gold rush settlers

10. U.S. Army Dragoons

The Mormon Battalion was a non-uniformed volunteer infantry unit enlisted and led by regular U.S. Army dragoons in the epic 2000-mile march from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Diego in 1846-1847 during the U.S.-Mexican War.

The term “dragoon” comes from the French word meaning dragon, after the short-barreled wheellock musketoon with a dragon head decorating its muzzle used by French mounted soldiers. All European armies had dragoon units. Dragoon units were considered light cavalry, with primary responsibility for reconnaissance and advanced scouting. Being mounted on horses or mules gave the dragoons superior speed and maneuverability through difficult terrain compared to infantry. Dragoon units were able to transport heavy provisions and ordnance, such as small cannons (mountain howitzers), on mules through difficult terrain. Dragoon patrols also escorted supply wagons through hostile territory as protection from Indian raids.

Dragoons were trained as mounted soldiers, fighting either from horse or mule back with a saber and/or pistol, or dismounting and fighting on foot with a musketoon or carbine rifle. The carbine was shorter in length compared to the infantry musket and was easier to use in close-in combat or on horseback. Dragoon troopers were usually small men, under 140 lbs. so as to not overburden their mounts which were capable of carrying around 200-230 lbs of rider and gear.

Following the Revolutionary War, a carry-over unit of the U.S. Army Dragoons saw action in the War of 1812 and the First Seminole War of 1817. In 1835, the Regiment of the U.S. Dragoons began exploring and setting up outposts in the newly acquired Iowa Territory along the Des Moines River, including Fort Des Moines (established by Capt. James Allen, but abandoned in 1846) and Fort Dodge. Major western outposts were established at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Scott on the Missouri River and staffed by dragoons. Lt. Col. Stephen Watts Kearny replaced Col. Henry Dodge as commander of the 1st Dragoon Regiment in 1836 and subsequently was promoted to full colonel. The formation of the 2nd Dragoon Regiment was commissioned by President Andrew Jackson for involvement in the Second Seminole War of 1836.
As company commanders in the 1st Dragoons, Captain James Allen, Co. I, and Captain Philip St. George Cooke, Co. K, each led army expeditions into uncharted areas such as Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. When the 1st and 2nd Dragoons were converted to the 1st and 2nd U.S. Cavalry units during the Civil War, the term dragoon was dropped, although it still cropped up in army terminology even in modern times.

Dragoon Uniforms
The U.S. Army Dragoons wore wool uniforms during winter months; dark blue wool frock coats were worn by officers and were thigh-length, with single-breasted buttons for junior officers (Lt., Capt., Maj.) and double-breasted buttons for senior officers (Col., Gen.). Blue wool shell coats were waist-length and had high collars, yellow trim and brass buttons. Trousers were sky blue wool. The dark blue-dyed wool forage (wheel) cap with a pointed leather visor and chin strap was the headwear. The tall, boxy shako hat with a horse hair plume was used for formal occasions. White duck-canvas shell jackets and trouser were available as uniforms during the summer months.
The mounted dragoon soldier wore a white saber harness around the waist with a strap over the right shoulder and a wide white carbine sling belt over the left shoulder. A black leather cartridge box and cap box were attached to the saber harness on the waist belt, opposite the saber sheath. A pistol holster was on the left side and a carbine holster on the right side of the saddle pummel. Gear and bed roll were secured in the front and back of the saddle.

Dragoon Weapons
Dragoons were issued several types of weapons. As mounted troops, the dragoons carried 1840 model 36” cavalry sabers, nicknamed “Old Wristbreaker” as their primary weapon. Sabers differ from swords in that saber blades are curved, whereas sword blades are straight. Since the saber blade was not razor-sharp, it was used mainly as a clubbing and stabbing weapon.
The pistol was a Johnson Model 1836 single-shot, 0.54 caliber flintlock pistol with a swivel ramrod attached to the barrel. The U.S. Model 1842 six-shot, black powder percussion pistol was also coming into service. Dragoons also carried carbines or muzzle-loaded musketoons, which were shorter than the infantry muskets. Period carbines were the 1836 and 1843 Hall breech-loading percussion carbine, in which the paper cartridge was loaded into a chamber at the breech instead of pouring powder down the muzzle. A percussion cap made of sulfurous mercury (fulminate of mercury) in a copper cap was positioned on a hollowed nipple. When the trigger was pulled, the hammer struck the cap causing an ignition that in turn ignited the main charge, which fired the ball.

Cannons
Dragoon units also had additional firepower in the form of field cannons and short-barreled howitzers (6 or 12 pounders). Mountain howitzers were considered portable light cannons that dragoons could dismantle into three pieces for transport by three pack mules over rough terrain: the 230 lb. bronze tube was loaded onto one mule, the wheeled wood carriage onto a second mule and the ordnance (cannon balls with powder charges) in wood boxes on a third mule. Cannons were fired using a primer charge (fuse) which was a hollow goose quill filled with fine black powder inserted into the vent hole in the tube. The primer was ignited with a slow match (smoldering hemp rope match). The friction fuse was introduced in the 1850’s and replaced the quill fuse. The friction fuse was similar to the percussion cap in principle, was likewise inserted into the vent hole but differed by being ignited from pulling a lanyard (long cord) hooked to the fuse.

Cannon Ordnance
Dragoon cannons fired three types of ordnance, which were kept in a wood box for protection. Each type of ordnance had the powder charge contained in a flannel cloth bag secured to the projectile by tin straps nailed to a tapered supporting wooden base (sabot). Solid shot was a classic solid cannonball for knocking down walls and fortifications used with siege or field cannons. Howitzers, however, fired a shell that was a hollowed ball filled with powder and an attached time fuse to spread shrapnel. Spherical or case shot was a hollow, thin-walled cannonball filled with 78 0.69 caliber lead balls and an attached fuse. The fuse was timed to explode the projectile and rain balls and shrapnel over the target. The third type of ordnance was the canister, which was a thin-walled iron can packed with 148 0.69 caliber lead balls packed in sawdust and sulfur. With this ordnance, the howitzer became a close-range antipersonnel shotgun with devastating effects on the target.

Cannon Firing Sequence
A cannon crew consisted of five dragoons, each with a specific assignment in the firing sequence: Position 1- Loader, Position 2- Rammer, Position 3- Prick and Primer, Position 4- Gunner, Position 5-Powder Monkey (ordnance carrier). The cannon firing sequence was conducted by command from the Gunner:

  1. Load – The powder monkey delivered the appropriate ordnance projectile to the Loader and fuse to the Primer. The Loader placed the preselected ordnance into the muzzle.
  2. Ram Load – The Rammer securely tamped the projectile into the tube breech with the ramrod.
  3. Prick and Prime – The Primer pricked the powder bag in the tube using an awl-like tool inserted through the vent hole to expose the powder. The primer fuse was inserted into the vent hole and attached to the lanyard.
  4. Fire – The Gunner pulled the lanyard igniting the fuse, which in turn ignited the main charge, and the projectile was launched amid a loud boom, a lick of flame and a cloud of white smoke.

Dragoons Led the Battalion
With seasoned military expedition experience, proven leadership qualities and familiarity with the Iowa Territory, Captain James Allen was selected by Col. Kearny to enlist 500 volunteers from the Mormon refugees in Iowa and organize a battalion of volunteer infantry as part of The Army of the West in June 1846. General Kearny’s advanced dragoon troops, which included Capt. Philip St. George Cooke, had already left Santa Fe when they received news of the death of Lt. Col. James Allen at Fort Leavenworth. Gen. Kearny assigned Capt. Cooke to return to Santa Fe, take command of the Battalion at Santa Fe and lead them to San Diego. Kearny was well-acquainted with Capt. Cooke’s frontier experience and leadership abilities.

Without the leadership of these seasoned and experienced army dragoon officers applying military discipline and directives under harsh and severe conditions, and access to the resources of the U.S. Army, the Mormon Battalion as a self-led volunteer unit most probably would not have reached San Diego on its own. Furthermore, the Mormon Battalion was definitely ill-prepared and inadequately trained as an infantry unit to engage hostile enemy troops without dragoon leadership were a battle to be encountered.

The closest the Battalion came to combat was at Tucson, where Lt. Col. Cooke readied the Battalion for an assault that did not materialize because the Mexican garrison had abandoned the town during the night. However, the Battalion was well-prepared to obey orders, persevere the rigors of the march and provide needed strength of character in accomplishing their mission of building Cooke’s Wagon Road and performing the public service activities and garrison duties in San Diego and Los Angeles – perhaps better than regular army soldiers.

References
Fort Scott National Historical Site, www.nps.gov/fosc/weapons.
Fort Scott National Historical Site, www.nps.gov/fosc/artillery.
San Pasqual Battlefield S.H.P., Gunner’s Manual, 12 Pounder Mountain Howitzer.