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“American Civil War Cavalry” by David Snowden

Miniature Wargames 22, March 1985

[p.14] Introduction
    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 fodder.
    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- been.
    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 pursuit.
    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 tradition.
    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 1,000,000 horses.
    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 companies.
    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 contemporary practice.
    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]