Col. Henry Knox Craig and ‘The McClellan Saddle’

For many, many decades – across three centuries now – the famous George B. McClellan has been firmly identified as the “inventor” of the McClellan military saddle.  Only now is the true nature of the development of that piece of horse equipment starting to reveal itself, with a level of mystery and drama not ordinarily associated with so mundane an object.

As shown in previous articles in this series concerned with the varied equipment trials in the US during the 1850s, the direct interest of the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, was just as keen in the subject of horse equipment as in any other.  After the failure of the Campbell equipments, Davis expressed a desire to hear the opinions of the members of the Delafield Commission on the subject, in the late summer of 1856.

McClellan submitted his well-known letter of October 3rd, 1856, extolling a polyglot of European horse equipment [1], though not directly to the Secty of War as many past researchers have assumed, but through the Commission commander, Major Richard Delafield. In this case, Delafield also added his own recommendations for Hungarian designs which he forwarded with McClellan’s letter to Davis. [2]

Col. Henry K. Craig, Chief of Ordnance

Secretary Davis was not completely impressed and had a number of insightful and rather pointed criticisms.  These comments were not communicated to McClellan directly, but to another party – a party that has been generally ignored or given short shrift in most studies of the McClellan saddle design.  Davis took the letters, added his critique and sent them to the Chief of Ordnance, Colonel Henry Knox Craig*, on Oct 8, 1856, asking for his views on the subject. [3]

Col. Craig responded a week later with a letter that he  “recommended having a pattern made for model set of horse equipment, believed to be lighter and less expensive than current model” (paraphrased here). [4]

Noticeably missing in Craig’s reply is whether he agreed with either McClellan or Delafield – his response appears to mean that the ‘model set of horse equipment’ is a third option.   Two weeks later, on November 7, Davis sent Craig a letter approving of his recommendation, noted that the saber required “material modification”, and that he hoped Craig’s expectations were justified. [5]   If this assumption that Craig’s proposal was truly a different option  appears to be a bit loose, continue on as subsequent events bear witness to it’s probability.

What happens next is admittedly a gray zone, where we have to make some basic yet reasonable assumptions until concrete confirmation can be found in original documents – namely, that Craig (a very busy Chief of Ordnance) had McClellan (a very busy, yet lowly Captain of Cavalry) manage the creation of Craig’s prototype pattern with the highly reputable firm mentioned in McClellan’s October 3rd  letter.  Given that McClellan was then located in Philadelphia, the home of the best saddlery firm in the country, and he had literally asked to go to Messrs. Lacey & Phillips and have them make a prototype – he was ‘it‘ for this project.  He made the classic military mistake of ‘volunteering’ for a task, which then morphed into something he hadn’t expected.

We can assume that this was the very rationale for Craig’s serendipitous opportunity to utilize McClellan — to manage the contact with Lacey & Phillips, as he was clearly considering this ‘third option’ prior to the receipt of McClellan’s letter from Secretary Davis.   McClellan, with Delafield and Major Alfred Mordecai, were considered to be THE experts in the Army, and if not the experts, then the ones  bringing the tablets down from on high [Europe] to the waiting masses below.  This was especially the case with McClellan and the cavalry branch.  Craig appears to have astutely used this situation to have McClellan and his reputation associated with Craig’s proposed horse equipment.

Now, before going further we should consider McClellan’s schedule in this time frame, when he was allegedly designing his saddle.  He was immensely busy trying to finish his portions of the Delafield Commission report, that would later be published by the War Department, as the “Report of The Secretary of War, Communicating The Report of Captain George B. McClellan…” [6]

Also, in this very same span of time (November 1856), McClellan was sowing the seeds of discord with the Secretary of War and the Adjutant General (Samuel Cooper) that would eventually lead to his tendering his resignation on November 27th, effective January 15, 1857.  His main priority from this point forward was the completion of his commission report. [7]  

It is HIGHLY unlikely that McClellan had any time available to devote to personally designing an entire horse equipment set, especially when the schedule of delivered Crimean report material is considered — in October, November and December, he was sending out new chapters to Davis on a near-weekly basis. 

A much more reasonable suggestion is that Craig instructed him to pursue a different option, that wasn’t based on McClellan’s musings in the Oct 3rd letter. Especially given that we know the order was passed from Craig to McClellan, and McClellan had Lacey & Phillips make up the prototype for delivery to the War Department.

On December 19th, a mere five weeks after the approval by Secretary Davis sent to the Chief of Ordnance,  McClellan inserted a single sentence in his introductory letter of his commission report – “A light and simple model of horse equipments will soon be submitted.”[8]  An announcement of a pending delivery – not a ego-boosting sales pitch for his ‘vision’ as described earlier.  Reading between the line, this says, ‘Not mine, just delivering as requested.’

The TWO prototypes was delivered to the War Department a few days later, along with a somewhat more verbose letter from McClellan, received Dec. 25th  – “I cannot pretend to say that this equipment is by any means perfect, but I feel safe in saying that it is an important step in the right direction; that it is not a copy of any European model and that it is superior to any equipment in Europe.”   This quote was made famous by Capt. Edward Davis, when he used this tidbit found during his time as secretary for the 1912 Cavalry Board. He wrote a couple of history articles about US horse equipment, that was derived from his review of previous cavalry board documents. Yet, it appears that he did not have a full copy of that letter, which was recently made available online as part of McClellan’s papers – read here.[8.5]

After this delivery, some drama quickly unfolded that is quite informative, clarifying some of the unknowns as to the actual inspiration for the new saddle pattern.

Daniel Campbell, the prominent Washington D.C. based inventor of the previously tried military saddle, clearly caught wind of a new ‘contender’ in the competition for Army acceptance and called on the War Department to view the new creation. This visit prompted an indignant Campbell to quickly fire off a letter to Secretary Davis, received on 30 Dec, complaining of infringement by McClellan and asking Davis for an investigation.[9]

Apparently, this request did not gain much traction, as a letter received by Davis the very next day speaks volumes.  Chief of Ordnance Craig, in the time-honored tradition of wise military bureaucrats, sent a letter confirming that he was following Davis’ verbal orders, that McClellan’s saddle was approved with some modifications, and recommended procuring 150 for trial.  [10]

In retrospect, it seems quite obvious that Craig requested McClellan to have Lacey & Phillips make up a prototype horse equipment set, using a lightened version of the 1855 cavalry board approved Campbell shape, without all the patent-riddled components and features. With luck, some additional digging in the correspondence of the Ordnance Chief for November 1856 will shed further light on this somewhat fuzzy area. 

[ See a side-by-side comparison of the designs, and make your own decision…]

Davis approved this modified prototype and production request about a month later, on 26 January 1857.[11]   It was about this time that Craig and others with Ordnance began referring to the saddle as the “new pattern of horse equipment” or “McClellan’s pattern”…   In mid-February, a cavalry board essentially rubber-stamped approval of the modifications made by Davis and Craig the month before, and increased the recommended initial purchase to 300+ sets for trial. [12]

Over the next two years well over 1,500 ‘new pattern McClellan horse equipment sets’ were purchased and sent all over the army.  West Point, Carlisle Barracks, cavalry companies (including those headed out on the Mormon campaign), dragoon companies – Col. Craig ‘salted’ the new pattern throughout the army, and in such numbers that much of the mounted officer corps (that would populate the next cavalry board) were far more familiar with the new pattern than any of the others ‘tested’.   Craig even had Frankford Arsenal commander Maj. Peter V. Hagner specifically take a newly delivered McClellan horse equipment set and include it in a delivery of US Army uniforms, weapons and equipment, sent to Denmark in a long-planned military exchange.   [As more research is done, I’m sure we’ll find that Maj. Hagner was quite a significant player in this acquisition stratagem.]

These actions suggest that Col. Craig already knew the outcome in question, or was going to do his best to make sure his desired result would be achieved.  And given the long history that would follow, he appears to have been justified in his recommendation.

[1] National Archives, Record Group 156, Special File, Inventions, In-7-59

[2] ibid, Delafield, Oct 6, 1856.

[3] ibid, endorsed, signed by Davis, Oct 8, 1856.

[4] National Archives, Record Group 156, Special File, Inventions, EX-7-16, Oct 15, 1856.

[5] ibid, endorsed, signed by Davis, Nov. 4, 1856.

[6] Report of The Secretary of War, Communicating The Report of Captain George B. McClellan (First Regiment United State Cavalry,) One of the Officers sent to The Seat Of War In Europe in 1855 and 1856. Washington, D.C., A.G.P. Nicholson, Printer. 1857

[7]  Moten, Matthew, The Delafield Commission and the American Military Profession.  Texas A&M University Press, 2000.

Actual image of the sentence.
[8]  Report on the United State Cavalry (frontis letter attached to McClellan commission report, dated Dec. 19, 1856). 

[8.5] Library of Congress, George Brinton McClellan Papers: Correspondence II, 1823-1898; 1856, Sept. 28-1857, Feb. 14, Image 30.

[9] National Archives, Record Group 156, Letters Received, WD-2, Dec. 30, 1856.

[10] National Archives, Record Group 156, Letters to Secretary, 11:458, Dec. 31, 1856. * This letter is also significant in that it is the first evidence that  Craig clearly wanted the new saddle to be identified with ‘short-timer’ George B. McClellan.

[11] Davis, Jan. 26, 1857, Library of Congress (M-444,r3,f499)

[12] pending 

*  An oddity regarding Colonel Craig – many references are found showing his name, printed signature, etc., as ‘A. K. Craig’.  Rest assured, they refer to the same Chief of Ordnance from 1851 through 1861  – he signed his name with a very stylized ‘H’, where the upper two branches were very close and  often looks like an ‘A’.