Civil War Cavalry

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Civil War Cavalry

Civil War Cavalry

Introduction

 

Civil War cavalry was considered the eyes and ears of the army, informing respective commanders of the enemy’s movements. Cavalry, one of three major components of the army, infantry and artillery being the other two, conducted reconnaissance, screening, covered flanks, offensive operations and raids, disrupted enemy communication and supply lines, and operated as a mobile strike force. While this page serves as an introduction to Civil War cavalry, you may also want to visit the detailed histories of the Union and Confederate cavalries, which include Civil War Cavalry Weapons, Roles, Battle Tactics, and Statistics and founding and evolution of the United States Cavalry: A History, which also hosts the only online section dedicated to factual and fascinating "Cavalry Questions and Answers."

Civil War Cavalry Weapons and Battles
Civil War Cavalry.jpg
Union and Confederate Cavalry Charge.

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Cavalry Role

 

The role of the cavalry at the beginning of the Civil War was very limited. Horsemen of both armies were initially limited to patrolling and scouting, guarding supply trains and railroads, and providing escorts to generals. They were only used in battle as shock troops, a tactic which dated back to the Romans. A favorite jibe from the infantry was: "Did you ever see a dead cavalryman?" The foot soldiers believed the cavalry to be "dandies on horseback" who never saw much fighting and always had the easy life. Certainly, the dash and spirit of the more flamboyant cavalry leaders provided the newspapers with many stories of harrowing rides and gallant duels in the saddle. Southern troopers commanded by General J.E.B. Stuart had the grandest reputations of being the best horsemen, ready to ride on a raid at a moments notice or rush to the front to do battle just as the tide was beginning to turn. Of course, truth was very different from the romantic descriptions of newspapermen. Soldiering on horseback was a hard life with plenty of danger. The cavalry's military role had dramatically changed by 1863 and the armies were making use of their horse soldiers in more combat situations. Cavalry divisions were utilized by commanders as advance scouts and as a mobile fighting force. These new strategies culminated in the largest cavalry battle of the war fought on June 9, 1863 at Brandy Station, Virginia. Brandy Station was the opening clash of the Gettysburg Campaign.

 

During the Civil War, the cavalry had five major missions:

  • Reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance screening.
  • Defensive, delaying actions.
  • Pursuit and harassment of defeated enemy forces.
  • Offensive actions.
  • Long-distance raiding against enemy lines of communications, supply depots, railroads, and related targets.

Civil War Cavalry weapons
Civil War Cavalry with 3 Revolvers and Saber.jpg
Trooper with shell jacket, bummer cap, three Remington revolvers, and saber

Types of Mounted Forces

 

While attempts have been made by many to introduce dragoons and even guerrilla units as representing major types of mounted forces during the Civil War, they have erred. The remaining dragoons had been redesignated as cavalry in 1861, and although the U.S. Army didn't raise a single dragoon unit henceforth, some Northern states chose to follow tradition and therefore honored the namesake with a few dragoon nomenclatures. Guerilla and partisan units never obtained a prominent or major mounted role during the conflict, for the numbers were comparatively few, and both applied the tactics of cavalry or dismounted infantry. But if one introduces guerilla forces, then wouldn't it be fair to also introduce "bushwhackers"? There were only two preeminent mounted forces employed in the Civil War by both armies:

  • Cavalry were forces that fought principally on horseback, armed with carbines, pistols, and especially sabers. Only a small percentage of Civil War forces met this definition—primarily Union mounted forces in the Eastern Theater during the first half of the war. Confederate forces in the East generally carried neither carbines nor sabers. A few Confederate regiments in the Western Theater carried shotguns, especially early in the war.
  • Mounted infantry were forces that moved on horseback but dismounted for fighting on foot, armed principally with rifles. In the second half of the war, most of the units considered to be cavalry actually fought battles using the tactics of mounted infantry. An example of this was the celebrated "Lightning Brigade" of Col. John T. Wilder, which used horses to quickly arrive at a battlefield such as Chickamauga, but they deployed and fought using standard infantry formations and tactics. By contrast, at the Battle of Gettysburg, Federal cavalry under John Buford also dismounted to fight Confederate infantry, but they used conventional cavalry tactics, arms, and formations.

Cavalry Weapons

 

Confederate cavalrymen traveled lighter than their Union counterparts and were not usually armed with the more modern carbines. Short, muzzle-loading carbines were more common in Confederate regiments, including imports from England. Some Southern troopers preferred to leave their sabers behind and carried extra pistols instead of sabers, for close work. Southern arsenals attempted to mass produce breech-loading carbines, even making copies of Union carbines made by the Sharps Rifle Company. Attempts at mass production of the weapon failed and Confederate cavalrymen relied upon a varied stock of captured and imported arms.

 

Cavalry units were dependent on fast movement so a trooper’s first priority was care of his horse. Each cavalry regiment had a blacksmith who shod and cared for the animals in camp. On active campaign, a trooper had to look out for his own animal and care for it. If the horse was disabled, it was easier for a Northern soldier to get a new mount from the herd which usually accompanied the army. Southerners brought their own mounts with them into service and woe be to the man whose horse pulled up lame or was injured. It sometimes meant the trooper became a foot soldier until another horse could be obtained. The armament of a typical cavalryman at Gettysburg included a light steel saber, a pistol and a carbine. By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, breech-loading carbines were standard issue in all Union cavalry regiments. Two regiments, the 5th and 6th Michigan Cavalry, were armed with Spencer repeating rifles, a rifle that held a seven-round magazine. The carbine version of this weapon appeared in the Army of the Potomac after Gettysburg and made a great difference in firepower. On the cavalryman's saddle was strapped his baggage which included a shelter tent, blanket, poncho, saddle bags for rations and a canteen.

 

Most mounted troops of the Civil War carried a rifle or shotgun and several revolvers, meaning as many as they could acquire, to compensate for the lengthy process of reloading. Depending on the types of firearms obtained, the cavalryman with a single carbine and three revolvers could discharge as many as 30 rounds prior to reloading a single weapon. But though it makes for some serious firepower, an anxious soldier, by spending his ammunition quickly, could sacrifice accuracy.

 

Which do you think would make the best cavalryman, the experienced horseman or the seasoned gunfighter? If you said experienced rider, then you are correct. For it is much easier to train a veteran rider to both ride and shoot than it was to instruct the best gunfighter to gallop and discharge his weapon. The Comanche was considered the best equestrian of the era, and at full gallop the Comanche warrior could accurately fire 12 plus arrows in a single minute. After being taught to use the carbine, the Comanche was considered unmatched while astride his horse during battle. See also Civil War Cavalry, Dragoon, and Mounted Infantry Weapons: A Photographic History.

American Civil War Cavalry weapons
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Civil War Cavalry carried from rifles and carbines, revolvers, sabers and swords, to shotguns

Confederate cavalry tracking Federals
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Civil War Cavalry

Cavalry Organization

 

In 1861 the Union cavalry consisted of only six regiments, scarcely a force, but it would be another year, in 1862, that it received the necessary funding to raise a sizeable force. When the Civil War broker out, politicians in Congress were hesitant to spend large sums of money toward a war that many believed would be over in just 90 days. By 1863, both Union and Confederate cavalries fought on equal footing, as witnessed during the battles of Brandy Station and Gettysburg. Union troopers of General John Buford's Division opened the Battle of Gettysburg against Confederate infantry of General Heth's Division on July 1, 1863. The cavalrymen were limited by their numbers and the moderate range of the carbines they carried, but were able to deter the Confederate skirmishers for a few hours until Union infantry arrived. While the armies did battle around Gettysburg, cavalry units skirmished in Hunterstown, Pennsylvania, and on several roads east of town. Following the Battle of Gettysburg, most Union and Confederate cavalry units transitioned to the fighting tactics employed by mounted infantry and strike forces. The horsemen would ride into the battle, dismount, and fully utilize the firearm with its greater than 400 yards of effective range.

 

Cavalry regiments were composed of ten companies of 100 to 110 troopers each. There were five squadrons in a regiment, a squadron being a combination of two companies. This was later changed and the regiments were divided into three battalions. Cavalrymen could fight either mounted or on foot in a staggered skirmish line. Fighting on foot did eliminate some of the unit's firepower as one soldier was designated as a holder for four horses, including his own, while the other three troopers were detailed to the firing line.

 

The Union Army of the Potomac's Cavalry Corps, commanded by General Alfred Pleasonton, was made up of three divisions and included two brigades of Horse Artillery- batteries with enough horses for drivers and gunners alike. Each division had two to three brigades which either acted in concert with the remainder of the corps or acted as scouts and escorts when the army was on the move such as during the Gettysburg Campaign. See also American Civil War Cavalry Organization.

 

The Confederate cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General J.E.B. Stuart, was organized into one large division, divided into brigades, and accompanied by six batteries of horse artillery. General Stuart was legendary amongst cavalry leaders for his daring exploits and raids around the slower moving Union forces. Southern writers composed songs and poems about his exploits. The morale of his troopers was very high and they fancied themselves as superior horsemen. One even boasted that twenty Northern horsemen were no match for a single Confederate cavalryman. But Stuart's men were thwarted at Gettysburg by determined Union cavalry regiments which were better armed and led by experienced officers who had learned some of their tactics from the foe. Cavalry not only opened the battle, but closed it in a fierce contest east of Gettysburg. In a decisive showdown on July 3rd, Union General David Gregg's Cavalry Division thwarted a drive on the Union right flank by General J.E.B. Stuart's Cavalry. The battle was fought dismounted until a last desperate charge to break through the Union positions was beaten back by General Custer's Michigan Brigade. From Gettysburg on, cavalry would never be the same.

 

See also:

 

Civil War Cavalry: Union and Confederate Weapons, Battles, Uniforms, Role, Tactics, and Organization

Civil War Cavalry, Dragoon, and Mounted Infantry Small Arms, Firearms, and Edged Weapons: A Photographic History

United States Cavalry History

Civil War Dragoons and Creation of Cavalry

Try our internal search engine, type, for examples: Cavalry, Cavalry Engagement, Cavalry Charge, Cavalry Experience, Cavalry Battle, Gettysburg Cavalry, etc.

(Sources and related reading below.)

Recommended Reading: Nathan Bedford Forrest: In Search of the Enigma (Hardcover) (528 pages). Description: Nathan Bedford Forrest’s astounding military abilities, passionate temperament, and tactical ingenuity on the battlefield have earned the respect of Civil War scholars and military leaders alike. He was a man who stirred the most extreme emotions among his followers and his enemies, and his name continues to inspire controversy. In this comprehensive biography, Forrest is properly illuminated as the brilliant battlefield tactician--and the only Confederate cavalry leader feared by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Historians Eddy W. Davison and Daniel Foxx offer a detailed explanation of the Fort Pillow "Massacre" unraveling the facts to prove that it was not indeed a massacre. The book also discusses Forrest’s role in the Ku Klux Klan and how he came to be its first grand wizard. Continued below...

Dispelling several myths, this is a study of the complete Forrest, including his rise as a self-made millionaire in Memphis, his remarkable success leading the Seventh Tennessee Cavalry, and his life following the Civil War. Although the book is filled with vivid battle narratives, it goes beyond Forrest’s military life to examine other aspects of this enigmatic leader—his role as husband and father, for example, and his dramatic call for full citizenship for Black Southerners. Edwin C. Bearss, historian emeritus, National Park Service, states: "Recommended as must reading for those who want to know Forrest and his way of war."

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Recommended Reading: The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations during the Civil War's Pivotal Campaign, 9 June-14 July 1863. Description: "For cavalry and/or Gettysburg enthusiasts, this book is a must; for other Civil War buffs, it possesses the qualities sought by students of the conflict. . . . [It] bristles with analysis, details, judgments, personality profiles, and evaluations and combat descriptions, even down to the squadron and company levels. The mounted operations of the campaign from organizational, strategic, and tactical viewpoints are examined thoroughly. The author's graphic recountings of the Virginia fights at Brandy Station, Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, the Pennsylvania encounters at Hanover, Hunterstown, Gettysburg, and Fairfield, and finally the retreat to Virginia, are the finest this reviewer has read under a single cover. Continued below...

For those who enjoy the thunder of hoofbeats, the clang of sabers, and the crack of pistols and carbines, this book has all of it. Generals and privates share the pages, as the mounted opponents parry and thrust across hundreds of miles of territory from June 9 to July 14, 1863."-Civil War Times Illustrated (Civil War Times Illustrated).

 

Recommended Reading: Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg (Hardcover). Description: In June 1863, the Gettysburg Campaign is in its opening hours. Harness jingles and hoofs pound as Confederate cavalryman James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart leads his three brigades of veteran troopers on a ride that triggers one of the Civil War's most bitter and enduring controversies. Instead of finding glory and victory-two objectives with which he was intimately familiar-Stuart reaped stinging criticism and substantial blame for one of the Confederacy's most stunning and unexpected battlefield defeats. In Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg, Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi objectively investigate the role Stuart's horsemen played in the disastrous campaign. It is the first book ever written on this important and endlessly fascinating subject. Continued below…

Stuart left Virginia under acting on General Robert E. Lee's discretionary orders to advance into Maryland and Pennsylvania, where he was to screen Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell's marching infantry corps and report on enemy activity. The mission jumped off its tracks from virtually the moment it began when one unexpected event after another unfolded across Stuart's path. For days, neither Lee nor Stuart had any idea where the other was, and the enemy blocked the horseman's direct route back to the Confederate army, which was advancing nearly blind north into Pennsylvania. By the time Stuart reached Lee on the afternoon of July 2, the armies had unexpectedly collided at Gettysburg, the second day's fighting was underway, and one of the campaign's greatest controversies was born. Did the plumed cavalier disobey Lee's orders by stripping the army of its "eyes and ears?" Was Stuart to blame for the unexpected combat the broke out at Gettysburg on July 1? Authors Wittenberg and Petruzzi, widely recognized for their study and expertise of Civil War cavalry operations, have drawn upon a massive array of primary sources, many heretofore untapped, to fully explore Stuart's ride, its consequences, and the intense debate among participants shortly after the battle, through early post-war commentators, and among modern scholars. The result is a richly detailed study jammed with incisive tactical commentary, new perspectives on the strategic role of the Southern cavalry, and fresh insights on every horse engagement, large and small, fought during the campaign. About the author: Eric J. Wittenberg has written widely on Civil War cavalry operations. His books include Glory Enough for All (2002), The Union Cavalry Comes of Age (2003), and The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Final Campaign (2005). He lives in Columbus, Ohio.

 

Recommended Reading: Brandy Station, Virginia, June 9, 1863: The Largest Cavalry Battle of the Civil War (Hardcover). Description: The winter of 1862-1863 found Robert Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac at a standoff along the Rappahannock River in Virginia. In December 1862, outnumbered Confederate forces had dealt the Union army a handy defeat in the Battle of Fredericksburg. A demoralized Union army was waiting for spring and revitalization. The latter came in late January 1863 in the form of Major General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker. Relieving the disgraced and outmatched Burnside, Hooker reorganized his troops, establishing regular drills, procuring adequate rations and instituting company colors, thereby giving his soldiers back their fighting spirit. Lee, also with his eye on the spring campaign, concentrated on maintaining his strength and fortifications while struggling with the ever-increasing problem of adequate supplies. Continued below…

As the spring campaign--and Hooker’s new fighting approach--began, cavalry units from both sides took on an increased importance. This culminated in the largest cavalry battle of the war, fought near Brandy Station, Virginia on June 9, 1863. Compiled from various contemporary sources, this volume details the contributions of cavalry units during the spring campaign of 1863. Although the work discusses early encounters such as the Battle of Chancellorsville, the main focus is the Battle of Brandy Station, which marked the opening of the Gettysburg campaign and Lee’s last offensive into the North. Here, forces commanded by J.E.B. Stuart and Alfred Pleasanton fought a battle which ranged over 70 square miles but left no decisive victor. At the end of the day, Confederate troops were still in possession of the territory and counted fewer casualties, yet Union forces had definitely taken the offensive. While historians still debate the significance of the battle, many now view it as a harbinger of change, signifying the beginning of dominance of Union horse soldiers and the corresponding decline of Stuart’s Confederate command. Appendices contain information on individual units with recorded casualties and a list of West Pointers who took part in the battle. Photographs and an index are also included.

 

Recommended Reading: Battle Tactics of the Civil War (Yale Nota Bene) (Yale University Press). Description: Was the Civil War really the birthplace of modern battlefield tactics? Paddy Griffith argues that despite the use of new weapons and of trench warfare techniques, the Civil War was in reality the last Napoleonic-style war. Rich in description and analysis, this is a book of interest both to military historians and to Civil War buffs. "Belongs on the shelf of every historian, Civil War buff, and military tactician." -- Maj. James T. Currie, Army. "Provides a fresh and provocative appraisal of the [Civil] War. . . . An essential read for anyone interested in the subject." -- Military History Illustrated. Continued below...

About the Author: Paddy Griffith, formerly a senior lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England, is the author of several other books on military subjects, including Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army's Art of Attack, published by Yale University Press.

 

Recommended Reading: Civil War Cavalry & Artillery Sabers (Swords) (Hardcover). Description: The ultimate guide to sabers of the Civil War. This huge resource is easily the most important sword book written in decades, and is lavishly illustrated with 1,400 photographs, 60 of them in color. An important extra feature is that it also includes all sabers from the prewar period, right back to 1833. Every make and every known variation is covered with full history, tables and illustrations. Photographs include hundreds of close-ups showing the small features that tell one saber apart from the others. A truly groundbreaking work. Several photos not seen. Each photo is accompanied by a detailed description.

Sources: Edward G. Longacre, The Cavalry At Gettysburg, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Rutherford, 1986; John S. Mosby, Stuart's Cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign, Moffat, Yard & Company, New York, 1908; David F. Riggs, East of Gettysburg, Custer vs. Stuart, Old Army Press, F. Collins, CO, 1970; Mark Nesbitt, 35 Days To Gettysburg, The Campaign Diaries of Two American Enemies, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA, 1992; Robert F. O'Neill, Jr., The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, & Upperville- Small But Important Riots, June 10-27, 1863, H.E. Howard Inc., Lynchburg, VA, 1993; Heros von Borcke, The Great Cavalry Battle of Brandy Station, Palaemon Press Ltd., Winston-Salem, NC, 1976; Library of Congress.

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