"The United States Mounted Ranger Battalion, 1832-1833," by Otis E. Young

Young, Otis E. "The United States Mounted Ranger Battalion, 1832-1833." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 41, no. 3 (1954): 453-70. Accessed April 26, 2021. doi:10.2307/1897493.

In his 1954 article for the Mississippi Historical Review, Otis E. Young detailed the development, existence, and transition toward dragoons of the United States Mounted Ranger Battalion. The crux of Young’s argument suggested the Rangers should be considered an historically significant forerunner to the United States Cavalry, not an unrelated early attempt at providing mounted troops. Specifically, he argued: “Over and above the operational services which they rendered the nation, they served the very useful purpose of preparing a conservative Congress for the adoption of regular mounted regiments (470).”

The history of the United States Mounted Ranger Battalion can best be described as brief, difficult, and occasionally successful. Young related many struggles for the USMRB after their initial formation, especially in the Black Hawk War and the removal of the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) from Wisconsin. During Black Hawk’s defiant run through Illinois, the battalion was sent to Ft. Armstrong, what the author unironically referred to as a ‘death-trap.’ Additional troops sent to reinforce Henry Dodge’s forces arrived at Fort Armstrong at roughly the same time as the USMRB, and with them they carried cholera. Instead of quarantining the infected troops, the outbreak spread amongst the men and claimed fifteen lives.

Trouble with the Winnebago removal also marked the brief history of the USMRB. “The situation was aggravated by the recent escape of eight Winnebago braves who had been con- fined in the "black hole" at Fort Winnebago as the result of a particularly atrocious murder they had committed at Blue Mounds. The eight escaped in December, 1832, by tunneling under the stone foundations of the fort, and their return to the tribe involved a serious loss of prestige to the military (459).” In this instance, the arrival of the USMRB in late June helped the situation. The presence of the mounted troops intimidated the Ho-Chunk into handing over the eight escapees, and the Rangers helped to ensure that the tribe removed from the area peaceably.

The remainder of the article ventures out of the upper-Midwest to focus on the role of the USMRB in the American southwest, specifically in actions against Comanche power in that region. As that is not the focus of “Notes on Iowa,” readers are encouraged to link to the article if they find that topic of great interest.


“The battalion of United States Mounted Rangers which existed for the short span of one year (1832-1833) has customarily been considered of historical significance in connection with but two events: the prairie expedition of Washington Irving in the autumn of 1832, and the Rangers' somewhat fruitless southwestern expedi- tion of the following year. For this reason the battalion has re- ceived little attention from investigators other than Grant Foreman and Louis Pelzer;' and the chief interest of these two historians in the Ranger Battalion was confined to its relation to local history or its role as the predecessor of the famed Dragoon Regiment.” (453)


Yet the battalion was considerably more than an insignificant militia unit which came into existence by political accident, failed to ful- fill its destiny, and left its meager remains to the chronicler rather than to the historian. Instead, it was a connecting link between two periods of United States military history, and if it is examined in light of what it was rather than what it accomplished, it can readily be seen that its very existence was highly important.” (453)


“Before the formation of the Rangers, the United States Army as a regular service. possessed no mounted troops. This omission was dictated not only by motives of economy, but possibly also by the fear that cavalry, which has usually been considered the most aristocratic branch of any nation's armed service, posed an implicit threat to the welfare of American democracy.” (453)


“The train of causation which led to the organization of the Rangers cannot be defined with any certainty. The most important factor may have been the recognition by the nation that its armed services were officered by men who leaned toward the philosophy of liberalism and individual self-sufficiency rather than to a desire to establish an aristocracy.” (454)


“The experience of an American infantry escort on the Santa Fe trail in 1829, furthermore, indicated that only a mounted arm could cope with the Indians who infested the Great Plains.” (454)


“This "Act to authorize the President to raise mounted volunteers for the defence of the frontier" was introduced in the Senate in December, 1831, by Thomas H. Benton. Enacted on June 18, 1832, the act provided for the formation of an augmented battalion of six companies under the command of a major, with the ranks to be filled by one-year volunteers who were to furnish their own arms and horses and were to be compensated for them at the rate of one dollar per day. The companies were larger than those of the regular army, each having four commissioned and fourteen non-commis- sioned officers and one hundred privates.7 It is obvious that the theory of its organization was based upon the militia system rather than the permanent service's philosophy of long enlistment and furnishing of all equipment. Benton was probably aware of these shortcomings, but he was not able to convince his fellow senators of the necessity for a more thoroughgoing law.” (454-455)


“The major of the Rangers, appointed by President Andrew Jackson, was Henry Dodge, a soldier-politician in the best frontier tradition, whose reputation had been considerably enhanced by his command of the "spy battalion" (Michigan Mounted Volunteers) in Black Hawk's War, which was then in progress. At the battle of Wisconsin Heights, Dodge had performed yeoman service in attacking the rear guard of Black Hawk's band, thus furnishing the commanding general with decisive information of the Indians' line of retreat. He soon received his commission, dated as of June 21, 1832, the day of the Wisconsin Heights battle, but he continued to command the Michigan "spies" throughout the remainder of the war.” (455)


“A cursory inspection of the list of officers makes it clear that the commissioned Rangers, like their men, were a heterogeneous group with little if any background of prior military experience other than in the posse comitatus methods of the frontier. None of the original officers save Dodge himself and Captains Boone and Bean 20 had exercised military command before coming to the bat- talion, and perhaps none at all had any knowledge of formal mili- tary matters. In every sense of the word they were amateur sol- diers.” (457)


“Unfortunately for the newly constituted battalion, ready to em- bark on its first service, Fort Armstrong was to prove a demoralizing deathtrap. After the minor, but unsettling defeat of the Illinois militia at Stillman's Run in Black Hawk's War, the national government had ordered General Winfield Scott to relieve General Henry Atkinson from command of the campaign. Crossing the Great Lakes with additional troops, Scott discovered Asiatic cholera breaking out in the crowded steamer. The troops collected at Fort Armstrong (Atkinson having crushed Black Hawk) were aghast when they learned that instead of being quarantined Scott's men would be quartered among them. The result was inevitable; the battalion lost over fifteen men and the impact on morale was de- plorable.” (458)


Because of the threatening attitude of the Winnebagos of Wis- consin, these two companies were ordered on April 3, 1833, to pro- ceed to Hennepin, on the Illinois River, timing their arrival for April 20, and then to prepare to march to Rock River or to any other concentration point that might be designated.27 Upon arriv- ing at Hennepin, Beekes and Browne were given their final direc- tive: to prepare to overawe the Winnebagos and supervise their removal from their ancestral lands. The situation was aggravated by the recent escape of eight Winnebago braves who had been con- fined in the "black hole" at Fort Winnebago as the result of a particularly atrocious murder they had committed at Blue Mounds. The eight escaped in December, 1832, by tunneling under the stone foundations of the fort, and their return to the tribe involved a serious loss of prestige to the military.” (459)


“By June 21, 1833, the Rangers had arrived, and their presence proved a powerful bargaining lever for Dodge, who reconvened the Win- nebagos on June 22 and again stated his demands for the escaped murderers and for removal from the treaty lands. The murderers were at once handed over, and the Winnebagos prepared to cross the Wisconsin River. According to one report, however, there were a few instances of small parties of Winnebagos "being enticed by certain troublesome traders in the vicinity of the Ouisconsin to return to the old grounds, but they were promptly taken and escorted by Colonel Dodge's mounted men back to their new country.” (460)


Article details more successful operations in the American south and southwest pages 460-470


“Theoretically, the commissioned officers of the Ranger Battalion should then have traveled east to resume their recruiting in prepara- tion for the following year's operations. The progress of events now rendered this unnecessary. In his report for 1832, Secretary of War Cass had strongly questioned the utility of the Mounted Rangers save as merely a "superior militia." He showed that the one-year enlistment provision was inefficient, that the spirit of the Rangers rendered doubtful the possibility of effective co-operation with the regular service, and that the cost of the Rangers was nearly $150,000 greater than would be that of a regular dragoon regiment. Since mounted formations had clearly demonstrated their utility, Cass pressed for the enactment of appropriate legislation.” (469-470)


“Accordingly, a bill was introduced in the House of Representa- tives by Richard M. Johnson, the victor of the Thames and now a congressman from Kentucky, authorizing the President to discharge the Rangers and enlist dragoons as a portion of the regular service. The adoption of this measure by Congress provided for a new regi- ment with a maximum strength of 1,832 men, which was to be commanded by Henry Dodge as colonel, assisted by Lieutenant Colonel Stephen W. Kearny, then of the Third Infantry.68 With the organization of this regiment in the late summer of 1833, the Ranger Battalion's days were numbered. Nevertheless, the sig- nificance of the Rangers should not be underestimated. Over and above the operational services which they rendered the nation, they served the very useful purpose of preparing a conservative Congress for the adoption of regular mounted regiments. While preserving the militia aspect dear to the legislators' hearts, they demonstrated that not only was a mounted service absolutely necessary, but that the militia philosophy was incapable of providing this service with complete satisfaction and economy. In this respect, therefore, the United States Mounted Ranger Battalion was not an anomaly, but a true precursor of the cavalry service, whose historical continuity was unbroken after 1833.” (470)




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