The First McClellan Saddle – Pattern of 1857

Image courtesy Krigsmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark

The complex and convoluted history of the development of the first McClellan military saddle has been covered in a previous article, so we now look a detailed look at the first widely issued example of that process, the 1857 Trial Model McClellan.

After the approval was received for the McClellan pattern submission in the last days of 1856, with minor modifications, the first order for 310 sets of ‘McClellans pattern’ trial saddles was issued in February, 1857.  All were built by Lacey & Phillips, showing their continued involvement in the evolution of the McClellan equipment set.

1857 seat and seam detail
image courtesy Thomas Aagaard

The Pattern of 1857 McClellan shares many common features with the later Pattern of 1859, although many other differences can be seen. The metal reinforced wooden tree was covered with an thin black varnished leather – no rawhide covers as commonly found later. This tree covering is really rather unique, and of a type rarely seen on a hardwood tree saddle. The leather is exceptionally thin, installed with seat thongs (like later rawhide covers) and whip-stitched around the edges of the sidebars. There is no way to mistake any later black McClellan variant for the 1857 trial saddle. 

The rear sidebar covers are also very uniquely arranged, with iron footman loops attached to the rear tips of the sidebars, for attaching the saddle pockets.  The rear upper sidebar covers are attached under the quarterstraps and a number of brass skirt screws along the perimeter of the bar edge.  This heavy layer of leather sits on top of the thin whipstitched leather tree cover, and seems a little awkward to the design – it would certainly protect the thin leather cover, but there is no comparable piece on the front sidebar tips.  

Regarding leather color – there is documentary evidence to show that an unknown number of 1857 trial saddles were ordered with FAIR leather, with at least one specific unit noted, Company G, 1st Cavalry Regiment. In 1890’s, Major Moses Harris recalled the trial horse equipment he encountered upon enlisting in this company in 1857 – he provided accurate details on most of the pieces, and was adamant that the equipment they used was fair leather. [1] Fair leather was substantially more expensive than black leather, as the leather currying processes of the day made it difficult to attain even color consistency for any given hide.

Image courtesy Krigsmuseet, Copenhagen, DenmarkThe rigging is a common centerfire type and was same as the later 1859. The girth was slightly different, but was operated in the same manner as the 1859. The side skirts, screwed to the sidebars, were a common feature between the 1857 and the 1859 McClellans.  The rear saddle rings appear to be enclosed in chapes, and sewn directly to the rigging straps just behind the lower tips of the cantle.   

One of the modifications made by the selection board was to ‘add saddle rings’.  Presuming the 1856 submission piece had rings in the front for the breaststrap, this quick ‘add-on’ to the rear was made in deference to that request.  The rings weren’t needed for a crupper as that piece had been dropped from the set.  The placement on the quarterstrap allowed them to be easily accessible when the saddle bags were in place.

Image courtesy US Cavalry Museum

The saddle bags are very non-typical of those commonly seen – they had a square pouch shape, with a multitude of straps and buckles for attaching to the seat and holding blanket/overcoat rolls. The seat attaching the two pouches together is very short, fitted behind the cantle much like the later style saddlebags. The pouches fit snugly up against the rear face of the cantle, held by a brass harness post stud.

Image courtesy US Cavalry Museum

Straps were provided for securing a cantle roll over these pouches. Visually, these pouches are very much like the pommel pockets used on the M1912 service and M1917 officer saddles.  The saddle bags were the source of most complaints about this pattern, as contents were very difficult to access while the saddle was packed.  Any cantle roll would be strapped over them, thus blocking entry and causing a tall mass behind the cantle. 

1857 stirrup
image courtesy Kenneth McPheeters

The stirrup arrangement was simpler than the Pattern of 1859, with hoodless stirrups covered with thin black leather.  There are no sweat leathers attached to the stirrup straps.  

image courtesy of Thomas Aagaard

The multitude of smaller buckles were made of composite frames with polished brass faces, and show interesting styles that weren’t used in the later 1859 – they appear to be off-the-shelf cart buckles.  The stirrup buckles were brass centerbar type frame buckles that sported rollers. The girth and rigging used the same iron D-rings and roller buckles as the later 1859 pattern. 

The coatstrap mortise holes show the common #559 brass oval plates, and a large shield shape on the rear face of the pommel, like all later McClellans.  Saddle rings, barrel staples,  and  footman  loops are  all  similar  to later  1859 pattern.The 1857’s used the three numeral size marking of early 1859 saddles – a ‘1’ for 11″ seats, ‘2’ for 11½” seats, and a ‘3’ for 12″ seats.  The Krigsmuseet example has a prominent ‘3’ stamped in the center of the shield, between the coat strap slot and the bottom tip.

Each coat strap was fitted with a brass-faced cart buckle, and a sewn stop, to keep the strap from being removed from the saddle.  

The thin varnished leather was prone to cracking and splitting along the edges of the pommel and cantle; these areas being high stress areas for cover material. Most of the McClellan trial saddles built in 1858 were fitted with brass moldings, similar to the Grimsleys, in an effort to reduce the incidence of seam splitting. The Krigsmuseet specimen does not have these brass moldings, showing a pristine example of what the earlier trial saddles looked like.

Image courtesy Krigsmuseet, Copenhagen, DenmarkThe innovative carbine socket was introduced with the 1857 equipments, in response to the new short-barreled ‘patent’ carbines being tested and acquired, most notably the Sharps carbine.   Located on the rear edge of the offside skirt, attached to a standing loop by a buckled strap sewn to the socket, this placement was likely superior to the later position of the 1859 set, where the barrel was prone to be in the way of the trooper’s leg.  Note in the image here – the extremely high-quality workmanship of this minor part.  Even the exposed edges around the top and bottom of the socket are covered with a thin leather binding. 

The girth is quite similar to later McClellan patterns, made with a 4″ indigo-dyed woolen webbing.  The ends of the webbing section are bound in thin leather, with heel buckles with rollers.  The D-ring for the near-side girth strap is exceptional, being somewhat wider and a different shape than the quarterstrap D-rings.   

Image courtesy Krigsmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark

It’s not entirely clear just how many 1857 horse equipment sets were ordered – but one gets the impression it was MANY.  Reading the reports of the chief of ordnance to Congress in these years are records of ‘trial horse equipment’ purchases, and mixed numbers listed occasionally for one type or another.  Reading these records, it appears that somewhere between 1,500 to 2,100 sets of the 1857 McClellan pattern were made.  Most can be assumed to have been made with black leather, but a significant number were made in fair leather.

The very last order for the 1857 pattern from the late summer of 1858 was for 1050 sets, from three different companies (Lacey & Phillips of Philadelphia, Knorr & Nece of Philadelphia; and Robert Hartley & Company of Pittsburgh, with 350 sets contracted from each) [2]. The saddles were to also have brass pommel and cantle moldings, similar to the Grimsley pattern saddles, in an attempt to deal with the splitting  problem that was to plague the design for the next decade (the thin covering material pulled over the relatively sharp cantle and pommel edges commonly split after prolonged use).  

In November, this last contract was amended by Brevet Major Peter V. Hagner, commanding officer of Frankford Arsenal, so that all remaining saddles would conform to an altered specification – most significantly with the replacement of the thin leather cover with the now familiar rawhide cover.  How many pre-rawhide covered 1857s were actually completed and delivered is unknown, or the exact nature of any other alterations done at that time. [2]

The bridle of the Pattern of 1857 was truly different from anything previously used by the dragoon regiments.  Of any of the material in the 1857 McClellan equipment set, the headgear is the only pieces that show considerable foreign influence.  This is one of the first combination bridles issued in large numbers.  

The bit furnished with this trial set was the most castigated piece, but to be fair, it was basically a fancy off-the-shelf military style bit that was readily available.  Some of the unusual details of this bit was the unusual hardware buckling feature to attach it to the bridle, the brass-faced branches with an unusual bent elbow shape, and the swivel mounted rings for the reins.

Russian bit per McClellan’s report, pg 119. [3]
Military bits in America in the time frame are almost always variations of French military bits of the previous twenty or thirty years.  The swiveling rein rings were quite common in Europe at this time, with examples noted in Russia, Germany, France, among others.   Given that Lacey & Phillips was known as the top maker of harness and saddlery in the country, they were very likely to have had an exceptional collection of military style bits on hand, as the US militia market was very large and profitable.  The bit and headstall used a Russian style quick-connect, where a spring clip on the top of the bit branches would snap into a brass hardware piece at the end of the headstall cheekpiece.  

A snaffle is include in the form of a ‘watering bridle’ with short watering bridle-type chain toggles to made it easily removable – it was identical to previous dragoon issue equipment.

The existing example in Copenhagen is  a most unusual selection to include with a equipment exchange.  Bits included with the 1857 and 1859 equipment sets, for some unknown reason, always included a Mexican/Spanish ‘ring’ bit in the specifications.  From the commentary found by officers concerning the ‘#1’ ring bit, nearly all viewed it with abhorrence, and it is very difficult to find any reference to one actually being issued and used.  The Copenhagen example is one of these ‘#1 Mexican ring’ bits – whether as a joke played on the Danes, or an attempt to send at least one ring bit as far away as possible, that’s what we see today.

About the “Danish Exchange” M1857 McClellan

The exchange originated with Washington Arsenal commander, Major Alfred Mordecai, in the spring of 1852. He had a request for a weapons exchange with the Danish government. Some two years later, they responded favorably, with an additional request for an exchange of military equipment and uniforms. For whatever reasons, the collection of material was delayed for a number of years, until the first orders were sent in February of 1858 to begin the collection of material. All of the equipment was collected, delivered to the Danish envoy, and received in Copenhagen in July, 1858.[2]

For the purposes of our present interest, the horse equipment request was sent to Brevet Major Peter V. Hagner, at the Frankford Arsenal.  Major Hagner was ordered by the Chief of Ordnance, Colonel H.K. Craig, on February 17, 1858, to have made for the exchange and to hold for further orders “… one set of horse equipments complete, McClellan’s pattern.” [4]

This shows that the Ordnance leadership were very cognizant of the upcoming exchange with the Danes, and
that the McClellan was a ‘favored child’ in the on-going horse equipment trial. Depending on the viewer could be considered prima facia evidence that the McClellan trial saddle had already been accepted as the ‘winner’ of the various horse equipments tried.

The fortunate preservation of this horse equipment in Denmark provides us with a glorious example of the very first McClellan saddle type, which for many collectors and students was completely unknown, prior to Dr. James Hutchins article published in 1970. Indeed, other than the complete equipment set in Copenhagen, I’ve so far only seen or heard to two other pieces of 1857 equipment in existence – a single stirrup in private hands, and a saddlebag set at Ft. Riley’s U.S. Cavalry Museum.


[1] “Some Thoughts On Equipment”, Capt. Moses Harris, Journal of the United States Cavalry Association, Vol IV., pg. 166. Ft. Leavenworth, KS, 1891.

[2] The United States Cavalry Saddle, McClellan Pattern, Model 1857, in Tøjhusmuseet, Copenhagen, Dr. James S. Hutchins, Saertryk af Vaabenhistoriske Aarboger, XVI (1970), 146-162

[3] 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
[4] National Archives, Record Group 156, Entry 6 Vol. 17, p.451.

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