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2. the Federal cavalry its organization and equipment

Charles D. Rhodes, Captain, General Staff, United States Army

“Boots and saddles” ---third division, cavalry corps, army of the Potomac, 1864


A spreading section of the Federal cavalry organization in 1864: At Belle Plain Landing on the Potomac lay a chief base of supplies for Grant's armies in the spring of 1864. On April 4th Sheridan had been given charge of all the cavalry. He had found the corps much run down and the horses in poor condition. In a month he had effected a decided change for the better in the condition and morale of his ten thousand men, and was begging to be allowed to use them as an independent corps to fight the Confederate cavalry. Though they had been relieved of much of the arduous picket duty that they formerly performed, they were still considered as auxiliaries, to protect the flanks and front of the infantry. On May 7th Grant's army advanced with a view to taking Spotsylvania Court House. [41]

Thus was precipitated the cavalry battle at Todd's Tavern, and in part at least Sheridan's earnest desire became fulfilled. The battle was between Hampton's and Fitzhugh Lee's commands of Stuart's cavalry and Gregg's division, assisted by two brigades of Torbert's division under the command of General Merritt. After a severe engagement the Confederate cavalry broke and were pursued almost to Spotsylvania Court House. This photograph shows some of the Federal horses recuperating at Belle Plain Landing before this cavalry engagement on a large scale. The cavalry were in clover here near the tents and ships that meant a good supply of forage. There was no such loafing for horses and men a little later in that decisive year.


The Belle Plain cavalry: a closer view. This photograph brings the eye a little nearer to the cavalry at Belle Plain landing than the picture preceding. One can see the horses grazing by the side of the beautiful river. A group of cavalrymen have ridden their mounts into the water. The test of the efficient trooper was his skill in caring for his horse. Under ordinary circumstances, in a quiet Camp like the above, it might be safe to turn horses out to graze and let them drink their fill at the river. But when on the march a staggering animal with parched throat and fast-glazing eyes whinnied eagerly at the smell of water, it was the trooper who had to judge its proper allowance. One swallow too many for a heated horse on a long march, multiplied by the number of troopers still ignorant of horsemanship, meant millions of dollars loss to the Union Government in the early stages of the war. Comparatively few horses were destroyed by wounds on the battlefield as compared with those lost through the ignorance of the troopers as to the proper methods of resting a horse, and as to the science of how, when, and what to feed him, and when to allow him to drink his fill. The Southern horsemen, as a rule more experienced, needed no such training, and their superior knowledge enabled the Confederate cavalry, with little “organization” in the strict sense of the word, to prove nevertheless a mighty weapon for their cause.


Nearer still at the river's brink This view brings us to the very edge of the water, where Sheridan's troopers were getting their mounts into shape for the arduous duties of the summer and fall. They are sitting at ease on the barebacked horses which have walked out into the cool river to slake their thirst. The wagon with the four-mule team bears the insignia of the Sixth Army Corps, commanded by Sedgwick. The canvas top is somewhat wrinkled, so it is impossible to see the entire device, which was in the shape of a Greek cross. It was during the campaign which followed these preparations that Sheridan had his famous interview with Meade, in which the former told his senior that he could whip Stuart if allowed to do so. General Grant determined to give Sheridan the opportunity that he sought, and on the very day of the interview Meade directed that the cavalry be immediately concentrated and that Sheridan proceed against the Confederate cavalry. On May 9th the expedition started with a column thirteen miles long. Stuart, however, was nothing loth to try conclusions with the Federal cavalry once more. He finally overtook it on May 11th at Yellow Tavern. The Confederate horse, depleted in numbers and equipment alike, was no longer its former brilliant self, and in this engagement the Confederacy lost James B. Gordon and Stuart, the leader without a peer.


Farriers of the Federal cavalry.

These photographs were made at the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac in August, 1863, the month following the battle of Gettysburg, where the cavalry had fully demonstrated its value as an essential and efficient branch of the service. Every company of cavalry had its own farrier, enlisted as such. These men not only had to know all about the shoeing of horses, but also had to be skilled veterinary surgeons, such as each regiment has at the present day, coming next in pay to a second lieutenant. Plainly visible are the small portable anvil on an overturned bucket and the businesslike leather aprons of the men. An army “marches upon its stomach,” but cavalry marches upon its horses' feet, which must be cared for. In the larger photograph the men have evidently just become aware that their pictures are being taken. In the smaller exposure in the corner, the man holding the horse on the right has faced about to show off his horse to the best advantage; the horse holder on the left is facing the camera, arms akimbo, and a cavalryman in the rear has led up his white-faced mount to insure his inclusion in the picture.

Farriers of the Federal cavalry.

With the farriers of the Federal cavalry [45]


At the outbreak of the great Civil War in America, the regular cavalry at the disposal of the Federal Government consisted of the First and Second Regiments of Dragoons, one regiment of Mounted Rifles, and the First and Second Regiments of Cavalry. Early in the year 1861, the Third Cavalry was added to the others, and soon after, all six regiments were designated as cavalry and numbered serially from one to six.

The old regiments had been composed of ten troops, subdivided into five squadrons of two troops each, but the organization of the Sixth Cavalry Regiment called for twelve troops. In July, 1861, this organization was extended to all regular regiments, and in September of the same year the volunteer regiments, which had started out with ten troops each, were organized in a like manner. As the war progressed, the squadron organization was abandoned. When a regiment was subdivided for detached service, it was usually into battalions of four troops each.

The early war organization of cavalry troops called for one hundred enlisted men to a troop, officered by a captain, a first lieutenant, a second lieutenant, and a supernumerary second lieutenant. But in 1863, troops were given an elastic strength, varying between eighty-two and one hundred enlisted men, and the supernumerary lieutenant was dropped. Each regiment, commanded by a colonel, had a lieutenant-colonel and three majors, with a regimental commissioned and [47]

Cavalry Camp at Cumberland Landing just before McClellan advanced up the Penninsula.

This photograph shows the cavalry Camp at Cumberland Landing just before McClellan advanced up the Peninsula. The entire strength of the cavalry the previous autumn had aggregated 8,125 men, of which but 4,753 are reported as “present for duty, equipped.” It was constantly drilled during the fall and winter of 1861, with enough scouting and outpost duty in the Virginia hills to give the cavalry regiments a foretaste of actual service. In the lower photograph we get a bird's-eye view of Cumberland Landing where McClellan's forces were concentrated after the siege of Yorktown and the affair at Williamsburgh, preparatory to moving on Richmond. The cavalry reserve with the Peninsular army under that veteran horseman Philip St. George Cooke, was organized as two brigades under General Emry and Colonel Blake, and consisted of six regiments. Emry's brigade comprised the Fifth United States Cavalry, Sixth United States Cavalry, and Rush's Lancers — the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry. Blake's brigade consisted of the First United States Cavalry, the Eighth Pennsylvania Cavalry, and Barker's squadron of Illinois Cavalry.

The first extensive Federal cavalry camp--1862

At Cumberland landing

[48] non-commissioned staff, which included two regimental surgeons, an adjutant, quartermaster, commissary, and their subordinates.

Owing, however, to losses by reason of casualities in action, sickness, and detached service, and through the lack of an efficient system of recruiting, whereby losses could be promptly and automatically made good with trained men, the cavalry strength, in common with that of other arms, always showed an absurd and oftentimes alarming discrepancy between the troopers actually in ranks and the theoretical organization provided by the existing law. Again, the losses in horse-flesh were so tremendous in the first years of the war, and the channels for replacing those losses were so inadequate and unsystematized, that regiments oftentimes represented a mixed force of mounted and unmounted men. Although the value of the dismounted action of cavalry was one of the greatest developments of the war, its most valuable asset, mobility, was wholly lacking when its horses were dead or disabled.

Cavalry is a most difficult force to organize, arm, equip, and instruct at the outbreak of war. Not only must men be found who have some knowledge of the use and handling of horses, but the horses themselves must be selected, inspected, purchased, and assembled. Then, after all the delays usually attending the organizing, arming, and equipping of a mounted force, many months of patient training, dismounted and mounted, are necessary before cavalry is qualified to take the field as an efficient arm. It is an invariable rule in militant Europe to keep cavalry at all times at war strength, for it is the first force needed to invade or to repel invasion, and, except perhaps the light artillery, the slowest to “lick into shape” after war has begun. In the regular cavalry service, it was a common statement that a cavalryman was of little real value until he had had two years of service.

It is, therefore, small wonder that during the first two years of the great struggle, the Federal cavalry made only a [49]

Beef for the cavalry at commissary headquarters So seldom did the cavalry get a chance to enjoy the luxuries to be had at commissary headquarters that they took advantage of every opportunity. It is February, 1864, and the cavalry officer in the picture can look forward to a month or two more of fresh beef for his men. Then he will find his troop pounding by the desolate farmhouses and war-ridden fields, as the army advances on Richmond under Grant. While the infantry lay snug in winter-quarters, the troopers were busy scouring the Virginia hills for signs of the Confederates, or raiding their lines of communication and destroying their supplies. It took a large part of the time of the Northern and Southern infantry to repair the damage done by the cavalry. The cavalry often had to live by foraging, or go without food. Miles of railroad destroyed, bridges burned, telegraph wires cut, a sudden cessation of the source of supplies caused hundreds of miles of marching and counter-marching, beside the actual work of repairing by the engineering corps. It was Van Dorn's capture of Holly Springs that forced Grant to abandon his overland march against Vicksburg and return to Memphis in December, 1862.

[50] poor showing. The regular cavalry was but a handful, and when President Lincoln issued his call for volunteers, little or no cavalry was accepted. Even when need for it was forced on the North, it took the Federal War Department a long time to realize that an efficient cavalry ready for field service could not be extemporized in a day.

Strange as it may now seem, the Federal authorities intended, in the beginning, to limit the cavalry force of the Union army to the six regular regiments; and even such a veteran soldier as General Scott gave it as his opinion that, owing to the broken and wooded character of the field of operations between the North and South, and the improvements in rifled cannon, the duties of cavalry would be unimportant and secondary.

Only seven troops of regular cavalry were available for the first battle of Bull Run, in 1861, but the firm front which they displayed in covering the confused and precipitate retreat of the Federal army, probably saved a large part of the main body from capture; but they never received the recognition that was deserved. However, the importance of cavalry was not altogether unappreciated, for we find, at Gettysburg, the Union cavalry of the Army of the Potomac aggregating nearly thirteen thousand officers and men. The close of the war saw Sheridan at Appomattox with fifteen thousand cavalrymen, while Wilson, in the South, was sweeping Mississippi and Alabama with an army of horsemen. But the evolution of this vast host from insignificant beginnings was a slow process, fraught with tremendous labor.

In the South, lack of good highways forced the Southerner to ride from boyhood, while contemporaneously the Northerner, with his improved roads, employed wheeled vehicles as a means of transportation. But aside from this positive advantage to Southern organization, the Confederate leaders seemed, from the very beginning of the Civil War, to appraise cavalry and its uses at its true valuation; while the Northern [51]

At the busy office of a cavalry quartermaster This photograph was taken at Brandy Station in the spring of 1864. The sign on the wooden door of the little tent tells where “A. Q. M.” held forth. The cavalrymen are evidently at ease. They have not yet met Stuart in the Wilderness. The quartermaster of a cavalry corps was the nearest approach to perpetual motion discovered during the war. His wagon-train could receive only the most general directions. He could never be certain where the men he was to supply with food could be found at any given time. He had to go exploring for his own regiments, and watch vigilantly that he did not incidentally feed the Confederates. He had to give precedence to ammunition-trains; dark often found his wagons struggling and floundering in the wake of their vanished friends. The quartermaster was responsible for their movements and arrivals. Besides carrying a map of the country in his head, he assumed immense responsibilities.

[52] cavalry, even when finally mounted and equipped, was so misused and mishandled by those in control of military operations, that it was almost always at a disadvantage.

One of the first efforts of the War Department looking to the organization of Federal cavalry, is seen in the following circular letter, addressed by the Secretary of War to the Governors of the States:

War Department, Washington, May 1, 1861.
To the Governors of the Several States, And All Whom it may Concern:
I have authorized Colonel Carl Schurz to raise and organize a volunteer regiment of cavalry. For the purpose of rendering it as efficient as possible, he is instructed to enlist principally such men as have served in the same arm before. The Government will provide the regiment with arms, but cannot provide the horses and equipments. For these necessaries we rely upon the patriotism of the States and the citizens, and for this purpose I take the liberty of requesting you to afford Colonel Schurz your aid in the execution of this plan.


Simon Cameron, Secretary of War.


Yet, in his report of preliminary operations in the first year of the war, General McClellan says:

Cavalry was absolutely refused, but the governors of the States complied with my request and organized a few companies, which were finally mustered into the United States service and proved very useful.

The armament of the volunteer cavalry regiments, organized with some show of interest after the battle of Bull Run, was along the same general lines as that of the regular regiments. Though suffering from a general deficiency in the number which could be purchased from private manufacturers — there being no reserve stock on hand — each trooper was armed with a saber and a revolver as soon as circumstances permitted. At least two squadrons (four troops) in each regiment [53]


The saddle-bags and hooded stirrup of Captain E. A. Flint's horse shown in this photograph are “regulation,” but the outfit of a regular cavalry horse did not call for a breast-strap. It was more apt to be used among the volunteers. The regulars as a rule preferred a single rein, curb bit, and no breast-strap or martingale. No breast-straps were issued, but they were found useful when cavalry was pounding up a slope, leaping fences, walls, and ditches, and otherwise putting unusual strain on the belly-band. The hooded stirrup was useful both to keep out rain and to keep the foot warm in winter. The saddle and blanket equipment in the photograph also conform to regulations. This is one of the horses and men that charged Stuart's cavalry so fiercely on the night of the third day at Gettysburg. The First Massachusetts was in the second division, under General David McM. Gregg. The photograph was taken in November, 1864, at the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, then thoroughly in touch with its ample “supply trains.”

A well-equipped horse of the first Massachusetts cavalry--1864: Captain E. A. Flint's horse.

Union supply train.


Just before Sheridan came, 1864: the eighteenth Pennsylvania cavalry. This photograph shows the Eighteenth Pennsylvania in winter-quarters near Brandy Station in March, 1864, a month before the most important event in the history of the Federal cavalry — the unifying of the cavalry branch under the aggressive Sheridan. After Kilpatrick's raid on Richmond, ending the 2d of March, these troopers rested in Camp until Sheridan left for his Richmond raid on May 9th. A month in Camp is a long time for cavalry, and here one has a good opportunity to see with what rapidity and ease a trooper had learned to make himself comfortable. Barrels have been placed upon the chimneys in order to increase their draft. Light enclosures of poles have been thrown up for the horses, and fodder has been stacked up on the hill. With stumps and cross-pieces the McClellan saddles are kept out of the wet and mud. The saddles were covered with rawhide instead of leather, and were more uncomfortable when they split than an ill-fitting shoe. The troopers themselves look fairly contented, and some of them are not so lean and angular as in the days of scouting and hard riding. There is plenty of work ahead of them, however, nearer Richmond, which will quickly enable them to rid themselves of any superfluous flesh.

[55] [56] were armed with rifles or carbines. Later, all cavalry regiments were supplied with single-shot carbines, the decreased length and weight of the shorter arm being a decided advantage to a soldier on horseback. One volunteer regiment, the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry (Rush's Lancers), was armed with the lance in addition to the pistol, twelve carbines being afterwards added to the equipment of each troop for picket and scouting duty. But in May, 1863, all the lances were discarded for carbines as being unsuited for the heavily wooded battle-grounds of Virginia.

The carbines issued were of various pattern — the Sharp's carbine being succeeded by the Spencer, which fired seven rounds with more or less rapidity but which was difficult to reload quickly. In the later years of the war, certain regiments were armed with the Henry rifle, an improved weapon firing sixteen shots with great accuracy. A Colt's rifle, firing six rounds, and a light, simple carbine called the Howard, were also in evidence among cavalry regiments at the close of the war. Previous to, and during the first year of the war, the Burnside was favorably thought of by the Federal officers. This carbine was the invention of General Ambrose E. Burnside, and was manufactured in Bristol, Rhode Island. Its chief value lay in its strength and the waterproof cartridges used. But its chief objection also lay in the high cost and the difficulty in obtaining this cartridge, which was manufactured of sheet brass, an expensive metal at that time. Another arm, similar to Burnside's and made with a tapering steel barrel, was the Maynard, which was manufactured by the Maynard's Arms Company, Washington, District of Columbia.

At the beginning, the sabers issued were of the long, straight, Prussian pattern, but these were afterwards replaced by a light cavalry saber with curved blade. Many of these were fitted with attachments so as to be fastened to the end of the carbines in the form of a bayonet. There also was an ordinary saber handle which allowed of their being carried at the [57]

Cavalry stables at Grant's headquarters, city Point, in 1864 City Point was Grant's base of supplies during the operations about Petersburg, in 1864. Sheridan at last was handling his cavalry as a separate command, and was soon to go to the Shenandoah. Brigadier-General David McM. Gregg was in command of the cavalry which remained with Grant. The First Massachusetts, First New Jersey, Tenth New York, Sixth Ohio, and Twenty-first Pennsylvania formed the First Brigade, and the First Maine, Second Pennsylvania, Fourth Pennsylvania, Eighth Pennsylvania, Thirteenth Pennsylvania, and Sixteenth Pennsylvania were the Second Brigade. Some of these men had been on Sheridan's Richmond and Trevilian raids. This shows the comparative comfort of City Point. To the left is a grindstone, where sabers might be made keen.

[58] hip, as a side-arm, for which purpose it was well adapted, having a curved edge with a sharp point.

The standard pistol was the Colt's revolver, army or navy pattern, loaded with powder and ball and fired with percussion caps. Within its limitations, it was a very efficient weapon.

The saddle was the McClellan, so-called because adopted through recommendations made by General McClellan after his official European tour, in 1860, although it was in reality a modification of the Mexican or Texan tree. It was an excellent saddle, and in an improved pattern is, after fifty years of trial, still the standard saddle of the United States regular cavalry. In its original form it was covered with rawhide instead of leather, and when this covering split, the seat became very uncomfortable for the rider.

Although the original recruiting regulations required cavalry troopers to furnish their own horses and equipments, this requirement was later modified, and the Government furnished everything to the recruit, in volunteer as well as in regular regiments. Many troopers sold their private horses to the Government and then rode them in ranks. It was argued by some cavalry officers of that period that this system was eminently successful in securing men for the cavalry who could ride and who would care for horses.

As is usual in a country weak in trained cavalry and utterly unprepared for war, vexatious delays occurred in receiving the equipment of newly organized cavalry regiments. Long after the Western regiments were organized, they were kept inactive from lack of equipment, for which the Federal Government had made no provision in the way of reserve supplies. In some instances months elapsed before saddles were received, and in several cases arms were even longer in putting in an appearance. The interim was employed by the commanders in teaching their men to ride and drill, to use their arms, and to care for their horses. In the absence of saddles, [59]

The far-reaching Federal cavalry organization — water-tank at the Louisiana depot Water — that word alone spells half the miseries and difficulties of the cavalry, especially in the parched Southern country. Although an column could Camp beside a little spring cavalry horses had to plod wearily on till they reached a river, a stream, or at least a fair-sized pool. Even then, some officer grown wise in war might pronounce the water unfit for drinking, and the troopers must rein up their thirsty, impatient steeds, wild to plunge their noses in the cool morass, and ride patiently on again till good water was found. The vivid shadows in this photograph speak eloquently of the Sunny South. The place is Greenville in Louisiana, where one of the six great Union cavalry depots was located. The site of the Camp was selected by General Richard Arnold, Chief of Cavalry, Department of the Gulf. On June 8, 1864, from New Orleans, he requested permission to move his camping ground. “Present camping-ground of the First and Fifth Brigades of my command near Banks is entirely unsuitable, and I ask permission to move to this side of the river, at or near Greenville. I can find no more suitable place on either side of the river within twenty miles of the city.” Permission to move was granted June 14, 1864.

[60] various makeshifts were used on the horses' backs, and the troopers were even drilled bareback.

This probationary period was a wearisome one for the cavalry recruit. A trooper must perforce learn much of what his comrade of the infantry knows, and in addition must be taught all that pertains to horses and horsemanship. Those who had been fascinated by the glamour and dash of the cavalry life doubtless wished many times, during those laborious days, that they had the more frequent hours of recreation granted their neighbors of the infantry. The reward of the Federal cavalry came in those later days when, after painstaking and unremitting instruction covering many months and enlightening experiences in the field, they gained that confidence in themselves and their leaders, which resulted in the ultimate destruction of the opposing cavalry, and the decisive triumph of the Federal arms.

But good cavalry cannot be made in a month, or even in a year. The first year of the war saw the Confederate cavalry plainly superior in every way, and there were humiliating instances of the capture by the corps daelite of the South, of whole squadrons of Northern horsemen. The second year of the tremendous struggle passed with much improvement in the Federal cavalry, but with a still marked lack of confidence in itself. It was not until the third year of its organization and training that the Union cavalry really found itself, and was able to vindicate its reputation in the eyes of those who in the preceding period were wont to sneeringly remark that “no one ever sees a dead cavalryman!”

The drill regulations of the period, called tactics in those days, were the “‘41 Tactics” or “Poinsett tactics,” authorized for dragoon regiments in the year 1841, by the Honorable J. R. Poinsett, Secretary of War. These drill regulations were in the main a translation from the French, and although occasional attempts were made to improve them, they continued in use by the Eastern cavalry of the Union armies throughout the [61]

Well-groomed officers of the thirteenth New York cavalry Many of the Federal cavalry officers were extremely precise in the matter of dress, paying equal attention to their horses' equipment, in order to set a good example to their men. Custer was a notable example. This photograph shows full dress, fatigue dress, a properly equipped charger, an orderly, sentry, cavalry sabres and the short cavalry carbine. Except for the absence of revolvers, it is an epitome of the dress and equipment which the Federal Government supplied lavishly to its troopers during the latter half of the war. At the outset, the volunteer cavalrymen were required to supply their own horses, a proper allowance being made for food and maintenance. In 1861, the Confederate cavalry had no Colt's revolvers, no Chicopee sabers, and no carbines that were worth carrying. Their arms were of the homeliest type and of infinite variety. This photograph was taken in July, 1865, when Washington no longer needed watching.

[62] war. The Western cavalry used the “‘41 Tactics” until late in the year 1864, and thereafter a system of drill formulated by General Philip St. George Cooke, which was published in 1862 by the War Department and prescribed a single-rank formation for the cavalry.

After all the months of drill, how different were those days of actual service in the field — weary marches in mud, rain, and even snow; short rations for men and for horses when the trains were delayed or when there were no trains; bivouacs on the soggy ground with saddles for pillows; gruesome night rides when troopers threw reins on the necks of horses and slept in their saddles; nerve-racking picket duty in contact with the foe's lines, where the whinny of a horse meant the wicked “ping” of a hostile bullet.

Like all soldiers new to the rigors of actual service in war, the Union volunteer cavalry, in those early days, loaded themselves and their horses with an amount of superfluous baggage which provoked sarcasm from the seasoned soldier and which later experience taught them wholly to discard. Some articles were absolutely necessary; much was entirely useless and oftentimes unauthorized.

In addition to his arms, which weighed not a little, the volunteer cavalryman carried a huge box of cartridges and another of percussion caps; from his shoulder depended a haversack filled with rations, and to which was often attached not only a tin cup but a coffee-pot. A canteen of water, a nose-bag of corn, a shelter tent, a lariat and picket pin, extra horseshoes and nails, a curry-comb and brush, a set of gun-tools and cleaning materials, and saddle-bags filled with extra clothing brought the weight of the trooper and his kit to a figure which was burdensome to an animal in even the best of condition. When to these articles of equipment were added an overcoat, extra blankets, additional boots, and the odds and ends of luxuries, which the recruit is wont to stow away surreptitiously, the result was a lame and broken-down horse, hundreds of troopers [63]

Bread and coffee for the cavalryman The mess-house for cavalry ordered to Washington.--In the field the cavalrymen were glad when they could get the regular rations — bacon and hard bread. During the winter, in permanent camp, they occasionally enjoyed the luxury of soft bread. But they were kept so constantly employed, reconnoitering the enemy's position, watching the fords of the Rappahannock, and engaged in almost constant skirmishing, even in severe winter weather while the infantry was being made comfortable in winter-quarters, that this mess-house was regarded as a sort of Mecca by the troopers sent to Washington to be organized and remounted. Soft bread was not the only luxury here, and when they rejoined their commands their comrades would listen with bated breath to their thrilling stories of soup and eggs and other Lucullan delicacies. There was an army saying that it takes a good trooper to appreciate a good meal.

[64] afoot, and the whole cavalry service rendered inefficient and almost useless.

As an evidence of the lack of discipline and of the ignorance of things military, which marked those early days of the cavalry service, it may be mentioned that many credulous troopers purchased so-called invulnerable vests, formed of thin steel plates and warranted by the makers to ward off a saber stroke or stop a leaden bullet. Dents in the armor were pointed out as evidence of this remarkable quality. Of course the vests were sooner or later discarded, but while retained they added about ten pounds to the burden of the already overloaded horse.

It is stated that the first time the Confederate cavalrymen, who rode light, met some of these remarkably equipped troopers, they wondered with amazement whether the Union horsemen were lifted into the saddle after the latter was packed, or whether the riders mounted first, and then had the numberless odds and ends of their equipment packed around them.

An anecdote is related of a humane Irish recruit, who, when he found his horse was unable to carry the heavy load allotted him, decided as an act of mercy to share the load with his charger. So, unloading nearly a hundred pounds from the horse, he strapped the mass to his own broad shoulders; and remounting his steed, rode off, quite jubilant over his act of unselfishness.

But it did not take long for cavalrymen in the field to learn with how little equipment the soldier may live and fight efficiently, and with how much greater zest the horses can withstand the long marches when the load is cut down to the limit of actual needs. There was danger then of the opposite extreme, and that absolutely necessary articles would be conveniently dropped and reported as “lost in action” or as “stolen.” The net result, however, was that after one or two campaigns, the Federal cavalrymen learned to travel light, and, better than anything else, learned that quality of discipline [65]

The hay business.

The matter of proper feed for cavalry horses was a constant perplexity to the Federal Government until the men had learned how to care for their mounts. During the first two years of the war two hundred and eighty-four thousand horses were furnished to the cavalry, although the maximum number of cavalrymen in the field at any time during this period did not exceed sixty thousand. The enormous number of casualties among the horses was due to many causes, among which were poor horsemanship on the part of the raw troopers mustered in at the beginning of the war, and the ignorance and gross inefficiency on the part of many officers and men as to the condition of the horses' backs and feet, care as to food and cleanliness, and the proper treatment of the many diseases to which horses on active service are subject. In such a tremendous machine as the quartermaster's department of the Army of the Potomac, containing at the beginning of the war many officers with absolutely no experience as quartermasters, there were necessarily many vexatious delays in purchasing and forwarding supplies, and many disappointments in the quality of supplies, furnished too often by scheming contractors. By the time the photograph above reproduced was taken, 1864, the business of transporting hay to the army in the field had been thoroughly systematized, as the swarming laborers in the picture attest.

The hay business of the government

At the hay wharf, Alexandria


Government hay-wharf at Alexandria, Virginia: sentry guarding feed for Federal horses, 1864. The army which McClellan took to the Peninsula had to be created from the very foundation. The regular army was too small to furnish more than a portion of the general officers and a very small portion of the staff, so that the staff departments and staff officers had to be fashioned out of perfectly raw material. Artillery, small-arms, and ammunition were to be manufactured, or purchased from abroad; wagons, ambulances, bridge-trains, Camp equipage, hospital stores, and all the vast impedimenta and material indispensable for an army in the field were to be manufactured. The tardiness with which cavalry remounts were forwarded to the regiments was a frequent subject of complaint. General McClellan complained that many of the horses furnished were “totally unfitted for the service and should never have been received.” General Pope had in fact reported that “our cavalry numbered on paper about four thousand men, but their horses were completely broken down, and there were not five hundred men, all told, capable of doing such service as should be expected of cavalry.” The demand for horses was so great that in many cases they were sent on active service before recovering sufficiently from the fatigue incident to a long railway journey. One case was reported of horses left on the cars fifty hours without food or water, and then being taken out, issued, and used for immediate service. Aside, too, from the ordinary diseases to which horses are subject, the Virginia soil seemed to be particularly productive of diseases of the feet. That known as “scratches” disabled thousands of horses during the Peninsula campaign and the march of Pope.

[67] [68]

Men who shod a million horses: part of the gigantic organization of the Federal cavalry This photograph presents another aspect of the gigantic system whereby the Union cavalry became organized and equipped so as to prove irresistible after 1863. In the fiscal year 1864 the Union Government bought and captured nearly 210,000 horses. The army in the field required about 500 new horses every day. Sheridan's force alone required 150 new horses a day during the Shenandoah campaign. At Giesboro, the big remount depot near Washington, they handled 170,622 horses in 1864, and in June, 1866, they had only 32 left. This was exclusive of 12,000 or 13,000 artillery horses handled at the same depot. All these animals had to be shod. This photograph shows some of the men who did it, with the implements of their trade. The army in the field kept this army at home busy supplying its manifold needs. The Southerners' only array of men was at the front. At home, they had only an army of women, knitting, weaving, and sewing for the ragged soldiers in the field. The men wholesale had left their businesses and enlisted.

[69] [70] which subordinates the comfort and pleasure of the individual to the greatest good of the greatest number.

The trouble was that upon the organization of so many regiments of volunteer cavalry, both officers and men were naturally uninstructed and therefore inefficient. Horses were overloaded, marches were prolonged beyond endurance and without proper halts for rest, forage was not always regularly provided, and troopers were not held down to those many little things which, whether in the saddle or in camp, make for the endurance of the horse and for the mobility of mounted troops.

Tactically, both officers and men of the newly made cavalry had everything to learn. In spite of the splendid natural material which was attracted to the mounted service, and the lavish expenditures of the Federal Government in its behalf, the first period of the war only emphasized the fact that, given unlimited resources in the way of men, horses, and equipment, efficient cavalry cannot be developed inside of two years or more.

To be fully prepared at the outbreak of war, regular cavalry should be kept during peace at its war strength; while if reserves of militia cavalry cannot be conveniently maintained during peace, ample reserve supplies of arms and equipment should be laid by, and such encouragement given to the breeding and rearing of saddle-horses as will enable the Government to place cavalry in the field without all the vexatious and humiliating delays which attended the fitting out of the Federal cavalry force in 1861 and 1862.

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