19th Century Cavalry Charge Part II, Cavalry from Europe to the Americas

Every major nation from 1800-1900 developed their own distinct cavalry style and army which was unique and which most certainly reflected some of their history and culture in the process.


Great Britain’s cavalry developed with all the pomp and circumstance of the Royal British Army in the 17th-18th centuries, molded together with a style heavily influenced by the hereditary Anglo-German Kings of Hanover and Hesse. Of course many of these early British cavalry regiments were know for their elite legions of Dragoons, Heavy Cavalrymen, and Hussars in the 1700's and later in 1800's against Napoleon. Prominent units included the Hussars, the Lancers, and the Househould Cavalry (Life Guard regiment).

One critical event of this period involving the British cavalry is the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 during the Crimean War, in which the Heavy and Light Brigades fought valiantly, with the Light Brigade under Lord Cardigan making their famous charge straight into the Russian guns after an order was misconstrued.

Over 100 men were killed out of 600 or so and many more wounded in one of the most misunderstood but memorable "failures" of cavalry in the 19th century. Another critical event from the 19th century was the 17th Lancers charge on the Zulus at the Battle of Ulundi in 1879, which all but ended major combat operations in the Great Zulu War.

Charge of the 11th Hussars, the Light Brigade at Balaclava


Prussia continued its love of horse warfare with large contingents of Hussars, Cuirassiers and Dragoons mostly. Some of the more famous cavalry corps included the Black Brunswickers, famous for wearing the Deaths Head on their caps. Prussian cavalry fought questionably against Denmark and later against the Austrian Empire, in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke was particuarly incensed by Prussian cavalry's performance at Königgrätz, 3 July 1866. The "New Look" Prussian cavalry  they did much better when facing their evenly matched French opponents in 1870-1871 during the Franco-Prussian War. Author and Professor Geoffrey Wawro, in his book The Franco-Prussian War, The German Conquese of France 1870-1871, notes that this "New Look" Prussian cavalry became the most changed and one of the most effective arms of the service in the war with France.


France developed their cavalry following the defeat of Napoleon and his Empire into mobile units which could protect Paris in case of a German invasion, and also to meet their growing imperial defensive needs, in first North Africa, Algeria specifically, and then in Mexico from 1861-1867. The Chasseurs d’Afrique, the Huntsmans of Africa,  elite cavalry units who helped to conquer Algeria in the 1840s were the most obvious. The Chasseurs and Cuirassiers (armored cavalry)  became the backbone of the Imperial French Army during Napoleon III’s (b.1808-1873) rule as Emperor of France from 1852-1870. Only ending after being bested by Prussia & her German Allies in 1870-1871, when the pride of French cavalry was shattered.

 Chasseurs d’Afrique during the Mexican Intervention

French Cavalry in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War


Russia counted on the manpower provided by the hordes of Cossacks which inhabited the farthest reaches of her vast Empire to form her cavalry brigades. The Cossacks hold a long established reputation for excellent horsemanship, bravery in battle, and violence and ruthlessness unmatched by many Western nations  armies even at their worst. The Cossacks served as not only the bodyguards to the Tsar but as the official cavalry units of the Russian Empire and its diverse populations from 1700-1918.

There were also several more Germanic style units in the Russian cavalry like the Hussars and Dragoons because many of the Russian officers from 1700's to World War I were ethnic Germans or Baltic aristocrats. The Russian cavalry overall served with distinction during the Crimean War from 1853-1856, redeeming their defeat at the hands of Anglo-French alliance in 1856 by defeating the Ottoman Empire in 1878.


America’s cavalry developed in part through the frontier culture of early America which was most vital to the United States quick ascent to a imperial power at least in North America. In the earliest peroiod cavalry developed through the sharpshooting, tomahawk wielding Kentuckians and Tennesseans who made their presence known first in the War of 1812 and then in the War with Mexico from 1846-1848. Texas also made a substantial contribution to American cavalry with the Texas Rangers, known for their horsemanship and quick draw pistol skills which came in use in the Texas Revolution, US-Mexican War, The Civil War, and the Indian Wars between 1825-1880

The next great generation of American soldiers after 1848 would spawn hundreds of known and lesser known soldiers, officers, and generals of cavalry during the American Civil War 1861-1865. The Confederate rebel military gave the most to cavalry studies of this period with men like J.E.B Stuart, John S. Mosby, Nathan Bedford Forrest (b. 1821-1877), and William Quantrill (b.1837-1865) becoming famous for their exploits, outrages, and tactical successes.

Depiction of Nathan Bedford Forrest during his service in the American Civil War. Rising from a private with no formal military experience he led cavalry brigades in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi during the War, after the Civil War he helped found the Ku Klux Klan.

The Civil War generation would lead into the Indian Wars with, the greatest and most infamous military man of all, who else, but General George Armstrong Custer, killed along with many other of his fellow cavalrymen in 1876 at the Little Bighorn. After the Indian Wars had all but ended from 1880-1899 the lawlessness of the American South and the West was greatly influenced by horseback raiders who had fought in the Civil War one or both sides, most famously the outlaw (bank robber, murdered, insurgent) and Confederate guerilla Jesse James (b.1847-1882).

American cavalry is distinctly different from European cavalry of the same era because while European tactics still stressed the use of swords and lances during the charge, and the carbine for use in skirmishing, both American regular army and irregular guerrilla tactics from 1848-1890's stressed the use of one to as many as eight, 6 shot revolvers. Often heavier caliber pistols were carried on the saddle to fire from horseback and one or two more smaller pistols were carried on the belt to fight on foot.


Several nations without any direct European envovlement developed large cavalry armies in the mid to late 19th centuries. Simon Bolivar, the great Liberator of South America from the Spanish certainly influenced early cavalry development in the new South American states. Paraguay, Brazil, and the Argentine States all had large cavalry forces from 1850-1870, which did eventually clash during the deadly War of the Triple Alliance, or Paraguayan War from 1864-1870.

        Paraguayan Cavalry at the Battle of Tuyuti, 1866

Mexico used horse soldiers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, most famously perhaps in the Mexican Revolution 1910-1920. In the 19th century Mexican Lancer's were present at the Battle of Alamo in 1836 to ride down escaping Texans and cut them down. In the Mexican American War, the Mexican Empire employed European style troopers like Dragoons and Hussars, created in the 1820's-1830's at the insistence of perhaps General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (b.1794-1876), an admirer of Napoleon.

Cavalry in the Late 19th century

Cavalry became deadly in battle from the 1860’s on-wards into 1890’s, partly because of the accuracy of modern weaponry. By extension the danger was transferred to the cavalryman who was an easy target atop his horse as opposed to the well entrenched rifle man. This was offset by the late 19th century clashes between European cavalry and the Native resistance movements which sprung up from Asia to Africa, which usually saw European cavalry as a decisive factor in battle. This differed from Napoleon’s day, even into the 1830’s and 1840’s where cavalry was primarily used to capture prisoners or to break and scatter infantry squares, causing retreat not mass slaughter.

Charge of a French Cuirassier

The loss of life (men and horse) in the Great Boer War of 1898-1902, proved to the British that even though horses were excellent for transport to the battlefield, in combat they became a dangerous liability, susceptible to horrendous losses through accurate rifle and artillery fire, barbed wire, and disease.

It was certainly fitting that arguably the last even remotely significant cavalry charge of the 19th century was made by the British Army, who's culture idolized their cavalrymen (as did most nations to be fair), during the legendary Battle of Omdurman in 1898.

This last great charge happened toward the end of the British campaign in Egypt and the Sudan led by Lord H.H. Kitchener (b.1850-1916), as apart of the Mahdist Revolt and subsequent Campaign in Egypt and the Sudan which avenged General Gordon's death at Khartoum in 1885.

Richard Caton Woodville Jr.'s painting of the 21st Lancers charge at Omdurman. Future Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill took part in this last great charge of the Imperial Age c.1850-1901.

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