Hold on: Some Commentary on the American Civil War

The Use of Cavalry and Artillery during the American Civil War

by Dr. Howard G. Lanham

horse and rider

Who am I to dispute Sir John Keegan? I have attended some of his lectures and read many of his books. His many years of study and distinguished service as a lecturer in military history at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst make him one of the leading thinkers of modern military history. I cannot claim to share his credentials. That said, as the great-grandson of a Confederate cavalryman, I feel a need to present opposing arguments to some comments he offers about the use of cavalry and artillery during the American Civil War.

Keegan tells us that Civil War cavalry was ineffective and did not play a decisive role in the war. Although they raided, they almost never charged infantry or artillery on the battlefield and suffered negligible casualties. He states that there was no cavalry tradition in the prewar army and no pool of experienced horseman to enlist. His further discussion of these points includes a number of other comments and explanations, which I believe most students of the Civil War, including myself, would accept as true.

Of course, it was infantry that decided Civil War battles, but this has been largely true of western warfare since the introduction of gunpowder and should surprise no one. Given that is it fair to brand cavalry as being ineffective? I think not. It was effective with respect to the missions with which it was tasked. We might ask the question: was European cavalry any more effective during the same era? For example, we can look at the European experience during the Franco-Prussian War, occurring only five year after the end of the American Civil War. It is not possible to argue that Germany and France lacked a cavalry tradition or leaders committed to the use of cavalry. We have the example of the charge of the French 3rd Regiment of Cuirassiers at Froeschwiller on August 6, 1870. The unit was decimated and the attack a failure. On August 16, 1870 we have Friedrich Wilhelm von Bredow’s “death ride” against Canrobert’s guns at Mars-La-Tour. Although the attack was a tactical success, the Germans lost 420 of the 800 men committed. The European experience was summed up by Michael Howard in his book The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870-1871, who says, “The only choice before horse cavalry lay between idleness and suicide.” I would argue that the American and European experience was much the same.

The American Civil War and Franco-Prussian Wars marked the twilight of the horse cavalry in battle against infantry. When it was employed the result was death. (Illustration: Rolf Winfler 1915)

During the American Civil War cavalry might get lucky as when Jeb Stuart’s “Black Horse Cavalry” at the First Manassas stampeded the inexperienced Fire Zouaves (11th New York Infantry), but for the most part to attack a mass of infantry was suicidal. A good example of this was the unfortunate attack of General Elon John Farnsworth on infantry of the Confederate left at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. When ordered to attack by Judson Kilpatrick, Farnsworth argued that it was suicidal, but when Kilpatrick stated that he would lead it himself, Farnsworth executed his orders. The attack achieved nothing, but did result in Farnsworth’s death and the loss of many of his troopers. The value of mounted cavalry lies in its mobility. In addition, mounted soldiers are not nearly as stable a weapons platform as are men on foot. A horse and rider present a much larger target on a battlefield. To use them as an assaulting force when infantry would serve just as well is a waste of a valuable resource. Both the rider and horse required a great deal of training to be effective. Many might argue that the horse in fact was the more trainable of the pair, but being a horseman myself I can assure you that the last place a horse wishes to be is on a battlefield. Every instinct tells him to flee. My argument is that American commanders were justified and correct in not using their valuable cavalry as assault elements during major battles.

Among Keegan’s other points were that the U.S. Army lacked a tradition of cavalry and that there was no pool of skilled horsemen. There is some basis for the former statement. No Regular Army mounted arm existed during the years 1815-1832. However, after that time there was a steady expansion in the number of mounted regiments. Riding instruction was an element of the training of officers at West Point. Many of the leaders of the Civil War served in “Old Army” mounted units, including Jefferson Davis, R.E. Lee, George Stoneman, W. F. Hardee, R.S. Ewell, John Sedgwick, J.E.B. Stuart, to name only a few. Their experience as cavalry officers certainly allowed an understanding of the capabilities of cavalry on the battlefield and an identification with cavalry as a branch of service. Even George B. McClellan, who was never known for effective use of his own cavalry, had been a captain in the First Cavalry Regiment 1855-1857. It is true that European countries had a long and unbroken tradition of cavalry. European aristocracies were the direct descendants of mounted warriors of the Middle Ages, and in all European nations strong traditions of equestrian sports and horsemanship persisted. However, it would be incorrect to believe that Americans did not know the front from the back end of a horse. Horsemanship and good horse flesh were esteemed as much in the United States as in Europe. In addition to the agricultural uses of horses and mules on most American farms, pleasure riding, fox hunting, and horse racing were extremely popular in antebellum America. While these civilian riders needed to receive military training before they could become soldiers that would also have been true of their European counterparts.

In summary, I argue that the American and European experiences in mid 19th Century mounted warfare were very similar and it is a mistake to somehow characterize the American tactical use of cavalry as defective. Rather it was a realistic appraisal of the capabilities of cavalry, often implemented by officers with prior service in mounted arms.

The other branch of service Keegan discusses is artillery, which he states had a “diminished role” during the Civil War relative to the Napoleonic Wars and failed to meet its potential to have “decided battles.” Keegan goes on to explain why this was and I agree entirely with what he says in regard to the limitations of period artillery. Civil War artillery targeting was line of sight, and batteries could not engage a target that was hidden from view which was often the case in the wooded North American terrain. However, I would say that the role of artillery may have been more than meets the eye. For the most part, what we think of as infantry battles also involved artillery serving in a defensive rather than in an offensive role. Artillery batteries were posted at points along the infantry line of battle and served to shift the advantage to the defender. I believe that in this role artillery decided many battles. Artillery may have functioned less well in an attacking role against infantry. Stationary infantry units often parked themselves in spots protected from fire. One example of the effective offensive use of artillery was at Brice’s Crossroads under Nathan B. Forrest. However, this was more result of Forrest’s lack of knowledge regarding artillery rather than something that would have served other less audacious commanders well. In addition, counter battery fire by friendly artillery units was often a great benefit to attacking infantry units. One might argue that 80 percent of wounds were gunshot wounds, but it was often close in canister fire against attacking forces that tipped the balance in favor of the defenders at the crucial moment. The presence of friendly artillery along their front served to stiffen infantry and may have served to keep them at the front so long as the guns remained. Artillerymen may have been the great unsung heroes of many Civil War battles, and I would not dismiss them as having a diminished role at all.

Military history as a respected academic discipline is alive and well in Great Britain if not so much in the United States. Many history departments at U.S. universities have never totally stopped fighting the Vietnam War and still have a largely antiwar and antimilitary bias. I am surprised just how many good publications about American military history end up being written by Britains. They seem to have filled the void created by our own deficient scholarship. However, it is only natural for these writers to possess certain biases and approach American military history from a solely British or European perspective. Biases also exist when American writers discuss the role of the British army during the Second World War and may be difficult for any historian to totally avoid. Although I find points to dispute, I certainly recommend Sir John Keegan’s book The American Civil War published 2009 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a Division of Random House as a must read for serious students of the Civil War.

History of U.S. Cavalry
Infantry Weapons and Tactics: A Minority Viewpoint
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