Today I spent the afternoon touring the Museum of the Confederacy with my son who is home from college. On this visit I looked for something that would tie in with my new focus on the Revolution. I’ve wanted to write something that combines my interest in both Civil War and Colonial history for quite some time. One of the MOC's display cases featured this Roman-Greco style helmet that belonged to a cavalryman in the 4th South Carolina Cavalry, originally dubbed the Charleston Light Dragoons. Members wore this unique style of helmet that recalled the days of their forefather's regiment.
The Charleston Light Dragoons boast a storied history that stretches from America’s fight for independence to the War Between the States. Founded around 1773, this group of South Carolina mounted infantrymen was originally formed as the Charleston Horse-Guards. During the Revolutionary War, they were known as the Charleston Light Dragoons. The first captain of this unit was a man named Samuel Prioleau whose descendents would ride together as members of Company K, in the 4th South Carolina Cavalry (one being wounded at Pocotaligo and the other falling at Cold Harbor). Their sacrifice followed a long lineage of service by their forefathers. In order to fully appreciate the legacy of this elite unit, one must begin at their beginning.
The original Charleston Horse-Guards were established to perform the duties of reconnaissance and patrolling. Acting in the capacity of mounted militia, these dragoons were among South Carolina’s first cavalrymen or scouts. Eventually the bravado of these units led to an expansion of roles to include combat. Unfortunately, it would be friendly fire that would deal one of the most costly blows to the regiment. According to A Sketch of the Charleston Light Dragoons From the Earliest Formation of the Corps by Edward Wells:
In the stormy times of the Revolution the command is believed to have consisted as several companies. This was the case in 1777 when Major Benjamin Huger, with a detachment from the corps, rode out of the lines in Charleston to reconnoiter for the expected approach of British forces. Not having discovered the enemy in the vicinity, he was bringing his men back, and had reached a point in what is now Meeting street near the Citadel, when they were fired upon with grape from a field piece, in command presumably of some militiamen, who mistook them for the King’s troops. Huger was killed. General Hampton, grandfather of the present general, at that time with the detachment, was riding “boot-leg and boot-leg,” as he expressed it, with Major Huger. The relative of this latter gallant gentleman, the inheritor of his name, and the strong characteristics of the blood, fought under the flag of the Dragoons at Pocotaligo, Hawes-shop, and other hotly contested fields.
In the months leading up to the Civil War the Charleston Light Dragoons were mentioned among the troops guarding Fort Sumter in 1860. They would later join a number of South Carolina militia companies who were consolidated into the 4th South Carolina Cavalry. The 4th S.C. regiment was organized in 1862, by consolidating the 10th and 12th Battalion South Carolina Cavalries into 10 companies including Company K, the former Light Dragoons out of Charleston.
Referred to as an “anomalous unit,” the ranks of the Co. K were reputed to be so exclusive that officer’s resigned their own commissions to serve with ordinary enlisted troops. It is said that the unit carried themselves with a unique flair and a natural assumption of social superiority even over fellow Confederate cavalry. W. Eric Emerson outlined the aristocratic attitudes of the Charleston Light Dragoons, as part of the 4th South Carolina Cavalry in his book Sons of Privilege: The Charleston Light Dragoons in the Civil War. According to the book’s teaser:
Organized much like a gentleman’s social club, the dragoons differed markedly from most units in the Confederate and Union armies, which brought together men of varying social and economic backgrounds. Emerson vividly depicts the dragoons’ two assignments—a relatively undemanding stint along the South Carolina coast and a subsequent few weeks of intense combat in Virginia. Recounting the unit’s 1864 baptism by fire at the Battle of Haw’s Shop, he suggests that the dragoons’ unrealistic expectations about their military prowess led the men to fight with more bravery than discretion. Thus the unit suffered heavy losses, and by 1865 only a handful survived.
Upon its reformation, the 4th S.C. was commanded by Colonel B. Huger Rutledge and served in the 1st Military District of South Carolina from December 1862 until it was transferred to the Army of Northern Virginia in March 1864. Serving under Major General Hampton's Division of cavalry, in the Cavalry Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, they would eventually be transferred to the Army of Tennessee under General Joseph E. Johnston. While under Johnston’s command they saw continuous action in the Campaign of the Carolinas through the spring of 1865, completing their wartime service with less than 200 men.
A Guide to South Carolina Civil War Research (The Charleston Light Dragoons)
Historical Sketch and Roster of the SC 4th Cavalry Regiment by John C. Rigdon
A Sketch of the Charleston Light Dragoons From the Earliest Formation of the Corps by Edward Wells
Sons of Privilege: The Charleston Light Dragoons in the Civil War by W. Eric Emerson