Cavalry in the American Civil War: A Brief Overview, 1861-1865

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 guerrilla 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.

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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