The History of the Third Continental Light Dragoons, the cavalry unit nicknamed “Mrs. Washington’s Bodyguards”
by C.F. William Maurer
Military histories tend to focus on the strategic actions of the commander. Recent authors have begun to reach into the ranks and pay particular attention to tactics of the individual soldier, his squad or the members of the rifle company. The cavalry of the American forces during the Revolutionary War has been barely commented on by historians and when mentioned, is painted with the widest brush strokes. The place of the “swift arm,” or the “eyes and ears” of the commander during this early period has long been neglected. Seemingly, the only time the cavalry is recorded in history is when the cavalry carries out its mission as part of a larger and, mostly successful, plan of battle. Suddenly, in these few cases, the cavalry is found at the right spot at the right time, equipped and capably commanded. The everyday life that reflected the patriotism of the unit, the bravery of the men and the many hardships of both man and horse are usually overlooked. Neglected are the deserving heroes of the Continental dragoons, the cavalry commanders and more specifically, the individual troopers. In past excursions on the battlefield, the American colonies had provided the raw militia and were usually supplemented by the King’s Royal (and professional) Army.
When the American revolt began and an American Army was needed to fight against George III, the pattern of this army was to be modeled after the strong – and successful – European forces. Lessons learned from combat alongside the British regular army and against the fine French army set a template to guide the formation and the functioning of each militia and “regular” unit.
The two most expensive units to raise and organize were the cavalry and the artillery. Both were mainstays in fighting the “European” type war. While these expenses never seemed to bother warring kings, the expense of horse and cannon was daunting to the Continental Congress and the sponsoring colonies. Not only was there an almost impossible cost in providing and obtaining cannon for the artillery units, there was training that had to be done. The enemy, however, did have cannons and the captured guns would soon be turned around to fire at their red coats.
As to forming the cavalry, as one Commander noted, the Continental Congress could not pull farm boys onto horses and expect them to function against the enemy in the field. However, there were certainly more horses available to the army than there were cannons. Therefore, almost by necessity, quite early in the history of the Continental Army the four Regiments of Light Dragoons were authorized by Congress and several more independent units of horse began to see service. Once organized, man and horse would need to be trained. Once properly equipped and trained – and then led – the cavalry would soon influence the course of the war and win key victories in the fight for freedom some two hundred and twenty-five years ago.
History books, much original source material and even some diaries of the period, report that the Third Continental Dragoons contributed little more to the American Revolution than being bayonet targets for the British when the horsemen were caught sleeping in barns in “old Tappan” in the fall of 1778. Recent research illustrates that the individual officers and men of the Third Dragoons were often chosen from George Washington’s personal military family, were the children of his friends and when called upon, showed the personal courage and American spirit historically epitomized by our soldiers. This spirit of individuality, so early in American military history, is seen in this cavalry unit from its conception at the Battle of Trenton to the end of the war.
The Third Dragoons did not appear for this one “massacre” and then disappear and fade into history. As in all wars, there had to be a reason for a military unit to be formed; a unit that would fit into the strategic plan of battle and be organized, trained, supplied and properly led to fill the perceived need of the commander. Whether the need is for more specialized troops as in today’s modern army using Special Forces, Ranger battalions, Mountain troops or the complete range of Special Operations, the expense of organizing, staffing and supplying an elite unit demands a major funding commitment.
Cavalry (and artillery) units raised during the American Revolution fitted the criteria of specialized units, and provided a way that General Washington, the Commander in Chief, could repay young officers of his favored families with a prestigious position. A troop of horse while expensive to the young army was also seen as the gentleman’s way of going to war.
The history of the Third Regiment of Light Dragoons begins differently from many regiments in the way the personnel of the unit were selected. From the formation of the Regiment, the unit received favors and considerations directly from George Washington. The young officers and many men in the “ranks” were from the finest family connections in Virginia and Maryland. This unit, initially raised and paid for by Virginia, came to contain men enlisted and commissioned from Massachusetts Bay colony down to the Carolinas and was a true cross section of the individuals who fought for independence.