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American Civil War Cavalry: Taking the Stage in the West

Civil War

American Civil War Cavalry: Taking the Stage in the West

In the American Civil War, Cavalry in the West took the stage. Of all the mounted operations conducted throughout the war, the most strategically significant took place there.

In the American Civil War, Cavalry in the West took the stage. Of all the mounted operations conducted throughout the war, the most strategically significant took place there.

by Arnold Blumberg

The Southern cavalrymen who fought in the American Civil War between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River were in many respects like their counterparts in the East, but in others, very different.

Cavalry was employed in tasks suited to its unique ability for rapid movement. Conducting scouts to find and gather intelligence about the enemy, screening the army when in camp and on the march, acting as the advance in forward movements and the rear guard during retreats, and raiding enemy lines of communications were the daily fare of all cavalry during the conflict. Regulations for camp and field tactics, as well as unit organization (i.e., companies, squadrons, and regiments) were almost the same in both theaters of war, and for that matter applied to Northern and Southern troopers since the two sides used updated versions of “Old Army” prewar manuals.

“Riding to War” A Slight Misnomer

Like their brothers-in-arms in the East, Western troopers used similar equipment. Grimsely and McClellan saddles were widely employed, and felt hats with large brims to keep the rain out of the face, as well as to carry food for man and beast, were favored. Wool uniforms with double-seated pants and short coats became the preferred attire for all mounted men during the war.

In regard to the trooper’s “second self,” i.e., his horse, good maintenance of the creature was essential. It had to be constantly well groomed to keep its body free from oils that could cause sores and thus disease. A horse had to be fed properly; too much water or grass would disable it with stomach problems. Horses improperly shod would go lame and be unserviceable. Animals ridden too much were prone to develop bad backs. (As a result, “riding to war” on a horse would be as much walking the mount as riding it.

Horse care was especially important to the Southern cavalryman because the animal he rode was his property. He was paid 40 cents a day by the Confederate government for its use. If his horse were killed in combat he would be paid the horse’s pre-muster value. The trooper would then have to procure another steed, or mule, or risk being transferred to the infantry.

Colts and Shotguns Instead of Swords

In the employment of weapons the Eastern and Western Confederate cavalries differed. Unlike the horsemen in Virginia, who were prodded to use the sword (usually a captured or Southern-made copy of the Model 1860 Light Cavalry Saber) in mounted combat, the boys in the West preferred the revolver, shotgun, and sawed-off muskets or carbines. The most popular sidearms were the 1851 Colt 36-caliber Navy revolver or the Colt 45-caliber Army revolver.

In addition, battle tactics differed in the Western cavalry. In the East troopers would attempt to charge their enemy using the saber, backed up by handguns. Mounted action was the favored method of meeting and defeating the enemy, and this trend did not end until the campaigns of 1864. Then dismounted fighting became almost as current as mounted charges. In the West, almost from the start of the war, Confederate cavalry fought on foot as much as in the saddle. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s fight at Parker’s Cross Roads (December 31, 1862), big victory at Brice’s Cross Roads (June 10, 1864), and the battle at Tupelo (July 13-15, 1864) are a few examples of the Western Confederates’ success fighting on foot.

The West Set the Stage for Cavalry Fighting

Cavalry operations in the West tested cavalry commanders’ ability more so than in the East. The vastness of the area involved compared to Virginia required more endurance, more planning, more fighting, and certainly as bold a leadership as was found on the Atlantic seaboard.Cavalry operations in the West tested cavalry commanders’ ability more so than in the East. The vastness of the area involved compared to Virginia required more endurance, more planning, more fighting, and certainly as bold a leadership as was found on the Atlantic seaboard.

Of all the mounted operations conducted throughout the war, the most strategically significant took place in the West. Prominent examples are Earl Van Dorn’s Holly Springs, Miss., raid on in late December 1862; Nathan Bedford Forrest’s destruction of Abel Streight’s “Mule Brigade” in April-May 1863; Joe Wheeler and Jackson’s ride in July 1864; Wilson’s Selma, Ala., expedition in March and April 1864; and the most important foray of the conflict, Grierson’s raid through central Mississippi during April and May of 1863.

Van Dorn’s thrust at and destruction of U.S. Grant’s forward base of supply in Mississippi—combined with a simultaneous strike at the Federal supply sources in West Tennessee by Nathan Bedford Forrest—forced Grant to retreat, thus saving Vicksburg (Grant’s objective) from falling into Union hands for another six months.

Forrest’s chase after Abel Streight’s Union mounted infantry raiders through North Alabama and Georgia was a masterpiece of endurance and dogged determination, and kept the vital Western & Atlantic Railroad from Union destruction. The pursuit of Yankee troopers under Stoneman and McCook around Atlanta by Rebel horse soldiers led by Wheeler and Jackson secured the Confederate lifeline to that city, and resulted in one of the most crushing defeats of any cavalry force during the Civil War.

James Wilson’s 12,000-man mounted corps’ raid (it was more like a full-scale invasion) into Alabama to seize the cities of Selma and Montgomery—and points east—closed the war in the West.

Colonel Benjamin Grierson’s April-May dash through Mississippi (encompassing almost the entire length of the state) proved to Grant that not only was the Confederacy a hollow shell in that part of the world, but that his army could operate in the area east of the Mississippi River for a reasonable time without the need of a formal supply line leading back to his main base at Memphis. Grierson’s exploit, referred to as the “greatest thing ever done” during the war, led to the solution Grant had been looking for in his quest to capture the Confederate river fortress of Vicksburg. Once the city fell into Union hands, the river was denied to the enemy and the Confederacy was fatally split in two.

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