Kearny’s Dragoons Out West
The Birth of the U.S. Cavalry
Will Gorenfeld and John Gorenfeld
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 2016, 480 pages
Book Review published on: May 12, 2017
The history of the U.S. Cavalry and its role in American expansionism has long fascinated a diverse readership. While most studies about the iconic branch have focused on its maturation in the Civil War or its pivotal role in the Indian Wars that scarred the Great Plains, authors Will Gorenfeld and John Gorenfeld delve into the earlier, largely overlooked experiences of the Regiment of Dragoons during the 1830s and 1840s. This ambitious work, which astutely employs a regimental history to amplify larger political and cultural themes in territorial acquisition, manages to provide an informative, though not overly esoteric, narrative that finds that “the dragoons acting as intermediaries between Indian and white settlers, often protecting Natives from abuses of the latter and serving in a role that might surprise anyone familiar with the era of Custer.”
Kearny’s Dragoons Out West: The Birth of the United States Cavalry accordingly describes the early years of the regiment—which later reflagged as the 1st U.S. Cavalry currently stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas—through a colorful narrative that centers on the contrasting roles of its first commanders: the rough frontiersman Henry Dodge and the professional soldier Stephen Kearny. Predominantly based out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the dragoons conducted challenging peacekeeping expeditions along the expanding Mississippi frontier from its activation in 1833 until the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846. While the first half of the book embraces the regiment’s diplomatic focus as it mitigates friction between resentful Indians and prospecting Anglo settlers, the latter portions find the unit conducting far-reaching offensive operations in the American invasion of Mexican-held New Mexico and California.
Throughout the work, Will Gorenfeld and his son, John, employ an accessible writing style that retains a serious depth of academic research and coherency in its story narrative. Divided into ten chapters that are enhanced with scholarly citations, detailed maps, and an inset of black-and-white drawings and photographs, Kearny’s Dragoons offers enough description and background information to educate unfamiliar readers while providing requisite detail to satisfy both curious and professional historians. The book’s exhaustive incorporation of primary and secondary sources are particularly useful for scholars seeking further information on the U.S. Army’s early, and surprisingly peaceful, interactions with the plains peoples and its joint venture with the U.S. Navy to seize Mexico’s northwestern provinces in 1846.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is its focus on what the U.S. military today calls “security operations.” The narrative arc of the book explicitly contrasts how the 1st Dragoons “conducted themselves again and again with diplomacy, restraint, and sometimes, even true compassion” with more popular images of the “blood-spattered” and “thuggish” cavalry units that came later under men like Earl Van Dorn, George Custer, and Ronald McKenzie.
The authors’ excessive use of chapter subheadings and its wandering introduction create unnecessary distractions. However, the exploration of how America’s first viable mounted force skillfully prevented conflict along unsettled frontiers and then transitioned into wartime operations will hold interest for both academics and military professionals. In this context, Kearny’s Dragoons fills a much neglected historiographical space in not only the storied history of the U.S. cavalry, but also the republic it continues to serve.
Book Review written by: Maj. Nathan A. Jennings, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas