Civil War Cavalry

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Civil War Cavalry
Union and Confederate Cavalry

Civil War Cavalry
Cavalry Organization, Tactics, Military Weapons, and Battles

Cavalry of the American Civil War was an integral part and member of the "army organization." The cavalry was one of three principal components, known as branches, that formed the army organization; the other two were the infantry and artillery. The army resembles a body. As the physical body has parts, and parts have functions, so did the Civil War army. The infantry was the legs that carried the body into the brunt of the fighting, while the cavalry was the eyes that could locate and direct the body prior, during and even after the battle (cavalry also fought, mainly dismounted), and the artillery was the arms that was capable of reaching out and touching the enemy from a distance. The body requires the legs, the arms, and the eyes in order to function perfectly. Remove an eye, the body suffers. Remove a leg, the body suffers. Remove an arm and a leg and the body suffers severely. Now what occurs when one has lost both eyes? So one member or part of the body is not more vital and significant than another part, but together, each part forms the unit, the Civil War army unit. A well-disciplined and trained body, army body, consisting of artillery, infantry, and cavalry working together with each member performing its respective responsibilities and roles, was the goal of both Northern and Southern militaries. Most battles during the Civil War were lost because the body was absent or missing a "part" prior to or during the engagement. On the other hand, one army was victorious during the battle because its body remained intact and functioned well.
One may look at any major battle of the conflict, such as Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Gettysburg, and see the importance of each component of the army. The Union Army was decimated by Confederate artillery at both Prospect Hill and Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg, because it had failed to employ effective counter battery fire. At Antietam, both sides engaged in one of the fiercest artillery battles ever seen on the continent. But it was Union infantry supported by accurate Federal cannonading that eventually won the day. While Gettysburg alone remains an exhaustive study, it was Meade's ability to effectively employ his cavalry, artillery, and infantry on day three that ended Lee's hopes of a Confederate victory in Pennsylvania. On the Confederate side, Lee was unable to successfully use any of his assets, any of the three components of his army with effect on the third and final day of the battle of Gettysburg. The day of Longstreet's grand assault, as it was widely known at the time, there was the unsuccessful use of Stuart's cavalry, Alexander's inaccurate cannonading preceding Pickett's Charge, and Lee's disjointed attempt of advancing Pickett's division against the ever strengthening Federal center.

Civil War Cavalry weapons in battle
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Although Civil War cavalry generally fought dismounted, cavalry battles did occur

Civil War Cavalry battle
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Dead Civil War horses at Battle of Gettysburg

Absent Confederate cavalry prior to and during the initial fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg, according to many, was to blame for the Confederate loss of the entire three day battle itself. The writer does not espouse that view, but because many have embraced it in their writings, it merely indicates the prominence of cavalry. At Gettysburg, Gen. Lee commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, while Gen. JEB Stuart commanded the Army of Northern Virginia's only cavalry division. Stuart delayed his arrival at Gettysburg, causing, according to some staff officers, some words of rebuke from Lee to Stuart. "Well General Stuart, you are here at last?" Allegedly Lee's exact words.

Civil War Cavalry
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Civil War cavalry was a critical component of the army

For example, to demonstrate the importance of cavalry, let's examine a short conversation from the movie Gettysburg (1993) between Lee and Stuart. Although the following conversation never occurred during the Battle of Gettysburg, it is interesting nevertheless. Following the actual quotes are comments in the brackets.
Upon his arrival at Gettysburg, Stuart reports immediately to Lee at headquarters.
Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart: You wish to see me, sir?
General Robert E. Lee: [Lee nods and sighs; there is a short pause] It is the opinion of some... excellent officers that you have let us all down.
Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart: [angry at the slight to his honor] General Lee, sir, if you will please tell me who these gentlemen are...
General Robert E. Lee: There will be none of that. There is no time.
Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart: Sir, I only ask that I be allowed to defend my...
General Robert E. Lee: [raising his voice slightly] There is no time.
[Stuart looks stunned]
General Robert E. Lee: General Stuart... your mission was to free this army from the enemy cavalry and report any movement by the enemy's main body. That mission was not fulfilled. You left here with no word of your movement or movement of the enemy for several days. Meanwhile, we were engaged here and drawn into battle without adequate knowledge of the enemy's strength or position, without knowledge of the ground. So it is only by God's grace that we did not meet disaster here.
Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart: General Lee, there were reasons...
General Robert E. Lee: [Lee holds up his hand to silence Stuart] Perhaps you misunderstood my orders? Perhaps I did not make myself clear. Well, sir... this must be made very clear. You, sir, with your cavalry, are the eyes of this army. Without your cavalry, we are made blind. That has already happened once. It must never, never happen again.
Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart: [Stuart stares at the floor, then slowly draws his sword in token of his resignation] Sir... since I no longer hold the General's...
General Robert E. Lee: [suddenly furious, Lee pounds the table with his fist] I have told you, there is no time for that! There is no time!
[he pauses, takes a deep breath, and calms down again]
General Robert E. Lee: There is another fight comin' tomorrow, and we need you. We need every man, God knows. You must take what I have told you, and learn from it, as a man does.
[he takes Stuart's sword and replaces it in its scabbard]
General Robert E. Lee: There has been a mistake. It will not happen again; I know your quality. You are one of the finest cavalry officers I have ever known, and your service to this army has been invaluable. Now... let us speak no more of this.
[he turns and slowly walks away, then turns back to Stuart]
General Robert E. Lee: The matter is concluded. Good night, General.
[not knowing what to think of this show of mercy, Stuart snaps a crisp salute, and Lee returns it]
This fine work should be considered a concise, photographic history covering from Union and Confederate cavalry and tactics, types of mounted forces, roles of the cavalry, its organization and structure, various weapons, the horses, and an analysis of the era's cavalry.

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The Civil War Horse
"And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him." Revelations
Traditionally, cavalry was considered the “eyes” of the army, scouting, guarding supply lines, and screening the army’s flanks from the enemy. When required, the cavalry could also disrupt enemy communication and supply lines, provide a mobile striking force, or defend key terrain. The Civil War army, Union and Confederate, consisted primarily of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Occasionally, without even firing a rifle or wielding a saber, cavalry turned the tide of battle by providing reconnaissance.
Cavalry played a prominent role in the outcome of many major battles and campaigns during the conflict and it was a critical component in the army organization. Cavalry often collected intelligence, such as enemy position and movement, and forwarded the vital information to the respective command, which allowed headquarters to respond accordingly with its infantry and artillery. Many Civil War battlefields may be viewed as a chess match, with cavalry retaining the position of the knights. The exigencies of battle were often met because cavalry was on the scene and it allowed the commanding general to be armed with precise intelligence to make an informed decision.
Cavalry generally fought dismounted, with every fourth trooper holding the horses of his comrades. Either mounted or dismounted, troopers might advance in two ranks, the first rank firing and, while reloading, the second rank advanced through the first. The maneuver was repeated until the objective was obtained. If forced to fall back, the troops could reverse the maneuver. Prior to the Civil War, mounted cavalry charges against infantry were not uncommon, but with the widespread use of the long-range rifled musket such assaults were often suicidal.
The Battle of Brandy Station involved nearly 17,000 cavalry and was the largest cavalry engagement on American soil.

Civil War Cavalry
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Cavalry advancing at Gettysburg

The Union and Confederate Armies in the field were not just in the market for food and clothing, but animals were a major resource for the war effort. While the price for a horse cost $100 when hostilities began, they rose to as high as $3,000 for a stout charger by war's end. The Union army exhausted approximately 500 horses per day by late 1864 so that despite efforts to supply the insatiable demand, the horse population in the Union dropped by nearly half a million. Mules were as much in demand as horses.
"No horse, no cavalry," stated one Union cavalryman. Revolvers, carbines, sabers, ammunition, and a full stomach meant little without the steed. Troopers prided themselves and were rather fond of their mounts that carried them to and fro the fray.
Many of the famed generals of the war, Grant, Sherman, Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, McClelland, Beauregard, Burnside, Bragg, and Meade were seasoned equestrians and veterans of the Mexican War (1846-'48) and they understood the importance of the war horse, but it was Northern politicians who initially bucked at the cost of raising such large cavalry units, because war would be over in merely 90 days was the sentiment in Congress.
Although thought of more as utilitarian, horses more than any other animal formed a relationship with their owners. The best-known horse of the war was Traveller, Gen. Robert E. Lee's beloved mount. The two remained together until Lee's death, when Traveller walked behind the hearse during the funeral procession. The horse is buried at Lee Chapel Museum, Lexington, VA.
(Right) Thure de Thulstrup's Battle of Gettysburg, showing Pickett's Charge. While many associate the Union and Confederate soldiers marching, traversing, advancing and engaging on the fields of Gettysburg, there were numerous cavalry assaults and battles that were fought, and ultimately assisted the Union in securing the battlefield.
Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's favorite mount was Cincinnati, but he also rode Methuselah, Randy, Fox, Jeff Davis and Kangaroo in the early years of the war. Col. Philip Sheridan preferred a gelding named Rienzi. The horse was so revered that after his demise his stuffed body was presented to the Smithsonian Institution.
Little Sorrel, also known as Old Sorrel, was Gen. Stonewall Jackson's mount. Little Sorrel was about 11 years old when the General acquired him at Harper's Ferry, and was so small that Jackson's feet almost dragged on the ground. The horse survived his master and lived to a ripe old age, touring county fairs and attending Confederate functions. Visitors often pulled the hair from his mane and tail for souvenirs, making the steed nervous. Little Sorrel's bones were buried near the Jackson statue at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, and his hide may viewed in the VMI Museum.
Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart credited his steed Virginia with having prevented his capture by jumping over a large ditch, and, while on horseback, Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest lost 29 of his best horses from Union gunfire during the Civil War.
More than one million horses died as a result of the Civil War, and while many husbands, fathers, and sons were off to the drums of war, Southern farms had fallen victim to abandonment or neglect. Upon returning to family and farm, many who resided south of the Mason and Dixon would lack horses necessary to work the fields causing the average size of the farm to become a mere fraction of its former glory.

Confederate Cavalry Weapons
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Confederate Cavalryman with revolver and saber

Union Cavalry during the Civil War
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Pontoon across Rappahannock River, VA. Alson cavalry column, 1862, Matthew Brady. National Archives

Union Cavalry Soldier with weapons
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Union cavalry soldier with two revolvers and a saber

A. J. Blue, Union cavalryman, ca. Civil War
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Soldier with shell jacket, bummer cap, three Remington revolvers, and saber

Evolution of Cavalry

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.

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.

For the Mexican War (1846-1848) it was obvious that the U.S. needed more mounted troops: the distances in Mexico were too great. There was, however, some expansion in the Regulars, but many of the units were volunteers that were disbanded 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 command the expanding western frontier, especially as settlers encroached rapidly against the Indians and their lands.

Confederate cavalry soldier with weapons, ca 1861
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Confederate cavalryman with Arkansas toothpick and rifle

Civil War cavalry regiments with highest casualties
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Cavalry regiments that suffered the most killed during the Civil War

(Above) Fox, William F. Regimental Losses in the American Civil War (1889). Fox, one of the foremost Civil War statisticians, was only indicating battlefield deaths: killed and mortally wounded. Cavalry, during the Civil War, also died as a result of disease, as prisoner of war, and deaths all causes other than battle. Three of the regiments in the list, 1st, 5th, and 6th Michigan regiments, formed the nucleus of Custer's Brigade, aka the Michigan Cavalry Brigade, which, according to Fox, was the most lethal cavalry unit during the conflict. (Right) Confederate cavalryman with "Arkansas toothpick" and rifle during the Civil War. Although not the preferred blade for the cavalryman, the Arkansas toothpick was a heavy dagger with a 12–20-inch pointed, straight blade. The knife was balanced and weighted for throwing, but it was generally used for thrusting and slashing. James Black, the inventor of the Bowie knife, was credited with inventing the Arkansas toothpick. Cavalry were issued standard sabers with blade lengths of 30 to 35 inches, which, from the saddle, could be wielded with deadly force. The Arkansas toothpick, on the other hand, was too short and was therefore an impractical weapon. As the Civil War progressed, large cavalry charges became less common because rifled muskets made any charge suicidal. Cumbersome sabers were replaced with extra revolvers, or left it in the saddle, and during battle the men dismounted and used rifles and carbines. Present-day, for sheer tradition and custom, sabers and swords may be viewed during ceremonies. 
The 1st and 2nd U.S. Cavalry were the first regular American military organizations to bear the title of "cavalry". It was rumored among the Dragoons and Mounted Riflemen that Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (future Confederate president) 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.

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 engaged in hostiles nearly forty times. The regiment's most successful sorties were directed by its senior captain, Brev. Maj. Earl Van Dorn.

Civil War cavalry
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The Horse Hazard

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 (twelve companies) organization adopted.

Out of the 176 officers of the five original regiments, 104 cast their lot with their native Southern states when the Civil War commenced. As a result, 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.

Until the nomenclature changed in the early 1880s, cavalry regiments were organized into companies (later, "troops") authorized at up to 100 men, ten companies made up a regiment (increased to twelve post-war). Two or more companies might be organized into ad hoc battalions (later, "squadrons"), two "wings" of six companies each was used through the Indian Wars. 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.

Early in the Civil War, most cavalry regiments were dispersed and under the command of infantry formations, such as divisions or corps. As commanders realized the importance of long-range reconnaissance and raiding, the organizations transitioned to consolidate more of the regiments into larger units controlled separately. Eventually the Union Army of the Potomac included a cavalry corps, which had three divisions. The Army of Northern Virginia had already organized and consolidated its steeds into a cavalry division under the command of J.E.B. Stuart.

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.

The role of the cavalry at the beginning of the Civil War was very limited. The cavalrymen of both armies were initially tasked with patrolling and scouting, guarding supply trains and railroads, and providing escorts to generals. They were only used in battle as shock troops, a tactic which dated back to the Romans. A favorite jibe from the infantry was: "Did you ever see a dead cavalryman?" The foot soldiers believed the cavalry to be "dandies on horseback" who never saw much fighting and always had it easy. Certainly, the dash and spirit of the more flamboyant cavalry leaders provided the newspapers with many stories of harrowing rides and gallant duels in the saddle. Southern troopers commanded by General J.E.B. Stuart had the grandest reputations of being the best horsemen, ready to ride on a raid at a moments notice or rush to the front to do battle just as the tide was beginning to turn. Of course, truth was very different from the romantic descriptions of newspapermen. Soldiering on horseback was a hard life with plenty of danger. The cavalry's military role had dramatically changed by 1863 and the armies were making use of their horse soldiers in more combat situations. Cavalry divisions were utilized by commanders as advance scouts and as a mobile fighting force. These new strategies culminated in the largest cavalry battle of the war fought on June 9, 1863 at Brandy Station, Virginia. Brandy Station, which witnessed the duel of nearly 17,000 Union and Confederate cavalrymen, was the opening clash of the Gettysburg Campaign.

Civil War cavalry in Shenandoah Valley Campaign
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Union and Confederate forces battle in Shenandoah Valley in 1864

Civil War cavalry battle
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Battle of Brandy Station

(Left) Battle of Brandy Station, aka Battle of Fleetwood Hill, was the largest predominantly cavalry engagement of the American Civil War, as well as the largest ever to take place in the Americas. It was fought at the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign by Union cavalry commanded by Major General Alfred Pleasonton against Major General J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry on June 9, 1863. This battle marked the end of Confederate cavalry dominance in the East. The Federal cavalry, subsequently, exhibited strength and confidence. (Right) The Valley Campaigns of 1864 were Civil War operations and battles that occurred in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia from May to October 1864. At the beginning of 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of all Union armies. He chose to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, although Maj. Gen. George G. Meade remained the actual commander of that army. He left Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in command of most of the western armies. Grant understood the concept of total war and believed, along with Sherman and President Abraham Lincoln, that only the utter defeat of Confederate forces and their economic base would bring an end to the war. Therefore, scorched earth tactics would be required in some important theaters. He devised a coordinated strategy that would strike at the heart of the Confederacy from multiple directions: Grant, Meade, and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia near Richmond; Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel to invade the Shenandoah Valley and destroy Lee's supply lines; Sherman to invade Georgia and capture Atlanta; Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks to capture Mobile, Alabama. During March 1865, Gen. Early's army was captured by Gen. Sheridan at Waynesboro, VA, thus eliminating the remaining threat in the valley. After nearly ten months of exhaustive siege warfare, Lee's army was weakened by desertion, disease, and shortage of supplies, and, while Grant commanded an army of 125,000 men, the Confederate general was in command of 50,000 troops. Lee, moreover, knew that an additional 50,000 men under Sheridan would be returning soon from the Shenandoah Valley and that Sherman (as of April 1, 1865) commanded a massive army of 88,948 troops and too was rapidly approaching Richmond. Lee, now pressed on every front, would surrender to Grant on April 9, 1865, and end the bloodiest conflict in the history of the nation.

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Custer's Cavalry Brigade

(Right)  Fox, William F. Regimental Losses in the American Civil War (1889). Custer's Brigade, or Michigan Cavalry Brigade, suffered the highest casualties of any Union cavalry brigade during the Civil War. A household name because of "Custer's Last Stand," George Armstrong Custer, who graduated last in the encore West Point class of 1861, was an academic failure by most standards, but he was an indisputable genius on the battlefield. Only when Civil War commenced in 1861, was the potential of the young 22 year old Michigander realized. What Custer, had lacked with pen and paper in the classroom setting, he compensated for it with  prowess and mastery of cavalry tactics in battle. One of the Union's youngest generals at age 23, Custer, known for his recurrent antics at West Point, was now well-known  for unleashing punitive cavalry strikes against Confederate forces during his four year combat classroom. Recognized also for his brashness and overtures of rhetoric, the now mature Custer, reinforcing said reputation, never disappointed on the battlefield. When pen met paper at the cessation of hostilities, this time, when it was most noteworthy, it was Custer who graduated first in his Civil War cavalry class of 1865. Custer's Brigade, attached to the Army of the Potomac, had fought in every major battle in the East and  had lost more men in killed and mortally wounded than any other Union cavalry brigade during the conflict. Reason for the high casualties was elementary: Custer fought, and he fought often. The totals listed appear to be misleading, because the numbers include only those cavalrymen who were killed or mortally wounded. Absent were those who died as prisoners of war, died by disease, and died from causes other than battle. The wounded were also not tabulated. Nevertheless, total casualties, including dead and wounded, for Custer's Brigade exceeded 2,000: 1,509 total fatalities (all causes) and more than 500 wounded. See also Michigan Civil War History.

Cavalry were dependent on fast movement so a cavalryman's first priority was care of his mount, because "no horse, no cavalry," stated one Union trooper. Each cavalry regiment had a blacksmith who shod and cared for the animals in camp. While campaigning, a trooper had to tend to the welfare and wellbeing of his own animal. If the steed was disabled, it was easier for a Northern soldier to get a new mount from the herd which usually accompanied the army. Southerners brought their own mounts with them into service and woe be to the man whose steed pulled up lame or was injured. It sometimes meant the trooper became a foot soldier until another mount could be obtained. The armament of a typical cavalryman at Gettysburg included a light steel saber, a pistol and a carbine. By the summer of 1863, breech-loading carbines were standard issue in all Union cavalry regiments. Two regiments, the 5th and 6th Michigan Cavalry, were armed with Spencer Repeating Rifles, a rifle that held a seven-round magazine. The carbine version of this weapon appeared in the Army of the Potomac after Gettysburg and made a great difference in firepower. On the cavalryman's saddle was strapped his baggage which included a shelter tent, blanket, poncho, saddle bags for rations and a canteen. See also Civil War Cavalry Small Arms, Firearms, and Edged Weapons: A Photographic History and  Civil War Horses.

Confederate cavalrymen traveled lighter than their Union counterparts and were not usually armed with the more modern carbines. Short, muzzle-loading carbines were more common in southern regiments, including imports from England. Some Southern troopers preferred to exchange sabers for extra pistols, as many as four revolvers, and to carry a shotgun or rifle into the fray. Southern arsenals attempted to mass produce breech-loading carbines, even making copies of Union carbines made by the Sharps Rifle Company. Attempts at mass production of the weapon failed and Southern cavalrymen relied upon a varied stock of captured and imported arms. See also Civil War Cavalry and its Arsenal of Weapons: A Photographic History.
Cavalry regiments were composed of ten companies of 100 to 110 troopers each. There were five squadrons in a regiment, a squadron being a combination of two companies. This was later changed and the regiments were divided into three battalions. Cavalrymen could fight either mounted or on foot in a staggered skirmish line. Fighting on foot did eliminate some of the unit's firepower as one soldier was designated as a holder for four horses, including his own, while the other three troopers were detailed to the firing line. See also Photographic History of Civil War Cavalry: Man and Mount.
General J.E.B Stuart was legendary amongst cavalry leaders for his daring exploits and raids around the slower moving Union forces. Southern writers composed songs and poems about his exploits. The morale of his troopers was very high and they fancied themselves as superior horsemen. One even boasted that twenty Northern cavalrymen were no match for a single Confederate cavalryman. But Stuart's men were thwarted at Gettysburg by determined Union cavalry regiments which were better armed and led by experienced officers who had learned some of their tactics from the foe. Cavalry not only opened the battle, but closed it in a fierce contest east of Gettysburg. In a decisive showdown on July 3rd, Union General David Gregg's Cavalry Division thwarted a drive on the Union right flank by General Stuart's Cavalry. The battle was fought dismounted until a last desperate charge to break through the Union positions was beaten back by General Custer's Michigan Brigade. From Gettysburg on, cavalry would never be the same.

George Armstrong Custer
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(December 5, 1839 -- June 25, 1876)

James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart
(February 6, 1833 -- May 12, 1864)

(Left) Confederate general JEB Stuart posing in Confederate cavalry uniform. While Stuart was initially considered one of the South's leading cavalry officers, Nathan Bedford Forrest was considered by numerous Confederate and Union generals to be the greatest cavalryman of the war. Stuart was a cavalry commander known for his mastery of reconnaissance and the use of cavalry in support of offensive operations. While he cultivated a cavalier image (red-lined gray cape, yellow sash, hat cocked to the side with an ostrich plume, red flower in his lapel, often sporting cologne), his serious work made him the trusted eyes and ears of Robert E. Lee's army and inspired Southern morale. Perhaps Stuart's most famous campaign, Gettysburg, was marred when he was surprised by a Union cavalry attack at the Battle of Brandy Station and by his separation from Lee's army for an extended period, leaving Lee unaware of Union troop movements and arguably contributing to the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg. Stuart received significant criticism from the Southern press as well as the postbellum proponents of the Confederate cause, but historians have failed to agree on whether Stuart's exploit was entirely the fault of his judgment or simply misfortune and Lee's less-than-explicit orders. During the 1864 Overland Campaign, Union Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's cavalry launched an offensive to defeat Stuart, who, at the age of 31, was mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 12, 1864. (Right) Union general George Armstrong Custer posing in Union cavalry uniform. Gen. Custer, who graduated last in his class at West Point, began his Civil War service as a promising young officer who displayed qualities of an elite cavalryman on the battlefield. Fellow Union cavalryman Phil Sheridan was considered by many during the war to be the greatest Union cavalry officer, but Custer's Brigade, according to Fox, was the greatest cavalry brigade, as well as most famous, because "Custer fought, and he fought often." Custer was both determined and very aggressive in battle, and was considered a most gallant officer. While rising through the ranks quickly to brevet-major general, at age 23 Custer became one of the youngest cavalry generals in the Union. Although he lacked any prior command experience, the young cavalryman was determined to demonstrate his abilities -- at any cost. One of Custer's finest hours in the Civil War occurred just east of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. In conjunction with Pickett's Charge to the west, Gen. Robert E. Lee had dispatched JEB Stuart's cavalry on a mission into the rear of the Union Army. Custer encountered the Union cavalry division of Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg directly in the path of Stuart's horsemen. He convinced Gregg to allow him to stay and fight, while his own division was stationed to the south out of the action. At East Cavalry Field, hours of charges and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Custer led a mounted charge of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, breaking the Confederate assault. Custer's brigade,  however, lost a staggering 257 men at Gettysburg, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade. Nevertheless, "I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry", the young Custer wrote in his report. Custer, after the Civil War concluded, remained an aggressive trooper, and, while fighting in the Indian Wars in the west, he died at the age of 36 on June 25, 1876, during the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana.

Types of Mounted Forces
While there were only two preeminent types of mounted forces during the Civil War, many historians include dragoons and irregulars, which, according to types, both operated as cavalry or mounted infantry. But for reference, the four types of mounted forces are shown.
  1. Cavalry were forces that fought principally on horseback, armed with carbines, pistols, and especially sabers. Only a small percentage of Civil War forces met this definition—primarily Union mounted forces in the Eastern Theater during the first half of the war. Confederate forces in the East generally carried neither carbines nor sabers. A few Confederate regiments in the Western Theater carried shotguns, especially early in the war.
  2. Mounted infantry were forces that moved on horseback but dismounted for fighting on foot, armed principally with rifles. In the second half of the war, most of the units considered to be cavalry actually fought battles using the tactics of mounted infantry. An example of this was the celebrated "Lightning Brigade" of Col. John T. Wilder, which used horses to quickly arrive at a battlefield such as Chickamauga, but they deployed and fought using standard infantry formations and tactics. By contrast, at the Battle of Gettysburg, Federal cavalry under John Buford also dismounted to fight Confederate infantry, but they used conventional cavalry tactics, arms, and formations.
  3. Dragoons were hybrid forces that were armed as cavalrymen but were expected to fight on foot as well. The term comes from the French Army, representing a cross between light cavalry and infantry. 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.
  4. Irregular forces (partisan rangers or guerrillas, aka independents) were generally mounted forces. There is little commonality as to their weapons—in general, any available were used. The Confederacy produced the most famous irregular leaders, including William Clarke Quantrill, John S. Mosby, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and John Hunt Morgan (although the latter two did employ traditional mounted infantry tactics in some campaigns). The Confederate First Regiment of Cherokee Mounted Volunteers considered itself an independent partisan unit, although the Cherokee volunteer unit, for most of the Civil War, adhered to the Confederate organization with its command and control.

Civil War Cavalry Structure
Civil War Cavalry Organization.jpg
Civil War Cavalry Organization Chart

Civil War Cavalry Weapons and Small Arms
Civil War Cavalry Weapons and Small Arms.jpg
Civil War Cavalry Weapons with capabilities, effective range, and rate of fire for each firearm

(About) Civil War Weapons and Capabilities: Type of Weapon, Effective Range, and Rate of Fire. While the list of firearms includes many of the small arms that the Union and Confederate cavalries were furnished, it also shows an inventory of typical weapons employed during the Civil War. Effective range is the maximum distance at which a weapon may be expected to be accurate and achieve the desired effect. Rate of fire is the frequency at which a specific weapon can fire, and it is measured in rounds per minute (RPM)(round/min), unless otherwise stated. How was the effective range and rate of fire acquired by the cavalryman? Extensive training enabled the cavalry soldier the necessary skill, knowledge, and experience required to achieve the rate of fire and the effective range during battle. Three Factors of Accuracy. There were three factors which determined whether or not the projectile hit its target at the effective range: the cavalryman, meaning the shooter, the firearm, and environmental conditions. Any of the three factors, or variables, would easily determine whether or not the shooter fielded an effective hit. If, for example, the soldier erred, or the rifle malfunctioned, or it was windy, the odds of hitting the effective range were obviously reduced.

Cavalry Organization

U.S. cavalry regiments were organized as follows: each regiment contained 10 troops (12 after the Civil War), 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. 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 cavalryman would ever hold in the American military. Between 1861-1865, 272 full regiments of cavalry were raised to preserve the Union, and 137 for the South in its determination to form its own nation. 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. 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.

Civil War cavalry
Confederate cavalryman armed with shotgun.jpg
Confederate cavalryman with shotgun

Cavalry Tactics

Civil War cavalry weapons
Civil War cavalry weapons.jpg
4 revolvers and 1 saber = prepared cavalryman

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."

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..."

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."

Some cavalrymen 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."

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. 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 mounts 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 the countryside. This practice not only spared the mount but enabled the troops to cover ground more rapidly.

Although Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest had no formal military training—indeed, he had only six months of formal education of any kind—he seemed to innately grasp battlefield tactics and the use of mounted troops to destabilize the enemy’s rear. Forrest earned the nickname “the wizard of the saddle” for his lightening raids, and his rear-area strikes became part of the basis for modern warfare strategies and tactics. He was among the most feared commanding officers of the Civil War—Union major general William Tecumseh Sherman once thundered, “that devil Forrest must be hunted down and killed if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts the federal treasury.” Much of his success was due to his force of will.

Federal Civil War Cavalry
Union Civil War Cavalry en route to Battle.jpg
Union cavalry crossing Sudley Ford to fight in First Battle of Bull Run, VA.

Civil War Cavalry Small Arms Range Chart
Cavalry Weapons and Small Arms Ranges.jpg
Range of Cavalry Rifles in Accurate, Effective and Max Distances

(Left) Cavalry Firearms with Accurate, Effective, and Maximum Ranges. What is the difference between accurate, effective, and maximum range? To keep it simple, imagine a large round target with a small bullseye. Accurate range is defined as the distance which a projectile will accurately travel to hit the bullseye. Effective range is the distance which a projectile will travel to hit the target, not the bullseye. Maximum range is the distance the projectile will field to cause a casualty, meaning, if it (actually) hit it would wound or kill the enemy. A trained cavalryman was expected to strike the enemy between the accurate and effective ranges on the chart. A battle-hardened soldier had endured many harsh realities of Civil War life, but one mistake on the battlefield could easily determine if he lived or died. (Right) Union cavalry crossing Sudley Springs en route to the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. When the Union cavalry crossed Sudley Springs, they traversed towards the Confederate's left flank. As the battle ensued, the Confederates were forced to withdrawal from Matthews Hill (just south of Sudley Springs) and reposition their forces on an adjacent location known as Henry Hill. Here, Brig. Gen Thomas J. Jackson's Virginia brigade arrived in support of the disorganized Confederates around noon, accompanied by Col. Wade Hampton's Legion, and Col. J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry. "The Enemy are driving us," Brig. Gen. Barnard Bee exclaimed to Brig. Gen. Thomas Jackson. Jackson, a former U.S. Army officer and professor at the Virginia Military Institute, is said to have replied, "Then, Sir, we will give them the bayonet!" Bee exhorted his own troops to re-form by shouting, "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!" This exclamation was the source for Jackson's (and his brigade's) nom de guerre, "Stonewall". J.E.B Stuart's cavalry subsequently pursued the retreating Union cavalry across Sudley Springs. At First Bull Run, the initial major battle of the four year Civil War, Union forces were routed by the Confederates, causing many Federal troopers to retreat over Sudley Springs. The war was believed by many, not all, to endure merely 90 days, so Bull Run was the scene of many civilians, including the children in the foreground, dignitaries and prominent politicians of Washington, who, not wanting to miss the quick war, arrived in buggies with champagne and picnic baskets to witness the "rebs get whipped," according to one onlooker. Cavalry played a pivotal role in the war's initial major battle and it would be vital to the outcome of many major engagements during the following four years. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

First General Killed in the Civil War
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Battle of Wilson's Creek and Death of General Lyon

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. See also Civil War Weapons, Firearms, and Small Arms.

Some mounted forces used traditional infantry rifles. However, cavalrymen, particularly in the North, were frequently armed with three additional weapons:

  • Carbines, with a shorter barrel than a rifle, were less accurate, but easier to handle on horseback. Most carbines were .52- or .56-caliber, single-shot breech-loading weapons. They were manufactured by several different companies, but the most common were the Sharps, the Burnside and the Smith. Late in 1863, the seven-shot Spencer repeating carbine was introduced, but it was rarely deployed. A notable exception was Union Colonel John T. Wilder, who equipped an entire brigade with repeaters (purchasing these himself and intending to deduct payment from the men's wages embarrassed the Government into paying Wilder for the weapons at $35 apiece) in May 1863, the first unit so equipped. His mounted infantry gained fame as the "Lightning Brigade" for their swift movements. One Confederate stated that Wilder's men could "load on Sunday and fire all week." (Confederate forces were able to use captured breechloaders but were unable to duplicate the metallic cartridges needed by the Spencer.)
  • Sabers were used more frequently by Northern cavalrymen. They were terror weapons, more useful for instilling fear in their opponents than as practical offensive weapons; Confederate cavalrymen often avoided them simply because they considered sabers to be outmoded, unsuitable for the modern battlefield. One Southern cavalry commander noted that the only times during the war he used a saber was to roast meat over a fire. (There were instances in the war in which Union cavalrymen taunted their opponents to "Pick up your sabers and fight like gentlemen!") Despite Southern attitudes towards such weapons, there were several notable instances where the saber saw much use by both sides, including the Battle of Brandy Station and the cavalry battles on the third day of Gettysburg. The American Pattern of 1860 Light Cavalry Saber was lighter than the typical European saber, the latter being similar to the older U.S. Model 1840 Heavy Dragoon "wrist breaker". The curved blade of the saber was generally sharpened only at the tip because it was used mostly for breaking arms and collarbones of opposing horsemen, and sometimes stabbing, rather than for slashing flesh. (A notable exception to this was the saber of Nathan Bedford Forrest, which was sharpened on both edges.)
  • Pistols, which Southern cavalrymen generally preferred over sabers, were usually six-shot revolvers, in .36- or .44-caliber, from Colt or Remington. They were useful only in close fighting since they had little accuracy. It was common for cavalrymen to carry two revolvers, for extra firepower, and John Mosby's troopers often carried four each.

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. See also Civil War Cavalry Small Arms, Firearms, and Edged Weapons: A Photographic History.

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.

Civil War Cavalry
Gen. Hancock at Gettysburg.jpg
Gen. Hancock at Gettysburg

Integration of Cavalry at Gettysburg

A variety of weapons was carried at Gettysburg. Revolvers, swords, and bayonets were abundant, but the basic infantry weapon of both armies was a muzzle-loading rifle musket about 4.7 feet long, weighing approximately 9 pounds. They came in many models, but the most common and popular were the Springfield and the English-made Enfield. They were hard hitting, deadly weapons, very accurate at a range of 200 yards and effective at 1,000 yards. With black powder, ignited by percussion caps, they fired "Minie Balls"—hollow-based lead slugs half an inch in diameter and an inch long. A good soldier could load and fire his rifle three times a minute, but in the confusion of battle the rate of fire was probably slower.

There were also some breech-loading small arms at Gettysburg. Union cavalrymen carried Sharps and Burnside single-shot carbines and a few infantry units carried Sharps rifles. Spencer repeating rifles were used in limited quantity by Union cavalry on July 3 and by a few Union infantry. In the total picture of the battle, the use of these efficient weapons was actually quite small.

Those who fought at Gettysburg with rifles and carbines were supported by nearly 630 cannon—360 Union and 270 Confederate. About half of these were rifled iron pieces, all but four of the others were smoothbore bronze guns. The same types of cannon were used by both armies.

Almost all of the bronze pieces were 12 pounders, either howitzers or "Napoleons." They could hurl a 12-pound iron ball nearly a mile and were deadly at short ranges, particularly when firing canister. Other bronze cannon included 24 pounder howitzers and 6 pounder guns. All types are represented in the park today, coated with patina instead of being polished as they were when in use.

Most of the iron rifled pieces at Gettysburg had a 3-inch bore and fired a projectile which weighed about 10 pounds. There were two types of these—3-inch ordnance rifles and 10 pounder Parrotts. It is easy to tell them apart for the Parrott has a reinforcing jacket around its breech, The effective range of these guns was somewhat in excess of a mile, limited in part because direct fire was used and the visibility of gunners was restricted.

Two other types of rifled guns were used at Gettysburg—four bronze James guns and two Whitworth rifles. The Whitworths were unique because they were breech-loading and were reported to have had exceptional range and accuracy. However, their effect at Gettysburg must have been small for one was out of action much of the time.

Civil War cavalry and sabers
Civil War cavalry and sabers.jpg
General Lee rallying the troops

These artillery pieces used three types of ammunition. All cannon could fire solid projectiles or shot. They also hurled fused, hollow shells which contained black powder and sometimes held lead balls or shrapnel. Canister consisted of cans filled with iron or lead balls. These cans burst apart on firing, converting the cannon into an oversized shotgun.

Weapons influenced tactics. At Gettysburg a regiment formed for battle, fought, and moved in a two rank line, its men shoulder to shoulder, the file closets in the rear. Since the average strength of regiments here was only 350 officers and men, the length of a regiment's line was a little over 100 yards. Such a formation brought the regiment's slow-firing rifles together under the control of the regimental commander, enabling him to deliver a maximum of fire power at a given target. The formation's shallowness had a two-fold purpose, it permitted all ranks to fire, and it presented a target of minimum depth to the enemy's fire.

Four or five regiments were grouped into a brigade, two to five brigades formed a division. When formed for the attack, a brigade moved forward in a single or double line of regiments until it came within effective range of the enemy line. Then both parties blazed away, attempting to gain the enemy's flank if feasible, until one side or the other was forced to retire. Confederate attacking forces were generally formed with an attacking line in front and a supporting line behind. Federal brigades in the defense also were formed with supporting troops in a rear line when possible. Breastworks were erected if time permitted, but troops were handicapped in this work because entrenching tools were in short supply.

Like their infantry comrades, cavalrymen also fought on foot, using their horses as means of transportation. However, mounted charges were also made in the classic fashion, particularly in the great cavalry battle on July 3.

Cavalry and infantry were closely supported by artillery. Batteries of from four to six guns occupied the crests of ridges and hills from which a field of fire could be obtained. They were usually placed in the forward lines, protected by supporting infantry regiments posted on their flanks or in their rear. Limbers containing their ammunition were nearby. Because gunners had to see their targets, artillery positions sheltered from the enemy's view were still in the future.

Tracking the Federals
Confederate Cavalry.jpg
Confederate Cavalry. NPS

Long term advantages from manpower, horses, manufacturing, to logistics had clinched the Union victory. Confederate cavalry leaders, nevertheless, were considered an elite group, even according to Union newspaper accounts at the time. But after the largest predominately all cavalry battle of Brandy Station in June 1863, which was a draw, the Union cavalry had secured confidence and additional swagger. The turning points for Union cavalry, however, were vastly improved cavalry organization and the procurement of more than 600,000 horses, giving them a two-to-one advantage over the Confederacy.
By 1864 the Union Army struggled to acquire the 500 horses it needed daily to sustain its army in the field. Sheridan himself required 150 additional steeds each day during the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. The army therefore bought and captured nearly 210,000 horses in 1864 in order to offset the mounts that had died. If the soldiers had died at that rate, plus wounded, it would have necessitated approximately 1,000,000 replacements, new recruits to be precise, to negate the shortfall for said year. A daunting if not impossible task. The Confederacy however had collapsed in late 1864, because attrition far outstripped its ability to sustain an effective force in the field. The South had lacked the ability to maintain an effective army of able-bodied men equipped with horses, firearms, munitions, food, clothes, logistical support, and medicine; and its home front had grown weary of the pangs of war.
By studying Civil War cavalry, U.S. Army doctrine evolved with more effective tactics. The new manuals for the troopers would apply a more aggressive style of fighting, and would incorporate light or flying artillery as the standard and not the exception. Be well-armed, highly mobile (meaning light as possible on the mount), strike fast, strike effectively, and exit the field. Many of the lessons learned were from none other than Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had redefined the role of cavalry in the conflict. While Sherman applied the total war concept late in the war, Forrest had applied it from day one.
Nathan Bedford Forrest (July 13, 1821--October 29, 1877), was a Confederate general and considered by the masses as the Civil War's most elite cavalryman and partisan ranger (guerilla leader).
Forrest was one of the first men to grasp the doctrines of "mobile warfare" that became prevalent in the 20th century. His one directive to his men was to "get there firstest with the mostest", even if it meant pushing his steeds at a killing pace, which he did more than once. (The "firstest ... mostest" quote, although an accurate description of his strategy, was not uttered in that form by Forrest. It was invented by a New York Times story in 1917, written to provide colorful comments in reaction to European interest in Civil War generals.)
A report on the Battle of Paducah stated that Forrest led a mounted cavalry of 2,500 troopers 100 miles in only 50 hours. A total of 29 mounts were shot out from under him. And he was noted for personally killing 31 people during the war.
Forrest's victory at Brice's Cross Roads became the subject of a class taught at the French War College by Marshal Ferdinand Foch before World War I, and his mobile campaigns were studied by the German general Erwin Rommel, who as commander of the Afrika Korps in World War II, emulated his tactics on a wider scale, with tanks and trucks.

See also:

Sources: U.S. Army Center of Military History; The Ohio State University Department of History; National Park Service; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Coggins, Jack. Arms and Equipment of the Civil War. Doubleday & Company, New York, 1962; Urwin, Gregory J. W. The United States Cavalry: An Illustrated History. Blandford Press, Poole Dorset, 1983; Miller, Francis Trevelyan. The Cavalry, Part IV, A photographic History of the Civil War. Castle Books, New York, 1957; National Archives; Library of Congress; Longacre, Edward G. The Cavalry at Gettysburg. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. ISBN 0-8032-7941-8; Longacre, Edward G. General John Buford: A Military Biography. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 1995. ISBN 0-938289-46-2; Longacre, Edward. Robert E. Lee's Cavalrymen: A History of the Mounted Forces of the Army of Northern Virginia. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002. ISBN 0-8117-0898-5; Starr, Stephen Z. The Union Cavalry in the Civil War. Vol. 1, From Fort Sumter to Gettysburg 1861–1863. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0-8071-3291-3; Starr, Stephen Z. The Union Cavalry in the Civil War. Vol. 2, The War in the East from Gettysburg to Appomattox 1863–1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0-8071-3292-0; Starr, Stephen Z. The Union Cavalry in the Civil War. Vol. 3, The War in the West 1861–1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0-8071-3293-7; Wills, Brian Steel. The Confederacy's Greatest Cavalryman: Nathan Bedford Forrest. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992. ISBN 0-7006-0885-0; Wittenberg, Eric J. Glory Enough For All: Sheridan's Second Raid and the Battle of Trevilian Station. Washington, DC: Brassey's, Inc., 2001. ISBN 1-57488-468-9; Wittenberg, Eric J. The Battle of Brandy Station: North America's Largest Cavalry Battle. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-59629-782-1; Gettysburg National Military Park; Gettysburg (1993), Turner Pictures, New Line Cinema; The Union Army (1908); Fox, William F. Regimental Losses in the American Civil War (1889); Phisterer, Frederick. Statistical record of the armies of the United States (1883); Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (1908); Hardesty, Jesse. Killed and died of wounds in the Union army during the Civil War (1915) Wright-Eley Co.


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