Sheldon’s Horse, The Second Continental Light Dragoons was commissioned by Congress under the command of Colonel Elisha Sheldon on December 12 of 1776 at the direct recommendation of General George Washington. Sheldon first came to the attention of the Commander in Chief earlier that year when Sheldon lead the 5th Regiment Connecticut Light Horse to Washington’s New York headquarters to volunteer for army service. The offer was refused due to lack of sufficient forage for men and horses. However, after the October 1776 defeat at White Plains, NY, and the rear guard actions of the Connecticut 5th Light Horse across New Jersey,Washington came to recognize the value of a regular mounted establishment and the Second Continental Light Dragoons was born with Elisha Sheldon commissioned as Colonel-Commandant.
From March 1777 until January 1781 the regiment consisted of six troops drawn mostly from Connecticut, but with men from Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. In January 1781 following the reorganization as a legion, there were 4 troops of mounted, 2 troops of dismounted and 2 companies of Light Infantry. The unit never served as a whole. The first action occurred when Capt. Epaphras Bull and Lt. Thomas Young Seymour led a portion of the Second Dragoons at the battles at Trenton and Princeton, NJ. Elements of the regiment later saw combat at:
- Newtown of Sullivan’s 1779 campaign in south Western New York
- The Battles of Saratoga, where a portion of the regiment under Lt. Seymour not only fought as the sole Continental cavalry, but was assigned to escort Burgoyne to Boston after the British surrender.
- Schoharie, at The Battle of The Flockey where Sheldon’s Horse performed the first cavalry charge on American soil.
- Whitemarsh, where two troopers are buried. The barn which was utilized as the field hospital still stands.
- Yorktown, twenty Sheldon’s Horse were detailed to accompany Washington and Rochambeau to the York peninsula. A Sheldon’s trooper is depicted in the painting of Cornwallis’ surrender.
From its commissioning on December 12, 1776 until its orders for discharge on November 20, 1783, Sheldon’s patrolled and skirmished its way along the borders of western Connecticut, Westchester and Rockland Counties as well as northern New Jersey. The dangers inherent to these seemingly mundane duties is reflected in many of the Pension claims of Sheldon’s veterans:
- “Pvt. Allen Gilbert; Wounded at Pound Ridge on July 2, 1779”
- “Trooper Henry Crawford; Wounded by a musket ball in the thigh at Mile Square, December, 1777”
- “Lt. James Dole; Wounded in hip by gunshot at King Street, August 17, 1780”.
Numerous whaleboat raids against British and Loyalist installations on Long Island were conducted by Sheldon’s troopers. It was one of these acts of bravery on one such raid that earned Sgt. Elijah Churchill the Badge of Military Merit (the Purple Heart), precursor to the Congressional Medal of Honor and one of only three awarded for Revolutionary War service.
The regiment performed as the first “pony express” relaying messages along a string of express stations between Washington’s headquarters and the northern colonies. This led to the special currier service using the 2nd Dragoons as the communications link between George Washington and Count Rochembeau at New port.
Sheldon’s served as advance scouts for the American army and earned the sobriquet “Washington’s Eyes”. Under Major Benjamin Tallmadge, Sheldon’s also became Washington’s ears as Tallmadge operated his “Culper” spy ring on Long Island and in New York City.
Members of the unit comprised Washington’s personal bodyguard. Men of the Second Light Dragoons guarded John Andre during his incarceration, trial and subsequent execution in Nyack, New York.
In 1781, Sheldon’s Horse became the first American unit to conduct a combined combat operation with our French Allies in Tarrytown, New York. Rochambeau’s staff considered Sheldon’s Horse, Second Continental Light Dragoons as “ . . . incontestably the best on the continent. . . .”
Sheldon’s Horse was never officially decommissioned under the 18th century articles of war, making this regiment unique among all Continental cavalry units. The majority of its numbers were furloughed between June and August 1783 after the cessation of hostilities. The regiment was ordered to be discharged in final orders of George Washington on November 20, 1783 but was not formally discharged with the colors cased as prescribed by the rules of war for that time period. They in effect were returned to the authority of the state of Connecticut but never called to act again. A final detail escorted General Washington to his farewell in New York.
After the conclusion of the War for Independence, some Sheldon’s veterans participated in the westward expansion. Many went on to achieve positions of prominence in diplomacy and politics, civil service and commerce. Thomas Young Seymour was a founding member of the Governor’s Horse Guard and was the subject of a portrait by John Trumbull, while Joshua King sat for Gilbert Stuart.
The final muster was taken in May 1866 with the death of the last surviving trooper, Lemmuel Cook, at the age of 107.