Confederate Cavalry Halters

This article originally published in the North South Trader’s Civil War, Sep.-Oct., 1996.

For the collector, reenactor, and researcher, the “Confederate-made” halter has been one of the more obscure and elusive, items of cavalry horse equipments. Many tens of thousands were manufactured by the Southern government during the war, yet few, if any, documented Confederate halters seem to have survived for study in museums or private collections. In large part this is the result of their utilitarian nature: most were likely put to yeoman’s service during and after the war. New research has recently revealed another contributing factor: the most common Confederate-made cavalry trooper’s halter was actually strikingly unassuming in appearance.

To be sure, various civilian- and military-pattern halters were brought into service by Southern horseman during the conflict. However, this treatise concerns itself only with those manufactured by or for the Confederate Ordnance Bureau, whose responsibility it was to provide horse equipments for issue to cavalry.

In general, each of the bureau’s arsenals contracted for horse equipments with private commercial suppliers in addition to their own irregular manufacturing conducted on-site. A study made of the Ordnance / Department’s seven “first class” arsenals, four significant depots, and over 250 of the largest private wartime contractors that provided cavalry horse equipments found forty-three government and commercial suppliers that, combined, manufactured the majority of the Confederacy’s cavalry halters.

So what did Confederate-made halters look like? Historians have long assumed it was a copy of the Model 1859 Federal-issue halter as described in both the 1861 Federal and 1863 Confederate Ordnance Manuals. However, recent research of Ordnance Bureau correspondence with their contract equipment manufacturers indicates that the common-issue enlistedmen’s horse headgear was, in reality, quite different from that described in either ordnance manual. It also revealed that in general the dominant pattern of halter issued to the Army of Northern Virginia differed somewhat from that issued and used in the west. To better illustrate these points one must look at each theater separately,

Eastern Confederacy

  Figure A – Confederate “five ring” halter Rings were used instead of halter squares in attaching the cheek, nose, and throat bands. Note the absence of the halter bolt at the throat strap.

The east’s main army, the Army of Northern Virginia, was furnished cavalry horse equipments almost entirely by contract through the Richmond Arsenal and supplemented with equipments made at the Ordnance Harness Shops in Clarksville, Virginia. Some further supply was also received from western arsenals—most notably from Augusta, Georgia.

Early in the war an attempt was made to supply a Confederate version of the Federal halter. Before exhausting the available pre-war civilian lorinery (hardware) supply wisely bought up by bureau agents, it was apparent that the manufacturing process required to produce the cast iron halter “squares” and “bolts,” as called for in the Federal manual then in use b the South, was largely out of reach so as a replacement a modified “five-ring” halter (see Fig. A) was often made instead. Though suitable, its large consumption of leather, iron, and labor seems to have rendered it too expensive for the bureau’s thrifty superintendent of armories, Maj. William S. Downer. While it continued to be fabricated, by late 1862 production numbers and relevant correspondence suggest it was likely being relegated for sale with officers’ equipments.

Figure B – Confederate “single-ring” or “plain” trooper’s halter. Until 1863 “samples” sometimes had two buckles–on at the poll strap and the other on the nose piece. However, available records suggest the bureau purchased and made only one-buckle configurations.  Roller buckles were probably also used, but to a much lesser extent.  

Its replacement, the “single-ring” halter, or “plain” halter as it was also called, unofficially became the primary enlistedmen’s pattern in early February 1863 when Maj. Downer began contracting with several commercial suppliers for literally tens of thousands of these halters. Heretofore, both the five-ring and single-ring halter were variously manufactured by contractors and at the government harness shops in both 1″ and 1 1/4″ leather widths. Now however, a concerted effort was being made by Maj. Downer to supply large numbers of low cost yet consistently high quality troopers’ halters, and the single-ring halter was his clear choice.

Various descriptions of pattern samples found in contractor’s files and gleaned from Richmond Arsenal correspondence provide a revealing image of this previously unknown item. It is clear the single-ring halter was 1 1/4″ wide and stitched seven to nine stitches to the inch. A single ring of 3/16″ or 1/4″ round iron is found at the throat strap, with the same size round iron utilized for the common horseshoe-shaped “wire” halter buckles. Less clear is its standard configuration. One supplier certain to have had government contracts for halters described it to Maj. Downer as:

…one + a quarter inch wide with two buckles + one ring, head + nose peace [sic] passing through it, no front peace [sic], no throat band [i.e., throat latch] and stitched eight stitches to the inch and made of good southern taned [sic] leather [See Fig. B]

Based upon an earlier military style used by the Continental Light Dragoons, this halter pattern illustrates its sturdy European heritage, which dates back to the British and French heavy cavalry of the Napoleonic era. Interestingly, a completely different variation of the Confederate. single-ring halter is found described by another supplier and offered for sale to the government:

  Figure C
This configuration of single ring-halter is a common stable or grooming halter of the period. Less functional under practical riding conditions than Fig. B above, there is no evidence it was ever adopted by the Confederacy.

I now propose to make for you two thousand halters one 1/4 inch wide with two buckles + 1 ring without front or throat band for the sum of seavin [sic] dollars each. To include the front + throat band would be one dollar more… [See Fig. C]

This pattern’s strong English influence is readily apparent when one compares it to the civilian “caveson” or stable halter of the period. However an intensive search failed to uncover any data to establish that the government ever let a contract for production of this particular variant of the single-ring halter.

While documentation and contemporary artwork of Confederate cavalry seems to substantiate both of these configurations, Confederate records are woefully incomplete and the contract language frustratingly vague. Therefore it remains difficult to determine which specific pattern of single-ring halter, if either—or possibly some other yet-to-be-discovered pattern—was more commonly manufactured.

The color and type of leather used in the making of Confederate halters is also both questionable and even controversial. Debate rages among saddle historians as to whether black or russet colored leather was used in making Confederate horse equipments. While bark-tanned leather was easily dyed during the war period using iron filings and other readily available resources, ordnance records are unclear about whether or not this was a routine procedure with privates horse equipments. To be sure, many officers’ equipments and some artillery harnesses were dyed black. Also, black, russet, and nondescript bridle and harness leather were commonly shipped from all of the bureau’s contract tanneries, though as the war progressed leather denoted as black was increasingly scarce. Therefore it could be assumed trooper’s halters were made from both dyed and undyed harness or bridle leather (depending upon the supply of leather at time of manufacture). However, the evidence remains inconclusive at this writing.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that the small consumption of leather, low cost, and easy manufacturing made the Confederate single-ring halter a winner for the Richmond Arsenal, for it remained the primary pattern issued to the Army of Northern Virginia cavalry trooper during the war.

Western Confederacy

Supplying western cavalry commands operating east of the Mississippi River presented a very different challenge for the Ordnance Bureau. Due to the vast area, widespread armies, inadequate transportation, and poor communication, the various western arsenals were left largely on their own when it came to manufacturing horse equipments. A study of correspondence with contractors and of the equipments “fabricated and purchased” at the individual western arsenals reveals that the type of halter supplied was, for each arsenal commander, discretionary and often evolutionary.

From early in the war, the official Ordnance Manual halter, the five-ring, the single-ring, and other halters were manufactured, yet they were not the only type of halter headgear issued. Though it is unclear why, western arsenals increasingly favored and adopted the combination halter-bridle for troopers. Whatever the reason, records show that by the summer of 1863 this headset was being issued in large numbers to the western Confederate cavalryman.

For example, the Augusta Arsenal made halters and bridles as separate items throughout the war, while the arsenals at Macon and Selma did so only until the early summer of 1863, when they switched to the halter-bridle combination. On the other hand, the Montgomery Depot and the Nashville and Atlanta arsenals almost exclusively manufactured only the halter-bridle for troopers’ issue throughout their existence. All of these arsenals appear to have supplied the west’s fluid armies and cavalry commands at various times. Thus, for the individual western trooper the type of headgear he was issued depended entirely upon where his command was located geographically and what arsenal was supplying them at any given time in the war. Nevertheless, given the large output of horse equipments from such ordnance facilities as Nashville, Atlanta, Macon, Montgomery, Columbus, and others, it is clear that the halter-bridle combination was pervasive in the west.

Conversely, it is interesting to note that halter-bridles appear to have been only rarely manufactured within the Richmond Arsenal system for issue to the Army of Northern Virginia until sometime in the spring of 1864, when numerous references in bureau correspondence seems to suggest they were unofficially adopted. However, due to an oversupply of bridles then on hand in Richmond, painfully short resources, and the South’s crumbling infrastructure at this stage of the war, not many were made or issued. In addition, though a number of single-ring halters were made out west, it is unlikely they came to be as widely used as in the eastern Confederacy.

  Figure D – Confederate halter-bridle, also a common British Army headset.
Dimensions of individual leather components would likely conform to corresponding pieces found in the Confederate Ordnance Manual of 1863 for the bridle and the halter.   Reins were usually made of webbing of folded cloth double or triple-stitched. Hardwares would certainly vary, but generally iron rings and horsehoe-shaped buckles were used for troopers’ equipments.

In both the east and the west a lead strap, variably made of leather or of rope, 3/4″ in diameter, was issued with each halter and halter-bridle. There is some evidence that halter “chains” were also occasionally issued to cavalry, although in comparatively small numbers. In spite of large imports from England, rope became an increasingly scarce item. After February 1864, leather lead straps were no longer permitted by the Ordnance Bureau, and if rope could not be procured “canvas or strong cotton cloth, six plies folded and stitched” was ordered substituted.

Existing primary records, correspondence and, inspection reports indicate that Southern government manufactured rather than “Yankee captured” horse equipments were dominant in the ranks of most eastern and western mounted cavalry units. This makes the former much more prevalent than the old veteran’s reminiscences and Confederate folklore often lead us to believe. In fact, over seventy- five thousand halters were issued from the Richmond Arsenal alone—enough to completely re-outfit Stuart’s cavalry nearly eight times over! While the quality of some of Southern-made horse furniture, particularly saddles, often engendered criticism, halters do not appear to have suffered any similar chastisement. Unimpeachable hard evidence shows that many, many tens of thousands of halters and halter-bridles were manufactured by or through the arsenals, and certainly used by Confederate troopers during the war. It’s obvious that these “Confederate-made” halter equipments, now more clearly defined, played a prominent supporting role in Southern cavalry history.

The author wishes to extend special thanks to Ted Yeatman, without whose research this article would not have been possible, and to Nick Nichols of Heartland House for his assistance and insightful look at period equestrian headgear.


National Archives War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Chap. IV, Group 109, including:

Citizens’ Files: analysis of over 250 military contractors who supplied horse equipments to Confederate ordnance facilities; compiled by the author.

Ordnance Department Records: Entry 39, Miscellaneous Records of the Ordnance Bureau; Vols. 8,9,19, 78,100,104,105: Ordnance Contracts for the Nashville and Atlanta Arsenals; Vols. 33,34,36: Augusta Arsenal; Vols. 32,101,3,4,6,7,36, 58,59 1/2,83: Macon Arsenal;  Vols. 90,91,91 1/2, 92,93,94,96,97: Richmond Arsenal/   Clarksville Depot.; Vol. 140: Savannah Arsenal.

Military Service Records, M331, General and Staff Officers, Capt. Henry Pride (Tape 203), Capt. James Dinwiddie (Tape 76), Maj. William S. Downer, (Tape 78), Col. M.1I. Wright (Tape 265), Capt. Richard M. Cuyler (Tape 69).

Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office, Inspection Branch, Cavalry Inspection Reports and Related Records,M1935, Rolls 2,3,4, 6,8,9,10,13,15,18.

1863 Confederate Ordnance Manual, Regulations for Government of Ordnance Department. Richmond, VA, 1862.

Account book of Capt. John M. Payne comprising imported ordnance stores at Wilmington, 1863-1865. Eleanor S. Brockenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA.