Cavalry in the Wilderness: Cavalry in the Western Theater of the American Revolutionary War and the French and Indian War

Book Review: Cavalry in the Wilderness: Cavalry in the Western Theater of the American Revolutionary War and the French and Indian War by Stephen L. Kling, Jr. (St. Louis, MO: THGC Publishing, 2021)

As author Steven L. Kling, Jr., notes in the preface to Cavalry in the Wilderness, until recently cavalry operations in the American Revolution had received scant attention. Even with the publication of several works on cavalry and cavalry commanders in the past decade, the complete story of the mounted troops has yet to be told, prompting Kling to add his contribution to the subject. He focuses on his own area of interest, the often-forgotten western theater of the war, which extended from the Great Lakes through the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys to British West Florida and Spanish Louisiana on the Gulf of Mexico. Kling also expands the time span of his coverage to include the French and Indian War (1754-1763), in part to correct the prevailing view that cavalry was not employed in that conflict, and because he found that the origins of cavalry’s use on the western frontier during the Revolution can be traced to the preceding war as well as various actions against Native Americans in the region.

The result of Kling’s efforts is an engaging, detailed, and highly informative narrative of the formation of cavalry units, their uniforms and equipage, and their employment in the western theater. He points out several differences in the use of cavalry in the west compared to the eastern theater. One such variation was that cavalry units in the western theater were usually small, seldom exceeding the strength of a single troop (the cavalry equivalent of an infantry company, or approximately fifty men). The use of smaller mounted units was the result of conditions on the frontier: wilderness terrain was generally unsuited to cavalry operations, while the numerous navigable rivers and creeks afforded an easy means to transport troops and supplies quickly, minimizing the need for horses in that role. Another difference Kling identifies between the eastern and western theaters is that commanders in the west were more adaptable in their use of mounted troops, whereas in the east commanders frequently clung to more formal European concepts of employing cavalry.

Following a discussion of the development of British, French, and Spanish light dragoons in Europe, Kling turns his attention to the cavalry forces that participated in the French and Indian War, including a troop of Virginia light cavalry that took part in the disastrous British and colonial effort to take French Fort Duquesne in 1755, during which twenty-three of the twenty-nine Virginia horsemen were killed. The unit was reconstituted and served with the force that captured Fort Duquesne in 1758, along with Pennsylvania cavalry units created on the orders of British general John Forbes. New Hampshire and South Carolina also fielded mounted units, the latter against the Cherokees in the 1759-1761 conflict with that Native nation. Kling similarly examines the use of cavalry by the French in Quebec and Louisiana and that of the Spanish both in their mainland colonies and in island possessions such as Cuba.

Kling points out that the lessons of the French and Indian War were not always heeded. Although British colonel Henry Bouquet, a veteran of the 1758 campaign against Fort Duquesne, urged the creation of cavalry units for frontier service, he was overruled by Gen. Sir Jeffery Amherst who insisted that infantry was sufficient to meet any military needs. Spain, which had acquired the Louisiana Territory from France in 1763, adopted a different approach, making more use of cavalry in the west during the Revolution than either Britain or the United States. Several units were raised in New Orleans, St Louis, Texas, and elsewhere, and saw action in the Spanish invasion of British West Florida, the defense of St. Louis, and against Native Americans who, though fighting independently of the nations involved in the Revolution, frequently threatened supply lines such as the routes used to transport cattle from Texas to Louisiana.

American leaders in the western frontier areas likewise recognized the value of cavalry. George Rogers Clark created Worthington’s Company in 1778, using the designation for infantry rather than cavalry, but these were intended to be mounted troops; however, they apparently never procured horses. Rogers’s troop of light dragoons was more successful in that regard and served under Clark in the Illinois region. Other mounted units were organized and served in Kentucky and other western areas. The British lagged their rivals in the use of cavalry, with only a few small units entering service in West Florida, such as the Royal Foresters and the Loyal Refugees. As the latter name indicates, these forces were composed of American Loyalists rather than British soldiers.

The scope of Kling’s coverage is impressive, and much of the content in this volume will be new to most readers. To assemble this information, the author, with the assistance of a colleague, undertook extensive research in libraries in the United States, Mexico, and Europe, mining every available source to provide as complete an account as the sources allow. The result justifies the labor involved, as Kling fills a major gap in the story of the American Revolution in general and the cavalry of the western theater in particular. Cavalry in the Wilderness is a must-read book for anyone interested in those topics. A few readers may find the descriptions of uniforms and horse equipment less interesting, but these details are a necessary part of the story.
One final point that deserves mention is the book’s artwork. In addition to maps and reproductions of original documents, the volume contains several full-color illustrations of cavalry soldiers of many of the units covered in the text. These impressive paintings allow the reader to see how the troops appeared in the field and are an excellent addition to the book.

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