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Civil War Cavalry: Missed Opportunities

By Paddy Griffith
Spring 1989 • MHQ Magazine

Any resemblance to the Napoleonic example was purely coincidental.

It is not without reason that on the only occasion when cavalry appear in Stephen Crane’s classic novel The Red Badge of Courage, they are behind the fighting line, creating a traffic jam. Many Civil War soldiers must have felt that this was really all the cavalry was good for, apart from raiding railroads or hanging up invalids to get their gold. While there was a certain failure to make the most of either field artillery or the bayonet in the battles of the 1860s, the record of the cavalry was at least a hundred times worse.

The participation of cavalry in the major battles of the Civil War was generally negligible. For example, at Antietam–”America’s Bloodiest Day”–the Union cavalry suffered precisely 28 casualties from all causes. At Fredericksburg they lost just eight men-less than one in every 1,500 of the total Union casualties. In the first three years of the war, the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac made only five mounted charges against infantry during a major battle-far fewer than Marshal Ney’s cavalry had made in three hours at Waterloo.

The first of these Union charges was made on June 27, 1862, at Gaines’s Mill in the Peninsula campaign, where the 5th U.S. Cavalry, 250 strong, counterattacked the Confederates at their moment of greatest success. The cavalry later claimed that their charge kept a Union reverse from degenerating into a disaster. The Union infantry, on the other hand, said the cavalry charge converted an orderly retreat into a disorganized rout. One thing is certain: The cavalry failed to make any headway against the enemy and suffered 150 casualties. The charge was all over in a matter of moments.

At the end of the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862, the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry charged against five somewhat disordered enemy regiments. It, too, was repulsed, with 93 casualties out of 164 men. At Chancellorsville yet another holding action was launched, this time with the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry charging in columns of twos down a road flanked by woods full of General Stonewall Jackson’s men at the highwater mark of their most spectacular victory. Surprisingly, there were only 30 casualties out of 400 men–but they were repulsed just the same, after having made but a minor impact on the battle.

At the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, General Judson Kilpatrick ordered two cavalry charges-one by the 1st West Virginia Cavalry Regiment and the other by the 1st Vermont–against the extreme right flank of the Confederate army. Both units charged across difficult, broken ground against well–emplaced Texas infantry, and both were easily repulsed. The day’s cavalry losses totaled 98, of whom 65 belonged to the 1st Vermont. Hence, we may infer that the 1st West Virginia lost little more than 25 men in its attack, even though it came within striking distance of the enemy line twice.

In all, perhaps 1,400 Union cavalrymen in the East took part in charges on Rebel infantry in major battles during the first three years of the war, suffering 365 casualties­ approximately a quarter of their strength. Although some positive results could possibly be claimed for each charge, the overall outcome can only be described as negative. This seems to suggest that the day of the cavalry charge had passed; that the rifle musket’s improved firepower had given a new security to infantry, even if they did not form squares; and that the American cavalry had been wise not to charge more frequently, in view of the probable outcome.

A European cavalryman raised in the Napoleonic tradition of Marshals Murat and Nansouty would probably point out a number of significant factors in these charges–most notably their tiny scale. None involved even one full-strength regiment (about 1,000 men), nor even a force as strong as the depleted British Light Brigade at Balaklava. If the “gallant 600” on that occasion lacked sufficient numbers to make an impact, what chance did the 1st Pennsylvania have at Cedar Mountain? Napoleon’s tactic had been to throw in dozens of regiments together in massed divisions and corps of cavalry, not one squadron at a time.

Our European commentator would probably not find fault with the timing of these charges. In accordance with classical theory, all of them were launched at the end of a hard day’s fighting, either to cover a retreat or to make the first tentative probes of a pursuit. Noticeably missing, however, was any attempt to intervene during the climax of the battle, as part of the process of deciding winners and losers. The rearguard and pursuit functions of cavalry could not be expected to decide much more than the level of damage once a decision had been reached. Therefore, by limiting itself to those functions, the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was abdicating its most important role.

Another significant feature of these charges was that only the first two, at Gaines’s Mill and Cedar Mountain, seem to have taken place on unencumbered ground. The Chancellorsville action took place in a wood that allowed only a two-man frontage-scarcely a legitimate operation of war. At Gettysburg the terrain was only slightly more favorable. Our European observer might therefore conclude that the failure of these three charges probably owed more to obstacles than to firepower, particularly since their casualties were considerably less than those suffered in the first two charges over more open ground.

The fact is, no serious attempt was made to use cavalry in these battles at all, even where the ground was favorable. Such a use was alien to the whole outlook and ethic of the Civil War commanders, and we do not have to look very far to find the reasons.

For a long time after the war started, the number of cavalry available was meager by European standards. The Army of the Potomac rarely fielded more than two regiments per 10,000 men–nine percent of the total manpower as compared with Napoleon’s 20 or even 25 percent. Cavalry was enormously expensive to feed and still more expensive to equip. A horse cost at least $110–10 times the monthly pay of a private soldier and five times the price of a rifle musket. Each cavalryman also required a saddle, a saber, riding boots, and a few pistols (preferably the latest Colts)–not to mention horseshoes and tack. The whole proposition was so complicated, compared with the simple needs of an infantryman, that it is scarcely surprising that few cavalry regiments were put into the field. When we read about a cavalry regiment that demanded 81 wagons to support it, while an equivalent 2,000 wagons for an entire army of 60,000 men would have been excessive impedimenta, we can begin to understand the scale of the problem.

Doctrinal resistance to battle cavalry was also very strong. American tradition simply had no place for such an animal; the first U.S. regular cavalry unit had not been authorized until 1792, and subsequent emphasis had been all on dragoons or mounted infantry-hybrids that promised a double return on the government’s investment but in fact turned out to provide neither an efficient infantry nor an efficient battle cavalry. Certainly, the influence of Dennis Hart Mahan and his West Point teaching appears to have been in the direction of light cavalry outposts and scouting rather than of heavy combat. It comes as no surprise that Mahan’s baleful engineering view of the battlefield eclipsed the potential contribution of a large and energetic cavalry force. He had been influential in shaping the tactical thinking of the infantry, and there was a logical spiral at work: The greater the emphasis laid by the infantry upon firepower and protection, the less attention was paid to shock and mobility such as the cavalry could supremely provide.

Then again–as with the infantry, as with artillery–the excuse of the terrain was often invoked to show that things could not be done in the European manner. There was some justice in this, especially in the various wildernesses and the Shenandoah Valley, not to mention the rolling forests of the West. But in quite a few cases the terrain obstacles consisted of fences or ditches that well-trained cavalry should have been able to jump. The problem was often one of training rather than of terrain. In some accounts of successful charges, we hear of fences being thrown down by a regiment’s advanced pickets or “ground scouts,” and ditches being leaped at the gallop. At Brandy Station in 1863, the ground had been picked bare by several armies camping there over the previous two years, which showed that cavalry country could be created artificially.

The problem of training, however, remained central. It was not simply that good cavalry took many months longer to build than did good infantry, but that the awareness of this fact often deterred Civil War commanders from making the attempt at all. McClellan, for example, though notorious for his insistence on long and careful training before his army could take the field, seems to have done little about training his cavalry. He apparently felt that Americans could never hope to approach European ideals. As a result, a whole year was lost, while the cavalry was allowed to indoctrinate itself with the notion that it could never make use of European methods. In the Army of the Potomac, the standards of training and organization were starting to improve in the summer of 1863, but by then it was already too late to demand anything more than a hybrid “American” style of tactics.

The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia suffered from a similar problem, expressed in slightly different ways. Standards of horse care and horsemanship were generally higher, simply because each man had to bring his own horse. One need not invoke theories of “Southern cavaliers” or “innate equestrian skills”–any soldier will do better riding his own cherished four-legged friend than astride an anonymous item of government property. In addition, the principle of massing regiments into brigades and divisions was pursued earlier by the Confederate cavalry than by the Union, just as it had been by their artillery, due to a greater sense of urgency and military commitment. The well-earned reward was a two-year period in which J.E.B. Stuart’s horsemen literally ran rings around their opponents.

The reverse side of these Southern advantages, however, was a shockingly high level of absenteeism and indiscipline. Because the soldiers brought their own horses, they saw themselves as voluntary “visitors” and accepted neither discipline nor any of the rest of the military contract. They felt free to go home when they felt like it, or to wander away looking for forage, for remounts (often stolen from the Yankees), or for meals (usually from distant cousins living in the area of operations). This was doubtless a highly agreeable and civilized way to fight a war, but it left the regiments present for duty lamentably weak. The extreme case came in the list Tennessee Cavalry, which unilaterally decided to disband completely except for 16 men who preferred to stay in camp.

The principle of using cavalry en masse was a sound and highly “European” one, but in the hands of J.E.B. Stuart and his friends it became little more than a license to roam off into the enemy’s rear areas searching for plunder and glory. The success of his early raids in 1862 encouraged Stuart to repeat the process on an ever more grandiose scale. This led to disaster at Gettysburg, where the cavalry was absent when most needed–although in fairness we can also see that Stuart’s example infected the Union cavalry still more disastrously than it did the Confederate one. The Northern troopers were to base a whole alternative system of war upon their enemy’s much publicized exploits, thereby perpetuating the removal of cavalry from the battlefields. One is reminded of the terror-bombing offensives in World War II, in which a temporary German diversion of air effort from battlefield to city-center targets (to Rotterdam and then London) inspired a massive and permanent Allied diversion of effort (to Cologne and, later, to Hiroshima).

As the Union cavalry gradually built up its numbers and its skills, it came to be used increasingly for raiding rather than for close support of the infantry. (At Chancellorsville, for example, General George Stoneman was sent off on a raid, away from the battle, with almost all the available horsemen. Though this was intended to divert the enemy away from a direct engagement, it achieved no major result save to deplete Union numbers.) The tempo of raiding was also starting to rise in the Western theater at about the same time. It continued to rise right up to the end of the war, which quite appropriately coincided with the culmination of General James Wilson’s Selma campaign, a massive chevauchée by 12,000 horsemen supported by 1,500 wagoners–and not a single infantryman.

The general Civil War doctrine of raiding, particularly of raiding with cavalry, represented not a great innovation in the art of warfare–as critics such as B.H. Liddell Hart have claimed–but its abasement and corruption: a reversion to the 14th-century methods of the Black Prince rather than a step forward to the 20th-century blitzkrieg. The use of cavalry for raiding not only was a deliberate turn away from hope of victory on the battlefield but virtually removed the means by which victory might have been won at the very moment when those means were at last starting to be properly efficient. If the slow development of high-quality cavalry during the first half of the war was a major missed opportunity, the diversion of it into raiding during the second half was a still greater one.

The picture is not entirely bleak, however, since the late-war cavalry did eventually develop a fighting style that gave it, at last, considerable combat power and an important role in the major battles. Whereas by 1864 the infantry had become largely demoralized and exhausted, the horse soldiers–especially on the Union side–were just starting to come into their own. They could be invoked as a fresh new force straining to take up the main burden of the war, a spearhead that could use revolutionary new tactics to tackle an old and intransigent problem.

Four major ingredients went into this new tactical mixture: fast operational mobility on horseback out of contact with the enemy; a willingness to take cover and fight on foot when the enemy was close; a mounted reserve ready to make a saber charge when the moment was ripe; and new repeating carbines like the Spencer and Henry (for which the technology was not developed until the war was in progress). Taken together and used correctly, these four elements could produce important improvements not only in the cavalry’s earlier performance but in the infantry’s too.

What these “mounted infantry” tactics actually produced was a mixture of fire and maneuver equivalent to what the chasseur school and Lieutenant Colonel William J. Hardee, its innovative American proponent, had been trying to give to the infantry. Whereas the chasseurs-light infantry trained for rapid maneuvering had sought to achieve operational mobility by jogging around the battlefield on foot, the cavalry achieved the same result, more convincingly, on horseback.

The chasseurs also stressed marksmanship–accurate, well-placed shots–whereas in the cavalry the idea was to create a rapid-fire barrage, however inaccurate. The two concepts were admittedly rather different, but the hope was to create a similar result. The cavalry was simply lucky–chance placed in their hands an exceptionally fine weapon, the carbine, that molded the way they used firepower.

Finally, the chasseurs had hoped to close with the bayonet and destroy a shaken opponent in a melee with that arme blanche. There is today a distinctly patriotic flavor to the widespread denigration of the thrusting weapon as an alternative to modern firearms. American writers on the Civil War have formed a solid front against cold steel. We read that “any saber was culturally alien to most Americans” (although not, apparently, to their West Point-trained officers), while in many cavalry units it almost became a mark of frontiersman status to do without it. The same, to an even greater extent, can be said of the bayonet.

Despite early doubts about this aspect of their role, the cavalry came to accept it. Typically a regiment kept back a mounted reserve of about a quarter of its numbers, ready to charge when the moment was right. In these circumstances the saber charge was found useful. Regiments that disliked the saber used the Colt revolver charge to much the same effect. These tactics were a mixture of true cavalry action in the mounted charge and “mounted infantry” action in the preparatory fighting on foot. It might have been possible to achieve a similar effect in the major battles by attaching a mounted company to each infantry regiment, creating an organic link between the two arms in order to draw the best from each.

This had actually been tried in some of the early “legions” formed in 1861, but as with so many other tactical experiments in the Civil War, it was not centrally directed or sustained. The cavalry and the infantry remained two separate and jealously independent services, and usually did not cooperate as closely as ideal low-level tactics demanded,

There were, of course, exceptions, particularly in small-unit vanguard or rearguard skirmishing. Samuel Baron’s last fight in the 3rd Texas Cavalry seems to have been a model of the kind. It was a rearguard ambush of a Union column marching up a road across a creek. A Confederate infantry regiment lined the creek, concealed by heavy mist. When the enemy came close, the infantry opened the action and then the Texas cavalry charged in column from behind, pressing the enemy back two or three miles.

If cavalry more usually had to provide its own “infantry” to prepare its charges, it did at least enjoy close cooperation with horse artillery. Some of the most daring and aggressive artillerists came from this service, which naturally stressed mobility and opportunism. It was also a dangerous service, since the artillery was often expected to operate in small detachments very close to the enemy’s cavalry scouts, where it could easily become involved in skirmishing. Indeed, cavalry generally posed a greater threat to artillery than did infantry since it could charge to close quarters more rapidly. The large numbers of guns changing hands at the all-cavalry Battle of Brandy Station seem to make the point.

When cavalry was well armed with repeaters and horse artillery, and prepared to fight either on foot or mounted, it could perform all the functions of an all-arms force. In effect it could do without infantry altogether, thus turning on its head the prewar prediction that “infantry would make cavalry obsolete.” The primary disadvantage of such a force was that it was enormously expensive, requiring a much greater “tail”–with its foragers and horse holders–than would otherwise have been needed. Another disadvantage was that cavalry formations could put far fewer men into the firing line than could infantry formations at a comparable level of command, and these men would tend to feel themselves rather lightly supported. Their forte would lie in staking claims and making rapid assaults rather than in the formal, heavy-duty combat of a set-piece battle. In this respect they might well be compared with the airborne infantry of more recent times.

Nevertheless, it was precisely in the area of staking claims and making rapid assaults off the line of march that most Civil War armies were deficient. Few commanders used their infantry as “foot cavalry” to hit the enemy at unexpected times and places, to hustle him away from key points before he had settled into his positions. This may have been a major reason for the apparent indecisiveness of Civil War battles as a whole. If there had been a few more Stonewall Jacksons to control the march maneuvers, the war might have been more quickly decided.

By the time the cavalry had come to understand its new role as an all arms force, the need for foot cavalry was chronic. In the Wilderness campaign, Grant’s infantry had suffered the heartbreaking ordeal of performing a sustained series of rapid marches around Lee’s right flank, only to find that the Confederates had anticipated them and adjusted their positions each time. Fatigue and deep mud made it impossible for the Union maneuvers to reach their objectives before countermeasures were taken, and the result was a futile sequence of parallel battles leading to the siege of Petersburg itself. The failure to move an all-arms force around Lee’s flank meant that Grant was condemned to suffer heavy casualties for no significant gain. He was forced to give up the attempt and settle down to ten months of siege.

By 1865, however, General Philip Sheridan was at hand with a powerful and well-indoctrinated cavalry force, which could be used as a flanking spearhead of precisely the type the infantry had shown itself unable to provide in 1864. In the Appomattox campaign this cavalry gave a classic demonstration of what could be done. But credit for the conception must go to Sheridan himself, who resisted Grant’s habitual preference to send the cavalry off on an independent raid. Sheridan insisted it be kept with the Army of the Potomac and used for a truly decisive purpose. He saw his role as prolonging the army’s left flank to force Lee to abandon his positions at Petersburg and Richmond, rather than simply making a sweep in the bad old way to tear up a few miles of railroad.

Ironically, the operation started badly because the cavalry corps was itself outflanked and surprised by a fast-marching all-arms force under the ill-starred General George Pickett. Sheridan suffered a setback at Dinwiddie Courthouse on March 29-31, 1865, but was eventually able to stabilize a line and call up reinforcements to crush Pickett’s open flank in a fluid encounter battle. These reinforcements were already involved in a battle of their own on the White Oak Road, however, and failed to intervene before Pickett had made good his escape to previously prepared positions at Five Forks. Sheridan’s opponents claim the whole sequence was an unfortunate diversion from the main business of crushing Lee’s army in the White Oak Road battle, where an outright victory could have been won if the cavalry had not upset the infantry’s operations. This may be true; but similar infantry operations had failed so often that there was ample justification for the decision to try a different approach this time.

What followed at Five Oaks was in any case a magnificent feat by any standards. Sheridan pinned Pickett’s men frontally with his cavalry while General Gouverneur Warren’s infantry executed a flank attack worthy of Frederick the Great. Despite the difficulties of terrain, of command liaison, and of Confederate fieldworks, the position was carried and 6,000 prisoners were captured. Admittedly, the cavalry attacks had been repulsed until infantry unzipped the position from the side, but it undoubtedly made a great contribution to the final success by its frontal demonstrations and sacrifices. Many of the cavalry units fired off all their ammunition and sustained heavy casualties, but Southern hopes were even more severely damaged.

Next came a race to Jeetersville Station. The Union cavalry won the race and established a blocking position there, heading off the Confederates toward the west. In the ensuing scramble, the cavalry once again proved they could outmarch the enemy’s infantry. General George Custer cut off a third of Lee’s shrinking army at Sayler’s Creek on April 6-7, 1865, and, when infantry supports arrived, captured some 10,000 prisoners. In this battle the cavalry repeated the achievement of Napoleon’s cuirassiers at Borodino when they carried a line of enemy breastworks by a mounted charge.

The Confederate cavalry was badly outnumbered and outgunned in this campaign, but it usually managed to extricate itself from the traps in which its infantry was ensnared. It continued an active and technically impressive resistance right to the end-indeed, the last man killed in the Army of Northern Virginia was a cavalryman.

The end, however, was not long in coming. A new race was won by Custer and Sheridan, this time to the four fat supply trains waiting for Lee at Appomattox Station. The Confederates once again found themselves confronted by a defiant line of Spencer carbines backed by countercharging mounted troops. Their first attempts to break out to the west were again unsuccessful, and by the time they organized a major assault with heavy supports, it was too late–the Union cavalry had been stiffened by a strong force of infantry.

The Appomattox campaign does not show us that a battle group of cavalry, even when armed with repeating carbines, could overcome all obstacles. Admittedly, there had been some impressive assaults, both on foot and mounted, in which the rapid fire of the new weapons shocked the opposition and covered the troopers as they advanced. Some commentators have seen this tactic as the forerunner of the 20th-century concept of “marching fire” or “assault fire.” Yet the rapid-fire weapons also ran out of ammunition more rapidly than the slower rifle muskets, and Sheridan’s men were repeatedly told not to waste their rounds. Conversely, the new carbines suffered from various technical teething problems, especially in the rimfire ammunition itself. (This was ammunition on which the ignition cap encircled the entire casing.) As a result, the volume of fire that could be developed in action fell far short of expectations. For example, in one intense firefight in May 1864, the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry managed to fire only twelve to eighteen rounds per man per hour, which was theoretically the volume of fire they should have been able to produce in just one minute.

In the Appomattox campaign there were some failures that showed mounted infantry was not the “panacea weapon” its champions believed it was. At Dinwiddie Courthouse, Sheridan was badly mauled by Pickett’s shrewd blow, and at Five Forks the cavalry could make no headway against fieldworks. At Jeetersville, Sayler’s Creek, and Appomattox itself, the cavalry’s resistance probably would have been overcome if infantry reinforcements had not arrived in time. Possessing technically advanced small arms did not ensure victory against all odds.

What the Appomattox campaign did show us, however, was that cavalry could add considerable extra zest and impetus to the normal operations of infantry. The high mobility of horsemen allowed them extra freedom on the battlefield, unsettling any Civil War commander accustomed only to the sedate evolutions of foot soldiers. Even if they did not arrive at the key point with the “mostest” combat power, the cavalry could at least get there “fastest.” This made a magnificent multiplier of the infantry’s natural force, so that when used in conjunction the two arms became far more formidable than either had been on its own.

It is greatly to Sheridan’s credit that he was quick to understand this and pressed his ideas upon his more traditionally minded superiors. It is greatly to the discredit of many other Civil War commanders that it took so long for the all-arms battle group to enter their tactical thinking.

PADDY GRIFFITH is a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England. This article is excerpted from his book Battle Tactics of the Civil War (Yale University Press).

This article originally appeared in the Spring 1989 issue (Vol. 1, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Civil War Cavalry: Missed Opportunity

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