Light Cavalry vs. Dragoons

Note: The question came up in A Civil War Chat Room one evening, "What is the difference between Cavalry and Dragoons? They both rode horses didn't they?" Buford, a member of the Chat Room and a well known Civil War author (under his real name of course), came to the rescue with this gem. I found it quite interesting and hope that you do.

        Dragoons were basically mounted infantry (differences to be discussed). They carried a weapon known as a musketoon in the early days, which was a shortened musket. Later, they carried carbines. They basically used their horses to move them from place to place, not for fighting.Most, if not all, of their fighting was done dismounted.
        Light cavalry served an entirely different purpose. It was primarily intended to scout and screen an army's advance, and to do whatever fighting it did do mounted, typically using either the saber or pistols. Stuart's men were classic light cavalry.
        In the early days (1840's), the only mounted unit in the US Army was the 1st Dragoons. In 1849, the 2nd Dragoons were formed, as was another unit called the Regiment of Mounted Rifles. Finally, in the 1850's, the 1st U.S. Cavalry was formed, which was light cavalry. It was followed in 1856 by the 2nd US Cavalry, which ranked among its early officers Edwin V. Sumner and colonel, RE Lee as lt. colonel, and a young lieutenant named John Bell Hood. In 1861, when the Late Unpleasantness commenced, these units were reorganized. The 1st Dragoons became the 1st US Cavalry, the 2nd Dragoons (the regiment that produced Buford, Merrit, Pleasonton, and Beverly H. Robertson, among others) became the 2nd US Cavalry, the Regiment of Mounted Rifles (which produced Buford's West Point classmate W.E."Grumble" Jones) became the 3rd US Cavalry, which served in the West, the 1st US Cavalry became the 3rd US Cavalry (which also served in the Western Theatre), and the 2nd US Cavalry became the 5th US Cavalry, which was a fine unit. A new regiment was recruited in the summer of 1861, which became the 6th US Cavalry, which was the only Regular cavalry regiment formed during the Civil War. Its men came from the area around Pittsburgh, who typically enlisted for a term of five rather than three years. The 6th US, of course, is the unit that got chopped to shreds at Fairfield.

Mounted Infantry vs. Dragoons

        The main difference between mounted infantry and dragoons was armament. Mounted infantry carried rifles (Enfields, Springfields and the like). Dragoons carried either musketoons or carbines. I would categorize Forrest's command as being mounted infantry. The mounted infantry would have a hard firing and reloading mounted, since they were using muzzle-loading weapons. Carbines, like the sharps, were breech-loaders, so they could be fired and reloaded mounted. That would make a major difference.

This Page last updated 02/21/02