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Most movies depict cavalry's unsheathing of swords before a cavalry charge, far before their swords can ever be used. Is this authentic?
The Young Winston (1972) exemplifies the above, but bizarrely. It depicts the young Winston Churchill unsheathing his sword before his charge, then charging, but once he approaches the enemy, Churchill replaces his sword, and instead produces his Mauser C96 pistol (at the 1 minute 17 seconds juncture of this clip), with which he fights the enemy.
The cavalry tactics could differ from century to century, yet when they got firearms, for sure, they had to learn quick swapping from firearm to a saber during the attack.
The Russian cavalry officer Nadezhda Durova (aka The Cavalry Maiden), who fought in Napoleonic wars, mentioned some details in her well-known memoirs. That is how she depicted the standard training:
надобно было первому перескочить ров, выстрелить из пистолета в соломенное чучело и тотчас рубить его саблею
The first one had to jump over the trench, shoot the pistol into a straw dummy and to chop it immediately with a saber
She doesn't say whether she unsheathed her saber only after shooting yet it seems that jumping over the trench with both hands full is too complicated. That is fast weapon change is a must.
Surprisingly later while talking about one of the battles she writes exactly what you are looking for:
Эскадрон наш ходил несколько раз в атаку, чем я была очень недовольна: у меня нет перчаток, и руки мои так окоченели от холодного ветра, что пальцы едва сгибаются; когда мы стоим на месте, я кладу саблю в ножны и прячу руки в рукава шинели: но, когда велят идти в атаку, надобно вынуть саблю и держать ее голою рукой на ветру и холоде.
Our squadron did several charges, which made me very displeased: I have no gloves and my hands grew numb because of cold wind, so my fingers could hardly bend; when we are staying in place I put my saber in sheath and hide my hands in the sleeves of my coat, but when they order to charge it is needed to put the saber out and to hold it with a bare hand under the wind and the cold.
I can't find the true reason for this - was it a kind of a psychological attack or something - but her words are pretty clear. Charging with sabers unsheathed is an authentic warfare method even in XIX century, even though the cavalrymen used the pistols for range shooting and could put out their sabers very quickly.
For one of the latest examples of saber attacks, there is also a well-known "Saber fight of 13th Kuban cossack cavalry division" in WWII on 2nd August, 1942 near Kushevskaya, Soviet Union. One of the participants, Lt. Serdtsov, wrote about it:
Артиллерийский огонь стал стихать, в воздух взвились одна за другой три красных ракеты. Командир полка подаёт команду: “Поэскадронно! Развёрнутым фронтом! Для атаки! Шагом марш!”
Когда полки дивизии развернулись и приняли строгий боевой порядок, и стали проходить поле с неубранным ячменём и подошли к лётной площадке аэродрома, комдив полковник Миллеров, выхватив из ножен шашку, сделав над головой три круга, выбросил вперёд шашку и перешёл на аллюр-рысь. Заблестело море казачьих сабель. Противник открыл ураганный огонь из всех видов оружия. Казаки переводят своих лошадей в полный галоп. Раздаётся громовое “Ура!”. Когда лётное поле уже закончилось, фашисты перед лавиной казаков вздрогнули, выскакивая из лесопосадки, начали в панике убегать в сторону станицы по направлению элеватора и ж.д. станции. Вот здесь и началась “работа” - сечь.
For those who can't read Russian, Lt. Serdtsov actually says that they had put the sabers out while their horses still went trotting and charged much later on a full gallop. Later he also mentions his gun "attached to a pommel" which he used after his horse was shot dead. The Soviet premium lists also mention the actual use of sabers like "chopped upto six enemy soldiers and officers", "saved the officer by chopping off enemy's hand when the latter was aiming parabellum" etc.
Here is The Drill Regulations of the Red Army Cavalry, 1938 which provides enough details on cavalry attack technics.
The chapter 1.6 "Attack" gives the full sequence of orders for "the normal attack":
Шашки к бою (Sabers to battle)
В атаку (Attack)
The cavalrymen do unsheathe the sabers on the very first order; the horses go full career on the last one.
There's also a "short" form for a sudden attack: В атаку, МАРШ-МАРШ (Attack, MARCH-MARCH). Again, the first part is actually an order to unsheathe the sabers, while the last one - to go full career.
The "normal" attacking distance (for "MARCH-MARCH" command) is thought to be about 200-300 meters.
The name and technique come from the gunleather holsters used by the cavalry of both the United States Army and the Confederate States Army, during the Civil War. The pistol was in a covered holster carried high on the cavalryman's right side, but was placed butt-forward for crossdrawing by the left hand. The pistol was considered by the Army to be a secondary weapon, with the right hand used for the saber. Placement on the right permitted an alternate method to be used, allowing the right hand to draw the pistol if the sword were lost in battle.
In practice, however, the "alternate method" became the standard, with the sword being left in its sheath until the pistol and its spare loaded cylinders had been expended.
Later, it was found that the reversed holster can be more comfortable, especially when worn while sitting down, than the normal type holster. In addition, cavalry draw can be performed while sitting, as well as retaining the original off-hand cross draw capability. For these reasons, the FBI used the cavalry draw when they were equipped with short .38 Special revolvers.
Cavalry draw is performed in three steps:
- Rotate the wrist, placing the top of the hand toward the shooter's body.
- Slip the hand between the body and the butt of the pistol, grasping the pistol's stocks in normal shooting grip.
- Draw the pistol, rotating the wrist to normal orientation as the arm is brought up to shooting position.
With practice, the cavalry draw can be as fast or even faster than drawing from a normal, butt-rearward holster, because of the assistance of the body in placement of the hand on the pistol stocks.
Not all cavalry used this method of draw, or located their holsters on the right hand side of the body. In the 'Manual of Arms for the Sharps Rifle, Colt Revolver and Swords (1861)',  which was used by the Union Army, the revolver would have been worn on the left side, in front of the sabre-hook. To draw the revolver, the soldiers were instructed to 'pass the right hand between the bridle-arm and the body, unbutton the pistol-case, seize the pistol at the butt, draw it'.
"Wild Bill" Hickok was known to have used this draw style to great effect.
In modern times, some SASS members use the form of carry.
The characters Zorro (James Vega played by John Carroll) in the 1937 film serial "Zorro Rides Again", and Zorro (Diego Vega played by Reed Hadley) in the 1939 film serial "Zorro's Fighting Legion", both famously carry their pistol in a Cavalier Holster.  [ circular reference ] with sword and/or whip in the other hand.
The character of Sam Chisolm (played by Denzel Washington) in the 2016 movie "The Magnificent Seven" plays a bounty hunter and gunfighter who carries his pistol in a Cavalier Holster. It was alluded that the character fought for the Union in the Civil War.
The character of Rick O'Connell (played by Brendan Fraser) in the 1999 movie, ""The Mummy"", uses this draw technique with guns on both left and right sides.
The Primary Antagonist Character, Charlie Prince (played by Ben Foster) in the 2007 film "3:10 to Yuma" carries 2 Smith & Wesson Model 3 Schofield Revolvers both worn in Cavalry Draw holsters.
Several characters in video game Red Dead Redemption 2, and the Red Dead series, use the cavalry draw method, including antagonist Micah Bell (played by Peter Blomquist).
Civil war swords history
The American Civil War was not a test for arms and military superiority. Soldiers were simple farmers and working fathers rooted out of their homes to fight for the ideals and values they believe in.
The battles were not always won by guns and bullets, but with crude edged swords and knives that anyone can use easily.
Civil War Swords: Pre-1830
Curators and collectors have been particularly interested in the history of Civil War swords before 1830. This is because most of the swords produced at this time were imports from European smelting centers. Design and prevailing American taste on weaponry were largely influenced by smiths from France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. American production was small and the blades produced bore strong European influences.
Civil War swords were a badge of honor. They were awarded by the federal government to soldiers who have done exceptional military service. Markings etched on the blades and their form can tell the rank and the branch of the military of the soldier.
Civil War Swords: 1830-1840
Sweeping changes in American military swords took place in 1830. Enlisted swords of the time were becoming less effective for combat, especially those used by cavalrymen. Model 1832 Foot Artillery Sword was issued and received with approval. Model 1833 Dragoon saber however did not gain the nod of several officers due to its unreliable length and fighting power. The American military realized the increasing need for more powerful blades. A group was sent to Europe to survey and assess several swords in 1838.
It was then that Civil War swords were standardized. Specifications were set with regards to the standard length, design, forging, and ornaments. Orders were placed for the swords to be imported. The Model 1840 Cavalry Sword, also called Old Wristbreaker, was imported from Solingen, Germany. This model is the most popular style that is copied for production by the Confederacy.
Civil War Swords: 1840-1850
Domestic production for Civil War words reached its height in the 1840s. American manufacturers like Ames Mfg. Company entered contracts with the government to produce the Model 1840 Noncommissioned (NCO) officers and light artillery swords. Naval cutlasses were produced as well. The medical and pay departments of the military were also issued swords. Some of the blades forged in this era were still serviceable to the 20th century.
These Civil War swords were first employed when Mexican-American War sparked in 1846-1848. To keep with the demand, the federal government continued to import European swords in aid to resolve the conflict. Some of the most famous and rarest swords during this period were 1845 heavy cavalry sabers.
Civil War Swords: 1851-1860
During this decade, three additional Civil War swords were introduced to the army: one for Staff and Field Officers, another for Foot Officers, and another for Marine Noncommissioned Officers. Perhaps the most popular among all other swords, the Staff and Field Officers swords were carried by Field Grade members in Artillery and Infantry. The Foot Officers swords were carried by Company Grade members in Artillery and Infantry. The Marine Noncommissioned Officers swords were introduced in 1859. All of the swords mentioned above have almost similar features and design.
Civil War Swords: 1860 and beyond
As early as 1859, the Army again opted to reform the swords of all officers and enlisted soldiers. One example is the 1840 cavalry saber it was remodeled to a lighter blade and labeled Model 1860 cavalry saber. The Naval cutlass was also remodeled to a new design that resembles closely to the French Navy sword. Other Civil War swords from different branches of the army were likewise updated.
All the swords of the previous era were used in the opening years of hostilities. As the conflict escalated to a full-blown war, both the Unions and Confederates were using the same sets of sword for weaponry. It is this situation that makes it hard for curators to classify any Civil War swords according to the faction that they belong.
Collecting American Civil War swords
Finding antique American Civil War swords is not hard to do. Appraising is. It is because, aside from evaluating the condition of the blade, there is a need to ascertain the provenance (or authentic history) of the sword. This entails the need to classify the blade according to what faction it was used during the war.
Hence, the most famous and most expensive antique Civil War swords in the antique market are those that have traceable link to famous officers and architects of the war. Such a choice is logical: there will be less doubts to clear in proving the sword&rsquos history, and therefore its price tag. Below is the list of some of the finest American war memorabilia:
&bull Ulysses S. Grant presentation sword contains 28 diamonds and intricately designed, curators have lauded the sword as the peak of American silversmith. It was given to Grant by the people of Kentucky months before the end of the war. Its worth when auctioned in 2007 was 1.6million dollars. Grant was the General-in-Chief of the Union in 1864 and masterminded the defeat of Confederates. He later on became the 18th president of America.
&bull The sword of General Jesse Reno is considered the second most important and most expensive Civil War sword ever auctioned. The blade has intricate markings and bear classic motifs. When it was auctioned in 2001, its price was over $100,000.
&bull Many people find it fascinating to have a replica of the Confederate sword of a famous general of Confederates, General Joseph O. Shelby. Shelby is known for his march towards Mexico, refusing to surrender to advancing Union troops. He and his group of soldiers are now known as &ldquothe Undefeated.&rdquo Today, there are a lot of sword manufacturing companies who are selling the replica.
Swords pointing upward historically indicate battle or conflict or the readiness for battle or conflict. One example of this is modern fencing where a swordsman holds the sword point upward to indicate his readiness. Swords pointing downward represent peace, rest or the end of conflict.
Variations on the crossed sword symbol can still be found in many cavalry unit's insignia including the U.S. Army's 11th Cavalry, 15th Cavalry, 158th and 202nd Cavalry. Other divisions vary it further with, in some cases, a single saber or a saber crossing a torch or gun.
The Cavalry who Charged The Russians With Grenades & Swords
From the battlefields of the ancient world, to wars stretching from medieval Europe to the Yuan Dynasty of China, to the Steppes of Central Asia, and to the Great Plains of North America, cavalrymen played a major role in military history…until the weapons of the 20th century rendered these shock troops, with their lances and swords, obsolete.
The last major cavalry charge in history, with a large body of hundreds of traditional cavalrymen armed with sabers, took place during the Second World War. It was the charge of the Italian Savoia Cavalleria at Isbuschenskij, and it closed a chapter of history that had lasted for thousands of years.
The charge took place at the site of Hill 213,5 near Isbuschenskij village in the Soviet Union on August 24th, 1942, in the southern part of the Eastern Front of WWII. Earlier, on the 20th of August, the Soviet 304th Infantry Division had launched an assault against the Italian 2nd Infantry Division.
The Soviets had beaten the Italians back with force, and as a last resort the Savoia Cavalleria cavalry regiment was sent in as a relief force.
Italian soldiers in Russia, July 1942.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B27180 / Lachmann / CC-BY-SA 3.0
The Savoia Cavalleria, consisting of approximately 600 cavalrymen organized into squadrons of around 40 cavalrymen each, was led by an Italian Count, Colonel Alessandro Bettoni di Cazzago, a staunch royalist and old-school traditionalist.
A master horseman who in the decade prior to the eruption of the Second World War had won almost 700 prizes for show jumping, it is no surprise that he decided to lead his horsemen in a charge, with sabers drawn, against the Soviets.
The Savoia Cavalleria – the only Italian cavalry regiment to wear red neckties during WWII, honoring a centuries-old tradition – were armed with traditional cavalry sabers, curved swords with blades optimized for slashing from horseback.
In addition to their sabers, they also carried a more modern armament: hand grenades. Also, the regiment had a squadron with machine guns.
The Savoia Cavalleria regiment in the role of the Company of Death for the Palio of Legnano 1939
Colonel Cazzago and his men were charged with the task of taking the strategic position, Hill 213,5. They set up camp just under a mile from this position on August 23rd, but during the night a Soviet infantry unit of around 2,500 men (the 812th Siberian Rifle Regiment) occupied and dug into the hill, waiting for first light to attack the Italian cavalrymen.
A few hours before dawn, a mounted Italian scouting patrol was spotted by the Soviet troops on the hill. No longer concerned with attacking with the element of surprise behind them, the Soviets began firing on the Italian position.
A soldier prepares to throw a grenade. Eastern Front.Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #844 / Zelma / CC-BY-SA 3.0
The Italians returned fire, but it soon became clear to Colonel Cazzago that as he was both outgunned and outnumbered, a sustained exchange of fire would be disastrous. His only hope, he believed, was to flank the Soviets and attack with enough force and speed to drive them from their position. To do this, he planned to use an age-old tactic: a cavalry charge.
Obviously, this was a very risky maneuver – and pitting horsemen armed with sabers against dug-in infantry troops with mortars and machine guns would be suicidal if performed head-on, across open ground.
Isbuscensky charge part of the eastern front of the Second World War
However, to the left of the Soviet-occupied hill was an area of dead ground, concealed by folds in the terrain. If Cazzago could get his cavalrymen there without them being seen, they could launch a charge at relatively close range and potentially overrun the Soviet troops without taking too many losses.
It was a bold move that could end in disaster, but Cazzago decided he had no other option. While exchanging fire with the Soviets, he moved a number of his cavalry squadrons around to the area to the left of the hill. Unobserved by the Soviets, his cavalrymen got into position successfully.
The first unit to get into position, under Captain de Leone, assembled themselves in battle order on the dead ground. Then, as had been done for centuries prior, the buglers sounded the order to advance at a walk, and this the Italian cavalrymen did with their sabers drawn and ready.
Italian Lieutenant Amedeo Guillet and Amhara cavalrymen
The buglers then signaled to speed up to a trot, and then, finally, they signaled a gallop, and Captain de Leone called out the famous order: “Carica!” (“charge!”).
With their sabers flashing in the dawn light and the thunder of their horses resounding across the hill, hundreds of Italian cavalrymen stormed through the ranks of the surprised Soviets. The Italians slashed and hacked at the terrified infantrymen with their sabers, and tossed hand grenades into trenches as they vaulted their mounts over them.
The Soviets, while initially stunned by this very unexpected, anachronistic battle maneuver, were quick to respond, turning their machine guns on the galloping horsemen. Horses fell by the dozens, with some galloping on even while dying, riddled by machine gun bullets, and only falling dead dozens of paces after their hearts had stopped beating.
Soviet soldiers and 45mm gun on the road, 1 August 1943.Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #997 / Ozersky / CC-BY-SA 3.0
The cavalrymen themselves took significant damage, but Colonel Cazzago could see that the momentum of his maneuver had given him the upper hand and ordered more squadrons to charge. With some dismounting and fighting on foot, and with supporting fire from the Italian machine gunners, the Italian cavalrymen charged in again, whirling their sabers like madmen and tossing grenades as they thundered through the Soviet lines.
As crazy a manuever as it was in the age of mechanized warfare, the charge of the Savoia Cavalleria worked that day. The Soviets couldn’t hold their line under the speed, ferocity, and momentum of the charging Italian cavalrymen, and they soon broke ranks and fled.
A Soviet junior political officer urges Soviet troops forward against enemy positions (12 July 1942).Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #543 / Alpert / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Against all odds, the cavalry charge – a relic of past centuries – had worked. While the Italians had lost 32 men, with 52 wounded, and over a hundred horses killed, the Soviets had taken far worse losses. One hundred and fifty Soviet troops lay dead, with around 300 wounded, and 600 Soviet troops were taken prisoner when the clash was over.
After the charge had taken place, despite being impressed, German liaison cavalry officers who had witnessed the action remarked to Colonel Cazzago, “these kind of things, we can’t do them any more,” in reference to how the old-school cavalry charge belonged to a long-past era.
Italian column moving towards new positions in the winter of 1942
Despite this sentiment being generally accurate, Cazzago’s charge had proved it wrong on this occasion. Two Italian gold medals for valor were awarded to various men of the Savoia Cavalleria, as well as 54 silver medals and 49 war crosses. One of the horses who survived the charge but was blinded during the fighting, a horse named Albino, went on to become somewhat of a celebrity in Italy, and ended up living until 1960.
And as for Colonel Cazzago, the man who led the final major cavalry charge in history – he survived the war, and after it was over he remained loyal to the last King of Italy, Umberto II.
When the Italian monarchy was abolished in 1946, Cazzago took the regimental flag of the Savoia Cavalleria and presented it to the exiled king in Portugal. For this act, he was stripped of his rank and dishonorably discharged.
During the American Civil War, more than 180,000 African-Americans served in the United States Army under white officers in segregated, so-called colored regiments. After the war, with the reduction in size of military forces, these troops were consolidated by Congress into four all-black units: the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiments. Although these units would eventually see action in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, in the Philippine Insurrection, and along the Mexican border before and during World War I, their chief fame is for their service on the western frontier in the late nineteenth century. There they earned the name “Buffalo Soldiers,” either because Native Americans thought the black troopers’ hair resembled that of the buffalo or because their fighting spirit reminded the Indians of the buffalo. Either way, the troopers proudly accepted the name as a sign of respect and honor, and it is still applied today to U. S. Army units that are linear descendants of the original Buffalo Soldiers.
Very high standards of recruitment were set by the regiments’ commanders. Because a career in the army usually offered African- Americans better lives than they could lead as civilians at the time, four or five men applied for every opening in the regiments. Thus, the army had its choice of the best candidates, both physically and intellectually. While white soldiers frequently felt underpaid and illtreated, the Buffalo Soldiers were generally delighted with any pay (recruits received $13 a month, plus room, board, and clothing) and were far more accustomed to hard knocks than their white counterparts. Certainly, once in the army, the black troopers found much to their liking. Many of the men availed themselves of after-hours schools established by the regiments and run by their chaplains, so that they might overcome the illiteracy forced on them by slavery. They drank far less than their white counterparts and deserted at a rate of only one-tenth that of such “crack” regiments as Custer’s Seventh Cavalry or Mackenzie’s Fourth Cavalry. Indeed, the Tenth Cavalry posted the lowest desertion rate of any regiment in the U. S. Army in the late nineteenth century.
The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry were among the ten cavalry regiments thinly spread among more than 50 forts in the western states and territories. There they quickly established a reputation for bravery, daring, and incredible endurance. The troopers were constantly in the field, pa- trolling against hostile Indians over harsh terrain and in every extreme of weather. In over a hundred battles and skirmishes, from the Canadian border to south of the Rio Grande, they distinguished themselves against adversaries such as Geronimo, Sit- ting Bull, Victorio, Lone Wolf, Satank, and Satanta, not to mention Billy the Kid and Pancho Villa. Although the efforts of the black troopers were often belittled or simply ignored by the army administration and the newspapers, professional soldiers understood that the Buffalo Soldiers had developed into the most outstanding fighting units in the army. Toward the end of hostilities in the Sioux outbreak of 1890-1891, four companies of the Ninth Cavalry marched 108 miles through a howling blizzard to rescue twice their number of Seventh Cavalry troopers. Along the way they fought two engagements. For this they earned almost no official recognition.
The Buffalo Soldiers’ duties were not limited to fighting. They escorted thousands of civilian contractors’ trains and mail stages over the dangerous frontier. They aided local law officers in making arrests, pursued and captured rustlers and horse thieves, and transported criminals to the nearest civilian courts. They protected cattle herds moving west and kept the stage and wagon trails open. They built and maintained many army posts around which future towns and cities sprang to life, strung thousands of miles of telegraph wire, and guarded the United States-Mexican border. Finally, they explored and mapped some of the most rugged and inhospitable country in North America, opening up a large portion of the continent to settlement. For instance, the Tenth Cavalry scouted 34,420 miles of uncharted terrain and opened more than 300 miles of new roads. One patrol alone was out on the Staked Plains of the Texas Panhandle for 10 weeks in the fall and winter of 1877 covering over 1,360 miles without losing single man or horse.
In spite of their abilities, the Buffalo Soldiers suffered frequent injustices, both from within and without the army. Many superior officers discriminated against the black regiments in housing, equipment, mounts, and assignments. Junior officers often refused to accept transfers to the units because they believed the commissions in the regiments to be socially de grading. Despite promises of fast promotion, officers such as George Armstrong Custer and Frederick Benteen refused commissions with African-American units. Because of such prejudice, the Buffalo Soldiers consistently received some of the worst assignments the army had to offer, but they carried out those assignments without complaint, and without faltering.
Among many civilians, the hatreds engendered by the Civil War and Reconstruction were still fresh, and in some minds former slaves carrying guns were all-too-painful reminders of Southern defeat and Northern victory. Many Texans saw the stationing of black troopers in their state as a deliberate attempt by the government to further humiliate them. Thus, relationships between troopers and locals were often antagonistic at best, and troopers frequently found themselves in siege-type situations, in danger as much from civilians in the settlements as from hostile native forces on the frontier. However, the Buffalo Soldiers managed to meet this prejudice with a stoic resolve and a devotion to duty that eventually surmounted such mistreatment. As one historian noted: “The protection afforded by the [black] cavalryman’s carbines had a marvelous way of transcending the issue of race” (Hamilton, 1987).
With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, the Buffalo Soldiers were sent to Cuba and, led by John J. Pershing, they participated in the desperate charge that secured San Juan and Kettle Hills, fighting alongside future president Theodore Roosevelt and his outfit, the Rough Riders. After their brilliant performance in Cuba, elements of all four black regiments saw action in the Philippine Insurrection. Scattered among army posts throughout the archipelago, black soldiers participated in military operations from northern Luzon to Samar, fighting against the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics of the Filipinos. When the Mexican bandit-general Pancho Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, a 7,000-man American force received permission from the Mexican government to pursue him. General John Pershing was given command, and he immediately added the Buffalo Soldiers to the expedition. When the United States withdrew from Mexico in 1917 in order to join the Allies fighting World War I, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry stayed behind on the border to guard against possible Mexican invasion or German subversion. In 1918, they fought a pitched battle with Mexican forces at Nogales that ended any threat of German-inspired Mexican intervention.
In 1941, the Ninth and Tenth regiments were formed into the Fourth Cavalry Brigade, commanded by General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., at Camp Funston, Kansas. In 1944, all the horse cavalry regiments were disbanded and, with them, the long and proud service of the Buffalo Soldiers ended. With their sweat, blood, ability, and fidelity, the Buffalo Soldiers won the respect that often eluded them in civilian life at that time. In all, six officers and 15 enlisted men of the Buffalo Soldiers won the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery and gallantry under fire. They were truly the elite soldiers of the late- nineteenth-century United States Army.
References: Carroll, John M., The Black Military Experience in the American West (New York: Liveright, 1971) Downey, Fairfax, The Buffalo Soldiers in the Indian Wars (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969) Hamilton, Allen, Sentinel of the Southern Plains (Fort Worth: TCU Press, 1987).
I am from Montana, and grew up in the area. I have hunted those hills near the battlefield for deer and elk and spent years and years out there. I also did my graduate work in History.
Sabers were rightfully left behind in this action. With the size of the camp, getting in that close with sabers would have been fool hardy at best. There’s a really good documentary that’s now on Youtube about the battle, and it shows the rate of fire issue. As former curator of the park, I’m astounded you don’t mention this issue, and frankly, find it a bit irresponsible that you do not at least raise the issue in general.
The rate of fire issue refers to the rate that the Indian rifles could fire versus the soldier’s weapons. Archeologic findings of groupings of cartridges from repeaters and the groupings of cases near soldier positions indicate that the natives often got off three to four times as many shots as Custer’s men did. Combine that with having 3-4 times as many men in the field–albeit not all had repeating rifles, and it is reasonable to conclude that the &th Cav, was at the least, outgunned maybe 3 or 4 to one. Sabers would have made an effective charge, but only as long as surprise carried the day. With as many men as there were on the Sioux/Cheyenne side of this battle, that surprise would have been overcome fairly shortly.
There is no way that the Indians would have been killed in sufficient numbers that they would not have been able to regain control once their overwhelming superiority in weapons fire rates was brought to bear as surprise faded to hand to hand combat. Even had they not brough their overwhelming firepower to bear, sheer numbers of expert hand to hand combat veterans—as nearly all native American tribesmen were—would have overwhelmed the saber-bearing 16-22 year old soldiers. Don’t forget that these were kids.
Once they were in hand to hand, the overwhelming numbers would have crushed Custer. The only difference sabers would have made was in the location of the dead bodies. Custer attacked despite being told by Terry to wait for Crook and Gibbon. Custer did not and went to his own death. Had he waited, this battle would have likely never occurred as the camp likely would have broken up within days, with all the gathered bands scattering into their normal small groups of a hundred or so. Had this occurred, the Indians would have been slaughtered in small groups as the three columns ran across them and then the US soldiers would have had the superior numbers.
As an additional fun note….the re-enactment of the battle is held by the losers of this battle—the Crow Indians. The Crow were allied with Custer, as they were already on Reservation. The actual combatants, the Sioux and Norther Cheyenne, are on reservations in worse places, like Fort Peck and Pine Ridge. The battlefield is actually on the Crow Reservation, and the re-enactors are mostly Crow, not Sioux/N Cheyenne. To this day the Crow and Sioux do not really get along.
Montana Native I have read the order General Terry gave to Custer no where in it does it give a mention of General Crooks column (which had already been defeated on the 17th of June and retreated back to the vicinity of now Sheridan WY nor does it mention waiting for Gibbon and Terry in fact it tells Custer to contact Terry no later than the date his supplies (15 days worth) ran out. So please enlighten me with the source of your comments. Seriously I would like to read them myself.
I totally agree with Montana….he is absolutely correct in his facts and view…I am also from the area and spent my entire life in and around the battlefield…either working, hunting or researching and of course just taking time to think over the possibilities that the 7th had or did not have……I want to add one thing that was important as to the many factors that led up to the 7th being defeated…..If you have ever been in that area during the summer months you will quickly find out how hot the weather can be…I read that it was in the upper 80’s to mid 90’s…..The soil in the area is almost powder like…. This would add to the problem of mis-fires taking place in an already jamb prone rifle….The dust kicked up while traveling on horse back is enough to lessen the function of most modern rifles let alone the rifles the 7th used….And yes even to this day…The Northern Cheyenne have a problem with the Crow…..Not much can be said as to the outcome of this battle being swayed by having the saber, other than the fact Custer was out numbered…out gunned and with seasoned battle ready warriors well equipped…..Sabers or not….he lost….
Those Natives dispersing was why Custer attacked when he did. If they could have dispersed then they would have been hard to track down one at a time and the whole campaign would have been a failure.
The Natives had more firepower maybe but you still have to reload a Henry or Winchester and the beginning was long range fire that wasn’t doing any damage to Custer’s contingent. False sense of security maybe when the Natives got in close in numbers and then it was over fairly quickly. Shells found on the battlefield over a hundred years later is not proper evidence that the Troopers we’re not keeping up fire. They might have been wasting ammunition though and not firing in cohesion.
Sabers, it lack there of didn’t affect the outcome one bit. Those Natives were amongst them very quickly and drawing the saber might not have been possible. If they had them on their belts they would have been tripped up trying to walk and run. If they were on the horses only mounted men could use them and they would have to be well trained. Sabers are not easy to use.
I agree with you except the rate of fire thing. We don’t know how many rounds were fired by the Troopers. Natives had arrows also which don’t leave casings. Custer was outnumbered for his tactics.
Out West we can’t get Natives to reenact at all. They just won’t do it.
Marine Gunnery Sergeant (ret.) There is but one priority on the battlefield, any battlefield and that is to gain fire superiority without which you are doomed to failure. By firing rapidly during the assault phase you keep your opponent’s head down long enough to allow you to over run is position or out flank him. But, while these are modern tactics with automatic weapons, but the principles of gaining fire superiority on the battlefield is still paramount regardless of where you are in time.
No matter what you say about custer.You will never take away the Boy GENERAL GLORY. FOR ALL TIME
For the past week I have been struggling with this blog, which contains some fairly substantial historical errors, some of them already noted by MontanaNative.
Mr. Tabner says, “It had been proved in America’s Civil War, and previously in the Crimea (the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, for example), that when facing superior odds, cavalry had to rely on their bladed-weapon skills or use rapid shock maneuvers.”
When I went out to the Gettysburg reenactment as a member of the 2nd US cavalry I did substantial research on the history and tactics of Civil War cavalry. Mounted troops during the war were issued the best breech-loading and repeating rifles so they could skirmish with the enemy, not so that they could use their sabers. Troopers were used for raiding, recon, and skirmishing. The cavalry would go into battle and unload their seven-shooters, and after falling back might charge with a saber if they knew they would be running down and capturing retreating enemies or guns (the best use for the saber, besides its need as a status symbol). European observers wrote about their disapointment at how indecisive American cavalry tactics were (the constant skirmishing, and lack of “impact” in charges). Also, as far as the Crimean war is concerned, we should not forget the charge of the *Light Brigade*, which was a total disaster.
Mr. Tabner also says, “The size of the camp, and the fact that the troopers did not have their sabers, made Reno unwilling to make close contact with the Indians.”
In the book _Black Elk Speaks_ a Native American fellow named “Standing Bear” gives ample reason for Reno to have avoided close combat, “There were so many of us that I think we did not need guns. Just the hoofs would have been enough.” The “hoofs” refers to trampling. Close contact would have only resulted in total slaughter. This is particularly true since the plains Indians were skilled horseman who could guide their horses with their knees. This allowed them to be free to fire their bows upon buffalo while riding at a run. A mounted trooper with a saber would be worthless against a mounted Native with a bow, much less a Native with a gun. I fear Mr. Tabner’s conception of the Native American warrior is quite flawed.
Mr. Tabner fails to even bother mentioning that Reno survived the fight only because he formed a defensive ring, fighting from cover and digging holes during the night. He says ” Only the sheer sides of the hill allowed Reno’s men to hold out for the rest of the battle, until relief by the main column arrived”, but “Standing Bear”, in the book _Black Elk Speaks_ says, “…they had saddles and other things in front of them to hide themselves from bullets, but we surrounded them, and the hill we were on was higher and we could see them plain.” The Natives were ready to let the Whites starve, but the reported movement of additional US troops caused them to pack their things and leave.
Francis Parkman, in his work _The Conspiracy of Pontiac_, gives an interesting account of the Native American resolve when engaging fortified posts. During the siege of Detroit, the British officers were about to leave the post since they assumed the fort would be quickly taken when the Natives chopping through the walls, but “Their anxiety on this score was relieved by a Canadian in the fort, who had spent his life among Indians, and who now assured the commandant that every maxim of their warfare was opposed to such a measure.” Native Americans did not do well against fortified posts, partly because they sought individual glory. The only thing that saved Reno was the fact that he did *not* attack the Native villages.
The Charge of the Light Brigade was a disaster for matters completely unrelated to the troops, weapons or the tactics involved. They were simply given the wrong orders through a staff mistake, and still managed to carry them out and return. The casualties were horrendous, but show how determined charges with sabre could succeed against vastly superior forces backed up but artillery.
However, the use of the sabre required years of practice and training, so it is debatable whether Custer’s men would have been able to use it well enough. Another question is the conditions of their horses – would they have stood up to such treatment following their time in the field?
I agree that during the Civil War, cavalry were used to find the enemy, range into the rear to disrupt lines of communication and supply, and occasionally attack enemy cavalry or disrupted enemy formations. I cannot recall battles won by cavalry attacking infantry in fixed positions. How long would Custer’s men have survived sitting 6 feet up in the saddle, making excellent targets for the Indian riflemen, while trying to close with sabers?
Not only were sabers noisy, the Union Army was notorious for having dull saber blades. The Confederates on the other hand kept their saber highly sharpened. If I remember correctly there was one saber carried by a trooper at the Little Bighorn and that trooper was Private Giovanni Martini better known by his American name Private John Martin who was a “runner” for Custer and survived the battle by not being present with his company. He was carrying dispatches to Reno and Benteen.
I agree with CDB, being the highest object on a hill, whether on horseback or above the military crest of a hill, turns you into the center of attention and makes you believe that you are a copper-lead magnate.
One of my 3x great uncles, James Lewis Wilmoth was a Cavalry Sergeant with the 4th Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry during the U.S. Civil War. After several battles he had mentioned that the title when they first arrived was Cavalry, but soon they were referred to as Mounted Infantry. They would ride quickly to close with the enemy, they would skirmish with the enemy while mounted but once the battle ensued, they dismounted and fought as infantry. James survived the war, but suffered from wounds he recieved at Stone’s River and another at Chickamaugua for the rest of his life..
You need to remember the Indian warriors were terrified by swords and that would have stiffened the calvary’s resolve. Battles turn on such things think of Henry the fifth at Agincourt. Numbers alone don’t win battles but courage, resolve, skill and often luck are part of the mix.
You make a valid point Mr. CBD. When we compare the silhouette of a mounted trooper with the total target area of a kneeling skirmisher, we have a substantial reduction in favor of the dismounted variety. When they are prone behind a saddle, they almost disappear completely.
In the Book _Black Elk Speaks_ a fellow named Iron Hawk says of Custer’s men, “There were soldiers along the ridge up there and they were on foot holding their horses.” Mr. Tabner’s reference to the loss of firepower due to every fourth man holding horses might not have application here, particularly since Iron Hawk then recalls, “We looked up and saw the cavalry horses stampeding.” It was the loose horses that caused the general Indian assault upon the U.S. troopers. It is interesting to speculate that had the fourth man been holding the horses to keep them from running, the mass of Native Americans might not have charged the hill. The Indian style of fighting was very opportunistic, as noted by Iron Hawk when he says, “We stayed there a while waiting for something…”. When the soldier’s horses ran, the “something” had occurred.
One regularly noted feature of combat against Native Americans was the fact that you could rarely get them to go into pitched battle, unless you attacked their settlements. This was common knowledge for military men who were constantly frustrated by the ghost-like nature of the Indian style of combat. It is this feature of U.S. military thinking that might have inclined Custer toward an attack upon the villages, specifically intending to hit them before they had a chance to break up and separate into a multitude of little groups spread across the plains. I am not so convinced that Custer was foolish in his attack. He perished, true, but that is a risk fairly commonly accepted in war. Colonel J.H. Kidd of the 6th Michigan Cavalry speaks well of Custer by saying, “He was not a reckless commander. He was not regardless of human life…” (Philip Katcher, _American Civil War Commanders(1)_, Osprey Pub.,2002, p.13) He was flamboyant, and graduated last in his class partly because of his constant pranks, but he was brave, and always calculated his moment for decisive victory. He did not earn his position, and the regard of many commanders, by accident.
Thomas Eaton Graham was my great grandmothers uncle Tom. He survived the battle as part of the 7th cav.. I was told in handed down history that Custer realized that the situation was in serious doubt. That maybe Custer thought the rest of his army would show up, but that was not possible. Graham’s company lived in fear until terry’s outfit showed up. Custer had no choice once he felt he had to dismount.
It should be added that the sabers were left at the Powder River encampment partly due to the effort to keep the advance as quiet as possible. It may be that the need for them was not anticipated, as cavalry sabers were not a primary arm used in battle by cavalry in the late 1870’s. Custer anticipated flight, not hand-to-hand combat.
I have read that Native warriors were especially fearful of swords or sabers, but find such a general statement difficult to consider.
I, like most students of the battle, believe that the separated groups of soldiers were too far apart to support each other and were destroyed in a chain of collapse.
When did cavalry soldiers unsheathe swords? - History
We all have a certain subset of memories burned deep in our forebrains: images so vivid, so invested with emotion that the decades serve to sharpen rather than diminish their resolution. It could be a few mental frames from childhood: a tableau of mother and puppy on a vast expanse of lawn. Or a traumatic event: the onrush of ruby brake lights just before a collision. Such memories seem fixed in amber, impervious to time richly detailed images that can be examined again and again from all aspects.
Dennis Klein harbors such a mental hologram. It’s about war—or at least, war avoided. He’s eating lunch at an open-air mess hall above the road leading to Freedom Bridge, a span crossing the Imjin River near the Korean Demilitarized Zone not far from the town of Paju. It’s January 23, 1968, and Klein is a second lieutenant with an engineering unit in the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division. As he eats, he sees a crowd of people moving toward the bridge. They’re dressed in the black-and-white livery standard for Korean secondary school students. They get closer, and he sees that they’re in their mid-teens no adults accompany them. They’re marching in cadence, swinging their arms upward in unison at every fourth step, belting out slogans in rhythmic time. The Korean cook operating the mess translates for Klein:
To attack the Blue House is a grave insult!
This disrespectful act must be revenged!
There must be war to restore Korean honor!
Only total war can get our honor back!
Mighty and great are the Korean people!
It dawns on Klein that the kids are about to cross the bridge and launch themselves against the chain-link fence, concertina wire, and mine fields of the DMZ, with consequences that would resonate far beyond this mess hall.
Tensions were exceedingly high along the DMZ in early 1968. Beginning in 1966, gunfire across the zone along with periodic raids from North Korea had killed about two dozen Americans and wounded scores more. In April 1967, artillery was used by South Korean soldiers to repulse an incursion of about 100 North Korean troops. Two months later, a 2nd Infantry Division barracks was dynamited by North Korean infiltrators, and two South Korean trains were blown up. A few months after that, North Korean artillery batteries fired more than 50 rounds at a South Korean barracks, the first time since 1953 that North Korean artillery had been employed along the DMZ.
So it was not inconceivable that the North Koreans would react with massive artillery barrages, even a full-scale invasion, to the students’ actions. The balloon could go up. Nukes could explode. World War III, in other words, could commence.
And as the only officer in the immediate vicinity, Klein realizes the onus is on him he has to do something. He thus finds himself in an analog of the Great Man Theory (the view that individuals with sufficient will and charisma can change the world)—call it the Little Man Theory. A junior field officer, halfway through chow, suddenly finds himself on the pivot point of world-changing events. Moreover, he is required by his commission to act, to launch himself into the flow of history
But what Klein saw and did and what history recorded are two different things.
Some additional backstory here: As noted, the march on Freedom Bridge was the boiling point for a geopolitical cauldron that had been at a parlous simmer for months. On January 17, 1968, a unit of 31 North Korean commandos had infiltrated the DMZ, sneaking past an observation post manned by soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division. Their mission: to behead South Korean President (and military dictator) Park Chung-Hee. The rationale: North Korean leaders believed that assassinating Park would somehow compel the South Korean hoi polloi to overthrow their government, expel the U.S. military presence, and lead to a glorious unification of the Korean Peninsula.
The infiltrators wandered around for a couple of days, working south toward Seoul, and at one point encountering several laborers cutting wood. Rather than kill the workers, the soldiers attempted to indoctrinate them with the North Korean POV before moving on. The woodcutters reported the contact to the South Korean authorities.
The North Korean unit divided into multiple teams and entered Seoul on January 20, dressed in uniforms of the South Korean 26th Infantry Division. They approached the Blue House, the residence of the president, getting to within a thousand yards of the compound before they were stopped and a running gun battle ensued.
Two North Koreans were killed outright, with the remainder escaping. They attempted to get back across the DMZ, but 26 more were killed, 1 was captured, and 2 went missing. On the south side, 68 South Koreans were killed, including several civilians, as were 3 American GIs. Meanwhile, on January 23, North Korean patrol boats seized a U.S. naval intelligence ship, USS Pueblo, in international waters, killing 1 sailor. By the time the American military scrambled its aircraft, the Pueblo and her 82 crewmen were being held in the North Korean harbor of Wonsan.
In sum, the tensions between the two Koreas from 1966 to 1969 were so high that the period sometimes has been labeled the Second Korean War or the DMZ War.
Add to that what was going on in Vietnam: The Battle of Khe Sanh was launched on January 21, 1968. This 77-day siege by North Vietnam Army troops against a U.S. Marine garrison marked the start of the 1968 Tet Offensive. The campaign was widely viewed as the beginning of the end of the American effort in Vietnam after Tet, enthusiasm for the Vietnam War waned among American pols and citizens alike.
Klein had been drafted in 1967. He had applied to Cal, but his acceptance was delayed, meaning he had no student deferment. (He received notice of his acceptance shortly after entering the Army. He later matriculated at UC Berkeley and earned an engineering degree.) He was accepted into Officer Candidate School because he had worked as a road engineer in the Feather River canyon, he ultimately was sent to Korea as a second Lieutenant in the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, where he supervised road construction in the rugged terrain bordering the DMZ.
He was, he acknowledges, relieved to go to Korea. “I was lucky,” he says. “Like thousands of other guys, I could’ve ended up in Vietnam.”
Not that it was exactly soft duty in Korea. In 1967 and 1968, fire across the DMZ was commonplace. “Seven GIs were killed by gunfire in 1967 alone,” recalls Klein. “You were always aware of snipers and infiltrators.” The Blue House raid only deepened the sense of impending and catastrophic conflict, he says. And if things did fall apart, it was only too clear what that would mean to the few thousand men of the 2nd and 7th Infantry Divisions arrayed in defensive positions along the DMZ.
“Basically, there were 350,000 North Korean soldiers facing us on the other side of the zone,” he says. “We had no illusions about our odds.”
So on that January day, when he saw the students rushing toward the DMZ, Klein jumped in a jeep and raced toward Freedom Bridge to intercept them. By the time he got to the southern terminus of the bridge, the kids had started to overrun a cordon of half-tracks parked in front of the DMZ. Klein was the only officer present. The GIs manning .50 caliber machine guns mounted on the half-tracks seemed dumbfounded as the chanting students rushed past.
“I screamed at [the soldiers], ‘How could you let them get through?’” Klein recalls, “and they yelled back, ‘What are we supposed to do? Shoot them?’
Klein yelled at his men to grab the demonstrators by the arms and legs and toss them into the trucks…
“By the time I got to the north side of the bridge, they were starting to climb an anti-infiltration fence that had been installed a couple of months before. They were able to climb the chain link on the lower part, but were being stopped by a triple strand of concertina wire on top. I knew we had to do something to get them off there. There was a triple-tier minefield beyond the wire, and once they got in there and started blowing themselves up—well, we had to stop them.”
Various vehicles began arriving, and as the soldiers rushed up, Klein ordered them to pull the students from the fence. “As soon as the kids were dragged off the fence, they’d mill around a bit and start climbing again,” Klein remembers. “We needed a different plan.”
Among the vehicles pulled up to the wire were numerous “deuce-and-a-half” rigs—the two-and-one-half-ton trucks with high-sided cargo beds that were the workhorses of mobile infantry units during World War II and the Korean conflict. Klein yelled at his men to grab the demonstrators by the arms and legs and toss them into the trucks.
“The flying bodies acted like boxing gloves, knocking down the students who had already been thrown in the trucks, preventing them from escaping,” says Klein. “Once a truck was pretty full, I yelled at the driver to step on it, to go really fast so they couldn’t get out.”
After several minutes, that strategy seemed to work. The scene was chaos, with sweaty and cursing GIs in battle harness peeling screaming Korean adolescents in school uniforms off the fence and throwing them into the trucks. The kids were scratching and gouging the troops, Klein recalls, even trying to unsheathe the soldiers’ bayonets so they could cut themselves. But Klein could see progress more students were going into the trucks than up the fence. The soldiers were comporting themselves perfectly, using no more force than necessary.
There was one hitch, though: Klein calls her the Alpha Girl.
“She was the one who was really leading the group, giving orders and direction. When things really started going our way, she suddenly gets down on her knees. She grabs a big rock and puts it in front of her, and then she grabs another rock and puts it on top of the first one.”
Like a significant percentage of the other people in the world in 1968, Klein had seen Hawaii, the 1966 film based on the eponymous book by James Michener. In one famous scene, “the Hawaiian chief grabs a big rock, puts another rock on top of it, and starts to slam his head down on them. Then the screen goes black,” Klein says. He quickly realized that Alpha Girl was going “to dash her brains out, give the demonstration its first martyr. So I screamed at the men: ‘GET THAT BITCH OFF THAT ROCK!’” Four soldiers leaped to comply, grabbing Alpha Girl before she could injure herself, and throwing her adroitly into a nearby truck.
Once Alpha Girl was hauled away, the demonstration began to lose momentum. The soldiers were able to corral the remaining students, get them into trucks, and ultimately transport them to a nearby station, where they boarded trains south to the city of Pusan.
After the students were dispatched, Klein and his men decompressed. He was proud of the soldiers under his command, but also deeply sympathetic toward the demonstrators.
“They were willing to sacrifice themselves for what they thought was a just cause,” he explains. “They wanted to die so their country could win. The soldiers saw it as a noble act, even though they had to do everything possible to prevent it. And we did have to prevent it. If those kids had died, it could’ve led to war.”
Back at his unit’s headquarters, Klein reported the incident in detail “and then we kind of waited around to see how it was covered in the press.
And that’s the thing. It wasn’t covered—not even by Stars and Stripes (the news service for the U.S. military). Later, I talked to a Stars and Stripes reporter and asked him what was going on. Everyone near the DMZ knew about the incident, knew what it meant. He basically said there was a blackout along the entire DMZ, that [commanding officers] didn’t want to ‘open a second front,’ given all that was going on in Vietnam. So it was like it never happened.”
Which raises a conundrum long posed by the historical record: Is it an accurate accounting of what occurred? Or is it what people in power want us to know? Further, the fog of war envelops more than active battlegrounds it obscures entire fields of operations. Grunts often have no idea what’s going on with their commanding officers, and superior officers in rear units may know little about what’s really happening either on the front lines or at divisional headquarters.
And if a lone second lieutenant wages a battle that no one else acknowledges, you have to consider another existential question: Did it even happen, and if it did, can we trust the narrator’s version of events? Something clearly occurred near Freedom Bridge that day. But did war and peace, perhaps nuclear oblivion, really teeter on a handful of infantrymen pulling a few hundred squalling students off a fence? Or was the memory, no matter how intense, somehow distorted by time?
Hwasop Lim, the San Francisco correspondent for Yonhap News Agency, the largest news service in South Korea, is intrigued by Klein’s story and has investigated it. He searched news accounts of the time and tried to find students and soldiers who had been in the DMZ on the day of the incident. Sometime around that date, he says, an incident similar to the one described by Klein apparently occurred there.
“The newspapers covered it, but it was a protest by Christian seminary students,” says Lim. “They were older than high school students. It’s possible that the incident happened as Mr. Klein described it, but that it involved older seminary students, not high school kids. It’s a fact that Westerners often have difficulty determining the age of Asian people. They can confuse people in their 20s or even older for people in their teens.”
Lim thinks one of two things happened: There were two incidents, and the papers only covered the one involving the seminary students or there was a single demonstration involving older students whom Klein mistakenly thought were in high school.
“If there were two incidents, the basic narratives were the same: Students were trying to climb the fence, and so on. But along with [the disparity in] the ages of the students, there were also some other differences. The newspaper accounts mention the presence of a senior officer at the officer—he was only a second lieutenant, and he maintains he was the only officer there. Eventually, I did find two witnesses to a DMZ demonstration from around that time, and their accounts generally matched the newspaper articles.”
“There was very bad stuff going on around the DMZ between 1966 and 1969, and it was at its absolute worst when Dennis was there,” Davino confirms. “It all could have gone deeply wrong very quickly, and if it had, it would’ve been unbelievably bloody.”
In the end, Lim reflects, “It’s really hard to say exactly what happened. At this time, for me, it’s a cold case. But it’s a fascinating incident. It deserves to be remembered, and I’ll follow any new leads.”
Mike Davino is a retired Army Colonel and former president of the 2nd Indianhead Division Association, a fraternal organization that promotes the interests of 2nd Infantry veterans and records the history of the division. He, too, has looked into events that occurred near the DMZ in early 1968.
“I have a Stars and Stripes article from February 23, 1968,” says Davino, “and it describes a big brawl involving 450 theological school students who had traveled 180 miles north to Freedom Bridge. It mentions some U.S. troops firing warning shots. I forwarded [the article] to Dennis, and he says that was some other incident, not the one he was involved in. That certainly could be the case, but I’m surprised that I haven’t found any records [of a second incident].”
But perhaps there’s a larger issue in play than historical accuracy. Whether it was one incident or two, says Davino, the men of the 2nd Infantry clearly performed their duties well, and perhaps prevented a catastrophic conflict between the two Koreas—something, unhappily, that could occur on the DMZ today, where American troops are still positioned and tensions are once again climbing.
“There was very bad stuff going on around the DMZ between 1966 and 1969, and it was at its absolute worst when Dennis was there,” Davino confirms. “It all could have gone deeply wrong very quickly, and if it had, it would’ve been unbelievably bloody.”
Klein is now a successful engineer living in Mill Valley. Thin and wiry, he is in his early 70s, although he looks younger. That’s due, perhaps, to his longtime avocation of running the Marin Headlands. (In 2013, he was in the news when he was rescued after tumbling off a trail during a run on Mount Tamalpais, an experience he wrote about for California Online.) He speaks rapidly and discursively, his face animated as he recalls specific events from his tour of duty at the DMZ almost 50 years ago.
Talking to him, an interlocutor has no doubt that whatever the details of the Freedom Bridge incident, Klein and his men were under immense daily stress. The record shows that many people died during the DMZ War. Anyone walking or driving near the wire knew that they could catch a sniper’s bullet, get shredded by an artillery shell, or encounter a hostile squad—or an invading division—of North Korean infantrymen at any time. In short, to paraphrase Davino, they knew that it could all go south, literally and figuratively, at any moment, and that they would be little more than mincemeat if it did.
Klein appreciates Davino’s analysis, emphasizing that he wants no personal recognition. He observes he was merely a draftee among a crowd of draftees, not a professional soldier seeking glory. But his fellow enlistees, he says, knew they had been entrusted with an important job and were determined to do it competently. “They were going to be the first ones to die if it ever came to total war,” he says. “But it wasn’t like Vietnam, where there was no clear mission, where people were completely disheartened.
“The men at the DMZ knew they had to hold the line. And they held it. That meant they were ready to fight and willing to die, but it also meant that they knew when to show restraint and compassion. And that’s what they did when those kids were climbing up the fence near Freedom Bridge.”
The Myth of the "Polish Cavalry Charge Against Tanks"
When World War II kicked off with the September 1, 1939 German invasion of Poland, a pernicious, racist myth soon followed: the backwards, poorly-equipped Polish army rolling over at the first blow from the mighty Nazi war machine.
Probably the most famous example of this myth is the so-called "Polish cavalry charge against German tanks." As the story goes, the Polish army was desperate, gallant, idiotic and relying on Napoleonic era tactics, while the Germans were cool, professional, mechanized and unstoppable. The nadir for the Poles came at the small town of Krojanty, when Polish lancers drew their sabers and rode their horses straight at German tanks, thinking that either the tanks were fake or that the Germans would break and run. Instead, the Germans cut them down, and proceeded to rampage through Poland as the first step toward conquering Europe.
The contributions of Polish soldiers and pilots during the invasion of Poland have been cast aside in favor of the Blitzkrieg mythos. But the truth of what happened in those first days of what became known as the Polish September Campaign is much more complicated than that. And in the process of that truth fading away, history has swallowed a nasty bit of Nazi propaganda.
To begin with, the myth of the Polish cavalry charge against tanks did actually involve an actual Polish cavalry charge. The reason for this is quite simple: in 1939, mechanized warfare existed mostly in theory. Almost every army in Europe, including Germany, still used mounted cavalry for scouting and as mobile infantry. The purpose of these units wasn't to engage tanks on horseback, but to quickly move to areas where firepower was needed, dismount, and fight the enemy with towed anti-tank guns and small arms.
And while the Germans did have a number of tanks operating in Poland, they had yet to perfect the all-powerful Blitzkrieg that's come to dominate our thinking about German victory. Tactical thinking of the time thought of tanks mostly as infantry support, and that was the role the German army was using them in.
Even when the tank became the dominating mobile force on the battlefield, both the Axis and Allies made extensive use of horses in a number of key roles. Germany had six horse-mounted divisions in its active ranks as late as 1945, and would employ over two million horses in the course of the war. And while the Poles never used horses against tanks, the mighty Soviet Army did. The early days of the German invasion of the USSR saw incompetent and sycophantic commanders throwing masses of horse-riding cavalry against German armor, with horrific results for both man and beast.
All of this is to reinforce the idea that the Poles weren't "backwards" for employing horse-mounted soldiers — they were perfectly in keeping with the established military doctrine of 1939. Nor was the actual charge at Krojanty "the last cavalry charge in history" as some have suggested.
So what did happen the day "Polish cavalry charged German tanks?" Very little, as it turns out. It was a small skirmish in a campaign that lasted over a month, one battle out of many that only became famous because of the myth that rose up around it.
Only hours after the German invasion, two squadrons of horsemen from the Polish 18th Lancer Regiment caught a German infantry unit in the open near the town of Krojanty. Having the advantage over the unaware and lightly armed infantry, and tasked with delaying the German armored thrust, the Poles swiftly attacked.
Sabers were drawn and the order to charge was given. The 250 Polish horsemen broke up the enemy unit, inflicting 11 dead and 9 wounded on the stunned men of the German 76th Infantry regiment. The Germans panicked, broke ranks and ran for it.
But as the Poles consolidated their position, several German armored cars appeared, opening fire with machine guns and 20 millimeter cannons. The Lancers were caught in the open, just as they had caught the German infantry in the open. In the ensuing melee, about two dozen Polish troops were killed and the rest scattered. Despite the losses, the Lancers had done their job. They had delayed the German advance by several hours and sent panic through their lines — a feat that Polish cavalry would accomplish many other times during the September Campaign through charges against infantry.
It was in the immediate aftermath of the skirmish at Krojanty that the myth of the "charge against tanks" was born. After the Lancers scattered, the Germans retook the area in force, bringing tanks in as reinforcement. At that point, several war correspondents, including Italian journalist Indro Montanelli and the future author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer, were escorted onto the battlefield. They were told that the corpses they saw were the result of an attack with horses and lances against the tanks they saw, and breathlessly repeated the story in their papers, playing up the bravery — and foolishness — of the Poles.
Shirer especially got caught up in the romantic notion of doomed horsemen charging tanks. He wrote about the charge in his 1941 book Berlin Diary, and embellished it even more in 1959 in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Despite 20 years having passed, and no evidence ever surfacing to confirm the story, Shirer imbued the incident with an almost Homeric mythos, writing:
"At one point, racing east across the [Polish] Corridor, [The Germans] had been counterattacked by the Pomorska Brigade of Cavalry, and this writer, coming upon the scene a few days later, saw the sickening evidence of the carnage. It was symbolic of the brief Polish campaign.
Horses against tanks! The cavalryman's long lance against the tank's long canon! Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were, the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught."
What Shirer "saw" was only what the Germans had told him happened.
Equally guilty in propagating the "horses against tanks" nonsense was the famed German panzer commander General Heinz Guderian, who wrote in his memoir Panzer Leader,
The myth was later used by the Soviet Union as an example of how Polish officers, who Stalin would order massacred in 1943, were backwards, untrustworthy, uncaring about the fate of their men and useless as combatants.
With respected figures like Shrier and Guderian pumping it up, the myth became an accepted part of World War II lore, even as subsequent writers tore it down as an example of Nazi propaganda. Even as recently as 2009, the British newspaper The Guardian ran an editorial that referred to the bravery and stupidity of the non-existent incident, a mistake they later printed a retraction to correct.
Poland may have fallen to the German invasion, but her troops exacted a heavy price. Nearly 45,000 Germans were killed or wounded. 300 aircraft were destroyed, along with over 12,000 vehicles, including over 1,000 tanks and armored cars. And Polish soldiers, sailors and pilots would make great contributions to the war effort, with as many as 1 in 12 of the British pilots who saved the United Kingdom in 1940 being an exiled Pole.
These sacrifices deserve far more attention than one debunked, racist and incorrect bit of made up history.
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Cons of the Nodachi
Due to the nodachi’s length, the weapon is inflexible and not very agile. It is completely useless when fighting inside a building or in close-quarters. A katana is way better suited for quick combat.
Missing a blow with a ōdachi could be a fatal error as the recovery period is rather high. During this time the attacker is extremely vulnerable to enemy counterattacks.
As mentioned before using a nodachi requires a completely distinct fighting style. Your skills wielding a katana won’t help you master this weapon at all!
A nodachi is a blade heavy weapon. Hence doing a lot of strikes tires you quickly. For this reason, you would want the fight to be over as soon as possible.
These were all the pros and cons of the ōdachi I could think of. This list doesn’t prove that a nodachi is a better weapon than a katana of course.
It just offers a different use case and fighting style, but in the end, it comes down to preference and the skill of the swordsman.