The following was first published in the Journal of the United State Cavalry Association, Sept 1911. The author, Capt. Edward Davis, was then currently involved in his duties as secretary for the Cavalry Equipment Board that was developing the equipment set, commonly referred to as the M1912 Cavalry Equipments. As such, he was privy to and studied the documents generated by previous cavalry boards since 1847, and was uniquely placed to be able to write on the subject. Some editorial notes have been made to clarify, as well as point out errors in Capt Davis’ work.
HISTORY OF THE MCCLELLAN SADDLE.*
BY CAPTAIN EDWARD DAVIS, THIRTEENTH CAVALRY
It is said that the very complete revision of cavalry equipment, which is now approaching its conclusion, will result in the disappearance of the McClellan saddle from our list of equipment. If this be so, it is appropriate to recall certain interesting facts regarding the origin of the McClellan saddle and its long career of hard service.
From old documents it appears that a board of officers, convened in 1847, adopted what was called the Grimsley saddle, which appeared to serve with considerable satisfaction until approximately 1855. About that time there appeared on the scene a number of gentlemen, each of whom had invented or designed a saddle which he deemed entirely worthy of adoption for use by the cavalry of the United States. Among these were the Hope saddle, which found favor in Texas; the Campbell saddle, which was adjustable by springs, and the Jones saddle, which was adjustable by the use of hinges. These rival claimants appeared to possess business ambition in connection with inventive genius and the War Department was persuaded to purchase, for experimental purposes, several hundred saddles of the above mentioned varieties. At the same time, Mr. Grimsley, who had been furnishing the Government with the saddles which bore his name, did not neglect to remind the authorities that they ought to stand pat and not abandon his saddle for any of these new models.
Just about this time the saddle competition was intensified by the introduction of a model which was presented by Captain George B. McClellan, First Cavalry, who was later to gain distinction as a Major General. Captain McClellan had just returned
*The procurement of certain data, indispensable to the presentation of this subject, was greatly facilitated by the interest taken in the matter by Brigadier General Alfred Mordecai, retired.this footnote was displayed on the first page of the article – ed.
from a tour of Europe, where, as one of a commission of officers, he had observed the operations in the Crimea and had also made an extensive study of the armies of Europe. In addition to his saddle, he suggested new models of other articles, and, after consideration by a board, an ample supply of the
saddles and other articles was issued to the service for purposes of experiment and comparison.
To show the extensive tests carried on by the Ordnance Department in order to select the best saddle out of the varieties above mentioned, the following quotations from reports [ Ordnance Notes No 2 ] of the Chief of Ordnance are pertinent:
“October 25, 1855.
The duty of furnishing horse equipment having been transferred from the Quartermasters to the Ordnance Department (G. O. 5, W. D., 1855), these articles now come under the designation of
ordnance stores. “
“For the purpose of testing practically the merits of different patterns of horse equipments, the
cavalry regiments have been supplied with those known as Grimsley’s, and also with those prepared after the pattern of Campbell—the latter having been examined and recommended by a board of cavalry officers.”
And the following about three years later:
July 19, 1858. “I may add that there is no regularly prescribed pattern for cavalry or dragoon horse
equipments, the various patterns in use, viz.: Grimsley’s, McClellan’s, Jones’ (Campbell’s ?) and Hope’s, being all experimental.”
“It seems proper that the pattern should be selected by a board of officers of rank and experience representing each of the five mounted regiments.”
As a result of the experiments above referred to, which were carried on during the four years 1855-58, a board of officers was convened in January, 1859, to make a final selection of a service saddle and appurtenant equipment. The three senior members of this board were Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, Second Dragoons; Lieut. Colonel Robert E. Lee, Second Cavalry, and Lieut. Colonel Joseph E. Johnston, First Cavalry, an array of recognized military ability which compels confidence. This board, after examining and experimenting with the various saddles above referred to and after considering the reports of officers covering experiences on marches of 1,000 and 2,000 miles, decided to recommend the McClellan saddle. The War Department approved the recommendation, and thus, after four years’ experimentation with five different kinds of saddles, the McClellan was adopted and its service career of more than half a century was initiated.
The origin of the McClellan saddle has at various times been vaguely characterized as “Crimean,” “Russian,” “European,” etc.; but no facts have been presented—at least not in recent years—in substantiation of these vague allusions. From one who is best situated to know General McClellan’s personal claims as to the origin of this saddle, we learn that: “he always claimed it as his own invention,” but whether it was a modification of a European saddle is not positively known. [ Davis is most likely referring to Alfred Mordecai Jr., from his earlier reference – however, this person is not clearly identified by Davis – ed. ] In a letter referring to his models of saddles and other articles, Captain McClellan said under date of December 25, 1856:
“I cannot pretend to say that this equipment is by any means perfect, but I feel safe in asserting 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 I saw in Europe. I am content to allow it to rest on its own merits, and I believe that it will, in its most important points, meet the approval of our cavalry officers.”
In the same letter, after referring to a method of girth attachment which he then favored, he said:
“I am not aware that we are indebted to any foreign model for any other part of the saddle”;
and again, speaking of the shelter tent,
“it is made rather larger than those used in Europe,” and, with reference to the curb bit, “it is a modification of the Russian”; further, with regard to a girth, “the idea . . . is derived from the French.”
By carefully analyzing the above quoted statements from the letter of December 25, 1856, as they stand, we find that the following is proved, viz.: The McClellan saddle, and its appurtenant equipment, as presented, was not a copy – viz.: not an exact reproduction of any European model, but that the idea of the girth was from the French, the bit a modification of the Russian and the shelter tent similar to but larger than those of Europe.
A logical inference from the above is that Captain McClellan’s European observation may naturally have influenced his ideas as to saddle construction even if his saddle was not actually copied from any European model. It was likewise natural that he should have made his letter somewhat aggressive in its pointed exclusion of things European, because from other documents of those days it is apparent that there was some criticism of the proposed McClellan saddle because of its suspected European origin. Then, as now, there flourished in our midst an admirable and modest brand of patriotism which assumed that all things American were, per se, superior, and that anything European should be disdained as of tainted origin. [ the difficulty in this assumption of French influence is that Davis overstated the French girth, when in reality McClellan only stated that it was similar, in that the girth was attached to the skirt – and that did not survive to the trial model in any case – ed. ]
As everyone knows, any saddle of worth must embody a number of good points taken from saddles of prior origin. The question arises then: What saddle did Captain McClellan have in mind as the one upon which he could best base his ideas of improvement? Let us search further and take up “The Report of Captain George B. McClellan, First Cavalry, one of the Officers sent to the Seat of War in Europe in 1855 and 1856,” published as a Senate Document in 1857. This report, in addition to a review of the Crimean operations, includes a series of valuable observations on the armed forces of France, Great Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia and Sardinia, as well as certain recommendations regarding the army of the United States. Under this latter head, on page 283, we find:
“I would recommend that the shelter tent be adopted as a part of our system. A specimen, slightly altered from the French, will be submitted with the saddle shortly to be forwarded.”
Studying the observations on the cavalry of the European nations above enumerated, we find reference to equipment in each case, but only two saddles are described in detail. One of these is the Hungarian saddle, a type which is of no interest in this particular research. On page 246, under the discussion of French horse equipments, we find the following remarks and the sketches which appear next below:
The new saddle (i. e., new in comparison with another French saddle) is the invention of Captain Cogent, director of the saddle factory at Saumur. The tree is cut out of a single piece of white wood, the cantle only being glued on; a piece of walnut, the grain running across the tree, is let into the pommel. The whole is covered with wet raw hide, glued on and sewed at the edges; no iron bolts or fastenings are used.”
The earliest official description and drawings of the McClellan saddle are thought to be those contained in the Ordnance Manual of 1861, and are here reproduced:
“Saddle-tree-wood (beech); 1 pommel, made of 2 pieces framed together at top and glued; 1 cantle, formed of 2 pieces like the pommel; 2 side-bars (poplar), each made of 3 pieces glued together. The tree is covered with rawhide, put on wet and sewed with thongs of the same and held in place by stitches through the wood along junction of the pommel and cantle with the side-bars, etc.”
A comparison of the preceding sketches and other data, together with a consideration of all the circumstances, leads us to the conclusion that the McClellan saddle may have been suggested by the saddle of Captain Cogent of Saumur. This factor or coincidence, as the case may be—is a welcome though rather unexpected addition to the growing association between our service and the famous French school of equitation, the methods of which are being incorporated to a great extent into our own general scheme of instruction.
[ This is where Capt. Davis made a clear error, although it can be forgiven, as the drawing in the Report of Cogent’s saddle is atrocious.
These preceding images show a better depiction, illustrating how wildly different Cogent’s design was from any aspect of the approved McClellan tree – ed. ]
An important feature of Captain Cogent’s saddle, which certainly was not incorporated into our service saddle, was his manner of arranging it so that a single size would suffice for all horses, or for the same horse as his condition of flesh varied. This was effected by attaching to the under surface of each side-bar a thin strip of cork which was faced with a layer of felt on the side next to the horse and by a leather pocket or flap on the side next the saddle. Lateral and longitudinal adjustability or changes of fit were attained when necessary by inserting additional strips of felt in the leather flap. Looking back from the present vantage point of increased experience and information, it is apparent that our service saddle would have given better results if it had been equipped with felt pads for the side-bars.
The writer [ Capt. Davis ] has made considerable inquiry with a view to discovering the original model of the McClellan saddle in order that the above and kindred questions might be further investigated. Departmental museums and similar repositories offered no trace of the original tree, but it was discovered that the model was undoubtedly manufactured by the firm of Lacey & Philipps [sic] of Philadelphia. This clue ran out in the discovery that Lacey & Philipps went out of business about forty years ago and that all traces of their product had disappeared in the obliterating growth of a great city. Possibly these lines may be read by someone who can provide the desired information.
In 1879 the McClellan saddle had a narrow escape from elimination. The Equipment Board of that year (see G. O. 76, 1879) recommended that the McClellan be discarded and the Whitman substituted. They remarked:
“…the board, while remembering that the McClellan tree has been of great service, is satisfied that a change is now necessary. This conclusion is due in a measure to the experience of the board, but chiefly to the opinions of a great number of officers who are riding saddles of various kinds. …The board has endeavored to find a saddle combining the merits of the various trees now in use. This, it is believed, has been done in the selection of the Whitman tree. “
The Chief of Ordnance did not favor the board’s recommendation, stating:
(1) that no reports condemning the McClellan saddle had reached his office, and
(2) that 42,000 new McClellan saddles were on hand, left from war supplies.
General Sherman, commanding the Army, reviewing the board’s proceedings, recommended the adoption of the Whitman saddle “for experiment, and for general use when the present stock of ‘McClellans’ is reduced below 20,000.”
The Secretary of War directed: “The Whitman saddle tree will be deposited with the Chief of Ordnance and in future manufacture will be adopted as the model.” He also remarked that the large supply of horse equipments on hand would necessitate their use for some time to come.
Officers now in the higher grades recall that Whitman saddles were issued, some with a horn on the pommel and some without. That the Whitman saddle, as then provided, did not firmly establish itself as equal to the conditions prevailing at that time, is inferred from the fact that the McClellan pursued the even tenor of its way. The board of 1884 evidently considered that the McClellan was doing well enough to be let alone, as they contented themselves with a few minor changes, principally in the seat.
During recent years, apparently since about 1900, the complaints against the McClellan saddle have increased in volume and intensity. Possibly the considerable addition of new officers, new men and new horses resulting from the changes and increases incident to the Spanish War and the subsequent reorganization may have created conditions which accentuated the actual defects of the McClellan saddle and caused a demand for improvement-a demand which is formidable because it is backed up by facts.
So it seems we may prepare to take leave of this good old friend—for good old friend it has been to many loyal, brave and finished cavalrymen. For more than half a century it has carried our cavalry, in every variety of climate, temperature and terrain, through five wars aggregating some thirty years of service in the presence of an enemy. It will go, not as a result of mere craving for change, but after a searching investigation seeking improvement founded on the flinty stones of fact. In extending the glad hand to the new let us bestow no kicks upon the old, for we shall thereby unwittingly betray ignorance of an honorable record. Some years from now you and I may come across a McClellan saddle in an unfrequented corner of a dusty museum. It will bear a tag on which he who dusts may read its name and the period of its service. Let us then add to that tag the words “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”