Civil War Tactics: Cavalry

This entry is part 5 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

Cavalry chargeAs infantry tactics evolved over the long four years of the American Civil War, so too did cavalry tactics. The use of cavalry by both sides began with them being employed mostly in a reconnaissance role. In addition, they were used to guard supply lines and be advance elements of the army. General Robert E. Lee told J.E.B. Stuart that his cavalry were the “eyes and ears of the army”.

During the Civil War there were four types of cavalry units:

  • Pure cavalry forces carried carbines, pistols and sabers. Only a small number of cavalry met this definition, primarily Union cavalry in the Eastern Theater. Confederate forces in the Eastern Theater carried only pistols but in the Western Theater some were armed with shotguns, especially early in the conflict.
  • The most common use of cavalry forces was as Mounted Infantry. They rode to battle on horseback but fought dismounted. The armed principally with rifles. In the second half of the war Union cavalry were armed with repeating rifles, weapons that multiplied their firepower exponentially.
  • Dragoons were a hybrid force that were armed and mounted as cavalrymen but were expected to fight on foot. The fighting tactics of the forces deployed by Union General Philip Sheridan in 1864, and by Confederate General Wade Hampton after the Battle of Yellow Tavern, fit the dragoon model, although those units did not adopt the term.
  • Irregular forces, also known as partisan rangers and guerrillas, were usually mounted. Their weapons were as varied as their uniforms, anything available would do. The Confederacy produced the most famous irregular leaders, including William Clarke QuantrillJohn S. MosbyNathan Bedford Forrest, and John Hunt Morgan.

At the time of the Civil War, the cavalry had five major missions, in rough priority:

  1. Reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance screening
  2. Defensive, delaying actions
  3. Pursuit and harassment of defeated enemy forces
  4. Offensive actions
  5. Long-distance raiding against enemy lines of communications, supply depots, railroads, etc.

Cavalry was used extensively in a reconnaissance role. In an era when armies were essentially blindly groping for the enemy, cavalry was the paramount tool that military commanders used to find and identify the enemy. They were also used to screen their own forces from enemy reconnaissance.

Cavalry used in an offensive role was a rare occurrence but most cavalry battles were at key points in the war. They include the massive cavalry Battle of Brandy Station where over 20,000 cavalrymen were engaged, the Gettysburg cavalry battles and the Battle of Yellow Tavern where J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded.

Cavalrymen most desired the long-distance raid for two reasons: the fame that a successful raid would bring and the practical value of disrupting the enemy’s rear areas.

J.E.B. Stuart became the darling of the Confederacy for twice circling around the Army of the Potomac in 1864 but his extended raid before Gettysburg left Robert E. Lee blind to the Union Army’s whereabouts.

Union General George Stoneman led a number of long-distance raids behind enemy lines. His first long-distance raid was a key component of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Chancellorsville plan. It accomplished very little and its lack of success was one of the main reasons for the Union defeat in the eyes of Hooker.

In December 1864, Stoneman led a raid from East Tennessee into southwestern Virginia. He led raids into Virginia and North Carolina in 1865, took Salem and other towns, destroyed Moratock Iron Furnace (a Confederate foundry) and at Salisbury attempted to free about 1,400 prisoners, but the prisoners had been dispersed by the time he arrived in Salisbury.  His command nearly captured Confederate president Jefferson Davis during his flight from Richmond, Virginia.

The raid led by Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson from LaGrange, Tennessee to Baton Gauge during the Vicksburg campaign was considered a strategic masterpiece that diverted critical Confederate forces away from Ulysses S. Grant’s army. During this 800-mile foray through the heart of the South destroyed railroad lines, supply depots and generally disrupted the Confederate Army at a time when they were trying to defeat the Union forces around Vicksburg.

During the early part of the Vicksburg Campaign, Confederate General Earl Van Dorn led 3,500 cavalry on a daring raid to Holly Springs, Mississippi where they destroyed Grant’s key supply depot forcing him to restart his campaign from Memphis.

Maj. Gen. Phillip Sheridan was one of the most gifted Union cavalry commanders. Promoted by Grant to overall cavalry commander of the Army of the Potomac, he led his forces through a number of battles large and small during the Overland campaign and the subsequent Petersburg campaign. At the Battle of Trevilian Station(June 11–12), the largest all-cavalry battle of the war, he achieved tactical success on the first day, but suffered heavy casualties during multiple assaults on the second.

Given command of the Army of the Shenandoah in August 1864, Sheridan led his combined arms army in a successful clearing of Confederate forces from this strategic area. After defeating Jubal Early in a number of engagements, he unleashed his cavalry forces  to seize or destroy livestock and provisions, and to burn barns, mills, factories, and railroads. Sheridan’s men did their work relentlessly and thoroughly, rendering the Valley a wasteland.

Cavalry were organized into companies of 100 men with ten companies in a regiment. Two or more companies might be organized into ad hoc battalions. Civil War regiments were rarely near authorized strength so that they were commonly brigaded with two to four other regiments. Two to four brigades were combined into divisions. By the end of the war, 272 cavalry regiments were formed in the Union army and 137 in the Confederate army. In both armies, the cavalry was accompanied by batteries or battalions of horse artillery, as well as its own train of ammunition and supply wagons.

Both sides had a number of notable cavalry commanders who are too numerous to mention. Some began their service in the infantry and later transitioned to the cavalry arm. Others began in the cavalry but ended up leading combined arms units.



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