Book Review: Kearny's Dragoons Out West: The Birth of the U.S. Cavalry


by Will Gorenfeld & John Gorenfeld

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. Pp. xiv, 466. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0806153946

The Army’s First Cavalrymen

The Gorenfelds who have both have written widely on the Civil War and other subjects, here take on the formation and first 15 years of the 1st Dragoons, since 1861 known as the 1st Cavalry.

The authors open with some background on the history of mounted troops in the U.S. Army, noting that although during the Revolutionary War and subsequent conflicts (the Ohio Country War, the Quasi-War with France, and the War of 1812), the Army had raised mounted units, the nation was not inclined to bear the cost of maintaining horse soldiers in peace time. So it was not until 1833, by which time the “Westward Movement” had began spilling over on to the Great Plains, that the “Regiment of Dragoons” was raised, to be renamed the “1st Regiment of Dragoons” in 1936, when a second regiment was raised.

The Gorenfelds then discuss the problems encountered in recruiting, organizing, and training the regiment. Two notable problems were political machinations, as the Jacksonians were highly suspicious of professional soldiers, and the lack of personnel who had experience with mounted forces, which forced the Army to recruiting a former British officer as drill instructor.

The bulk of the book consists of an operational history of the regiment through the War with Mexico, which mostly deals with actions involving only one or two companies at a time, rather than the entire unit. The Dragoons were committed to duty on the plains, and took part in peacekeeping operations among various Native American tribes, acted as a buffer between Indians and settlers, the latter of whom were most often the cause of problems, and undertook extensive exploratory missions. The authors do a good job describing the monotony and tedium of long patrols and exploratory expeditions, which were the regiment’s primary activities, rather than fighting.

When there was fighting, the Gorenfelds are good at depicting it, whether against Native Americans or during the war with Mexico, in which the regiment’s personnel campaigned in California, New Mexico, and northern Mexico, as well as in the campaign against Mexico City. They also offer some good profiles of many officers, notably Henry Dodge and Stephen Watts Kearny, but also some later famous in the Civil War, such as the latter’s nephew Phil Kearny, Edwin Vose Sumner, Philip St. George Cooke, and presidential son Abraham Van Buren and the famous frontier artist George Caitlin.

This is a worth while read for anyone interested in the “Old Army”, the West, or the Civil War.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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