Cavalry History

The origin of the use of the horse as a means of transport goes back to prehistoric times. The fable of the centaurs, if the derivation from ~epretv, to goad, raiipos, bull, be accepted, would indicate the early existence of pastoral peoples living on horseback.

Archaeological discoveries in India, Persia, Assyria and Egypt show that in the polished stone age quaternary man had domesticated the horse, while a Chinese treatise, the Goei-leaotse, the fifth book of the Veuking, a sort of military code dating from the reign of the emperor Hoang-Ti (2637 years B.C.), places the cavalry on the wings of the army.

The Hebrews understood the use of the horse in war (Job xxxix. 1825), as did the Persians (Cyrus at the battle of Thymbra), Greeks and Romans. The Greeks and Romans, especially the former, were skilled horsemen, and feats on horseback were a feature of their games. They used no stirrup, but had both bridle and bit. They rode bareback, or on a cloth or skin, strapped to the horse.

Chivalry was the system, spirit or customs of medieval knighthood. It was the idealized code of gallantry and honor that medieval knights were pledged to observe. It was founded on the principal virtues of piety, honor, valor, courtesy, chastity and loyalty. Chivalry simply means in its original sense ‘service on horseback’, and it is derived from the French word ‘chevalerie’. It is of the same origin therefore as our more modern words cavalier and cavalry.


Cavalry is a unit of soldiers mounted on horseback. As stated above, the word Cavalry comes from the French word cavalerie, or chevalerie and the Latin word caballus, meaning horse. Horseback riding probably evolved independently in the Eurasian steppes and the mountains above the Mesopotamian plain. Historically, military cavalry was divided into light and heavy cavalry. The difference between them was primarily how much armor was worn by the soldiers, and thus how powerful their mounts had to be in order to sustain the burden. Chinese Cavalry –


Chinese cavalry
By 1400 B.C., the use of smelted iron to make weapons gave the infantry supremacy. Tribes of nomads in Asia were the first to use Cavalry. Cavalry was used for scouting and pursuit of a routed enemy, but with a few exceptions infantry remained dominant in Europe until the threat of light cavalry relying on archery, typified by the Mongols, brought about the adoption of heavy armored cavalry, developed first by the Parthian Empire. King Phillip II of Macedonia used Cavalry as major military units for the first time in Europe in the 300′s B.C.European feudalism was made possible by the introduction of saddles in the 4th century, and stirrups in the 8th century, to the West. Both saddles and stirrups had been used in the East since the 1st century. Cavalry units became a leading part of the Roman army in late A.D. 300′s. During the middle-ages, only Knights and their squires fought on horseback. Later, common soldiers rode horses to the battlefield, then dismounted to fight. Oliver Cromwell developed the Cavalry Charge, which the Duke of Marlborough, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon improved further.


In Europe, cavalry dominated local wars and attempts to fend off Norsemen, Magyar, and Muslim raiders. The Crusades were essentially cavalry wars and sieges, eventually won by the Muslims, and the incredible military success of the Mongols in the 13th cent. was based on their cavalry. At the end of the Middle Ages, infantry came to the fore again but cavalry remained prominent in the armies of Louis XIV, Frederick II (Frederick the Great), and particularly Napoleon.

In the 19th cent., cavalry was frequently used by Europeans in colonial wars, by the U.S. army and Plains peoples in the Indian wars, and in the U.S. Civil War.

In World War I, because of trench warfare, horsemen were used only in small numbers on the plains of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but they were decisive in the Arab revolt. The Cavalry was employed against Germany at the beginning of World War II by the Polish and Soviet armies, but the highly mobile tank and armored units that were introduced in that war led to end of the use of mounted troops. Historians consider the Russian Cassock and the German Uhlan Cavalries among the world’s greatest. During World War II, the Russians were believed to have used 300,000 horse cavalrymen.

Cavalry has historically served as a flexible multipurpose force. Capitalizing upon a significant mobility advantage over infantry, cavalry performed long-range reconnaissance and security for commanders. These missions gave commanders the ability to maneuver and concentrate forces on a battlefield for decisive battle. Once on the chosen field, cavalry continued to play key roles such as-

* Close reconnaissance to detect enemy weaknesses
* Close security to protect the flanks or rear of the infantry line
* Countering enemy cavalry.
* Counterattacking enemy infantry attacks
* Reserves
* Administering the decisive blow to a faltering enemy
* Covering retreat
* Pursuing a retreating enemy

To perform these varied operations, European armies developed a highly specialized cavalry. The U.S. never developed specialization on this scale. Faced largely with frontier operations during the nineteenth century and an unconventional threat, the U.S. Army developed cavalry similar to European light cavalry.

European light cavalry was largely equipped and armed with sabers, carbines, and pistols. It focused on wide-ranging reconnaissance and security tasks. The U.S. Cavalry differences were a reliance on pistols and carbines versus bladed weapons and dismounted fighting once in contact with the enemy.


Cavalry Troopers Ride through a ravine -

Cavalry Troopers Ride through a ravine

Cavalry units called Dragoons fought in the Revolutionary War in America. During the Civil War, both Confederate and Union armies used Cavalry units extensively. The U.S. Cavalry patrolled the Mexican border and chased the bandit Pancho Villa in in the early 1900′s. Automobiles and trucks began to replace horses in the U.S. Army in 1920. The Army has not had horse Cavalry units since 1943. Armored units have inherited the honors and traditions of the U.S. Cavalry. They use the same tactics the horse Cavalry used.

As modern weapons increased in range, precision, and lethality, horse cavalry lost much of its ability to perform these traditional roles. Traditional capabilities were restored with mechanization, which placed modern weapons on armored platforms. The tank assumed some of these traditional cavalry roles, especially those associated with armored cavalry. Modern cavalry, with both air and ground assets, began to focus on reconnaissance, security, and the flexible employment capabilities of nineteenth century cavalry.

A historical example illustrates the value of a flexible cavalry force. The operations of the newly organized Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac during the Gettysburg campaign were a substantial factor in the Union’s success. For the first time, the Union Army was able to employ an effective cavalry force working directly for the commanding general of the Army.

In early June 1863, General Lee began moving the Army of Northern Virginia toward the Shenandoah Valley to invade the North. Fights ensued between the Confederate and Union cavalry. The Confederate cavalry attempted to secure the army’s movement while the Union cavalry conducted reconnaissance to determine the Confederate’s intent. These cavalry actions confirmed other intelligence on the movement of the Confederate Army, but did not reveal the intent of General Lee. Based on this information and orders from Washington, General Hooker began moving the Union Army north. After these fights, General Stuart took the bulk of the Confederate cavalry on a ride around the advancing Union Army and lost contact with General Lee.

Both General Hooker and his successor, General Meade, protected the approaches to Washington and Baltimore. Both commanders were forced to move in response to the Confederate Army. Recognizing the critical need for information, both commanders emphasized the need for the cavalry to provide “reliable information of the presence of the enemy, his forces, and his movements . . . .” At the same time, the cavalry was ordered to “guard the right and left flanks and the rear, and give the commanding general information of the movements . . . of the enemy in front.”

On 30 June, the 1st Cavalry Division had a meeting engagement with a Confederate infantry brigade in Gettysburg. At the same time, the 3d Cavalry Division had a meeting engagement with General Stuart at Hanover, 12 miles to the east. General Stuart was repulsed and swung further north in his attempt to link up with the Confederate Army. General Lee felt the absence of his reliable cavalry reconnaissance and faced the Union forces of unknown size in the town. The Confederates conducted a reconnaissance in force with an infantry division the next day. General Buford, commanding the 1st Cavalry Division, recognized the decisive nature of Cemetery Ridge. He sensed from constant reconnaissance patrols in all directions the massing Confederate Army to his front. Thus, he determined the necessity to defend well forward, securing the decisive terrain for the approaching Union Army. His information and assessments were continuously reported to General Meade.

On 1 July, General Heth’s infantry division attacked General Buford. The cavalry was armed with Sharps carbines, which were superior to the rifled musket. Fighting dismounted, he successfully defended against a much larger enemy until relieved by the infantry moving rapidly to his support.

On 3 July, during the preparation for General Pickett’s charge, General Stuart attempted to envelop the right flank of the Union Army. He was met by General Gregg of the 2d Cavalry Division and repulsed.

Throughout this campaign, the Union cavalry was continuously conducting operations in support of the main body. They successfully covered the movement of the army, denied the Confederates information, maintained contact with the advancing Confederate Army, and continuously reported combat information. Once apparent that the armies were about to meet, General Buford transitioned into a defense, successfully securing the decisive terrain for the Union Army. Once the battle was joined, the cavalry continued to secure the positions of the army.

Cavalry History.ppt – A Cavalry Branch history (compressed in .zip format)

The Role of Cavalry

What is a Cavalryman? – Published with permission from Armor Magazine May-June 1969

What is a Cavalry Scout?

Light Cavalry vs. Dragoons

Life of the Dragoon Enlisted Men

Scottish Cavalry in 123 A.D.

History of Armored Cavalry in the U.S. Army

A Detailed Spur History

Blackjack – The Last U.S. Army Horse

The U.S. Army, the long arm of the United States Government had a job to do. Monitor and promote the orderly expansion of the West. The U.S. Cavalry was the army unit of choice in the west. The Indians’ resistance to being a conquered people and their later reluctance to being prisoners on reservations presented many problems to the westward expansion. Problems the Cavalry took in an aggressive stride to solve.