When the Civil War started at Fort Sumter, Confederate forces held a decided advantage in cavalry. Raised in genteel affluence, middle- and upper-class Southern men rode as comfortably on horseback as modern Mainers steer a Ford or Chevy.
The Southern aristocracy — “old-line” families, plantation owners, slave owners (a man’s wealth included slaves defined as legal property) — grew up riding thoroughbreds, epitomized by the large, physically strong horses seen grazing on Kentucky Bluegrass farms today. The middle-class — merchants, railroaders, some farmers who owned good crop land — often rode horses, and many Southern farm boys rode inferior-quality horses or mules.
In the loyal states, many men handled horses with familiarity, but the industrialized North placed less emphasis on developing excellent equestrian skills than did the predominantly agricultural South. By Manassas the Confederate army fielded cavalry regiments featuring experienced riders and good horse flesh.
Union cavalry caught up quality-wise by spring 1863, as demonstrated at Brandy Station and Aldie in Virginia during the prelude to Gettysburg. Partially shattered at Middletown, Va. in late May 1862, the inexperienced 1st Maine Cavalry rebounded magnificently in the next 12 months.
While Confederate generals did not always deploy their cavalry wisely — demonstrated by Joe Johnston’s failure to turn Nathan Bedford Forrest loose on “Cump” Sherman’s supply lines during the Atlanta Campaign — when Southern horsemen rode out of camp, they usually rode as intact units. Senior Confederate officers recognized the “hitting power” delivered by massed cavalry.
For the war’s first two years, Union commanders often frittered away their cavalry’s numerical advantages: The North could simply field more cavalrymen and cavalry mounts than could the South. Hidebound infantry generals broke up individual cavalry regiments by sending troopers here, there, and everywhere as orderlies, couriers, scouts, wagon train guards, and flankers for Union infantry advancing into poorly mapped Confederate-held territory.
Stripping a cavalry regiment of its firepower meant placing Yankee cavalry as a fighting disadvantage with their gray-clad opponents. Smaller detachments were vulnerable to ambush and destruction, and Confederate cavalry snapped up many a lonely 1st Maine Cavalry trooper galloping through the Virginia darkness on courier duty.
Rather than keep their cavalry together and utilize its best attributes (large-scale raiding and reconnaissance and, as dismounted cavalry tactics evolved, fighting enemy troops), Union commanders wore out men and horses by sending them hither and yon on militarily questionable missions. Fortunately for Union forces, attrition raised competent cavalry leaders to regimental and brigade command, and wise senior Army officers learned how to properly use cavalry.
Witness how John Buford handled his 1st Cavalry Division west and north of Gettysburg early on July 1, 1863. The 1st Maine boys weren’t there, but the regiments present held off advancing Confederate infantry for some hours. So effectively did the dismounted Yankee cavalrymen fight that Harry Heth and other Southern generals figured they were battling veteran Union infantry.
During the Civil War Sesquicentennial, many re-enactments are featuring cavalry, North or South or both, and visitors are seeing how troopers dressed, rode, and fought 150 years ago. The “We Are Coming, Father Abraham” re-enactment held at Good Will Hinckley School in late August 2012 featured several riders and a much larger dismounted Confederate cavalry contingent.
Maine re-enactments usually do not include cavalry. It was a rare treat to see them at GWH.
At the Antietam 150th anniversary re-enactment held Sept. 14-16, 2012 in Sharpsburg, Md., the cavalry plunged enthusiastically into an ongoing brawl not many yards from the spectators on Saturday. Groups charged to the fray, sabers waved and connected, and combat briefly ceased until the next “squadrons” started hacking at each other.
On Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012 at the Perryville (Ky.) 150th anniversary re-enactment, the badly outnumbered Union cavalry — I counted all of five or six troopers — exchanged pistol fire with the overwhelming numbers of Confederate cavalry, then wisely retreated. I think the Johnny Rebs sent 70-80 riders (maybe more) into battle.
After the Yankee troopers withdrew, most Confederate troopers lustily battled the Union infantry as the prelude to the “Battle of Webster’s Hill.” This event took place during the Oct. 8, 1862 Battle of Perryville, but the cavalry played little role there 150 years ago.
The 2012 crowd at Perryville loved watching the Confederate troopers dismount to fight on foot, then mount up to “charge” the volley-firing Union infantry. The nearest troopers were 20-30 yards away from where I stood.
I hope that through Appomattox Courthouse in April 2015, many Maine-based Civil War fans will catch at least one major battle re-enactment. Gettysburg is the monster show for 2013, so big in fact that separate groups are organizing two competing re-enactments. Chancellorsville occurs in the spring, and the Cedar Creek re-enactment takes place the third weekend in every October.
If you’re passing through a Southern town and hear the cannon roaring between now and April 2015, stop by the battlefield and watch the cavalry at work. Troopers and their horses are fascinating to watch.