Shotgun's Home of the American Civil War

Cavalry of the Civil War, Its Evolution and Influence

        It may surprise non-military readers to learn that the United States, unprepared as it is for war, and unmilitary as arc its people, has yet become a model for the most powerful armies of Europe, at least in one respect. The leading generals and teachers in the art and science of war now admit that our grand struggle of 1861-65 was rich in examples of the varied use of mounted troops in the field, which are worthy of imitation.
        Lieutenant-General von Pelet-Narbonne, in a lecture before the Royal United Service Institution of Great Britain, emphatically maintains that "in any case one must remember that, from the days of Napoleon until the present time, in no single campaign has cavalry exercised so vast an influence over the operations as they did in this war, wherein, of a truth, the personality of the leaders has been very striking; such men as, in the South, the God-inspired Stuart, and later the redoubtable Fitzhugh Lee, and on the Northern side, Sheridan and Pleasonton."
        For a long time after our Civil War, except as to its political or commercial bearing, that conflict attracted but little attention abroad. A great German strategist was reported to have said that "the war between the States was largely an affair of armed mobs "--a report, by the way, unverified, but which doubtless had its effect upon military students. In the meantime other wars came to pass in succession--Austro-Prussian (1866), Franco-German (1870), Russo-Turkish (1877), and later the Boer War and that between Russia and Japan.
        In none of these campaigns were the cavalry operations conspicuous for originality or importance as auxiliary to the main forces engaged.
        Meanwhile, the literature of the American war--official and personal--began to be studied, and its campaigns were made subjects for text-books and monographs by British authors, which found ready publishers. Nevertheless, the American cavalry method has not gained ground abroad without a struggle. On the one hand, the failure of cavalry in recent European wars to achieve success has been made use of by one class of critics, who hold that "the cavalry has had its day "; that "the improved rifle has made cavalry charges impracticable "; that it has degenerated into mere mounted infantry, and that its value as an arm of service has been greatly impaired.
        On the other hand it is held by the principal cavalry leaders who have seen service in the field--Field-Marshal Lord Roberts, Generals French, Hamilton, and Baden-Powell (of Boer War fame), De Negrier and Langlois of France, and Von Bernhardi of Germany, and others, (1) that while the method of using modern cavalry has changed, the arm itself is more important in war than ever; (2) that its scope is broadened; (3) that its duties require a higher order of intelligence and training of its personnel--officers and men, and (4), above all, that it is quite possible to turn out a modern horse-soldier, 'armed with saber and rifle, who will be equally efficient, mounted or dismounted.
        Still the battle of the pens goes merrily on--the champions of the arme blanche or of the rifle alone, on the one side, and the defenders of the combination of those weapons on the other. The next great war will demonstrate, beyond peradventure, the practical value of "the American idea," as it is sometimes called.
        A glance at the conditions affecting the use of mounted troops in this country prior to our Civil War may be instructive;  it will show that eighty-five years of great and small wars, Indian fighting, and frontier service, proved to be a training school in which the methods followed by Sheridan, Stuart, Forrest, and others of their time had been really initiated by their famous predecessors--Marion, the "Swamp Fox," and "Light Horse Harry" Lee of the War for Independence, Charlie May and Phil Kearny of the Mexican War, and those old-time dragoons and Indian fighters, Harney and Cooke.
        Before the Revolution of 1776, the colonists were generally armed with, and proficient in the use of, the rifle--of long barrel and generous bore--and familiarity with the broken and wooded surface of the country made them formidable opponents of the British from the start, who both in tactical methods and armament were very inferior to the American patriots. Fortescue, an English writer, records the fact that "at the time of the Lexington fight there was not a rifle in the whole of the British army, whereas there were plenty in the hands of the Americans, who understood perfectly how to use them."
        In the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee, bodies of horsemen, similarly armed, were readily formed, who, if ignorant of cavalry maneuvers, yet with little preparation became the finest mounted infantry the world has ever seen; distinguishing themselves in numerous affairs, notably at King's Mountain, South Carolina, September 25, 1780, where two thousand sturdy "Mountain Men," hastily assembled under Colonels Sevier, Shelby, and Campbell, surrounded and almost annihilated a force of twelve hundred men (one hundred and twenty being regulars) under Major Ferguson, of the British army. Marion, the partisan, led a small brigade of mounted infantry, who generally fought on foot, although at times charging and firing from the saddle. There were also small bodies of cavalry proper, using the saber and pistol, with effect, against the British cavalry in many dashing combats.
        The War of 1812 was not conspicuous for mounted operations, but the irregular warfare which preceded and followed that "difference" with the mother country, further demonstrated the value of the dual armament of saber and rifle. The cavalry particularly distinguished itself in General Wayne's campaign of 1794 against the Northwestern Indians, and again under Harrison in the historic battle of Tippecanoe, November 7, 1811. At the battle of the Thames, October 5, 1813, a decisive charge made by a regiment of Kentucky cavalry against a large force of British and Indians was successful, resulting in the defeat of the enemy and death of the famous chieftain, Tecumseh. General Jackson's campaigns (1813-14) against the Creek Indians were marked by effective work on the part of the mounted volunteers.
        In 1833, Congress reorganized the regular cavalry by creating one regiment, followed in 1886 by another, called respectively, the First and Second United States Dragoons. The First Dragoons were sent to the Southwest to watch the Pawnees and Comanches. On this expedition, it was accompanied by Catlin, the artist, who made many of his Indian sketches then. These regiments have been in continuous service ever since.
        The first service of the Second Dragoons was against the Seminole Indians, in Florida, and for seven years the regiment illustrated the adaptability of the American soldier to service in the field under the most trying circumstances. "There was at one time to be seen in the Everglades, the dragoon (dismounted) in water from three to four feet deep; the sailor and marine wading in the mud in the midst of cypress stumps; and the infantry and artillery alternately on the land, in the water, or in boats." Here again, the combined mounted and dismounted action of cavalry was tested in many sharp encounters with the Indians.
        It was but a step from the close of the Florida war to the war with Mexico, 1846-47. The available American cavalry comprised the two regiments of dragoons and seven new regiments of volunteers. The regular regiments were in splendid condition. The most brilliant exploit was the charge made by May's squadron of the Second Dragoons upon a Mexican light battery at Resaca de la Palma, May 9, 1846, which resulted in the capture of the battery and of General La Vega, of the Mexican artillery. This dashing affair was afterward to be repeated many times in the great struggle between the North and South.
        The sphere of action, however, which had the most direct bearing upon the cavalry operations of the war was that known as "the Plains." The experience gained in the twelve years from 1848 to 1860, in frequent encounters with the restless Indian tribes of the Southwest, the long marches over arid wastes, the handling of supply trains, the construction of military roads, the exercise of command, the treatment of cavalry horses and draught animals, and the numerous other duties falling to officers at frontier posts, far distant from railroad or telegraph, all tended to temper and sharpen the blades that were to point the "path of glory" to thousands destined to ride under the war-guidons of Sheridan, Stuart, Buford, Pleasonton, Fitzhugh Lee, Stanley, Wilson, Merritt, Gregg, and other small graduates of the service school of "the Plains."
        At the outbreak of the Civil War, the military conditions in the two sections were very unequal. The South began the struggle under a commander-in-chief who was a graduate of West Point, had seen service in the regular army, had been a Secretary of War (possessing much inside information as to the disposition of the United States forces) and who, in the beginning at least, was supreme in the selection of his military lieutenants and in all matters relating to the organization and equipment of the Confederate troops.
        On the other hand the North lacked similar advantages. Its new President was without military training, embarrassed rather than aided by a cabinet of lawyers and politicians as military advisers, captains of the pen rather than of the sword, and "blind leading the blind." Mr. Lincoln found himself surrounded by office-seekers--especially those claiming high military command as a reward for political services. It is true that the Federal Government possessed a small, well-trained army, with a large proportion of the officers and nearly all of the enlisted men loyal to their colors, which, together with a few thousand organized militia, would have formed a valuable nucleus for war had it been properly utilized at the start. From its ranks some were Selected who achieved distinction as leaders when not hampered by association with incompetent "generals." For at least one year, the inexhaustible resources . of the North were wasted for want of competent military direction and training.
        If these field conditions marked the genesis of the Civil War in all arms of service, they were especially true of the mounted troops. In 1860, the "athletic wave" had not made its appearance in the United States, and out-of-door amusements had not become popular above the Mason and Dixon line. In the more thickly settled North, the young men of cities and towns took rather to commercial and indoor pursuits; in the South, the sports of a country life appealed to young and middle-aged alike, and the rifle and the saddle furnished particular attractions to a large majority. So it happened that the Confederates (their President an erstwhile dragoon) had only to mobilize the cavalry companies of the militia scattered through the seceding States, and muster, arm, and equip the thousands of young horsemen, each bringing his own horse and eager to serve the Confederacy.
        The trials of many of the newly recruited organizations, until the beginning of the third year of the war, are illustrated in the following extract from a typical regimental history: ("History of the Tenth New York Cavalry") Captain Vanderbilt describes in graphic terms his first experience in escort duty (December 10, 1862):

        Please remember that my company had been mustered into the service only about six weeks before, and had received horses less than a month prior to this march; and in the issue we drew everything on the list--watering-bridles, lariat ropes, and pins--in fact, there was nothing on the printed list of supplies that we did not get. Many men had extra blankets, nice large quilts presented by some fond mother or maiden aunt (dear souls), sabers and belts, together with the straps that pass over the shoulders, carbines and slings, pockets full of cartridges, nose bags and extra little bags for carrying oats, haversacks, canteens, and spurs--some of them of the Mexican pattern as large as small windmills, and more in the way than the spurs of a young rooster, catching in the grass when they walked, carrying up briers, vines, and weeds, and catching their pants, and in the way generally--curry-combs, brushes, ponchos, button tents, overcoats, frying-pans, cups, coffee-pots, etc. Now the old companies had become used to these things and had got down to light-marching condition gradually, had learned how to wear the uniform, saber, carbine, etc.; but my company had hardly, time to get into proper shape when "the general" was sounded, "boots and saddles" blown.
        Such a rattling, jingling, jerking, scrabbling, cursing, I never heard before. Green horses--some of them had never been ridden-turned round and round, backed against each other, jumped up or stood up like trained circus-horses. Some of the boys had a pile in front on their saddles, and one in the rear, so high and heavy it took two men to saddle one horse and two men to help the fellow into his place. The horses sheered out, going sidewise, pushing the well-disposed animals out of position, etc. Some of the boys had never ridden anything since they galloped on a hobby horse, and they clasped their legs close together, thus unconsciously sticking the spurs into their horses' sides.
        Well, this was the crowd I commanded to mount on the morning I was ordered by General him. We got in line near headquarters, and when we got ready to start we started all over. He left no doubt about his starting! He went like greased lightning! In less than ten minutes Tenth New York cavalrymen might have been seen on every hill for two miles rearward. Poor fellows! I wanted to help them, but the general was "On to Richmond ,; and I hardly dared look back for fear of losing him. I didn't have the remotest idea where he was going, and didn't know but he was going to keep it up all day. It was my first Virginia ride as a warrior in the field. My uneasiness may be imagined. I was wondering what in the mischief I should say to the general when we halted and none of the company there but me. He was the first real live general I had seen who was going out to fight. Talk about the Flying Dutchman! Blankets slipped from under saddles and hung from one corner; saddles slipped back until they were on the rumps of horses; others turned and were on the under side of the animals; horses running and kicking; tin pans, mess-kettles, patent sheet-iron stoves the boys had seen advertised in the illustrated papers and sold by the sutlers of Alexandria--about as useful as a piano or folding bed--flying through the air; and all I could do was to give a hasty glance to the rear and sing out at the top of my voice, "C-l-o-s-e u-p!" But they couldn't "close." Poor boys! Their eyes stuck out like those of maniacs. We went only a few miles, but the boys didn't all get up till noon.

        It was not until May, 1861, that the War Department at Washington reluctantly authorized the organization of a regiment of volunteer cavalry from New York with the proviso that the men furnish the horses, an allowance being made for use and maintenance. This system applied in the South, but was soon abandoned in the North. The door once open, other regiments were speedily formed, containing at least the crude elements of efficient cavalry. As a rule, the men regarded the horses with mingled curiosity and respect, and passed through a purgatory of training--" breaking in," it was sometimes called--before they had acquired the requisite confidence in themselves, plus horses and arms. All too soon they were "pitchforked" into the field, often to fall victims to some roving body of Confederates who were eager to appropriate the superior arms and equipment of the Federals.
        Within a year in the rough school of war, these same helpless recruits became fairly efficient cavalry, at home in the saddle, able to deliver telling blows with the saber, and to ride boot-to-boot in battle charges. During the first two years of the war the Confederate cavalry exercised a tremendous moral effect. Beginning with the cry of "The Black Horse Cavalry," at the First Bull Run, so terrible to the panic stricken Federal troops in their race to Washington and safety; Mosey's frequent dashes at poorly guarded Union trains and careless outposts; and Stuart's picturesque and gallant promenade around McClellan's unguarded encampment on the Chickahominy, in 1862, the war record of the Southern horse notwithstanding its subsequent decline and the final disasters of 1864-65 will always illumine one of the brightest pages of cavalry history.
        The Gettysburg campaign, June 1 to July 4, 1863, was exceptionally full of examples of the effective use of mounted troops. They began with the great combat of Beverly Ford, Virginia, June 9th, in which for twelve hours, eighteen thousand of the flower of the horsemen of the armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia, in nearly equal proportions, struggled for supremacy, with many casualties, (The Second U.S. Cavalry alone losing 57 per cent. killed and wounded of its officers engaged.) parting by mutual consent at the close of the day. This was followed by a series of daily skirmishes during the remainder of the month, in efforts to penetrate the cavalry screen which protected each army in its northward progress, culminating on the first day of July at Gettysburg in the masterly handling of two small brigades of cavalry.
        It was here that General Buford delayed the advance of a division of Confederate infantry for more than two hours, winning for himself, in the opinion of a foreign military critic, (The Comte de Paris in "The Civil War in America.") the honor of having "with the inspiration of a cavalry officer and a true soldier selected the battlefield where the two armies were about to measure their strength." The important actions on the third day comprised that in which Gregg prevented Stuart from penetrating the right rear of the Union line (largely a mounted combat with saber and pistol), and the affair on the Emmittsburg Road that same day where Merritt and Farnsworth menaced the Confederate left and, according to General Law, (in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War) neutralized the action of Hood's infantry division of Longstreet's corps by bold use of mounted and dismounted men, contributing in no small degree to the Federal success.
        In the West, during the same period, the cavalry conditions were not unlike those in the East, except that the field of operations extended over five States instead of two and that numerous bands of independent cavalry or mounted riflemen under enterprising leaders like Forrest, Morgan, Wharton, Chalmers, and Wheeler of the Confederate army, for two years had their own way. The Union generals, Lyon, Sigel, Pope, Rosecrans, and others, loudly called for more cavalry, or in lieu thereof, for horses to mount infantry. Otherwise, they agreed, "it was difficult to oppose the frequent raids of the enemy on communications and supply trains."
        Ultimately, Generals Grant and Rosecrans initiated a system of cavalry concentration under Granger and Stanley, and greater efficiency became manifest. About the time of the battle of Stone's River, or Murfreesboro, the Federal horse began to show confidence in itself, and in numerous encounters with the Confederates--mounted and dismounted--acquitted itself with credit, fairly dividing the honors of the campaign. The names of Grierson, Streight, Wilder, and Minty became famous not only as raiders but as important factors in great battles, as at Chickamauga, where the "obstinate stand of two brigades of [Rosecrans'] cavalry against the Confederate infantry gave time for the formation of the Union lines."
        The most conspicuous cavalry operations of the war were' those of 1864-65: Sheridan's Richmond raid, in which the South lost the brilliant and resourceful Stuart, and the harassing flank attacks on Lee's army in ad infantry, which, ending in the campaign at Appomattox, simultaneously with Wilson's successful Selma raid, marked the collapse of the war. Under most discouraging conditions the Confederate cavalry disputed every inch of territory and won the sincere admiration of their opponents.
        Major McClelland, of Stuart's staff, thus impartially summarizes the situation: ("Life and Campaigns of Major-General J.E.B. Stuart")

"During the last two years no branch of the Army of the Potomac contributed so much to the overthrow of Lee's army as the cavalry, both that which operated in the Valley of Virginia and that which remained at Petersburg. But for the efficiency of this force it is safe to say that the war would have been indefinitely prolonged. From the time that the cavalry was concentrated into a corps until the close of the war, a steady progress was made in discipline. Nothing was spared to render this arm complete. Breech-loading arms of the most approved pattern were provided; horses and accouterments were never wanting, and during the last year of the war Sheridan commanded as fine a body of troops as ever drew sabers.
        "On the other hand, two causes contributed steadily to diminish the numbers and efficiency of the Confederate cavalry. The Government committed the fatal error of allowing the men to own their horses, paying them a per diem for their use, and the muster valuation in cases where they were killed in action; but giving no compensation for horses lost by any other casualties of a campaign .... Toward the close of the war many were unable to remount themselves, and hundreds of such dismounted men were collected in a useless crowd, which was dubbed 'Company Q.' The second cause was the 'failure or inability of the Government to supply good arms and accouterments. Our breech-loading arms were nearly all captured from the enemy and the same may be said of the best of our saddles and bridles. From these causes, which were beyond the power of any commander to remedy, there was a steady decline in the numbers of the Confederate cavalry and, as compared with the Federal cavalry, a decline in efficiency."

Source: "The Photographic History of the Civil War, Volume 2" Article by Theo. F. Rodenbough
Brigadier-General, United States Army (Retired)

This Page last updated 02/15/02


Still can't find what you are looking for?
Part of the CivilWarTalk Network: - -
Copyright © 1997 - 2014,