The evolution of a recruit to a full-fledged dragoon was slow and sometimes agonizing. The first week after a recruit arrived, he spent his time learning all the details of discipline, police, interior services, his uniform, and grooming his horse. A corporal, superintended by a sergeant and an officer, instructed the recruit in mounting without a saddle on both sides of a horse, the names and uses of his weapons and equipment and how to keep them clean, and how to fold his effects to place in his valise.
In his spare time, the recruit probably enviously watched the old troopers riding off to the exercise ground and wondered when his turn would come. After the first week, however, a man's training as a dragoon began in earnest.
Fundamentally, the Dragoons and were an auxiliary arm supporting the Infantry. While they were not expected to make long marches on foot, it was necessary at times for them to hold a position dismounted, until the Infantry could arrive to secure the ground. Recruits, therefore, received their first drill on foot, twice a day for and hour and a half. Another half an hour was spent teaching the duties of the guard; and after six weeks to two months, recruits were ready to mount the quarter guard. Not until he could mount guard was a recruit allowed to begin his instruction on horseback.
Careful attention was given in the meantime to training the dragoon to fight on foot. The lessons were called School of the Trooper, Dismounted, and the first lessons involved learning to march and to have the correct bearing. After this was accomplished, he learned quick step, backward step, the manual of arms, loading, firing, marching with arms at different steps, firing, and use of the saber and lance.
All the noncommissioned officers and privates were required to practice firing at a target, both with their carbines and their pistols. The men were taught to hold the butts of their guns firmly against the right shoulder when aiming and to support the gun with the left hand. They were taught to sight quickly, to press the trigger with the forefinger and to fire without moving their heads or changing the direction of their pieces. The men fired at a target made from a plank 5 feet 6 inches long by 1 foot 9 inches wide. Two black bands three inches wide were painted, one across the middle of the board and one a foot and a half below the first. To hit center of the middle band, the range of a Hall's carbine was about 90 yards. Closer in, the men aimed below the band and beyond 90 yards, above. All the best shots were noted down by the officers.
When at target practice with the pistol, the men began ten yards from the target and moved backward to about 30 yards. When aiming, the arm was half extended; and the fingers were loosely closed, so that the hand did not shake and the finger could be pressed gradually on the trigger without causing a jerk. The men practiced firing to the front, to their right, to their left, and finally to their rear.
The men were taught the use of their sabers and lances, both while marching and at target practice. The latter involved parries and thrusts to be used against cavalry.
Once the School of the Trooper, Dismounted, had been mastered, the dragoons progressed to the School of the Platoon, dismounted, and the School of the Trooper, Mounted, which were held jointly. Approximately 180 days or six months were spent learning these lessons. The school of the Platoon, Dismounted, mainly taught the men how to march together as a platoon, the movements, counter-marching, wheeling, etc., the manual of arms, firing, saber and lance, and rallying and skirmishing.
Probably it was the beginning of their training on horseback that met the most enthusiasm of the men. It was an enthusiasm that not even nights of sore and aching muscles could quite dampen.
Troopers wore stable-jackets, forage caps, and boots without spurs for their first lessons. As much a possible, each man was given instruction separately on a gentle horse, and no instructor was given more than four men at a time to teach. Abusing a horse, whether by peevishness, kicking, jerking, swearing at, unnecessary spurring, or violence of any kind, was an unpardonable sin and was not allowed to go unpunished. Noncommissioned officers appropriated the best horses for their own use, but if a horse was found unsuited to a man or the man unsuited to the horse, a change was made, whether the man liked it or not and regardless of his rank.
Men and horses trained together. During the first mounted lessons, the experienced horses led off, with remount horses distributed among the older ones so that they could become accustomed to the sight of saddles, accouterments, etc. Noncommissioned officers supervised the saddling of the new horses, which were led out to the drill ground by snaffle-bridles. The instructors also inspected the saddles to make sure the cruppers and girths were not too tight. The men mounted quietly and shouting was not allowed. Young or horses in poor condition were put in separate squads and given less work than the others. Since young horses needed to be encouraged to go forward willingly, the men patted and talked to their animals. Going to and from the stables, horses maintained a distance of six feet to prevent injury from kicking.
Remount horses were not ridden, when they arrived at the garrison, but were merely led out during the warmest part of the day by soldiers mounted on trained horses. Only when the animals had recovered from their journey to the post were they ridden and then only at a walk at first. Each company of a Dragoon Regiment had a designated color for its horses, which were A and K, Black; B, F, and H, sorrel; C, D, E, and I, bay; and G, iron gray. Horses of uniform color not only looked better, but new horses were accepted more quickly when they were the same color as the others.
Life for recruits was a round of drill and trial and error, Some had difficulty adjusting to the strict discipline; others virtually had to learn a new language and become familiar with the customs of a country they had adopted only recently. Seasoned troopers enjoyed the discomfiture of the new arrivals and off duty collected around the parade ground to watch the noncommissioned officers attempt to instill drill in the new men. An instructor, who momentarily let his attention wander, might find the following happening:
At the command, 'By the right flank, right face, forward march,' one-half of the squad misunderstanding the command, would face to the left, and march on until brought up against a fence or other obstruction. At the same time the other half marched with the instructor at their flank in the opposite direction, until he commanded, 'Halt, front face,' and discovered the missing half on the other side of the parade ground 'marking time,' and waiting for a command.
Ten Years in the Ranks
Drilling, however, was limited to certain times of the day, as the bulk of the soldier's day was spent performing fatigue or work details. The use of enlisted men on work details had its drawbacks. An officer, observing the marksmanship of the men, commented:
At all events, if I were at the head of the war dept, the army should be ordered to do less work, and more shooting--if only at a target. For most of the recruits being foreigners, who never handled a gun before enlisting into the United States service, could not hit a man at the distance of thirty yards, in a dozen trials.
Journal of Army Life
Information for this page was taken from theHistoric Furnishing PlanforThe Dragoon Stablesby Sally Johnson Ketcham.