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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]
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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-
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
[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