Dragoon Fever

Dragoon Fever: Dragoon Officers, Class Standing, and West Point 1841-46

There once was a time when a regiment of the United States Army captured the public’s fascination of the era in much in the same fashion as did space exploration programs conducted 135 years later. The First Regiment of Dragoons, formed in 1833, inherited the missions of army explorers such as Lewis & Clark, Zebulon Pike and Benjamin Bonneville, exploring the uncharted Great Plains region, bringing with them, writers, painters, and naturalists. During the regiment’s first 13 years, it accomplished its missions without having to resort to violence. From the outset, the regiment became the blueprint for all future cavalry units.

George Catlin accompanied the dragoons on their maiden expedition out to the Plains and brought back his vividly written and painted accounts of this adventure. He serialized his “notes” in the Daily Commercial Advertiser (New York) and, in 1841, Catlin compiled these articles and paintings into a two-volume collection entitled Letters and Notes on the manners, Customs and Condition of North American Indians, Written During Eight Years’ Travels Amongst the Wildest Tribes of Indians in North America. (London: Tosswill and Myers, 24, Budge Row. 1841). This account, along with many others, fanned much of the public’s curiosity over the strange new lands that lay beyond the wide Missouri River  and the bold soldiers who explored it and the remarkable people who occupied it. 

Steven W. Kearny, the regiment’s Lt. Colonel, took great pains to have the Dragoons staffed with the some of the army’s best officers and men.[i] Kearny’s efforts were partially frustrated by President Andrew Jackson’s appointment of a number of civilian volunteer officers, transferred from the ill-disciplined Regiment of Rangers. With deaths and resignations of the initial cast of volunteer officers, graduates from the Military Academy soon replaced the former Rangers.[ii] By 1842, four of the former Ranger officers remained with the regiment.[iii]

Graduates from the United States Military Academy were typically assigned to a branch of the service according to their class standing: the top graduates obtain commissions in the engineers, next came ordnance, then the artillery, followed by dragoons, and, lastly, infantry.[iv]

By the 1840s, many cadets at the Military Academy began to regard the United States Dragoons as a corps d’elite in the US Army and wanted to be part of their great adventures out on the western plains. On the eve of his graduation in 1840, ranked 13th out of 42 graduates, Dick Ewell wrote to his brother Ben: “Very flattering accounts are given of the First Dragoons. Their duties are said to be more pleasant that those of most other regiment of the service, and the officers are reported to be some of the best specimens of the army.” Ewell gained a brevet 2d lieutenancy with the 1st Dragoons. [v]

In 1841, Leonadis Jenkins and John Love, who graduated 13th and 14threspectively, in a class of 52, forewent their chances to be engineers or artillerymen and opted for brevet lieutenant commissions in the 1st Dragoons.[vi]

The next year, Cadet John Newton wrote to 2d Lt. Love of something going round which he called “dragoon fever.” “Corporal, this is a great riding master we have now. He’ll learn us more in 20 days than McAuley would have done in 2 years – instead of the never varying formula, Trot, Trot out and Gallop – this old Fellow carries us in to the midst of things at once. We charge around in the D…house, with two rows of heads, and also rings to cut and point at. You get so excited that you don’t care for anything. You don’t think of your horse except to carry him up to them. The consequence you get a confidence in yourself; it accustoms you to maintain your seat, and to manage your horse. Old McAuley was arrested for being drunk on duty, and resigned in consequence. [p] How do you like the Dragoons. There is a perfect ‘dragoon fever’ in our class which increases in virulence as June approaches.”[vii]

Becoming a dragoon turned out to be a passing fancy for John Newton, who called it “mere humbug.” Cadet Newton graduated 2d in his class, and entered the Corps of Engineers.[viii]

Sam Grant, graduating 21st in the Class of 1843, was the next cadet to be smitten by the fever and wrote that he “was anxious to enter the cavalry, or dragoons, as they were then called; but there was only one regiment of dragoons . . . . I recorded, therefore, my first choice, dragoons; second, Fourth Infantry, and got the latter.” Ulysses Grant, Personal Memoirs (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885–86.) 2 vols., 1:34.

With the Second Dragoons dismounted by the army and turned into a rifle regiment, openings in the 1st Dragoons were few. The army assigned Grant to the 4th Infantry. Undaunted, young Sam wrote from Jefferson Barracks, in November of 1843 to the adjutant general: “Sir: I have the honor to apply for a transfer from the 4th Infantry to the Dragoons. I am encouraged to make application for a transfer to that arm of the service which was my first choice on leaving the Military Academy, from the fact that there is, at this time, no one of the graduates of the same class with myself holding appointment in this arm, and that there is one less number of Bvts. in the Reg. for which I apply than in the 4th Inf. This letter bore several endorsements, among them those of Stephen W. Kearny, colonel commanding the Dragoons, and Major General Winfield Scott. The application was not approved, owing to a large number of officers absent from the 4th Infantry. [ix]

Dragoon Fever struck its hardest in 1844, when top cadets Joseph Whittlesey, number 2 in his class, and Alfred Pleasonton, ranked 7th, bypassed the Engineers and to become brevet lieutenants of the 1st Dragoons. [x] There was a slight respite in 1845, but the fever struck again in the fabled Class of 1846 when Clarendon Wilson, rank 9th, decided in become a dragoon.[xi]

With the war with Mexico ranging in 1847, all of the graduates were placed either with the artillery or infantry. By 1848, with the end of the War with Mexico and the dragoons embarked on a new mission as a frontier constabulary, the bloom was off the rose–Dragoon Fever had ended.


[i] By the time of the Civil War ended, the 1st Dragoons had contribute the following generals and brevet generals: John Adams, Richard Anderson, George Blake, Abraham Buford, John Buford, James Carleton, Samuel Chamberlain, Philip St. George Cooke, Patrick Connor, Henry Davidson, John Davidson, Richard Ewell, Thomas Fauntleroy, William Gamble, David Gregg, William Grier, David Hunter, William Dorsey Pender, John Davidson, Rufus Ingalls, John Pegram, Phil Kearny, Alfred Pleasonton, Daniel Rucker, Marcus Reno, Charles Ruff, Delos Sackett, George Stoneman, Samuel Sturgis, Edmund Sumner, A. J. Smith, Thomas Swords, N. Bowman Sweitzer, and Joseph Wheeler.

[ii] Three ex-Rangers died and nine ex-Ranger officers resigned from the Dragoons prior to 1840. Richard Grippaldi, “The Best Possible Appointments Should be Made: The Officers of the U.S. Regiment of Dragoons and Military Professionalism”, Unpublished Paper, Temple University)

[iii] These were Captains Nathan Boone, Benjamin Moore, Enoch Steen and First Lieutenant B. A. Terrett. Official Army Register for 1842 (Washington: Adjutant General’s Office 1842) 12.

[iv] Edward M. Coffman, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime 1784-1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 231.

[v] George Cullum: Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point From March 16, 1802 to January 1, 1850 (New York: J. F. Trow 1850) 234; Percy Hamlin, The Making of a Soldier: Letters of General R. S. Ewell (Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson, 1935) 30.

[vi] George Cullum, Biographical Register of Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., From its Establishment, March 16, 1802 to the Army Reorganization of 1866-67 (New York: D. Van Nostrand 1868) “Leonidis Jenkins”, 18; “John Love”, 13.

[vii] Newton to Love. John Love Collection, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, Indiana.

[viii] Cullum, “John Newton”, 2:38.

[ix] Cullum, Ulysses Grant”, 2: 85; Ulysses Grant, Personal Memoirs (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885–86.) 2 vols., 1:34; The Cavalry Journal (Washington: United Cavalry Association, Jan 1922) Vol. XXI, No. 126, 310.

[x] Cullum, “Joseph Whittlesey, 2”100; “Alfred Pleasonton”, 2:103.

[xi] Id., “Clarendon Wilson”, 2:146.

By 1840 many regarded the United States Dragoons as a corps d’elite in the US Army. Sam Grant wrote that he “was anxious to enter the cavalry, or dragoons, as they were then called; but there was only one regiment of dragoons . . . . I recorded, therefore, my first choice, dragoons; second, Fourth Infantry, and got the latter. Ulysses Grant, Personal Memoirs (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885—“86.) 2 vols., 1:34.

From Jefferson Barracks, in November of 1843 he wrote the adjutant general:

Sir: I have the honor to apply for a transfer from the 4th Infantry to the Dragoons.

I am encouraged to make application for a transfer to that arm of the service which was my first choice on leaving the Military Academy, from the fact that there is, at this time, no one of the graduates of the same class with myself holding appointment in this arm, and that there is one less number of Bvts. in the Reg. for which I apply than in the 4th Inf.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

U. S. Grant,
Bvt. 2nd Lt. 4th Inf.

This letter bears several indorsements, among them those of Stephen W. Kearny, then colonel commanding the Dragoons, and Major General Winfield Scott. The application was not approved, owing to a large number of officers absent from the 4th Infantry.

On the eve of his graduation that year, Dick Ewell wrote to his brother Ben that: “Very flattering accounts are given of the First Dragoons. Their duties are said to be more pleasant that those of most other regiment of the service, and the officers are reported to be some of the best specimens of the army.” Ewell, upon graduation, gaining a brevet 2d lieutenancy with the 1st Dragoons. (Hamlin, The Making of a Soldier: Letters of General R. S. Ewell, 30.

Lt. John Love (USMA 41) received this letter from his friend John Newton, a fellow Virginian and classmate at the United States Military Academy Newton, who finished 2d in his class, upon graduation would forsake the Dragoons and become an Engineer.

West Point, N. York, etc.

Feb, 5, 1842

Dear Corporal,

‘Better late than never’ says an old proverb and so say I. You see that I am ashamed to put a date to this for fear you should see what a devil of a time has elapsed since the receipt of your letter.

As eating is the most important event in a cadet’s life, I will merely relate that I get to go to the Manning’s. They are very generous to us giving us two and 3 turkeys a week. Think of that! Old fellow what the devil do we want to graduate for with such ‘grub’ as this. Don’t let Dick Garnett see the word ‘grub’ here for he’ll lick me as soon as he comes across my track. We are in the midst of a shower of blessings: Permanent fortification, and drawing consequent thereto – with the Savan[t]’s unvarying question, ‘with regard to the demi-lune cut what is to be observed.’ You have experienced this well enough yourself.

I suppose you have heard of McKinney’s death. Israel was dismissed the other day for smacking Mr. B…ton chops for him. Mr. B…ton the infernal little Yankee reported him. Corporal, this is a great riding master we have now. He’ll learn us more in 20 days than McAuley would have done in 2 years – instead of the never varying formula, Trot, Trot out and Gallop – this old Fellow carries us in to the midst of things at once. We charge around in the D…house, with two rows of heads, and also rings to cut and point at. You get so excited that you don’t care for anything. You don’t think of your horse except to carry him up to them. The consequence you get a confidence in yourself; it accustoms you to maintain your seat, and to manage your horse. Old McAuley was arrested for being drunk on duty, and resigned in consequence.

How do you like the Dragoons. There is a perfect ‘dragoon fever’ in our class which increases in virulence as June approaches. I expect it is all a humbug like the Capt. Harrison I have understood is perfectly disgusted with the Engineers and wants to exchange in any corps except Infantry. Old Bowyer flourishes as he always did – never doing anything but undoing everything. He got burnt on furlough, and it would have done you good to have heard him swear.

Corporal, I’ve acquitted myself faithfully of my duty and here I will stop.

Jno. Newton

What is a Dragoon?

The typical Dragoon of the Mexican War era was a moving arsenal and military depot. Secured by a white buff leather sling over his left shoulder hung a .52 caliber Hall carbine a percussion breech-loading smooth-bore carbine of limited range and impact. In his pommel holster was a single shot Model 1836 flintlock horse pistol in .54 caliber. This foot-long weapon was wildly inaccurate and it was said, “practicing marksmanship it was never wise to choose for a mark anything smaller than a good sized barn.” From his buff belt was slung the Model 1833 saber. Troops complained that this saber would warp rubber-like around a man’s head and was only good for cutting warm butter. On his person was a cartridge box, a small pouch containing percussion caps, a haversack for rations, and a wooden canteen. Attempting to mount, while weighed down by all of this unwieldy equipage, could be a daunting task.

As for the “genteel clothing” oft-mentioned in the recruiting advertisements, army regulations provided that for dress occasions the Dragoons wore a high collared coatee with a double row of nine brass buttons, trimmed in yellow, light blue kersey trousers, white belts, and a shiny black shako that sported a flowing white horsehair plume and yellow braid. For fatigue duty, Dragoons wore the natty blue woolen shell jacket that was trimmed in yellow along with the Model 1839-pattern dark blue wool forage cap. In the warmer climes, sometimes the quartermaster would furnish fatigue uniforms made with white cotton duck cloth.

For post 1851 uniforms see “Dragoon Uniforms” infra.