War on horseback…
was hell; and so many of our native sons fought anyway. Many were in the 1st Alabama & Tennessee Independent Vidette Cavalry. William T Gray was one of those horse soldiers.
War on Horseback
In a war with so much horror, on the field and in the hospitals, there was a desperate need for romance, for glamour. The cavalry was the glamour arm-handsome young men in flowing motion on graceful steeds, embellished with colorful costumes of capes, jackets, plumed hats, knee boots, and fancy spurs. At least it was that way in the beginning. Also in the early weeks of the Civil War, the cavalry on both sides was compact, slow-moving, heavily accoutred, usually operating with the infantry. Experience brought striking changes, first in the Confederate cavalry, considerably later in the Union. After a few battles in conjunction with the infantry, the horse soldiers began cutting loose from their bases to destroy enemy communications and supplies. They burned bridges and stores, ripped out telegraph lines, and raided far behind the lines in attempts to keep the enemy so busy that he could apply only a part of his potential when battle was joined.
Before the war, professional cavalrymen maintained that two years were required to produce a seasoned trooper, a precept that proved to be more applicable to the North than to the South. For the first two years of conflict the exploits of JEB Stuart and John Mosby in the East and the daring raids of Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan in the West far outshone their Union opposites.
One reason given for the early superiority of Confederate cavalry was that in the South the lack of good highways had forced Southerners to travel by horseback from boyhood, while in the North a generation had been riding in wheeled vehicles. Although there may have been some truth in this, rural young men in the North were also horsemen by necessity, but unlike many of the Southern beaux sabreurs, they had to bear the tedious burden of caring for their animals after plowing behind them all day. Young Northerners who knew horses seemed to have little desire to assume the responsibility of taking them to war, and instead joined the infantry. In the South also, long before the war, young men organized themselves into mounted militia companies, often with romantic names. Although these may have been more social than military, the men learned how to drill, ride daringly, and charge with the saber.
Southern cavalry horses were also superior to Northern horses, largely because of the Southern penchant for racing. Almost every Southern town had its track, and the sport developed a superior stock of blooded fleet-footed animals. In the North, muscular and slow-moving draft horses were the preferred breeds.
At the war’s beginning there were only six regiments of United States cavalry, dragoons and mounted riflemen, and a considerable number of their officers resigned to serve with the Confederacy. In the opinion of the United States Army’s commanding general, Winfield Scott, improvements in weapons had outmoded cavalry. He was inclined, therefore, to limit the number of cavalry regiments for prosecution of the war, and when Lincoln made his first call for volunteers, only one additional regiment of cavalry was authorized.
After George McClellan took command of the Union Army late in August 1861, the policy was quickly reversed. McClellan named George Stoneman chief of cavalry, and by year’s end eighty-two Union volunteer cavalry regiments were in the process of enrollment and outfitting. Most of them were short of proper weapons, trained riders, and good mounts.
One might suppose that McClellan, who wrote the Army’s cavalry regulations and developed a saddle that was standard equipment for half a century, would have handled his horsed soldiers with dash and imagination. Instead, he attached them to infantry divisions, scattering them throughout the Army where they were too often misused by assignment to escort and messenger service. Not until the summer of 1863, when a vast cavalry depot was established at Giesboro Point, did the Union Army have the horse power to challenge the Confederacy’s mounted units. Located within the District of Columbia across the eastern branch of the Potomac (Anacostia River), Giesboro was the energy source for the great Union cavalry operations of the last two years of war.
Until that time, however, Confederate cavalry was dominant-a dashing, disruptive, and disconcerting force that kept many a Union commander off balance during the early months of war. In the first major battle, at Bull Run on July 21,1861, the pattern for Southern cavalry leaders was set by James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. During the early afternoon of that day, as General Irvin McDowell‘s advancing Union Army was being brought to a halt by General Thomas Jackson “standing like a stone wall,” Stuart led his 1st Virginia Cavalry into the fight. When a column of New York Zouaves tried to stop the Virginians, Stuart sent his Black Horse troop charging in with flashing sabers and rattling carbines. Stuart’s horsemen may not have changed the outcome that day, but they certainly added to the terror of the fleeing soldiers in blue.
A West Point graduate in 1854 and a six-year veteran of Indian fighting on the western frontier, jeb Stuart at twenty-eight was the right man in the right place to create the perfect image of romantic cavalier. He was handsome, he was daring, and he dressed the part, wide-brimmed hat worn at an angle and decorated with an ostrich feather and a gold star, a flowing cape, scarlet-lined jacket, yellow sash around his waist, long gauntlets, golden spurs, and a rose always in his buttonhole.
Two months after Bull Run, Stuart was a brigadier general with five more regiments under his command, and he soon added a battery of horse artillery commanded by John Pelham. After a winter of relative inactivity by both armies, Stuart’s cavalry brigade left Manassas junction to join in the defense of Richmond, which was threatened by McClellan’s growing forces on the Virginia peninsula. Events moved rapidly for the Confederates that spring, with former cavalryman Robert E. Lee replacing the wounded Joe Johnston as commander of the armies in northern Virginia.
Early in June 1862, Lee sent Stuart on a reconnaissance mission that turned into a spectacular ride around the entire invading army of McClellan. With 1,200 of his finest horsemen, Stuart reached the South Anna River on the first day, then turned to the southeast along the Federal flank. After two small skirmishes Stuart made a daring decision to circle the rear of McClellan’s army. To cross the Chickahominy, his men had to rebuild a bridge before they could start their return along McClellan’s left flank. All the while they were, busily capturing and burning supply trains, wrecking railroads, and destroying communications. Ironically, Stuart’s opposite cavalry commander in McClellan’s army was his father-in-law, Philip St. George Cooke, and at one point the two men were in firing distance of each other.
On June 14 Stuart transferred command to Fitzhugh Lee and dashed on ahead to Richmond to inform his commander of weaknesses in McClellan’s defenses. Using this information, General Lee ordered Stonewall Jackson to attack the Union Army’s rear and flank, as part of the Seven Days Battles, after which McClellan abandoned his long-planned assault on Richmond and withdrew to Harrison’s Landing on the James River.
In the West, meanwhile, an entirely different breed of Confederate cavalry leader was attracting much attention. When the war began, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a forty-year-old cotton planter and livestock trader, enlisted as a private at Memphis, Tennessee. In a matter of days his superiors authorized Forrest to raise a battalion of cavalry, and by August i 86 i he was in command of several companies of volunteers, many of whom he armed and mounted with his own resources. In a way, Forrest was as theatrical in appearance as Stuart–tall, lithe, finely cut features, swarthy complexion, iron-gray hair, and piercing eyes. Although he lacked the cultured background and military training of Stuart, he was not the illiterate country bumpkin he was sometimes depicted, and his language was the common usage of most Westerners of his time. As for his military prowess, Sherman called him “that devil Forrest,” and Grant considered him “about the ablest general in the South.”
In November 1861 Forrest was raiding as far north as Kentucky. In February 1862 he was at Fort Donelson when the Confederate commanders there decided to surrender to Grant, but instead of surrendering with them, Forrest galloped his men out in a flight to Nashville. In the general retreat from that city, Forrest’s cavalry formed a protective rear guard. By early summer he was raiding northward again, capturing Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and its Federal garrison. On October 20 he suffered one of his rare repulses in a skirmish along the Gallatin Pike near Nashville, but later that year he was cutting Grant’s communications and harassing his supply lines in western Tennessee.
Also in 1862 another Southern cavalryman began operations in the West. John Hunt Morgan was the cavalier type, a product of the Kentucky Bluegrass, soft-spoken, handsome, a devotee of horses and racing. Long before the war he organized a fashionable militia company, the Lexington Rifles, and around this company late in 1861 he organized the famed 2d Kentucky Cavalry Regiment. Among his recruits was an accomplished telegrapher, George Ellsworth, whose intercepted and faked telegrams became a specialty of Morgan’s many cavalry raids. After the fall of Fort Donelson, the Kentuckians withdrew to a Tennessee base, using it for frequent strikes into their home state.
Morgan chose July 4, 1862, to start his first Kentucky raid in force, riding a thousand miles in three weeks, skirmishing, capturing supplies, and recruiting men and horses. Three months later he returned to Kentucky again, this time with Braxton Bragg’s army, easily capturing his hometown of Lexington and its Union garrison. Morgan never forgave Bragg for retreating after the Battle of Perryville and abandoning Kentucky to the Federals. On December 21 Morgan left his winter base in Tennessee for a Christmas raid, his most significant accomplishment being the destruction of a vital railroad bridge at Muldraugh’s Hill, Kentucky, an act that halted shipments of supplies to Union forces to the south.
While Bragg’s army was retreating from Kentucky, another rising Confederate cavalryman, Joe Wheeler, began appearing in official dispatches. Wheeler was only five feet four and in his mid twenties, but he was a West Pointer. Although he lacked the color and e1an of his rivals, Wheeler soon won the nickname “Fighting Joe” and the rank of major general.
Back in the East late in 1862, jeb Stuart led about 1,800 of his horsemen in a wild three day dash north into Pennsylvania, wrecking railroads and seizing horses and military equipment. On his return he completed another circuit of McClellan’s army, which was still positioned along the upper Potomac after the Battle of Antietam.
During that battle a Union cavalry leader provided some evidence of the forthcoming power of Northern cavalry. He was Alfred Pleasonton, late of the 2d Dragoons, who at the outbreak of war had traveled by horseback from Utah to Washington to offer his services to the Union. Soon he would be in command of a reorganized Federal cavalry corps.
Then came springtime of 1863, midpoint of the Civil War, the year of fullest flowering for the soldiers on horseback, the year of maturation for Union cavalry. By this time both sides had found through experience what weapons and accoutrements best suited them, the methods of fighting that were most successful. The Southerners learned to travel light and live off the country; indeed, the Confederate Congress authorized ranger units that were encouraged to roam independently, raiding Union bases and supply trains for loot to sustain themselves. In northern Virginia, John S. Mosby was the most notable of the ranger leaders. In the West, M. Jeff Thompson was typical of the irregulars who fought in the border states. Thompson sometimes moved his troops on horseback, sometimes in dugout canoes.
Although most cavalrymen favored sabers at the beginning of the war, their use declined in favor of the carbine and the pistol. Records show that fewer than a thousand saber wounds were treated in Federal hospitals during four years of combat. Cavalry commanders also quickly learned to use their horses for swift mobility rather than for direct attacks, bringing their men close to the enemy and dismounting them for combat, with one man in each set of four acting as horse holder.
By 1863 several models of breech-loading carbines were available in quantity for Federal cavalrymen, although opinions differed as to the qualities of the different models. With the new Blakeslee cartridge box known as the Quickloader, a trooper could fire a dozen aimed shots a minute. Yet there were many Southerners, such as Basil Duke of Morgan’s cavalry, who were arguing until long after the war in favor of their old-fashioned Enfields and Springfields, which they claimed were more accurate and of longer range than the newer Spencer or Sharp’s carbines.
Among the extraordinary feats of cavalrymen on both sides during 1863 was Forrest’s interception and capture of Colonel Abel Streight’s entire regiment, John Morgan’s great raid across the Ohio River into Indiana and Ohio, and Stuart’s controversial raid just before Gettysburg, when he inflicted considerable damage upon his enemy but failed to inform Lee of his actions. On the Federal side, in the West Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher, demonstrated that Yankee cavalry could raid as daringly and as deep behind the lines as Confederates. In a seventeen-day march through the heart of Mississippi, Grierson also demonstrated the value of cavalry in attacking vital supply lines and in drawing off enemy forces from the main battle area, in his case Vicksburg.
Soon after Major General Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac early in 1863, he consolidated his forty cavalry regiments into three divisions. For the first time the Union Army had a mobile strike force that could out number the Confederates. A new breed of young, aggressive leaders was also coming to the fore with the cavalry corps-notably Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, John Buford, and George Custer.
A preview of what was in store for the freeroaming Confederate horsemen occurred on March 17 when Brigadier General William W. Averell challenged Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate briirade at Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock. What formerly would have been an easy skirmish for the Virginia horsemen turned into a fierce engagement. Averell’s men retired from the field, but not until they inflicted double the casualties they received. Among the dead was the Confederate hero of Fredericksburg, “the gallant John Pelham.”
The real test came at Brandy Station on June 9. As customary, jeb Stuart’s cavalry was to serve as a screen for Lee’s army, which was preparing to invade the North, a march that would culminate in the Battle of Gettysburg. The Confederate cavalry was at its peak, five brigades led by such tested veterans as William E. “Grumble” Jones, Fitzhugh Lee, William H. “Rooney” Lee, and a rising brigadier from South Carolina, Wade Hampton. While waiting for General Lee to move out of Culpeper, Stuart decided to put on a grand review. The various squadrons performed at their glittering best before an audience of beautiful women, various civilian and military officials, as well as a number of distant watchers from Alfred Pleasonton’s Union cavalry corps.
General Hooker’s balloon observers had reported unusual activity along the Rappahannock, and Pleasonton was ordered to investigate. Among his officers were Buford, Kilpatrick, David McMurtrie Gregg, Alfred Duffie, and George Custer, who was then a captain.
After a careful reconnaissance, Pleasonton decided to attack Stuart by crossing one column at Beverly Ford and another at Kelly’s Ford. In numbers the opponents were about equal, 10,000 horsemen in blue and 10,000 in gray. The lead units of blue columns crossed the Rappahannock at four o’clock in the morning and caught most of the Confederate camps by surprise. Some Confederates hastily retreated, some formed defense lines, some charged their attackers half-dressed and riding bareback. At Fleetwood, just east of Brandy Station, Stuart was finally able to concentrate his forces, and it was here that the greatest cavalry battle of the war was fought. By this time, delays and communication failures had collapsed command organization on both sides so that regiments, battalions, squadrons, and individuals charged and countercharged in clouds of smoke and dust. As this was cavalry against cavalry at close quarters, many a long-unused saber came into play. After three hours of combat, both sides were completely exhausted, and many men were unhorsed from the wild fighting. With the arrival of Confederate infantry, the Union regiments began withdrawing across the Rappahannock. Estimates vary as to the number of casualties, but it is safe to say that about 500 men on each side were out of combat at the end of the battle.
Brandy Station was not only the greatest cavalry battle of the war; it was the turning point for Federal cavalry. “Up to that time confessedly inferior to the Southern horsemen, they gained on this day that confidence in themselves and in their commanders which enabled them to contest so fiercely the subsequent battlefields.” The man who said that was not a Union cavalryman but one of jeb Stuart’s own adjutants.
Succeeding events were portentous for Confederate horsemen. In July John Morgan’s raiders disintegrated during their flight across Ohio; on the twenty-sixth Morgan was captured and imprisoned. In September, after Bedford Forrest clashed with General Bragg over the conduct of the Battle of Chickamauga, he was ordered to turn his troopers over to General Wheeler. In official disgrace, but still a hero in the Western Confederacy, Forrest returned to Mississippi to recruit a new mounted command. But the Southern cavalrymen could not yet be counted out. John Mosby’s rangers were very much in action in northern Virginia. Joe Wheeler made a daring circuit of Gen eral William Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland, and in October Stuart gave Kilpatrick and Custer a good scare at Buckland Mills.
As springtime of 1864 approached, with the war seemingly sunk into stalemate, Union cavalry leaders planned a daring raid into Richmond. It was a three-pronged affair, with Kilpatrick leading one column, Custer leading a diversionary attack on Stuart’s camp near Charlottesville, and twenty-one-year-old Ulric Dahlgren (who had lost a leg at Gettysburg) supporting Kilpatrick with a third force. Because of bad timing, the main assault failed. Dahlgren lost his life, Kilpatrick retreated with considerable losses, and only Custer came off well by surprising Stuart’s winter bivouac and destroying supplies and capturing horses.
In March Lincoln brought U. S. Grant east to command all Union armies. In early April Grant exiled Pleasonton to the West after informing Lincoln that he was bringing “the very best man in the army” to head the Union cavalry. He was Philip Henry Sheridan, and his arrival signaled the end for Confederate cavalry power in Virginia.
A further blow to the Confederacy’s mounted forces occurred on May 11 when Sheridan brought 10,000 of his troopers within a few miles of Richmond, threatening the capital and destroying large quantities of Lee’s already dwindling supplies. In an effort to save Richmond, jeb Stuart attacked with his 4,500 horsemen. A charge led by Custer drove the Confederates back, and while rallying his men, Stuart was mortally wounded.
In the West, however, the indomitable Forrest with his new command continued an unceasing harassment of the Federals. He led a month-long expedition through Tennessee and Kentucky, capturing Union City, Tennessee, on March 24. On April 12 he captured Fort Pillow, Tennessee, an action that is still controversial, some charging that his men massacred black and white soldiers after they surrendered. At Brice’s Cross Roads, Mississippi, on June io, outnumbered more than two to one, Forrest defeated General Samuel Sturgis and sent the Federal column in a panic retreat to Memphis. In August Forrest came close to capturing the Union commanders in Memphis with a daring Sunday morning raid that caught them by surprise. “Old Bedford” closed out the year by assembling a navy of sorts. After capturing two gunboats and two transports, he combined the naval armament with his, shore artillery and shelled everything in sight along the Tennessee River.
Confederate cavalrymen seemed to have a talent for attacking gunboats from their saddles. During Fighting Joe Wheeler’s January raid in 1863, his cavalrymen captured a gunboat and three transports on the Cumberland River. On June 24, 1864, Brigadier General Jo Shelby and his audacious Missourians fought three United States steamers on the White River in Arkansas, capturing and destroying the USS Queen City.
In the late autumn of that year Shelby joined Major General Sterling Price’s expedition into Missouri, the final futile effort to recover that state for the Confederacy. At Westport they felt the sting of Federal cavalry led by none other than the recently deposed commander from Virginia, Alfred Pleasonton. When Price ordered a withdrawal, Pleasonton pursued, but after two heavy engagements the Union commander pulled his troopers away, allowing the beaten Confederates to escape.
Pleasonton’s replacement in Virginia, the long-armed and short-legged Phil Sheridan, most likely would have shattered Price’s cavalry. In the Shenandoah Valley he and Custer were racking up victories and devastating the Eastern Confederacy’s breadbasket. On October 10 Sheridan made his famous twenty-mile ride from Winchester to turn the tide of battle against Jubal Early’s infantry at Cedar Creek.
By this time other Federal cavalrymen had driven deep into the South. George Stoneman and James H. Wilson were operating in northern Georgia, and Judson Kilpatrick joined Sherman for the March from Atlanta to the sea. Kilpatrick tangled twice with Joe Wheeler’s decimated command, but he had so little trouble on the march that he grew careless of security. In South Carolina, March 9, 1865, Wade Hampton’s troopers almost captured him in bed, and he was forced to flee without his trousers.
In the meantime, John Morgan had been killed on September 4, 1864, in Tennessee, and on December 13 Stoneman defeated the remnants of his old command. Many units of the once superbly mounted Southern cavalrymen were now reduced to fighting on foot. Wade Hampton and Joe Wheeler were no match for Kilpatrick’s powerful cavalry in the Battle of Bentonville in mid-March, 1865- On March 29 Fitzhugh Lee was beginning his last stand in the Appomattox campaign. On April 7 Bedford Forrest fought his last skirmish with Wilson’s cavalry in Alabama.
And then on April 8, when the battered survivors of Lee’s cavalry units prepared for one final charge near Appomattox, they found themselves facing a solid mass of blue-clad infantrymen, 24,000 strong. The long war practically ended there, and significantly it was a horse soldier in blue who dashed forward under a truce flag to demand immediate and unconditional surrender. The demand was not granted. George Custer had to wait for his commander, General Grant, who on the following day accepted it from General Lee.
Source: The National Historical Society’s The Image of War 1861-1865, Volume IV, Fighting For Time, Article by Dee Brown
This Page last updated 02/16/02
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