Balaklava: 25 October 1854 – What If Part I

Lord Raglan is utterly incompetent to lead an army through any arduous task. He is a brave good soldier, I am sure, and a polished gentleman, but he is no more fit than I am to cope with any leader of strategic skill.


We are commanded by one of the greatest old women in the British Army, called the Earl of Cardigan. He has as much brains as my boot. He is only to be equalled in want of intellect by his relation the Earl of Lucan . . . two such fools could not be picked out of the British Army to take command.


‘You have lost the Light Brigade!’ It was thus that Lord Raglan bitterly reproached Lord Lucan on the evening of 25 October 1854. As a simple statement of fact the words were not unfounded. Before the charge, according to Captain Portal who rode in it, the Light Cavalry Brigade had mustered on parade some 700men; after it they numbered a mere 180. But was it Lucan who lost it? Controversy as to who was to blame has featured in many an analysis of the battle. The truth is, of course, that many people were to blame, Lucan among them. It was a combination of personal ill-feeling, general mismanagement and peculiarly bad orders which led to so great, yet glorious, a blunder. Given the circumstances which prevailed, however – a Commander-in-Chief who had no clear idea of how to conduct a battle, and who, unlike his former chief, Wellington, was in the habit of expressing himself with ambiguity rather than precision; a Commander of the cavalry, Lucan, who was at odds with Raglan’s handling of the campaign and with his subordinate, Cardigan, in charge of the Light Brigade; and given too that the aide-de-camp who delivered the fatally misconstrued order was half insane with impatience and injured pride, so much so that he actually seemed to indicate the wrong objective – then it was perhaps not so remarkable that things went awry, although why General Airey, Raglan’s Chief of Staff, should have pronounced the Light Brigade’s charge as ‘nothing to Chilianwala’ may still puzzle us. It was after all a feat of arms recalled for courage and discipline rather than for foolhardiness and waste.

But if by chance Raglan had shown the same sort of drive and initiative at the first battle of the campaign as Wellington did at Salamanca, then the charge of the Light Brigade, indeed the entire affair at Balaklava, need never have taken place at all. And even if he had behaved as he did during that first encounter and the British army had still found itself at Balaklava in October 1854, it only required the Light Brigade’s commander, Cardigan, to display some spark of military daring, some inkling of the cavalry spirit, even some modicum of tactical know-how for the charge of his brigade, to have been a very different matter with a possibly decisive outcome. We must go back to the start of the campaign to see how things might have developed.

In spite of all the fuss about custody of the Holy Places,5 the Crimean War came about because Czar Nicholas I believed the time had come to expel the Turks from Europe and divide up the property of ‘the sick man’. At the same time Emperor Napoleon III of France was possessed of an ardent desire to cut a figure in the world and add to the military glory attained by his uncle. Moreover, Britain was determined to maintain Turkey’s integrity and put a stop to the extension of Russian power in the East. Thus a relatively trivial dispute was used to justify a struggle for supremacy in the East.

The Czar could hardly have chosen an envoy more likely to provoke Turkey’s ire than Prince Menschikoff, who went to Constantinople in March 1853 and demanded that the Sultan should recognize both the Greek Church’s claim to custody of the Holy Places and – much more significantly – Russia’s right to protect the Sultan’s Greek Orthodox subjects. Menschikoff was both tactless and insolent, but these disagreeable qualities were largely offset by the diplomatic skills of the highly regarded British Ambassador at the Sublime Porte, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, who had been there for ten years, had encouraged reform and who, in spite of his hostility to the Czar, persuaded the Sultan to satisfy the Greek Church with regard to the Holy Places, at the same time lending his support to the Sultan in rejecting Russia’s claim to be protector of Turkey’s Greek Christians. Whereupon in June 1853 Russia invaded the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, and after the failure of the Great Powers to reach some compromise, Turkey declared war in October. An extension of the war swiftly followed. Turkey defeated a Russian army at Oltenitza, the Russian fleet destroyed a Turkish squadron at Sinope, the French and British fleets passed the Dardanelles and entered the Black Sea in January 1854. Two months later France and Britain declared war on Russia.

Thus France, Great Britain and Turkey were Allies. For centuries in the past the British had been fighting the French. With the exception of the Vichy episodes in the Second World War, they were never to do so again. Yet Lord Raglan could not get out of his head that the enemy – even when in this particular war they were fighting side by side with him – were the French, and would frequently refer to them as such during the campaign. This was not the only difficulty encountered by the Allies.

It was all very well to declare war on Russia, but where was it to be waged? The Allies wished to ensure that the Russian armies evacuated the principalities and did not reach Constantinople. But what strategy should they adopt to realize these aims? By the end of May 1854 both the French and British armies had arrived at Gallipoli and Scutari, and the striking difference between their administrative arrangements was at once evident. The French were properly equipped with tents, medical services and a transport corps. The British were hopelessly ill prepared in all these respects, although Raglan had requested proper transport, only to be refused by the War Office. When the two armies made their way to Varna in order to deal with the Russians in the principalities, they found they had gone. It was now August and both malaria and cholera devastated the Allied soldiers. But at least some strategic idea emerged, and it was decided that the Allies would attack and take Sebastopol, thus removing this base of Russian power in the Black Sea and its threat to Turkey. This decision was made, not by commanders on the spot, who opposed it, but by the Allied Governments, hardly an auspicious beginning. None the less, in September the British and French armies – composed respectively of 26,000 men, 66 guns and 30,000 men, 70 guns – landed in the bay of Eupatoria, north of Sebastopol, and began their advance.

We have already observed that Lord Raglan was not distinguished for either his fitness to command or the clarity of his direction. His counterpart, General St Arnaud, was gravely ill – he was shortly to die – and was in no condition to provide bold leadership or offensive spirit. Moreover, Raglan’s subordinate commanders hardly inspired confidence. Lucan and Cardigan, leaving aside their sheer incompetence, were at loggerheads, and were soon to demonstrate their absolute inability to handle the cavalry properly. The two infantry divisional commanders, Sir George Cathcart and the Duke of Cambridge, were not as useless as the cavalrymen – no one could have been – but they had none of the experience or dash of men like Craufurd, Picton, Pakenham and Hill who had served under Wellington. Raglan’s Chief of Staff was General Airey, who should have been aware that apart from giving sound advice, his main purpose was to ensure the clarity of his Commander-in-Chief’s orders, which he singularly failed to do.

Happily for the British army this weakness of leadership at the top was more than counterbalanced by the strength of the regimental system. It was Humphrey Ward who praised Kipling for discovering Tommy Atkins as a hero of realistic romance. No army, said Ward, had so strong a sense of regimental unity and loyalty as our own. Arthur Bryant too was eloquent in emphasizing regimental pride:

the personal individual loyalty which each private felt towards his corps gave to the British soldier a moral strength which enabled him to stand firm and fight forward when men without it, however brave, would have failed. To let down the regiment, to be unworthy of the men of old who had marched under the same colours, to be untrue to the comrades who had shared the same loyalties, hardships and perils were things that the least-tutored, humblest soldier would not do.

Raglan was fortunate therefore in having under his command regiments of the Light Division, the Highlanders and the Brigade of Guards when it came to tackling the enemy. What would these famous regiments have to fight?

Opposing the Allied advance towards Sebastopol was a force of some 40,000 Russian soldiers under the command of Prince Menschikoff, who had positioned his men and about a hundred guns on the high ground overlooking the river Alma, fifteen miles north of Sebastopol. The battle of Alma was fought on 20 September and was characteristic of most Crimean encounters as far as the Allies were concerned. There was no proper reconnaissance, no clear plan, no thought about exploitation of success, no coordination between armies, no control or direction by Raglan, and the outcome was determined by the sheer courage and endurance of the British infantry. This dereliction of duty by those who were supposed to be directing the battle may be gauged by the fact that the Great Redoubt, key to the whole Russian defence, had to be taken twice, first by the Light Division and 2nd Division, and then again – because the reserve divisions were not moved forward quickly enough to consolidate its capture, thus allowing the Russians to reoccupy it – by the Guards and Highlanders. Its initial capture shows us the mettle of the British infantry:

The first line of the British army, the Light Infantry Division and the 2nd Division, rose to its feet with a cheer, and, dressing in a line two miles wide, though only two men deep, marched towards the river. Under terrific fire – forty guns were trained on the river, and rifle bullets whipped the surface of the water into a bloody foam – the first British troops began to struggle across the Alma, the men so parched with thirst that even at this moment they stopped to drink . . . During the terrible crossing of the river formation was lost and it was a horde which surged up the bank and, formed by shouting, cursing officers into some ragged semblance of a line, pressed on up the deadly natural glacis towards the Great Redoubt. It seemed impossible that the slender, straggling line could survive . . . Again and again large gaps were torn in the line, the slopes became littered with bodies and sloppy with blood, but the survivors closed up and pressed on, their officers urging, swearing, yelling like demons.

The men’s blood was up. The Light Division, heroes of a dozen stubborn and bloody battles in the Peninsula, advanced through the smoke, swearing most horribly as their comrades fell . . . suddenly, unbelievably the guns ceased to fire . . . the British troops gave a great shout, and in a last frantic rush a mob of mixed battalions tumbled into the earthwork. The Great Redoubt had been stormed.

But, alas, the Duke of Cambridge’s division with a brigade of Guards and the Highland Brigade, which should have been following up, had not moved from its position north of the river, allowing large numbers of Russians to take advantage of their own artillery bombardment, move forward and reoccupy the Great Redoubt. Thereupon the Guards and Highlanders, under terrible fire from cannon and rifles, advanced with the same steadiness as if taking part in a Hyde Park review. So heavy were the casualties suffered by the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards that one officer suggested to Sir Colin Campbell that they should retire or risk destruction. He received the magnificent reply that it would be better for every man of Her Majesty’s Guards to lie dead on the field than for them to turn their backs on the enemy. Neither course of action was necessary, however, for not only did the Guards and Highlanders retake the Great Redoubt, they successfully repelled a further Russian infantry attack. As they charged forward the enemy fled, leaving the Allies in triumphant possession of the battlefield.

Now we come to the first great If of the Crimean campaign. If at this point the British cavalry, who were poised ready for pursuit, had been launched against the fleeing enemy, they could have inflicted frightful loss. Lucan and Cardigan were aching to do so. It was one of those rare opportunities which when seized lead on to triumphant success, but when neglected deliver only frustration and guilt. Yet Raglan positively forbade the pursuit. There could be but one reason for his doing so – the French refused to go further and Raglan dared not go on alone. Had he been more forceful or decided to act with British troops only, he might have ended the campaign there and then, by capturing Sebastopol. As it was, the defeated Russians, totally unmolested, streamed into the city.

When we consider that the whole purpose of the Crimean campaign, as directed by the Allied Governments, was to take Sebastopol – and here as a result of the very first battle of the campaign, an absolutely heaven-sent chance of doing so presented itself, yet was not taken – we may perhaps sympathize with the outraged sentiments of Captain Nolan, 15th Hussars. A passionate advocate of cavalry’s proper and aggressive use, Nolan burst into William Howard Russell’s tent and gave vent to his sense of outrage – a thousand British cavalry contemplating a beaten, retreating army, complete with guns and colours, with nothing but a few wretched, cowardly Cossacks, ready to gallop away at the mere sound of a trumpet call, to dispute their passage, and nothing done: ‘It is enough to drive one mad! It is too disgraceful, too infamous.’ The generals should be damned. We shall meet Captain Nolan again when another great chance, another great If, and another gross mishandling of cavalry occurred.

Having omitted to take this tide at the flood, Lord Raglan was obliged to put up with the shallows and the miseries of what was left of his life’s voyage. It would not be for long and would lead to his humiliation and death. Instead of seizing Sebastopol the Allied armies made their ponderous way to the east and then the south of the city, giving the Russians time both to reinforce its defences and indeed to pour more troops into the Crimea. This new deployment of the British army emphasized the strategic importance of Balaklava, through whose port all the sinews of war had to come. It was the Russian attempt to capture it that resulted in the battle of Balaklava. On the morning of 25 October the British army was singularly ill deployed to meet and defeat this Russian attack. Apart from the 93rd Highlanders and about 1,000 Turks, the only troops between the port and General Liprandi’s advancing force of 25,000 horse, foot and guns were the two brigades of the Cavalry Division, positioned some two miles north of Balaklava at the foot of the Fedioukine Heights.

The idea that chaos is a good umpire and chance a well-known governor of battles was well illustrated at Balaklava, for nothing could have been more chaotic or chancy. During the action of 25 October, Lord Lucan received four orders from Lord Raglan. Not one of them was either clear or properly understood. Each one was either too late to be executed as intended, violently resented by Lucan, ignored or so misinterpreted that the outcome was calamitous. We may perhaps comfort ourselves with the reflection that there was nothing unusual about this. Even today, with superlative communications when orders are transmitted from one level of command to another, their purpose and emphasis are subject to very different translation into action, for each commander has his own view of a battlefield, broad or narrow. Each has his own intention. No wonder they seldom coincide.

Raglan’s first order to Lucan was: ‘Cavalry to take ground to left of second line of Redoubts occupied by the Turks.’ To execute the order, although he did so, was not merely distasteful to Lucan, for the very last thing cavalry was designed for was to take or hold ground, but, much more important, it was tactically dangerous, since moving to the Redoubts on the Causeway Heights, the cavalry would further isolate Sir Colin Campbell’s small force of 500 Highlanders, the final defence of Balaklava itself. Thus at the very beginning of the action, we find Lucan totally unable to comprehend what his Commander-in-Chief had in mind. Indeed, from his point of view Raglan was guilty of a gross tactical error. We may perhaps discover the reason for this absolute discord when we remember that being in very different positions on the ground, the two men had very different conceptions of what was taking place. This perilous disparity of view was magnified by what happened next.

To those coolly sitting on their horses with Lord Raglan on the Sapouné Heights, the incident must at first have appeared to be an instance of that insolent indifference to danger which characterized many a British military operation in the nineteenth century. Later, it must have seemed more like culpable inactivity, and indeed it was only comprehensible when the contours of the ground beneath these onlookers were properly appreciated. A substantial body of Russian cavalry advancing to attack the Highlanders had seemed to pass within a few hundred yards of the British cavalry, now stationed where Raglan had ordered them, to the left of the second line of Redoubts. Yet although the Russian cavalry passed so close to Lucan’s division, the two formations could not see each other, were not in fact aware of each other’s proximity, simply because of the high ground between them, screening each from the other’s view. Yet to Raglan and his staff looking down upon them, this mutual unawareness was not apparent. When the Russian cavalry then set about attacking the 93rd Highlanders, ‘the slender red line’ proved more than a match for the enemy squadrons. Three times the Russians came at then; three times they were repulsed by the disciplined steadiness and accurate fire-power of the 93rd. At one point Campbell had to quell his men’s eagerness to charge with some fitting oath, but they had done the trick. The enemy withdrew.

Yet these half-dozen or so squadrons were but the vanguard of a much larger body of Russian cavalry which had followed them across the Causeway Heights. Perceiving this further threat, Raglan had issued his second order – indeed, had done so before the Highlanders’ gallant action had been fought – and this order, ‘Eight squadrons of Heavy Dragoons to be detached towards Balaklava to support the Turks who are wavering,’ arrived too late to be executed in the way that Raglan had intended. In command of these Dragoon squadrons was Brigadier-General Scarlett, whose face was as red as his tunic, a brave and competent cavalryman who had won the respect and affection of his men for his unassuming and good-natured ways. He was now about to bring off ‘one of the great feats of cavalry against cavalry in the history of Europe’. As he led his eight squadrons, two each from 5th Dragoon Guards, Scots Greys, Inniskillings and 4th Dragoon Guards, towards Balaklava, with the Causeway Heights on their left, he observed on the slopes of these heights a huge mass of Russian horsemen. There were three or four thousand of them. Yet Scarlett with his mere 500 or so Dragoons was quite undismayed and coolly ordered his squadrons to wheel into line. It was at this point that Lucan arrived on the scene and ordered Scarlett to do what he was about to do anyway – charge the enemy. It was fortunate that the Russian cavalry came to a halt with the intention of throwing out two wings on their flanks in order to engulf and overwhelm Scarlett’s force. Thereupon Scarlett ordered his trumpeter to sound the charge.

Although the Light Brigade’s action at Balaklava is more renowned, it was the Heavy Brigade’s charge which was truly remarkable as a feat of arms. In spite of the appalling disparity of numbers, the British cavalry enjoyed one great advantage. The Russian hordes were stationary, and it is an absolute maxim that cavalry should never be halted when receiving a charge but should be in motion. By remaining stationary, the Russians would sustain far more devastating a shock. For those surveying from the heights, what now transpired was breathtaking. Scarlett and his first line of three squadrons seemed to be positively swallowed up by the mass of grey-coated Russian cavalry, and although this enemy mass heaved and swayed, it did not break. Indeed, their two wings, in motion again now, began to wheel inwards to enclose and crush the three squadrons. But now Scarlett’s second line took a hand in the game. The second squadrons of the Inniskillings and 5th Dragoon Guards flung themselves wildly into the fray on the left, while the Royals, who had not received orders to do so, but rightly acted with timely initiative, charged in on the right. There was further heaving and swaying by the Russians, but no sign yet of breaking.

No such initiative as that of the Royals was displayed by Lord Cardigan, who was about to be presented with the chance of a lifetime. He and his Brigade were a mere few hundred yards from the flank of the Russian cavalry, observing the action, most of them consumed with impatience, yet no thought of joining in the fray even occurred to Cardigan. The best he could do was to declare that ‘These damned Heavies will have the laugh of us this day.’ Any commander possessed of the real cavalry spirit would have been longing for the moment to arrive when his intervention would have been decisive. And this moment was about to come. Despite his dislike and contempt for his superior commander, Lord Lucan, Cardigan took refuge in his contention that he had been ordered to remain in position and to defend it against any enemy advance. It would have been far more in keeping with his custom to have ignored Lucan’s order. Indeed, Lucan himself maintained that his instructions had included a positive direction that the Light Brigade was to attack ‘anything and everything that shall come within reach of you’. There could be no gainsaying that the Russian cavalry, already reeling from the Heavy Brigade’s assault, came within this category.


On the eve of the Russo–Japanese War, Russian land forces were the biggest in the world, numbering 41,079 officers and 1,067,000 other ranks, and with full deployment of more than 3 million including the reserves. The sum of Russian troops stationed at that time east of Lake Baikal (the Priamur and Siberian Military Districts and the Kwantung Fortified Region) was about 95,000 infantry, some 3,000–5,000 cavalry, and between 120 to just under 200 guns. These were concentrated at Port Arthur, under the command of Lieutenant General Anatolii Stoessel, and around Vladivostok, under the command of General Nikolai Linievich. These forces were arranged in 68 infantry battalions, 35 squadrons of cavalry (mainly Cossacks), 13 engineer companies, five fortress engineer companies, and four and a half battalions of fortress artillery.

While it had often been regarded as conservative and unpolished, the Imperial Russian Army of 1904 was very different from what it had been four decades earlier. The defeat suffered by Russia in the Crimean War hastened the abolition of serfdom and stimulated the reorganization of the Imperial Russian Army. During the 1860s, War Minister D. A. Miliutin carried out several reforms that created a sufficient number of trained reservists to deploy a massive army in the event of war. The reform also resolved the problem of improving the organization of the military administration and the rearmament of the army. From 1874 military service was compulsory for every male who reached the age of 21. The length of active military service was set at up to six years, with nine years in the reserves. The law of 1874 did not extend to the Cossacks, or to the people of the Trans-Caucasus region, Central Asia, and Siberia. The benefits of the military reforms became clear during the Russo–Turkish War of 1877–1878. But despite the ultimate victory, the war also revealed disorganization, deficiencies in armaments, and weakness in the high command. Further reforms in the aftermath of the war made the Imperial Russian Army an awesome force, yet its true abilities were not tested for more than two decades.

On the eve of the Russo–Japanese War, the Russian national service consisted of four years of active service and 14 years in the reserves, with two training periods of six weeks each, for soldiers from the age of 21 to 43. There were few exemptions from service, though several groups, such as the Cossacks and Finns, were entitled to different conditions of service. The army had 12 military districts: St. Petersburg, Moscow, Finland, Vilno, Warsaw, Kiev, Odessa, Kazan, the Caucasus, Turkestan, Siberia and the Amur region, and the Oblast of the Don Host. Despite the improved deployment, the army suffered from outdated tactics and old, inflexible, high-ranking officers, who were often unfamiliar with new advances in technology. The lower-ranking officers and non-commissioned officers suffered from long periods of being given unchallenging assignments and a lack of training. The land forces were divided into regular units and Cossacks. In peacetime, field troops made up 73.4 percent of the entire regular forces, whereas fortress troops were 6.6 percent, reserve forces 9.5 percent, rear forces 0.7 percent, local troops 2.3 percent, and auxiliary detachments 7.5 percent. In 1898 the infantry accounted for 74.8 percent of the entire army; cavalry were 8.5 percent (excluding the Cossack cavalry units), artillery 13.7 percent, and engineering 3.0 percent. Infantry divisions, consisting of about 18,000 men each, were assembled into corps, and corps were joined in wartime into armies.

On the eve of the Russo–Japanese War, the forces of the Imperial Russian Army in Manchuria were organized within the Manchurian Army, under the command of General Nikolai Linievich. This army consisted of two corps: the First Siberian Army Corps and the Third Siberian Army Corps. The rank and file were mainly loyal peasants from eastern Russia, who were regarded as resilient and accustomed to the harsh conditions of the region, but uneducated and unused to fighting without a commanding officer to direct them. Initially the two corps were smaller and less well organized than parallel European corps. The former, for example, had 32 guns, whereas the latter had 48 or 64 guns. Each corps consisted of two divisions, which in turn comprised two brigades. The typical Siberian brigade consisted of 3,400 men and 12 artillery guns in two batteries. A battery consisted of eight Putilov M-1903 76.2-millimeter [3-inch] field guns, as well as a small unspecified number of 117-millimeter [4.6-inch] howitzers and no more than eight Maxim machine guns. The Siberian infantry brigades grew slowly and eventually evolved into the Siberian infantry divisions, which did not exist prior to the war.

The Siberian corps had no divisional cavalry and their infantry soldiers were equipped with the Mosin M-1891 rifle while their commissioned and non-commissioned officers were equipped also with the Nagant M-95 revolver. At the outbreak of the war the Russian units of the Manchurian Army were widely dispersed and disorganized, but as the war progressed their organization and efficiency increased. During 1904 the Manchurian Army was gradually reinforced by the First, Fourth, Eighth, Tenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth European Army Corps, consisting of 28,000 rifles and 112 guns each. Thus army corps, rather than divisions, were the main fighting unit used by the Russians during this war. Their troops were transferred eastward by the Trans-Siberian Railway, which could deliver 40,000 men (one and a half corps) a month. In September 1904 the Manchurian Army was divided into the First Manchurian Army and the Second Manchurian Army, and in December 1904 the Third Manchurian Army was also formed.

In the aftermath of the Russo–Japanese War, the Imperial Russian Army was forced to undertake a series of reforms to strengthen its forces, and thus initiated the “great military program.” In 1913 it envisaged an increase in the army’s size by almost 40 percent by 1917, and a large-scale augmentation of the armaments used by the artillery and the rifle forces. Changes were made also in the readiness of the army to mobilize and the way it was staffed. The overall length of service was set at 18 years, of which three to four years were on active service. On the eve of World War I, Russia’s land forces were regarded as a potentially unbeatable army, although in reality the army was still in the midst of a process of reorganizing and developing its capabilities. In the first months of the war, the Imperial Russian Army mobilized 3.5 million men. However, at the end of 1917 and early in 1918 it was demobilized, and the Red Army was created instead.


Russian infantry corps in Manchuria numbered by most estimates about 95,000 men and consisted mainly of peasants, considered hardy, obedient, brave, and used to the extreme conditions of the region. They won the admiration of military observers though they were still trained in outdated tactics. They were conditioned to volley fire on command and used the bayonet more often than required. These practices largely constricted their individual marksmanship abilities. They also often suffered from lack of motivation; during the conflict in Manchuria most of the second-line reservists resented being called up for duty in this remote area. The main weapon used by the Russian infantry was the Mosin M-1891 rifle, and infantry units also increasingly used Maxim machine guns as close fire support for the troops. The individual’s personal kit weighed about 32 kilograms [70 pounds] and consisted of two and a half days’ worth of rations in a watertight kitbag, a greatcoat, a tent sheet, and a shovel. The infantryman carried between 120 and 300 rounds of ammunition in clips of five.

Maxim Machine Gun.

Main machine gun used by the Imperial Russian Army during the Russo–Japanese War. It was designed in 1883 by Hiram Maxim, an American living in Great Britain, and during the following years came into widespread use. In 1895 the Imperial Japanese Army purchased a number of Maxims but eventually preferred the Hotchkiss machine gun. The Imperial Russian Army, however, purchased 58 Maxim machine guns in 1899 and made it its main machine gun. In 1902 the army concluded a contract with the British firm Vickers to manufacture the Maxim in Russia, thereby cutting costs by two-thirds. Manufacture of the Russian version of the Maxim started only in 1910; the machine gun was designated Pulemiot Maxima. At the outbreak of the Russo–Japanese War, the Russian war ministry placed a rush order abroad for a total of 450 machine guns for the troops at the front, which were mostly supplied toward the end of the war. The Maxim’s design was simple though ingenious: it was water cooled, recoil operated, and fully automatic. Its recoil, caused by the explosion of the powder, operated to eject the spent cartridge and load the next round. The Maxim was fabric belt-fed, and it fired the same 7.62-millimeter [.30-inch] ammunition used by the Russian-made Mosin M-1891 rifle.

Technical data: Water-cooled 4 liters; Caliber: 7.62mm; Gun length: 1.107m, barrel length: 0.72m; Grooves: 4; Wheeled mount weight: 36kg; Tripod mount weight: 27.6kg, empty fabric belt weight: 1.1kg, loaded fabric belt weight: 6.1kg (250 rounds); Effective rate of fire: 250r/min.

Mosin M-1891 Rifle.

Russian main rifle during the Russo–Japanese War. It was first produced following an order of Tsar Nicholas II, and thereafter it was manufactured in Russia, the Soviet Union, and Belgium from 1891 to 1944 in several models. It originated as a design of Captain S. M. Mosin and was favored over a Belgian design by Leon Nagant for its ruggedness and lighter weight. The Mosin M-1891 replaced the older, heavier, and longer Karle and Berdan No. 2 rifles. By 1903 the two-phase introduction of the Mosin M-1891 to the ranks was complete, and both the regular army and the reserves were armed with the new rifle. The Russian infantry had a bayonet permanently fixed to the rifle, which hindered accurate shooting to some extent. Versions of the Mosin were used as frontline rifles until World War II and as practice rifles until the late 1970s.

Technical data: Caliber: 7.62mm [0.3in.]; Weight: 4.33kg [9.61bs], with bayonet and sling 4.78kg [10.61bs]; Length: 131cm [51.4in.], with bayonet: 173cm [68.2in.], barrel length: 80.3cm [31.6in.]; Magazine capacity: 5 rounds; Rate of fire: 8–10r/min; Maximum sighting range (iron sights): 2,200m.


 Combat troops mounted on horses. Their importance in the Russo–Japanese War was limited and often marginal. After a millennium in which mounted troops were considered the masters of offensive warfare, the Russo–Japanese War marks a turning point in the history of cavalry; thereafter this type of warfare was to disappear rapidly from the modern battlefield. In many respects the limited contribution of cavalry during the Russo–Japanese War presaged its demise during World War I. The European armies, however, did not learn this particular lesson, nor the general lesson regarding the leading role of defense in modern warfare. Consequently they started World War I with huge cavalry forces without any effective alternative until the invention of the tank. While both belligerents in the Russo–Japanese War used cavalry forces, the Imperial Russian Army employed about three times more cavalry units than the Imperial Japanese Army.

On the eve of war the Russian cavalry numbered more than 80,000 and comprised 25 cavalry divisions, including two Guards, 17 Army, and six Cossack cavalry detachments. The Russian cavalry in East Asia consisted mostly of Cossacks, with each cavalry division consisting of 3,400 dragoons trained in mounted and dismounted combat. Some divisions had their own artillery support, usually 12 horse-drawn artillery guns. The Russian cavalry forces in Manchuria were organized in December 1904 in one huge Cavalier Corps. They were commanded initially by Lieutenant General Pavel Mishchenko until February 1905, then briefly by Lieutenant General Pavel Rennenkampf during February, by Lieutenant General Vladimir Grekov until March, and then again by Mishchenko until September 1905. The tactics of the Russian cavalry were revised several times during the 50 years prior to the war, their equipment was modernized, switching from lances to rifles and bayonets, and dragoon training was instituted combining infantry training with cavalry tactics. Nevertheless, at the outbreak of the Russo–Japanese War, they were still guided by outdated notions of attack, with scant regard for the technological and tactical advances achieved during the 19th century. Foremost among these advances was the widespread implementation of machine guns in the battlefield, the much more extensive use of artillery as support during battle, and the change from close to dispersed infantry formations, which made the infantry an unsuitable target for formation cavalry attacks.

In the evolution of cavalry warfare, the Russo–Japanese War is noted for the absence of the lance and sword, which were replaced by the rifle. The few achievements of the Russian cavalry were made through the effect of firearms. However, the cavalry units of both armies had little significance for the overall outcome of the Russo–Japanese War, and their basic weaknesses were quickly demonstrated. The Russian cavalry often lacked fighting spirit, as recorded by General Aleksei Kuropatkin in his memoirs: “Until cavalry is educated to feel that it should fight as obstinately as infantry, the money expended on our mounted arm is wasted.” Still, spirit was not the only cause. Horses were costly to maintain and the transport and effectiveness of cavalry was insignificant in siege warfare, such as in the siege of Port Arthur, or trench warfare, like that which developed before the battle of Mukden.


The Russo–Japanese War witnessed a massive use of artillery, but it was not a revolutionary step in the development of this branch. While the amount of usage and the centralization of control during the war were without precedent, field artillery reached maturity only during World War I. The use of goniometers for measuring angles, panoramic sights, field telephones (especially by the Japanese), and even aerial observation by balloons allowed the commanding officers in the field to use their artillery firepower against targets outside the line of sight of the batteries used. These technological advances, together with the increase in the range and effectiveness of the guns, made it possible to concentrate the fire of a whole army corps on a single target. At the battle of Liaoyang, for example, medium and heavy artillery were massively employed. On the Japanese side alone there were 56 heavy guns and mortars and a total of 470 guns. During the battle of Sha-ho, 48 Russian guns fired 8,000 rounds in 40 minutes; at the battle of Tashihchiao, a battery fired 500 rounds per gun.

The battle of Sha-ho may furnish a further instance of successful concentration of the fire of dispersed batteries. The concealment of batteries in action began to be more fully realized and the impracticability of close support by guns pushed forward into the infantry firing line under the enemy’s small-arms fire was demonstrated on many occasions. The advances of technology, achieved already in the 19th century, made the use of artillery and indirect fire in the battlefield safer and simpler, and during this war indirect fire at last became the norm. All in all, the two armies used unprecedented quantities of artillery ammunition. The Imperial Russian Army, for example, spent about 900,000 artillery rounds during the entire war, a tiny proportion of the 65.3 million manufactured and imported by Russia during World War I, and a fraction of the 360 millions shells and bombs Russia alone manufactured during World War II.

Still, the Imperial Japanese Army appeared to be more adapted to the modern use of artillery during the Russo–Japanese War. It used screens of artillery shelling to cover the advance of its infantry with very accurate and close support, through the extensive employment of field telephones and flag signaling. The tactics of advancing, positioning, and deploying the artillery forces evolved as well. The Japanese used camouflage and batteries to conceal the positioning of their guns from the Russian troops, and they watered the roads on which they moved them to prevent dust clouds that would have given away their position and movements. Until the Russo–Japanese War, shelling would stop when the attacking troops were still far from their target to prevent their being harmed, but now Japanese artillery officers often continued shelling almost up to the Russian trenches and ceased only moments before the assault began. During the war the Russians displayed improved gunnery performance and innovation as well. In the fortification of Port Arthur, for example, they placed most of their guns in batteries outside the forts of the main perimeter, contrary to common practice, thus eliminating “dead” ground and forcing the attacker to disperse his fire. Altogether, the use of artillery in the Russo–Japanese War inaugurated the era of mass bombardment and close support for the advancing troops, a fact that did not attract much attention of military observers.

During the Russo–Japanese War the distinction between guns and howitzers gradually disappeared and both sides employed successfully a small number of howitzers. Both sides used an increasingly large number of 120-millimeter [4.7-inch] Krupp-design howitzers purchased before the turn of the century, as well as a small number of 150-millimeter [5.9-inch] Model 38 howitzers (only in Japan). Only the Japanese, however, made full use of this type of gun by mobilizing 18 gigantic Krupp-made 280-millimeter [11-inch] howitzers at Port Arthur. Their firepower was exploited to the utmost during the siege of the fort and was instrumental in razing the Russian defenses. The Russian artillery corps were equipped with superb quick-firing Putilov M-1903 76.2-millimeter [3-inch] field guns, which replaced the older M-1900. Even though these guns were most up-to-date, they were still heavier and less maneuverable than the Japanese guns. In addition, both sides made use of various older guns of 90 to 120 millimeters, and the Russians also employed during the siege of Port Arthur naval guns, mainly of 152 millimeters [6 inches] and smaller, which were removed from the warships of the Pacific Fleet. Both sides made some limited use of heavy mortars, especially in mountain engagements and around Port Arthur against nearby targets protected by hills or other obstacles. They were of 90–150 millimeter caliber and could fire up to 30-kilogram [66-pound] shells a short distance.

The Military Revolution—Dutch and Swedish Reforms I

My troops are poor Swedish and Finnish peasant fellows, it’s true, rude and ill-dressed; but they smite hard and they shall soon have better clothes.

GUSTAV II ADOLF [Gustavus Adolphus]

The early campaigns of Gustav Adolf and the beginning of Sweden’s rocky rise to power. This was a time when some of his innovations in weapons and tactics were in the embryonic stages and he fought the campaigns with a mixture of old and new. It was therefore a training ground and educational experience for the young king. We see the widespread improvements in armaments and tactics, the products of a military genius, which were to ultimately make Sweden a formidable military power.

The transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era that took place mainly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought momentous changes to almost every aspect of life. These changes affected the arts, literature, politics, economics, science, technology, and the military.

Our main concern is with the military changes—or the military revolution as it is most frequently called in the literature. It can be argued persuasively that military changes were the driving force behind the political.

War was almost continual during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This state of affairs resulted, as was to be expected, in developments in weaponry, tactics, and extended durations of wars. The military changes, primarily in technology and weapons, started in the mid-fifteenth century on an evolutionary scale. However, as John Childs points out, changes that took place over several centuries cannot be labeled as revolutionary. It is only when these changes picked up speed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that they became revolutionary in nature.

The advances in technology in the late middle ages led—gradually at first—to modifications of all aspects of war by the early 1700s. During this period military operations devastated the population and countryside, and, as the monopoly of violence rested securely with the Crown, the accompanying increase in the size of armies and costs led to the rise of absolutism and autocracy across the continent.


The armies prior to the Thirty Years War were relatively small and they were primarily mercenary based. Because of the expenses involved in training, nations increasingly moved toward permanent military establishments and away from the use of militia forces which were disbanded during the winter. Roberts has pointed out that the quick spread of technology was influenced by the use of mercenary forces that learned new technology in the service of one nation and then took that knowledge with them when they shifted employers.

Rapid growth in the size of armies characterized the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This stemmed from a number of factors such as the proliferation of wars, rise in population, sophisticated armament, increased specialization, and a large expansion of the support base.

The imperial forces numbered approximately 20,000 at the beginning of the Thirty Years War while the Protestant opposition amounted to some 12,000. A little more than a decade later the Catholic forces numbered over 150,000 and those under Swedish command were even larger.

New armaments, the move toward large standing military establishments, growing requirements for a large and sophisticated support base, and prolonged wars resulted in a steep rise in military expenditures and this led to major political changes in most countries. Downing has pointed out that the cost of a single cannon was equivalent to the feeding of 800 soldiers for a whole month. The whole transition in armament involved large expenses.

Economic considerations, then as now, dictated strategy. Countries were unwilling to risk the destruction of their armies—expensive investments— and therefore wars were for the most part short and indecisive in nature. Major engagements were avoided. The rare attempts to mount rapid and decisive campaigns usually failed because of poor communications and consequent lack of speed.

The solution adopted by most continental powers to deal with the steep increase in the costs of war was to raise standing armies. This transition took place in most countries in the last half of the seventeenth century. This did not mean that mercenaries disappeared from the scene. They continued to account for a sizable portion of a nation’s army, even into the nineteenth century. In the Thirty Years War, Sweden switched the burden of maintaining its armies to the territories in which they operated through what became known as the “contribution system.”

Since the 1950s we have entered a similar period with respect to advances in technology. The standing armies in most Western countries have been severely curtailed in size since the 1970s as we went to an all-voluntary system where personnel costs increased at the same time as there was an explosion in high cost technology. The cost of most military hardware has skyrocketed. The cost of a modern fighter or ground support aircraft as compared to similar aircraft in World War II tells the story, and this problem is prevalent across the board. It seems evident that we are now facing changes similar to those of the seventeenth century—increased centralization, heavy tax burdens, and the possible loss of individual freedoms.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed a decline of the cavalry arm of most armies (Russia, Poland/Lithuania, and Turkey being notable exceptions). This change had been in progress well before that time period. The battlefield became more and more infantry dominated as the weapons of foot soldiers improved and became more effective. This required organizational and tactical changes.

In grappling with this problem in the early 1500s, Spain opted for an organizational structure resembling the Greek phalanx. The troops were armed with a mixture of pikes and firearms. The infantry, which gained prominence on the battlefield, was organized into units of 3,000 men (tercio), perhaps better known to the English reader as the “Spanish square.” It was devised, partially, as a means of making the matchlock handgun a more effective infantry weapon. Like the Greek phalanx, the “Spanish square” was expected to sweep everything before it.

The pikemen were in the center of these 100 by 30 man squares and the musketeers on the flanks. However, these formations reduced tactical flexibility because of their unwieldiness on the battlefield. Despite these shortcomings the Spanish square dominated the battlefields of Europe for over a century.

The heavy cavalry which had been in decline for centuries underwent a further decline as infantry weapons and artillery became deadlier. In the seventeenth century the ratio of cavalry to infantry had declined to about 25 percent. The light cavalry, however, was still very useful for pursuit, skirmishing, screening, and the interdiction of lines of communication.


It gradually became obvious that the Spanish system needed to be modified to make it more flexible and to make better use of manpower. The first important steps in the modification process were taken by Maurice of Nassau and Prince of Orange (1567–1625) who was a general in the United Provinces in their ongoing rebellion against Spain. He had an excellent theoretical and practical knowledge of warfare, and used the Roman legion as the model for his organizational reforms. The reforms that Maurice initiated resulted in a revolution of military organization and tactics during the seventeenth century.

Maurice’s primary contribution to the art of war can be found in the tactical employment of manpower. He sought battlefield flexibility by a reduction in both the size and depth of the infantry formations. Maurice modified the tercios by subdividing them into units of 580 men in ten ranks.

This new formation became the beginning of the modern linear formation. The companies were organized into battalion-size units with pikemen in the center and musketeers on the flanks. The objective was to allow the musketeers to deliver continuous fire by ranks before countermarching to the rear to reload. We thus see that the musketeers and pikemen were still linked in one unit but were no longer mixed so that a large number of soldiers were ineffective. With a maximum battalion front of about 250 meters this formation avoided the waste of manpower found in the Spanish square. The number of soldiers who could effectively use their weapons was virtually doubled.

While the pikes were supposed to protect the musketeers from cavalry attacks, the smaller units were more vulnerable to attacks on their flanks and rear than in the Spanish square. Maurice attempted to avoid this danger by adopting a checker-board battle formation, the spaces between battalions of the first line covered by echeloned battalions in the second line and by trying to rest the flanks on natural obstacles. If this was not possible, the flanks were protected by cavalry. The battalions were grouped into “brigade” formations in three distinct lines.

As Childs notes, the army reforms of Maurice of Nassau required extensive training and a high level of discipline—contributing factors leading to standing national forces. The success of the system required intensive training over all kinds of terrain and this is one of Maurice’s most important contributions. This training also made officers adept at handling and changing formations, and it was an effective way to keep troops busy between campaigns. Such practices as marching in step date from this period.

Maurice was also ahead of his time in experimenting with new weapons such as explosive shells. He insisted on the use of field fortifications, and developed new innovations that would reduce the time of sieges. He adopted field glasses for observation and had a great interest in mapmaking.

Maurice’s innovations did not solve all the problems associated with the Spanish square. The pikeman’s role was the same as before and the musketeers were still wed to the pike formation. In some ways, the new linear formation was not much more effective in defense than the system it replaced. The changes that Maurice brought about can be viewed as a transition between the earlier gunpowder era and the system adopted by Gustav Adolf. Gustav’s modifications to Maurice’s system basically lasted to the French Revolution, with minor modifications. Together, Maurice and Gustav’s fundamental concept of linear formation and mobility lasted until the twentieth century.

The science involving fortifications and sieges was also transformed. The old medieval stone walls were quickly demolished by cannon firing iron ammunition. New fortifications capable of withstanding cannon fire were expensive and beyond the means of most small states.

Geoffrey Parker mentions some other changes that took place in this period such as the emergence of military academies, the enactment of an embryonic form of “laws of war,” and the proliferation of writings on the art of war.


It is easy to both overstate and understate the achievements of Gustav Adolf. There are examples of both extremes in the literature covering the period. It is true, as pointed out by Colonel Dupuy that many of Gustav’s innovations were adopted from others and, furthermore, he was not the only one during the period who sought to improve the military system. And Lynn Montross observes that with few exceptions, Swedish military reforms owed in some measure to the experiments by others … . A talented organizer, Gustavus began where his predecessors left off, taking the best of their ideas and combining them with his own.

Maurice of Nassau and Gustav Adolf were not simply military theorists but military practitioners. However, it is hard to find anyone who so successfully bridged the gap between concept and practice or fitted the pieces together in an integrated system as did Gustav. Aside from Genghis Khan, Gustav Adolf is the only great captain who won fame on the battlefield using an instrument mainly of his own design. Liddell Hart, who accords Gustav the title of “Father of Modern War,” writes that His outstanding achievement is in fact the tactical instrument that he forged, and the tactical “mechanism” through which this worked its triumphs.

Gustav’s accomplishments were many. He created mobile field artillery, made combined arms operations possible, restored the role of cavalry, and developed the modern role of infantry. He was more than the author of the linear tactics of the eighteenth century—he laid the foundation for the infantry tactics of the twentieth century. He organized the first national army and created the first effective supply service, imposed a system of discipline, and laid the foundation of military law.

Dupuy describes the army Gustav Adolf inherited thus:

At the time Gustavus Adolphus assumed the Swedish throne in 1611, the Swedish Army was in deplorable condition: poorly organized, under strength, short on pikes, musketeers equipped with the obsolete arquebus, and badly led. Administration was virtually nonexistent, recruitment at low ebb, morale poor …

To this can be added Sweden’s dire financial straits and a sense of weariness after nearly a century of almost continuous wars.

Gustav Adolf was not merely a copier or product improver; he introduced many changes of his own. We shall now look at some of these, both refinements and those based on originality.


The basic Swedish infantry tactical unit was the battalion or squadron consisting of 408 troops. This organization was still slightly pike heavy. There were 216 pikemen to 192 musketeers. Both pikemen and musketeers were arranged in three rectangular formations, each with a depth of six ranks. The difference was that all the pikemen were located in the center of the battalion formation with a frontage of 36 men while the musketeers were formed into two equal groups, one on each side of the pikemen. The frontage of each musketeer formation was 16 troops. Dupuy notes that an additional 96 musketeers were often attached to the battalion, performing out-posting, reconnaissance, etc. This formation enabled the battalions to deliver formidable firepower.

While Lord Reay, a contemporary English observer, among others, has left diagrams, there was no standard formation for the brigades, which were tactical units. They were “task organized.” Both size and formation depended on the battlefield, the enemy, strength of the battalions, and the experience of the troops. However, they usually consisted of between one full-size two-battalion regiment, and two reduced strength regiments. The numerical size usually varied between 1,000 and 2,000 men but this larger number strained the span of control. The three-battalion brigade in Figure 2 had 1,224 troops. Two regimental guns were usually attached and cavalry was often found in the rear, between the lines of infantry.

FIGURE 1: Standard Swedish Battalion Formation.

FIGURE 2: One Possible Swedish Brigade Formation.

Gustav Adolf also introduced “volley firing,” since the inaccurate match -locks and flintlocks were more effective when fired simultaneously. The volley fire was normally obtained by advancing the rear ranks of musketeers into the three-foot intervals between the musketeers in the front of them. This became the basis for European infantry tactics. According to a Scottish colonel, Robert Monro, who fought in the Swedish army as a mercenary for about six years, Gustav adopted a somewhat different method for delivering volley fire. According to Monro, Gustav had his first rank advance ten paces before the troops fired. The first rank then stopped in place to reload while the next rank passed through them to deliver its volley. This procedure was repeated for each rank. It had the advantage of always closing on the enemy and shortening the distance to the targets with each rank delivering increasingly accurate fire. Gustav had in effect changed the countermarch into an offensive operation.

There is some conflict or confusion in the literature when it comes to the Swedish use of volley fire. Dupuy writes:

Further, the countermarch was so executed that the whole formation moved forward, and the fire was, in effect, a small-arms rolling barrage. During this movement, the musketeers were protected by the pikes while they reloaded. Later, Gustavus introduced the salve, or salvo, further increasing the firepower of his line. In the salvo, three ranks fired simultaneously. This made continuous fire impossible, but it proved effective just before a climatic charge by producing a volume of fire in a few minutes at close quarters that in the countermarch would have taken a half-hour or more.

I have found that the full salvo by three ranks of infantry was used sparingly. The musketeers would be rather helpless after delivering such a salvo since they all had to reload at the same time and offensive action by the pikemen to cover the infantry after a full salvo was problematic unless the second line of three ranks had closed up to the first.

Robert Frost writes that on the third day of the Mewe engagements, the first line of Swedish musketeers had fired a salvo at the Polish infantry when they were swept off the high ground by hussars before they could reload. On the previous page he writes that the hussars, after driving the first Swedish line off the high ground were stopped by a salvo from a second line of Swedish infantry.

There are others who doubt that a full salvo was ever used. David Parrott contributed an article to Michael Roberts’ book Military Revolution Debate and on page 35 of that book Parrott questions both the effectiveness of the salvo and whether it had ever been used. Frost recognizes Parrott’s disagreement in a note. In that note he labels Parrott’s comment as unfounded and goes on to give an accurate description of a salvo: The salvo was specifically designed for use against cavalry attack, where two salvos in quick succession by two lines each three ranks deep was all that the defenders had time to deliver. The two lines of Swedish infantry at Mewe appear to have been more separated than was customary, and the two salvos were therefore not delivered in quick succession.

Gustav also made important changes in infantry weapons and equipment. Despite the fact that body armor was fast disappearing, the Swedish pikemen wore breastplates and greaves. A problem with the pike was that it was frequently severed by enemy cavalry using swords. To overcome this problem, Gustav sheathed the upper portion of the pike with a thin layer of iron. To compensate for the increased weight this caused, the pike was shortened from sixteen to eleven feet.

The arquebus was done away with and replaced by the matchlock musket. However, the earlier matchlock was also a heavy piece of equipment and required a fork rest to fire, adding to the weight a musketeer had to carry. In 1526, while engaged in his Polish campaigns, Swedish manufacturers invented a lighter musket with mechanical improvements permitting quicker loading. The heavy iron fork was also replaced by a thin double ended pike, known as a “Swedish feather.” It had a dual purpose. In addition to serving as a rest for the musket, it was also useful as a palisade stake in presenting an obstacle for enemy cavalry. The consequent reduction in the weight that a musketeer had to carry allowed him to be armed with a saber. Both the saber and the Swedish feather gave the infantry some defense against cavalry attacks.

By the end of the seventeenth century the flintlock had almost completely replaced the matchlock. The flintlock was generally less accurate and had a slower rate of fire than the improved matchlock. These were undoubtedly the reasons for the resistance by many practitioners to its adoption. However, the advantages were also great. First, it was less vulnerable to weather. Second, it removed the intrinsic and obvious danger of a lit match. Third, by the removal of the danger of accidents with lit matches, troops could be placed closer together, thus increasing the volume of fire delivered from a given space. To that can be added another important advantage of the improved musket: its increased penetration; the ball could penetrate some of the body armor of the day.

The introduction of the bayonet also took place during the seventeenth century. The plug bayonet appeared first in France in 1647. Forty years later the plug bayonet was replaced by the socket bayonet, where the bayonet is fastened to a socket on the musket barrel. By the first quarter of the eighteenth century the bayonet had replaced the pike.

The Swedes also standardized the caliber and the powder charge. Although the paper cartridge was apparently not a Swedish invention, they seem to have been the first to put it to full use as standard infantry equipment. The cartridge contained a carefully measured fixed charge with a one ounce ball attached. Each soldier carried fifteen cartridges in a cloth bandolier across his chest. When reloading all a soldier had to do was to bite off the end of the cartridge and push it into the musket with the ramrod. This saved many motions in reloading and represented a significant increase in fire power. In large measure due to constant training in the 1620s, the Swedish army improved reloading speed to the point where the six ranks of musketeers could maintain a continuous barrage.

The Swedish battalion bore a clear resemblance to those of Maurice. However, without the attached musketeers, it was slightly smaller. Both organizations were primarily defensive in nature but could be used offensively if properly reinforced and supported. To acquire an offensive capability several battalions had to be combined into a brigade adequately supported by cavalry and artillery.

The weaknesses of the linear formation were that it was no longer able to adequately defend its own flanks and rear. This problem increased with progressively fewer ranks in order to maximize firepower to the front. Gustav Adolf’s triangular and checkerboard brigade formation compensated for this weakness since the flank units could turn to present the enemy with a new front.


The Swedish cavalry was manned by volunteers, and most were light cavalry. The Swedish horses were small but performed well against the bigger horses in the continental armies. By 1630 Gustav Adolf had a cavalry force of 8,000 native Swedes and Finns. A high morale was maintained by regular pay supplemented with bonuses in the form of land or rental income.

Gustav realized, under the conditions then prevailing, that battles could not be won by firepower alone, and that he needed the shock power that only cavalry could provide. He discarded both the caracole and the customary deep cavalry formations. He formed the cavalry in six ranks as he used for the infantry but later changed that to three ranks. Although he had done away with the caracole the riders still carried pistols, but only the first rank fired and the others used them for emergencies. The main weapon was the saber. Firepower support was provided by musketeer detachments deployed between the cavalry squadrons. After an initial salvo to disrupt the enemy line, the musketeers reloaded while the cavalry charged. The reloading exercise was primarily to be ready for a second charge or to cover a cavalry retreat. The light regimental artillery guns could also lend fire support if needed.

The Swedes, like other armies of the period, employed dragoons. In the case of the Swedes, these were basically mounted infantry armed with carbine and saber. They were useful for a variety of tasks such as quick raids, skirmishing, and foraging. Through the employment of small units in this manner, Gustav Adolf was able to concentrate the organization and training of his regular cavalry for shock tactics only. A company of cavalry consisted of 115 men and a cavalry regiment had an average strength of 800 to 1,000.

Anglo-Saxon Military Organisation Part III

Anglo Saxon Cavalry

The Question of Cavalry

An earl belongs on the back of a horse. A troop must ride in a company, a foot-soldier stand fast.

Maxims I, 62–3

The question of the existence of an Anglo-Saxon cavalry is another area of controversy. People have assumed that the Anglo-Saxons fought only on foot and had very little knowledge of horses, rarely putting them to any military use. The reasons for this long-standing view are complex and numerous. Certainly, there are historical sources who say that the Anglo-Saxons were unable to fight on horseback and that the use of the horse as a tactical option on the battlefield was unknown to them. This goes back as far as Procopius in the seventh century. References to the English sending their horses to the rear while their riders proceeded to fight on foot are known from the accounts of the Battle of Maldon and the Battle of Hastings. Also, we have to contend with the twelfth-century historian Henry of Huntingdon’s assertion that the English did not know how to fight on horseback, and The Carmen’s acerbic remark that

A race ignorant of war, the English scorn the solace of horses and trusting in their strength they stand fast on foot and they count it the highest honour to die in arms that their native soil may not pass under another yoke.

With propaganda like this, it is easy to see why the Anglo-Saxons’ reputation for not having a cavalry has stuck for so long. Modern historians have tended to reinforce the notion of the Anglo-Saxon lack of cavalry by producing sometimes quite astounding theories. The lack of evidence for metal stirrups until the arrival of the Vikings, for example, is often put forwards as a reason the English could not possibly have adopted mounted tactics, because their riders would somehow be unsteady in the saddle. The fact that the native English horse was ‘no more than a pony’ is the often peddled nonsense in support of the English ignorance of cavalry. Thankfully, the tide is turning on these theoretical points due to recent research. The stirrups need not be an issue for horsemanship, and in any case the lack of evidence for metal ones does not preclude the existence of wooden or rope equivalents. In fact, the Old English word for stirrup was ‘stigrap’, which literally means ‘climbing rope’. Also, studies of horse management in England prior to the Norman Conquest and the archaeological evidence to support it show the Anglo-Saxon horse to be the physical equivalent of its Continental cousin. The problem is this: people have made assumptions about the Anglo-Saxons’ mounted skills based on not only Norman propaganda, but on the knowledge that the Normans themselves were consummate cavalrymen. Their ‘destriers’, it is correctly argued, could charge home on the battlefield and their riders were trained to use the couched lance style of fighting on the battlefield, a famously impressive tactic. Their cavalry charges attracted comment from the Byzantine writer Anna Comnena, who spoke of the Normans being able to ‘break the walls of Babylon’. It has to be said that there is no evidence that the mounted Anglo-Saxon ever fought in this way. And so, all of this leaves the reputation of the Anglo-Saxon horsemen with a lot of ground to make up.

However, when we examine the evidence for the presence of the mounted Anglo-Saxon, we find that for years we have probably been asking the wrong question. It is not a matter of whether the Anglo-Saxons had a ‘cavalry’ as such. There has been a refreshing move away from this polarised argument in recent years with an acknowledgement that the Anglo-Saxons usage of horses by way of mounted infantry was so widespread as to blur the distinction between foot and horse. The evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of there being mounted troops employed on a very wide scale and the importance of a nobleman’s ownership of horses is clearly outlined in the heriots of the age. It is rather a question of ‘how did the Anglo-Saxons employ their horses in a military context?’

As early as the eighth century the Venerable Bede mentions the importance of the horse in the context of royal gift giving. King Oswine (644–51) gave a royal horse to St Aiden. From the pagan Saxon period there is a horse burial at Lakenheath which shows us that the value of the animal has a great ancestry among the Anglo-Saxons. In a military context, an early reference to the Anglo-Saxon use of cavalry on the battlefield is captured on the Aberlemno Stone, which depicts a Pictish and Northumbrian army both fighting on horseback at the Battle of Dunnichen in 685.

With the arrival of the Danes in East Anglia in 865, the references to mounted bodies of men, both Danish and English, appears with great frequency in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The very fact that the Danes horsed themselves from East Anglia points to the existence of royal or ecclesiastical stud farms across that kingdom. Such horse management is no light matter. A charter of the English ‘puppet’ King Ceolwulf (874–c. 80) of Mercia dating to 875 refers to the freeing of ‘the whole diocese of the Hwicce from feeding the king’s horses and those who lead them’. Given that a horse can consume 12lb of grain and up to 13lb of hay each day as well as gallons of water indicates this was quite some reprieve for the people of that ancient district. The fact that horses were actively employed in small military units under the command of senior nobles is evidenced by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 871, which talks of uncounted individual mounted forays. These smaller actions were almost certainly the English counter response to the Viking’s necessity to send out their own small foraging parties.

The terms used to describe mounted forces in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are two-fold. They are either described as ‘gehorsedan/ra’ (867, 877, 1010 and 1015) or ‘rad(e)-here’ (891). These terms often apply to the Danes and there is some ambiguity regarding the first term being an English word indicating a ‘horsed’ body of sorts. However, the second term contains the familiar element ‘here’. This has more militaristic connotations of a mounted troop on the offensive. The Danes are sometimes described as being outmanoeuvred in the landscape by mounted Anglo-Saxons. Such an example is the young Edward the Elder’s out-riding of the Danes in the Farnham campaign of 893. But it is to the chronicler Æthelweard that we owe a revealing reference to a sizable force of mounted Anglo-Saxons. Using the Latin term ‘equestri’, he describes Ealdorman Æthelhelm of Wiltshire’s preparation and execution of a giant mounted force to chase the Danes ultimately to a retreat at Buttington, where they were surrounded and besieged in 893. Æthelweard, a nobleman himself, would not have used the term ‘equestri’ if he had not meant to.

If none of this is enough to convince us that there were separate mounted contingents in the Anglo-Saxon army, then the quote from Maxims I at the beginning of this section might assist. It refers to the noble affiliation of the Anglo-Saxon horseman and the need for a mounted body to ride ‘in a company’ (‘getrume’, meaning ‘firm’) and for a foot soldier to hold his ground. A clear distinction is made between the two types of unit and their cohesive requirements.

When we come to the end of Alfred’s reign and the reigns of his son and grandsons, we can see a great deal of evidence for the proper management of horses in a military context. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 896 refers to two horse-thegns, whose rank was high enough for them to be included in a list of important people who had recently lost their lives:

Of these one was Swithwulf, bishop in Rochester, and Ceolmund, ealdorman in Kent, and Beorhtwulf, ealdorman in Essex, and Wulfred, ealdorman in Hampshire, and Ealhheard, bishop at Dorchester, and Eadwulf, the king’s thegn in Sussex, and Beornwulf, town-reeve in Winchester, and Ecgwulf, the king’s horse-thegn, and many in addition to them, though I have named the most distinguished . . . The same year, Wulfric, the king’s horse-thegn passed away; he was also the Welsh reeve.

The horse-thegn’s role is unknown, but is likely to have involved the organisation of horse management and breeding in their areas and for the provision of horse fodder, particularly over the winter months when foals and mares would need nutrition to avoid stunted growth. It was probably similar to the French Marshalls or Constables (literally ‘count of the stable’). Later, in the eleventh century the office of Staller appears in the record. Many Stallers are described by the Normans as Constables in 1066.

King Athelstan (924–39) was concerned enough about the giving away of horses as to decree ‘that no man part with a horse over sea, unless he wish to give it’ (II Athelstan 18). It is generally thought this indicates a royal desire to control the practice of open horse trading to potential enemies outside of the tradition of gift giving in arrangements such as marriages. Another code of Athelstan’s (II Athelstan, 16) demands that two mounted men be provided from every plough in a landowner’s possession. Once again, the importance of mobility is paramount in the king’s mind. Athelstan, by 927, was in the process of building a vast empire and he knew that this could not be achieved without mobility.

Studs had been under pressure during the period of Viking depredations in the decades gone by. But since 919 the English kings had harboured at court some Breton exiles, famous for their horsemanship. Their influence over the English horse stock in terms of Arabs and/or Barbs is not properly understood, but into the equine mix in 926 came an offering from abroad of great magnificence. William of Malmesbury tells us of a gift to Athelstan from Hugh, the Duke of the Franks, which included horses:

he [Adulf, the leader of Hugh’s mission] produced gifts [at Abingdon] on a truly munificent scale, such as might instantly satisfy the desires of a recipient however greedy: the fragrance of spices that had never before been seen in England; noble jewels (emeralds especially, from whose green depths reflected sunlight lit up the eyes of the bystanders with their enchanting radiance); many swift horses with their trappings, ‘champing at their teeth’as Virgil says . . .

Just how many horses or what breed they were we do not know. Frankish horses were often obtained from Spanish stock. One wonders, with his system of horse-thegns and royal studs, whether a breeding programme may have sprung from the gift somewhere in the fields of southern England. Perhaps it is significant that a grand campaign in Scotland was undertaken in 934 at about the time some of these horses or their offspring would have been ready. Perhaps also the reference to mounted action in The Battle of Brunanburh (937) is no poetic device, but a statement of fact:

All day long

the West Saxons with elite ‘cavalry’

pressed in the tracks of the hateful nation

with mill-sharp blades severely hacked from behind

those who fled battle.

This reference to ‘elite cavalry’ may seem overstated. The Old English word used is ‘eoredcystum’, from ‘eoh’, taken by some–but by no means all–to mean ‘war horse’. But it raises the final and most vexed of all questions. We have surely established the existence of an independent mounted arm in the Anglo-Saxon military toolkit. But how was it employed–if at all–on the battlefield?

The Battle of Brunanburh reference seems to point to the retaining of a mounted reserve fresh for the chase. It was in the rout where the most enemy casualties were accrued and here we have a dedicated body of mounted men prosecuting the rout from horseback using swords. So, English armies fought on foot, but sometimes prosecuted the rout on horseback? Unfortunately, there are further references to the mounted Anglo-Saxon in action and each of them presents its own difficulty of interpretation. For example, when the visiting Norman Eustace of Boulogne allowed his men to run amok in Dover in 1051, the English response was swift and, it appears, on horseback. The chronicler refers to great harm being done ‘on either side with horse and also with weapons’. Four years later, in 1055, there is a reference most often quoted in support of the theory that the English could not fight on horseback. Let us examine it. John of Worcester’s chronicle entry describes the pre-Conquest Norman Earl Ralph of Hereford’s attempt to get the fyrd to fight mounted. Here, at the Battle of Hereford, he is said to have ordered the English to fight on horseback ‘contrary to their custom’ (‘contra morem in equis pugnare jussit’), but the earl with his French and Norman cavalry fled the field and Worcester goes on to say ‘seeing which, the English with their commander also fled’. The enemy of the Hereford force, which comprised the men of the exiled Anglo-Saxon Earl Ælfgar and the Welsh king Gryffydd, gave chase and slew 400 of the fleeing English forces. It would be hard to see how this could have happened if Ælfgar’s own forces were not mounted. There is no real problem in translation. The phrase ‘contra morem in equis pugnare jussit’ means the English were ordered to fight contrary to their custom, on horseback. But what does it imply? Does it mean that being horsed from the outset and being asked to fight a full cavalry battle in the manner of their Norman commander was the alien concept, or was it that the English simply had no idea of horseback warfare? It is surely the most probable interpretation that, at Hereford, the mounted Englishmen were asked to fight in a way they knew little about, and not that they knew nothing of horseback fighting. And as for the quality of their horsemanship, perhaps we should remind ourselves of who broke first that day.

Finally, the account written by Snorri Sturluson in Heimskringla of repeated English cavalry charges upon the Norwegian lines at Stamford Bridge (1066) is perhaps not reliable evidence. It was written in the thirteenth century by a man who admitted in his own prologue that the truth of his accounts was based only on what wise old men had passed down. There is confusion over the 1066 campaign in this account and what Snorri has to say about the cavalry charges at Stamford Bridge smacks much more of Norman tactics at Hastings.

So, what can we conclude about Anglo-Saxon mounted warfare? The ownership of horses was a nobleman’s obligation, supported by royal legislation and systems of management. The English use of a mounted infantry arm is strongly supported by the evidence, as is the existence of separate dedicated mounted forces. The ranges over which they campaigned were vast, and they often overtook their mounted enemies, out-manoeuvring them in the landscape. There is no evidence at all that the Anglo-Saxon armies fought cavalry battles in the style of the Normans. On a tactical level, all the evidence points to the dismounting of riders and the fighting of the battle on foot in a time-honoured tradition. In fact, the sending of the horses to the rear prior to the onset of a battle was not even an exclusively Anglo-Saxon thing. As a way of demonstrating defiance ninth-century Franks and twelfth-century Normans did it as well. The ‘defying’ aspect was the fact that once dismounted, the army could not easily run away from the battle.

There is, however, tantalising evidence to support the theory of a mounted reserve being retained for the chase at a tactical level, as at Brunanburh. The great change that came with Anglo-Norman warfare of the twelfth century was the usage of the mounted knight at a tactical level. This was a time when the first histories of Anglo-Saxon England were being written. The Anglo-Saxons’ usage of a mounted arm and that of the Anglo-Normans are incomparable and contemporaries knew it. On the one hand, we have a widespread mounted infantry philosophy accompanied by limited cavalry activity on the battlefield, while on the other we have the famous charging Norman milites riding around in their squadrons of well-trained cavalrymen.

There is one last word on the reason for all the confusion. If we could transport ourselves back in time and observe King Alfred’s noblemen riding to chase down the Danish foragers, to Ealdorman Æthelhelm’s march to Buttington, to Edward the Elder’s overtaking of the Danes at Farnham, to King Athelstan’s victorious pursuit of the retreating confederates at Brunanburh and to King Harold’s swift response to crises at either end of his kingdom, we would not be able to avoid one observation. The Anglo-Saxon army looked like a cavalry force. They simply got off their horses (for the most part) when it came to the important matter of sword play. Similarly, the Danes obliged by behaving in much the same way. With the Normans came a watershed and the dawning of a new era in mounted warfare in England. By the twelfth century the age of the brave warrior hero who faced his opponent on foot was all but gone.

Tributes, Gelds and Mercenaries

It is important to distinguish between two forms of payment raised throughout the age of the Viking invasions by the English kings. On the one hand there was ‘gafol’, a form of tribute payment to the enemy. On the other, there was ‘heregeld’. Heregeld was an annual ‘army tax’ first instituted in 1012 by Æthelred II (979–1016) to pay for the mercenary services of Thorkell the Tall. It remained in use until it was abolished by Edward the Confessor in 1051. When the idea was re-kindled by the Anglo-Norman monarchy its name ‘Danegeld’ recalled its very first purpose. The tax was based on landownership and was assessed at a certain number of pence per hide and it was collected at fixed times each year through the hundreds in the shires.

There are hints that gafol payments predated the heregeld policies of Æthelred. It could be the case that King Alfred’s (871–99) trouble with his own archbishop came from a practice of raising tribute money through the church to pay off the Vikings in the early years of his Danish wars. Gafol was not set at a fixed amount and could be raised by almost any means in an emergency. It is sometimes mentioned alongside the word metsunge (indicating ‘feeding’ or ‘provisioning’), which in its own way narrows the gap somewhat between the two types of taxation, both of which provide a means of support for the foreign force with differing degrees of reciprocity.

The payment made in 991 to the Danes of 10,000 pounds of silver was described as gafol by the chronicler and it was said to be the first payment (of the new age of invasions). Again, in 994 King Æthelred offered the Danes gafol and metsunge if they would leave off their raiding. This time it was 16,000 pounds and the Danes took up winter quarters at Southampton and were fed from the land of Wessex. It seems a heregeld was also paid in this year totalling 22,000 pounds. Again, in 1002 the king and his councillors agreed to pay 24,000 pounds in gafol and metsunge. In 1006–7 a colossal gafol of 36,000 pounds was paid. In 1009 to the misery of the men of East Kent a further 3,000 pounds was paid to get the raiders to leave. In 1012, it reached a huge 48,000 pounds. The next year saw a slight variation in terminology. The invading Dane Swein demanded ‘gyld’ and metsunge to over-winter, while Thorkell demanded the same for his fleet at Greenwich. After his return from brief exile in Normandy King Æthelred kept the payments to Thorkell. In 1014 a gyld of 21,000 pounds was paid to the Greenwich fleet. In 1018, after the wars with Æthelred and his son had been won and Cnut was king, the heaviest tax of all was levied at 72,000 pounds from across the kingdom and separately a sum of 10,500 pounds from London. This last was described as a gafol, but the circumstances of Cnut’s levy are, of course, somewhat different to the earlier ones, given that he was now the Dane in the ascendancy.

It is clear then that some payments were to bribe the enemy to stop its raiding, while the others were literally to support or employ them. So, what use was made of these mercenaries over the years and who were they? The identity of Thorkell the Tall is clear enough, but it is not always that easy to distinguish the mercenary. First, we must be careful how we use this term. Increasingly, towards the end of the period men turned up on the battlefield who, despite their military obligation to their lord, may have had a stipendiary penny in their pouch as well. But these are not true mercenaries as such. Nor, for that matter, are the many groups who fought alongside Anglo-Saxon leaders as military allies. There is a distinction between the hired man (‘hyra-man’), who became familiar to the court of Alfred the Great as his wealth increased, and the fyrdsman, whose loyalties were based on more traditional lordship bonds and land tenure. Neither of these two categories could be said to be true mercenaries.

An example of the difficulties in interpretation might be the household hired men of King Alfred’s court. These men were bound to Alfred through love of their lord, but were rewarded not just by the old-fashioned gift and ring-giving mechanisms of yesteryear, but also by hard cash. Their roles within Alfred’s kingdom were manifold. Some would be messengers, horse-keepers and administrators as well as warriors. The English economy in the Viking period was becoming more monetarily based and Alfred was able to leave 200 pounds in silver coins to these followers on his death. These men were not mercenaries.

The same may not be said for Alfred’s Frisian sailors, who featured heavily in his new naval reforms. But even here, the mercenary status of the sailors is never overly emphasised. There was a propensity to portray such people as an extension of the hired men philosophy, thus legitimising their ties to a more historic form of relationship with an Anglo-Saxon king. We cannot be sure of the status of the Frisians, but one thing is certain: they fought and died in Alfred’s new fleet.

The tenth century saw increasing amounts of foreigners at the English court. Notably, there were Bretons who had fled to King Edward the Elder in 919 after the Vikings had invaded their lands. King Athelstan harboured the Bretons and stood godfather to one, Alan. Alan was raised in England before Athelstan masterminded a campaign in Brittany to restore the Bretons to power. But these were foreigners who fought alongside the forces of the English king as allies and not as paid mercenaries. King Athelstan’s famous struggles with the confederacy of Scots, Vikings and Strathclyde Britons saw him enlist the help of the Vikings Egil and Thorolf, if we are to believe Egil’s Saga. Again, the exact nature of the relationship is not known. There is likely to have been more at stake than the mere payment of money for service, since a whole kingdom was up for grabs.

The new wave of Viking attacks which re-commenced around 990 saw an initial response by local leaders, who by now could operate independently on behalf of the Crown in their local areas. But England was still a remarkably rich land, more so now than it had ever been before. And it is in the reign of Æthelred II (979–1016) that the beginnings of a true ‘mercenary’ story can be told.

In 994 after Olaf Tryggvason and Swein Forkbeard together ravaged the south coast of England and the gafol of 16,000 pounds was paid to the force in Southampton, Æthelred came to an agreement with Olaf that if any other fleet should attack his coastline, Olaf would come to the aid of the English for as long as the king could provision him. Also, it was agreed that lands that harboured such hostile forces should be treated as an enemy by both parties. The arrangement was preceded by the same sponsorship once shown by Alfred to Guthrum, but more importantly included the heregeld of 22,000 pounds of silver. Despite the fact that Olaf returned to Norway, it is generally thought that a mercenary naval force would have remained to assist Æthelred in the spirit of the agreement. One Danish leader, Pallig, was even given lands in return for his service. This can be seen as an attempt to legitimise him above and beyond the mercenary to someone who had a vested interest in loyalty to the king, but Pallig’s subsequent treachery and return to the bosom of the enemy proved it to be a worthless policy. Pallig’s disloyalty probably led to the notorious St Brice’s Day massacre of 1002 whereby the king in desperation ordered the extermination of Danes who had settled in England.

Æthelred’s employment of Thorkell the Tall raises the question of the role of the later Anglo-Saxon housecarl. It has been argued that the institution developed out of the cult of the legendary Jomsvikings and flourished in England from the time of Cnut to the Battle of Hastings (1016–66). Mythology surrounds these warriors and the legal guild that is supposed to have accompanied them. Earl Godwin’s trial, for example, is supposed to be an example of such Scandinavian legal deliberations. Much ink has been spilled over the origins of these famous heavily armoured axemen, but the likelihood is that they were Danish versions of the Alfredian household retainer. Through the next generation up to the Norman Conquest they became an Anglo-Danish version of the same thing. A man described as a housecarl in one document may turn up elsewhere as a thegn or minister of the king. That they existed as an entity is not doubted: they were present at the translation of the remains of Ælfhere in 1023, are recorded at the side of Queen Emma in 1035 and some are recorded as dwelling on 15 acres of land in Wallingford. That the housecarls were financially supported is not in question. The Domesday Book specifically records some Dorset boroughs taxed for this very purpose. However, whether the institution simply became another layer of the king’s and various earls’ household retinues, is another matter. The Danish connotations with the institution are, however, inescapable: 87 per cent of all housecarls mentioned in documents bear names of Old Norse origin but it remains the case that their role did not differ much from that of the English thegnhood into which they settled, save for the stipend that they seem to have received.

There are one or two references to mercenaries that fall outside the above explanations. One of these is that of the rebel Earl Ælfgar’s Irishmen who accompanied him on his campaign in Herefordshire in 1055 and who almost certainly received payment for their services after waiting impatiently at Chester. The other is that of the Flemings who served with Earl Tostig after he presumably enticed them from Flanders with promises of riches in the campaign of 1066. Neither of these examples of earls buying the service of fighting men seem to have had any lasting impact on the Anglo-Saxon state in the way that the settlement of the housecarls did, but they serve as a reminder that if anyone had the political clout and the money, he could entice people to fight with him.

We have looked at the tributes and the payments made by English kings to foreign forces and discussed the background to mercenary employment in England during our period, but it is necessary to explore further another related dimension of warfare of the period, the naval aspect. Here, the mercenary once again plays a part in a very colourful history.

Two Raids – July-August 1863

In an attempt to curb the activities of Confederate guerillas, Brig. Gen. Thomas Ewing ordered that any women aiding and abetting the raiders should be detained in Kansas City. The building in which the women were held collapsed, killing five and injuring many others, and spurring-on Quantrill and his men to their act of ‘revenge’

Although he obtained a captain’s commission early in the war, William Clarke Quantrill was denied promotion because of his reputation for ferocity. The son of an Ohio schoolteacher, Quantrill appears to have sided with the Confederacy because such an allegiance offered greater opportunities for the exercise of his own particular brand of offensive warfare.

To support the operations of Confederate General Bragg in the Middle Tennessee, Brigadier General John H. Morgan led 2,500 cavalrymen from Tennessee into Kentucky in early July, 1863. Morgan eluded Federal forces, crossed the Ohio River and entered Indiana on July 8. The raiders then moved east, passing north of Cincinnati, Ohio, destroying railroads and private property, and causing panic throughout the midwest.

Federal pursuit, directed by General Burnside, was clumsy but ultimately effective, as fatigue slowed Morgan’s march. Late on July 18, the Confederates reached Buffington Island, intending to recross the Ohio, but were attacked and scattered the following morning by a Federal force. Badly outnumbered, almost a third of Morgan’s men were captured; some escaped across the river, but the majority continued east under Morgan. They surrendered near West Point on July 26 Although they had caused widespread damage, Federal operations were not significantly disrupted.

William Clarke Quantrill was a veteran of the guerilla fighting between free state and slave state forces along the Kansas-Missouri border during the 1850s. After the outbreak of the Civil War, he led a band of partisans in raids on Kansas. In the summer of 1863, he targeted the town of Lawrence. His men considered their raid to be a retaliation for the deaths in August of five women held by Federal authorities in Kansas City who had died when their prison cell collapsed. On August 19, Quantrill headed west with over 300 men. He crossed into Kansas, arriving on the outskirts of Lawrence near dawn on August 21. Encountering no organized resistance, the raiders burned over 100 homes, looted banks and stores, and killed some 150 male civilians. Alerted belatedly to the raid, Federal forces m Kansas gave chase, skirmishing with Quantrill’s men on the 21st as they headed for Missouri. A brief fight occurred on August 22, but the raiders escaped. Principally as a result of the Lawrence Massacre, Federal Thomas Ewing ordered the forced evacuation of four Missouri counties bordering Kansas. This “Order No. 11” made Ewing as infamous m Missouri as Quantrill was in Kansas.


The true long-range cavalry raid was born in the western theater, where the Union had to march its armies over long distances through rough country, dependent on railroads for supply.

Theory was turned into practice in July 1862, when Major General Don Carlos Buell advanced his army toward Chattanooga, a vital rail center. Confederate generals John Hunt Morgan in Kentucky and Nathan Bedford Forrest in middle Tennessee both launched cavalry raids that cut the rail line supplying Buell. At first, Buell tried to patch the situation by sending two divisions back to protect the railroad. That robbed his advance of some force. But the full-blown Confederate invasion of Kentucky compelled his withdrawal north, saving Chattanooga for the South as Kentucky needed to be saved for the North.

Later in 1862, Major General U. S. Grant was massing his forces for an overland march south from Memphis, Tennessee, to Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was going to be a conventional march, supported by a series of supply bases. Major General Earl Van Dorn led a cavalry raid that burned out the Union depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi, putting Grant out of supply. Temporarily, Grant’s forces “lived off the land” as it marched back to Memphis. He finally solved the raiding problem in early 1863 by shifting his supply line to the Mississippi River. No cavalry raid could ever stop a steamboat.

Major General William Rosecrans took the next hit. He had spent the fall of 1862 building a mountain of supplies at Nashville to propel his army’s advance to Murfreesboro. Confederate raiding cut his rail line several times, but it became irrelevant as the water level of the Cumberland River rose, thus permitting supply deliveries by steamboat. As Rosecrans fought the Battle of Stones River, Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler’s troopers mauled several Union wagon trains coming down from Nashville. Union cavalry couldn’t protect these convoys for beans. But Rosecrans did not retreat, having enough supplies on hand to fight and hold his own in a sloppy battle.

A raid could just as easily distract an enemy commander as it could immobilize him. In 1863, Union Brigadier General Benjamin Grierson conducted a raid that ran from Tennessee through Mississippi to Louisiana. He didn’t destroy anything irreplaceable, but Confederate Lieutenant General John Pemberton had to dispatch a few brigades to guard his railroads, ignoring Grant’s maneuver that put a Union army south of Vicksburg.

Equally duped was Major General Ambrose Burnside. In July 1863, Morgan led about 380 troopers on an eighteen-day romp from Louisville, Kentucky, through southern Indiana to Salineville in eastern Ohio, where he finally surrendered. This checked the planned advance on Knoxville, Tennessee, which required an uncut supply line and quiet rear sector to ease the cautious Burnside’s worries.

But raiding also had its downsides. An army that sends its horse soldiers off on a deep raid was usually blind to the movements of the enemy. This happened to General Braxton Bragg, whose Army of Tennessee was turned out of its positions at Tullahoma and Chattanooga by the Army of the Cumberland’s well-executed flank marches. Each movement went unseen because Morgan, Wheeler, and Forrest were off raiding. Likewise, Major General Joseph Hooker blinded his own command, the Army of the Potomac, by sending his cavalry off to cut the lone railroad supplying General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The raid failed anyway, but worse, Hooker’s forces lacked cavalry reconnaissance as they crossed the Rapidan River and marched into the heavy woods surrounding Chancellorsville. Lee retained his cavalry and eventually figured where to aim his decisive counterattack.


The Civil War was not fought between just blue- and gray-uniformed soldiers who marched in columns and fought in formation. Both sides also waged a “shadow war,” especially in the western states and territories, fought by guerrillas who conducted raids, robberies, and often the murder of civilians. Some of the groups, such as John Mosby’s Rangers, were disciplined, but many were not. Union generals often treated these “partisan rangers” as outlaws, and ordered their men to “Pursue, strike, and destroy the reptiles.”

Confederates also were concerned about their lawlessness. On June 30, 1862, Confederate Major General M. J. Thomson wrote President Davis about rangers who had been “induced to believe that they are to be a band of licensed robbers, and are not the men to care whether it be friend or foe they rob.” The Confederate Congress repealed the Partisan Ranger Act in February 1864, but by then men such as William C. Quantrill didn’t need official approval to terrorize the Missouri-Kansas corridor.

Here, an area plagued by violence since the “Bloody Kansas” conflicts of the 1850s, was where guerrillas waged the bloodiest fighting of the war. Kansas senator James H. Lane organized Union bushwhackers, who sacked and burned towns that had Confederate-leaning populations. But the most savage killer was Quantrill, who counted among his deputies “Bloody” Bill Anderson, a man who tied the scalps of his victims to his horse’s bridle. Quantrill would school other cold-blooded killers—the legendary Cole Younger and the brothers Frank and Jesse James were in his band—who would continue their outlaw activities after the war.

The violence escalated in the summer of 1863 when a building collapsed on some jailed women, Confederate sympathizers who included sisters of Quantrill’s gang, killing five.

Seeking revenge, Quantrill gathered 450 men and marched to Lawrence, Kansas, a free-soil town. Quantrill’s gang killed 182 men and boys. Missouri Union Commander Thomas Ewing responded by issuing Order No. 11, which forcibly evicted civilians from the four Missouri counties bordering Kansas, displacing some ten thousand people, leaving the area barren for years.

Quantrill left Missouri in the spring of 1865 to go east to murder Abraham Lincoln. But a Union patrol caught him first in Kentucky, and killed him.

A Ride Too Far 1863

4 R

“Keep to your Sabers, Men”: J.E.B. Stuart’s Charge at Gettysburg. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate cavalry prepared a last desperate charge on the Union lines at Gettysburg.

The Confederate cavalry held the high ground at Cress’s Ridge overlooking the York Turnpike, but quick-moving Union cavalry blocked the roads back to Gettysburg.

Stuart’s ride (shown with a red dotted line) during the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 – July 3, 1863

The Confederacy needed a dramatic victory. There had been some serious losses in the west, but the larger Union Army had been kept at bay in Virginia. What was needed in June 1863 was a victory that showed that the South could not only defend itself but could take the war into the North. They needed to show that they had some chance of actually winning the war, not just holding on longer. This would provide the impetus for England and France to recognize them as a nation. Then the European navies would break the Union blockade, and it would be a whole new war. Robert E. Lee’s decision to take the Army of Virginia north into Pennsylvania was a political, not a military, one. But this one mistake started a series of events that had the opposite effect. It ultimately doomed the Confederate cause because of very uncharacteristic mistakes he made near a small town named Gettysburg.

The mistake came about because the Gray Ghost, irregular cavalry commander John Mosby, sneaked into the center of the Union Army and came away with a copy of their current plans. What the plans showed was that there were gaps in the Union positions that could be exploited by J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry. This took place at the beginning of what was one of Lee’s most audacious maneuvers: invading Pennsylvania. It was the job of Civil War cavalry to protect the supply lines of their army and disguise (cover) its movements. At the same time, they had to disrupt the supplies and report the movements of the enemy forces. While the Union cavalry had markedly improved, because of their confidence and courage the Confederate mounted army was still a very dominant force.

Unquestionably one of the most daring leaders of the Southern cause was J. E. B. (Jeb) Stuart. Time and again his raids and other exploits had earned him accolades from his commanders and respect from both sides of the war. Mosby finished his formal report to Lee on what he had found with the recommendation that the best way to protect Lee’s communications was to assail Hooker’s own supply lines. (General Joe Hooker was then in command of the Army of the Potomac.) In response, Stuart presented a plan to General Lee that involved a raid by a large part of his command, effectively a majority of the cavalry of the Army of Virginia. They would move behind the Yankee forces and to nearby Washington, D.C. Stuart was sure that this would, as it had in the past, create a panic that forced most of the Union horses to pull back and chase him, and likely force thousands of blue-clad infantry who might otherwise face Lee to stand on the defensive to protect the Union capital.

A lot of people blame the absence of Stuart’s cavalry before and for the first days of Gettysburg for there being a battle there at all. In the recriminations after the war, some said that Stuart was more interested in headlines and raiding than in doing his job. This was not really the case. Stuart’s plan to ride around much of the Union Army appealed to Lee, who sent General Longstreet, Stuart’s direct commander, a note expressing his conditional approval. This order from Lee read that if Stuart could get across the Potomac River without alerting the Federals to Lee’s plan to strike North into the Shenandoah Valley, he should do so. While the Confederate cavalry was waiting to cross into Pennsylvania, Stuart received orders to that effect from Robert E. Lee on June 23. These read in part:

If General Hooker’s army remains inactive, you can leave two brigades to watch him, and withdraw with the three others, but should he not appear to be moving northward, I think you had better withdraw this side of the mountain tomorrow night, cross at Shepherdstown next day, and move over to Fredericktown.

You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can, and cross the river east of the mountains. In either case, after crossing the river, you must move on and feel the right of Ewell’s troops.

The result of this order was that Stuart and most of his cavalry were missing for the first days of the Battle of Gettysburg. As a consequence, Lee had virtually no intelligence as to the location of the Army of the Potomac before the battle. But Stuart was not AWOL, gallivanting on his own; he was in obedience to Lee’s direct order. So mistake number one has to be Lee’s willingness to send off most of his horsemen just as he was beginning to move into hostile territory. His intent in doing so, distraction and forcing the withdrawal of Union troops to defend against the raiders, was valid. Whether that was more important than the less glorious role of gathering intelligence is what we are judging here. Since the real goal of moving North was to demonstrate to the European nations the strength and viability of the Confederacy, the publicity of such a raid combined with a victory against a portion of the Union Army would have been doubly beneficial. So perhaps this was a worthy risk, but the devil is in the details.

Stuart actually left behind more than half of his mounted command. The risk came from the fact that with nearly half the mounted strength of his army gone, Lee had just enough horsemen to cover his own movements. He did not have enough to also maintain reliable information on the many Union corps that were moving, under Hooker and then Meade, to intercept his army.

After taking some time to gather the 2,000 horsemen who would accompany him on the raid, Stuart crossed the Potomac where ordered to and passed through the Bull Run Mountains. Then things began to go wrong. At the town of Haymarket, Confederate scouts discovered Hancock’s entire infantry corps moving north. At this point, there was no choice: Stuart’s mounted force had to avoid the much larger infantry corps. So on June 26, Stuart ordered his entire force to go south, which resulted in being behind the entire Army of the Potomac. This also meant that a large part of the Union Army was between him and Lee. Communications with the Army of Virginia became, at best, difficult.

Then things began to slow down for Stuart’s normally rapidly moving horsemen. Troops in this period carried few supplies. This was particularly true of cavalry. Simply put, horses eat a lot. They had to purchase, or take, virtually all the food, grain, and so on they needed from local sources. Living off the land normally allowed cavalry to move much more quickly because they were without the slow supply wagons to hold them back. The dark side of this equation was that it meant Stuart’s force had very few supplies with it, and virtually no feed for their horses. The countryside they rode through had already been picked clean by the Union Army just days before. There was no more grain or fodder of any sort at the farms the raiders passed near. This lack of fodder meant that on June 27 Stuart’s cavalry lost several hours to grazing and foraging. On some earlier raids, Stuart’s cavalry had moved as much as fifty miles per day, but now in two days they had moved a total of only thirty-five miles and much of it in an unplanned direction that took them farther away from the Army of Virginia. More important, Lee had begun to move north, and Stuart’s raiders no longer had any way to even know where their main army was located. Stuart could not report what he saw to Lee because he didn’t know where General Lee was located. In fact, a messenger sent to Lee on the twenty-eighth, with the intelligence Stuart had gained thus far, never was able to deliver the information.

Because of the need to again cross the Potomac unobserved, Stuart’s force next had to use an inferior and dangerous crossing known as Rowser’s Ford. At this point, the river was nearly a mile wide and chest deep on the horses. It took a good portion of the night of the twenty-seventh before the crossing was completed.

It was late in the morning of June 28 before the exhausted Southern horsemen were again moving. Later that day, they reached Rockville, which created the consternation Stuart desired by being only fifteen miles from Washington, D.C. There the Confederates spent the day paroling more than 400 captives while resting and feeding men and horses. After a twenty-mile night march on June 29, one of Stuart’s Confederate brigades under Fitz Lee began tearing up the B&O Railroad tracks. Since the Union Army moved most of its supplies by rail, this was also a slow but very effective action. The loss of the railroad diminished both the supplies and reinforcements that could be sent to Meade, who had by then taken over from Hooker as Union commander. A train of 125 supply-laden wagons, a real prize, was next captured intact. These seem to have been new wagons in great condition by later accounts. They were piled high with all sorts of supplies Lee could use. The wagons were added to the cavalry column. These spoils of war were too good to pass up but also had the effect of slowing Stuart.

On that same day, Early and some Union cavalry were camped in a small town named Gettysburg. Unaware that the entire Union Army had marched north and were near, Lee had ordered his separated divisions to gather in that same Pennsylvania town.

After he had captured the supply wagons, Stuart’s entire column overcame the stiff resistance of a small Union force at the town of Westminster and camped for the night to take advantage of the plentiful supplies stored there. Neither Stuart nor Lee knew where the other Southern commander was. More important, without enough cavalry to scout for him, Lee was just learning that the entire Army of the Potomac was nearby.

By this time there were several columns of Union cavalry hunting for the raiders, and one was encountered at the city of Hanover. The Union force was driven from the town, then countercharged and chased the foremost Confederate troopers back onto their main column. That Union countercharge was then stopped. Stuart formed a defensive line on a nearby hilltop. Here both cavalry forces sat until Stuart was able to send the captured wagons safely ahead. The Confederates then slipped away. The next day, July 1, Stuart turned north and camped near the town of Dover. From there, he sent out two troops of riders hoping to locate Lee. One of these rode toward Gettysburg, the others toward Shippensburg.

This was on the first day of what is now called the Battle of Gettysburg.

Stuart left Dover later in the day and in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, encountered stiff resistance from a brigade of Union infantry commanded by William “Baldy” Smith. The Confederate commander called on the infantry to surrender and threatened to bombard the town with his horse-drawn cannon. Smith replied, “Shell away.” So the Confederate horsemen did. The fighting at Carlisle continued late into the night, with Smith refusing yet another demand to surrender.

The next day, the troopers he had sent to Gettysburg found Stuart and passed on Lee’s order that he hurry with his entire column to join the battle there. It was now in its second day. On July 2, Stuart led his already exhausted riders toward Gettysburg.

Eight very active days after separating Stuart’s brigades, he rejoined the Army of Virginia. Having been forced away twice, the raid had taken much longer than expected. Lee’s first words were “Stuart, where have you been?”

The Confederate Army lost the Battle of Gettysburg, and with it, virtually all hope of winning the American Civil War. Would Lee have fought that battle there if he had been given good intelligence as to the position of the Union Army? Would Lee have won if he had instead retreated and fought the defensive battle he had told his commanders earlier that he desired? There is no way to tell. What is certain is that Lee allowing his “eyes and ears” to be absent at such a vital time meant that both armies blundered into the Battle of Gettysburg. That need not have been the case. And Stuart’s mistake of turning away and moving slowly out of contact for several extra days meant that his cavalry could not be there for Lee when they were needed. There were a lot of other mistakes made by both sides at Gettysburg during the battle, but these two mistakes, Lee’s order and Stuart’s detours, combined to ensure the battle itself happened. And after Gettysburg, the Confederacy was never again able to do more than slow its inevitable defeat.


A term associated with the heavily armoured cavalry is ‘clibanarius’, apparently from a Persian word for an oven or furnace, which must have seemed most apt under the Mediterranean or Persian sun. It is sometimes anachronistically translated as ‘ironclad’. Although probably starting as a nickname for cataphracts, some of the evidence suggests that clibanarius seems to have gained a specific and distinct technical meaning. To add to the confusion, a unit could be referred to as cataphractus clibanarius. Some scholars have suggested that clibanarii carried bows as well as the lance (as did most of the Persian horsemen) or that one had full horse armour and the other only the frontal half armour. It has also been suggested that the distinction was not one of equipment but of tactical use and training with clibanarii being trained to cooperate closely with light horse archers. By this way of thinking, a unit trained in both might operate as cataphracti on one occasion or clibanarii on another.

In addition to the variety of types in service, the main impression of the Roman cavalry that Arrian gives his reader is of a highly disciplined force, rigorously trained through constant practice. In cavalry tactics, as in so many fields, the Romans were the beneficiaries of centuries of development among many peoples, both their conquered subjects and those still beyond their borders. The eclectic range of formations and manoeuvres that the empire’s regiments were expected to master included the Celtic toloutegon, the Cantabrian gallop, the Thessalian rhombus, and of course the wedge, so valuable for cutting through enemy formations in shock action, which the Macedonians had learnt from the Thracians and Scythians.

By Hadrian’s reign, when the cataphract was finally adopted by the Roman army, the Roman Empire had reached its high watermark. As well as annexing Dacia (roughly modern Rumania), Trajan had campaigned in the east, capturing the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon and carrying the Empire’s borders to their greatest territorial extent. After that Rome was increasingly on the defensive. In Britain of course, this retrenchment was clearly embodied in the construction of Hadrian’s Wall and the other frontiers also gradually ossified into fixed defensive systems.

On the Danube, Hadrian began paying subsidies to the Roxolani and awarded citizenship to their king, Rasparagus, but other Sarmatian groups remained a major threat, despite a significant victory by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the winter of AD 173/174. Once more the Sarmatian dependence upon the headlong charge proved their undoing in a battle fought upon the frozen River Danube. It seems incredible that any cavalry force would willingly give battle on ice, yet, remarkably, the historian Cassius Dio claims that the lazyge raiders, who had been retreating with their loot, actually halted on the river and waited for the Romans, expecting to have the advantage ‘as their horses had been trained to run safely even over a surface of this kind’.

When the Romans came up the Sarmatians tried to employ exactly the tactics Arrian had prepared to face, with some dashing straight at the Roman centre while others attempted to envelop both flanks. The Romans, however, did not panic and ‘drew together in a compact body’; possibly a square with the cavalry in the centre since they are not mentioned in the ensuing fight. The Sarmatian assault failed to break the Roman infantry, many of the men having thrown down their shields for the front ranks to stand upon for firmer footing. The lazyges did manage to drive their horses into the waiting lines but many mounts lost their footing and went down ‘since the barbarians, by reason of their momentum could no longer keep from slipping’. Those piling in from behind became embroiled in a vicious struggle in which many were bodily hauled from their horses ‘so that but few escaped out of a large force’.

Marcus Aurelius adopted the soubriquet ‘Sarmaticus’ as a result of this victory and, after further campaigning, was able to negotiate a favourable peace two years later. The terms of this settlement illustrate how the Romans, although not expanding territorially, still sought to incorporate the manpower of defeated enemies. As a result of this defeat, the lazyges returned some one hundred thousand captives taken in raids over the years, and also undertook to furnish eight thousand cavalry for service with the Roman army, of whom 5500 were sent to Britain.

Some see a tantalizing link between this and the historical basis for the legend of King Arthur. The Sarmatians would have been horsemen, some at least clad in shining mail (though not uniquely so among Britannia’s garrison) and fighting under a dragon standard (although again not uniquely, for draco standards were widely used by the late Roman army). Add to this that Sarmatian religious beliefs, true to their Scythian roots, included the veneration of an ancient sword plunged in the ground, and connections are tempting indeed. A Sarmatian unit was still based in Lancashire in the third century and there is archaeological evidence for their presence around AD 400, just before the official Roman abandonment of Britain. At one point they were even commanded by one Lucius Artorius Castus.

The peace lasted for a generation, but a new threat was already emerging in the region.


31. Captain (Charles A. May), 2nd Regiment of U. S. Dragoons, Undress, 1846: Dragoon officers wore a rather plain shell jacket for ordinary stable duty, marches, or active service from 1833 to 1851. Some had collars adorned with gold borders and laced blind buttonholes. Others, as shown here, had plain collars. Officers wore no stripes on their undress trousers. 32. Private, 2nd Regiment of U. S. Dragoons, Undress, 1846: The memoirs of Samuel Chamberlain, an enlisted 1st Dragoon with Taylor’s army in northern Mexico, recount that the and Dragoons wore orange bands on their forage caps. This spirited steed is outfitted with the Ringgold saddle and horse equipment, which were adopted in 1844. 33. Sergeant, 1st Regiment of U. S. Dragoons, Undress, 1847: Company C was on Kearny’s arduous march from New Mexico to California in late 1846, virtually dismounting itself in the process. The men took the field against California rebels in January 1847 on foot. This sergeant has donned a pair of ‘breed’ leggings to protect his lower legs. He is armed with the US. Model 1843 Hall carbine and the Model 1840 heavy dragoon saber.’


Brevet Major General Stephen Watts Kearny, painted shortly after his triumphs with the Army of the West. The first lieutenant colonel and the second commander of the 1st Dragoons, he retained cavalry yellow [correction dragoon orange] on the collar and cuffs of his general’s coat.

When the United States annexed Texas in 1845, she embarked upon a collision course that would shortly involve her in a war with Mexico. The Mexicans had never recognized Texan independence, and they looked upon America’s action as the most blatant kind of aggression. Even before a Texas convention could convene at Austin on 4 July to accept the American offer, President Polk directed Brigadier General Zachary Taylor to enter the future state with a 3900- man ‘Army of Observation’. Taylor shipped his infantry and artillery from New Orleans to Corpus Christi Bay, but he had Colonel David Twiggs and the and US. Dragoons ride overland from Fort Jesup. They joined their comrades on the Gulf Coast roughly 400 sabers strong, having lost three dead and fifty deserters in the process.

President Polk had more on his mind than merely adding One state the He intended to negotiate the peaceful acquisition of New Mexico and Upper California. Still fuming over Texas, however, the Mexicans refused to deal, and Polk resorted to more drastic means to get what he wanted. On 13 January 1846, he had his Secretary of War order Taylor’s Army of Observation to the north bank of the Rio Grande, and on 8 March, ‘Old Rough and Ready’s’ 3000 effectives ambled out of their winter camp, headed by Colonel Twiggs and his 378 2nd Dragoons. Texas audaciously claimed the Rio Grande as her southern boundary, but the Mexicans fixed the line much further north along the Nueces River. By occupying the disputed territory, Polk hoped to bully Mexico City into parting with the provinces he coveted. Ironically, this unwarranted invasion brought him a full-fledged shooting war instead.

The Mexicans mobilized a large army at Matamoros to sweep the Yankee heretics from sacred soil. Receiving unsubstantiated reports that the Mexicans were crossing the Rio Grande in force on 24 April 1846, Taylor ordered Captain Seth Thornton and two companies of the 2nd Dragoons upriver to investigate. The next morning at Rancho de Carricitos, twenty miles away from Taylor’s camp, Thornton’s sixty-three troopers ran into 1600 angry Mexican cavalrymen. Eleven Americans were killed, six wounded and the rest captured, except for Thornton’s Mexican guide, who brought Taylor word of the disaster on the twenty-sixth. With his wonderful gift for under- statement, Old Rough and Ready sent Polk a message that read: ‘Hostilities may now be considered as commenced.’

After the usual preliminary maneuvers, a Mexican army of 3709 men gave battle with Taylor’s 2288 troops on 8 May 1846, at Palo Alto, Texas. The affair was largely an artillery duel, but a squadron of the and Dragoons was posted on either end of the American line to guard Taylor’s flanks. When 800 enemy cavalry- men tried to turn the Yankee right, Captain Samuel H. Walker and his company of twenty Texas Rangers pounced on their flank, sweeping their ranks with a devastating fusillade from their rifles and Colt’s revolvers. As the harried lancers reeled back, a squadron of the and Dragoons joined in and helped push the enemy left beyond its starting point. The fight ended largely in a draw, but the Mexicans sustained 257 casualties to Taylor’s fifty-five.

The next day, the Mexicans retired to a deep, dried-out river bed sheltered by a dense tangle of trees and chaparral known as Resaca de la Palma.

Following somewhat lackadaisically, Taylor sent Company C, 3rd U. S. Artillery, right up the Matamoros Road to tussle with the batteries at the Mexican center, while his infantry thrashed doggedly through the prickly undergrowth on either side. When his light artillerymen failed to silence the Mexican guns, Old Rough and Ready directed Captain Charles A. May and his company of the 2nd U. S. Dragoons to charge them.

Over six feet tall and as straight as an Indian, dapper Charley May looked the very image of a ‘dragoon bold’, and he had the bluster and panache to match. He was instantly recognizable with his striking, full beard and flowing, dark brown curls. As he approached the American 6-pounders, he hollered gaily to their commander, Lieutenant Randolph Ridgely, ‘Hello, Ridgely, where is that battery? I am ordered to charge it.’

‘Hold on, Charley,’ the gunner replied, ’till I draw their fire and you will see where they are.’

Ridgely’s fieldpieces then barked their challenge, the Mexicans answered, and before they could reload, May’s company sailed down the Matamoros Road in a column of fours. The enemy crews left their cannon and fled from the Americans’ waving sabers, but May and his cheering dragoons, caught up in the exhilaration of their first real cavalry charge, failed to check their foaming steeds for another quarter of a mile. The company ground to a quick stop, like an accordion, with the rear ranks slamming into those in front and turning the whole column into a mishmash of shouting men and rearing animals. Mexican infantrymen alongside the road fired their muskets into the milling Yankees, hitting nineteen dragoons and eighteen horses. May just got back to the battery, with six troopers still beside him, too few to hold it, and he scurried shamefacedly back to Taylor, only to hear the general bellow sarcastically at the 5th and 8th Infantry, ‘Take those guns, and by God, keep them!’

The doughboys went on to seize eight cannon and win the day, inflicting 5 I 5 to I 500 ‘ losses on the Mexicans at a cost of 122 Americans. Fortunately for May, his bugler, a Private Winchell, had possessed enough presence of mind to carry off a prisoner, who turned out to be no other than General Rómolo Diaz de la Vega, the commander of the enemy battle line. Hoping to assuage Taylor’s wrath over his bungled charge, May claimed to be the general’s captor. The American press hailed him as a national hero, and he was twice breveted up to the rank of lieutenant colonel. His peers and subordinates who knew the real story, especially the and Dragoons’ buglers, hated May and looked on him with contempt. A trooper who later served under him called the headline hero ‘the cowardly humbug of the war’.

Two days later, acting on Taylor’s report of the Thornton debacle, President Polk asked the Congress to acknowledge that a state of war existed, alleging falsely that the Mexicans had invaded the country and ‘shed American blood upon American soil’. Both houses quickly passed a war bill that permitted the President to raise 50,000 volunteers and appropriated $10, 000, 000 for the prosecution of the conflict. Polk signed the legislation on 13 May and issued an immediate call for troops.

Fittingly enough, a large number of the volunteers were to be cavalrymen, who could more easily traverse the great western expanses over which the war would be fought. Between May and July 1846, the Federal government called on various states to supply mounted regiments: one from Kentucky; one from Tennessee; two from Missouri; one from Arkansas; one from Texas. They were organized on the regular model, with ten companies apiece. But the companies were supposed to be smaller, with sixty-four men in each. Enthusiasm for the war, however, often caused such limitations to be ignored. Company C, 1st Regiment of Mounted Missouri Volunteers, reported to its regimental rendezvous with 119 rank and file. Polk left it up to the states whether their sons would serve for one year or the duration of the hostilities, and they invariably chose the shorter enlistment period.

The regular army was also temporarily augmented. In 1847, Congress authorized the creation of nine infantry regiments and the 3rd Regiment of United States Dragoons – to serve until the end of the war. At the same time all regular cavalry regiments received a second major, a move inspired, no doubt, by the desire to extend field officer grade to the President’s brother, William H. Polk of the 3rd Dragoons.

The Mexican War was America’s first real cavalry war since the Revolution. The Mexican Army had at least fourteen regular mounted regiments and six active militia cavalry regiments. The 1st and 2nd U. S. Dragoons, toughened by ten years of fighting Indians or Herculean rides on the Plains, made light of such odds. The story is told of Sergeant Jack Miller of the 2nd, who was leading a small patrol that stumbled across five times its number of enemy guerrillas near Monclova that November. As his men grabbed instinctively for their carbines, Miller roared, ‘No firing, men! If twenty dragoons can’t whip a hundred greasers with the saber, I’ll join the Doughboys and carry a fence rail all my life.’ The Americans charged and bowled the Mexicans over with their heavier horses, killing six guerrillas, wounding thirteen and taking seventy prisoners. Only one of Miller’s men and three mounts were lightly scratched.

The prevailing prejudice in America against the life of a common soldier and the titanic immigration from Europe that swept over the country in the 1840s ensured that the regular infantry and artillery regiments were composed largely of what an English visitor called a ‘rag-tag-and-bob-tail herd’ and ‘either of the scum of the population of the older states, or the worthless German, English, or Irish emigrants.’ Fully one half of Taylor’s troops were foreign-born. The dragoons were still drawn primarily from older stock Americans, and they considered themselves to be a far cut above their fellow soldiers. As Samuel E. Chamberlain, a teenaged private in Company E, 1st U. S. Dragoons, boasted:

I came to the conclusion that the Dragoons were far superior in materials to any other arm of the service. No man of any spirit and ambition would join the ‘Dough- boys’ and go afoot, when he could ride a fine horse and wear spurs like a gentleman. In our squadron were broken down Lawyers, Actors and men of the world, Soldiers who had served under Napoleon, Polish Lancers, French Cuirassiers, Hungarian Hussars, Irishmen who had left the Queen’s service to swear allegiance to Uncle Sam and wear the blue.

Our officers were all graduates of West Point, and at the worst, were gentlemen of intelligence and education, often harsh and tyrannical, yet they took pride in having their men well clothed, and fed, in making them contented and reconciled to their lot . . .

The volunteer cavalrymen, in their ebullient and ignorant fashion, considered themselves as good as any regulars and the match of any Mexicans – and some of them lived up to their own bravado. One of the first such organizations to get into the field was Colonel Jack Hays’s Texas Regiment of Mounted Volunteers, whose various elements linked up with Taylor’s army through the spring and summer of 1846. Hays’s outfit was an amalgamation of several companies of the famed Texas Rangers, led by such legendary Indian fighters as Captains Ben McCulloch and Samuel Walker. The appearance of their 500 men was nothing short of formidable, each one carrying a rifle and one or two Colt revolvers. Commencing his advance on Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo León, on 19 August, Taylor was soon impressed with the rangers’ skill as scouts and exterminators of the guerrillas who infested his lines of communication.

The trouble with the Texans was that they were too prone to kill Mexicans on any pretext – including unarmed and unoffending men, women and children. Many of them nursed grudges as old as a decade against the ‘greasers’, and they were motivated as much by private vendettas as patriotism. Samuel Chamberlain called them ‘packs of human bloodhounds’, and any regular who tried to restrain their outrages found him- self just as apt to become the victim of Texan fury. However uncontrollable they were at other times, Hays’s Rangers were magnificent in a fight. When Taylor battered his way into Monterrey in a terrific four-day fracas that began on 20 September, the Texans were ever in the forefront. Following Colonel Hays’s standing orders to ‘Give ’em hell!’ – they smashed an enemy cavalry charge to pieces, and then slid off their ponies to fight beside the infantry, storming redoubts, palaces and the thick-walled adobe houses where the Mexicans took shelter.

Taylor owed Hays and his Texans quite a debt for the conquest of Monterrey, but he was not at all sorry to see them ride home when their six-month tour of duty expired on 2 October. ‘On the day of battle,’ he quipped, ‘I am glad to have Texas soldiers with me, for they are brave and gallant; but I never want to see them before or afterward.’

Taylor’s victories were to weave the charismatic mystique that would place him in the White House in two years, but much further to the north, relatively small bands of American cavalrymen were achieving something much more significant and lasting – without the same loss in blood.

From the end of June and into the first week of July, the Army of the West issued out of Fort Leavenworth, in staggered detachments to preserve the forage along the Santa Fe Trail, and disappeared into the endless prairie grasslands. The man responsible for this odd assemblage of 1700 regulars and volunteers was Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny, and his mission was to incorporate the provinces of New Mexico and Upper California into the United States. To attempt so mam- moth a task, he was given the following forces: nearly 400 of his own 1st Dragoons from Companies B, C, G, I and K; 100 volunteer infantrymen in a two-company battalion raised in Missouri; a company of 100 St Louis cavalrymen called the LaClede Rangers; fifty Delaware and Shawnee scouts; and about 1,000 mounted riflemen in the nine companies of the 1st Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers. The Army of the West was also burdened by the twelve 6-pounders and four 12-pound howitzers of Major Meriwether Lewis Clark’s Battalion of Missouri Volunteer Artillery, 1,556 wagons, 459 horses, 3658 draft mules, and 14,904 cattle and oxen. It required a good month for this host to cross the 537 miles to Bent’s Fort, and as it entered enemy territory, Kearny was forced to put his men on half rations.

The governor of New Mexico mustered a motley army of 4000 to contest Kearny’s progress, but his force fell to pieces and dispersed as the Americans drew near. On 18 August 1846, three days after he had been notified of his promotion to brigadier general, the slim old dragoon occupied Santa Fe without having to fire a shot. Kearny stayed in New Mexico only long enough to institute a civil government and win the inhabitants over with his courtesy and respect for their religion. 0n 25 September, he set out for California with the 300 of his regular troopers still fit to ride. The 1st Dragoons must have made an interesting sight, for every man was mounted on a mule. The general had kept them constantly on the move with an inexhaustible list of special assignments, and the pace wore their horses down. Before he rode out of courier-range, Kearny instructed Colonel Alexander William Doniphan, a towering, sandy-haired lawyer and the commander of the Missouri Mounted Volunteers, to pacify the Indians in the province and then go down and capture Chihuahua, Mexico’s gateway to the northwest.

Kearny had embarked upon the most trying march of his long career. On 6 October, about ten miles below Socorro, he encountered twenty mounted Americans hurrying east. One of them was the renowned scout, Kit Carson, who was carrying dispatches from Commodore Robert Stockton marked for Washington announcing the fall of California to the U. S. Navy’s Pacific Squadron and Major John C. Fremont’s battalion of 234 mounted frontiersmen. Carson’s news caused Kearny to alter his plans. The route ahead would be difficult, lacking water and forage, and since California was already occupied, he sent 200 dragoons back to Santa Fe and exchanged his wagons for pack mules. After this was done, Kearny resumed his journey, retaining Kit Carson as a guide.

The closer the 1st Dragoons came to California, the more arduous the going – especially after they entered the Gila Desert. Men and animals reached and passed their breaking point many times, but somehow Kearny kept the column closed up and plodding on. To make matters worse, on 22 November, he met some Mexican horse traders who informed him that the Californians had risen in revolt against their insufferably arrogant American masters. Struggling out of the Gila and into the verdant San Felipe Valley on 2 December, Kearny sent a courier to San Diego to request an escort from Commodore Stockton for his small and weakened force. On 5 December, he was joined by Captain Archibald Gillespie, twelve ‘Horse Marines’ and twenty-six mounted riflemen.

Gillespie told Kearny that there were seventy-five Californian lancers blocking the road to San Diego at San Pascual. Urged on by Carson and the rash Gilles- pie, Kearny decided to attack the insurgents after a lieutenant and nine dragoons scouted their camp that night. Unfortunately, the mules and half-broken horses the dragoons were riding were still jaded from their long trek. When the Yankees charged their waiting opponents on 6 December 1846, the poor beasts were unable to keep together, and they carried the dragoons at varying speeds – singly or in small groups – into the enemy’s line. A continuous rain had ruined the powder in the Americans’ pistols and carbines, and they were unable to reach past the Californians’ lances with their sabers. The results were truly tragic. Kearny was speared twice by a young gallant who then bowed and rode off when it was apparent the general was no longer capable of defending himself. His subordinates but the dragoons drove their assailants off the rocky summit, killing five. Kearny then dug in right there and then, his troopers enduring a three-day siege and near starvation. The general’s second-in-command, however, had wisely sent Stockton a plea for help after the Battle of San Pascual, and at two o’clock on the morning of 11 December, some 180 Marines and sailors relieved the much-reduced Army of the West.

When Commodore Stockton sallied out of San Diego at the end of the month with 607 men to finally quell the rebellion, the partially recovered Kearny and sixty dismounted troopers of Company C, 1st U. S. Dragoons, went with him. On 8 and 9 January 1847, the Californians gave battle on the San Gabriel River and at La Mesa, and their power was broken. Stockton and Kearny took Los Angeles on 10 January, and the last of the insurgents surrendered three days later. California was now indisputably American, thanks in no small part to Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny, but his intrepid devotion to duty hastened his untimely death in the following year.