CAVALRY, HORSE, a branch of the U.S. Army, used with varying effectiveness from the American Revolution through the Indian wars in the West. In 1775 and 1776 the Continental army fought with a few mounted militia commands as its only cavalry. In December 1776, Congress authorized three thousand light horse cavalry, and the army organized four regiments of cavalry, although the regiments never reached even half strength and became legions in 1780. The four legions and various partisan mounted units mainly went on raids and seldom participated in pitched battles. At the end of the war, all cavalry commands disbanded. For the next fifty years, regular cavalry units formed only for short periods and comprised a minute part of the army.
Indian trouble along the western frontier revived the need for mounted federal soldiers. In 1832, Congress authorized six Mounted Volunteer Ranger companies, which showed the value of mounted government troops in the West but also proved the need for a more efficient, less expensive, permanent force. On 2 March 1833, Congress replaced the Mounted Rangers with the Regiment of United States Dragoons, a ten-company force mounted for speed but trained to fight both mounted and dismounted. In May 1836 the Second Regiment of Dragoons formed to fight in the Seminole War.
After the commencement of the Mexican-American War, Congress augmented the two dragoon regiments with the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, a third dragoon regiment, and several voluntary commands. Among the new organizations, only the Mounted Riflemen escaped standard reductions at the conclusion of hostilities. In 1855 the government enlarged the mounted wing with the First and Second Cavalry. By general orders these new regiments formed a distinct, separate arm of the army. Dragoons, mounted riflemen, and cavalrymen comprised mounted forces from 1855 until 1861.
Only during the Civil War did the U.S. Cavalry evolve into an efficient organization. In August 1861 the army redesignated the regular horse regiments as cavalry, renumbering them one through six according to seniority. Not until the Confederate cavalry corps demonstrated the efficiency of mass tactics and reconnaissances, however, did the Union cavalry begin to imitate the Southern horse soldiers. By the end of the war, the cavalry corps had demonstrated devastating effectiveness. After the Civil War, the six regiments failed to perform the many duties assigned, prompting Congress in July 1866 to authorize four additional regiments—the Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth. The new regiments increased cavalry troops from 448 to 630 and the total manpower from 39,273 to 54,302. The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry, manned by black enlisted men and noncommissioned officers commanded by white officers, departed from past traditions. During the western Indian wars, the cavalry performed adequately under adverse conditions. Much of the time there were too few troops for so vast a region and such determined foes; a cost-conscious Congress rarely provided adequate support.
After the conclusion of the Indian wars in the early 1890s, the horse cavalry declined in importance. Some troops served as infantry during the Spanish-American War, and General John Pershing's punitive expedition into Mexico briefly revived the cavalry, but during World War I only four regiments were sent to France, after which the mechanization of armies made the horse cavalry obsolete.
Merrill, James M. Spurs to Glory: The Story of the United States Cavalry. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1966.
Prucha, Francis Paul. The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier, 1783–1846. New York: Macmillan, 1968.
Utley, Robert M. Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848–1865. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981. The original edition was published New York: Macmillan, 1967.
———. Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866–1891. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. The original edition was published New York: Macmillan, 1973.
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