Frequently Asked Questions

Why do you portray the 10th NY Cavalry?

We chose to portray the 10th NY Cavalry for a variety of reasons. First, the State of New York contributed far more volunteer cavalrymen to the Union Army than any other State, so it seemed appropriate that the “Empire State” be represented in the NCWC.

Second, the NCWC focuses on the Eastern theater of the Civil War, especially Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, and the 10th NY operated in that area, participating in many of the most significant cavalry battles.

Third, the 10th NY was a relatively diverse regiment for its time—a great variety of nationalities, ages, occupations, and levels of education were represented, as well as both urban and rural dwellers. This allows our members more choices in developing their 1860s personas.

Last but not least, the 10th NY is a relatively well documented regiment. The regimental history and the letters, diaries and memoirs of unit members give an excellent window into the personalities that made up the regiment, and the day to day life of the troopers.

Do you ever portray other regiments?

Yes, we do portray other cavalry and horse artillery units when needed for specific events. For example, we fall in with the 9th Virginia Cavalry (Confederate) when needed to balance numbers on the battlefield. We also collaborate with several other groups, including Pelham’s Battery (NCWC), and Stanford’s Mississippi Battery (CS) Bridges’ Illinois Battery (US) (WCWA), to recreate a horse artillery impression. We use teams of horses to pull cannons and caissons. For local living history events we may depict Oregon, Washington or California cavalry or militia.

Do I need to have my own horse?

You don’t need to own a horse to join. However, the 10th NY is a mounted unit, so we expect that you either know how to ride, or are very interested in learning how to ride and care for horses. This goes for our civilians too! School horses are sometimes available at our trainings; call or e-mail ahead for availability. (You will be expected to pay for your portion of gas for horse transport and facility use fees for any school horse you use.)

Another option to consider is leasing, or part-leasing, a horse. Leasing a horse can be a good way to find out if the cavalry is for you, before committing to full-time horse ownership.

What level of riding experience do I need to have?

We accept riders of all levels of expertise, from enthusiastic beginners to experienced competitors. At our monthly training events, we take horses and riders from the ground up, including gunfire training. When needed we break lessons into beginner and intermediate/advanced sections.

Beginners work with a certified riding instructor to ensure that they start off with a solid foundation. We have found that in a group lesson setting, beginners progress much faster than they would in individual lessons.

The 10th NY is also a great home for the intermediate and advanced rider. We value and those who have demonstrated excellent horsemanship skills, and give them opportunities to demonstrate these skills to the public.

Whatever their level of experience, all riders must pass a mounted skills test at the “Basic” level before being allowed to participate in battle reenactments. Advanced testing is available for those who want to demonstrate additional skills such as jumping fences, taking hits off the horse, or fighting hand-to-hand.
Experienced riders may choose to train and test as artillery drivers. Considerable skill is needed for this job, since it involves controlling a team of 2 horses—attached to 3,000 lbs of equipment—at the same time. Artillery drivers must also pass a skills test before participating in reenactments.

Do you ride “English” or “Western”?

A Civil War era cavalryman would not have known what you meant by this question. The 19th century military seat, which we teach and practice at our trainings, is based on classical dressage. In most cases, the rider sits the trot rather than posts. For more technical information about the military seat, click here.
The following quotes from Ron Smith, a military horsemanship instructor, are pertinent here:

What kind of horses do you use?

Any solid-colored horse can be used. (Solid colors include black, brown, bay, chestnut, gray, roan, dun, and buckskin.) White markings such as socks and blazes are fine, but “paint” or appaloosa type horses were not used by the cavalry. Spotted horses are however, acceptable for civilian impressions.

The height of the horse can be 14 hands or taller. Often smaller horses have excellent weight carrying ability and stamina. Really the only limitation on height is being able to carry the necessary weight, and keep up with the rest of the troop. As far as type of horse goes, almost any type other than large modern draft breeds can be used. The heaviest wheel horses used in Civil War artillery weighed about 1400 pounds, while few cavalry horses weighed more than 1100 pounds. As was found in the Civil War, large draft horses generally lacked the stamina to keep up with the rest of the troop and had more problems with overheating. Draft crosses, however, can work very well.

Officers often rode Thoroughbreds or hunter types that were taller and heavier than the average trooper’s mount. Some officers’ horses were more than 16 hands, and a few, like Joe Hooker’s “Lookout” or Grant’s “Cincinnati” close to 17 hands. (Thus the saying “getting on your high horse.”) Most enlisted men actually preferred shorter, “snug built” or “pony built” horses if they had a choice.

Needless to say, the horse must be serviceably sound for its intended use. Older horses—like older people--may have some degree of arthritis or the “aches and pains” of age, but with proper warmup and in some cases medication, they can perform the required work comfortably. (If in doubt, consult your veterinarian.)

Can I use a gaited horse?

Yes, but bear in mind that because we ride in formation, troopers riding gaited horses may have difficulty matching the speed of other horses. Gaited horses were occasionally used in the cavalry but were not common, probably for this reason. If you choose to use a gaited horse you will need to ride at 3.75 mph (walk), 8 mph (trot or gait of equivalent speed) and 11-12 mph (canter) in formation. These were the regulation speeds prescribed in the cavalry manuals. Officers were more likely to ride gaited horses because they did not have to adjust their speed to that of the troop.

How do you train your horses to be calm around shooting?

Before we bring any horse to a public event, we take them to training events where they are gradually exposed to gunfire and the other sights and sounds of Army life—flags, tents, ground troops, etc. We use calm, experienced horses to show the “new recruits” that there is nothing to fear.

"My horse could never do that!"

A lot of prospective recruits say that “my horse could never do that!” However, we’ve found that almost any horse with a good attitude, solid basic training (can walk, trot, and canter under saddle), and good manners around other horses will do well. Some horses that have not been ridden in a group before may be uncomfortable initially, but most adjust quickly and learn to enjoy group training. We’ve also found that group training gives new horses confidence, and riders are often surprised at how much they can accomplish. Very few horses turn out to be “untrainable” for the cavalry service.

Actually, most horses like mounted drill, as the following quote attests to:

“After commmanding a mounted law enforcement unit of 54 horses for eleven years I can attest to Gordon's assertion that horses learn to understand drill commands. Once they are schooled to a proper gather, they can even learn to distinguish the difference between a preparatory command and a command of execution. I also maintain that most horses enjoy organized drill, and sometimes maintain the proper order of a formation, or evolution better than some of the riders. Seems odd for an old horseman to say, but I swear that my horse sometimes corrected a lesser horse's misbehavior in the formation.”

--Jim Ottevaere, mounted police instructor

One time we were doing an arena demonstration where one of our riders “took a hit” off a horse. The horses didn’t want to be caught by the pickup rider (he obviously thought it was fun game of chase) but as soon as the officer yelled “Front into Line!” the riderless horse came up behind the formation, pushed his way into his accustomed spot, and “dressed” perfectly with the other horses.

I’m ready to buy a horse. What should I be looking for?

Friday P. M., June 14, 1861.

DEAR UNCLE: . . . My want now is a good horse.  A small or medium-sized animal of good sense, hardy and kind, good looking enough, but not showy, is what I want.  A fast walk, smooth trot, and canter are the gaits. I don't object to a pacer if he can walk and gallop well. Don't bother yourself to find one, but if you happen to know any, let me know. I am busy or I would write more.



This soldier is the very same one that later became a President of the United States. And his advice, written as a young man, still holds true today.

First of all, if you have a choice, buy a horse that falls within the types and colors used by the cavalry. Many of the old bloodlines, breeds or types of horses used in the Civil War no longer exist, but hunter and cob types, many quarter horses, breeding stock (solid colored) paints and Appaloosas, Morgans, Canadians, and grade (crossbred) horses do look the part. Full blooded Thoroughbreds are usually too sensitive and high-strung for all but advanced riders. However, part Thoroughbreds often make excellent cavalry mounts. Arabians were very rare in the US at the time of the Civil War, but as long as they are not too extreme in type and disposition, they can work well. We have found that Crabbett and Polish Arabians often have temperaments suitable for cavalry use.

Generally color is the last thing to look at in a horse, but remember, spotted horses are not allowed for military use.

The horse may be any size, but remember that very tall horses (over 16 hands) were not typical for enlisted men, and smaller horses were easier to mount and dismount from. They also required less food—a big reason why cavalry troopers preferred them. Cavalry inspectors were told to buy horses between 15 and 16 hands but would accept horses as short as 14 hands.

The horse needs to be serviceably sound for its intended use. A horse you buy cheaply because of some unsoundness will generally not turn out to be cheap in the long run.

Attitude is everything. I’d rather buy a horse that’s on the homely side but with an accepting, willing attitude, than a beautiful horse that’s a knothead. (Been there, done that.) Remember, in the cavalry, not only do YOU have to deal with the knothead, you’re forcing everyone else to deal with him as well.  Your horse should also be well mannered around strangers. A horse that is either aggressive or fearful when approached by strangers is not one you want to bring to a public event.

A very desirable quality in a cavalry horse, is being able to settle down and relax as soon as the action is over. A horse that constantly fusses and frets is not only a pain to ride, but is also is more prone to physical problems, from stress colic to tying up.

One thing to be aware of is that modern breeding for performance and show (as opposed to all-around usefulness) has produced many animals that do not have a temperament suitable for cavalry use. This holds true no matter what the breed. (Even in the Civil War, fancy hackneys and park horses were too “hot” for the battlefield . . . probably why Mr. Hayes wrote that he wanted a horse that was “not showy.”) “Ranch-bred” horses and “working” lines are better choices.

Modern feeding practices also tend to make horses hotter and more skittish.  Try substituting good quality grass hay for alfalfa, and cutting back on grain (especially any sweetened feeds) and you may find that a “hot” horse becomes a lot more manageable. If he can’t keep his weight on this diet, try adding beet pulp or low carb, high fat feeds instead of grain. If your horse has had certain types of training he may need to be retrained—possibly from the ground up--for cavalry use.

The Army preferred geldings to mares, yet there are many accounts of mares serving very well. Some people think that a good mare is the best of all horses. You’ll probably want to know if she has intense heat cycles that make her difficult to deal with.

I can buy an “off the track” Thoroughbred or Standardbred for a few hundred dollars, or even adopt one for free. Do they make good cavalry horses?

The short answer is, usually not. The racing bloodlines of any breed- and this includes not only Thoroughbreds, but Standardbreds, Quarter Horses and Arabians as well- tend to be high strung. The mental traits that contribute to winning races (a strong competitive instinct, sensitivity, and a massive adrenaline response) make these horses much more difficult to handle. They can be explosive and unpredictable. Worst of all for the cavalry reenactor, they often have difficulty settling down in groups of horses. It’s no fun fighting with a horse that has to be in front all the time, and it can be dangerous.

There are always exceptions: some racehorses wash out because they are not fast or aggressive enough to win races. (One of the best rides I ever had was on a horse like this, an uncharacteristically uncompetitive Thoroughbred who was trained for fox hunting. He didn’t mind at all hunting in the back of the field, and would jump any fence you put him to with the greatest nonchalance.) The question is, do you have the expertise to recognize a “diamond in the rough” and retrain him?

Some expert horsemen make a good living by doing just this. They buy ex-racehorses for next to nothing, retrain them for other uses, and sell them for high prices. Some of these animals go on to careers in dressage, jumping, eventing, or fox-hunting and do very well at it. The Amish regularly buy off the track Standardbreds and retrain them as carriage horses. But even in an expert’s hands, there are some ex-racehorses that never will be safe or reliable mounts for novice or intermediate riders.

There are other issues to consider, however.  Racehorses tend to be high maintenance animals. Most need grain (and lots of it) to stay in good condition. Pasture alone is not enough. With their thin skins and fine coats, stables and blankets are a must in winter. Their feet tend to be small, with thin soles and hoof walls, so going without shoes is not an option. Small feet and fine light leg bones, coupled with large muscles, make these animals fast but also fragile. Racing puts more stresses on a horse’s legs than any other sport, and as a result, many ex-racehorses come down with arthritis and other ailments relatively early in life. All in all, money saved on the initial purchase price is quickly made up for in higher maintenance costs.

If the idea of buying an ex-racehorse still appeals to you, take an expert with you when looking at horses. Better yet, hire an expert to find suitable horses for you to choose from. You will have to pay a commission (generally at least 10% of the purchase price of the horse) but this expense is worth every penny. Once you have decided to buy, get at least a basic vet check to rule out major health problems.

Do you allow women in the unit?

Yes. We encourage women in our organization to portray civilians of the Civil War period. (Men can portray civilians too of course!) Because our unit is so horse-oriented, we encourage our civilians to use horses (or other well mannered livestock) as part of their historical impressions. The civilian use of horses, mules and oxen is severely underrepresented in the hobby.

Women Employed by the Army
The Army did employ some women. Army regulations allowed regiments in garrison camp to hire up to four washer-women per company of 100 men; these women were often wives of the enlisted men and they were entitled to pay and benefits (see Kautz’s Customs of Service, 1864). The 10th NY had one woman on its muster rolls, a hospital matron. (Many other women served in the hospitals but usually were not recorded on the rolls because they refused to accept pay for their services.) There is one record of a female sutler (traveling merchant) attached to the Army.

Civilian Women
More often, soldiers interacted with civilians who happened to live in the areas where the armies went through. In Christmas of 1861, the 10th NY Cavalry arrived in the loyal Union town of Gettysburg, PA. This was to be their training camp for 72 days. During that time they visited local civilians, attended their churches, ate in their homes, and developed close friendships (and sometimes romances) with them. The first casualty of the Tenth is buried there. In July of 1863, they passed through Gettysburg again—this time to fight in the famous battle that bears that name.

The Tenth frequently interacted with Southern civilians. Unlike some units, the officers of the Tenth insisted that local civilians be treated well, even if they were Southern sympathizers. (To be fair, Yankee cavalry regiments that gained infamy with Southerners for their poor treatment of civilians were usually acting under orders by their superiors.) One captain of the Tenth was even written up for taking the regimental band to serenade Southern ladies. Local farmers received payment (or promissory notes) for any “requisitioned” food and forage. The Roop family of Carroll County, Maryland, preserved one such note, “a receipt from an officer of the 10th New York Cavalry for the purchase of 44 bushels of oats @ 65¢ per bushel and 13 bushels of corn @ 90¢ per bushel.*” At one point Colonel Kilpatrick of the 2nd NY Cavalry called the Tenth “an aggregation of chicken thieves” but upon investigation it was shown that the thieves were members of the 2nd NY, masquerading as the Tenth. (see Kill-Cavalry).

But not all interactions with Southern civilians were cordial, as this letter from Manning Austin of Company G attests:

Letter datelined Harewood (Md), Aug. 8, 1864:

"I must tell you about my jayhawking last night....I went out and confiscated some of an old secesh' ducks to my own special benefit. When we had the order to be ready to march, they stopped our rations so that we had nothing but bread & coffee & musty old rice to eat....I had never been in the habit of asking for what few apples I wanted to eat while passing through an orchard in York state...thought I should not commence it by asking then of an old secesh who deserved to have a rope around his neck....he then came down to the beach where we then were...saying that we were a pack of villians...I told him if he did not look out...we would string him up to a tree and leave him to breath his last. One of our boys...was going to kill him...slapped his face....When a rebel won't sell me anything to eat when I need it, I will help myself....some of our boys have gone out tonight to search a house for a rebel flag and clothing that they have been making for the southern army...the secesh are as thick as fleas on a dog...."

Another important type of civilian interaction was the assistance provided to escaping Yankee prisoners by slaves and former slaves. This assistance took several forms, from providing food and shelter, to guiding escapees through enemy lines. In his memoir One of the People, Lt. Burton Porter frequently mentions the invaluable assistance of slaves, who helped him through three escape attempts at considerable risk to themselves. From other accounts, this was a typical occurrence.
*Reference: Jay A. Graybeal, “Relics from the Gettysburg Campaign,” Carroll County Times, July1,1990.

Female soldiers
In the Civil War, some women—perhaps several hundred--successfully disguised themselves as men in order to fight. They did it to be close to husbands or brothers, for patriotic reasons, for adventure, to escape bad home situations, or perhaps the prospect of three solid meals a day and 12 dollars a month pay was attractive. (See They Fought Like Demons.) Ironically it was much easier for a woman to pass as a man in the Civil War than it is today. Seeing a woman in trousers would have been outside the experience of most people. Also, there were many young men in the ranks (some of whom lied about their true age to enlist.) A woman could hide herself among beardless teenagers. Last but not least, medical inspections were often cursory at best. Women in the ranks were generally discovered not through their appearance, but rather because of female mannerisms that they had failed to change, or when they became sick or wounded. Still, the woman who fought as a soldier had a very tough row to hoe. Those that were successful endured considerable hardship to avoid discovery.

Private David Williams enlisted in the 10th NY Cavalry at the age of 18—however his youthful appearance suggests that he, like many other young recruits, may have misrepresented his age.

The 10th NY also allows women to serve as soldiers, but they must commit to presenting a quality soldier impression at public events (at a minimum, they should not be detectable as females from a few yards away.) They also need to behave as soldiers as long as they are in uniform. Allowing women (disguised as men) to serve as soldiers is a topic of considerable debate in the living history community. Unfortunately many modern “women soldiers” make little effort to disguise their gender and are easily detectable from a distance. This does not sit well with those who wish to create an accurate historical impression for the public, or with reenactors who are hoping for a “time travel” experience. Therefore, if you are a woman who wants to portray a soldier, you need to realize that you will be under much more intense scrutiny than your brothers in arms, and will need to work even harder to create a believable impression.

Women who wish to portray soldiers should be aware that at most “authentic” Civil War events, females in uniform are not allowed. This is not an issue at large events in Oregon and Washington, however some of the smaller living history events may have different standards.