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Book Review: Lincoln's Cavalrymen: A History of the Mounted Forces of the Army of the Potomac (by Edward G. Longacre): CWT

Originally published on Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Lincoln's Cavalrymen: A History of the Mounted Forces of the Army of the Potomac, by Edward G. Longacre, Stackpole Books, 717-796-0412, $29.95.

Edward G. Longacre has been one of the most prolific Civil War historians of the past three decades. He has written biographies of James Wilson, Henry Hunt, John Buford, and Joshua Chamberlain. He has examined cavalry operations of the Gettysburg Campaign, retold the stories of mounted raids, chronicled the deeds of George Armstrong Custer and the Michigan Brigade, and studied Benjamin Butler and the Army of the James. His accomplishment is daunting.

His newest book, Lincoln's Cavalrymen, has been a work in progress for the past quarter of a century. No other Civil War historian has devoted so much time, with so many published results, to the study of Union cavalry in the East as Longacre. Lincoln's Cavalrymen is a fitting culmination to his labors.

The book covers the role of the Federal mounted arm from the war's initial days until Union horsemen closed Robert E. Lee's escape route from Petersburg in April 1865. Longacre has fashioned an inclusive story, from the organizational details to the numerous engagements. It is the story of both thunderous saber charges and the quiet work of bureaucrats.

When the war began, the War Department in Washington, D.C., discounted the value of mounted units. While it accepted the outpouring of volunteer infantry regiments, it rejected efforts by individuals to raise cavalry commands. Not until after the defeat at Bull Run in July 1861 did the Lincoln administration welcome recruits into all arms of the service. That battle dispelled many delusions.

Longacre recounts the cavalry's growing pains as raw recruits, many unaccustomed to riding horses, mastered their mounts and the mysteries of cavalry drill. It was a slow process, hampered by the failure of generals to understand cavalry's role. While J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavaliers dominated the operations and newspaper headlines, the Union horsemen struggled with weak commanders and burdensome duties. By the summer of 1862, Longacre says, the blue-jacketed cavalrymen were becoming horse soldiers, and the only thing holding them back was a dearth of good commanders.

In Longacre's view, the fight at Kelly's Ford, Virginia, on March 17, 1863, heralded the emergence of the Union cavalry. Its psychological effect on the officers and men far outweighed the day's limited tactical successes. With the units organized at last into a cavalry corps, the army's mounted arm stood ready.

The Gettysburg Campaign foretold the future of cavalry operations in the East. At Brandy Station, Aldie, Middleburg, Upperville, Hanover, Hunterstown, McPherson's Ridge, the Rummel farm, and Monterey Pass, the Federals fought with a tenacity and skill worthy of their opponents. New leaders arose, men with the dash and bravura that had seemed to belong only to Stuart's officers. Behind the Union horsemen, the North's farms and factories insured that they would be well-mounted and well-armed.

In the spring of 1864, Philip Sheridan assumed command of the cavalry corps. No previous commander matched Sheridan's aggressiveness and determination. He believed that a weapon, once forged, should be unsheathed. Under his leadership, the cavalry became the army's strike force. The Confederates resisted valiantly, but no longer could they equal the Federals in horseflesh and armament. Though Sheridan's record was not an unbroken string of victories, by war's end, the Union cavalry had what were arguably the army's finest combat units.

Lincoln's Cavalrymen is a full chronicle of the horsemen's operations, raids, and engagements during the war's four years. Longacre has based his story on more than 300 collections of diaries, letters, and memoirs. He wanted to focus on the officers and men in the ranks, and for the most part, he has accomplished that goal. He uses their words throughout the narrative.

Longacre offers assessments of the performances and personalities of the army's and the cavalry's leading officers. He is unsparing in his criticisms of George B. McClellan and Alfred Pleasonton, while unstinting in his praise of John Buford. He has much good to say about Sheridan, Wesley Merritt, Custer, and numbers of less renowned individuals. His judgments are, however, rather traditional.

A book on an encompassing subject, such as Lincoln's Cavalrymen, requires a judicious gleaning of material by the author. Too much detail can overwhelm the story, but too little detail can drain away its vitality. It is a balance often difficult to achieve.

Longacre's narrative suffers from an imbalance. It is well-written, factual, and inclusive. But as the number of operations and engagements increase, the details are fewer. This is particularly true about the 1864 campaigns. Some of the war's most dramatic cavalry episodes–Yellow Tavern, Trevilian Station, Third Winchester, and Cedar Creek–are given rather scant descriptions. The voices of troopers become less frequent. One action seems to follow another with few distinctions in the narrative.

Lincoln's Cavalrymen is, however, a solid history of Union cavalry operations in the East. An ambitious undertaking, it succeeds in its purpose. While few, if any, books are the final word on a subject, Longacre's book is a fine beginning. He has incorporated years of research and study into a single volume that should stand for a long time as an excellent summary of the Army of the Potomac's often neglected and abused mounted units.

Jeffry D. Wert
Centre Hall, Pennsylvania

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