Compañías volantes or “flying companies” were highly mobile Spanish light cavalry units that patrolled the frontier regions of New Spain’s northern provinces in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In contrast with traditional heavy cavalry units and stationary presidial garrisons, these cavalry squadrons were designed to provide a rapid response to hostile raiders and conduct extended offensive patrols, or cortadas, to maintain territorial integrity and guard against potential threats.
The use of compañías volantes originated in 1713 when Spanish Viceroy Duque de Linares commanded settlers in the frontera to create mounted militia units to combat frequent incursions by Indian groups. Their basic organization was more or less constant throughout the eighteenth century and was eventually formalized after the New Regulations for Presidios were issued in 1772. Each unit was composed of approximately seventy local volunteers who were trained by professional officers of the Spanish Royal Army. Regulations tasked them with making regular patrols throughout the despoblado (the sparsely populated frontier region), and each rider was responsible for equipping himself with a carbine, two pistols, a saddle, blanket, spurs, hat, and multiple horses.
Tlaxcalan (Tlascalan) settlers in Coahuila played a significant part in the development of compañías volantes. The most important of the Tlaxcalan squadrons was the Compañía Volante of San Carlos de Parras (see SECOND FLYING COMPANY OF SAN CARLOS DE PARRAS), which introduced the caballada principle. The caballada was the herd of spare horses brought along by the squadrons on their campaigns. This remuda allowed for the tireless pursuit of enemies on long-term patrols.
The obvious utility of the compañía volante made it popular with settlers and a fixture in defense of the frontier regions. In addition to defending against Indian aggression, the compañías guarded against illegal immigration and intrusion from the United States. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, some compañías volantes, such as the squadrons at Béxar and Laredo, were tasked with actively pursuing local fugitives, and by the 1820s civilian authorities regularly requested their aid in apprehending criminals who had vanished into the despoblado.
The compañía volante remained virtually unchanged until the Mexican era. In 1826 new regulations governing presidios shifted responsibility for local defense from the national government to state and municipal governments. Local citizens recruited by individual states and municipalities replaced the compañías volantes as the method of defense against Indian attacks and other intrusions. These citizen militias were distinct and set apart from the regular military. By 1830 localized militia units had supplanted the national military’s cavalry squadrons in matters of local defense.
The significance of the flying squadron and its effect on military and law enforcement organization and tactical methods in Texas and elsewhere had a lasting influence that continued after the Texas Revolution and throughout the nineteenth century. Although Texas president Sam Houston at first favored a large central army, he later embraced the concept of cavalry patrols to defend sparsely-populated frontier regions. In correspondence with frontier outposts, he continually urged citizens to form small, roving cavalry units for reconnaissance and defense. The Texas Rangers and the U.S. Army also drew inspiration from the compañías volantes. Like the compañías, the Texas Rangers were neither entirely military nor civilian. They adopted the same patrol routes of earlier cortadas, embraced the concept of the caballada to facilitate extended pursuits, and were required to possess a similar array of armaments and supplies. Tejanos also continued to serve alongside Anglos in many early ranger units. Additionally, the concept of mobile cavalry squadrons impacted the U.S. Army during the Mexican War, where officers such as Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, Franklin Pierce, Robert E. Lee, William T. Sherman, and George B. Meade were impressed by the effectiveness of these units and later implemented some of their tactics and techniques during the Civil War.