Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Meeting Notes: January 14, 2015

"Stand to Horse! The Dragoon at War," Dennis Farmer

Who were the American Revolution dragoons? How were they equipped, how did they fight and who were some of the more famous British and American dragoon commanders?

These and other questions about dragoons were answered by American Revolution dragoon re-enactor Dennis Farmer at the January 14, 2015 meeting of the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond. Farmer is a longtime member of Richmond’s roundtable and spent 20 years working at various history museums in Michigan, New York and Virginia.

“A dragoon was a soldier who carried a firearm on his horse and could fight mounted or dismounted,” said Farmer. “There were many variations of dragoons but the light dragoons were popular in North America. One of the primary functions of dragoons was gathering intelligence and screening work.”

Who made an ideal dragoon? According to Farmer, both the American and British armies wanted a man weighing 120-140 pounds who was “young and adventurous”. Dragoons needed to know basic horsemanship but they didn’t need to be expert horsemen.

“It’s surprising how many infantry would get a horse, and now you are in the dragoons,” laughed Farmer.

American dragoons generally came from middle and upper-class society while most British dragoons were career soldiers with horses who did not come from the upper class. Dragoons were generally more literate than the average infantry soldier and wrote many of the war’s best journals. In terms of service the dragoons generally served longer during the war than their infantry counterparts.

Dragoons on both sides used a variety of weapons. They used a sword in a similar manner to their regular cavalry colleagues, however they also used a short carbine, pistols and during the early stages of the war, an ax.

Swords had both curved and straight blades. The curved blades were more likely to knock an enemy cavalryman off his horse but usually didn’t deliver fatal blows. The straight sword was more effective at delivering a fatal thrust against the enemy. In order to protect themselves from sword attacks to the head, dragoons wore helmets made out of boiled leather---similar to what had been worn by soldiers since the days of the Roman Empire.

Short carbines had very limited use, a range of 75-80 yards. This compares with infantry muskets which had a range of 100-125 yards. The carbine was kept on the side of a horse in a sling, a common practice that continued in warfare through World War II.  

According to Farmer, pistols were “noisy but highly inaccurate”. Their effective range was limited to approximately 10 feet.

Dragoon horses during this time period could generally go 25-27 MPH and weighed 800-1,100 pounds. Their typical lifespan was 15-20 years but some of them lived to age 40. However, the typical combat horse during the American Revolution had a lifespan of only six months. Starvation was the primary cause of death.

“The American Revolution horse was basically a small-armored vehicle by today’s standards,” said Farmer.

Since surveillance and screening were the primary duties of dragoons, they rarely fought in major battles. Typically the dragoons would fight only in skirmishes and in perhaps one or two major battles throughout the war.

Cavalry doctrine differed between the British and Americans, and this had an impact on the use of dragoons.

Typically the British favored medium cavalry attacks where they created a shock action, particularly against American militia. They also used regular dragoons as police forces and light dragoons as scouts, raiders and screeners.

The Americans favored cavalry actions with small units that were used in skirmishes, patrols and as scouts. They rarely engaged in shock actions and generally favored speed and mobility over battlefield use.

Several of the American Revolution’s most famous dragoon regiments and legions were led by some of the war’s most famous commanders.

The 16th Light Dragoons, also known as the Queen’s Own of Light Dragoons, were led by the legendary Banastre Tarleton. According to Farmer, Tarleton “was like a meteor” in the way he rose through the ranks of the British officer corps. He became a lieutenant colonel by the youthful age of 25.

Another famous dragoon regiment was the Queen’s Rangers and Yagers, commanded by John Simcoe. Farmer called Simcoe “one of the finest light infantry officers during the war”.

On the American side there were the 3rd Continental Light Dragoons, under the command of William Washington. They were among the victors at The Cowpens and Farmer called them “the finest single battlefield regiment during the war”. 

Although best known as the father of Robert E. Lee, Light Horse Harry Lee commanded Lee’s Legion which according to Farmer, “was virtually undefeated during the war”. The North Carolina Dragoons, under the command of William Davie, were another American outfit that “fought very well”, said Farmer.

Dennis Farmer graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a major in history from the Colonial Period. He worked as a curator at Michigan’s Monroe County Museum, and at Stony Point and Old Fort Niagara in New York. Later he worked in Virginia at Pamplin Historical Park near Petersburg and as the executive director of the Chesterfield County Historical Society. He and his wife Carol serve as re-enactors who portray characters from the American Revolution and the Civil War.

For those who wish to read more about the American Revolution dragoons, the following books are available online and in bookstores:

1. Washington’s Eyes: The Continental Light Dragoons, by Burt Garfield Loescher, 1977.

2. Cavalry of the American Revolution, edited by Jim Piecuch, 2012

3. William Washington, American Light Dragoon, by Daniel Murphy, 2014

4. Dragoon Diary: The History of the Third Continental Light Dragoons, by C.F. William Maurer, 2005

--Bill Seward

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