Illustrating the history of Confederate saddle manufacturing and supply in the Trans-Mississippi presents a challenge. Relevant records and information from Ordnance facilities there are exceedingly rare. It seems the farther an Arsenal was located from Richmond, the fewer records were kept, or at least survived and thus one can only speculate in broad terms when trying to identify the patterns and production of the far west’s saddles and horse equipment.
Given its vast area of unsettled territory and significant horse population, a large percentage of the Trans-Mississippi’s enthusiastic patriots had naturally joined the cavalry in 1861. Of the 64,413 troops mustered into service, 45% chose the cavalry. This was particularly true in Texas where about 70% of it’s enlistee’s were mounted. The percentage of mounted troops remained high when Kirby Smith assumed command of the Department in 1863. In an ideal situation, these numbers would necessarily require the Government to manufacture and issue large amounts of uniform saddles and other horse equipment. However, this would prove to be an impossible task.
The industrial foundation of this frontier region, as compared to the Eastern Confederacy, was relatively non-existent leaving scant promise of providing or sustaining large military manufacture of any kind, including saddlery. Furthermore, with few exceptions few records of the area’s wartime ordnance operations have survived, yet some conclusions can be inferred. One of the West’s largest and most important Ordnance facilities, the Tyler, Texas Arsenal left a very complete summary of its meager saddle manufacturing activities.
In the nineteen months from November 1863 through April 1865, this Arsenal produced only 81 McClellan saddles, two non-descript saddles, 29 bridles, 6 halter bridles, 16 bits, 79 stirrups, 8 breast straps and assorted other items. Pathetically inadequate to say the least. Incomplete statistics and information from the Arsenal at Little Rock in 1863 and from the records of the Chief of Ordnance for the District of West Louisiana suggest similar or possibly even more pitiful production. If this evidence is accepted as an accurate barometer of horse equipment manufacture in all of the Trans-Mississippi, only a fraction of the region’s troopers could have been issued a Government made saddle or tack of any kind during the War.
The prevailing reason for this dismal failure to provide even the smallest requirements appears to be collaborated in the surviving correspondence between its Ordnance officers; a total inability to obtain, tan or transport a fraction of its leather needs. To be sure, there were plenty of cattle for hides but few tanneries and resources for the tanning process. This dilemma was magnified by a lack of iron sources in the Trans-Mississippi and the Confederacy’s endemic labor and financial troubles.
It is known that overseas trade from England by way of St. George Bermuda, Nassau or Havana Cuba provided some British equipment through Galveston and Brownsville Texas or, Matamoros Mexico among other palces. Certainly, significant numbers of uniforms, shoes and other goods were imported. However, surviving foreign trade records and correspondence suggest fewer voyages and thus deliveries were made to this region. Once in Mexico or Texas the long, hazardous overland route to San Antonio, Houston or other Departments made supply exceedingly difficult. Moreover, as in the East, imported British saddlery were likely destined for officers only. There is evidence some saddles or equipment may have been contracted for manufacture in Mexico but given the widespread need and transportation problems that were inherent to the Trans Mississippi, it is likely that neither supply source had much impact on the overall question of trooper’s issue.
In early 1864, an attempt was made to address this problem by requiring a new Department of Transportation to be responsible for providing wagons, ambulances and some horse equipment. It is not known how successful this effort was but by November 1864, the Department was seriously impeded by a lack of iron, transportation animals and was a million dollars in debt. Nevertheless, that September a schedule was published listing the equipment that troops could purchase from the Transportation Department which is at least revealing as to the types then available.
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In any event, it was a case of too little too late. Though the accumulative evidence is admittedly incomplete it strongly suggests that the supply and issue of horse equipment was quite limited. Without widespread Government manufacturing or purchase one is left to speculate that the average Trans-Mississippi trooper was expected to provide and maintain his own saddle, bridle, bit and other horse equipment. This could be accomplished either by capture from the enemy or more likely, by individual apportionment in one of the popular and widely varying cross-cultural styles and patterns of the day.
The available evidence makes it reasonable to assume that the saddles ordered into manufacture at the Arsenals of the Trans-Mississippi whatever their number, were largely of military patterns. Yet, what were the prevailing civilian saddle patterns commonly brought into military service in the Trans-Mississippi of the 1860s? The likely answer is all manner of them, though decidedly in favor of the horned patterns.
In terms of saddle culture, several important distinctions can be drawn between the Trans-Mississippi and the rest of the South. First, Mexican inspired patterns were very strong in this region. The 1850s and 1860s were a time of great change in American saddlery which was powerfully shaped by long standing Mexican or Spanish configurations and saddle making methods. In no place was this influence more obvious than west of the Mississippi River. In contrast to the English tree patterns found increasingly common as one traveled eastward, Mexican influenced but “Americanized” rawhide covered horned saddles emerged from and reigned supreme on the western frontier. These often indistinguishable patterns were manufactured locally and given sundry names, often taken from their maker or region such as the Hope, Attakapas, Sabine and others.
Some of these saddles may have originated, or were influenced by the culture within the region. In general however, Confederate troopers from Texas and across the Southwest Territories were likely to have rode many Mexican, Hope or other horned saddles, some even with simple Indian features. Those of West Louisiana may have favored their own region’s Attakapas saddles or Texas influenced Hope style horned saddles. While in Missouri and Arkansas the influence of three decades of Thornton Grimsley’s saddle manufacturing had made the Spanish, half-Spanish and other English pattern saddles prevalent too. The common denominator among most of these appears to the inclusion of the popular wooden horn at the arch of their pommels.
Trans-Mississippi Arsenals and Depots that are certain, or likely, to have provided horse equipment were Houston, Tyler and San Antonio, Texas; Shreveport, New Iberia and Alexandria, Louisiana; Little Rock and Camden, Arkansas.