A Lack of Cavalry: Understanding Why Some Armies Were Better Than Others
Great Cavalry Battle of the Civil War
It makes for great reading and greater imagination when we think about the great cavalry battle's of the American Civil War. In truth, there were very few. Of course Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle ever fought on the North American continent and the clash at Gettysburg on the third day was dramatic indeed. Yet, fighting mounted battles was not what the cavalry arm was designed to do. As General Robert E. Lee referred to his cavalry arm under Jeb Stuart and later Wade Hampton, the job of cavalry was to be the eyes and ears of the army. The lack of cavalry could mean the success or failure of a campaign. It has been argued that the lack of Stuart's cavalry at Gettysburg led to the defeat of Lee's army in Pennsylvania. Just before that campaign, the lack of cavalry led to the utter defeat of Joe Hooker at Chancellorsville. Yet, it becomes far deeper than just the success or loss of two battles.
The Confederate army in the west (Army of Tennessee) never had a commander that understood how to properly use cavalry. Only General Lee in Virginia used his cavalry to effect. He didn't ask them to make great raids, engage in serious battle as infantry did, but only to keep him informed of the whereabouts of the enemy. That didn't occur in Sidney Johnston's army before Shiloh, Beauregard's army following Shiloh, or Bragg's army in Kentucky. An excellent example would be a portion of Bragg's army engaged at Perryville, Kentucky against all of Buell's army, yet despite Joe Wheeler covering his left flank, Bragg finished that battle not realizing he faced a superior Union army. Wheeler did do good service covering Bragg's retreat back into Tennessee, but you still wonder what could have been had Wheeler kept Bragg informed of what he faced.
When McDowell arrived at Manassas during the summer of 1861, he complained because the Federal government wouldn't allow volunteer cavalry to be recruited. He had to find his enemy using his own staff and this of course proved a failure. When Lee took over the Army of Northern Virginia, he sent Stuart's cavalry around Federal General McClellan's right flank to see if it was vulnerable. McClellan didn't have the cavalry to defend this move and ended up in the dark as Lee swept down on his undefended right flank and drove him away from Richmond.
The lack of cavalry continued to haunt the Union high command until the Battle of Gettysburg, where they made a stand in the absence of Stuart's cavalry and helped turn the tide of war. Following Gettysburg, Stuart would remain the eyes and ears of Lee's army and keep the famed Confederate general abreast of what the Federal army under Ulysses Grant had planned. Despite the lesson learned by the Union army at Gettysburg, Grant would overrule Meade and send the Army of the Potomac's own cavalry off on raids that accomplished very little, when they could have been a big help to Meade in his flank movements. The war could have been over a year earlier. Yet, Meade and the Army of the Potomac would blindly disengage Lee and attempt to flank him, only to find him waiting for Meade after each movement because of the inadequacies of "Little Phil" Sheridan. Sheridan wouldn't prove any useful service until the last year of the war and after the loss of manpower in the Confederate army.
Let's look at a few Cavalrymen of that war and rate them according to how they did their jobs, not according to how legends have painted them.
Major General James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart
I can already hear the Bedford Forrest fans screaming for my head, but I have to rank Jeb Stuart at the top of the list of Civil War cavalrymen. Stuart understood his job as cavalryman. He understood that his sole job was to provide his army commander with information about the enemy. Did Stuart always do his job? No. But, he did it better than any other cavalryman in the North or South and that's the reason I've ranked him the best cavalryman of the war.
Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest
One of the best commanders of the war, Nathan Bedford Forrest is not the best cavalry commander in my opinion. My buddy Jerry Smith proclaims Forrest as the greatest general of the war and of course I can't blame him. Jerry has at least two grandfathers who fought under Forrest. Yet, I consider Forrest more of a commander of Mounted Infantry than cavalry. Of course, another friend Jay Gregory says that once a bullet whistles by your head, you all become infantry. That's true, but the difference between cavalry and infantry in those days had to do with what your job was. Cavalry was technically providing intelligence to the overall commander (Forrest didn't do that because he was busy arguing with his commander). He served as cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign and during the Nashville Campaign at the end of the war, other than that, he served as a commander of his own independent army (Mounted Infantry).
Major General Phil Sheridan
Another overrated cavalryman in my opinion is Phil Sheridan. Sheridan spent the first half of the war as an infantryman. He moved up to cavalry command in the Army of the Potomac because of his service under Ulysses Grant in one battle. He arrived in Virginia and because his cavalry blocked the road of the infantry between the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, he and Meade clashed. Sheridan proclaimed he could destroy Stuart's cavalry if given his freedom and Grant granted his request. He then made a raid that succeeded in killing Jeb Stuart and little else. He arrived in southeastern Virginia having left Meade's army blind and without cavalry and groping blindly across Virginia in the Overland Campaign.
Major General Joseph Wheeler
Another overrated cavalryman in my book is Joseph Wheeler. His troopers always lacked for discipline under his command. He was supposed to serve as Bragg's intelligence gathering cavalry during the Kentucky Campaign of 1862, yet he accomplished nothing. During the Atlanta Campaign, John Bell Hood sent Wheeler to destroy the railroad between Sherman's army and Chattanooga, yet he rode all the way to Knoxville and out of the theater of operations.
Not a lot of cavalrymen understood their roles in the War Between the States. Wade Hampton became a fine cavalryman following the death of Jeb Stuart. Fitzhugh Lee became a descent cavalryman despite his failure at Five Forks in 1865. Turner Ashby was a fine partisan ranger, but failed Stonewall Jackson as a cavalryman during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. A book could be written on the effectiveness of cavalry during the Civil War, but this is just a blog.