What is a Dragoon?

If the antiquated term dragoon manages to appear in current literature, it may conjure, to some, images of antiquated mounted troops, fighting in antediluvian European wars of a forgotten past; to others, the forcing of somebody to do something he doesn’t want to do.

The word has its origin on the fields of battles fought five hundred years ago. Mounted warriors using missile weapons, such as bows, have their roots in ancient times. Soon after the introduction of firearms in the 15th Century, there appeared mounted sharpshooters who discarded their traditional mounted weapons of sabre, bow or lace and chose to fight with the arquebus, were dominated arquebusiers a cheval. [i] The term “Dragoon” came into popular use during the European wars of the 16th Century to describe this hybrid military formation, mounted on horse who rode to where they were needed on a battlefield, dismounted, and fought on foot with their firearms. Because they were well mounted and armed with longarms, these soldiers could often reach an important location or cover a retreat than faster foot soldiers. In this capacity, dragoons came to represent an amalgam of infantry and cavalry. Their short-barreled muskets sometimes featured a dragon–shaped side plate. Comparing these swift-moving troops, who used fire-spitting weapons, to dragons of fable, the Count of Mansfeldt fashioned the name “Dragonieres”, shortened to “Dragoons” to describe them.[ii] Armies soon equipped dragoons with sabres in addition to firearms and put them to use as shock troops.[iii]

The Napoleonic era brought with it revolutionary changes in the use of dragoons. Cavalry, armed with sabre and pistol, had long did their fighting in the saddle. Most European armies came to the realization that all mounted soldiers should remain in the saddle and not be trained to fight dismounted. Enlightened generals came to realize swords and spurs encumbered a soldier attempting to fight on foot; there was a need to protect the horses when fighting dismounted and this necessarily reduced the size of the force; and the training recruits to perform double duty of fighting mounted as well on foot is time consuming.[iv] The infant military of the United States balked the trend of European armies. Until mounted forces were fully mechanized in 1941, they used their horses to ride to where they were needed, and then did most of their fighting on foot.

There was a time in our nation’s early history that dragoons formed a important part of the army. Trooper James Hildreth wrote in 1836, “The regiment of the United States dragoons forms, although a small, yet conspicuous portion of the American army.”[v] Then, in August of 1861, the War Department, caught in the grip of the Civil War, merged the nation’s two dragoon regiments with its two cavalry and a mounted rifle regiment, added a new cavalry regiment, forming a corps of six regiments of cavalry. The First Dragoons became the First Cavalry and the term dragoon, henceforth, disappeared as a designation of regular army formations. With these steps, the appellation dragoon, in effect. disappeared from the name of federal military formations, but from everyday speech.

[i] V. Vuksic and Z. Grbasic, Cavalry: The History of a Fighting Elite 650 BC – AD1914 (London: Cassell 1993) 25-26; Louis Nolan, Cavalry: Its History and Tactics (Originally printed 1854, reprinted Yardley: Westholme 2007) 39.

[ii] Nolan, Cavalry, 39; Peter Schmidt: Hall’s Military Breechloaders (Lincoln: Andrew Mowbray, 1996) 57; Theophilus Rodenbough. From Everglade to Canyon with the Second United States Cavalry: An Authentic Account of Service in Florida, Mexico, Virginia and the Indian Country, 1836-1875 (Reprinted Norman: University of Oklahoma Press 2000) 8.

[iii] Nolan, Cavalry, 38. The American army later added a light howitzer to the dragoon’s arsenal, allowing this versatile corps to encompass all three combat arms: horse, foot, and artillery. John Elting, A Dictionary of Soldier Talk (New York: The Scribner Press 1984) 90

[iv] Nolan, Cavalry, 39.

[v] James Hildeth is the putative name most historians have given to the anonymous author of Dragoon Campaigns to the Rocky Mountains: Being a History of Enlistment, Organization, and First Campaigns of the Regiment of United States Dragoons; Together with the Incidents of a Soldier’s Life and Sketches of Scenery and Indian Character (New York: Wiley & Long, 1836). 111. One writer expresses doubt that Hildreth, having due to a physical disability to have left the service prior to the expedition depicted in the book, was not the author. (Joseph B. Thoburn, Dragoon Campaigns to the Rocky Mountains” Chronicle of Oklahoma, Vol. 8, 1930, 35.