The many problems faced by the Union cavalry before it became a viable force have long been debated. Even Winfield Scott felt that cavalry would not play a major role in the battle between the states. His feeling was that the hilly and woody terrain in the east, and the accuracy improvements in side arms and artillery would render dragoons ineffective. In the first years of the war, McLellan and Pope seemed bent on using the cavalry for menial tasks and treated them as an afterthought.
In ‘The Photographic History of the Civil War, the Cavalry’, Theophilus Rodenbough, a young Union cavalry captain during the war, states that in 1860, young men of the north gravitated to indoor and commercial pursuits, while in the south the men lived the country life, replete with ranching, hunting, and riding. Jefferson Davis himself, a veteran of the Mexican War, had been a dragoon. The south had only to organize thousands of young men who rode their own horses to service. Contrast this with the north, where almost all cavalrymen had to be trained in all things pertaining to horses and riding with sabers and firearms, a process which Rodenbough felt took two years.
The South instantly recognized the many uses of a mobile and semi-independent cavalry. These included throwing weight behind infantry and artillery, reconnointering and counter-recon (preventing spying by enemy scouts), delaying enemy advances by falling back from point to point as the terrain afforded, pursuing and harrassing retreating infantry,consolidating gains and preventing re-grouping and counter attack, raiding enemy positions and communication lines (either independently or in conjunction with the army). They could also be used as troop escorts, as outpost garrisons when not engaged, for protecting infantry’s flanks, raiding supply depots, tearing up RR tracks, destroying bridges.
In the meantime the early Union leaders were content to use them as escorts, couriers, and bodyguards. The results of early encounters between cavalry forces were predicatably one-sided. Little Mac ignored the possibilites, reducing his mounted forces, and Pope actually disregarded scouting reports from such stalwarts as Buford and Bayard. His defeat at Second Bull Run was due in part to his reluctance to utilize his cavalry, even while JEB Stuart was terrorizing his flanks.
Burnside furthered these mistakes. His mounted troops stood by, inactive, while Stuart and Pelham tormented his infantry. Finally, Joe Hooker replaced Burnside and decided that the cavalry would no longer operate at the behest of the core commanders. He was the first Union commander to grasp the idea of the cavalry as a larger, semi-independent force. Unfortunately, he appointed the under-inspired and under-inspiring General George Stoneman as the Major General of the mounted troops.
Stoneman’s ‘raid’, in which he failed to find, much less destroy, several enemy supply bases, cost him his command when his lack of support allowed Stuart to chop up Hooker’s flank in the Wilderness. Hooker replaced him with Alfred Pleasonton, whose main ability was self-promotion. His colleagues questioned his integrity and were fearful of his ambition. His own men, having seen him in combat, noted his lack of courage.Yet Hooker promoted him over such talents as the redoubtable Winfield Scott Hancock.
In retrospect, its hard to comprehend the northern leaders’ reluctance to use cavalry. Both southern and northern press alike were touting the exploits of JEB Stuart, and to a lesser extent, Mosby, Ashby, and Forrest. Perhaps this reluctance stemmed from a lack of confidence, a possible concern that the northern cavalry was too inefficient to be effective. Whatever the reasons, the Union cavalry had finally gotten their legs under them by the spring of ’63.
From June 9th right through the retreat of Lee after Gettysburg, both mounted forces rode and fought almost non-stop. Shortly before this, Lee had expanded Stuarts’ command of 6,000. He ordered Brig Gen William ‘Grumble’ Jones to join Stuart for the invasion of the north. He had John Imboden escort the infantry march on the western flank.
Lee had little faith in Albert Jenkins, and placed him with the vanguard rather than have him serve under Stuart (much to Stuart’s relief). The fourth brigade that Lee pulled for the march was that of Beverly Robertson, whom Stuart also disliked. Lee also had doubts as to Robertson’s ability and stability. But the Confederate commander-in-chief was clearly calling on all available horse soldiers for the invasion.
In Edward G. Longacre’s ‘The Cavalry at Gettysburg’, he cites Brandy Station as the first battle in which the union cavalry gives Stuart a run for his money. Anyone who believes that the Gettysburg campaign was a long uneventful march, followed by three days of fighting, and then a quiet retreat, must read this book. The mounted forces for both sides fought constantly for position at every turn. Longacre’s book covers events from Brandy Station through the retreat back across the Potomac.
Who won at Brandy Station? The Federals had the higher casualties, but also had the disadvantage of being the attacking party, and their assault had to be made crossing a swollen river. This while in the face of a cavalry corps that had chosen its ground, and was also able to concentrate forces at the only two crossable spots, Kelly’s and Beverly’s Fords.
More important than declaring a winner, it was becoming apparent that the northern mounted forces had improved and could now deal with the brilliant Stuart’s men on equal terms. They proved it beyond a doubt in a series of running encounters, following Brandy Station to Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, giving as good as they got.
Buford’s scouting out the southern infantry and deploying his 2,700 cavlrymen, and his subsequent hold until Reynolds arrived is well known. But not so many people are aware of General David Gregg’s heroic work on Day three, refusing the chastized and furious Stuart’s obstinate attempts to pierce the Union lines from behind. Had the Beau Sabreaur been allowed to penetrate, Pickett’s charge may have succeeded, and Lee may have had his yearned -for victory on union soil.
When Lee fell back to the swollen Potomac, Stuart had to hold off constant advances by Buford and Kilpatrick as they badgered the retreating infantry. From July 8th through the 11th, Stuart was at his best defending the infantry at Boonesboro, Beaver Creek, Funkstown, and Sharpsburg. But it was clear by this time that the forces were now equal.
Again, a lot of factors went into this transformation. As the war continued, the South lost many of their great cavalry leaders, including Ashby, Pelham, Morgan, and, of course, Stuart. The Confederacy had the additional problem of being unable to keep their warriors in horse flesh. Many of these mountless soldiers were gathered together in a useless group, called ‘Company Q’. Their weapons never matched the quality of the North’s repeating rifles, and even their saddles and equipment were in disrepair. Just as many of the infantrymen were shoeless, the mounted forces faced the same issues.
Contrast this with the North’s cavalry, well-equipped, with horse depots in several cities, most notably Giesboro, DC. So, as the South’s cavalry slowly lost effectiveness, mainly through lack of resources, the Union’s grew ever stronger. Through a seeming process of trial and error they had finally gotten in place better leadership than at any time during the war. In May, ’64, the relentless Sheridan took 10,000 troopers from Spotsylvania to Yellow Tavern, where Stuart received his mortal wound. After a hotly contested battle, Sheridan drove the Confederate cavalry back into Richmond. The North now controlled the main highways into the capital. Weeks later, Sheridan defeated the Confederate horsemen again at Trevillian, and followed that by breaking up the supply depot at White House on the Pamunkey, and driving the 900 wagons to Petersburg to meet up with Grant. The transformation was complete.
Looking back, Major McLelland of Stuart’s staff remarked, ” The government committed the fateful error of allowing the men to own their own horses, paying them a per diem, 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….”
” The second cause was the failure of the government to supply good arms and accoutremnets. Our breech-loading arms were nearly all captured from the enemy and the same may be said for bridles and saddles. From these causes, which no commander had the power 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.”
The superiority of the Union arms cannot be overstated. As the war unfolded, the supply and quality of US cavalry carbines steadily increased. Several regiments were issued the 16 shot Henry rifle. Its accuracy and ability to fire that many rounds without reloading had an understandably debillitating effect on the flagging spirit of the southern soldiers. During Grierson’s amazing raid through the southwest, a captive confederate prisoner asked one of his captors, “Say, do you all load your guns on Sunday, and then fire’em all week.”
By the time the two armies arrived in Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac boasted 13,000 horse soldiers. At the close of the war, Sheridan was at Appomattox with 15,000, while Wilson, in the south, was sweeping Alabama and Mississippi with several thousand more.
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