The 19th Century Cavalry Charge: American Cavalryman, from the Mexican-American War to the Civil War, 1845-1864

The influence of the American Civil War 1861-1865, on all three major aspects of tactical warfare in the 19th century; land, naval, and logistical strategies, is one of the great studies in warfare from the 16th-19th centuries. In popular history and memory, the cavalry of both North and South, fighting from Pennsylvania, to farthest reaches of American territory in the West, have become and almost an unmatched icon of American military history from the period 1800-circa 1900.

General Philip Sheridan rallying the Union Army at the Battle of Third Winchester (Opequon), a critical battle in the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864, which helped Lincoln win re-election

Cavalry played an integral role in the Civil War and in many of its battles though their role in pitched battles, on open terrain battlefields was relatively marginalized due to technological breakthroughs in weaponry, the horse soldiers’ role as irregular, raider, pillager, and guerilla force was one of the most distinct sub-groups of military forces throughout the war 61-65 and beyond, and indeed has few equals in any other civil war from any generation.

American Cavalry 1846-1860, War with Mexico and territorial service in the antebellum West

American cavalry was brought into the 19th century with the Declaration of War on Mexico in 1846 by then President James K. Polk (b.1795-1849). American cavalry played an integral in the conflict and clashed numerous times with the European style cavalry of Mexican President and General López de Santa Anna. American fighting men in the regular army also saw experience during the Florida War of 1835-1842 against Seminole and their tribal allies. The majority of the best or at least dashing, and often the most successful, were those of the militia and volunteer brigades from the Texans in the Mexican American War, to Virginians, Tennesseans,

General Santa Anna, a longtime admirer of Napoleon and his French Empire, fielded well trained and relatively equipped cavalry that on paper was most certainly a larger and better trained force than their American counterpart, having fought the Texans in the 1830’s. Meanwhile the Mexican army was continuously locked down in a state of war with the Native tribes of what remained of Norte (north) Mexico.

The influence of the Mexican-American war on the generation of fighting men who fought in Texas in Mexico or who were commanded by veterans of the conflict during the Civil War cannot be overstated; it was the seminal conflict of the 19th century against any foreign power that American faced during the period, certainly a greater threat to the American military than Spain was 1898.

The cavalry soldier on both sides probably didn’t notice at all that artillery and much more accurate rifle fire were beginning to change their role on the battlefield entirely, though they were still unquestionably the elite forces of most modern nation’s military forces at this time.

Warfare was evolving from the Napoleonic practices of the age before it when Wellington and Murat fought on the Continent, but still at a very slow rate. For the cavalry man this was still the age of élan, dash, and bravery, attributes which were preached as mantras of war, the regiment and the officers reigning supreme above all else in the field. Horsemanship was admired as was marksmanship, only the most aristocratic or formerly trained Americans would have been swordsmen and a duelist of some Alexandre Dumas story.

In the first major engagement of the war at the Battle of Resaca De la Palma in 1846, cavalry played a very important role in deciding the outcome of the battle in favor of the eager to fight American forces looking to crush the Mexicans who they viewed as inferior in every sense. Near what is today Brownsville, Texas, forces under future President of the United States General Zachary Taylor (b.1784-1850) defeated the forces of the well respected General Mariano Arista.

During the skirmish General Taylor ordered Maryland native Captain Charles A. May to charge the antiquated Mexican guns, which he did with success not without challenge however. During the melee Capt. May's horse was shot, falling on him in the thick of the fighting, he freed himself but lost his sword in the process. He managed to capture a Mexican dragoon officer amazingly, stealing his sword  and mount to resume the rout of Mexican army. May allegedly returned the sword to captured officer after due to his respect for an enemy dragoon.

Despite being outnumbered by more than a thousand men the American's took the field and the Mexican guns in one of first notable American cavalry charges of the 19th century. Resaca de la Palma was just the first major engagement of the Mexican-American war, but it was most certainly a stunning American victory as well, an 'upset' if you will. Certainly this action set the stage for the American cavalry, infantry, and artillery's dominance of the Mexican army in just about every battle during the War.

Captain Mays' 2nd Cavalry charge the Mexican cannon at Resaca de la Palma May 9, 1846

The war between Mexico and America would not end until 1848 with Mexico’s humiliation following the capture of Mexico City, and the later annexation of much of its northern territory. American cavalry commanders gained a reputation for steadfast service and the utmost bravery and ferocity demonstrated during the charges of the war, more importantly they gained experience which served them for the next 40-50 years after into the Spanish-American War and the Wars in the Philippines,  where the last Union and Confederate soldiers served as officers and generals.

Clash of Dragoons at Resaca de la Palma (Osprey Publishing)

Though the cavalry sword was effective and a potent symbol into the 20th century, American dogma stressed pistol and rifle accuracy as well, from both the saddle or from dismount; as a result the six shot revolver’s role in the history of American cavalry in particular from 1848-1865 is very important and must be stressed as an important and separate influence culturally.

The revolver was a break through because of the initial novelty of not having to reload after one shot. Though revolver's still suffered from being bulky and at time unreliable, they were deadly in the hands of those who could and  who did often use them. Both civilians and the military (including 'para-military' scouts and the like) found them particularly useful when fighting Native American warriors who preferred the fast shooting bow & arrow and melee weapons such as the spear.

American regular army cavalry saw further service in the west before the War as far as Texas, and the Arizona, New Mexico, and the Nevada territories. They fought many diverse and unique tribes from the Sioux, Apache, Yuma, and Ute's of New Mexico in the mountains, plains, and deserts of Southwest. In 1857, US Dragoons were called upon to march west through Wyoming to Utah, to capture the Mormon capital of Salt Lake City, and if necessary to defeat the rebel Mormon militia. Federal troops served on the borders close at home near Mexico in the conquered territories signed over in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Battle was never offered to the Dragoons of General Albert Sidney Johnston in the Mormon War of 1857-1858, but regardless this greater period of conflict in the West illustrates that though the cavalry regiments of the army were relatively small in the antebellum period, they still saw significant and meaningful action in the years before the Civil War began.

Cavalry in the Eastern and Western theaters of the American Civil War 1861-1865

With the formation of the Confederacy in 1860-1861 and the buildup to total war following Fort Sumter and the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) in 1861. Many of the most respected including Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston had chosen to side with their native states and fight for the Confederacy instead of of the Federal Government.

Eleven states plus two border states sitting in-absentia governments, Kentucky, and Missouri, made up the newly unrecognized rebel state. Missouri itself was a territory bogged down in one of the single bloodiest episodes in American history in its own civil war against Kansas which was fought well before and well after the war ended. President Jefferson Davis (b.1808-1889) and the Confederate States of America by late 1861-1862 had uses its military force and collective if unfocused might to against all odds, defy the Federal government and break away from the Union. Following the dissolution of the Union, unrecognized by the Federal government as it be, fighting erupted throughout the south from Maryland, to Virginia threatening the Capital, to East Tennessee and later into Pennsylvania during the pivotal battle of the first half of the war during the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg 1863.

Contemporary drawing of Federal Cavalry on the move 1863

Perhaps the earliest significant battle in which the cavalry fought and charged on the field of battle took place at Gaines’ Mill July of 1862. It was here, north of Chickahominy River in Virginia that an action took place that according to contemporary sources rivaled the great Battle of Königgrätz in 1866 during the Wars of German Reunification. The Union cavalry charged with horrible losses at Gaines' Mill, driven from the field at a horrible cost to men and beast alike.

Union Cavalry charge at Gaines Mill 1862

Cavalry actions in the Western theater of the war in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, the Carolinas, and Alabama were much more varied affairs, they were scattered and at times isolated, often they were smaller on average though some were larger in many cases because of the freer movement allowed by the open territory of West and Southwest. The West is interesting because the war continues on into 1864-1865 increasing in intensity when the conflict is seemingly over. In the East the Army of Northern Virginia and the Southern cause were defeated at Appomattox in April of 1865.

Battle of Brandy Station June 9, 1863, Largest Cavalry Battle in American History

What is often called the largest all cavalry battle in American history took place at the Battle of Brandy Station, also known as the Battle of Fleetwood Hill or Beverly Ford, during the opening to General Lee's Gettysburg campaign in the summer of 1863. The battle was a bloody affair, with charge, counter-charge, and retreats launched by the thousands of cavalrymen who fought near or on Fleetwood Hill for more than ten hours.

'Duel on Yew Ridge', Confederate officer William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, the son of General Lee, meets Captain Wesley Merrit, a New Yorker, in single combat during the Battle of Brandy Station

Major General James Ewell Brown, 'JEB' Stuart and his Confederate brigade might have taken field that day had it not been for the actions of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey cavalry, who fought toe-to-toe, horse to horse, with Stuart's division the entire day. The First New Jersey made six charges as a regiment alone, helping the Pennsylvanians to turn back the Rebels over the river. Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton allowed the Union Cavalry freedom of movement to charge and retreat at will entirely ad hoc, increasing their chances of success greatly that day.

Brigadier General J.E.B. Stewart, a son of Virginia and the last cavalier of his age

Historically Brandy Station has been seen as the turning point in the Union's cavalry campaign of the War, which in the East up until then was being crushed by the Confederates. The southerners led by example with stunning if costly tactics. Perhaps the supreme regular army cavalry commander of the war was the Virginian 'cavalier', J.E.B. Stuart (b.1833-1864).

Stuart, who was to be tragically killed at the Battle of Yellow Tavern in May 1863 was a native Virginian who served as Lee's most trusted and able cavalry officer throughout most of the war in Virginia and later north into Pennsylvania where his effort at Gettysburg was heavily criticized. At Yellow Tavern General Philip Sheridan and the young and rising Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer (b.1839-1876) managed to best the Confederate cavalry again, this time killing Virginia's most famous & gallant cavalrymen in the process.

Battle of Yellow Tavern 1863

While there is certainly no doubt that cavalry, regular or irregular, had a major effect on the course of war and in many individual battles and skirmishes from 1861-1865, historically much of the evidence supplied however challenges the role (impact), and the strategic & tactical impact of the cavalrymen in the American Civil War. Was he an ineffective relic better suited for frontier or scout duty alone, liabilities for their high maintenance cost in cash and feed for the horses?

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