Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Plains Cavalry

Doing research for the third book in my spirit trilogy I had to do research on the plains cavalry. This was the mounted army used to curtail Indian uprisings and make sure there was safe passage for the people populating the west.

After the Civil War Southern cavalry officers were demoted to privates. There was feeling that if they were allowed to remain officers they could become in control of the military. So many left the service rather than be demoted. After the war many of the soldiers went back to civilian life, leaving the cavalry shorthanded.

The years following the war most recruits were either illiterate or spoke a foreign language, causing problems when it came to training. Officers, who were graduates of West Point or promoted during the Civil War and had sufficient training and experience in fighting, found themselves teaching ragtag groups how to ride horses and fire a rifle.

The plains cavalry weren't the sophisticated and well oiled machine the movies make them out to be. A good part of the enlisted men were criminals who chose enlisting to going to jail. When the chance came up many would high-tail it to parts unknown.

Not all forts were as large and accommodating as we see in movies either. Most were small complexes of buildings for housing, cooking and eating, and a supply or trade shop along with a stable and farrier. When the soldiers weren't working on their fighting they were the upkeep and builders of the forts.

During a march a company could cover some thirty-five miles in an eight-hour day under good conditions. The would sleep in their saddles on long marches, and the horses would plod along in a sleep-walking state

At a walk they could cover four miles in an hour; at a slow trot, six; at a maneuvering trot, eight; at an alternate trot and walk, five; at a maneuvering gallop, twelve; and at a full extended gallop, sixteen.

Cavalry marches usually covered about six miles per hour - at the trot and walk - with a five-minute halt each hour.

I discovered with my research the cavalry life was not glamorous and you had to have either wanted to stay away from your family really bad or had no other place to go to want to stay in the mundane life that could kill you just as easy from fraternizing with the local women as it could from a bullet or arrow.


  1. Interesting post, Paty! I can see where men would have to be desperate or a little "touched" in the head to join the calvary. Must be the sense of adventure that wins them over :-)

  2. I agree Marin. From the research it was either someone who was completely dedicated to the call or they thought it would be a life like they read about in the dime novels.

  3. Paty,

    Thanks for sharing the statistics on how far/the marches were. Makes me feel bad for the poor horses. No wonder the army bought so many. I've read some books on the calvary cause I was playing around with an idea once, but it never materialized. Can't wait to read your story.

  4. Kathy, HI!
    Yes, the marches were grueling on the horses and the men. And the infantry...they had to do their best to keep up with the horses if they were on a campaign.

  5. I can't imagine sleeping on the horse, but guess a body can get used to just about anything after a while. It does sound like a rough life and it makes you wonder what they were running from if this was a 'better life.'

  6. Hi Paisley,

    I agree. If they knew what was in store for them, I think they would have found a better occupation.

  7. Paty, I have an idea to eventually do a saga which takes place mainly in San Angelo and deals with the cavalry. The Buffalo Soldiers had anglo officers.

  8. I, too, appreciate the information on how far the varying march speeds carried the men. I know horses can make about 15 miles a day when pushed. Oxen pulled wagons cover about a third of that. But, you provided totally new knowledge--my easiest "learn something new every day" challenge. Thand you for doing the work. VBG

  9. Carolyn, I've run across quite a bit about the buffalo soldiers but they aren't in my story.

  10. Sandra, You're welcome. It always jazzes me when I run across information that is interesting or not something that is well-known.

  11. Hi Paty:

    I have always been interested in the Calvary ever since watching Rin Tin Tin on TV as a child. I try to go to all the remaining Forts when I can. We have Ft. Gibson nearby and I was very impressed with Ft. Supply which is very well preserved.

    I think that the Calvary after the Civil War was our version of the French Foreign Legion. Desertion was a big problem. There were many criminals and foreigners. (It might have been a better life for a single foreign man than the slums of NYC).

    After the Civil War almost every officer went down in rank. Gen. Custer went from a Major General (two stars) to a Captain (two bars). But these officers knew their high ranks were just temporary. The Army was very small. In the book: “The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomatox”, it was pointed out that at that time most West Point graduates did not even get a job in the Army! They were released and recalled if there was a war.

    I intend to read your current Spirit book. Where and when does it take place? Have you been to any old Forts?


  12. Vince,

    I agree with your analogy of the cavalry being like the French Foreign Legion. I also read about the demotions after the war. People were promoted during the civil war when someone was killed or sent home due to wounds and for bravery. Then it never really was put on paper, you know how slow the government is with paperwork, and so after the war they returned to their original status.

    My current spirit book takes place at Wallowa Lake, Oregon, the summer home of Chief Joesph's band of Nez Perce, and into part of Western Idaho in the early 1700's.

    Unfortunately the only fort I've ever visit was a Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia river and it is more modern because they had ammunition depots there in case of an attack in WWI.

    I would love to get to some of the forts in the Mid-west. My dad keeps telling me I need to to go Fort Robinson in Nebraska. He's been there several times.

  13. I've always been intrigued by the cavalry but never had the notion to write a story around one. Now, I'm more interested, so maybe....
    Paty and Caroline--Fort Davis in far West Texas in the Davis Mountains is a wonderful place--it was headquarters for the U.S. Cavalry to protect the western part of the state during the Indian wars. It's quite isolated now, as it was in its heyday.
    There are no walls, but the complex backs up to some hills for protection. In some of the barracks, letters from wives and husbands and families are preserved under glass. If you want some story ideas, well, there's quite a store right there.
    Good post, Paty.

  14. I loved your post, Paty!!! Really fascinating to learn about the difference between Hollywood's version of the West and reality. The Plains Calvalry reminds me of the men who joined the Foreign Legion. Thanks for sharing your research with us. Now I know who to go to whenever I have a question about forts or the calvalry. :)

  15. Celia,
    I'm actually headed to Texas today to visit my sister-in-law in Killeen. Is there anything of close to there I could see?

  16. Ashley,

    I'm not an expert but I can send you in the right direction for good research books.

  17. PATY--yes, Salado is very close, and it's on the interstate. Bring your coat and an umbrella! This might not be the best time to visit there, but check it out on the internet first. You could have lunch in the Stagecoach Inn--well-known place.
    Also, the Texas Ranger Museum is in Waco, and it's a great place.
    Hope you find something interesting. Celia

  18. Paty,
    Amazing eye-opening post on the Plains Cavalry. Sounds so different from what I've read and studied at the Fort Bliss museum, and Fort Selden. The ruins at Fort Selden definitely show how hard life was for everyone. Such small quarters, not as large as an average bedroom for some officers. The forts in this area were built of adobe. Except for the crowded buildings there was little shade in the hot summer.


  19. Jean Marie, I just visited the ruins of a fort in Texas this past week. It was fun to see the few remaining buildings and see how they moved about the area.

    Each area and fort had it's own way of doing things to accommodate the settlers and the area's needs.

    Fun stuff!


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