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“American Civil War Cavalry” by David Snowden

Miniature Wargames 23, April 1985

[Continued from “American Civil War Cavalry” by David Snowden in Miniature Wargames 22, March 1985]
[p.45] Organisation
    At the start of the war the most important tactical and administrative unit was the regiment. At the start of the war the establishment and organisation of both Federal and Confederate regiments was identical, with a regiment of five squadrons, each of two companies, and an all-ranks strength of 480 troopers, a strength it proved impossible to maintain. The regiment was commanded by a Colonel, assisted by a Lieutenant-Colonel and one or two Majors. The squadron was the basic tactical sub-unit, small enough to control but large enough for independent operations. In theory the squadron was divided into four equal platoons. The company was the unit to which the troopers felt loyalty, so is most often referred to in reports, diaries and letters but, because it was too small for independent operations, this role was filled by the squadron. Inside the squadron the companies seem to have maintained their integrity.

    A new regimental organisation was ushered in with the formation of the 3rd Cavalry in May 1861. Squadrons continued to contain two companies of the same paper strength as before, but the 3rd contained 12 companies so that it could be divided into a new tactical sub-unit, the battalion. The number of Majors was increased to three. Three battalions were appropriate to the tactical thinking that a mounted attack should have a line of supports to second the attack and a third, reserve, line to cope with counter-attacks. Each major then commanded a two squadron battalion, and could find himself playing one of three tactical roles. In July 1861 all regular cavalry regiments were brought up to six squadrons, each of two companies of three officers and 100 enlisted men.
    When Union volunteer cavalry regiments began to be formed in late 1861, they comprised ten companies to simplify training. A year later all cavalry regiments in the Union Army were brought up to 12 company strength.
    Both battalions and squadrons were tactical designations only, arranged at the discretion of the Colonel. Some adhered to the formal organisation, others had two battalions or four or had battalions of one squadron, two or four. Some even ignored both battalion and squadron and exercised direct control over all 12 companies.
    The Confederacy never followed suit, retaining a ten company, five squadron regiment as long as they had the manpower. As regimental numbers dwindled, companies were merged to keep the numbers in the surviving companies up to strength. By the end of the war many regiments were down to one or two companies.
    With command possible at regiment, battalion, squadron and company level confusion was common, inefficiency normal. But the organisation was finally killed by lack of replacements. Regimental strengths diminished until companies could muster only 30 troopers. A 60-man squadron was a tactical mockery, so a 120-man battalion was the tactical norm. Most regiments began to crystallise around three four-company battalions, each led by one of the regiments Majors. Which leads to rather confused terminology. Officially, the name ‘squadron’ vanished, battalions being divided simply into companies. Some Colonels preferred to have squadrons rather than battalions and in general the two terms came to be used interchangeably.

    The carbine was the weapon which did most of the dismounted fighting. It was an arm in which the North held a long and ever-widening lead, guaranteed by its capacity to manufacture the metal rimfire cartridges which gave birth to 60 carbine designs.
    A full collection of the common Civil War carbines would catalogue about 30 types. Some, like the Henry and Spencer, were very good, even revolutionary; others, like the Sharps, were adequate; many were appalling. If the North had concentrated its production on the two repeaters mentioned it might have cut months off the war. The major problem with all carbines was that, while they could inflict casualties at 600 yards, they were rarely used at more than 150 yards because their short barrels, leaky breeches and short sight-bases, limited accurate fire to this range. The exception was the popular Enfield Musketoon.
    The Sharps carbine was a cut-down version of the single-shot breech-loading rifle favoured by Berdan’s 1st United States Sharp Shooters. Like its big brother it leaked and fouled at the breech, but it was popular with the South because it used non-metallic cartridges. Some 80,512 are recorded as having been made. There is no doubt that it was a better weapon than a muzzle-loader because it could be fired comfortably while prone and had twice the rate of fire of a muzzle-loader.
    Prolonged firing caused the Sharp’s fatal weakness to show up. In the hot breech cartridges were likely to jam, leaving the weapon useless until an armourer could clear it — as Custer’s unfortunates found out at Little Big Horn.
    Spencer’s revolutionary repeater was a seven-shot, lever action, fed from a tubular magazine in the stock, loaded through a trap in the buttplate. The single motion of easing down the trigger guard pushed a cartridge into the rear of the breech and sealed it in place. All that remained was to cock the hammer and squeeze the trigger. The main drawback — slow filling of the magazine — was almost, eliminated by Blakeslee’s Patent Cartridge Box which contained ten ready-filled magazines.
    The Spencer was considered to be the best of the Civil War repeaters but, due to the blimpish obstinacy of Brigadier General Ripley, the Union’s Chief of Army Ordnance (who was rumoured to favour a return to smooth-bores), it was not introduced until Gettysburg was won and lost. The first unit to receive the Spencer was the 6th Michigan Cavalry, who managed to obtain theirs at the close of 1862, in time to blood it in the tragedy of Antietam.
    [p.46] 94,196 Spencer carbines were ordered by the Army Department, although many thousands more were bought privately. During the war an estimated 58,238,000 rounds were fired from Spencer rifles and carbines, mainly by the cavalry.
    The 15-shot Henry was, if anything, even better than the Spencer, yet the North did not issue one to its soldiers. That did not stop them buying their own and 10,000 were purchased privately. Its users were so enthusiastic that its fame spread. The famous underlever Winchester of Hollywood fame was (and is) merely a Henry with a centre fire cartridge and a loading gate.
    The rapid fire of repeaters such as these was a tool of psychological warfare. At Chickamauga General Bragg heard the volume of fire from five Indiana and Illinois Spencer-armed regiments, misinterpreted it as the steady fire of an entire Corps threatening his left flank and disasterously altered his dispositions to meet it.
    The ‘Short Enfield’ or ‘Mustketoon’ was not really a carbine, but a cut-down rifle, and was not intended to be fired from the saddle as carbines were. It was made famous as the main arm of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s mounted infantry. Marching on horse, fighting on foot, they found the Musketoon the perfect compliment to their revolvers. Handier than a rifle, longer ranged and having greater stopping power, simplicity and reliability than a carbine, it allowed Southern horse soldiers to engage infantry on equal terms and to Whittle down Northern cavalry before they came within carbine range. Union commanders were known to declare their Spencers “helpless against Forrest” and even went so far as to re-arm some of their troopers with rifles.
    Many other carbines (too many to cover each type in detail), were used in large numbers and gave good service. If you have half a lifetime to spare, Civil War carbines make an interesting study. Burnside, Gallagher, Joslyn, Merril, Maynard, Remington, Smith and Starr were used in numbers of from 10,000 up to 56,000 per type. Ballard, Ball, Gibbs, Hall, Cosmopolitan, Lindner, Palmer, Warner and Wesson were used in smaller numbers and, of course, there were innumerable private purchases from abroad, for which no figures exist.
    Many writers have derided the use of pistols in war. My answer to them is that both North and South strained every muscle to get hold of them. In spite of Josiah Gorgas’ best efforts only 10,000 were manufactured in the South, but many tens of thousands were imported at great risk by Government, State and individuals. They were a prized booty on the battlefield, coming after horses and artillery. The North had a plentiful supply, both home-made and imported and, as with its other arms, kept the South well supplied.
    Their main use was in the cavalry. Both Forrest and Morgan banned sabres in their commands. Forrest’s men had their Enfields for use on foot and a brace of pistols each for use mounted. Morgan, however, relied exclusively on revolvers for all fighting. Each man carried two on his belt and most carried four on the saddle as well. In case they had to fight on foot they carried a shoulder stock in their blanket roll. And they suffered very few shooting accidents. Some commanders issued revolvers to their men because they were easier to come by than swords.
    The Federal authorities officially listed 372,823 revolvers purchased, covering 14 makes. But Colt alone supplied 386,417 and Remington were close behind. A reasonable guess would be at least 750,000 of all makes procured during the war. It is impossible to obtain any kind of accurate figures for the Confederacy’s acquisitions but, taking all into account, the South might have laid their hands on 250,000.
    Most of those made in the South were copies of Colts and Whitneys, both .36 calibre ‘Navy’ models (will someone please explain why the Army had hefty .44s but the Navy were supposed to make do with puny .36s?) Adams, Bentley, Kerr and Tranter came from England. France supplied LeMat, Perrin and Le Faucheaux.
    The Colts used during the war were mainly either the 1851 Navy .36 or the 1860 Amry .44, both six-shot, single actions (the hammer had to be cocked manually before each shot). The Remingtons were all .44s, but were heavier and longer than the Colts. The LeMatt was the largest and most unusual of the lot. It had an eight-shot cylinder firing .44 calibre ball through a rifled barrel, and a single charge of buckshot fired from a separate smooth-bore barrel. The buckshot must have been of little use, but the extra two rounds in the cylinder made it a Southern favourite. The Smith & Wesson .22, used in small numbers, fired a tiny fairground cartridge with no stopping power at all. Others, such as the Allen Beal, Joslyn, Pettingill, Raphael, Savage, Starr, Rogers and Spencer were good, adequate weapons. Several were double action (cocked and fired with one press of the trigger), but only the Adams-Beaumont and some Starrs were selective double or single action as most modern revolvers are.
    Single shot pistols, such as a Remington model, were found in small numbers, particularly at the start of the war, but were little favoured.
    Shotguns were originally issued in default of carbines, but soon earned a following as weapons in their own right, becoming the favoured weapon of units like Terry’s Texas Rangers, who used them to devastating effect at Shiloh. There seems to have been no regulation scatter-gun, all of them being personal weapons or issued from private stocks. Being smooth-bored, they could fire spherical ball, but a favourite round was heavy gauge buckshot, murderous in a melée and much used by Confederate Indian cavalry raiders. It was even possible to double-load with buckshot and ball. You can imagine the effect of that combination at close quarters!
    Sabres were an official part of the US Cavalry equipment, but seem to have had none of the mystique it enjoyed in Europe, where the arme blanche still reigned. The wake of campaigning armies was marked with discarded blades. Even the old regulars despised them and the new recruits found they had enough trouble learning to campaign without trying to learn how to use an obsolete encumbrance.
    As with everything else, patterns of sabre were many and varied. Some were regulation M1840 Heavy Dragoon and M1860 Light Cavalry patterns, manufactured or captured, relics such as the M1812 Contract and M1833 Dragoon models or straight-bladed European imports.
    Sabres were employed in the East and then by troops trained in their use. In the West they were rare enough to excite comment when they were seen.
    The epitome of the European Cavalryman was the Lancer. Considering the success British and French Lancers had in combating savages, it is a little surprising that they did not find their way to the frontier, especially as the Mexicans made considerable use of them. The fact remains that in the enormous expansion of the American cavalry during the war only the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry (Rush’s Lancers) were so armed in the North and in the South the 26th Texas Cavalry may have been. A few independent companies seem to have experimented with it. By May 1863 Rush’s regiment had abandoned the lance completely, in favour of more conventional weapons which seem to have been in use alongside the lance from the start.
    As a rule, the South’s weapons lagged behind those of the North, due to both the initial lack of weapons and the difficulties of replacing them during the war. Eventually, the arms of the eastern Confederate cavalry came to duplicate those of the North due to the Union’s habit of leaving large quantities of weaponry lying around the battlefields. In the West the arms were more imaginative, concentrating on various types of shotgun and pistol.

Cavalry marches in column and fights in line, so the essential drill in the Civil War cavalry governed the change of formation from one to the other, normally accomplished by some variation of the oblique move to one flank or the other. The common marching formation was column of fours, or column of twos in restricted places.     A regiment normally marched in squadron or platoon column of fours. Most roads were wide enough for four horsemen to ride abreast and successive units could gallop up obliquely into line. A regiment going into action might approach the combat zone in column of fours [p.47] along a road. It would form column of platoons, which reduced the depth of the column by half. Then each squadron would form line and then move up into close column ready to charge or manoeuvre further.
    When the order to form a firing line was given, three men in each set of fours dismounted and formed a fairly thick skirmish line to front or flank as ordered and opened volley or individual fire with their carbines. The mounted troopers galloped the empty horses to the rear, dismounted or remained mounted as ordered and prepared to defend the mounts or gallop them forward as required.
    In the presence of the enemy, and occasionally in a charge, the squadron formed up in column of platoons, with each platoon in line. one behind the other. A squadron formed up in line, an important formation for the regiment too, as well as being the formation for a charge.
    The formation for an entire regiment was very rarely one line. Without electronic communications it was impossible to control a regiment-wide skirmish line. It was also difficult to find an area where there was room to form a whole regiment in line. In the vicinity of the enemy, the common regimental formation was a column, with the squadrons in line behind each other. ‘Close Column’ was favoured by both sides for the assembly of a regiment and its advance to deployment. It was even used for shock action. In Close Column the distances between squadrons were closed to 12 yards which, on a squadron front, made the regiment into a thick line.
    One variation was to form the regiment into a line of squadrons in column of platoons. This formation was less vulnerable to fire than Close Column and individual squadrons could weave from side to side or redeploy as the terrain changed. If the tactical situation required it one or more squadrons could quickly form front into line by having rear platoons move up successively into line with the leading platoons.
    In the east battles were often fought in close terrain, too tight to allow even a single squadron to form line. A column of platoons, with each platoon in line astern within wheeling distance, was often used instead. This formation was easily controlled, but was rather vulnerable to roundshot. A firing line could deploy very quickly from column of platoons.
    A two-rank line was standard in the ’41 Tactics and when, in 1861, McClellan published his Regulations and Instructions for the Field Service of the US Cavalry in Time of War, it contained provision for troops to deploy in single rank on field service. Cooke devised many of his ideas from McClellan, including the single rank deployment.     The ’41 Tactics were mind-numbingly complicated, containing several hundred pages of text and diagrams to be memorised. They were the Bible to the old sweats of the regular cavalry, who had gone through them repeatedly in garrison, but they frequently had the volunteers milling around in confusion. It was almost impossible to drill them and, in practical soldierly fashion, actual field manoeuvres were trimmed down to the reasonable minimum described here.

Indians and Raiders
    Both sides raised Redskin regiments, the Confederacy availing themselves of the finest irregular light cavalry in North America. Southern records are incomplete but they seem to have had 5,500 Indians under arms, the North lagging behind with 4,000. The Confederacy started first, offering an all-Indian nation in what is now Oklahoma as an inducement. However, the Indians had another reason for fighting for the Confederacy. Many of the tribes were southern, even owning negro slaves, and had been deported by the army now facing the South.
    Indians were formed into battalions along tribal lines. Instrumental in raising the Indians was Brigadier-General Albert Pike, Commander of the Confederate Department of Indian Territory. Apart from Pike and Colonel D. H. Cooper (Commander of the 1st Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles) all officers were half-breeds or full- blooded Redskins.
    Sensible Generals allowed the Indians to get on with the war their way. Confederate Indians rode small, wiry Plains ponies, sometimes sending them to the rear and fighting on foot. However, they preferred to operate as cavalry and favoured the raid in tactics.
    In addition to the formally raised units, Indians operated as scouts for the Confederate armies in the south-east.
    The Federal Government was not happy about recruiting Indians, although one company of a Zouave regiment had been earlier recruited from Tuscaroras, before the ban had been lifted. Even so, they served entirely as infantry.
    Indian cavalry carried the usual cavalry weapons, apart from sabres. Confederate Indians favoured shotguns. At least one regiment, the 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles (Confederates) were permitted to carry traditional tomahawks, and scalps were frequently taken. Lances and spears seem to have been employed. The firearms issued, possibly with a view to their future employment, were usually of poor quality.
    Indian units had no special uniforms, but generally wore what everyone else wore, with a few Indian touches such as braided hair with feathered head-dress, fringed trousers and moccasins. Zouave- pattern uniform items were particularly popular, although braves often went into battle bare-chested and sometimes wearing little more than a breech cloth and feathers. As the war progressed distinctions became blurred and it became difficult to distinguish civilian Indians from military Indians and other soldiers especially as, in the Confederacy, many whites dressed far more outlandishly than the Indians.
    [p.48] Indian service throughout the war was a Byzantine tangle of prejudice, red tape, tribal conflict and intrigue. It was common for Indians to repeatedly switch sides as the opposition offered more or the fortunes of war see-sawed. It will come as no surprise that neither side honoured its many promises to the Indians. The South was in no position to do so, and in the North, Lincoln’s successors saw no reason to do so.
    The most effective and spectacular employment of cavalry was in large-scale raids. Using cavalry in a strategic rather than a tactical role was not new; what was new was the scale of the operations, with independent and completely self-contained cavalry formations ranging deep into the bowels of the opposing nation to interdict communications, interrupt supply lines and destroy the enemy’s crops and industry. The trick was to keep on moving to avoid being cut-off or embroiled in a pitched battle.
    Civil War raiders have gathered a reputation, largely thanks to Mr Peckinpah, as a hunch of kill-crazy thugs and renegades. Although they certainly contained a number of lawless shootists who were in it for the loot, they were generally well organised volunteer commands, often including mounted infantry and horse artillery.

See also 19th Century Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers