Cavalry in the U.S. Civil War
Reviewed March 2019
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 same diseases, and died the same as everybody else. The defining factors for the Cavalry were the role they played and their faithful equine partners.
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 Regiment. The newly formed Sixth U.S. Cavalry Regiment joined the First through Fifth U.S. Cavalry Regiments later that year. Around this time the U.S. Army (as well as the Confederate forces) were also accepting dozens of volunteer Cavalry regiments from individual states. “Regulars” of the pre-war era became a small but potent minority as the U.S. Army experienced explosive growth to meet the new crisis. In the eastern theater, the First, Second, Fifth, and Sixth U.S. Cavalry Regiments were formed into the Reserve Cavalry Brigade, to serve as a professional corps to bolster these "green" volunteers and as a “Sunday punch” to be delivered at critical times and places during a battle or campaign.
The role of Cavalry worldwide 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 adoption of rifled percussion lock muskets, with their longer range and accuracy, turned mounted formations into big, easy targets at extended ranges. Large infantry formations could now 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 due to technological and social changes, so too did the mounted soldier's role in combat. Listed below are the major 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 but all are authentic to the time.
Scouting: Reconnaissance of the surrounding country and enemy movements.
Screening: Preventing the enemy 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 but more mobile than their infantry counterparts. For this reason, combat often included holding and fixing opposing forces while waiting for the army's main body to arrive. John Buford's stand against Confederate infantry on July 1, 1863, just west of Gettysburg, is a classic example of this kind of operation.
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 required to provide messengers for generals throughout the war. This took soldiers away from their primary mission, thus reducing the number of carbines and sabers available for the cavalry commander to employ in combat. However, in an era before radio communications courier duty was of the utmost importance for command and control of engaged units in a timely manner.
Orderly duty: Again, many cavalry troopers 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 a popular mission.
Raiding: This role, employed by Confederates throughout the war and adopted by the Union successfully in later years, capitalized on the Cavalry’s strengths. Mobility and faster rates of weapons fire allowed Cavalry formations to move to and operate behind enemy lines to destroy supplies, gather intelligence, tie up valuable enemy combat forces, and generally create havoc. J.E.B. Stuart's raids in 1862 and 1863, as well as Sherman's Cavalry activity during the Atlanta campaign, are examples of successful raiding.
Pitched battle: Despite the evolution of cavalry tactics, they still sometimes found themselves in full-on combat. John Buford and J.E.B. Stuart at Gettysburg, the Federal Cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864; and the Cavalry fights at Brandy Station and Trevilian Station are examples of large scale cavalry engagements.
Don Stivers, "Fighting for Time"
As with all branches of military service during the American Civil War, Cavalry life was filled with drill, duty and monotony but there was one great exception: that horse. Caring for the 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, in contrast, suffered from their commanders' poor understanding of how they could be best used. The Federal Cavalry was frequently broken into small groups and parceled out to infantry units and was also 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.
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 Volunteer Cavalry Regiments, though none of the Regular units would adopt the new technology during the war.