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9. cavalry pickets, scouts and couriers

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

A veteran scout of the thirteenth New York cavalry


Why Federal cavalry history began late: cavalry with infantry on provost-guard duty. These four Federal troopers holding their horses, side by side with an equal number of infantry, are typical of the small detachments that split up the cavalry into units of little value during the first two years of the war. The cavalry also furnished guides, orderlies, and grooms for staff officers. The authorities divided it up so minutely among corps, division, and brigade commanders as completely to subvert its true value. It was assigned to accompany the slow-moving wagon-trains, which could have been equally well guarded by an infantry detail, and was practically never used as a coherent whole. “Detachments from its strength were constantly increased, and it was hampered by instructions which crippled it for all useful purposes.” This photograph was taken in February, 1865, after the cavalry had proved itself. The companies attached at that time to the provost-guard were Company K of the First Indiana Cavalry, Companies C and D of the First Massachusetts Cavalry, and the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry. The officer is inspecting the arms of the Zouaves at the right, and the troopers with their white gauntlets are much more spick and span than if they were assigned to the long rides and open air life of active campaigning.

[183] [184]

Cavalry guarding the Orange & Alexandria railroad, 1864: ready to forestall a Confederate raid. Here it is apparent why the Northern generals found it necessary to detach large portions of their armies along their lines of communication, to guard against the impending raids of the Confederate cavalry. The destruction of the bridge in this photograph, part of Grant's line of communication in the Wilderness campaign, would have delayed his movements for days and have compelled him to detach a strong body to recapture the railroad, and another to rebuild the bridge. Hence this strong force detailed as a guard. Cavalry boots and sabers are visible in the photograph, with the revolver, distinctive of that branch of the service. The photographer evidently posed his men. Note the hands thrust into the breasts of their jackets, or clasped in front of them, the folded arms, and the jaunty attitudes. The two boys at the left of the picture seem hardly old enough to be real soldiers. The tangle of underbrush along the banks suggest the mazes of the Wilderness where Grant was baffled in his overland campaign.



Outposts and cavalry pickets.

An army on the march is protected from surprise and annoyance by advance, rear, and flank guards, or by independent cavalry scouting far to the front until contact with the enemy is established. When it halts, its security is maintained through outposts, instructed to observe the front and flanks while it sleeps, and to act as a barrier to the entrance of patrols and spies, or to resist strenuously any sudden and unexpected advance of a hostile force.

Outpost duty, therefore, is most important, not alone as a protective measure, but because deductions from many campaigns have shown that troops which suffer continuously from many night alarms either lose nerve or become indifferent, so that, in either case, discipline and efficiency suffer.

In the Federal armies, outpost or picket duty in the presence of their enterprising adversaries was ever fatiguing, nerveracking, and dangerous. Organizations went on picket for twenty-four continuous hours, and, in the cavalry, horses at the advanced posts remained saddled and bridled for hours at a time, ready for instant use. Except by the supports and reserves, the lighting of fires and cooking of food, when in close contact with the Confederates, were forbidden, but many a strip of bacon and occasionally a stolen chicken were fried surreptitiously in a safe hiding-place. Although a farmhouse was oftentimes available, horses and troopers were usually without shelter, and this, in rainy or freezing weather, made outpost duty an uncomfortable, if not a thrilling, experience.

The nervous period for the vedette was between midnight [187]

Cavalry at Sudley's ford Bull Run Not until the time this photograph was taken--March, 1862--did the Union cavalrymen revisit this little ford after the disastrous rout of the inchoate Federal army the July previous. The following March, the Confederate commander Johnston left his works at Centerville for the Peninsula, having learned that McClellan's move on Richmond would take that direction. This group of cavalrymen is advancing across the stream near the ford where they had so gallantly protected the Federal flight only a few months before. At the time this was taken, the Federal Government had already changed its first absurd decision to limit its cavalry to six regiments of regulars, and from the various States were pouring in the regiments that finally enabled the Union cavalry to outnumber and outwear the exhausted Southern horse in 1864 and 1865.

[188] and daybreak, when all was still and dark and mysterious. For the inexperienced soldier, with eyes and ears at extraordinary tension, the grunting of a predatory hog or the browsing of a calf was quite sufficient to create alarm.

Again, when the excitement had subsided, and eyes had grown drowsy from lack of sleep, steps among the trees would bring the sharp challenge and colloquy:

Halt! Who comes there?

“A friend.”

“Advance, friend, with the countersign.”

Sometimes the “friend” was an officer, making his rounds of inspection; sometimes a countryman who had never heard of the countersign. Occasionally the answer to the countersign was a rush of feet, a blow, and the driving — in of the outpost by a force of the foe, or by guerrillas.

The tendency of the raw recruit was to see a gray uniform behind every stump, tree, or bush, and in the early period of the Civil War, the rifle-firing by opposing pickets, especially at night, was constant and uninterrupted. Many a time, too, the lone sentinel or vedette was shot down in cold blood.

A member of one of the first organized companies of Union sharpshooters tells a story of creeping with his comrades, in the early morning hours, upon a Confederate outpost. The break of a lovely day was just showing red in the eastern sky. The range to the hostile picket was considerable, but the rifles of the sharpshooters were equipped with telescopic sights.

Through the glass, a tall, soldierly-looking cavalry officer in Confederate gray could be seen through the morning mist, sitting motionless on his black charger, admiring the dawn. The rifles were leveled; the telescopic sights were adjusted on the poor fellow's chest; the triggers were pulled in unison, and although too distant to hear a sound from the outpost, the cavalryman was seen to fall dead from his horse. To the narrator, an inexperienced New England lad, such deeds were wanton murder, and he made haste to transfer to a cavalry command, [189]

Guarding a pontoon-bridge These cavalrymen posted at the strategic point known as Varuna Landing, across the James River, in 1864, are engaged in no unimportant task. The Federals were by no means sure that Lee's veterans would not again make a daring move northward. However, by this time (1864) the true value of the Federal cavalry had been appreciated by the authorities; it was being used in mass on important raids, and had been given a chance to show its prowess in battle. But not until after Hooker reorganized the Army of the Potomac in 1863 was the policy definitely abandoned of splitting up the cavalry into small detachments for minor duties, and of regarding it merely as an adjunct of the infantry.

[190] not equipped with telescopic sights and hair-trigger rifles. But as the war progressed, this constant firing by sentinels and vedettes disappeared, and opposing pickets began to comprehend that this was not war. To the guerrillas, who killed to rob and loot, it was, of course, a different matter.

The time came when the “Yankee” troopers exchanged newspapers, bacon, or hardtack with the “Johnny Rebs,” for tobacco or its equivalent, or they banteringly invited each other to come out and meet half-way between the lines of outposts.

It was two years before the true role of cavalry was understood by the Federal commanders. During that early period, the constant use of the mounted branch as outposts for infantry divisions and army corps, was largely responsible for cavalry inefficiency, and for the tremendous breaking-down of horse-flesh. Indeed, it was not until 1864 that Sheridan impressed upon Meade the wastefulness of thus rendering thousands of cavalry mounts unserviceable through unnecessary picket duty, which could be as well performed by infantry.

But many opportunities for brave and gallant deeds occurred on outpost duty, albeit many such were performed in obscurity, and were thus never lauded to the world as heroic.

One such deed, which fortunately did not escape recognition, was that of Sergeant Martin Hagan, of the Second United States Cavalry. When the city of Fredericksburg was evacuated by the Union army on December 13, 1862, Sergeant Hagan was left behind in charge of an outpost detachment of seven troopers, with orders to remain until relieved.

For some reason or other, Hagan was not relieved, and remained at his post with his pitiably small force until the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia began entering the town. Then Hagan and.his troopers succeeded in delaying the advanced troops by skirmishing. Subsequently learning that the bridges over the Rappahannock behind him had been removed, and that his outpost was the only Union force in Fredericksburg, he retired, stubbornly disputing every foot of his [191]

A Federal cavalry “detail” guarding a wagon-train, 1862 These troopers bending over their saddles in the cold autumn wind, as the wagon-train jolts along the Rappahannock bank, are one of the many “details” which dissipated the strength and impaired the efficiency of the cavalry as a distinct arm of the service during the first two years of the war. They carried revolvers, as well as their sabers and carbines, for they had to be ready for sudden attack, an ambush, a night rush, or the dash of the swift Southern raiders who helped provision the Confederate armies from Northern wagon-trains.

[192] way with a brigade of Confederate cavalry, until the banks of the Rappahannock were reached. Here, seeing his men and their horses well over the river, he plunged in himself under a shower of balls, and swam across without the loss of a man, horse, or article of equipment. For this gallant act of “valor and fidelity,” this cavalry sergeant was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.


At the beginning of the Civil War, what is now known as military information or intelligence was not appreciated as it was later. The organization of the scout service was not perfected; accurate military maps of the theater of operations were almost wholly lacking, and many commanders accepted the gage of battle with no very comprehensive idea of the foe's numbers, position, and morale, and with no accurate conception of the topography of the battlefield.

As the military organization of the Union armies was perfected, however, and the newly made officers learned their lesson in the stern school of experience, the importance of scouting became apparent, and this use of cavalry developed into a necessary preliminary to every serious encounter.

Perhaps no branch of the military operations of the Civil War gave such opportunities for individual intelligence, initiative, nerve, daring, resourcefulness, tact, and physical endurance, as the constant scouting by the cavalry of the opposing armies between the great battles of the war. It required bold riding combined with caution, keen eyesight and ready wit, undaunted courage — not recklessness an appreciation of locality amounting to a sixth sense, and above all other things a mind able to differentiate between useful and useless information.

The increased importance given to scouting, as the cavalry of the Federal armies gained in experience and efficiency, by no means did away with the use of paid civilian spies. But the [193]

Watching at Rappahannock station a Federal cavalry picket in 1862 in danger at the time this photograph was taken This picture of August, 1862, shows one of the small cavalry details posted to guard the railroad at Rappahannock Station. The Confederate cavalry, operating in force, could overcome these details as easily as they could drive away an equal number of infantry, and unless it was on account of their superior facilities for flight, there was little use in using the mounted branch of the service instead of the infantry. On the other hand the Union cavalry was so constantly crippled by having its strength dissipated in such details that it was unable to pursue the Confederate raiders. Before this scene, the summer and fall of 1862, Pope and Lee had been maneuvering for position along each side of the Rappahannock River. Pope had established a tete-de-pont at this railroad station, and on August 22d Longstreet feinted strongly against it in order to divert Pope's attention from Jackson's efforts to turn his right flank. Longstreet and Stuart burned the railroad bridge, and drove the Federals from the tete-de-pont, after a contest of several hours' duration.

[194] information furnished by soldier scouts served as a check upon untrustworthy civilians — sometimes employed as spies by both sides — and enabled the Union commanders to substantiate valuable information secured from prisoners, newspapers, and former slaves. As in a great many other things, the Confederate cavalry excelled in the use of trained officers as scouts — officers' patrols, as they are called nowadays — men whose opinion of what they observed was worth something to their commanders; while the Federal leaders were very slow to appreciate that false or faulty military information, in that it is misleading, is worse than no information at all.

In many cases loyal inhabitants of the border States were utilized as scouts, men who knew each trail and by-path, and who were more or less familiar with Confederate sentiment in their own and adjoining counties. These men were placed in a most uncomfortable position, suspected by their friends and neighbors at home, and looked upon with suspicion by their military employers. Their service to their country was oftentimes heroic, and they frequently laid down their lives in her cause.

General Sheridan was one of the first of the Union commanders who appreciated, at its true value, the importance of the information service — a part of headquarters which should be systematically organized and disciplined, and whose reports as to topography and the location of the foe could be absolutely relied upon. Indeed, this was one of the secrets of Sheridan's almost uniform success. He was always well informed as to his opponent's movements, strength, and probable intentions.

After Sheridan's engagements in the Shenandoah valley at Clifton and Berryville, he decided to dispense almost entirely with the use of civilians and alleged Confederate deserters, and to depend entirely on Union scouts. For this purpose he organized a scout battalion recruited entirely from soldiers who volunteered for this dangerous duty. These troopers were disguised in the Confederate uniform when necessary, and were paid from secret-service funds. [195]

Cavalry to keep the peace — the “Oneida” company Cavalrymen playing cards, washing, smoking pipes, whittling sticks, indolently leaning against a tree, do not fulfill the usual conception of that dashing arm of the service. These are the Oneida Cavalry, used as provost-guards and orderlies throughout the war. Not a man of them was killed in battle, and the company lost only ten by disease. This does not mean that they did not do their full share of the work, but merely that they exemplified the indifference or ignorance on the part of many military powers as to the proper role of the cavalry. The “Oneidas” were attached to Stoneman's cavalry command with the Army of the Potomac from the time of their organization in September, 1861, to April, 1862. They did patrol duty and took care of the prisoners during several months in the latter year. Thereafter they acted as Headquarters escort until they were mustered out, June 13, 1865, and honorably discharged from the service.


This assumption of the Confederate uniform, giving these soldiers the character of spies, caused Sheridan's scouts to be more or less disliked by the Cavalry Corps, and it has been stated on good authority that they were frequently fired upon deliberately by their own side, under the pretense of being taken for the foe. These scouts literally took their lives in their hands, and it required all their ready wit to escape being killed or captured by either the one side or the other. But the independence of the service, its constant risk, as well as patriotic impulses in the case of many, fascinated and appealed to a certain class of men, and they kept Sheridan well informed at all times.

The specially selected scouts of the Federal armies usually were mounted on the best available horses, and were furnished fresh remounts whenever occasion required — or they helped themselves to what the country afforded. The best scouting was done by cavalry troopers working in pairs, on the principle that two pairs of eyes are better than one pair. So in case of surprise, at least one scout might escape.

Sheridan's scouts were usually excellent pistol shots, and were encouraged to carry several revolvers in their belts or saddle holsters. They carried no sabers lest the rattle of scabbards or the gleam of bright metal attract the attention of the Southern scouts and betray their presence. The most experienced scouts traveled light. Many times they were forced to ride for their lives, and an extra pound or two made a difference in the weight-carrying speed of their horses. They usually left their grain and clothing in the headquarters' wagons, and managed to live off the country.

Sheridan's disguised scouts became expert in picking up the stragglers of the opposing army and in questioning them, and even went to the extent of riding around the Confederate columns and wagon trains. If detected, their fleet horses usually put considerable distance between them and their pursuers, but they were ever ready to shoot, and instances have been recorded of one of their number holding off four men. [197]

Life in the cavalry.

Waving sabers in battle, as the cavalryman soon learned, consumed but a small part of his time as compared with handling pickaxes and felling trees. In this photograph the cavalry detail at the Headquarters of General Adelbert Ames is breaking ground to build a camp. The men have just arrived, and the horses are still saddled. A barrel is supplying draft for a temporary fireplace, and even the dog is alert and excited. The faces gazing out of the photograph below are of men who more than once have looked death in the face and have earned their comparative rest. A pleasant change from active service is this Camp of Companies C and D of the First Massachusetts Cavalry. They had served at Antietam, at Kelly's Ford, at Brandy Station, at Gettysburg, in the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania, and in a host of minor operations before they were assigned to provost duty near the end of the war.

Building a cavalry camp

A rest in the woods




The risk taken by the despatch bearers of both armies, when occasion demanded, is well illustrated in the story of the fate of private William Spicer, of the Tenth Missouri Cavalry, who undertook to carry an order through the Confederate lines while Sherman was conducting his campaign in Mississippi. The cavalry of General Smith, numbering nearly seven thousand men, had been detached from the remainder of the army and sent away along the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, with orders to join the army near Meridian, on February 10, 1864.

Meanwhile, the main body had marched to Meridian, and there Sherman waited for Smith until the 18th, without receiving any tidings of the missing troopers. Then the remainder of the Federal cavalry, under Winslow, was ordered to scout twenty miles toward the direction from which Smith was expected, and to convey new orders to him. Winslow's forces reached their objective point at Lauderdale Springs, and still no news had been heard of Smith.

Scouts that traveled far into the surrounding country obtained no further news. As Winslow's orders allowed him to go no farther, he abandoned the search, but it was necessary that Smith receive Sherman's orders, and a volunteer was called for to carry the despatch through a country occupied by Forrest's cavalry, and other portions of Polk's army. The messenger would be forced to locate Smith in whatever manner he could, and then to reach him as quickly as possible.

From many volunteers, Private Spicer was finally chosen. He was an Arkansas man, and as many Confederate troops had been enlisted there, he was less likely to be suspected than a man from any of the Northern States. Spicer considered all the features of the case, and his final decision was to risk detection in the gray uniform of a Confederate. The Federals were supplied with uniforms taken from prisoners and captured wagons, which were kept for use in such an emergency [199]

A home becomes a cavalry stable: keeping fodder dry Fodder and equipment were scarcer in the field than men. Whether the trooper slept in the open or not, he took advantage of any and every facility to keep the fodder dry and protect his horses. This photograph shows a half-ruined and deserted house utilized for these two purposes. The saddles were laid beneath the shelter; those covered with rawhide instead of leather soon split if wet, and when cracked were far from comfortable. This, like the scene below, was taken near City Point in 1864.

Quickly improvised stalls: quarters for horses The trooper's first regard was for the comfort of his horse, not only in the matter of feeding and watering, but also in respect to providing him with comfortable quarters. Along the crest of the hill stretches a row of stalls improvised with poles, to afford each horse room enough to lie down and not be walked on or kicked by his neighbor-room was essential for the hard-worked horses. The haze in the distance indicates the Virginia summer of 1864--a trying one for members of the mounted service.

[200] as this, and Spicer was provided with one that fitted him well. It was the evening of February 23d, when he rode northward, on his search for the missing cavalry.

With the tact of a scout well drilled in his work, he followed each little clue on his northward ride, until he had learned where Smith could be found. On the morning following his exit from his camp, he met several bodies of Confederates, who passed him with little notice.

Then another band was met. Spicer saluted; the salute was returned, and the Confederates were passing him, as the others had. But suddenly one of the party stopped and looked closely at the lone rider. The Confederates halted and Spicer was ordered to dismount. The man who had called the commander's attention to the courier stepped before Spicer. The courier recognized him as a neighbor in Arkansas.

With all the ingenuity at his command the courier fought to allay the suspicions of the Confederates, but slowly and surely the case against him was built up. Then a drumhead court martial was held in the middle of the road. The verdict was soon reached, and Spicer was hanged to a near-by tree.

One of the swiftest and most daring courier trips of the war was made, immediately after the second battle of Bull Run, by Colonel Lafayette C. Baker, a special agent of the War Department, acting as courier for Secretary Stanton. He was sent from Washington with a message to General Banks, whose troops were at Bristoe Station, and, as was then believed, cut off from Pope's main army. Riding all night, making his way cautiously along, Baker passed through the entire Confederate army, and at daylight had reached Banks.

Waiting only for a response to the message, the despatch bearer remounted his horse and started the return trip to Washington in broad daylight. For a time he eluded the Confederates, but finally, as he attempted to pass between certain lines, he was seen, and a party of cavalrymen started in pursuit of him. In spite of the distance traveled, his horse [201]

Cavalry scouts near Gettysburg--1863 Nothing could illustrate better than this vivid photograph of scouts at White's house, near Gettysburg, a typical episode in the life of a cavalry scout. The young soldier and his companions are evidently stopping for directions, or for a drink of water or milk. The Pennsylvania farmers were hospitable. The man of the family has come to the front gate. His empty right sleeve seems to betoken an old soldier, greeting old friends, and asking for news from the front. The lady in her hoop-skirt remains on the porch with her little boy. His chubby legs are visible beneath his frock, and he seems to be hanging back in some awe of the troopers who are but boys themselves. The lady's hair is drawn down around her face after the fashion of the day, and the whole picture is redolent of the stirring times of 1863.

[202] raced away at a speed that soon left a number of the cavalry-men in the rear. Finally, the number of pursuers dwindled to three, and the courier, crossing the brow of a small hill, turned his horse into the woods bordering the turnpike.

The ruse was successful, and the three Confederate cavalrymen dashed on down the hill. A short distance farther along one of the horsemen abandoned the chase and started to return. As he came abreast of Stanton's courier, a movement of Baker's horse attracted the Confederate's attention and he stopped. The cavalryman saw the courier and started to cover him with his rifle, but Baker was prepared. The Federal's revolver cracked, and the Southerner fell from his saddle.

The other Confederates had given up the chase and were returning when they heard the shot. They rushed back in time to see Baker's steed galloping across an open field to reach the road in front of them, and dashed to intercept him. The Federal was the first to reach the road, and again the pursuit commenced. Baker turned into the fields, and with the pursuers close behind him started a last race for Bull Run.

The despatch bearer's horse was panting and exhausted, but, with the grit of a blooded racer it struggled on, holding the pursuers almost at the same distance. With a final dash Baker reached the bank, leaped into the stream and started for the opposite shore. The creek was little more than twelve yards wide at that point and the horse soon reached the other side, but there a steep bank several feet high confronted it, and it could not climb out. With revolver ready the courier waited, prepared to offer his last resistance, when a shot rang out. It was the pickets of the Federal army firing on the Confederates, who abandoned their pursuit at the first shot. The messenger made his way into Centreville, and mounting another horse dashed on toward Washington.

It was late afternoon when he delivered the messages from Banks to the Secretary. In twenty-four hours the courier had ridden nearly one hundred miles. [203]

A change of base — the cavalry screen This photograph of May 30, 1864, shows the Federal cavalry in actual operation of a most important function — the “screening” of the army's movements. The troopers are guarding the evacuation of Port Royal on the Rappahannock, May 30, 1864. After the reverse to the Union arms at Spottsylvania, Grant ordered the change of base from the Rappahannock to McClellan's former starting-point, White House on the Pamunkey. The control of the waterways, combined with Sheridan's efficient use of the cavalry, made this an easy matter. Torbert's division encountered Gordon's brigade of Confederate cavalry at Hanovertown and drove it in the direction of Hanover Court House. Gregg's division moved up to this line; Russell's division of infantry encamped near the river-crossing in support, and behind the mask thus formed the Army of the Potomac crossed the Pamunkey on May 28th unimpeded. Gregg was then ordered to reconnoiter towards Mechanicsville, and after a severe fight at Hawes' shop he succeeded (with the assistance of Custer's brigade) in driving Hampton's and Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry divisions and Butler's brigade from the field. Although the battle took place immediately in front of the Federal infantry, General Meade declined to put the latter into action, and the battle was won by the cavalry alone. It was not to be the last time.

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