Kearny’s Dragoons Out West: The Birth of the U.S. Cavalry, by Will Gorenfeld and John Gorenfeld, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2016, $34.95
A qualifier is in order regarding the subtitle of this study of an overlooked transitional period in American history. Many date the “birth of the U.S. Cavalry” to the American Revolution and the mounted units organized by Polish General Casimir Pulaski and trained by Hungarian Colonel Michael Kovats. But as the father-son writing team of Will and John Gorenfeld note, through March 2, 1833, the Regular Army’s cavalry outfits were anything but regular, distrusted by Congress as elitist and expensive and repeatedly disbanded after short service. It took the 1830 Indian Removal Act and the subsequent need to police the frontier west of the Mississippi—a duty ill-suited to slow-moving infantry and militia units—to convince Congress to authorize the first permanent mounted force, in the form of the 2nd U.S. Dragoons.
Drawing on an array of documentation and personal memoirs of both officers and enlisted men, Kearny’s Dragoons Out West examines a proto-cavalry regiment far removed from the post–Civil War troopers with which Western aficionados are more familiar. Thrust into the Arkansas wilderness with little or no preparation in December 1833, the dragoons found no available accommodation at Fort Gibson, already garrisoned by the 7th U.S. Infantry, so they had to survive in tents while building their own nearby quarters at what they named Camp Jackson. The dragoons regarded it as something miraculous in 1834 when they received Hall .54-caliber breech-loading, percussion-capped carbines, vastly more effective than their flintlock pistols or the Model 1833 saber one trooper described as “only good for cutting warm butter.” Still, they had to learn from scratch how to operate as a unit in spite of personal differences throughout the multicultural ranks, starting with their rough-hewn but worldly-wise commander, Colonel Henry Dodge, and his college-educated, punctilious but battle-seasoned executive officer, Lt. Col. Stephen Watts Kearny.
Overcoming these and numerous other problems, the dragoons performed disproportionately well at its part-military, part-constabulary task, contrasting with their cavalry descendants in protecting the Indians from white depredations as often as the other way around. The Gorenfelds climax their study with Kearny’s epic march to California during the Mexican War and conclude with the 2nd Dragoons’ legacy, reflected not only in how the cavalry’s tactics and roles evolved, but also in the records of those officers who went on to greater things during and after the Civil War. With fascinating details, Kearny’s Dragoons fills a gaping gap in our knowledge of the taming of the West.