Lancers and Hussars had been a military tradition in Europe for many years and their influence eventually filtered through to America. The Union army never fielded large numbers of lancers or hussars, but a number of specialist units were recruited and saw good service. It is a little surprising that in the romantic notions of soldiering that persisted throughout the Civil War more of these type of units were not raised.
Two troops of regular cavalry were armed with lances as an experiment in the 1840s, but the idea didn't catch on. During the Mexican War, some members of the Mexican Spy Company, irregulars who provided scouts and guides for the American army carried lances, and a few lancer militia units flourished before the Civil War, but although the Union bought over 4,000 lances from contractors at the start of the Civil War, most of them ended up surplus to requirements, only a handful of lancer regiments was raised and few saw active service. One unit, the 1st Michigan Cavalry, who grandly called themselves the 1st United States Lancers, appear to have modelled themselves on the British 16th Lancers who had scattered the enemy with a charge at the Battle of Aliwal during Britain's Indian campaigns in the 1840s.
The Michigan Lancers wore a light coloured shell jacket and trousers and also sported jaunty pillbox forage caps, similar to the pillbox caps of the undress headwear of lancers in the British army. The men were fully equipped with lances as well as standard issue pistols, carbines and equipment; but they were later disbanded and never saw service. It was thought that the many Canadians in the ranks could cause trouble, particularly if their mother country Britain, became embroiled in the Civil War, taking sides with the South against the Union. The thought of Britain recognising the Confederacy and moving her troops stationed in Canada across the border to invade the North, was always a Union fear.
A member of the 1st U.S. Hussars poses for the camera in the unit's distinctive uniform which attracted many recruits, even in the weary days of the latter stages of the war. USAMHI/Jim Enos.
The most famous Union Lancer regiment was Rush's Lancers, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Very much an elite regiment it was raised in Philadelphia by Colonel H. Rush between August and October 1861, with financial aide from prominent citizens in the city. Rush's Lancers, who at first were just armed with sabres and colt revolvers, adopted the lance at the suggestion of General McClellan who had seen lancers in action during his time as a war observer in the Crimea. Rush's Lancers wore the regulation cavalry uniform with a few minor variations. The jacket collar had only one loop of braid and one button, instead of the regulation two. Made out of Norwegian fir, their lances were nine feet long and tipped with a blade 11 inches long.
A soldier wounded by such a blade could face a particularly unpleasant time. The lance points produced a narrow slit wound in the skin, which would heal on the surface, but debris carried in on the blade would fester underneath. A scarlet swallow-tailed pennon decorated each line and a leather sling was also attached to each lance so that lancers could carry them comfortably over their right shoulders. Each company of Rush's Lancers was also armed with 12 Sharps carbines for picket and scout duty.
As recorded in a sketch drawn by Winslow Homer of the regiment embarking at Alexandria Virginia for Old Point Comfort, the men were still wearing brass shoulder scales on their shell jackets in 1862. The men wore three variations of boots, the first were of soft leather which reached above the knee, the second were stiff leather boots with a protector for the knees in front and the third were a lower version of these boots reaching just up to the knees.
Some of Rush's lancers also seem to have done without boots, preferring shoes instead. Trousers worn this way would have been held down by straps under the instep. For full dress, Rush's lancers wore a high crowned hat with a flap that could be folded down over the neck like a havelock. Officers had black ostrich feathers attached to the sides of their hats and crossed sabres insignia on the front. Troopers wore their company letter in brass above stamped brass crossed sabres insignia. Enlisted men's fatigue caps had horizontal leather visors, sometimes with the brass letters RL regimental number 6 and crossed sabres on the top of the crowns.
Some historians have dismissed Lances used in the Civil War as novelty weapons that had little effect in combat, but Rush's Lancers saw some good service with theirs. Rush's Lancers first saw action shortly before the Battle of Hanover Courthouse in May 1862, when they charged an advance body of enemy cavalry and drove them away at lance-point. At Gaines' Mill, later in 1862, Rush's lancers were one of the units attacking an Alabama brigade and before South Mountain Rush's Lancers scattered a body of dismounted enemy cavalry in a wood. But one of their finest moments came at Antietam in September 1862 when a well timed charge scattered enemy artillery.
It seems that the psychological effect of a charging line of cavalrymen armed with lances had a tremendous effect on the enemy, but Union authorities deemed that lances were no longer suitable for mid 19th Century combat. In the summer of 1863 Rush's lancers reluctantly put their lances into storage and would never use them again. From then on, they fought like ordinary cavalrymen.
Dashing Colonel George E. Waring of the Fremont Hussars, wears an unusual style kepi and double breasted jacket under his cape. His unit was also known as the 1st Regiment Western Cavalry. Massachuseets Commandery Military Order of the Loyal Legion & the U.S. Army Military History Institute / Jim Enos.
Cavalry and Artillery (SI
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