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11. cavalry battles and charges

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

On the way to the battle of Gettysburg company L, second “regulars” : ammunition-train of the third division, cavalry corps. The “Second” fought in the reserve Brigade under General Merritt, during the second day of the battle. The leading figures in the picture are First-Sergeant Painter and First-Lieutenant Dewees. Few photographs show cavalry thus, in column.


The wagons with the right of way: the thirteenth New York cavalry drilling near Washington. The ammunition-train had the right of way over everything else in the army, short of actual guns and soldiers, when there was any possibility of a fight. The long, cumbrous lines of commissary wagons were forced to draw off into the fields to the right and left of the road, or scatter any way they could, to make way for the ammunition-train. Its wagons were always marked, and were supposed to be kept as near the troops as possible. Soldiers could go without food for a day or two if necessary; but it might spell defeat and capture to lack ammunition for an hour. This is a photograph of the ammunition wagons of the Third Cavalry Division commanded by General James H. Wilson. They are going into bivouac for the night. The wagons on the right are being formed in a semi-circle, and one of the escort has already dismounted. A led mule is attached to the wagon on the right, for even mule power is fallible, and if one dies in the traces he must be promptly replaced. The men with these trains often held the fate of armies in their hands.

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The battle-line — an entire cavalry regiment in formation This stirring picture shows some of the splendid cavalry that was finally developed in the North arrayed in battle-line. Thus they looked before the bugle sounded the charge. One can almost imagine them breaking into a trot, increasing gradually to a gallop, and finally, within a score of yards of the Confederates' roaring guns, into a mad dash that carried them in clusters flashing with sabers through the struggling, writhing line. This regiment is the Thirteenth New York Cavalry, organized June 20, 1863. Two weeks after the regiment was organized these men were patroling the rear of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg. The following month they were quelling the draft riots in New York, and thereafter they were engaged in pursuing the redoubtable and evanescent Mosby, and keeping a watchful eye on Washington. They participated in many minor engagements in the vicinity of the Capital, and lost 128 enlisted men and officers. The photograph is proof enough that they were a well-drilled body of men. The ranks are straight and unbroken, and the company officers are keeping their proper distances. The colonel, to the extreme right in the foreground, has good reason to sit proudly erect. Note the white-horse troop in the rear, where the war chargers can be seen gracefully arching their necks. This is a triumph of wet-plate photography. Only by the highest skill could such restless animals as horses be caught with the camera of 1865.

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During the first two years of the Civil War, the Federal cavalry was subordinated in every way to its true role, and one of the common mistakes in those early days of the war was to use cavalry with infantry support, so that the latter used to shout derisively: “There's going to be a fight, boys! The cavalry's coming back!”

One of the early cavalry actions which excited attention, took place during the Peninsula campaign, at the close of the battle of Gaines' Mill, June 27, 1862. General Fitz John Porter with his Fifth Corps was covering the communications of the Army of the Potomac on the Chickahominy line with the base at White House Landing on the Pamunkey. The Confederate army had made four desperate assaults on the Union lines, and every available infantryman had been brought into action, so that there was not a single reserve in rear of the line of battle, save the cavalry and some artillery.

The day was fast drawing to a close, when the Confederates made a final effort to force Porter's left flank and cut it off from the bridge. The cavalry commander, General P. St. George Cooke, directed the artillery to hold its precarious position, and ordered Captain Whiting, commanding the Fifth United States Cavalry, to charge the advancing infantry.

Numbering but two hundred and twenty sabers, the little force moved out under heavy fire, and striking the foe intact with a portion of its line, the charging troopers were only stopped by the woods at the bottom of the slope. The casualties of the charging force were fifty-five, with twenty-four [221]

Union cavalry generals.

Had it not been for General Philip St. George Cooke and his cavalry, Major-General Fitz-John Porter and his staff would not be enjoying the luxuries portrayed in the lower photograph, taken nineteen days after the battle of Gaines' Mill. The typical old-time Virginia cook, and the pleasant camping-ground on the banks of the river, suggest little of the deadly peril that faced the Federals June 27, 1862. The line of battle formed the arc of a circle, almost parallel to the Chickahominy. During the day the Confederate forces made four desperate assaults on the Union lines, and every available infantryman was brought into action. The only reserve on the left of the line was the cavalry and considerable artillery. As night was falling, the Confederates made a final effort to force the left flank and cut it off from the bridge across the Chickahominy. The artillery was directed to maintain its position, and General Cooke ordered Captain Whiting, commanding the Fifth United States Cavalry, to charge with his troopers. The little force of 220 sabers charged the advancing lines of Confederate infantry; a portion of the line struck the enemy intact and were stopped only by the woods at the bottom of the slope. Their casualties were fifty-five men-but under cover of the charge the artillery was safely withdrawn, and the sacrifice was well worth the results attained.

General Philip St. George Cooke commanding: the first great Federal cavalry charge of the Civil War

General Fitz-John Porter and staff, June, 1862

[222] horses killed — a sacrifice well worth the results attained. Of this action, the Comte de Paris wrote fifteen years later: “The sacrifice of some of the bravest of the cavalry certainly saved a part of the artillery, as did, on a larger scale, the Austrian cavalry on the evening of Sadowa.”

General Wesley Merritt, U. S. A., one of the ablest cavalry officers of his time, who was present at Gaines' Mill as an aide-de-Camp to General Cooke, thus described this affair:1

During the early part of this battle the Union army held its ground and gained from time to time some material success. But it was only temporary. In the afternoon the writer of this, by General Cooke's direction, reported at the headquarters of the commanding general on the field, Fitz John Porter, and during his attendance there heard read a despatch from General McClellan congratulating Porter on his success. It closed with directions to drive the rebels off the field, and to take from them their artillery. At the time this despatch was being read, the enemy were forcing our troops to the rear. Hasty preparations were made for the retreat of the headquarters, and everything was in the most wretched confusion. No orders could be obtained, and I returned to my chief reporting the condition of affairs. It was apparent from movements in our front that the Confederates would make a supreme effort to force the left flank of Fitz John Porter's command, and cutting it off from the bridge over the Chickahominy, sever it from McClellan's army, and capture or disperse it.

It was growing late. Both armies were exhausted by the exertions of the day. But the prize at hand was well worth the effort, and the Confederates with renewed strength were fighting to make their victory complete. The Union cavalry commander seized the situation at a glance. The cavalry had been posted behind a plateau on the left bank of the Chickahominy, with ground to its front free of obstacles and suitable for cavalry action. To the right front of the cavalry the batteries of the reserve artillery were stationed. . . .

The events of that day at Gaines' Mill are pictured on the mind of the writer of this imperfect sketch as on a never fading photograph. The details of the battle are as vivid as if they had occurred yesterday. As [223]

Mechanicsville in 1862.

At this sleepy Virginia hamlet the series of engagements that preceded the struggles along the Chickahominy in front of Richmond began. Early in June, 1862, as the Army of the Potomac extended its wings along both banks of the Chickahominy, Mechanicsville fell into its possession. There was a struggle at Beaver Dam Creek and on the neighboring fields, the defenders finally retreating in disorder down the pike and over the bridge toward Richmond, only three and a half miles away. The pickets of the opposing armies watched the bridge with jealous eyes till the Union lines were withdrawn on the 26th of June, and the Confederates retook the village.

Mechanicsville, in 1862, where the trouble started

Officers of the fifth United States cavalry, in the famous charge

[224] the Confederates came rushing across the open in front of the batteries, bent on their capture, one battery nearest our position was seen to limber up with a view to retreating. I rode hurriedly, by direction of General Cooke, to its captain, Robinson, and ordered him to unlimber and commence firing at short range, canister. He complied willingly, and said, as if in extenuation of his intended withdrawal, that he had no support. I told him the cavalry were there, and would support his and the other batteries. The rapid fire at short range of the artillery, and the daring charge of the cavalry in the face of an exhausted foe, prevented, without doubt, the enemy seizing the Chickahominy bridge and the capture or dispersion of Fitz John Porter's command. No farther advance was made by the Confederates, and the tired and beaten forces of Porter withdrew to the farther side of the Chickahominy and joined the Army of the Potomac in front of Richmond. The cavalry withdrew last as a rear guard, after having furnished torch and litter bearers to the surgeons of our army, who did what was possible to care for our wounded left on the field.

But it was not until a year later (March 17, 1863), at Kelly's Ford on the Rappahannock, that the Union cavalry first gained real confidence in itself and in its leaders.

In this engagement, following the forcing of the river crossing, two regiments of cavalry dismounted, with a section of artillery, and held the foe in front, while mounted regiments rolled up the Confederate flanks; their entire line was thrown into confusion and finally driven from the field.

The decisive cavalry battle at Brandy Station, or Beverly Ford, on June 9th, following, having for its object a reconnaissance in force of the Confederate troops on the Culpeper-Fredericksburg road, was the first great cavalry combat of the war. It virtually “made” the Union cavalry.

Buford's division of the Federal cavalry corps accompanied by Ames' infantry brigade, had been directed to cross the Rappahannock at Beverly Ford, and move by way of St. James' Church to Brandy Station. A second column composed of Gregg's and Duffie's divisions, with Russell's infantry [225]

Major Charles Jarvis Whiting Major (then Captain) Whiting was the man who led the charge of the Fifth United States Cavalry upon the advancing Confederate infantry ordered by General Philip St. George Cooke at Gaines' Mill, June 27, 1862. He could entertain no hope of victory. The Confederates were already too near to allow of an effective charge. It was practically a command to die in order to check the Confederate column until infantry reenforcements could be rushed forward to save some imperiled batteries. Over twenty-five per cent. of the troopers who rode through the Confederate lines were killed, wounded, or missing.

Gaines' mill From this rural Virginia spot the battle of June 27th took its name. At the close of that fearful day the building fell into use as a hospital. It was later burned during a Federal raid, and nothing but the gaunt walls remain. The skull that lies in front of the mill evidently belonged to one of those brave cavalrymen who gave up their lives to save their comrades. He may have received a soldier's hasty burial, but it was by no means unusual for the heavy rains to wash away the shallow covering of soil, and to have exposed to view the remains of the men who had gone to their reward.

[226] brigade, was to cross the river at Kelly's Ford-Gregg to push on by way of Mount Dumpling to Brandy Station, and Duffie to proceed to Stevensburg. By a strange coincidence, that brilliant cavalry leader, Stuart, planned on the same day to cross the Rappahannock at Beverly and the upper fords, for the purpose of diverting the attention of the Army of the Potomac from General Lee's northward dash into Maryland.

Under cover of a heavy fog, Buford's column crossed the river at four o'clock in the morning, surprising the Southern outposts and nearly capturing the Confederate artillery. Here, in spite of superior numbers, the Union commander, General Pleasonton, formed his cavalry in line of battle, covering the ford in less than an hour, but he could make no perceptible movement forward until Gregg's guns on the extreme left had made a general advance possible.

The Confederates fell rapidly back, and the headquarters of Stuart's chief of artillery, with all his papers and Lee's order for the intended movement, were captured. A junction was soon formed with Gregg, and with heavy losses on both sides, the foe was pushed back to Fleetwood Ridge. Of this part of the action General Stuart's biographer says:

A part of the First New Jersey Cavalry came thundering down the narrow ridge, striking McGregor's and Hart's unsupported batteries in the flank, and riding through and between guns and caissons from right to left, but were met by a determined hand-to-hand contest from the cannoneers with pistols, sponge-staffs, and whatever else came handy to fight with. The charge was repulsed by artillerists alone, not a single friendly trooper being within reach of us.

On Fleetwood Ridge the Confederate infantry rallied to the support of Stuart's cavalry, and the object of the reconnaissance having been gained, a general withdrawal of the Union cavalry was ordered, Gregg by way of the ford at Rappahannock Bridge, and Buford by Beverly Ford. But as the order was about to be executed, the Confederates fiercely [227]

A bridge over the muddy Chickahominy--1862 This is a photograph of the insignificant stream that figured so largely in the calculations of the opposing generals before Richmond. Under the effect of the almost tropical rains, in a day luxuriant meadows would become transformed into lakes, and surging floods appear where before were stagnant pools. Thus it became doubtful in June whether the struggling Union army could depend upon the little bridges. It was said by some of the Union engineers that it was only the weight of the troops passing over them that held some in place. One was swept away immediately after a column had crossed. The muddy banks show more plainly than words what the little Chickahominy could do when it was thoroughly aroused.

[228] attacked the Union right, and the most serious fighting of the day resulted. At four o'clock in the afternoon, a large Confederate infantry force being reported at Brandy Station, General Pleasonton began a general withdrawal of the Union cavalry, a movement which was executed in good order and completed by seven o'clock in the evening without molestation by the Confederates.

This great cavalry battle lasted for over ten hours, and was preeminently a mounted combat, the charges and counter-charges of the opposing horsemen being of the most desperate character. During the day, the First New Jersey Cavalry, alone, made six regimental charges, besides a number of smaller ones; the fighting and charging of the regular and Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry was kept up for over twelve hours; and the other regiments were almost equally engaged through the eventful day.

Commenting on this defeat of the Confederate cavalry at Brandy Station, the Richmond Examiner of that period said:

The surprise of this occasion was the most complete that has occurred. The Confederate cavalry was carelessly strewn over the country, with the Rappahannock only between it and an enemy who has already proven his enterprise to our cost. It is said that their Camp was supposed to be secure because the Rappahannock was not supposed to be fordable at the point where it actually was forded. What! Do the Yankees then know more about this river than our own soldiers, who have done nothing but ride up and down its banks for the past six months?

Brandy Station was really the turning-point in the evolution of the Federal cavalry, which had heretofore been dominated by a sense of its own inferiority to Stuart's bold horsemen. Even the Confederate writer, McClellan, has this to say of Brandy Station and its effect on the morale of the Union cavalry:

Up to this time, confessedly inferior to the Southern horsemen, they gained on this day that confidence in themselves and their commanders [229]

Reunion of officers of the third and fourth Pennsylvania cavalry The soldiers in a great war-game make merry while they can. This photograph shows the officers of the Third and Fourth Pennsylvania Cavalry picknicking on the banks of the river at Westover Landing in August, 1862. The Fourth Pennsylvania had taken part in the actions on the upper Chickahominy hardly a month before, when the Fifth United States Cavalry made their daring charge at Gaines' Mill. Both regiments had been active in the Peninsula campaign, although the Third Pennsylvania had been split up into detachments and on headquarters duty, and they were to be together on the bloody days at Antietam the middle of the following month. They have snatched a brief moment together now, and are hopefully pledging each other long lives. Neither the Union nor the Confederacy realized that the war was to stretch out over four terrible years.

[230] which enabled them to contest so fiercely the subsequent battlefields of June, July, and October.

Passing by without comment the splendid stand of Buford's dismounted troops covering the approaches to the town of Gettysburg, in which less than three thousand cavalrymen and Calef's battery made possible the occupation by the delayed Union army of the dominating position along Cemetery Ridge and the Round Tops, the desperate battles of the cavalry on the right and left flanks at Gettysburg, are history.

On the Union left flank, Pleasonton had ordered Kilpatrick to move from Emmittsburg with his entire force to prevent a Confederate turning movement on the Round Tops, and, if practicable, to attack the Confederate flank and rear. Late on July 3, 1863, the reserve cavalry Brigade under Merritt moved up and took position to the left of Kilpatrick. Custer's brigade had been detached to report to Gregg on the Union right. The fight which ensued on this third and last day of the great battle, was severe in the extreme.

Merritt's position on the left caused the Confederate general, Law, to detach a large force from his main line to protect his flank and rear. This so weakened the Confederate line in front of General Farnsworth, that Kilpatrick ordered the latter to charge the center of Law's line of infantry. The ground was most unfavorable for a mounted charge, being broken, covered with stone, and intersected by fences and stone walls.

Writing of this charge in “Battles and leaders of the Civil War,” Captain H. C. Parsons of the First Vermont Cavalry, says:

I was near Kilpatrick when he impetuously gave the order to Farnsworth to make the last charge. Farnsworth spoke with emotion: “General, do you mean it? Shall I throw my handful of men over rough ground, through timber, against a brigade of infantry? The First Vermont has already been fought half to pieces; these are too good men to kill.” Kilpatrick said: “Do you refuse to obey my orders? If you are afraid to lead this charge, I will lead it.” [231]

Cavalry at Antietam.

The Federal cavalry bore its share of the work on the bloodiest single day of the war, September 17, 1862, at Antietam. At this bridge on the Keedysville road the gallant cavalry leader General Pleasonton had a most important part to play in the plan of attack on the Confederate positions west of Antietam Creek. In spite of galling cross-fire from the Confederate batteries, Pleasonton threw forward his mounted skirmishers, who held their ground until Tidball's batteries of the regular artillery were advanced piece by piece across the bridge. Opening with canister, the guns routed the sharpshooters, and soon four batteries were in position on the ridge beyond the creek. Here they held their ground till nightfall, at times running short of ammunition, but giving needed aid to Sumner's advance to their right and in Burnside's desperate struggle to cross the bridge below to their left. To the left of the bridge where Pleasonton's successful crossing on the morning of the 17th was accomplished stands Newcomers' Mill. On the ridge above, the cavalry and artillery held their positions, keeping open a way for reenforcements. These were much needed when the ammunition of the batteries ran low. More regular troops were sent forward, together with two more batteries from Sykes' division, under command of Captain Dryer. These reenforcements threw themselves splendidly into the fight. The cavalry had scored again.

Held by the cavalry at Antietam

Newcomers' mill on Antietam creek


Farnsworth rose in his stirrups — he looked magnificent in his passion — and cried, “Take that back!” Kilpatrick returned his defiance, but, soon repenting, said, “I did not mean it; forget it.”

For a moment there was silence, when Farnsworth spoke calmly, “General, if you order the charge, I will lead it, but you must take the responsibility.”

I did not hear the low conversation that followed, but as Farnsworth turned away, he said, “I will obey your order.” Kilpatrick said earnestly, “I take the responsibility.”

The charge was a daring and spectacular one. The First West Virginia, and Eighteenth Pennsylvania moved through the woods first, closely followed by the First Vermont and Fifth New York Cavalry, all mounted, and drove the foe before them until heavy stone walls and fences were reached. Two regiments cleared the obstacles, charged a second line of infantry, and were stopped by another stone wall, covering a third line of infantry. The First West Virginia was for a time entirely surrounded, but succeeded in cutting its way back with a loss of but five killed and four wounded, bringing with it a number of prisoners. When the body of Farnsworth was afterwards recovered, it was found to have received five mortal wounds.

General W. M. Graham, U. S. A. (Retired), says:2

The following is the account of Farnsworth's death as seen by a Confederate officer and by him related to me in the winter of 1876-77 at Columbia, South Carolina: I was introduced to Captain Bachman, who commanded the “Hampton Legion battery,” with which I was engaged (Battery K, First United States Artillery), at Gettysburg on July 3d. Naturally our conversation drifted to the war, and he remarked:
One of the most gallant incidents of the war witnessed by me was a cavalry charge at the battle of Gettysburg, on July 3d, made by a General Farnsworth of the Yankee army. He led his brigade, riding well ahead of his men, in a charge against my battery and the infantry supports; we were so filled with admiration of his bravery that we were reluctant [233]

Duffie, who led the charge at Kelly's ford Led by Colonel Alfred Duffie, the dashing cavalryman whose portrait is above, Federal cavalry had its first opportunity to measure itself in a real trial of strength with the hardy horsemen of the South at Kelly's Ford on March 17, 1863. Brigadier-General William W. Averell, in command of the Second Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac, received orders to cross the river with 3,000 cavalry and six pieces of artillery, and attack and destroy the forces of General Fitzhugh Lee, supposed to be near Culpeper Court House. Starting from Morrisville with about 2,100 men, General Averell found the crossing at Kelly's Ford obstructed by abatis and defended by sharpshooters. The First Rhode Island Cavalry effected a crossing, and the battle-line was formed on the farther side of the river. Colonel Duffie on the Federal left flank, and Colonel McIntosh on the right led almost simultaneous charges. The entire body of Confederate cavalry was driven back in confusion. The Confederates made another stand three-quarters of a mile farther back in the woods, but when the Federal cavalry finally withdrew, their killed and wounded were 78, and those of the Confederates 133.

[234] to kill him, and so called out to him to “ surrender,” as his position was hopeless. He replied by emptying his revolver and then hurling it at us and drawing his saber, when we shot him through the body, killing him. His men were nearly all killed, wounded, or captured, very few escaping to their own lines.

General Graham adds, “Bachman was a fine fellow who, like all those who fought on each side, had buried all bitterness of feeling.”

All things considered, it seems wonderful that these four regiments did not suffer more severely (sixty-five casualties out of three hundred men in the charge). This fact can best be accounted for by the moral effect of the charge, the fearless troopers leaping the obstacles and sabering many of the Confederate infantry in their positions. The Confederate general, Law, said of this:

It was impossible to use our artillery to any advantage, owing to the close quarters of the attacking cavalry with our own men, the leading squadrons forcing their horses up to the very muzzles of the rifles of our infantry.

But while this was taking place on the Federal left flank, a great cavalry battle, fraught with tremendous responsibilities, was being waged on the right flank.

On July 3d, the Second Cavalry Division, under Gregg, had been ordered to the right of the line with orders to make a demonstration against the Confederates. About noon, a despatch reached Gregg that a large body of the Southern cavalry was observed from Cemetery Hill, moving against the right of the Union line. In consequence of this important information, Custer's brigade, which had been ordered back to Kilpatrick's command, was held by Gregg.

This Confederate column moving to the attack was Stuart's cavalry, which, belated by many obstacles, was advancing toward the lines of Ewell's corps. Stuart took position on a ridge, which commanded a wide area of open ground, and [235]

The hollow square in the Civil War: a formation used at Gettysburg Many authorities doubted that the formation portrayed in this picture was used at the battle of Gettysburg. Not until the meeting of the survivors of the First Corps at Gettysburg in May, 1885, were these doubts finally dispelled. Late in the afternoon of July 1st General Buford had received orders from General Howard to go to General Doubleday's support. Buford's cavalry lay at that time a little west of the cemetery. Though vastly outnumbered by the advancing Confederate infantry, Buford formed his men for the charge. The Confederates immediately set to forming squares in echelon. This consumed time, however, and the respite materially aided in the escape of the First Corps, if it did not save the remnant from capture. Cavalry in the Civil War was not wont to charge unbroken infantry, the latter being better able to withstand a cavalry charge than cavalry itself. In such a charge the cavalry ranks become somewhat blended, and arrive in clusters on the opposing lines. The horses avoid trampling on the fallen and wounded, and jump over them if possible. Buford's threatened charge was a successful ruse.


Two leaders of the Federal cavalry at Gettysburg: Pleasonton and Custer, three months before the battle. This martial photograph portrays two of the men who prevented the success of the Confederate General Stuart's charge on the third day at Gettysburg, when the tide of battle between the long lines of infantry had been wavering to and fro, and Pickett was advancing on Cemetery Ridge. Had the brilliant Stuart with his veteran cavalry gained the rear of the Federal line, the natural panic following might have been more than sufficient to win the day for the Confederate cause. About noon on July 3d, General Gregg was informed that a large body of Confederate cavalry was moving against the right of the line. General Gregg held Custer's brigade, which had been ordered back to the left of the line, in order to help meet the attack. The Seventh Michigan Cavalry met the charge of a regiment of W. H. F. Lee's brigade, and this was followed by a charge of the First Michigan, driving back the Confederate line. Then followed counter-charges by the Confederates until a large part of both commands were fighting desperately. In this terrible cavalry combat every possible weapon was utilized. This photograph of Pleasonton on the right, who commanded all the cavalry at Gettysburg, and of the dashing Custer, was taken three months before.

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Some of Pleasonton's men at Gettysburg: company D third Pennsylvania cavalry. These men and mere boys stood seriously before the camera. Without a trace of swagger they leaned upon their flashing sabers; yet they had seen all the important cavalry fighting in the East before their final supreme test at Gettysburg. They had fought at Fair Oaks and the Seven Days around Richmond. They had played their part at Kelly's Ford and in the great cavalry battle at Brandy Station. They came to Gettysburg seasoned troopers, with poise and confidence in themselves. On the first day Gregg's Second Cavalry Division, of which they formed part, fought the Second Virginia on foot with carbines. On the second day they were deployed as dismounted skirmishers to meet Stuart's men. The Confederate cavalry leader hoped to charge at the opportune moment when Pickett was advancing, but Pleasonton's men frustrated this attempt. The desperate charges and counter-charges on the Union right on that third decisive day were the fiercest of the entire war. This photograph was taken seven months later at Brandy Station, a few weeks before the Third Pennsylvania went into the Wilderness. Their time intervening since the battle of Gettysburg has been spent scouting and picketing along the Rappahannock, including many a skirmish with their active adversaries. They have had time to spruce up a bit during one of their short rests, but their quiet veteran bearing reflects the scenes they have passed through. Their swords that gleam so brilliantly are the regulation light curved cavalry sabers. With these and all other needed articles of equipment they and most of the Federal cavalry are now thoroughly equipped.

[239] [240] his plan of attack was to engage the Federal troops in his front with sharpshooters, while he moved the Confederate brigades of Jenkins and W. F. H. Lee secretly through the woods in an effort to reach the Union rear. Stuart hoped to strike at the psychological moment when Pickett's famous infantry charge, on the center of the Union line of battle, would engage the entire attention of the Army of the Potomac.

The cavalry combat which followed was probably as desperate and as stubbornly contested as any in which the cavalry took part during the entire period of the war. A mounted charge by a regiment of W. F. H. Lee's brigade, was met by a countercharge of the Seventh Michigan Cavalry, the two regiments meeting face to face on opposite sides of a stone wall, and discharging their carbines point blank. The First Michigan Cavalry, aided by Chester's battery made a charge which, followed by a hand-to-hand fight, drove the Confederate lines back in confusion. Then followed charges and counter-charges by each opponent, until a large part of both commands was involved in a general melee.

In this terrible cavalry combat every possible weapon was utilized, and after it was over, men were found interlocked in each other's arms, with fingers so firmly imbedded in the flesh as to require force to remove them. The casualties were heavy for both Stuart and Gregg, but the latter was able to stop the Confederate cavalry leader's critical turning movement. Had Stuart with his veteran cavalry been able to strike the rear of the Federal army simultaneously with Pickett's infantry charge in front, the result of this decisive battle of the war might have been different.

On April 4, 1864, General Sheridan assumed command of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, and thereafter a new order of things was inaugurated for the Union cavalry in the Eastern theater of operations.

Sheridan insisted that his cavalry should not be separated into fragments, but should be concentrated “to fight the [241]

Cavalry from Indiana: a fighting regiment at Gettysburg and elsewhere Looking at the resolute faces and confident mien of these boys from what was then the far-western State of Indiana, the reader, even of a later generation, understands instantly how it was that the Western cavalry of the Federal army earned such an enviable reputation from 1861 to 1865. Not only did it protect the fast-spreading Federal frontier in the West; not only did it bear the brunt of the raids conducted by the dashing leaders Grierson, Smith, Wilson, and others, whereby the more southern portions of the Confederacy were cut off from their supplies and deprived of their stores; but States like Indiana also provided several of the most conspicuously gallant regiments that served with the Eastern armies. This Third Indiana, for instance, was busy East and West. At Nashville, at Shiloh, at Stone's River, at Chattanooga, at Atlanta, and on Sherman's march to the sea, it did its duty in the West, while six companies of the regiment participated in Buford's stand at Gettysburg.

[242] enemy's cavalry,” and in deference to Sheridan's wishes, General Meade promptly relieved the cavalry from much of the arduous picket duty which it was performing at the time. But he gave little encouragement as yet to Sheridan's plans for an independent cavalry corps--a corps in fact as well as in name. By the end of July, the Cavalry Corps had succeeded in almost annihilating the Confederate cavalry and had accomplished the destruction of millions of dollars' worth of property useful to the Confederate Government. In all the important movements of the Army of the Potomac, the cavalry had acted as a screen, and by its hostile demonstrations against the Southern flanks and rear, had more than once forced General Lee to detach much-needed troops from his hard-pressed front.

On May 11th, at Yellow Tavern, Sheridan had fought an engagement which gave him complete control of the road to Richmond and resulted in the loss to the Confederates of Generals Stuart and James B. Gordon. Merritt's brigade first entered Yellow Tavern and secured possession of the turnpike. The other Union divisions being brought up, Custer with his own brigade, supported by Chapman's brigade of Wilson's division, made a mounted charge which was brilliantly executed, followed by a dash at the Southern line which received the charge in a stationary position. This charge resulted in the capture of two guns. Then, while Gibbs and Devin forced the Confederate right and center, Gregg charged in the rear and the battle was won.

At Deep Bottom, too, July 28th, occurred a brilliant fight which is worthy of more than passing notice.

The Second United States Cavalry led the advance on the 27th and took the New Market road in the direction of Richmond. When close to the Confederate pickets a dashing charge was made, forcing the foe back rapidly. On the afternoon of the following day the Union cavalry pickets were furiously attacked, and before the leading troops could dismount and conduct the led horses to the rear, an entire brigade of [243]

Where the cavalry rested — Castle Murray, near Auburn, Virginia In the fall of 1863 the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac were pitched for some days on the Warrentown Railroad near Auburn, Virginia. Near-by lay Dr. Murray's house, called the Castle, a picturesque gray stone edifice, beautifully contrasting with the dark green ivy which had partly overgrown it, and situated in a grove on an eminence known as Rockhill. Here General Pleasonton, commanding the cavalry, had his camp, his tents forming an effective picture when silhouetted by the setting sun against the gray walls of the Castle. At night the green lamps that showed the position of the general's Camp would shine mysteriously over the trees, and the band of the Sixth United States Cavalry would make the stone walls echo to its martial music. The cavalry was resting after its desperate encounters at Gettysburg and its fights along the Rappahannock. But there remained much yet for the troopers to do.


Confederate infantry broke from the woods, and with colors flying advanced in splendid alignment across an open field. So closely were the advanced Union troops pressed, that despite the destruction wrought in the Southern ranks by the breech-loading carbines, there was danger of losing the led horses.

The following is quoted from the graphic description of this fight by Lieutenant (afterwards Colonel U. S. V.) William H. Harrison, Second United States Cavalry:

With a cheer which makes our hearts bound, the First New York Dragoons, the First United States, and the Sixth Pennsylvania on the run, dismount, and form themselves on the shattered lines of the Second and Fifth. A few volleys from our carbines make the line of the enemy's infantry waver, and in an instant the cry is heard along our entire line, “Charge! Charge!” We rush forward, firing as we advance; the Confederate colors fall, and so furious is our charge that the North Carolina brigade breaks in complete rout, leaving three stands of colors, all their killed and wounded, and many prisoners in our hands. The enemy did not renew the fight, and we remained in possession of the field until relieved by our infantry.

It was, however, in the fall of the year (1864) that under Sheridan's brilliant leadership the Union cavalry won its greatest laurels. On September 19th, at Opequon Creek, Sheridan's infantry and cavalry achieved a victory which sent the Confederates under Early “whirling through Winchester,” as Sheridan tersely stated in a telegram which electrified the people of the North.

While essentially a battle participated in by all arms, the brilliant part taken by Wilson's division in a mounted charge which gained possession of the Winchester-Berryville turn-pike, and the subsequent demoralizing attack of Averell's and Merritt's cavalry divisions on the Confederate rear, had much to do with the Union victory.

The most severe fighting on the part of the cavalry took place in the afternoon. Breckinridge's Confederate corps had [245]

Cold Harbor.

Three days before these photographs were taken Brigadier-General Alfred T. A. Torbert, with an isolated command of cavalry, was holding the breastworks at Cold Harbor in face of a magnificent attack by a brigade of Confederate infantry. The troopers busy beneath the trees are some of the very men who stood off the long gray lines blazing with fire. In the lower photograph they have moved forward, so that we can study them more closely. They seem quite nonchalant, considering their recent experience, but that is a veteran's way. Burnett's house, here pictured, stood not far from the road leading from Old Church Hotel to Old Cold Harbor. It was along this road that Torbert pursued the Confederates in the afternoon of May 30th, and it was near this house that his division of Sheridan's Cavalry Corps bivouacked that night. The following morning he continued his pursuit, first driving the Confederates into their breastworks at Cold Harbor, and then executing a flank movement to the left, which forced the Southern infantry to fall back three-quarters of a mile farther. Sheridan ordered him to withdraw from this isolated position, and he returned to the scene of his bivouac near Burnett's house.

Burnett's house, near Cold Harbor

Burnett's house, near Cold Harbor: a closer view


Old church hotel near Cold Harbor: four days after the cavalry clash of May 30, 1864. The very attitude of the rough and ready cavalryman with his curved saber shows the new confidence in itself of the Federal cavalry as reorganized by Sheridan in April, 1864. Here the photographer has caught a cavalry detail at one of the typical cross-roads taverns that played so important a part in the Virginia campaigns of that year. So successful is the picture that even the rude lettering “Old Church Hotel” on the quaint, old fashioned swinging sign can be made out. The scene is typical of the times. The reorganized Federal cavalry was proving of the greatest help to Grant in locating the enemy, particularly ahead of the main column as in the case of the fight at Old Church. In Grant's advance toward Richmond from North Anna, Sheridan's cavalry corps served as an advance guard. Torbert and Gregg with the First and Second Divisions formed the guard for the left flank. On May 27th Torbert crossed the Pamunkey at Hanover Ferry, captured Hanover Town, took part the following day in the sanguinary struggle at Hawes' Shop, and on the 29th picketed the country about Old Church Hotel seen in the picture, and toward Cold Harbor. At 4 P. M. on May 30th, the clash at Old Church took place, and it was necessary to put in General Merritt with the Reserve Brigade. The photograph was taken on June 4th, the day after the battle of Cold Harbor where the Federal loss was so severe. The horses look sleek and well-conditioned in spite of the constant marching and fighting.

[247] [248] fallen back on Winchester, leaving General Early's flank protected by his cavalry, which was successfully attacked by General Devin's Second Brigade and driven in confusion toward Winchester. Then within easy supporting distance of each other, the First Brigade, the Second Brigade, and the Reserve Brigade moved forward without opposition until the open fields near Winchester were reached.

What followed is well described in Lieutenant Harrison's recollections:3

While awaiting in suspense our next movement the enemy's infantry was distinctly seen attempting to change front to meet our anticipated charge. Instantly, and while in the confusion incident to their maneuver, the Second Brigade burst upon them, the enemy's infantry breaking into complete rout and falling back a confused and broken mass.

Immediately after, the Union reserve Brigade under the gallant Lowell, formed to the left of the position from which the Second Brigade, under Devin, had just charged. They rode out fearlessly within five hundred yards of the Confederate line of battle, on the left of which, resting on an old earth-work was a two-gun battery. The order was given to charge the line and get the guns. Lieutenant Harrison continues:

At the sound of the bugle we took the trot, the gallop, and then the charge. As we neared their line we were welcomed by a fearful musketry fire, which temporarily confused the leading squadron, and caused the entire brigade to oblique slightly to the right. Instantly, officers cried out, “Forward! Forward!” The men raised their sabers, and responded to the command with deafening cheers. Within a hundred yards of the enemy's line we struck a blind ditch, but crossed it without breaking our front. In a moment we were face to face with the enemy. They stood as if awed by the heroism of the brigade, and in an instant broke in complete rout, our men sabering them as they vainly sought safety in flight.


After Winchester--General Thomas C. Devin and staff “We have just sent them whirling through Winchester, and we are after them tomorrow,” was Sheridan's exultant wire of September 19, 1864, which electrified the North. Washington breathed a deep sigh of relief, and Sheridan's men started on the pursuit of Early. It was at Fisher's Hill on the 21st that the next clash occurred, and after a severe engagement of the infantry, Sheridan secured an advantageous position. On the 22d Early's rout was made complete. All that night the Federal infantry with Devin's brigade of cavalry pushed on in pursuit of the demoralized Confederates. Devin overtook them north of Mount Jackson, and had he been properly supported could doubtless have taken thousands of prisoners.


The charging force emerged from the fight with two guns, three stands of colors, and over three hundred Confederate prisoners. Altogether there had been six distinct charges by parts of the First Cavalry Division--two by the Second Brigade and one by the First Brigade; one by the Second Brigade and one by the Reserve Brigade against Early's infantry; and one, the final charge, in which all three of the brigades joined. General Custer describes the scene in graphic language:

At this time five brigades of cavalry were moving on parallel lines; most, if not all, of the brigades moved by brigade front, regiments being in parallel columns of squadrons. One continuous and heavy line of skirmishers covered the advance, using only the carbine, while the line of brigades, as they advanced across the country, the bands playing the national airs, presented in the sunlight one moving mass of glittering sabers. This, combined with the various and bright-colored banners land battle-flags, intermingled here and there with the plain blue uniforms of the troops, furnished one of the most inspiring as well as imposing scenes of martial grandeur ever witnessed upon a battlefield.

The Union victory at Opequon came at a time when its moral effect was most needed in the North, and restored the fertile Shenandoah valley to the Union armies, after a long series of humiliating reverses in that granary of the Confederacy.

A month later Custer encountered three brigades of Confederate cavalry under Rosser near Tom's Brook Crossing. Merrit at about the same time struck the cavalry of Lomax and Johnson on the Valley pike, the Federal line of battle extending across the Valley. The fighting was desperate on both sides, being essentially a saber contest. For two hours charges were given and received in solid masses, boot-to-boot, the honors being almost equally divided — the Confederates successfully holding the center while the Federal cavalry pushed back the flanks.

This finally weakened the Confederates, and as both their [251]

General Torbert in the Shenandoah This photograph, made in the Shenandoah Valley in the fall of 1864, shows General Alfred T. A. Torbert, immaculately clad in a natty uniform, on the steps of a beautiful vine-clad cottage. Virginia homes such as this fared but badly in that terrible October. The black shame of war spread over the valley and rose in the smoke from burning barns. Grant had resolved that Shenandoah should no longer be allowed to act as a granary for the armies of the Confederacy. Sheridan and his men had orders ruthlessly to destroy all supplies that could not be carried away. The Confederate cavalry clung desperately to his rear, and gave so much annoyance that on October 8th Sheridan directed Torbert “to give Rosser a drubbing next morning or get whipped himself.” The saber contest that ensued at Tom's Brook was the last attempt of the Confederate cavalry to reestablish their former supremacy. The sight of the devastated valley spurred the Southern troopers to the most valiant attacks, in spite of their inferior equipment. Again and again were charges made and returned on both sides. For two hours the honors were almost even, the Confederates holding the center, while the Federal cavalry pushed back the flanks. Finally Merritt and Custer ordered a charge along the whole line, and at last the Confederates broke.

[252] flanks gave way, Merritt and Custer ordered a charge along their entire line. The retreat of Rosser's force became a panic-stricken rout, which continued for twenty-six miles up the Shenandoah valley. Eleven pieces of artillery, three hundred and thirty prisoners, ambulances, caissons, and even the headquarters' wagons of the Confederate commanders were captured by the Federal troops.

Early ascribed his defeat to Sheridan's superiority in numbers and equipment, and to the fact that Lomax's cavalry was armed entirely with rifles and had no sabers; that as a consequence they could not fight on horseback, and in open country could not successfully fight on foot with large bodies of well-trained cavalry.

In the brilliant part taken by Sheridan's cavalry in retrieving the misfortunes of the morning of October 19, 1864, when the Union Camp at Cedar Creek was surprised and routed — with “Sheridan only twenty miles away” --resulting in the final defeat and pursuit of the Confederate army, the Federal cavalry alone captured 45 pieces of artillery, 32 caissons, 46 army wagons, 672 prisoners, and an enormous quantity of other property.

This battle, which Sheridan's magnetic presence turned into a great victory, was followed by a number of small but highly successful cavalry movements, culminating on March 27, 1865, in Sheridan's veteran cavalry corps joining the Army of the Potomac in front of Petersburg for the final campaign against Lee.

In the Valley Campaign Sheridan's cavalry captured 2556 prisoners, 71 guns, 29 battle-flags, 52 caissons, 105 army wagons, 2557 horses, 1000 horse equipments, and 7152 beef cattle. It destroyed, among other things, 420,742 bushels of wheat, 780 barns, and over 700,000 rounds of ammunition.

Meanwhile, during the years of vicissitudes which marked the evolution of the cavalry of the East, from a multitude of weak detachments lacking organization, equipment, [253]

Cavalry that closed in on Richmond While Sheridan's troopers were distinguishing themselves in the Shenandoah, the cavalry of the Army of the James, which was closing around Richmond, were doing their part. This photograph shows the Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry, or “Cameron Dragoons,” part of the second brigade, in winter-quarters. It was taken in the fall of 1864, on the scene of the engagement at Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road, October 29th of that year. Brigadier-General August V. Kautz had led them on a raid on the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad May 5th to 11th, and on the Richmond and Danville Railroad May 12th to 17th. On June 9th they went to Petersburg and remained there during the siege operations until the Southern Capital fell. During all this time they reversed the situation of the early part of the war, and incessantly harassed the Army of Northern Virginia by constant raids, cutting its communications, and attacking its supply trains.

[254] and training to a veteran army, filled with confidence in itself and in its commanders, the cavalry of the West had been equally unfortunate in its slow and discouraging development of fighting efficiency.

Under General Rosecrans, as early as 1862, the cavalry of the Army of the Cumberland was organized into three brigades under General David S. Stanley, but the mounted force actually at the disposal of its commander was but four thousand effective men. Although actively engaged, particularly in curbing the depredations of the Confederate cavalry under Forrest, its operations were not especially important. Nevertheless, at Stone's River, at Knoxville, at Chickamauga, and at other important battles, the cavalry of the West did desperate fighting and, considering its numbers, was not lacking in efficiency.

The cavalry which General Sherman assembled for his Atlanta campaign numbered about fifteen thousand sabers, organized into four divisions, and it participated with credit in all the celebrated movements and engagements of Sherman's army between May and August, 1864. Protecting the rear and preventing the destruction of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad by Wheeler's enterprising cavalry, some Union cavalry under Rousseau remained at Decatur until by a rapid and circuitous march around Johnston's Confederate army, in which he destroyed immense quantities of stores and damaged several railroads, Rousseau joined Sherman near Atlanta. After the fall of the latter city, a cavalry division of over five thousand men under Kilpatrick, accompanied Sherman on his famous march to the sea.

Up to this time the activities of the Union cavalry in the Southwest, while noted for boldness and celerity of movement, for endurance, and for accomplishment of results, though hampered by many drawbacks, were not yet distinguished by any of those great cavalry combats which marked the development of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac. [255]

Richmond at last-april, 1865 There is no need now for the troopers' carbines which can be seen projecting beside their saddles just as the cavalry rode into Richmond. The smoke still rising from the city's ruins seems to be the last great shuddering sigh of the Confederacy. The sight of the stark, blackened walls rising around them in the noonday sun brings but little joy to the hearts of the troopers. These ruined piles of brick and mortar are the homes of their brothers who fought a good fight. A few days from now, in the fullness of their hearts, the Union soldiers will be cheering their erstwhile foes at Appomattox. One more cavalry exploit, the capture of Lee's provision trains by Sheridan, which Grant in his delicacy did not reveal to the stricken commander, and the cavalry operations are over. Horses and men go back to the pursuits of peace.


Towards the close of October, 1864, however, General James H. Wilson, who had commanded a cavalry division in Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah, and who had been instrumental in raising the efficiency of the cavalry service through the Cavalry Bureau, reported to Sherman, in Alabama, and began a thorough reorganization, a remounting and re-equipping of the cavalry corps of Sherman's army.

Wilson's cavalry corps speedily made itself felt as an integral part of the army, taking a prominent part in the battle of Franklin, scoring a decisive victory over Forrest's cavalry under Chalmers, and pressing the foe so closely that the Confederate troopers were actually driven into the Harpeth River. This decisive action of the Union cavalry prevented Forrest from turning Schofield's left flank and cutting his line of retreat.

In the battle of Nashville, which followed (December 15-16, 1864), Wilson's dismounted cavalry gallantly stormed the strong Confederate earthworks side by side with their comrades of the infantry. General Thomas mentions the part taken by this cavalry as follows:

Whilst slightly swinging to the left, [the cavalry] came upon a redoubt containing four guns, which was splendidly carried by assault, at 1 P. M., by a portion of Hatch's division, dismounted, and the captured guns turned upon the enemy. A second redoubt, stronger than the first, was next assailed and carried by the same troops that carried the first position, taking four more guns and about three hundred prisoners. The infantry, McArthur's division, on the left of the cavalry, . . . participated in both of the assaults; and, indeed, the dismounted cavalry seemed to vie with the infantry who should first gain the works; as they reached the position nearly simultaneously, both lay claim to the artillery and prisoners captured.

But the gallant part taken by Wilson's cavalry in these operations is best exemplified by the spoils of war. During and after the battle of Nashville, and including prisoners taken in the hospitals at Franklin, the Union cavalry captured 2 strong redoubts, 32 field guns, 11 caissons, 12 colors, 3232 [257]

The Federal cavalry and their reward--May, 1865 Shoulders squared, accouterments shining, all of the troops in perfect alignment, a unified, splendidly equipped and disciplined body, the Federal cavalry marched up Pennsylvania Avenue on that glorious sunshiny day in May when the Union armies held their grand review in Washington. What a change from the long night rides and the terrible moments of the crashing charge was this holiday parade, when not a trooper thought of sleeping in the saddle which had often proved his only bed. The battles are over now. Never again will their ears be riven by the agonized shriek of a wounded horse, said by many a cavalryman to be the most horrible sound in the field of battle. Never again will they bend over the silent body of a wounded friend. Men die more quietly than their mounts. This is an arm of the service that proved itself. From early disappointments and disasters, and dissipation of energy in useless details, it emerged a wonderfully effective fighting force that did much to hasten the surrender of the exhausted Confederacy.

[258] prisoners (including 1 general officer), 1 bridge train of 80 pontoons, and 125 wagons. Its own losses were 122 officers and men killed, 1 field-gun, 521 wounded, and 259 missing.

The following spring, while Wilson and his horsemen were sapping the very life blood of the Confederacy, Sheridan and his cavalry of the Army of the Potomac had been playing a most important part in the grand operations of that remarkable army, now under the direction of the inexorable Grant.

After joining Grant in front of Petersburg on March 27, 1865, Sheridan received instruction from his chief to move with his three cavalry divisions of nine thousand men near or through Dinwiddie, reaching the right and rear of the Confederate army, without attempting to attack the Confederates in position. Should the latter remain entrenched, Sheridan was to destroy the Danville and South Side railroads, Lee's only avenues of supply; and then either return to the Army of the Potomac, or to join Sherman in North Carolina. History shows that two of the Confederate infantry divisions and all of Lee's cavalry failed to push back five brigades of Sheridan's cavalry, fighting dismounted, in an effort to cut off the Confederate retreat.

In the desperate fighting which took place in the days following, it was the same splendid cavalry at Five Forks, which dashed dismounted over the Southern entrenchments, carrying all before them.

And finally, on April 6th, at Sailor's Creek, after desperate and exhausting fighting by Custer's and Devin's divisions, it was Crook with his cavalry which intercepted the Confederate line of retreat, cut off three of Lee's hard-pressed infantry divisions, and made possible the surrender at Appomattox of the gallant but exhausted Army of Northern Virginia.

1 Journal United States Cavalry Association, March, 1895.

2 Journal Military Service Institution for March, 1910, p. 343.

3 Everglade to Cañon, N. Y., 1873.

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