Introduction To Civil War Cavalry

Introduction To Civil War Cavalry

The History

On March 2, 1833, acting on a measure presented by Richard Johnson, Congress created the United States Regiment of Dragoons. With the creation of this unit, the U. S. Cavalry was born.(Urwin, 54)

The size of the U. S. Regiment of Dragoons was fixed by Congress, at 34 officers and 1,715 men. Henry Dodge was appointed the colonel in command. Other noteworthy officers were Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny, Captain Edwin V. Sumner, First Lieutenant Philip St. George Cooke, and Second Lieutenant Jefferson Davis.(Urwin, 55)

For the Mexican War it was clear that the US needed more mounted troops: the distances in Mexico were so great. There was some expansion in the Regulars, but many of the units were volunteers that were dissolved at the end of the war. In 1850 the Federal Government followed suit. Only two Dragoon regiments and one regiment of Mounted Riflemen (created in 1846) survived the government postwar reductions. But five years later, on March 3, 1855, Congress authorized the raising of two regiments of horse. These were needed to handle the expanding western frontier, especially as settlers pushed more and more against the Indians.

The 1st and 2nd U. S. Cavalry were the first regular American military organizations to bear the title of "cavalry".(Urwin, 96) It was rumored among the Dragoons and Mounted Riflemen that Secretary of War Jefferson Davis purposely received this special designation to enable him to appoint many of his Southern friends while disregarding seniority among the older mounted units. Whether this rumor was true or not, the disproportionate number of Southern officers in the new units would definitely affect the forming of the Union cavalry in the Civil War six years later.

The 1st Cavalry was assembled at Fort Leavenworth and commanded by Colonel Edwin V. Sumner. Five of his officers were later to play a significant role in the Civil War: Lt. Col. Joseph E. Johnston, Maj. John Sedgwick, Maj. William H. Emory, Capt. George B. McClellan, and Lt. J. E. B. Stuart. (Urwin, 96)

The 2nd Cavalry was trained at Jefferson Barracks. Albert Sidney Johnston was the Colonel, and some of his officers were: Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, Maj. William J. Hardee, Maj. George H. Thomas, Captains Earl Van Dorn, George Stoneman, Edmund Kirby Smith, Lieutenants John Bell Hood, and Fitzhugh Lee. The 2nd was nicknamed 'Jeff Davis's Own,' and over the next four years clashed with hostiles nearly forty times. The regiment's most successful sorties were directed by its senior captain, Brev. Maj. Earl Van Dorn. (Urwin, 96-7)

At the onset of the Civil War in 1861, there were five regiments of U. S. cavalry: the 1st and 2nd Dragoons, the 1st Mounted Rifles, and the 1st and 2nd Cavalry. Shortly after the 3rd Cavalry was organized in 1861, all the regiments were renumbered from one to six and the twelve troops organization adopted. (Coggins, 48)

Out of the 176 officers of the five original regiments, 104 cast their lot with their native Southern states when the Civil War broke. As a result of this, not only did the Union cavalry have many green and untested troops, their officers were inexperienced too. In contrast, the Confederate cavalry had more experienced leadership which contributed to several years of battlefield superiority.

Cavalry Organization

U. S. cavalry regiments were organized as follows: each regiment contained 12 troops, each troop consisting of 100 men, commanded by a Captain, a 1st Lieutenant, a 2nd Lieutenant, and a Supernumerary Lieutenant. In 1863, changes were made to create a more flexible cavalry. The squadron was dropped, along with the supernumerary Lieutenant, and battalions, usually of four troops, were formed. These were handier on the march (shorter columns) and were a better size to detach than a full regiment.

A regiment was commanded by a Colonel, and had a Lieutenant Colonel, 3 Majors, and staff of an Adjutant, a Quartermaster, a Commissary, and a regimental Surgeon and assistant. The noncoms included: one Sergeant-Major, one Quartermaster Sergeant., one Commissary Sergeant, one saddler Sergeant, a chief farrier or blacksmith, and two hospital stewards.

Each troop, which now numbered 82-100 men, had its 1st Sergeant., Quartermaster Sergeant., a Commissary Sergeant., in addition to five Sergeants., eight Corporals, two teamsters, two farriers, one saddler, one waggoner, and two musicians.

The Southern cavalry regiment was organized along the same lines. On paper, it consisted of ten companies or squadrons, each numbering 60 to 80 privates. Each company was officered by a Captain, a 1st and 2nd Lieutenant, and included five Sergeants, four Corporals, a farrier and a blacksmith. The regimental officers were a Colonel, with a Lieutenant Colonel, a Major and an Adjutant. (Coggins, 49) This was the organization on paper; rarely were units up to strength.

In both Confederate and Union armies, the regiments were formed into brigades; brigades into divisions; divisions into corps. A Confederate cavalry division might have up six brigades, while a Union division typically had two or three brigades. The number of regiments in each brigade varied from two to six, depending on the strength of the units. A corps contained two or three divisions.

Whenever possible, horse artillery was attached to the cavalry, and was followed by its own train of ammunition, supply wagons and rolling forage.

Role of the Cavalry

During the Civil War the cavalry reached its zenith, marking the highest position the horse soldier would ever hold in the American military. Between 1861-1865, 272 full regiments of cavalry were raised to preserve the Union, 137 for the South. This number does not include the separate battalions nor the independent companies raised.

Traditionally, cavalry was considered the "eyes" of the army, keeping their commander informed of the enemy's movements. They also screened their own army, covered flanks, disrupted enemy communication and supply lines, and provided a mobile striking force when needed.

Initially, the U. S. government saw the cavalry as extravagant and needless spending, turning away many units that were offered by individual states for service. Northern politicians subscribed to the theory that it took a good two years to train an efficient cavalryman, and thought the rebellious Southerners would be crushed long before any Federal cavalry could take to the field. For this reason, only seven troops of regular cavalry were available for the first battle of Bull Run.

After that, the opinions of the Union high command regarding cavalry altered significantly. The eyewitness accounts of a full regiment of gray-clad horseman pursuing the routed Federals most likely was crucial to the turnaround. Not only did Lt. Col. J. E. B. Stuart's 1st Virginia Cavalry support the Confederates, but also the four-company mounted battalion of Col. Wade Hampton's Legion and several independent companies.(Urwin, 110) However, both sides split their cavalry up, using troops here and there attached to most of the infantry brigades.

By the end of August 1861, thirty-one volunteer cavalry regiments had been raised for the Union Army. When the first year of the Civil War came to a close, the North had eighty-two new regiments of cavalry. (Urwin, 112)

Cavalry Tactics

While it is often maintained that cavalry was little more than mounted infantry, testimony by participants proves the contrary. General Early reported in 1864:

"...but the fact is, the enemy's cavalry is much superior to ours, both in numbers and equipment, and the country is so favorable to the operations of cavalry, that it is impossible for ours to compete with his. Lomax's cavalry is armed entirely with rifles and has no sabers, and the consequence is they cannot fight on horseback, and in this open country they cannot successfully fight on foot against large bodies of cavalry." (Coggins, 49)

Sir Henry Havelock, speaking of Sheridan's attack at Sayler's Creek, said:

"The mode in which Sheridan, from the special arming and training of his cavalry, was able to deal with this rear guard, first to overtake it in retreat, then to pass completely beyond it, to turn to face it, and take up at leisure a position strong enough to enable him to detain it in spite of its naturally fierce and determined efforts to break through, is highly characteristic of the self reliant, all-sufficing efficiency to which at this time the Northern horseman had been brought..." (Coggins, 49)

Due to the increased performance of the rifled musket, charges against infantry were rare, and often scoffed at by the foot soldier. When charged by Union cavalry, a Southern general said his men would respond with the cry; "Boys, here are those fools coming again with their sabers; give it to them." (Coggins, 50)

Some horsemen developed their own tactics, freeing themselves of the unsound traditions of European cavalry. Such was the case with the raider, General John Hunt Morgan. General Basil W. Duke, Morgan's brother-in-law and author of "History of Morgan's Cavalry," noted the following:

"Exactly the same evolutions were applicable for horseback or foot fighting, but the latter method was much practiced--we were in fact not cavalry, but mounted riflemen. A small body of mounted men was usually kept in reserve to act on the flanks, cover the retreat or press a victory, but otherwise our men fought very little on horseback, except on scouting expeditions." (Coggins, 50)

Generally, troops were maneuvered in columns of fours, which were flexible and easier to deploy. While older army drill books called for deploying into two ranks for a charge, General St. George Cooke's drill book of '62, and Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler's, called for a single rank. (Coggins, 51) Charges were also made in columns of fours, or double columns of fours. The ideal position from which to launch an attack was from the flank.

In many instances troopers fought dismounted, particularly in the latter part of the war when remounts became scarce, and the mounted cavalry charge was looked upon as reckless. Some circumstances which called for dismounting were: to seize and hold ground until infantry arrived, to fill gaps in lines of battle, covering the retreat of infantry, or where the ground was impractical for mounted cavalry.

On the march, cavalry could cover some thirty-five miles in an eight-hour day under good conditions. However, some raids and expeditions pushed man and beast to the limits. During Stuart's raid on Chambersburg in 1862, his command marched eighty miles in twenty-seven hours; in 1864, Wilson's & Kautz's divisions marched 300 miles in ten days. On Morgan's great raid, his troopers were in the saddle for an average of twenty hours a day.

Troopers often slept in their saddles on such long marches, and the horses would plod along in a somnambulist state. When there were large bodies of cavalry, the took up a great distance of the road. Jack Coggins, author of "Arms and Equipment of the Civil War," estimates distances thusly; "A horse occupies approximately three yards, and there was a distance of about one yard between ranks. A troop of ninety-six men in columns of fours would be ninety-five yards long." Colonel Kidd of the Sixth Michigan Cavalry noted that Sheridan's column of ten thousand troopers stretched for thirteen miles.

At a walk, cavalry could cover four miles in an hour; at a slow trot, six; at a maneuvering trot, eight; at an alternate trot and walk, five; at a maneuvering gallop, twelve; and at a full extended gallop, sixteen.

Veteran troopers learned to travel as light as possible, living off of the countryside. This practice not only spared the mount but enabled the troops to cover ground more rapidly.

Cavalry Weapons

The Federal Volunteer cavalrymen were armed with sabers and revolvers. Initially, some carried carbines or rifles. But as the war progressed, the carbine became the standard issued weapon. A light, curved, cavalry saber eventually replaced the heavier, straight, Prussian type saber. Common models of revolvers carried were percussion Army or Navy model, or a Remington.

The Southern cavalryman also carried saber, revolver and carbine, though some carried a rifle or a muzzle-loading shotgun. The Sharps carbine was often preferred due to its advantage of firing a linen cartridge, whereas others required metallic cartridges.

It wasn't uncommon to find a cavalryman sporting two revolvers, and some, like Mosby's men, carried four. In the latter part of the war, some Union regiments were armed with the Henry rifle, an improvement over the Sharps and Spencer, as it fired up to sixteen shots with great accuracy.

Though the South had enjoyed superiority within the cavalry branch for the first two years of the war, the tables would be turned by 1863. Southern shortages of manpower, horseflesh and arms, along with vast improvements in weaponry for the North, resulted in a formidable foe on the battlefields.

In 1865, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, depleted and starving, was hounded by Federal cavalry as it headed west from Richmond. Federal troopers overran twenty-four Confederate cannon, holding Lee in place until Federal infantry could arrive, thus sealing the fate of the Confederate Army at Appomattox Court House on April 9.

Appomattox must have been a victory for Federal cavalrymen to savor, no longer the laughing stocks of the Army of the Potomac, but one of the most efficient bodies of soldiers on earth.

Reference sources: "Arms and Equipment of the Civil War," Coggins, Jack, Doubleday & Company, New York 1962

"The United States Cavalry; An Illustrated History," Urwin, Gergory J. W., Blandford Press, Poole Dorset, 1983

"The Cavalry, Part IV, A photographic History of the Civil War," Miller, Francis Trevelyan, Castle Books, New York, 1957


Article written by: Alethea D. Sayers