Cavalry in the U.S. Civil War
Reviewed April 2017
To really get an idea what the Cavalry faced during the Civil War and the conditions in which they lived, you'll need to do some reading. Check our bibliography. We suggest The Cavalry at Gettysburg and Sherman's Horsemen as the best two books from which to start. Starr’s works are very comprehensive though much longer and more detailed; maybe not the best book for those just starting out.
The Cavalry experience in the American Civil War was similar to the experiences of all soldiers during that conflict. They ate the same, slept the same, got diseased the same, and died the same as everybody else. The defining factor for the Cavalry was the role they played.
The United States Army had just five mounted regiments in 1860. The First and Second Dragoons (formed in 1833 and 1836, respectively), the Regiment of Mounted Rifles (formed in 1846), and the First and Second Cavalry (formed in 1855) comprised the entire mobile force on the U.S. frontier. When war came in 1861, the First and Second Dragoons and the Second Cavalry were recalled to the east. The Rifles and First Cavalry remained in the western theater under Generals Grant and Sherman.
In August 1861, the Army changed all these regiments to "Cavalry" and numbered them First through Fifth according to their length of service. Our regiment, formerly the Second Dragoons, became the Second U.S. Cavalry. The newly formed Sixth Regiment joined the First through Fifth later that year. Around this time the U.S. Army (and the Confederate forces) were accepting dozens of volunteer Cavalry regiments from individual states. “Regulars” became a small but potent minority. In the eastern theater, the First, Second, Fifth, and Sixth regiments were formed into the Reserve Cavalry Brigade, ostensibly as a professional core from which to bolster these "green" volunteers.
The role of the Cavalry was in flux during this period. The great Napoleonic era of massed Cavalry, Hussar, Dragoon, and Cuirassier formations, that often sealed the outcome of battle by headlong saber charges into demoralized or outflanked infantry, was fast becoming obsolete. The widespread use of rifled percussion muskets, with their longer range and accuracy, turned mounted formations into big, easy targets. Large infantry formations could volley fire into oncoming cavalry before the horsemen could get within striking distance, thereby reducing the effectiveness of this mounted tactic.
Illustration from Capt. W. Glazier's "Three Years in the Federal Cavalry"
As the nature of warfare changed, so too did the mounted soldier's role in combat operations. Listed below are the majority of the duties and responsibilities of cavalry units in the late 1800’s. During our reenacting events, we too serve in these roles. Now, as then, some are more desirable than others. All are authentic to the time.
Scouting: Reconnaissance of the surrounding country and enemy movements.
Screening: Preventing the other guy from mounting successful reconnaissance, and defending against forays into your lines. This role was used in both defensive and offensive postures.
Skirmishing: Cavalry formations were smaller than their infantry counterparts. For this reason combat often included holding opposing forces while waiting for the army's main body to arrive. A good example of this is seen in Buford's stand against Confederate infantry on July 1, 1863, just west of Gettysburg.
Flanking movements: The Cavalry’s mobility allowed them to both defend their own army's flanks and attack the enemy's flanks, the weakest areas of both forces.
Courier duty: Although onerous, the Cavalry was depended on to provide messengers for the Generals throughout the war. This took soldiers away from their primary mission, thus reducing the numbers of carbines and sabers available for the Cavalry commander to employ in combat.
Orderly duty: Again, many Cavalry soldiers were assigned to non-Cavalry unit commanders as clerks and servants. They escorted commanding officers, cared for their horses, handled paperwork, and performed other minor tasks as required by the officer. At larger events we are sometimes asked to provide troopers for this duty… it is not popular with us.
Raiding: This role, that the Confederates used throughout the war and that the Union employed successfully in later years, capitalized on the Cavalry’s strengths. Mobility and faster rates of weapons fire allowed Cavalry formations to operate behind enemy lines to destroy supplies, gather intelligence, tie up valuable enemy combat forces, and generally create havoc. Look at J.E.B. Stuart's raids in 1862 and 1863, as well as Sherman's Cavalry activity during the Atlanta campaign.
Pitched battle: Despite how Cavalry tactics were evolving, they still sometimes found themselves in full-on combat. See again Buford at Gettysburg, Stuart and Gregg also there; the Federal Cavalry in the Shenandoah in 1864; and the Cavalry fights at Brandy Station and Trevilian Station.
Don Stivers, "Fighting for Time"
As with all branches of military service during the Civil War, Cavalry life was filled with drill, duty and monotony but with one great exception: that horse. Caring for your horse was your first priority and filled several hours each day. You fed your horse before you ate. You watered him, cleaned up after him, and made sure he was shod. If he failed, you walked.
The war took a tremendous toll on horses and all draft animals. At one point, the Federal Army of the Potomac was replacing 500 horses a day. As a Cavalry formation pressed forward on campaign or raids, they took every horse they could find from the surrounding towns and farms, knowing that soon enough they'd be needed.
The fortunes of the Cavalry during the conflict varied. Early in the war, the Confederate mounted forces generally were better led, better employed, and more successful. The Union Cavalry, however, suffered from their commanders' poor understanding of how they could be best used. The Federal Cavalry was frequently broken into small groups and woefully depleted by much of that onerous detached duty mentioned earlier.
In early 1863, General Joe Hooker formed his Cavalry into a separate Corps that allowed them to develop into an effective and successful offensive striking force for the remainder of the war. See their activities in May, June, and July of that year for examples of the effect.
Cavalry weapons and tactics in the American Civil War were mostly suited to the classical definition of Dragoons. While trained and equipped as mounted fighters with saber and pistol, these men also carried carbines and were trained to fight effectively on foot. The Federal Cavalry was armed with breech loading carbines, which allowed them to fire two times faster than infantry with muzzleloaders.
From mid-war on, repeating weapons (chiefly the Spencer) that carried a multi-round magazine took the place of single shot carbines for many Federal regiments. This revolution in design gave the Federal troopers the added firepower needed to play an effective role in deciding the outcome of the battle.