Trooper Ronald Reagan: The Gipper's US Cavalry Legacy
When asked to name symbols of the presidency, many think of the more obvious trappings of power: Air Force One, the Secret Service and military escorts, convoys of dark limousines. But at the Reagan Presidential Library and the Reagan Ranch Center, one can see a remarkably personal symbol of Ronald Reagan the man, a clue to his character that reveals far more than armored limousines and private aircraft.
At President Reagan’s June 2004 state funeral in Washington, there were huge crowds of mourners and dignitaries. Military and police honor guards. There were limousines, 21 Air Force F-15 Eagle fighters flying over in a “Missing Man” formation, and Army cannon booming away in salute to their fallen Commander-in-Chief.
But if one looked towards the caisson, the Army artillery cart traditionally used to bear the coffin in military funerals, there was a truly rare and moving sight that will never occur again in American history.
The caisson was pulled by four magnificent Army horses. Close to them, to the sound of slowly beating, muffled drums, a soldier on foot led a riderless horse named Sergeant York, to represent the fallen Commander-in-Chief. There in the stirrups, turned backward, were Reagan’s Model 1940 US Cavalry riding boots and spurs. This old Cavalry practice continued a Roman tradition in which a slain leader symbolically faces and salutes his men on the way to his final resting place,
Ronald Reagan is the last President who was a veteran of the United States Horse Cavalry, a living link to the mounted Cavalry of American mythology. Though his enemies tried to deride him as a make-believe cowboy, Reagan was a genuine Trooper- a US Cavalry soldier trained to ride into battle on horseback. His riding was not an affectation put on for show to conform to an idolized, mythologized idea of the Old West. It was the legacy of his Cavalry service, a clue to understanding the man. Yet surprisingly, little has been written on Reagan, the Cavalry Trooper.
The freedom of riding an open range appealed to his character, and his ideas of America: free, independent. “An old Cavalry saying is,” he wrote to a young admirer in 1984, that “nothing is so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse.”
Growing up in the Midwest, Ronald Reagan absorbed the heroic myths of the American West through the movies- including the dashing, flamboyant US Cavalry arriving in the nick of time to save the day.
“Ever since I’d become addicted to the Saturday matinees,” he wrote in his An American Life, “I’d had an affection for those scenes when a troop of cavalrymen in blue tunics and gold braid, flags raised and bugles blowing, raced across the prairie to rescue the beleaguered pioneers.”
In a 1985 letter to a young admirer, Reagan told of how he learned to love riding:
When I was in high school and college, I spent my summers as a lifeguard at a river beach in my hometown. The man who took care of the park had a horse for pulling some of the equipment he used in keeping the park clean. Sometimes, at the end of the day, he would ride the horse bareback, down to the beach. One day he teased me into riding the horse and, before I knew it, I liked riding.
In the mid-nineteen-thirties, Reagan was a radio announcer for station WHO in Des Moines, Iowa. A handsome young bachelor, he favored tweed suits and a pipe, and drove a sporty metallic brown Nash convertible. He’d ridden with some friends at the local Valley Riding Club, and learned of the Army Reserve’s 14th Cavalry Regiment, stationed at nearby Camp Dodge.
By joining the Cavalry, Reagan could learn to ride for free and have access to fine horses. And surely, one can safely assume, he appreciated a dashingly uniformed young Cavalryman’s effect on the young ladies. Papers were signed; oaths were taken. Reagan began some home-study Army Extension Courses in 1935, and enlisted in the Army Reserve in April 1937, as a Private, or Trooper (the traditional name for an enlisted soldier in a Cavalry Troop) with B Troop of the 322nd Cavalry at Camp Dodge. Eventually, Reagan was commissioned a second Lieutenant in the Officer Reserve Corps of the U.S. Cavalry in May 1937.
As a new recruit, Trooper Reagan inherited the Cavalry’s colorful traditions. The “Cav” was flashy, jaunty, and did things larger than life, with panache. Dashing, romantic JEB Stuart leading charges in his ostrich-plumed hat and gold spurs during the War Between the States; the First United States Volunteer Cavalry (“Rough Riders”) firing their Colt revolvers into the air while training in Tampa in 1898, belting out a drunken chorus of “There’ll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight.” General George S. “Old Blood and Guts” Patton with his riding crop and non-regulation helmet liner polished to mirror finish: Cavalry soldiers, Reagan learned, do things with drama, style and dash.
A good example of Cavalry style that Reagan carried on decades later is how he saluted as Commander-in-Chief, a long-neglected practice that he revived. A salute is a sign of mutual respect between soldiers, and when old soldier Reagan took office in 1981, word quickly spread throughout the American military that unlike his predecessors, this President took the time to return the salutes of his military guards and escorts.
But Reagan didn’t just return salutes mechanically, by rote; he snapped them off. The Cavalryman’s use of colorful language has been immortalized as “swearing like a Trooper,” and though Reagan was the soul of propriety and good manners in public, he absorbed that tradition. Michael Deaver recounted Reagan’s ideal of the perfect Cavalry-style salute that he was trained to give: “You bring it up like honey, and shake it off like shit!”
While he did some things with style and flamboyance, in other things, Reagan insisted on doing it the regulation Cavalry way- especially when it came to riding correctly. To ride “by the book,” there really was a book; three volumes, in fact: “Horsemanship and Horsemastership,” by the Academic Division of the Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas. You can see one of Reagan’s well-worn personal copies at the Reagan Ranch Center, through which he learned to flawlessly execute such exotic commands on horseback as “By the left direct rein of opposition, half turn to the left!” and “Half turn in reverse, leave the track by the bearing rein!”
He liked his horses “tacked” (prepared to ride) just right- no room for error. And though he had plenty of orderlies to do it for him, he preferred to do it himself, by the book. Before a ride, Secret Service agents would see the leader of the Free World in his tack room at the Ranch, curry comb in hand, lovingly combing his horses, cleaning their shoes and hooves, and buckling and adjusting saddles and reins just so. He did it regulation “Cav” style, just as Private Reagan had learned back in a simpler time and place, 1930s Fort Dodge.
As a rider, Reagan preferred thoroughbreds, some of the strongest, most difficult horses to ride. At first (until he met Agent John Barletta, a fine rider and also a Cavalry veteran), he had trouble finding Secret Service protection to accompany him on horseback; even in his 70s, Reagan was such a good rider, young men in their 20s couldn’t keep up with him.
This echoed the time decades earlier when he was making the horse opera Santa Fe Trail (1940) with Errol Flynn. Reagan wanted to ride his own powerful thoroughbred horse in the film, for which he would receive a grand total of some twenty-five extra dollars a day. The extras working on the film- genuine working cowboys riding comparatively plain, everyday quarter horses- initially looked down on what they imagined was a Hollywood pretty boy showing off his fancy thoroughbred. Perhaps they hoped he’d get an embarrassing comeuppance when the cameras began to roll. But in fact, Trooper Reagan was such a fine rider that he literally left the professional cowboys in the dust. The director implored Reagan to slow down, because he rode so well and so fast that experienced wranglers- as well as the camera trucks- couldn’t keep up with him.
Like the true Cavalryman he was, of course, Reagan loved his horses. In a 1984 letter to a young lady who had saved money for years and finally bought her own horse, Reagan bragged about his new Hanoverian gelding:
“(He’s) a national champion hunter (from) Brazil. He replaces “Little Man.” Before him I had ridden his sister, “Nancy D,” and before her their mother, “Tar Baby,” who was in the movie “Stallion Road” that I made back in the 1940s. Thirty-seven years, those three carried me.”
In a famous World War Two cartoon, Bill Mauldin paid a joking tribute to the Cavalryman’s legendary love for his mount, showing a grieving Trooper putting a wrecked Jeep out of its misery with a Colt .45 automatic. Though Reagan was not an outwardly emotional man, Secret Service Agent John Barletta, who rode extensively with him, recalled his reaction when his mount Little Man suffered a broken neck and had to be put down:
Reagan didn’t say another thing about Little Man’s death until we returned to the ranch. Soon after we got back, he went up to Boot Hill, a beautiful vista on the ranch where he buried all the animals. He found a flat stone and chiseled Little Man’s name on it, his date of birth, and his date of death. He labored on that stone for quite some time. I was surprised by all the work he was putting into it, and offered a modern solution. “You know, Mr. President, you could get one of those electric drills to do that.”
“No,” he said, chiseling away, “I want to do it by hand.” It was clear to me that although he didn’t express his emotions about the horse in anything he said, the time Reagan spent working on that rock said, “This horse deserves my labor of love.”
During his Presidency, a cowboy hat was used to personify Reagan, sometimes derisively. But a better symbol would be his trusty old Cavalry riding boots, a part of his life for almost seventy years, from the first pair he wore as a newly enlisted Trooper Private in 1937, to the ones on Sergeant York, his riderless horse at his state funeral in 2004. The boots he wore as President and beyond were copies of the Model 1940 US Cavalry issue riding boots, the last ones the old “Horse Cav” would issue before giving up its horses and becoming motorized in 1942. Throughout World War Two, General George Patton wore them conspicuously. Decades later, Reagan made them famous again.
Like the man that wore them, they were a product of the American Mid-West. Simple, trusty, custom-made by the Dehner Boot Company of Omaha, Nebraska. John Barletta wrote, “These boots were from the old school, and few people wear them anymore.” Into his trusty old boots, Reagan would tuck traditional khaki riding breeches (jodphurs), similar to ones he was issued back at Fort Dodge in the 1930s, topped off by a pair of regulation, US Cavalry issue Model 1911 spurs.
When you visit the Reagan Presidential Library and the Reagan Ranch and Center, there are photos of Reagan’s involvement with earth-moving events of his era. You can see him with great, powerful leaders like Thatcher and Gorbachev. You can touch a piece of the Berlin Wall. These things illustrate the era and the President.
But for a clue to the man on a more personal level, take a look at his boots, and at his home. Reagan’s ranch reflects his love of the Cavalry. In the tack room are his saddles and riding equipment, of course, and a “Rancho de Cielo Cavalry Commander” hat. In the main house, on his shelves are books like General John Herr’s “The Story of the US Cavalry.” Over the bar is a framed, vintage recruiting poster. “The HORSE is man’s noblest companion, it states. “Join the CAVALRY and have a courageous friend.”
As Reagan wrote, his love of the Cavalry was inspired when a young Mid-Western boy thrilled to the classic “horse operas” in the 1930s. In the hokey but wholesome and entertaining movies of his youth, the desperate, embattled pioneers are often down to their last few rounds of ammunition, clinging together in fear or firing wildly in desperate courage, when the US Cavalry, with a flourish, rides to their rescue in the nick of time.
Of course, Reagan didn’t literally raise a bugle (called a “Trumpet” in the Cavalry) and actually sound the “Charge;” one can only carry an analogy so far. But undeniably, his words and actions gave hope and courage to desperate men. For his opposition to the Soviet regime, political dissident and human rights activist Natan Sharansky was imprisoned in a Soviet gulag in Siberia, a forced-labor penal colony. “We were all in and out of punishment cells so often-- me more than most,” he wrote, “that we developed our own tapping language to communicate with each other between the walls. A secret code. We even used the toilets to tap on.”
Sharansky recalled the electrifying effect on the Gulag’s dispirited prisoners when news of “the great, brilliant moment when we learned that Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the Soviet Union an Evil Empire before the entire world” spread like wildfire through the prison:
We learned about his Evil Empire speech from an article in Pravda or Izvestia that found its way into the prison. It was the brightest, most glorious day. Finally, a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell's Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union.
We had to develop new communication methods to pass on this great, impossible news. This was the end of Lenin's "Great October Bolshevik Revolution" and the beginning of a new revolution, a freedom revolution-- Reagan's Revolution.
Cynical critics may carp that Reagan didn’t actually lead a charge with sabers flashing and trumpets blaring into the gulag, but like the Cavalry’s arrival in the nick of time in the thrilling Westerns of his boyhood, Reagan’s words bucked up the embattled prisoners:
It was one of the most important, freedom-affirming declarations, and we all instantly knew it. Our whole block burst out into a kind of loud celebration (because) the world was about to change.”
At first, the image of a weary political prisoner tapping on the wall may not seem as glamorous as the dramatic rescue scenes in the Hollywood Westerns of Reagan’s youth. It’s a grim but powerful image of an age of the dictators- a brutalized political prisoner maintaining his humanity by tapping through prison walls. But it’s an ideal symbol of the 20th century, the age of the all-powerful State attempting to crush the individual human spirit: One tired but undaunted man tapping on a prison wall, together with other men who refused to surrender their individuality, could turn the tide against the odds. After being imprisoned for a total of eight long years, a defiant and unbowed Sharansky- the first political prisoner to be pardoned by Mikhail Gorbachev- was finally freed from the gulag, after steady public and private calls for his release from Reagan.
Americans in the 1960s and 70s were worn out; bitter and cynical after the stalemate of the Korean War; the Cold War nuclear weapons race. Vietnam. Assassinations. Watergate. The failure of the Carter Presidency. America and the West, the “enlightened” media and academic elitists insisted with masochistic pleasure, were well in decline; the future lay with the Soviet Empire.
But just as Winston Churchill’s appeal to a heroic, romantic past had awakened the best in his people, Reagan- like Churchill an old Trooper whose blood had stirred to flashing sabers, thundering hoofbeats, and guidons whipping in the wind- renewed his tired peoples’ spirit. He inspired the world to buck the odds and fight the Cold War to what Reagan saw as a simple outcome: as he put it, “We win. They lose.”
If you seek Reagan the President, his majestic, huge Air Force One and armored limousines are accessible and impressive. But to get a sense of the man, look for a humble pair of his broken-in, well-worn Model 1940 US Cavalry boots and spurs. His Cavalry service was a source of pride, to the end of his life. Although Reagan later transferred to the Army Air Corps during World War Two, his Cavalry service was a source of pride for the rest of his long life. Decades later, when he was President, the US Cavalry Association at Fort Riley, Kansas was thrilled to receive his membership application. Reagan (who would also serve as honorary director of the veterans’ organization) had taken the time to carefully detail his Cavalry service, in his own handwriting.
At Reagan’s June 2004 state funeral, the military tradition that surrounded the ceremony was magnificent, something few will witness in this casual age. But as I walked beside his procession from the White House to the Capitol, where he would lay in state, honored by hundreds of thousands of his fellow Americans, it wasn’t the pomp and circumstance that moved me. As an old Trooper myself, what hit me hard was the sight of Reagan’s trusty old riding boots facing backward in the stirrups on Sergeant York.
It was about three in the morning when I finally entered the Capitol Rotunda and slowly approached Reagan’s coffin, which was surrounded by military honor guards still as statues. The formality and solemnity that pervaded the room left no doubt that here lay a President. But to me, there was a deeper, more poignant, highly personal dimension; I was there to honor a fellow Trooper.
Cavalry soldiers joke about “Fiddler’s Green” a sort of Valhalla for horse soldiers. For generations, Troopers have roared out bawdy drinking songs that honor a long, proud line of larger-than-life heroes: dashing, fun-loving “JEB” Stuart, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, charging to glory on foot- and, in Reagan’s time, Patton blazing across Europe in his anachronistic khaki jodphurs, boots and spurs. As I faced Reagan’s coffin, even in my grief I had to smile: if there’s a special heaven for old Cavalry soldiers, Trooper Reagan, our last President from the old Horse Cavalry, will be in very good company. As a newly enlisted Private in 1937, Reagan had been told of a glorious pantheon of Cavalry heroes. Now, he was joining them.
Standing there, perhaps I imagined the echoes of bugle calls from my own service in Bosnia-Herzegovina with Apache Troop (Forward) of the 104th Cavalry, as “Reveille” and “Taps” bounced off the bullet-holed walls of the local minarets. Maybe I imagined the Hollywood bugles and hoofbeats that young Reagan had thrilled to as a kid in some long-gone movie house.
Reagan’s piddling critics (who most likely could not tell one end of a horse from the other) had derided him as a phony cowboy. Yet he fulfilled every American boy’s fantasies of cinematic Cavalry glory- not in his dreams, but on a permanent, worldwide scale. A young Midwesterner who cheered the B-movie Cavalry during the Depression, he grew to manhood to become a real Trooper.
In the heroic American West that lives in all our boyhood fantasies (and stubbornly refuses to die in our manhood), sabers flash in the sun, swallow-tailed guidons (flags) whip in the wind, and to the sound of thundering hoofbeats, the trumpet sounds the “Charge,” and the Cavalry rides to the rescue in the nick of time. Ronald Reagan- Trooper Reagan- rode to the rescue of his embattled country. And America, and the world, are better because of him.
As an old Trooper myself, facing Reagan’s flag-draped coffin, my response was automatic. I came to attention so sharply that my heels clicked. I swung my right arm up in a salute “smooth as honey,” as Reagan joked, then snapped it away crisply, “shaking it off like (crap).”
My salute was so sharp and unexpected at 3 am, that the honor guards turned to glance over at me.
I think the Gipper would have understood.