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The Confederate cavalry.

Its wants, trials, and heroism.

An Address by Hon. John Lamb, late Captain of cavalry, C. S. Army.

[This graphic presentation has several times been delivered before appreciative audiences of veterans, orally, and from the fullness of his heart, by our faithful representative in Congress of the first Virginia District. It is now printed, from the first ‘committal to paper in full,’ made at the request of the Editor.]

In order to form a proper estimate of the services rendered by the Confederate cavalry during the war between the States, we must consider the difficulties under which they labored. The Confederate government was unable to supply horses for all the men who volunteered in this service. The government entered into a contract with the soldier to take his horse at a fair valuation, and furnish food and keep him shod and pay a per diem of forty cents for his use. If the horse was killed, the owner received the muster valuation, but should the horse be captured or worn out in the service, the loss fell on the owner, and he was compelled to furnish another, or be transferred to some other arm of the service. The adoption of such a policy was a misfortune, and resulted in weakening this important branch of the service. The losses and hardships thus imposed on these patriotic men was keenly felt by them and their company officers. At first, all acquiesced cheerfully. Virginia was full of fine horses, and her gallant sons were ready to give up every species of property in aid of the government. But as the war progressed, at some periods half of the command were away at one time on horse details, as they were called; and many noble fellows were reported ‘absent without leave’ because they were unable to purchase a horse and return to their commands within the time prescribed. To punish them would have been an act of injustice, so this led to relaxation of discipline and the cavalry became too much a volunteer association. The men who composed it, particularly during the first two years of the war, were well-to-do farmers and planters, more accustomed to commanding than obeying, and they chafed under military discipline. They criticised freely every officer from the General down, but when the [360] time came for actio they rode bravely into the thickest of the fight. At the reorganization of the army, in front of General McClellan's position at Yorktown, many officers whose ideas of military discipline were far in advance of the views held by their volunteer soldiers, and more in line with the regular army, were left out, and ‘more sociable and better fellows’ put in their places. In some instances this was unfortunate, and in others it was for the best. About this time the cavalry went through a weeding process. Many doctors were promoted to surgeons in the army, men of influence secured other positions, the commissary and quartermaster department had to be supplied with competent clerks, elderly men found it convenient to go home to raise supplies for the army, a few were taken sick and sent off on furloughs, which were renewed continually until a final discharge came. The gap thus made was quickly filled by recruits, often boys from sixteen to twenty years of age, who made splendid soldiers after a few months' experience. Some companies were recuperated by transfers from the infantry, who were influenced at first, no doubt, by the desire for an easier service, and the comforts of horseback, but in this they were sorely disappointed, for, through two years of the hardest warfare ever experienced by men, they had to fight as infantry all day, and then provide, as best they could, food for their horses at night, and then, early the next morning, feed and curry their horses and repeat the exercises of the previous day. Many of these men were poor, some of them very poor, and it was always a mystery how they kept mounted. Many a gallant fellow, whose horse had been wounded or worn out in the service—for these he could get no pay—impoverished himself and denied his family that he might stay with his command and not be transferred to other arms of the service, or enrolled in ‘Company Q.’ Many brave men whose horses were in the recruiting camps were forced to remain in the dismounted camp. A history of the cavalry would be incomplete without an appendix telling of the trials and mortifications and encounters of ‘Company Q.’ Never having marched or fought with this command, I am unable to do the subject justice, but there are men living who can tell us of their perilous foraging expeditions as well as their heroic defense of our wagon trains.

These drawbacks, and others which might be mentioned, greatly reduced the fighting numbers of this service. Thus, at Kelly's Ford, March 17th, 1863, Fitz Lee's brigade only mustered eight hundred men when it should never have been less than twenty-four [361] hundred. Even at Chancellorsville, when a large number had returned from horse details, they only numbered fifteen hundred.

Then the lack of arms and equipments placed the cavalry at great disadvantage. These men had to furnish their own saddles and bridles at the beginning of the war. The English roundtree saddle, pleasant and useful at home, soon made soreback horses, and the horrors and discomforts of a soreback horse cannot be described here. After a while the government provided a saddle that helped the soreback horse very much, but many an old cavalryman remembers to this day how sore he was made by these saddles. Had the Federals been compelled to use such, the pension rolls would be much larger to-day, from ‘injuries received in the service.’ The question of arms was even more serious. At first many companies were armed with shot guns, and some counties had supplied their volunteer companies with good pistols, but many regiments were without these, even. Some North Carolina regiments were armed with Enfield rifles. An old Confederate carbine or sabre, such as were first issued to the cavalry, would be a curiosity now. They were soon thrown away, for our men ‘borrowed’ their arms and equipments from the Federal troopers. They began this exercise early in the war, and pursued it industriously until nearly every company was well supplied. Along in 1864, Sheridan's people protested against this business, and it became more difficult to pursue it with success. But the work had been accomplished, and on many well fought fields these Southern men from South Carolina and North Carolina and Virginia, met the brave mounted infantry of Sheridan's command with arms and ammunition and saddles and bridles, and often horses, that were rich trophies of battle.

The student of history to-day is astonished to find so little bearing on the numerous splendid fights participated in by the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the observation applies with equal force to the operations of the commands under Forrest and Morgan and Wheeler further South. With the exception of McClellan's Life of Stuart and the Campaigns of General Forrest, by Jordan and Pryor, you will find nothing of importance in the Congressional Library at Washington, and the records of the War Department are meagre from the fact that no reports were made by the regimental and brigade commanders of many engagements, while the minor conflicts—of almost every-day occurrence—were only subjects for discussion around the camp-fires, and furnished material for letters to the soldier's family and friends. How many readers of [362] history to-day know anything of the cavalry fight at Fleetwood, six miles from Culpeper Courthouse, June 9th, 1863, where twenty thousand horsemen were engaged from early in the morning until nightfall? Many men are living now who witnessed the great pageant, and saw the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of war in the review of ten thousand horsemen by General R. E. Lee on the lovely fields of Culpeper the 8th of June, 1863. Many a young man in the flush and vigor of manhood, rode proudly past the commanding general that day, who, before another day's sun had sunk behind the western hills, was sleeping his last sleep, having fought his last battle.

The survivor's of Stuart's cavalry can never forget these two days of their history. The splendid scenery around Brandy Station; the broad fields clothed in green; the long lines of troopers, marching by fours, on every road leading to the place of rendezvous, and forming into squadrons and regiments and brigades, under the eye of Stuart and General R. E. Lee; the review; and then the return to camp and one more night's rest before the bloody encounter of the 9th. The memories of that day of carnage and death; the charge and counter-charge; the shouts of victory; the hasty retreat when columns were broken; the re-formation and renewed attack; the quick death of some and the dying groans of others; the ghastly wounds—all these come before the mind's eye as memory recalls the scene. On this day, when the cavalry was so successfully resisting Pleasanton's reconnoisance in force to ascertain the position of our army, then moving through the village of Culpeper Courthouse on the Gettysburg campaign, General Lee was near Culpeper, and wrote these touching lines to Mrs. Lee: ‘I reviewed the cavalry in this section yesterday. It was a splendid sight. The men and horses looked well. They had recuperated since last fall. Stuart was in all his glory. The country here looks very green and pretty, notwithstanding the ravages of war. What a beautiful world God, in his loving kindness to his creatures, has given us. What a shame that men, endowed with reason and a knowledge of right, should mar his gifts.’

The forces engaged in the battle of Fleetwood consisted, on the Federal side, of three divisions of cavalry—twenty-four regiments—and two brigades of infantry, consisting of ten regiments, numbering in all nearly 11,000 men. All of these, save Russell's infantry, were engaged in battle. On the Confederate side there were five brigades of cavalry, containing twenty-one regiments, the whole numbering 9,500 men. Robinson's brigade was not engaged [363] at all; so that the Federals must have greatly outnumbered the Confederates.

The losses sustained show the severity of the engagement. The Confederate loss was 530, and the Federal 936 killed and wounded.

We have often heard the facetious infantryman inquire, as we filed through their camps, ‘Whoever saw a dead mule or a dead cavalryman?’

Had they been present that day their curiosity would have been fully satisfied.

When war's alarm sounded, and the cry ‘to arms!’ was heard from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, these valorous knights, animated with a devotion as pure and sacred as ever nerved the heart or fired the breast of the true and tried, in the days of chivalry, turned from their peaceful pursuits, and, encouraged by the approving smiles of the fair women of the South, marshaled under the ensigns prepared by their own fair hands and presented with the injunction that living they were to defend it, or dying make it the winding sheet to enwrap them for Immortality.

The history of the sacrifices of these noble spirits and their heroic struggles against superior numbers has not yet been written.

It is imperative that each officer should in his turn write the history of his own command.

Isolated—often by companies, regiments and brigades—they fought a thousand splendid engagements, the recital of the story of which would eclipse the deeds of Hernando Cortes, and the romance of which there is scarcely a record.

Said a distinguished writer during the war, ‘How unfortunate it is that so many fine engagements of the cavalry are lost sight of in the great battles of infantry and artillery that follow.’ He was doubtless referring to the very fight we have described, or to the brilliant engagement of Fitz Lee at Todd's Tavern, where that daring and gallant commander, with Wickham's and Lomax's brigades, held back Sheridan's cavalry and a portion of the Fifth Army Corps a day and a night, until Longstreet could reach the scene of action and place his seared ranks in front of Grant's heavy colums.

Ten thousand stories unchronicled on the historic page are told by comfortable hearthstones, or wherever comrades meet; stories of hardship and ever recurring dangers, where they fell—not by scores and hundreds it may be—but by twos and tens; on the outposts, in advance guards, in surprises, by the camp-fires as they slept—or [364] waking, died midst flame and smoke, or, yet, in the grand charge by fours—by squadrons or in the line where the earth trembled, as it does when volcanic fires are throbbing at its heart. Stories of officers and men—living and dead—the Lees sharing the name and rivaling the name of Light Horse Harry, Rosser and Murat of the mounted charge, and the glorious Cavalier of the Palmetto State, who we have seen carve his name on the roll of fame, high among the civic heroes of this age; of ‘Maryland! My Maryland!’and the brave men who knew no boundary line between their own and the ‘mother of States.’ One patriotic duty the survivors of the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia aided by the Sons of Veterans, and particularly the grateful women of Virginia, will soon perform, and that is, erect a suitable shaft to the memory of the Prince of Cavaliers, whom Virginia nurtured in the time of her resplendent glories. As we recall his pure and noble life, his unselfish devotion to his country, his heroic defense of her capital city, and his untimely death, we exclaim:

There is no prouder name even in thy own proud clime,
We tell thy doom without a sigh,
For thou art freedom's now, and fame's!
One of the few—the immortal names that were not born to die!

While the story of Thermopylae fires the heart of patriotism, and the charge at Balaklava brightens the lamp of chivalry, the deeds at Kelly's Ford, Brandy Station, Haw's Shop, Trevillian's and a hundred other places shall write them:

The knightliest of the knightly race,
     Who, since the days of old,
Have kept the lamp of chivalry
     Alight in hearts of gold.

While the historians of the North and South have been recording the battles that were fought in the War between the States, and Daniel, and McCabe, and Robinson, and Marshall, and Evans have drawn word-paintings of Gettysburg, the Crater, the Wilderness and Cold Harbor, until every veteran's son knows the part that was played by the infantry and artillery arms of the service, little has been recorded of the deeds performed by those who were both the eyes and ears of our army, who prepared the way for attack, prevented those dangerous flank movements, oftentimes fatal, and saved many a retreat from becoming a rout. Posterity will do justice to [365] the memory of these heroes, and the faithful and painstaking historian, gathering up the scraps of history found among the scattered records of a generation, will hand down to the next a true account of the deeds of their fathers. Thus, other nations will learn more of their exploits, and delight to do reverence to their heroism. From the frozen shores of the Baltic to the Isles of Greece, all Europe shall honor their chivalric souls and learn to measure their manhood by that of her own heroic slain. Scotland shall name them with those who fell at Bannockburn; England recognize them in the spirits of Balaklava, and France count them worthy to descend to posterity with those of her own Imperial Guard.

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