“…the sword is the most destructive and almost only necessary weapon a dragoon carries.”
So wrote Major Richard Call of the 3d Light Dragoons to Governor Thomas Jefferson in March of 1781. At first glance it may seem odd that a light horseman would make such a statement given the wide use of firearms on Eighteenth Century battlefields. However, when one steps back and thinks “inside the box” of Eighteenth Century military practice it makes perfect sense.
There is an old military adage that says: cavalry takes, infantry holds and artillery clears. Whether on offense or defense the cavalry’s only real power was derived through the mounted charge. In the Eighteenth century, cavalry were the ultimate shock troops of the battlefield and the sword reigned supreme in ministering that discipline. That wasn’t always the case. The advent of gunpowder and the relinquishing of heavy steel armor had promised to change all that in the century prior to the American Revolution. Pistol wielding dragoons and mounted musketeers were perceived as the next greatest thing in mounted warfare as firearms offered far greater range than a three foot sword. Experience proved there were a multitude of problems with this new theory.
First was the nature of early firearms. They were single shot weapons and time consuming to load on horseback. Another was their accuracy. Pistols were woefully inaccurate beyond thirty paces and the range was even worse from the back of a plunging horse in a battle line.
Fredrick the Great wrote of his horsemen:
They were besotted with the idea of firing off their pistols. I finally had to make some straw dummies and I was able to show them that all their pistol shots missed, whereas they cut down every single figure with their swords.
Longer length carbines extended the range but two hands were needed to aim and fire the shoulder fired weapons and that simply wasn’t practical when a horseman engaged an enemy at close quarters. Worse still was the fact that all shock value was lost when troopers turned their attention to operating a firearm in the saddle; the racing onslaught and crush of a body of horses slamming through the enemy ranks was lost and replaced by a weak and inaccurate fire of pistols and carbines at a distance. The result was a patent failure as opposing troopers drew swords, clapped spurs and charged through the tepid musketry of the mounted musketeers.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this occurred at Juniper Springs, South Carolina where patriot Col. Charles Myddleton was leading a two hundred man force of mounted infantry. Myddelton’s men were well armed with rifles and muskets but possessed only a few swords. They made contact with a party of mounted Tory militia and a stiff mounted skirmish quickly ensued. Myddelton’s men were then struck in the flank by a swift charge from Major John Coffin’s British cavalry who, unlike the patriots, were armed with swords. Coffin’s men closed within sword range and sliced the patriots to ribbons. One of Myddleton’s mounted infantrymen was John Chaney who later reported being slashed first across his hand, next across his wrist, and on the third “…he received a severe cut & wound a little back of his left temple which brought him to the ground.” Ill-suited for close combat, the patriots were broken and routed from the field, twenty-eight patriots were killed outright and the following day only forty-five of Myddelton’s men reported back to camp.
It was actions like these that prompted Captain Epapharus Hoyt, a Massachusetts cavalryman, to declare that:
…fire arms are seldom of any great utility to cavalry during an engagement… Indeed there is little hope of success from any who begin their attack with the fire of carbines or pistols… It is by the right use of the sword they are to expect victory: Nothing decides an engagement sooner than charging briskly with this weapon in hand.
Throughout the war mounted infantry operated at a disadvantage due to their lack of swords and couldn’t really fight from the saddle as true cavalry. Instead the mounted infantry often just used their horses to take them to the battlefield where they dismounted and fought on foot. On the other hand, sword bearing light horsemen stayed in the saddle and used the speed of their horses to gain advantage over the enemy. Fredrick the Great called this the grand “coup de collier,” a charge at speed, and discouraged his horsemen from using their firearms in a fight. It was light horse doctrine for troopers to “charge home” with swords in hand and aim their horses at the enemy like ranks of galloping missiles. This principle continued in practice with the light horsemen of the American revolutionary war.
Lt. Col. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee wrote:
… the fire of cavalry is at best innocent, especially in quick action… The strength and activity of the horse, the adroitness of the rider, and the keen edge of the sabre, constitute their vast power so often decisive in the day of battle.
As previously mentioned an Eighteenth Century horse pistol was a slow loading, single shot firearm. In reality it was little more than a dueling weapon meant to engage a single adversary at ten to twenty paces. A charging horse covered approximately 33 feet a second; hypothetically, a pistol wielding trooper would then have but one or two seconds to fire an effective shot at an enemy charging forward with a sword. If the pistol ball missed its mark, the trooper had no time to lift his own sword before his enemy’s came crashing down upon him. Few troopers had such confidence in their marksmanship, especially from the back of a horse in the midst of a plunging melee where horses and men bounced, jostled and slammed against friend and foe alike.
The following account describes a typical encounter between two units of light cavalry outside Valley Forge, Pennsylvania:
General Polasky [sic] with a body of his troops attacked a body of the Enemy’s Light horse… He sets no store by carbines or pistols, but rushes on with their swords… They had severe cutting and slashing; the enemy had 5 killed and two taken prisoners besides a number wounded. We lost one killed and two taken prisoners…”
In July of 1779, British Cavalry under Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton surprised and charged Continental Col. Elisha Sheldon’s 2d Light Dragoons at Poundridge, New York. Major Benjamin Tallmadge tried to warn Sheldon of the coming blow and though mounted, Sheldon’s men were still forming behind a church when Tarleton’s cavalry charged home and slammed into the standing American dragoons. The results were predictable and Sheldon’s men were driven from the ground by the press of horses and flashing blades of Tarleton’s hard charging light horsemen. The 2d Light Dragoons lost their colors and were pursued down a series of narrow, rain slick roads for some four miles. In this case both sides were armed with swords but the momentum of the British horses overwhelmed and routed Sheldon’s stagnant Continentals.
The sword was a weapon with an incredibly short range, even less than the pistol. With troopers aboard darting horses the act of landing a sword blow when fighting face to face against a similarly armed and trained opponent was difficult at best and casualties tended to be low. Instead it was the physical act of the dragoons driving their horses through the enemy that broke the opposing ranks and created a rout, an enemy on the run was then far more vulnerable to the dragoons’ pursuing blades.
Cavalry often met between the main lines as was the case at the Battle of Rantowle’s Bridge, fought between Lt. Col. William Washington’s 3d Light Dragoons and Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion cavalry. The two commanders were engaged in the “petit guerre” or, small war, of outposts and vedettes outside Charleston, South Carolina when Tarleton tried looping behind Washington’s men in a surprise attack. Washington’s scouts saw the enemy coming and Washington’s rear guard turned about and rode headlong into Tarleton’s advance with swords aloft. The light dragoons’ galloping charge broke Tarleton’s troopers and the British turned and fled down a narrow causeway between swamp and marsh with the rest of Washington’s men hard on their trail. Tarleton’s men then bottlenecked at a narrow point in the causeway before the bridge at Rantowle’s Creek. Washington’s horses piled into their rear and the cutting began. A British officer wrote:
…several dragoons of the Legion were wounded… Quarter-Master Sergeant Mcintosh… was badly wounded in the face by a broadsword.
Hemmed in on the causeway the British lost some twenty men before they were able to ride clear of the Continental swords. As with most cavalry melees the horses created the advantage and the swords severed the enemy from his saddle. By using the sword instead of the pistol, Washington’s troopers focused their attention on their horses and arrived en masse to force their momentum on the enemy and break their ranks.
One of the most noted light horse charges of the war was the 3d Light Dragoons’ assault on the British 17th Light Dragoons at the battle of Cowpens. The 17th were in pursuit of the American militia, and had begun to fan out and chop down the fleeing Americans when they were taken in the left flank by the 3d Light Dragoons. James Collins was with the running militia when the British were hit by the 3d:
Col. Washington’s cavalry was among them, like a whirlwind, and the poor fellows began to keel from their horses… The shock was so sudden and violent, they could not stand it, and immediately betook themselves to flight; there was no time to rally, and they appeared to be as hard to stop as a drove of wild Choctaw steers going to a Pennsylvania market. In a few moments the clashing of swords was out of hearing and quickly out of sight;
Once again the sword had driven the enemy from the field, but the key phrase to Collins’ eyewitness account, “The shock was so sudden and violent, they could not stand it,” illustrates the real power behind the sword blows – the speed of the light dragoons’ horses. The two went hand in hand; the short range of the sword dictated the troopers’ need to launch their horses in amongst the enemy, and the horses arriving en masse generated the momentum which broke the enemy ranks. Had Washington’s men stopped short of the British and fired their pistols, all momentum would have been lost and the result would have been a fire fight instead of an enemy stampede.
As Major Call aptly stated, the sword truly was the most necessary weapon of an Eighteenth century dragoon.[Featured Image: The Battle of Cowpens by William Ramney in 1845.]
 Richard Call to Thomas Jefferson, March 29, 1781. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Digital Edition, University of Virginia, ed. Barbara Oberg and J. Looney.
 Quote from Frederick the Great in Anthony North, “Seventeenth Century Europe,” in Swords and Hilt Weapons, ed. Anne Cope, (New York, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989), 87.
 General Thomas Sumter to General Greene 19 June 1781, Conrad, Greene Papers, 416-417, n417.
 Pension application of John Chaney (S32177).
 Epaphras Hoyt, A Treatise on the Military Art, (Brattleborough, 1798), 101, 133. Found in The Book of the Continental Soldier, Harold Peterson, (Harrisburg, The Stackpole Company, 1968), 89.
 Matthew Bennett, Christer Jorgensen, Michael F. Pavkovic, Rob S. Rice, Fredrick Schneid and Chris Scott, Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World: AD 1500 – AD 1763 (New York, Amber Books Ltd, 2005), 120.
 Emanuel von Warnery, Remarks on Cavalry, (Constable and Company, London, 1997), 46.
 Louis Edward Norton, Cavalry: Its History and Tactics, (Yardley, Westholme Publishing, 2007) 22.
 Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, (New York, University Publishing Company, 1870), n91. Accessed online 1/27/2014 @ http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=yale.39002060927754;view=1up;seq=109
 “Samuel Hay to William Irvine, Camp White Marsh 14 November 1777″ William Irvine Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.
 John Milton Hutchins, “Cavalry Action at Poundridge, New York” in Cavalry of the American Revolution, ed. Jim Piecuch, (Yardley, PA, Westholme Publishing, 2012), 65.
 Baylor Hill, A Gentleman of Fortune: The Diary of Baylor Hill First Continental Light Dragoons 1777-1781 Vol. III, ed. John Hayes, (Fort Lauderdale, Saddlebag Press, 1995), 54-56.
 Riding with the 3d Light Dragoons that day were Major Paul Vernier’s Lancers and the 1st Light Dragoons.
 Anthony Allaire, Diary of Lieutenant Anthony Allaire of Ferguson’s Corps, “Monday, 27th ,“ Memorandum of Occurrences During the Campaign of 1780, accessed 1/29/2014 @ http://www.tngenweb.org/revwar/kingsmountain/allaire.html
 Hill, A Gentleman of Fortune, Vol. III, 55.
 James Collins, Autobiography of a Revolutionary Soldier (North Stratford, Ayer Company Publishing, 1979), 22.