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Cavalry Tactics in the Civil War
By Stephen Z. Starr
April 26, 1959
1996 and 2002 The Cincinnati Civil War Round Table
Philip H. SheridanChapter I
When I undertook the task of writing a paper on Cavalry Tactics in the Civil War, I assumed that my function would be to provide a nostalgic interlude in the midst of the professionally more meaningful papers of my colleagues. Although I had a fairly good general knowledge of Civil War Tactics, I thought that a paper on cavalry would deal mainly with moonlight and roses, and that it would fall to Messrs. Miller, Morrison and Reardon to give you the "thunder of the captains and the shouting." Not until I began an intensive course of reading and rereading in preparation for this paper did I come gradually to realize that I had drawn a prize assignment. 1 shall now try to demonstrate to you that of all the tactical and technical innovations in which the Civil War was so prolific, none was so meaningful for the future, and none so clearly foreshadowed a new era of tactics and indeed of strategy, as the tactics of the mounted arm. I am convinced that to whatever degree it may still be worth while to study tactics in terms of armed human beings watched in battle, it is the tactical and strategic employment of cavalry as developed in the Civil War, that is most deserving of your attention. These tactical innovations did not come about by accident. They were devised and put into practice by a small number of gifted soldiers - not one of whom, by the way, was a professional cavalryman - and if a major attribute of military greatness is the ability to think out and use new tactical devices to fit new conditions, then high places must be found in the Civil War Pantheon for such men as Sheridan, Wilson, Buford and Forrest.
Nathan Bedford Forrest Tactics as the art of disposing military forces in actual contact with the enemy, came into being as a direct result of the "invention" of cavalry. In classical Greece, where cavalry was almost nonexistent, the opposing lines of infantry were drawn up in parallel lines, one of which advanced upon the other. The issue was thereupon settled by the relative quality of weapons, by impetuosity, by endurance, by discipline When one line happened to be longer than the other, or one line had an open flank, overlapping might or might not occur. Basically, however, the frontal assault was the decisive factor. When cavalry, and hence mobility, is introduced. there is a complete change. Not only can the cavalry protect the flanks of its own infantry, but it also becomes a rapidly-maneuverable threat to the flanks and rear - the tactically weakest, points - of the opposing infantry. Hence the tactical basis of the infantry attack changes. It is no longer the sole means of forcing a decision: its objective now is to hold the opponent in position, to compel him to reinforce his front. and to deny him the capability of meeting the outflanking maneuvers of the cavalry.
From the time of its first era of glory under Alexander the Great until our Civil War, cavalry had survived many ups and downs. From being a numerically and tactically negligible auxiliary of the Roman legions,(1) it became the undisputed mistress of the battlefield in the Middle Ages, but with the advent of the long bow, the pike and the musket, cavalry entered a long period of eclipse, particularly after the beginning of the XVI Century. (2) In the XVIII Century, a tactical balance was struck; with the rediscovery of the doctrine, as old as Belisarius, that battles are won through the use of all arms in proper tactical combination, we find cavalry once more occupying a prominent place in battle On the theoretical side. Maurice de Saxe was not only a strong advocate of the use of cavalry, but also emphasized the difference between the tactical employment of light cavalry and of dragoons, to which we shall refer hereafter. Frederick the Great has the distinction of developing a new tactical synthesis in which he substituted for frontal attacks delivered by masses of infantry marching as on a parade ground, a much more flexible scheme, a true battle of maneuver, in which the artillery prepared the way for the infantry attack. Usually delivered upon one of the flanks of the enemy's line and intended at all events to fix him in position, while the cavalry moved toward the enemy's rear.(4)
Napoleon, although himself a gunner, had a very high opinion of cavalry, and improved upon Frederick's conception by using his cavalry in very large bodies. He gathered the French cavalry. previously used as regiments, into brigades and divisions made up of similarly-armed units, and eventually consolidated divisions into army corps which contained as many as 23,000 troopers in the Prussian campaign of 1805 and 38,000 in the Russian campaign of 1812.(5) Wile he used his light cavalry very effectively for screening and scouting, and built up a dragoon force of twenty-one regiments,(6) his chief reliance was on shock tactics, and it was therefore the cuirassier, employed in
great masses and delivering charges with the sabre as his primary weapon, who was the backbone of the Napoleonic cavalry.
In the years of peace after Waterloo, major advances in weapons took place. In this period came the invention of the percussion cap, the rifled musket, the rifle, and the cylindro-conoidal bullet, usually called the Minie bullet after the name of the Frenchman who developed it to its final form. These inventions were to have a profound effect on warfare. The infantry musket became an all-weather weapon, almost unaffected by rain or dampness. Its effective range was tripled and its accuracy greatly improved.(7) In the long era of peace that followed the Napoleonic wars, these inventions could not be adequately combat-tested; it was obvious nevertheless that they ushered in a new era of tactics. Military theorists recognized that the new weapons in the hands of firm infantry made the massed cavalry charge impossible. The old shock tactics, highly effective against infantry armed with muskets whose range was only 200 to 300 yards, would be suicidal against unshaken troops whose firearms were deadly at 1,000 yards The opinion that the days of cavalry were numbered became general, and even in traditionally cavalry-minded countries like Russia and Austria, the mounted forces were greatly reduced in the 1850's(8). Among cavalrymen, however, the new ideas made no great impression and the opinion persisted that the tried and tested shock tactics could still drive any infantry from the field. The Crimean War, the only war of any consequence in this period, gave no opportunity for testing the validity of these theories, either old or net
It was the peculiar fortune of the United States that our Civil War should be the first major conflict in which these advances in weaponry could be tested. It was perhaps fateful that the testing should fall to a people essentially unhampered by military traditionalism, unfettered by any canon of military dogma, and conditioned by the frontier spirit to "try anything once", to improvise, to adapt old methods to new conditions, and to invent new methods when the old did not work. Moreover, the testing was done under physical and topographical conditions that would of themselves have dictated changes in the tactical ideas transplanted from Europe, even if the advances in weapons had not done so.
One must be careful not to exaggerate the absence of technical military lore in the United States before 1861. In 1839 Philip Kearny and two other cavalry officers were sent by Secretary of War Joel Poinsett on a mission to study the organization and tactics of the French cavalry; Kearny not only took the French cavalry officers' training course at Saumur, but also served with the French cavalry in Algeria.(10) The three officers completed their mission by writing, after their return to the United States, a System of Cavalry Tactics modeled on French practice, which Poinsett thought to be the best in
Europe. The book was published by the War Department in 1841 under the name of the Poinsett Tactics; it remained the official cavalry manual for twenty years and served as the basis for the numerous new manuals which were published in 1861. In 1855, G. B. McClellan and Majors Delafield and Mordecai were sent by Secretary of War Davis on a mission to study "the practical working of the changes which have been introduced of late years into the military systems . . . of Europe", and McClellan's report was published by act of Congress in 1851.(11) However, in the absence of a professional military caste, the United States was quite backward, by European standards, in the theoretical study of strategy and tactics, although a translation of Jomini's Precis de 1'art de la guerre was published in New York in 1854,(12) and a surprising number of books dealing specifically with cavalry tactics came out in the years before the Civil War.(13) And, from 1837 on, the West Point cadets were taught a course in cavalry tactics.
Jefferson F. Davis In actual practice, the United States developed tactical methods that would have made a European cavalryman shudder. In the War of 1812, the Battle of the Thames was won by the cavalry, or more precisely, by the Kentucky mounted riflemen of General Richard M. Johnson. The Mexican War was, on the American side, primarily an infantry and artillery affair,(14) but in the 1840's and 1850's, as the frontier moved westward into the Great Plains, cavalry acquired a new importance through its use against the Indians. At the time, the regular cavalry consisted of the First and Second Regiments of Dragoons and the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen.(15) In 1855, Jefferson Davis obtained Congressional(16) authority to form the First and Second Regiments of United States Cavalry. The two new regiments were designed solely for mounted combat. The men were armed with sabres, and pistols or carbines, and were trained for outpost duty, scouting and mounted shock tactics. However, all the units of the small regular army were very much broken up and widely scattered.(17) It was very seldom that so much as a battalion was present at the same post, and it was not unusual for a unit as small as a company to be split up into detachments which were then stationed at widely separated points. This in itself was enough to prevent the adoption of European systems of cavalry tactics in the United States. The use of shock tactics required thorough training of men and horses in regimental and brigade units, and in the condition of the service at the time, when portions of a single regiment were strewn in small detachments from Texas to California, even regimental training was impossible. In any case, a sabre-swinging, textbook cavalry charge would have been a tactical absurdity against the Plains Indians. It was conditions like these which caused General Ewell, whose whole military life, except for service in the Mexican War, was spent on the Plains, to assert that "he had learned all about commanding fifty United States dragoons, and forgotten everything else."(18)
There were, of course, cavalry units in the militia, chiefly in the southern and border states, but these were mostly of company strength and for the most part, more
ornamental than useful. Wonderfully named and even more wonderfully accoutered in shabrack, sabre-tache and dolman, like Austrian hussars, these groups drilled and paraded in a state of happy innocence of tactical ideas.
We come now to the start of the Civil War. Two armies must be created, equipped, officered. and trained to fight. Nine hundred profession-ally-trained officers, half of whom had seen no fighting more serious than an Indian skirmish, must organize and train these armies, lead them in battles and campaigns, and learn to handle in large-scale combat, artillery, cavalry and infantry, singly and in combination. All this must be done with totally green, undisciplined troops, with a volunteer officer corps almost totally lacking in professional qualifications, and with very little time or opportunity for training except in actual combat.(20)
Before we begin to consider cavalry tactics proper, it will be enlightening, and also necessary for an understanding of tactical developments, to review the organization and equipment of mounted troops, both North and South, at the beginning of hostilities. In the North, cavalry began the War under a cloud of high-level of official disfavor. General Scott, (21) Secretary of War Cameron (22) and Congress were at one in discouraging any appreciable expansion of the Union cavalry. Scott conceived of cavalry in the European sense and knew that in Europe one to two years was considered to be the minimum time needed to train cavalrymen and cavalry horses. He held that the Civil War would be over before cavalry could be organized and properly trained for combat Hence officers of cavalry regiments by the states were refused and regular officers were discouraged from accepting commissions in the volunteer cavalry regiments. In the first military bill passed by Congress after the start of hostilities. it was provided that in the volunteer regiments accepted from the states, the proportion of cavalry regiments to infantry was not to exceed one to ten; in the same bill, the regular cavalry was increased by only one regiment.(23) It was only after Bull Run had been fought, and lost (24) that the Northern authorities began to look with favor on the expansion of cavalry, and in September and October, 1861, volunteer cavalry regiments were organized in considerable numbers and in great haste.
The volunteer cavalry units taken into the Federal service were organized into regiments identified by number and state of origin, for example, the Fourth Iowa Volunteer Cavalry. A regiment consisted of twelve companies, each nominally made up of 92 enlisted men and three officers. With the commanding officer and the commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the regimental and battalion staffs, the total strength of the unit came to 1,177. Within the regiment, two companies made up a squadron, two squadrons a battalion. and three battalions a regiment. (25) As we shall see later, the Union cavalry was not normally brigaded until 1863. (26) The battalion organization within the regiment
was abolished by the act of July 17, 1862; the same bill also abolished the squadron as an organizational unit, and renamed the company as the "troop".
However close to, or even over, paper strength a regiment might be when organized, it needed only a few months of camp life and active duty, the attrition of illness, wounds, capture and discharge, the detailing of individual companies and squadrons...