Wednesday, November 28, 2012

McClellan saddles at the US Cavalry Museum

Without a doubt, my favorite part of the U.S. Cavalry Museum was the Saddlery room.  
Not surprisingly, most of the display space in the saddlery room is dedicated to the McClellan saddle and its evolution from 1859 to 1928.  All the words are quoted directly from the museum's signage.

George B. McClellan recommended some equipment changes for the army in his report to the U.S. Senate in 1857, after his trip to Europe and the Crimea.  This was the birth of the McClellan saddle.  For nearly one hundred years, the McClellan saddle has been the standard U.S. Cavalry saddle despite repeated changes and criticism.

In 1859, it replaced the Grimsley saddle that had been in use since 1847.  
The McClellan was thought to be more economical, easier to maintain, and hopefully more helpful in eliminating saddle sores on the horse.

The Model 1859 was the first McClellan saddle used by the American cavalry.  The skirt protects the horse from the rigging and the rider's legs from horse sweat.  The skirt was an economy measure placed under the quarter straps, eliminating the necessity for an underskirt.
The Model 1859 featured a "tree" made of poplar and beechwood, covered with exposed rawhide, giving its yellowish color.  The rawhide seems were carefully placed on the edges of the sidebars, so they would not chafe the horse's back. 
Major changes for the Model 1874 McClellan saddle included the removal of the saddle skirts, and covering the tree with leather, replacing the earlier rawhide.  The seams on the pommel and cantle were reinforced with welts of leather... The letters US inside an oval were stamped on the hooded stirrups for the first time.  New heart shaped safes were attached to the quarter straps and to the girth billets on the off side only.
The McClellan saddle was again modified in 1885 with changes in the saddle tree, the rear portion of the seat was slightly hollowed out, conforming more to the seat of the rider and permitting him to sit farther to the rear, which provided more comfort for the horse.
The Model 1885 saddle was adopted for the Cavalry, and for the first time was used for field artillery.  New stirrup rings allowed the stirrups to hang naturally.  Cincha straps replaced the former girth billets, and a 24 strand hair cincha replaced the older wide linen web girth. 
A major modification of the 1904 Model is in the shape of the tree.  The bottom edges of the side bars are almost perfectly straight.  The color change was the result of a 1902 uniform regulation which changed all army leather equipment from black to russet.  The bottom of the side bars was trimmed with a layer of sheepskin having 1/2" fleece. 
 The Model 1904 had fully adjustable girth/quarter straps, not only forward and backward, but vertically also.  This conformed to the horse as it gained or lost weight.  New straps were sewn on in a manner such that the opening of the stirrup hood was thrown out a quarter turn from the horse's body for easier mounting.
About 1913 the Quartermaster Department modified a number of Model 1904 trees by adding two cinchas and a metal horn to the pommel.  This model was designated the Mule Riding Saddle.  The Mule Saddle was issued to packers who rode saddle mules with Army pack trains.
On the Model 1913, the quarter straps were arranged with two rigging rings and a connecting strap to accommodate two girths as the saddle was used for packers on mules.  The mule's breeching and breast harness was attached to the saddle by the standard rings and stables on both the pommel and cantle.
 By 1928, a major objection to the McClellan saddle was that troopers could not get their legs around the horse easily because of the double girth billets and an olive drab cotton web girth.  These straps were then covered by a leather skirt.  Note how this new skirt addition made the saddle resemble the very first model back in 1959.
The Model 1928 was the last modification of the McClellan saddle.  In 1924, the sheepskin lining of the side bars of the Model 1904 was replaced by felt pads, and this modification was incorporated into this 1928 model. 
But that's not all--outside the Saddlery room, I spotted another McClellan saddle.
The sign accompanying this one read:  Civil War Federal Officer's McClellan with quilted seat: This saddle was very popular with Union soldiers for its comfort and style.  While the saddle is considered a McClellan, it bears a striking resemblance to the Grimsley saddle.  Its Grimsley like features include elongated and forward tilted skirts, ribbed seat, and brass bound cantle.
I hope you've enjoyed this brief look at the history of the McClellan saddle.  My next post will feature more military tack.


  1. Very interesting post! Love to see the progress of the saddle through history :)

  2. Awesome and interesting post Jennifer!

  3. Thanks but I really can't take much credit. All I did was take pictures and quote the signs!


  4. DROOL!!! I am just going to have to get up there and see it for myself...
    Now that you've seen an excellent chronology of the McClellan, can you see why it irks me to no end when model horse people mix the styles and want to make the Civil War saddlery brown? ;)

  5. If only I'd had this when I was making my first mcClellan. Even Steffens' book doesn't condense and illustrate the way your post does. Kudos.

  6. Wow I love these saddles,the civil war is my fav subject in school I think I'm going to try to make one of these. Thanks for all the reference pics:)

  7. I agree -- very interesting post! I just so happen to have a genuine McClellan that my parents picked up somewhere along the way. It's the 1904 model. Funny thing is it has two different styles of hooded stirrups. One is doubled leather, the other single. I'm assuming the doubled one is the older one as it's in worse shape, but I'm no expert!!


  8. Thank you for posting these pictures. I have been wanting to make a military saddle for a long time!

  9. Very interesting to see where things are at today as a result of the early innovation

  10. Dale; Sailindale@Yahoo.comNovember 14, 2014 at 9:45 PM

    My family has an 1859 McClellan in great condition, complete and would like to sell to someone who can appreciate and care for it,

  11. Have a 1928 McClellan saddle for sale and the present price is only $30. at EBTH Cincinnati Antique sales website.

  12. with your first saddle it showed the 1859 McClellan saddle saddle with flat head slotted screw.?.i am not trying to cause any disrespect your research. my question is when was the slotted wood screw used invented? all my searches send me to 1908? Help me please. I want to be corrected when reenacting the civil was. thanks for your help.

    1. The information presented in this post comes directly from the U.S. Cavalry Museum. I know nothing beyond that which is written here.