Campbell vs. McClellan

Of all the speculations about the design evolution of the McClellan military saddle, the clearest ‘progenitor’ is that of the Campbell cavalry saddle of 1855.  I don’t intend to delve into the various other theories here – that sort of debate can go on for far longer than most peoples attention span and patience!

In 1855, a new horse equipment set was approved by a cavalry board, named after its designer and maker, Daniel Campbell.  Campbell was a prominent luggage and harness maker in Washington, D.C., who had come up with a patented design for an adjustable saddletree, as well as novel patented saddle attachments.  Around a thousand sets of this horse equipment was purchased and issued to the new cavalry regiments for field trial.  So great was the enthusiasm for the design that extremely detailed specifications were published by the Ordnance Dept. in a special memoranda – which was very irregular for most ‘trial’ equipments and arms, at that time.   Reviews from the field were glowing for the style, but the patent features of the tree were a complete failure – breakage under field use was inevitable.  

I will be using some drawings of the Campbell that were included with the actual patents, which used a dragoon/hussar style cantle.  Please remember that these were modified by the 1855 cavalry board to an semi-circular cantle shape – aptly drawn by Randy Steffen years ago (see right). 

The Campbell used a set of spring-steel arches to connect the sidebars.  The cantle and pommel had some sort of pivoting feature that connected them to the sidebars, with the tops of the pommel and cantle arches riveted to the upper portions of their respective structures.  It was the function of these spring-loaded connection pieces that was patented by Campbell, and which were the inherent weakness of the design.   

The case of the McClellan being inspired by the Campbell is supported by the interest of cavalry board officers in this particular cantle style, the need for an equipment set what was lighter and stronger than the Campbell, and the necessary elimination of patent-restricted features that weren’t feasible. 

The other ‘contenders’ in the horse equipment trials of the 1850s aren’t options for consideration – the Grimsley was the one they wanted to replace, the Jones was even more unlikely in terms of mechanical reliability, and the Hope/Texas saddle wasn’t even being considered yet (the solicitation for the Hope came after the initial delivery of the McClellan prototype).  

Campbell saddle tree – from patent drawings.
Bare early M1859 McClellan tree

When we compare the Campbell tree side-by-side with the McClellan – it becomes much more apparent that the craftsmen at Lacey & Phillips (perhaps with input by McClellan in some minor form), likely used the Campbell tree as a starting point.  The oval cantle and massive dragoon pommel maintained their visual shapes, but were reduced considerably in size, allowing for substantial lightening of the tree.  Thin reinforcing metal arcs were riveted to pommel and cantle to firmly stabilize the mortised wood parts, without significant addition in weight.

Campbell saddle patent drawing – showing centerfire rigging.

In a bit of ingenuity the metal spring arches were simplified and turned into static reinforcements, that could then be used to guide the one-piece rigging quarterstraps.   The simple centerfire rigging was maintained from the Campbell, which had the rigging attached to the ends of the sidebars, required for the ‘shape adjusting’ feature to work while simultaneously putting additional stress on the spring steel arches.  The accepted McClellan design had one-piece quarterstraps, laid over the top of the arches of the tree and firmly riveted to them, making them easier to repair or replace.  

A couple of side notes – the stirrup loop and bracket of the McClellan is an original innovation, that allowed for easier manipulation of the stirrup strap.  The loop was allowed it to flex upwards as needed, when the trooper is adjusting this strap from the ground, or when weight is on the saddle and the bulk of the strap begins to push on the saddle blanket and horses back. The Campbell design also shows an improvement in this area – the ‘U’ shaped stirrup hanger, which was stronger than the Grimsley ‘L’ shape.  This Grimsley flaw was on both dragoon and artillery saddles, and not corrected until the ‘new model’ artillery equipment was adopted in 1863.

No other military saddle can claim the same degree of ‘intersectionality’ with the design of the McClellan as can the Campbell.  It was the style design preference of a significant cavalry board, both had been closely managed by the Chief of Ordnance Henry Craig, the Campbell had distinct features that find close counterparts on the McClellan, and the approval for initial development was obtained by the Chief of Ordnance without reference to George McClellan’s own suggestions.   Even Daniel Campbell believed it was an infringement on his own design.