Many years ago, when comparing the 19th century American cavalry experience with that of the European powers, a Anglophile friend remarked that, “Americans just didn’t seem to understand the usefulness of the lance.” From the European perspective, the lance was frequently issued and employed. The narratives of post-Napoleonic battles and campaigns include frequent mention of lancers employed to great shock effect at key points of the field. So we have images such as this one, depicting the charge of Polish Uhlans at the city of Poznań during the November Uprising 1831, showing the Europeans’ use of the lance.
On this side of the Atlantic, we have scant few contemporary illustrations of the lancers in action. In the manuals of the era, American writers gave space to the lance – as part of both dismounted and mounted drill.
But that was, as one might say, the long and the short of it. A few pages devoted to drill instructions, and not a lot said about tactical employment. The American experience with the lance is mostly on the receiving end rather than being one employing it. In his Cavalry Tactics, Alonzo Gray cited Major Albert G. Brackett’s History of the U.S. Cavalry in that regard, speaking of the battle of Buena Vista, February 23, 1847:
The cavalry made one most gallant charge against the enemy on the 23d of February, and cut their way through them; but the Mexican lancers were far from being a contemptible enemy, and many of them were admirable horsemen. Our people had the advantage of larger horses and heavier men as a general thing, but the Mexicans were much more agile, and could handle their horses as well perhaps as any people on earth. With the lance they were greatly our superiors, and used that weapon with great effect both at Buena Vista and at San Pascual.
Gray might also have mentioned the actions of the Californios at Los Angeles during the same war. In that case, a less well-trained and organized force of lancers drove back US Marines acting as infantry.
The Mexican lancers were perhaps the closest to those colorful European lancers that the Americans ever faced. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, the U.S. cavalry frequently encountered the lance in operations against the natives on the plains. So the American focus on the lance tended to be how best to counter the lance. Philip St. George Cooke made note of this in his Cavalry Tactics manual of 1861:
The attack or defense against the lance (it is the common weapon of the mounted Indians) depends much upon horsemanship, and judgement of the rider. It is parried like the sword; and you must press in at your opportunity to close upon the antagonist. You must invariably endeavor to gain his right rear when he is least able to attack or defend; the left rear and left, weakest for the sabre, are the strongest positions for the lance; the same may be said of the bow and arrow; in pursuit always approach at the right rear.
Reading that section, I get the impression Cooke was writing with some knowledge on how best to run down a “lancer.”
Moving forward to the Civil War, Gray mentioned the use of the lance by the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, known as Rush’s Lancers. That unit’s wartime story is well documented. Although carrying the lances into 1863, by the Battle of Brandy Station and their famous charge upon Confederate positions on St. James Plateau the regiment was “conventionally” armed… in the sense of conventional American cavalry.
There were other lesser known lance equipped units during the war on both sides. But none of these had a battlefield impact. Instead, Federal and Confederate cavalry went into action with saber, pistol, and some form of long weapon – chiefly the carbine. Gray cites Brackett’s conclusion in this regard:
We have yet to make good lancers in the United States, as experiments, even on a small scale have proved failures among the Americans.
Gray adds in his notes, “Americans do not take kindly to the lance.”
Why would the lance be so useful for the Europeans (and Mexicans and Native Americans), yet be totally useless in the hands of American troopers? Addressing that, Gray first pointed out differences in terrain, “The lance cannot be used to advantage in a close wooded country such as is found everywhere along the Atlantic coast.” That might easily be countered by pointing out that most battles in the Eastern Theater, outside of Spotsylvania County, Virginia, were fought in open, farmed terrain. One must assume Gray was voicing the underlying reasons why earlier generations of American cavarlymen had not taken to the lance, and not limiting his response to the Civil War.
From there, Gray offers what I think is the practical response to the question – the growing obsolescence of the lance when opposed by rifled carbines:
In meeting an enemy armed with the lance it would be necessary to first break the continuity of his lines before the saber could gain a superiority. In these extracts there can be found many examples where cavalry charges have been broken by magazine fire by holding it till the charging line is within very close range. The traditions of our cavalry and its training are such that we can dismount and fight on foot in a very short time. This dismounted fire should be supported by mounted troops, which should deliver the charge as soon as the lancer line is broken.
Thus Gray felt the American emphasis on dismounted fighting played to advantage over the lance. He offered two other responses, given scenarios with more demanding details:
If it were necessary to meet lancers, whose lines were unbroken by fire action, with shock action of troops armed with the saber, I would endeavor to strike the weakest point of their line with a mass formation of some kind, either by squadrons in column of troops or in line of troops in columns of fours. Thin lines fleeing in front of lancers would soon cause their lines to become so broken that other troops held in reserve could meet them with a fair chance of success.
In other words, the power of the lancer formation was in close order mass. Anything done to break up the formation, even be that the sacrifice of a troop or squadron, would reduce the impact of the lancer formation.
The obvious point, to turn a pun, about the lance was the inadequacy of the weapon when employed on a battlefield with rapid firing (relatively speaking) firearms. Yet, 100 years ago cavalry of all the great powers of Europe carried steel lances into the first campaigns of World War I. The Polish cavalry, descendants of those Uhlans of 1831, were still training with the lance on the eve of World War II. Once a military formation picked up the lance, it seemed hard to put it down.
(Citations from Alonzo Gray, Cavalry Tactics, as Illustrated by the War of the Rebellion, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Cavalry Association, 1910, pages 26-28; Albert G. Brackett, History of the U.S. Cavalry, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1865, pages 83-4; Philip St. George Cooke, Cavalry Tactics or Regulations for the Instruction, Formations, and Movements of the Cavalry, Volume 1, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1861, pages 64-5.)