates. Also as part of each troop was a farrier, armorer and trumpeter. Captain George Lewis and his troop was assigned to Colonel Baylor’s 3rd Regiment, but was detached to serve at headquarters. Baylor’s Regiment was known as "Lady Washington’s Own."

In spite of their best efforts, the commanders of these reorganized regiments were hard pressed to outfit their units. Horses were scarce, for equipment, it either had to be made or captured, and with the devaluation of the American currency, the cost was almost impossible to meet. (Click here for more about Continental Currency.)

When General Howe launched the Philadelphia Campaign, Washington ordered all of his cavalry, regardless of their status, to join the main army. Colonel Moylan was able to equip and mount 180 men for the 4th Regiment. Colonel Sheldon was not so fortunate. All he was able to send was one troop, commanded by Captain Benjamin Tallmage. Tallmage proved to be invaluable to Washington.

By late June the total amount of cavalry available to General Washington was 260 men. Although few in numbers they served Washington well.

A major problem that affected the use of Cavalry, both British and American, was forage. It was scarce, difficult to transport, and prevented them from massing their cavalry. Recognizing this, Washington spent a great deal of effort denying the British access to forage. On territory they controlled, such as Long Island, he had raids launched across Long Island Sound, whose purpose was the destruction of stored fodder. Sergeant Elijah Churchill of Sheldon’s 2nd Dragoons led one such raid and was awarded one of three "Badges of Military Merit", the equivalent of
today’s Medal of Honor. He and his troopers destroyed 300 tons of hay.

In the 18th century armies relied on horses and oxen to move their artillery and supplies as well as their cavalry. Without the animals they would be paralyzed.

In spite of their limited manpower, at the battle of Brandywine, Colonel Bland’s Regiment spotted General Howe’s flanking movement in time for Washington to withdraw, thereby saving the army.

On September 13th, 1777 Congress appointed Polish volunteer and professional cavalryman, Count Casimir Pulaski, Brigadier General, to command the Corps of American Light Dragoons. Needless to say, this action upset many of the senior American Cavalry officers. Additionally, the thirty-year old Pulaski was difficult to deal with, and held his American subordinates in contempt, considering them as amateurs. Further, Pulaski insisted that his staff be comprised solely of his Polish aides.

In his first engagement, the battle of Germantown, he was only able to muster 200 Dragoons. Covering the retreat of the Army, they were overrun by British Cavalry and forced back on the infantry lines.

After establishing winter encampment at Valley Forge, Washington kept his Dragoons busy intercepting shipments of food to the British in Philadelphia and serving as observers of British movements. Major Tallmage wrote: "My duties were very arduous, not being able to tarry long in a place, by reason of the British Light Horse which continually patrolled this intermediate ground. Indeed, it was unsafe to permit the dragoons to unsaddle their horses for an hour, and very rarely did I tarry in the same place through the night."

On April 7th, 1778, Congress promoted Captain Henry Lee of the 1st Dragoons, and gave him command of the newly established 5th Dragoons, with two troops of Dragoons, which became known as Lee’s Partisan Corps. Lee and his troopers established themselves as champion raiders. They specialized in capturing British supplies, greatly aiding their American compatriots. On May 28th a third troop was added. By July of 1779 the 5th was known as Lee’s Legion. Lee personally saw that his men were well equipped and uniformed often at his own expense. His men showed their appreciation by providing a long list of heroic exploits.

After the battle of Monmouth Court House (June 28th, 1778) the British retreated to the area around New York City. The American Dragoons were deployed to keep a close eye on them and to patrol the area known as "Neutral Ground", which resulted in numerous clashes. It was during this lengthy period that Major Tallmage earned his reputation as a raider to match that of Light Horse Harry Lee. Major Tallmage also set up and managed General Washington’s espionage network.

Encamped in the little village of Tappan, New York, the 3rd Continental Light Dragoons were surprised by four battalions of British infantry while they slept. The British commander, Major General Charles Grey, ordered the attack by bayonet only. Thirty-six troopers were killed or wounded, thirty-seven more captured. The rest escaped into the night. Colonel George Baylor was severely wounded, having been shot through the lungs and captured. He survived but the wound prevented his return to duty a until he was exchanged in 1781. He then took command of the combined 1st and 3rd Dragoon Regiments.

General Washington promoted a Major in Moylan’s 4th Regiment to Lieutenant Colonel and gave him command of the 3rd Regiment. He was General Washington’s
third cousin, William Washington. He had served in the infantry from the beginning of the war and was one of the two officers wounded at Trenton. He proved to understand cavalry tactics, and is said to have said: "The sword is the most destructive and almost only necessary weapon a Dragoon carries."

Although recognized as being the most valuable weapon available for cavalry, swords were hard to acquire. Most American cavalrymen used home made swords manufactured here. However, after the victory at Saratoga, they received 149 heavy broadswords captured from the Prinz Ludwig’s Brunswick Dragoons. France also sent some fine sabers.

When the British captured Savannah, Georgia, Washington dispatched General Pulaski south to assist Major General Benjamin Lincoln. In the attempt to retake British held Savannah, Georgia, Pulaski was killed leading a cavalry charge. He has gone down in our history as the "Father of American Cavalry".

Failing to retake Savannah, General Lincoln retired to Charleston, South Carolina. British Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton arrived with 10,000 additional troops, besieged Charleston and forced General Lincoln to surrender. Fortunately the American Dragoons were based 24 miles inland from Charleston and did not surrender, but continued the fight.

General Clinton brought cavalry with him, but the voyage from New York was a rough passage and many of the horses died en route, and the surviving horses were unfit for duty. This gave the Continental Dragoons, then numbering 379 officers and troopers, the opportunity to prevent the British from moving inland. They were soon joined by a troop of South Carolina militia Dragoons, bringing their number up to five hundred effectives.

The British Cavalry commander was Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, whose leadership would earn him the hatred of most Americans, and the admiration of most British. He ended his military career as a Lt. General and served during the Napoleonic Wars.

Tarleton rapidly acquired new mounts for his own Legion and the Troopers of the 17th Light Dragoons. His relentless pursuit of the American Dragoons resulted in several skirmishes and eventually wore down the hard pressed Americans. Colonel Anthony White of the 1st Dragoons, and the remaining men of his Regiment returned to Virginia to refit and recruit replacements. Colonel William Washington and the 3rd Dragoons retired to North Carolina with the same purpose in mind.

Congress sent Major General Horatio Gates with Continental Infantry Regiments from Delaware and Maryland and militia Regiments from Virginia and North Carolina. For cavalry, he was assigned Colonel Charles Armand Tuffin, Marquis de
la Rouerie, a French volunteer, and a troop of sixty Dragoons and sixty riflemen. The unit was known as Armand’s legion.

On August 16th, 1780, Gates met Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis at Camden and was soundly defeated.

With this new disaster, Congress finally agreed with General Washington that Major General Nathaniel Greene was the General of choice to lead the Southern Department. Greene was sent south, accompanying him was Lieutenant Colonel 'Light Horse' Harry Lee and 250 men in his "Lee’s Legion".

When General Greene arrived at Charlotte, North Carolina he found the battered remains of Gate’s Army. He also found Colonel William Washington with 80 survivors of the now combined 1st and 3rd Dragoons. He assigned them to Brigadier General Daniel Morgan and ordered Morgan to oppose the British in western South Carolina.

Colonel Washington and his Dragoons fought several skirmishes, and in one, supported by 200 mounted militia attacked a Loyalist raiding party of 250. They inflicted 150 casualties and took forty prisoners.

General Morgan, with the help of William Washington was a constant threat to Lord Cornwallis’ operations, hence Cornwallis reenforced Lt. Colonel Tarleton’s Legion, increasing his command to 1,000 regulars. He ordered them to pursue and eliminate Morgan. On January 17th, 1781 they met at a place named Cowpens. It was a hard fought battle, and during the heat of battle, at just the right moment Washington and his eighty Dragoons charged from their concealed position. The charge struck the flank and rear of the British line, rolling it up, and in effect ended the battle. The eighty American Dragoons charged right through Tarleton’s Reserve, the 200 man Green Dragoons of Tarleton’s Legion. Washington and Tarleton actually dueled on horseback, but Tarleton managed to escape, leaving 100 killed, 229 wounded and 600 captured behind.

The next encounter was at Guilford Court House and again it was Col. William Washington’s Dragoons charge in to the fray doing great damage, but not enough to stop Cornwallis. Cornwallis won the battle but it cost him one fourth of his army.

The next encounter was at Eutaw Springs, where Colonel Washington, again leading a charge, entered a patch of blackjack thickets. Their horses were entangled in the briars. Volley after volley was fired into the entangled Dragoons - - Washington was
wounded, and all but two of his officers and half of his men were either killed or wounded.

Lord Cornwallis, badly battered, requested much needed reinforcements. General Clinton ordered him to the coast and to fortify a naval base, presumably to wait for the reinforcements that didn’t arrive in time. He surrendered his army on October 19th, 1781 at Yorktown.

The loss of Cornwallis’s army all but ended the war but there were still numerous skirmishes to come. The Dragoons patrolled the areas around the two locations still garrisoned by the British.

When the war ended, Congress reduced the army to 80 regulars to guard the military supplies stored at West Point. All of the cavalry regiments were disbanded.

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