Riding High: Museum-Quality Collection of U.S. Military Saddles Come to Auction

The original owner of this saddle, which is up for auction at Manion’s International Auction House, did a lot of restoration on this Hope saddle. Made commercially, it entered the Civil War with the mustering of the Texas Confederacy.

If you’ve ever ridden a horse, chances are you used a saddle. But unless you’re an experienced horesman or a saddle aficionado, you probably haven’t given much thought to what you were sitting on.

What are saddles really, besides something that keeps you from falling off a horse? What are they made of, why are there so many different types and what makes them collectible?

This summer, Manion’s International Auction House received a large consignment of vintage saddles. They had once been on display in a saddle museum in Texas, but eventually found a home in a private collection that now was being liquidated. Most are U.S. military saddles and range in age from pre-Civil War era to the Second World War.

Saddles present unique challenges to auctioneers and collectors alike. For the auctioneer, they are large bulky items for which adequate storage space must be found. They also must be stored correctly to avoid damage to the leather and other vulnerable components. For an Internet auction, such as Manion’s, large, extra-strong boxes must be found or purchased to ship the saddles and, in most cases, the buyers bear the brunt of the often formidable shipping costs.

What Makes a Saddle?
In the most basic terms, a saddle is a wooden frame, usually covered in leather, which is used to keep a rider on a horse. The wooden framework, called the “saddle tree,” supports and distributes the rider’s weight and provides a platform to attach the other items carried on the saddle, including saddle bags, bed roll, weapons and other gear.

Around 1830, Thornton Grimsley developed a procedure by which the wooden tree was covered in wet rawhide, which was allowed to dry and shrink and helped hold the tree together. After the saddle tree is fitted with its final coverings, pads and rings, it becomes the “seat.” The front of the seat is called the “pommel.” The rear is the “cantle.” The Grimsley “rawhided tree” was adopted by the U.S. Cavalry soon afterwards.

The “skirt” is the flap of leather that hangs from both sides of the seat. Its purpose is to protect the rider’s legs from the horse’s sweat. Some saddles have an inner skirt as well to protect the horse from chafing on the saddle rigging. However, many military saddles dispense with the skirts entirely because, when used with saddle blankets and pads, they can overheat horses during hot weather.

Civil War-Era Saddles

Not surprisingly, among the most collectible U.S. military saddles are those made around the time of the Civil War. While many of the saddles were civilian-made and used by cowboys and ranchers before the war, others were developed specifically for the military.

This Allegheny Arsenal Pattern 1859 McClellan saddle is one of several dozen vintage saddles that will be up for auction this summer. It will likely sell for more than $500, which is a fraction of its actual value.

The Union McClellan Saddle
The McClellan saddle was named for its designer, Captain of Cavalry George B. McClellan. McClellan, who became a major general and commanded the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War, was part of a military commission sent to Europe in the 1850s to collect information on equipment, organization and general efficiency of the Russian, Prussian, English, French, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish militaries.

In 1856, McClellan wrote a report to then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, which said he believed the Prussian saddle with its “Hungarian” tree was superior to the current U.S. Grimsley saddle. He proposed a new U.S. saddle that combined a lightened Prussian-style saddle with a lower cantle and an English “Nolan” tree. With Davis’ O.K., McClellan began working on a prototype.

Initially, 310 of the new saddles (First Type, Pattern 1857 McClellan) were made by Lacey & Phillips of Philadelphia and issued for trial. In August of 1858, the U.S. Ordnance Department issued a contract for another 1,500 saddles. These Second Type Pattern 1857 McClellan saddles were an improved design with a brass binding added to the pommel and cantle to correct leather wear issues. Unfortunately, no examples of this saddle are known to exist today.

In January of 1859, a board of cavalry officers convened to develop recommendations for new cavalry equipment. The board eventually decided the Grimsley cavalry saddle no longer met the needs of the U.S. military and recommended the McClellan saddle become the official U.S. cavalry saddle.

The new saddle, now called the Pattern 1859 McClellan, included improvements on the 1857 pattern, including exposed rawhide seat, leather skirts now attached with brass screws and iron foot staples added to the pommel, cantle and sidebars for attaching saddle bags and other equipment. The new saddle also had a carbine carrier, called a thimble or socket, which buckled onto the right side D-ring.

Interestingly, most saddle experts no longer believe the McClellan saddle is a distillation of Prussian, Hungarian and British designs. Instead, the saddle owes more to the saddles used in Texas and the Southwest, which George McClellan would have been able to closely observe during his participation in the war with Mexico and subsequent occupation of parts of Northern Mexico in 1846-48. With removal of the horn—which was designed for working with livestock and therefor unnecessary for a military saddle—the western-style saddle looks almost exactly like the McClellan saddle tree.

This Confederate cavalry saddle—probably a Morgan Muley—sold for $450 in 2006.

Confederate Saddles
There were three basic types of saddles used by the Confederacy during the War for Southern Independence. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, all states in the Union were allocated an annual credit to buy military supplies through the federal government for their state militia. That credit could be used to buy anything from muskets and uniforms to cavalry equipment. That’s why many Model 1859 McClellan saddles were used by the Confederate Cavalry when the war began.

The second type of Confederate military saddle was those made locally, pre-war, for the militia cavalry. However, because there was no official design or pattern, those saddles are difficult to identify without provenance.

The third type of saddle used by the Confederacy was those pressed into service when the war began. This includes a wide variety of saddles, including the Hope saddle from Texas, the Buena Vista from Virgina and the Morgan Muley from Kentucky.

The Hope (Texas) Saddle
The Hope or Texas saddle was an American version of the Mexican stock saddle. Made commercially before the war, the Hopes entered the war with the mustering of the Texas Confederacy. Often elaborately decorated with ornate nail heads and studs, it featured exposed rawhide, short skirts and a slotted seat, the back half covered with a flap of leather and the front half open. It also had a fast-rising pommel with horn and a gentle cantle angle. 

The Buena Vista saddle, also known as the Plantation saddle, was a popular pre-war hornless riding saddle of the Southeast, which was pressed into service by their Confederate owners and used throughout the war.

The Morgan (Muley) Saddle
Morgan saddles, which were found mostly in Kentucky, came in two styles: with horn or without. The horned Morgan is very similar to the Hope saddle with a high, fast-rising pommel. The hornless or “Muley” Morgan was a rugged saddle without the unnecessary horn. Both types had a gently reclining cantle and continued to be popular long after the war. Gen. George A. Custer is known to have owned a Morgan Muley, which he used for racing.

The Buena Vista (Plantation) Saddle
The Buena Vista saddle, also known as the Plantation saddle, was a popular pre-war hornless riding saddle of the Virginias, which was pressed into service by their Confederate owners and used throughout the war. Due to the amount of leather used in their construction, it is unlikely that many were made during the war. After 1865, this popular saddle was once again widely made and used throughout the agrarian Southeast and there are still companies that make it today. For that reason, lacking provenance, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to determine if the saddle was used during the war or made and used long after.

Saddle Auction

One of the saddles in Manion’s online Military Saddle and Tack Auction—which has items closing on various days between Aug. 4 and Aug. 18—is an Allegheny Arsenal Pattern 1859 McClellan saddle. This first-style McClellan has the Allegheny Arsenal tree, with its characteristic longer sidebars, lower cantle and vertical-style pommel, which many riders felt was the most comfortable seat of all the Civil War McClellans. It comes with the standard pre-1864 Allegheny Arsenal pommel shield dated 1861.

This Model 1936 Phillips Military saddle has a brass Duncan & Son maker plate dated 1941 under the left side jockey. It comes with the Model 1912 Service stirrups dated 1940 and left side pommel pocket with socket stud.

The Allegheny Arsenal in Pennsylvania, which also manufactured small arms ammunition, made arguably the best McClellan saddles of the war. This saddle has been restored on the original tree using all original hardware. All the leather and rawhide was replaced in 1990. It comes with a pair of modern front saddle bags, a second set of original period saddle bags and hooded wooden stirrups. It will likely sell for more than $500 when bidding ends, which is only a fraction of its historic value.  

The original owner did a lot of restoration on the Hope saddle in the auction. When he acquired it, the rawhide was curled away from the cantle and had to be treated and reattached. Most of the rigging straps were deteriorated and had to be rebuilt using old leather. The saddle leather itself was hard and very dry, so he disassembled it and applied lots of leather dressing. 

“You could almost feel the leather and rawhide sigh a big relief,” the owner wrote on the original museum tag that comes with the saddle. “Now it feels like leather should.”

The World War I-era Packers’ Riding saddle, like those on the auction, was designed by H. W. Daly, chief packer of the U.S. Army. Daly believed that packers, who tended to be larger than the average cavalryman, needed their own larger saddles. The saddles came in two styles: “full-rigged” & “skeleton-rigged.” The terms relate to the amount of leather used in the construction of the seats, with the full-rigged saddles having front, rear and side jockeys (leather flaps), as well as large leather skirting underneath. Skeleton-rigged saddles are stripped down versions without the leather jockeys and skirts.

Packers’ saddles had larger seats than the McClellans—which only went to 12 inches—and had a modified “Wild West” tree with horn. Most Packers’ saddles were contracted out to commercial makers, such as Kansas City Saddlery, which continued to make them through World War Two. The saddles came in two almost identical patterns, the main difference being the corners of the skirts, which were more rounded on the second pattern, and the types of stirrups.

This full-rigged second pattern Packer’s Riding saddle has quartermaster-type pommel bags dated 1943, which fasten over the saddle horn, and second pattern stirrups made of galvanized steel-bound wood.

There are two packers’ saddles currently on the auction: a skeleton-rigged without skirts (so pattern can’t be determined) and a full-rigged second pattern. The full-rigged saddle has quartermaster-type pommel bags, dated 1943, which fasten over the saddle horn, and second pattern stirrups made of galvanized steel bound wood. 

The auction also includes a Model 1936 Phillips Military saddle. Designed by Col. Albert E. Phillips, the saddle corrected the problems with the Model 1917 Officer’s saddle by shortening the sidebars, making a seat size that would fit all riders and including a cleverly designed cantle support or “shelf” that supported the cantle pack/bedroll and kept most of the weight off the hindquarters of the horse. While most Phillips Military saddles were made at Jeffersonville (Indiana) Quartermaster Depot, this saddle has a brass Duncan & Son maker plate dated 1941 under the left side jockey. It comes with the Model 1912 Service Stirrups dated 1940 and left side pommel pocket with socket stud. It also includes full saddle provenance.

The saddle auction will eventually include several dozen museum-quality saddles, most of which have not been on the public market for more than 20 years. While the saddle collector market appears to be healthy, it remains to be seen how well a large collection of vintage saddles will sell in these recessive times.

Visit the Manion’s website for more information about the Military Saddles & Tack Auction,

Ken Hatfield, a former newspaper journalist for more than 20 years with a lifelong interest in military history, is the author of “Heartland Heroes: Remembering WWII,“published by the University of Missouri Press in 2003. He has worked for Manion’s International Auction House for nine years, specializing in American Militaria.

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