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“American Civil War Cavalry” by David Snowden
Miniature Wargames 22, March 1985
Napoleon’s tactics, particularly his cavalry doctrine, survived his
down-fall by a hundred years. His basic premise was that war should
consist of elaborate campaigns designed to bring about a climactic
battle in which the enemy’s army would be destroyed by a massed
cavalry charge at the decisive moment. In his scheme of things the
light cavalry secured the army from surprise while providing the
Genera] with the intelligence needed to bring the enemy to contact
under the most advantageous circumstances by strategic manoeuvering, while the heavy cavalry were massed in reserve until the critical
moment. Naturally the cavalry came to be regarded and regard
themselves as the decisive arm and the infantry as mere cannon
For five centuries up to 1850 firearms development had been slow
and halting and the infantryman relied on pike or bayonet to protect
him from cavalry. In the next ten years the pace quickened as
innovations crowded in upon one another and the battle life of a
firearm was measured in years rather than in lifetimes.
Henry VIII had rifles in his armoury but up until the Crimean War
rifles had always been an auxiliary arm. Too slow for general use they
were issued to specialist skirmishers and marksmen who could take
their time loading and aiming. That changed when in 1846 a Captain
Minie of the French army came up with the solution. He designed an
elongated bullet with a pointed nose (technically “cylindro-conoidal”) and a hollow base. In the base was a wooden plug or iron cup.
The bullet was slightly smaller than the diameter of the barrel across
the lands and rattled down the tube when loaded. When fired the plug
or cup moved up inside the hollow, swelling the bullet and forcing it
outwards to grip the rifling. The result was a muzzle-loading rifle as
rapid to fire as a smoothbore and far more accurate than any rifle had-
The Mexican War had been fought almost entirely with smooth-
bores and the still appropriate Napoleonic tactics but in 13 years a
battlefield revolution had taken place. Effective small arms range had
increased from no more than 100 yards to at least 400 yards,
eliminating the cavalry charge, driving artillery out of cannister range,
raising the value of entrenchments and hampering exploitation and
If cavalry could no long charge or screen, pursue or skirmish with
pistols and carbines and could not hide from fire in long grass or
field-works what possible use could they be? Could they survive at all?
Not only did the American cavalry survive, finally departing in the
1940s, but it flourished, entering a kind of bloody golden age during a
war in which more Americans, native and immigrant, fought on
horseback than in any war before or since. The North raised 272 full
regiments of cavalry, plus 45 independent battalions and 78
independent companies between 1861 and 1865. The South’s records
are incomplete but they were able to call on at least 137 regiments, 143
battalions and 101 separate companies. Furthermore. when the 1st
Virginia, Wade Hampton’s Legion and several independent companies of cavalry plunged into the retreating Northerners at First Bull
Run, converting retreat into panic-stricken route, they signalled that,
in spite of the theory, properly handled cavalry could still have a
profound morale and shock effect.
Far from finally doing away with cavalry the Civil War allowed both
regulars and volunteers to muster more cavalry than before or since,
shake off the anachronistic doctrines and develop, almost by
accident, a uniquely American concept of mounted warfare. Cavalry
romantics may still have blunted the edge of an enemy attack with the
sabre but the days of cavalry as shock troops were over, the days of the
mobile shootist, seizing and holding ground and overthrowing the
[p.15] enemy with bold strategic sweeps had come. The supply lines of the
various armies in both the Western and Eastern theatres were under
constant danger of attack, perpetually harassed by the enemy’s
cavalry raiders. Major strategies had to be developed to meet them,
wasting vast numbers of troops on line of supply security duties.
Militia and home guard units were tied down at home and front-line
units had to be withdrawn.
The cavalry’s role, from the formation of the first mounted
regiment in 1833 until war broke out in 1861 was in North-West
frontier style policing, providing patrols, escorts and mounting
punitive expeditions. Units were split into Companies, separated by
hundreds of miles from their sister companies. During this time the
cavalry rarely drew sabres in anger.
There were a very few instances of cavalry charges with cold steel,
occasions when the puzzled Indians fled more from confusion than
fear. But in a war of patrol and ambush there was rarely time or room
to form up for a charge.
There were next to no regular horsemen until 1833 and from then
until the first year of the War there were a mere five regiments,
compared to 66 in France. In combat platoons and companies
skirmished on the frontier in penny-packet engagements. Few
officers had seen more than a squadron in one place. There had been
neither the time nor the opportunity to develop any kind of cavalry
Trained cavalry, after the European fashion, was not required.
Mexico had been subdued, largely without the benefit of mounted
troops. Canada posed no threat and no army in the world had the
capacity to transport horses in quantity across the Atlantic, far less the
Pacific. Any type of regular or standing unit was abhorrent to
Congress who had inherited the British distrust of standing armies,
and cavalry was especially suspect for its elitist overtones. If this was
not handicap enough there were the tight strings on the Congressional
purse. A fully equipped cavalry regiment cost three times as much as
an equal number of infantry. Only as the already overstrained cavalry
had to push deeper and deeper into Indian territory to protect the
uncontrolled migrations of white settlers could Congress be persuaded to add to the cavalry establishment, and then only in dribs and drabs.
Notwithstanding the army’s experience senior cavalry officers had
been schooled in European tactics and saw the frontier as a special
case, an unusual sort of outpost duty. Before they had tasted real
soldiering in the West they saw war in European terms, with
European style massed cavalry charges deciding the crucial battles.
So it was that in 1860 five mounted regiments of around 500 all
ranks apiece, scattered in single company posts over most of
continental U.S.A. trained and experienced in frontier warfare,
contained all the cavalry expertise in the United States army. It would
blossom soon enough into a force absorbing 80,000 men and
Shortly after Texas left the Republic the 2nd Cavalry managed to
extricate themselves from that state aboard ships from Indianola. To
the North the 1st Cavalry abandoned Forts Smith, Arbuckle, Gibson,
Cobb and Washita and fled. The men fled North but many of their
officers did not. Very few enlisted men defected but those who
remained were demoralised by the loss of favourite officers.
Of 176 officers in the five pre-war regiments 104 came from
seceding states and most elected to take their swords home. These
men included four of the five Colonels. Historians have debated the
extent to which this mass defection was premeditated but it is
undeniable that when Secretary of War Jefferson Davies raised the
2nd and 3rd Cavalry he crammed them with commissioned ranks
whose Southern sympathies could be relied on. even promoting
newly graduated officers over the heads of veterans. It is not too far
fetched to imagine that he also influenced the replacements sent out
to existing units.
Whatever Jeff Davies’ contribution the officers who threw in their
lot with the Confederacy left an enormous hole in the Union’s
cavalry. West Point could not graduate enough subalterns to fill the
gap, so many civilian appointees were drafted in, having to learn their
trade on the job — which set the North’s cavalry back two years.
The Union army was divided into Regulars, Volunteers and the
Militia. The Regulars had little influence on the war, being few in
number at the start and difficult to recruit during the war. The militia
were more numerous but parochial and subject to only three months
[p.16] service. The strength of the Union’s cavalry was supplied by the
volunteers, regiments being raised by states at the request of the War
Department, then mustered into the army.
The Confederacy started out with no regulars at all, but a rather
larger and better trained collection of militia companies. The first
regiments were formed simply by amalgamating the existing
Officers were in especially short supply among the volunteers.
Nearly all the officers were initially elected by their own men but later
were governorial appointees. The burden of training fell on regular
officers seconded to the volunteers in much the same way as regular
officers are seconded as Permanent Staff Instructors to modern day
British T.A.V.R. units. The War Department naturally resented and
resisted the dilution of their regular cadre but were eventually forced
to accept the inevitable. Previous officers, now in civilian life, were
recalled to the colours with volunteer commissions far higher than
their regular experience would normally have warranted.
The most pressing problem facing both sides was supply of suitable
mounts. The cavalry service was extremely hard on horses and used
them up at a frightening rate. An inexperienced rider could wreck a
horse with alarming ease and even experienced riders could push the
animal to the limits of its endurance, particularly the famous raiders
who practically lived in the saddle and ruthlessly rode mount after
mount into the ground. A horse also makes a very easy target - it
cannot go to ground and moves in a fairly predictable manner. During
the first 12 months of the war the Union alone expended 284,000
horses to keep 60,000 cavalrymen in the saddle.
The resupply systems in North and South could not have been more
different. Right from the start the U.S. government shouldered the
burden of resupply, directing funds to the purchase of suitable troop
horses. In July 1863 the War Department established the Cavalry
Bureau especially to handle the organising, equipping and remounting of the North’s cavalry, in conjunction with the Quartermaster’s
Department. Some idea of the size of the problem can be gained from
the fact that in 1864 alone the Bureau spent $25,000,000 dollars on
180,000 fully equipped remounts.
The South’s system was more free enterprise based, each trooper
providing his own horse for a fee of 40 cents a day. This brought in
some fine horses but almost inevitably they were killed and maimed,
or dropped from exhaustion leaving the trooper to go home and buy a
new horse on a 30 day furlough or pay a visit to an unsuspecting
Yankee vedette. The diminishing area of farm land left to the
Confederacy and the depredations of the Union raiders gradually
reduced the supply of home grown remounts to the point where whole
regiments had to be converted to infantry.
There is a popular misconception that the South had a natural
advantage in supply of cavalry, being a natural race of beau sabreurs,
born in the saddle, riding before they could walk and wonderfully
adept with weapons they had carried since childhood. They may have
been rough and ready but they were the natural products of a horse
owning squirearchy. The Yankee troopers, on the other hand, had
been dragged out of factories, mounted on unfamiliar animals and
told they were cavalryman. It was only the lavish scale with which the
North’s industry could supply their every want that enabled them to
triumph in the end.
There is a kernel of truth to this idea, but as usual it has been
exaggerated out of recognition. To begin with over half the Union’s
cavalry came from farm areas — the North was, after all,
predominantly agricultural. Secondly, the Federal cavalry were
usually as poorly equipped as their adversaries, the North’s industrial
capacity being taken up with the manufacture of rifles, cannon and
trains. If the South had an advantage it was the greater popularity of
militia units in the pre-war South than in the North.
The South certainly produced a number of ebullient horsemen at
all levels, but that merely riddled the cavalry through with
indiscipline, inefficiency and insubordination. It seemed that everyone from Nathan Bedford Forrest to the newest recruit came
equipped with a full collection of petty jealousies and carefully
nurtured grudges. The Union’s cavalry may not have been used well
but they were soldiers!
Contrary to the impression given by Hollywood, both sides found
cavalry arms and equipment hard to come by right through the war.
The South was permanently short of weapons; the North was
reluctant to divert resources to the cavalry. Reality did not move in
until November 1861 when the War Department placed its first large
scale orders with manufacturers who were stretched supplying the few
regiments of regulars. In October 1861 3,163 cavalrymen of the
Army of the Potomac were only partially armed; 4,268 were wholly
unarmed! By spring of 1862 most Federal cavalry had been issued
with at least sabre and pistols but most regiments averaged only 12
carbines per company. It was not until 1863 that all Federal troopers
were adequately armed and equipped. Even then there could be
several models of carbine in use within one regiment, the 2nd Cavalry
ending the war with a mixture of Spencer, Sharps and Burnside
carbines — a quartermaster’s nightmare.
The Confederacy’s troopers often had to go into battle carrying
weapons brought from home in default of military weapons imported,
looted, manufactured at home or captured from the Union. The
North was, at least for the first two years, the South’s most fruitful
source of supply. Well might they boast that “everything but
ourselves is branded U.S.”! In spite of this, regiments went to war
with Bowie knives and hatchets instead of sabres and everything from
flintlock squirrel guns to Sharps breechloaders as firearms, not to
mention a bewildering array of pistols, some venerable old pieces
being veterans of the wars against the British.
A more subtle, but equally damaging shortcoming was the absence
of a settled tactical doctrine available in a recognised manual.
Frontier warfare had been learned almost instinctively and nothing
existed on paper which adequately guided green officers in turning
their green recruits into the kind of unit necessary to fight this new
kind of war. The few existing drill books had been written by West
Pointers with little or no active service experience. Until 1833 there
had been no cavalry so no manuals had been required by the regular
army. However, militia cavalry had always been popular and their
commanders took pains to provide their troopers with some kind of
cavalry doctrine, mainly by copying contemporary British manuals.
Eventually the War Department was convinced that it could not
leave officers to make it up as they went along, nor rely on militia
manuals, so in 1834 a board of officers under Major-General Winfield
Scott reported with what were to become known as the “Scott
Tactics”. These, too, were copied largely from British practice with
the emphasis on the evolutions of massed cavalry. Very little space
was set aside for the kind of fighting the cavalry was actually doing. In
1836 Captain S. Cooper was instructed to produce a summary of the
Scott Tactics. In the “Cooper Tactics” he seized the opportunity to
switch the emphasis to small-unit manoeuvres, reducing the basic
tactical unit from the regiment to the squadron. The tactics were still
British-based with one significant difference — files were told off in
fours as in France rather than in threes as in Britain.
In 1841 there was a major upheaval when the “’41” or “Poinsett”
tactics were produced. They were a departure because for the first
time the War Department abandoned British practice and copied
word for word the current French cavalry regulations. The ’41 tactics
were destined to soldier on until the end of the Civil War.
The ‘41 Tactics fitted reasonably well the organisation and drill of
the current dragoon regiments. Some modifications were incorporated in the light of experience but they survived largely intact until
1865.The Confederates pirated a version which they called the
“Troopers Manual”. The ’4l Tactics survived in spite of a serious
challenge. In 1861 Colonel Philip St George Cooke, recognised as the
foremost authority on cavalry in the United States Army, published
his cavalry manual, yet again a shameless copy from the current
French manual. It was officially adopted in 1862 but was able to start
ousting its older rival only in 1864, and even then only in the west. By
this time the tactics were obsolete and wildly out of line with
In the Confederacy Major-General Wheeler compiled, or copied, a
manual very similar to Cooke’s. It was officially adopted only in early
1864, and suffered the same defects as its Federal counterpart.
Because American cavalry doctrine was a direct lift from the
French it was believed that to make an effective cavalryman required
two years of training. Since the War Between the States (to give it its
American title) was to be “a catfight; much fur but little blood”, and
no doubt “over by Christmas” too, there seemed little point in
wasting manpower forming cavalry regiments which would have been
disbanded before they were ready to take the field. What cavalry
there were found themselves parcelled out to Division and Corps
headquarters as couriers, scouts and escorts. Cavalry did not make
any kind of impact on the war until the lesson was learned that it
should be concentrated into its own brigades and divisions under its
own specialist leaders. It then became a potent striking force.
Cavalry, like armour later, was primarily an offensive arm capable,
when concentrated and used imaginatively, of influencing the course
of a war by itself. It was to be a long time before this was accepted by
the two General Staffs.
The Civil War is usually seen as an infantry war featuring a new
[p.17] weapon which threatened to completely dominate the battlefield.
Outranging artillery and capable of bringing massed cavalry under a
withering fire the infantry were so strengthened that they eventually
displaced the cavalry from the battlefield and gave it a strategic role.
Concepts of cavalry warfare inherited from Napoleon were completely out of date. Instead of acting as a shock-weapon, a flesh and blood
missile fringed with steel, the cavalry were transformed into mobile
riflemen. This blindspot vanished after the first year of the war, but
only in the United States. In Europe it persisted for another half
century, surviving the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian
War, the Boer War and even World War I. In Poland it lasted until
1939. It is fortunate for the U.S. and Confederate horse soldiers that
in America the myth of the arms blanche had little to feed on.
Continued next month. [“American Civil War Cavalry” by David Snowden in Miniature Wargames 23, April 1985]