Union Cavalry

800px-UnionInfantryHollowSquareOn one of the forum boards that I regularly visit, someone asked for examples of infantry forming squares in echelon to defend against cavalry charges. The first response on the list was Brig. Gen. James H. Lane’s Confederate infantry brigade forming square at Gettysburg on July 1.

There’s a problem with that response. There is no proof that it happened. And it completely ignores the documented instance of Confederate infantry forming square to defend against a feinted cavalry charge that DID occur earlier in the afternoon of July 1, 1863.

For those unfamiliar with forming squares in echelon, it’s a classic Napoleonic tactic for infantry to defend against a cavalry charge. A good, concise explanation of the tactic, and how to try to break a square, can be found here. Yes, it’s a Wikipedia article, but it’s a good one and it is accurate. The photo is of a Union infantry regiment, formed up in a hollow square. Click on the photo to see a larger version of it.

Here’s the story about Lane’s supposed forming squares:

A determined attack by the Confederate infantry brigade of Col. Abner Perrin finally broke the last Union line of resistance on Seminary Ridge, driving the First Corps back toward Cemetery Hill. At 4:00 p.m., in imminent danger of being flanked by Perrin’s advance, Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday, the acting commander of the First Corps, sent staff officer Capt. Eminel P. Halstead in search of Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard, then overseeing efforts to cobble together defenses on East Cemetery Hill, looking for reinforcements. When Halstead reported the Confederate threat, Howard informed him that he had no reinforcements to spare, and suggested that Halstead “go to General [John] Buford, give him my compliments, and tell him to go to Doubleday’s support.” When Halstead asked Howard where to find Buford, Howard indicated that he did not know, but that he thought Buford was somewhere to the east of Cemetery Hill. Halstead set off to search for the Kentuckian.

After they were driven from the stone wall they had held until Perrin’s attack broke the Union line, Buford ordered Col. William Gamble’s weary troopers to fall into line on the Emmitsburg Road, where they were later joined by Devin’s brigade. There, Halstead found Buford, mounted on his thoroughbred war horse, Grey Eagle, overseeing the disposition of his cavalry. When Halstead delivered Howard’s order, the irate Buford “rose in his stirrups upon his tiptoes and exclaimed, ‘What in hell and damnation does he think I can do against those long lines of the enemy out there!’”

Halstead responded, “I don’t know anything about that, General, those are General Howard’s orders.”

“Very well,” replied Buford, “I will see what I can do.” Around 5:00 p.m., Buford ordered his mounted command to move out into the fields in front of Cemetery Hill, in plain view of the enemy. The sight so impressed Second Corps commander Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, sent by Meade to take command of the field, that he later recalled that, “one of the most inspiring sights of his military career was the splendid spectacle of that gallant cavalry, as it stood there unshaken and undaunted, in the face of the advancing Confederate infantry.”

Gamble sent elements of the 8th Illinois forward to remove fence rails and other impediments to a mounted charge. In line of battle, Buford’s exhausted troopers stood their ground, daring the Confederates of Brig. Gen. James H. Lane’s brigade to attack. Doubleday noted in his diary that night, “Having thus strengthened his right, General Hancock extended his line by posting Buford’s Cavalry…on the left. This gave us an appearance of strength we did not possess and the enemy did not press the attack, preferring to wait for reinforcements.” Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, the Army of the Potomac’s chief engineer, later recorded, “General Buford’s cavalry was all in line of battle between our position [on Cemetery Hill] and the enemy. Our cavalry presented a very handsome front, and I think probably checked the advance of the enemy.” Doubleday’s aide Halstead recounted, “the enemy, seeing the movement, formed squares in echelon, which delayed them and materially aided in the escape of the First Corps if it did not save a large portion of the remnant from capture.” Doubleday later recounted that with the feinted charge, Buford “rendered essential service…and prevented them from cutting us off from our line of retreat to Cemetery Hill.”

The problem is that Halstead’s post-war account–published in a paper that he presented to the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (a Union officers’ veterans’ organization)–is the ONLY source that claims that Lane formed square. None of the participants mentioned it in their contemporary after-action accounts. None of the other memoirs, letters, and other primary sources mention it. It simply cannot be corroborated by anyone. Undoubtedly, SOMETHING halted Lane’s advance that day. It was probably the sight of two full brigades of cavalry–roughly 2700 troopers–mounted, in line of battle, with sabers drawn, awaiting the order to charge. But there is no evidence that Lane actually gave the order to form squares by echelon, and there is no evidence that they actually did so. Instead, it appears that the feint was enough. Lane’s advance halted, which allowed time for the Union infantry to fall back safely from its very exposed position on Seminary Ridge to the positions that Hancock and Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, the Army of the Potomac’s chief engineer, had prepared on East Cemetery Hill.

The story of Lane’s Brigade overlooks another instance that day when Confederate infantry did, indeed, form square against a feinted charge by troopers of the 8th Illinois Cavalry of Gamble’s brigade.

About 1:00, advancing Confederate infantry of Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew’s brigade threatened the left flank of the First Corps near the end of modern-day Reynolds Avenue. Col. Chapman Biddle’s brigade held the end of Doubleday’s line. Biddle’s men were in grave danger of being flanked by the 52nd North Carolina Infantry of Pettigrew’s Brigade. A deep swale hid the Confederates’ advance and allowed the Tarheels to approach Biddle’s flank unseen.

From his vantage point, Gamble could see the threat, and he ordered Maj. John Beveridge, commanding the 8th Illinois, to take his regiment out to the southwest, along the Hagerstown Road, where they took position in an orchard south of the road, near woods.

Beveridge “ordered the 8th Illinois, in column of squadrons, forward, increased its gait to a trot as if to make a charge upon [the Confederate] right. His right regiment halted, changed front, and fired a volley: Biddle’s brigade rose to their feet, saw the enemy, fired and retired across the field toward Seminary Ridge.”

The men of the 52nd North Carolina stopped dead in their tracks and formed a hollow square. A member of the 52nd recalled:

[the 52nd North Carolina] held the right of Pettigrew‘s line, and as we advanced through the open field our right flank was menaced by a body of the enemy’s cavalry, seeking an opportunity to charge our lines. While on the advance and under heavy fire Col. [James K.] Marshall formed his regiment in square to guard against attack from this body, and at the same time deployed Company B…to protect his flank. [They] succeeded in holding the cavalry in check and finally drove them from our flank. This maneuver was executed by the regiment as promptly and accurately as if it had been upon its drill grounds.

Maj. William Medill of the 8th Illinois proudly observed that his regiment

saved a whole brigade of our infantry and a battery from being captured and cut to pieces. The rebels had them nearly surrounded and hemmed in, perceiving which, we made a detour to our left, gained their flank, and charged right on the rear of one of the living walls that was moving to crush our infantry. The rebel line halted suddenly, faced about, formed to receive us, and fired a volley that mostly went over our heads. We returned fire with our carbines and galloped away. But during the time they were delayed, the infantry escaped.

The mission accomplished, the 8th Illinois fell back to rejoin the rest of Gamble’s brigade southwest of the Federal line.

This critical episode saved Biddle’s brigade from being flanked and permitted it to withdraw safely to Seminary Ridge. Yet, it is completely overlooked. Instead, it gets lost in the shuffle of the legend of Lane’s Brigade forming square, when it probably never happened. It’s a shame, because the stand by Beveridge’s men was a critical moment. That’s not to downplay what John Buford and his troopers did, as the very threat of a mounted charge by 2700 Union troopers clearly brought Lane’s advance to a screeching halt. What’s not clear, though, is whether Lane formed square, as it cannot be corroborated.

This particular issue has fascinated me for years, and I’ve been wrestling with it since 1992. I’ve seen every known account of the events of that day, and the idea of Lane’s Brigade forming square, romantic as it may be, just can’t be reconciled with those accounts. Hence, it does not appear that it occurred.

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Thank you to reader Jeff Anderson, of Rockton, Illinois, for bringing this good news to my attention.

Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth, who only got to wear his general’s star for five days before the ego of Judson Kilpatrick sent Farnsworth to his death needlessly at Gettysburg, was taken to his home town of Rockton for burial. Apparently, the large monument over his grave has fallen into some degree of disrepair over the years, but I’m pleased to report that that is no longer the case. From Tuesday’s edition of the Rockford Register Star newspaper:

Rockton cemetery project brings Civil War history into the light
By Greg Stanley
Posted Nov 20, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

ROCKTON — Rockton Township officials have refurbished a little local history in Year 3 of a cemetery restoration project.

The township has set aside $10,000 each year to restore and clean headstones in the oldest part of the cemetery, which dates to the 1800s.

“We’re trying to do more Civil War markers this time around,” cemetery sexton Jerri Noller says.
The most prominent headstone restored this year belongs to Elon J. Farnsworth, a brigadier general for the Union who became something of a celebrity in his death.

Farnsworth was a rising star when he was made general at 25 years old (along with a 24-year-old George Armstrong Custer) on June 29, 1863 — two days before the battle of Gettysburg. He was killed four days later, on the final day of the battle, in what many historians have described as a reckless blunder of the vain and philandering Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick.

Kilpatrick ordered Farnsworth to lead a doomed charge against a Confederate stronghold of little strategic importance to the battle, according to historian Edwin B. Coddington’s well-regarded 1968 tome, “The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command.”

“Although Farnsworth protested it was suicide, Kilpatrick insisted that he should charge with half his brigade,” Coddington writes. Farnsworth “put on a brilliant display of courage and horsemanship, but the attack ended in a fiasco.”

It became known as “Farnsworth’s Charge” and led to 101 casualties, according to one historian’s report for the National Park Service.

Farnsworth was born and raised in Michigan, but his body was brought back to Rockton Township to be buried next to his mother and father.

Greg Stanley: 815-987-1369;; @greggstanley

On this Thanksgiving Day, I find it difficult to say how gratified I am to hear that this largely forgotten hero of the Battle of Gettysburg is being remembered by his home town. So far as I can tell, in all my years of researching the Civil War, I have never been able to identify another general officer who was killed in action while leading an attack BEHIND enemy lines, as Farnsworth was. His valor was wasted by the ambitions of Judson Kilpatrick, but that valor is nevertheless still worthy of commemoration, and I tip my cap to the township for being willing to spend the money to see that his grave is not forgotten.

And on this Thanksgiving Day, I wish each and every one of you a joyous day with family and friends. Enjoy your day, the good food, and the comradeship, but at the same time, let’s not lose sight of the purpose of the day: be thankful for the blessings that you have. And I am thankful for all of you.

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When I did my post on Col. Othniel De Forest of the 5th New York Cavalry, I noted that in the spring of 1864, De Forest was cashiered from the army, and that not long after his death that December, he was cleared of any wrongdoing and reinstated to his prior rank of colonel posthumously. The reasons for this were a mystery, and I indicated that I intended to pursue the answer to this question in the hope of solving the mystery. I ordered De Forest’s service and pension files in the hope that they would hold the key to solving the mystery.

I am pleased to report that the mystery has, indeed, been solved, that the system worked the way it was supposed to work, and that an injustice was thereby corrected.

Sometime shortly after the end of the Gettysburg Campaign, De Forest was arrested and charged with fraud. He had been ill during the early phases of the Gettysburg Campaign and only returned to duty on July 10, during the retreat from Gettysburg. At that time, he became commander of the First Brigade, Third Cavalry Division, as its senior colonel. However, on July 29, he was sent to the General Hospital in Washington, D.C. on orders of the Cavalry Corps surgeon. There was some confusion over this, as he was reported to be away without leave, but “he was found on a [railroad] car quite ill.” Although he was ill, when De Forest arrived in Washington, he was arrested by the Provost Marshal and conducted to Old Capitol Prison. Then, on August 3, he was taken to New York City under guard, where he was turned over to the civil authorities despite being what was described as “dangerously ill.” Presumably this was the same illness that ultimately caused De Forest’s death the following December.

An individual named Samuel Strong claimed that at the time that the 5th New York Cavalry was formed in 1861, De Forest conspired with others, including his brother Benjamin DeForest, to (a) procure authority to raise the regiment, (b) to purchase horses and equipment for the regiment and (c) to share in the profits of the venture. “The evidence shows that the Govt was defrauded of large amounts thro these parties, which was accomplished in various ways,” states the summary of the court-martial proceedings against De Forest. The document indicates that horses were purchased for $45 and sold to the government by the conspirators for $113, with the parties dividing the profits. De Forest supposedly controlled the inspection of the horses, which enabled deficient horses to be pressed into service. De Forest also was charged with selling the sutlership for the regiment as a bribe. Supposedly, De Forest skimmed more than $50,000 from the government as a result of this scheme, and he was charged with theft. The matter was referred for criminal indictment, and the brief states, “The evidence in this case presents offenses so grave and important that as to require a further punishment than the mere dismissal of Col. De Forest, which of itself does not seem adequate besides some restitution should be made for the losses of the Govt. through his frauds.”

As a result, De Forest was summarily dismissed from the service, and was dishonorably discharged by order of President Lincoln on March 24, 1864. Special Orders No. 131, dated March 29, 1864, declares, “By direction of the President, Colonel O. De Forest, 5th New York Cavalry, is hereby dismissed from the service of the United States with disgrace, for presenting false and fraudulent accounts against the Government.” A handwritten note on the Special Order dated May 11, 1864, adds: “No payments are to be made to Colonel De Forest without the special orders of the Department. By Order of the Secretary of War.”

In December 1864, De Forest died of “congestion of the brain.” After his death, there was a concerted effort to clear his name and restore his reputation. Consequently, a Military Commission convened to reevaluate the charges against De Forest. The Judge Advocate General’s office opposed the request, arguing:

The Judge Advocate General, in reviewing the case at great length, & with much minuteness, entertains the opinion that the application should be be granted–1st because the evidence strongly implicated the deceased, and 2d because “the order dismissing his officer has been made final by his death. No revocation of it can reach him. Before he can be honorably discharged from the service, as asked for, he must be restored to it; but such restoration is a physical impossibility, because he is dead. It is believed that the action proposed has neither the support of example nor of principle, and if allowed to drawn into a rule of administration, could scarcely fail to lead to dependable results,”

After completing its investigation, the Military Commission rejected the Judge Advocate General’s recommendation. The Military Commission expressly found that “all the charges against Colonel De Forest were trumped up by one Samuel Strong who was solely actuated by vindictive motives.” The Commission recommended that “the order dismissing the accused be revoked and that he be honorably discharged the service as of the date of his dishonorable dismissal.”

As a result, on March 14, 1866, War Department Special Orders No. 115 declared, in part:

By direction of the President, upon the report of a Board of Officers, convened by Special Orders, No. 53, series of 1863, from this Office, so much of Special Orders, No. 131, March 29th, 1864, from this Office, as dismissed Colonel O. De Forest, 5th New York Cavalry, is hereby revoked, and and he is honorably discharged the service of the United States, as of the date of the aforesaid order of dismissal, with condition that he shall receive no final payments until he has satisfied the Pay Department that he is not indebted to the Government.

On April 11, the General Order was revised:

So much of Special Orders, No. 115, Paragraph 2, March 14th,, 1866, from this Office, as relates to Colonel O. De Forest, 5th New York Cavalry, is hereby amended to read…as follows: He is restored to his regiment, to date September 3d, 1864, when a vacancy occurred in the the grade of Colonel from the discharge of Colonel John Hammond.

And so, De Forest’s dishonorable discharge was revoked and his name was cleared posthumously. As it appears that he was the subject of an injustice, I’m pleased to know that the injustice was corrected, albeit posthumously. And so, the mystery has been solved.

I love pursuing these interesting leads and seeing where they lead. Finding these human interest stories demonstrates plainly that these men were just human beings, plagued with the same flaws and strengths as the rest of us.

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21 Jun 2012, by

Autie ‘n me

The other day, I was asked a couple of interesting questions. One question was whom do I think was the best Union cavalry commander, and as a subset of that question, where did I think that George Armstrong Custer fit into that calculation. The person who asked my opinion actually suggested that Custer has been underrated by historians. I answered the question about the best commander as I always do when asked to answer such questions, which was to identify John Buford as the best. I cited to John Gibbon’s assessment of Buford–he wrote, “John Buford was the finest cavalryman I ever saw”–and said that was good enough for me.

The Custer question opened up a real can of worms that I’ve spent some time considering over the years. At one point, I was asked to write a bio of Custer, and I initially refused. I eventually agreed, but once I got into it, I realized that not only was my heart NOT in the project, after Jeff Wert’s excellent, balanced, and fair bio of Custer, I realized that I had nothing to add, and eventually terminated the project. However, researching it and beginning to write it really forced me to sit back and take stock of this guy whom I had little positive to say about.

Personally, I would NEVER use the word underrated to describe Custer.

My thoughts on Custer have been a long, strange trip. For most of my adult life, most of my thoughts on Custer were seriously prejudiced by the end he met at Little Big Horn. I adhered to the theory that he was reckless and careless about the well being of his men. It bothered me a great deal that Custer had not paid his dues like Buford, George Stoneman, Alfred Pleasonton, David M. Gregg, and the others had. It also bothered me a great deal that this flamboyant man child got the press and attention that he got and that quiet competent professionals like Buford and Gregg did not ever receive. Consequently, I pretty much dismissed him out of hand as a poseur. Eventually, I realized that that was unfair and wrong.

My research into various projects forced me to study Custer’s career in the Civil War. Much ado has been made about his exploits–read my friend Greg Urwin’s Custer Victorious:The Civil War Battles of General George Armstrong Custer if you need an example of why I would never consider him underrated–and in most instances, rightfully so. He put up a real stinker at Trevilian Station, but other than that, his career in the Civil War was marked by tremendous luck that landed him in the right place at the right time, and some real talent at leading men.

Custer had a lot of real problems. Because he had never commanded much of anything when he was promoted to general, he had not come up through the ranks like his predecessors like Buford, Gregg, and even Merritt (who, as a brand new second lieutenant right out of West Point, served in the same company with, and under the direct command of, Capt. John Buford, and who was very much Buford’s protege and greatest legacy to the Union cavalry). Consequently, he had little skill for and no experience whatsoever with the traditional roles of cavalry: scouting, screening and reconnaissance. He also was a political naif when it came to Army politics, not ever really having had to deal with them. In many ways, he was as Lee allegedly described John Bell Hood: all of the lion and none of the fox.

In 1864, when Sheridan took command, his style and Custer’s meshed nicely, and Custer became his go-to guy. And, with the exception of his lackluster performance at Trevilian Station, it’s pretty difficult to argue with his record. He was pretty much the ultimate hussar, as opposed to John Buford, who was the ultimate dragoon.

But, let’s make no mistake about it. It’s not a fair or appropriate comparison to compare someone who spent most of the war as a brigade commander with someone like, say, Gregg or Merritt, both of whom commanded the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps at some point during the war and both of whom made their fame as division commanders. There’s a quantum difference between commanding a brigade and a division, and an even greater expanse between commanding a division and a corps.

And so, my thoughts about Custer have come full circle. I am now able to see him clearly–both his good and bad points. At times, he was the reckless clod who charged blindly into whatever lay in front of him without doing any scouting. He had absolutely no skill or talent for the traditional role of cavalry whatsoever. But he was a fighter–of that, there can be no doubt. And he was an inspirational leader whose men loved him for his willingness to lead from the front. Most of all, he was lucky. And his luck finally ran out one hot, dusty day in June 1876.

In the pantheon of Union cavalry greats, I would place him well below the likes of Wesley Merritt or Custer’s West Point classmate and rival, James Harrison Wilson. Why? Because Merritt and Wilson both had the skill and talent to be corps commanders, whereas Custer had neither the experience nor the political skill to be anything more than an outstanding brigade commander and a reasonably good division commander. I also would place Buford ahead of him, because Buford had no peer in the Union army as an intelligence gatherer who was also a ferocious fighter. And finally, I would place David Gregg ahead of him. At the end of the day, it was Gregg whom Sheridan relied upon most heavily in 1864 because Gregg was steady, experienced, and competent.

There are others whom I admire greatly. Robert H. G. Minty was probably the best Union cavalry brigade commander of all of them. Thomas C. Devin was terribly competent, terribly reliable, and deserving of the nickname “Buford’s Hard Hitter,” which pretty much speaks for itself. William Woods Averell deserves much better than he gets historically; much of the historical treatment of his career in the Civil War is terribly unfair. Averell certainly had his issues, but there was no better raider than him in the Union services, and his men adored him. George D. Bayard is the great unknown. After Stoneman, he outranked EVERYONE in the Union cavalry, and had he not received a mortal wound at Fredericksburg, he would have been next in line to command the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps when Stoneman left the AoP for medical leave in May 1863. Bayard was young, competent, and aggressive, if unpopular with the men for being a terrible martinet, and he would have been a VERY different sort of leader than Alf Pleasonton, who was the ultimate lead-from-the-rear kind of guy. I’m not normally much of one for “what-if’s”–there was enough that actually happened to keep me interested, not speculation–but that’s a tantalizing one.

Given that a number of my books have dealt with the Michigan Cavalry Brigade–including my current project–I’ve had to really study Custer’s tenure in command of the MCB in great detail. There can be no doubt that the men who followed him loved him unconditionally. It’s clear that he was inspirational leader of very real skill. He was nothing if not aggressive–too much so at times–and he was a fighter. His poor grasp of army politics nearly cost him his career in the post-war army, and his poor treatment of those who served under him earned him the eternal hatred of some of his officers. But, it is very difficult to argue with his record of success. And in the end, that’s what really matters.

He will never be my favorite, but I have come to respect him, and I have made peace with my relationship with him.

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It’s been too long since my last profile of a forgotten cavalryman. I’ve been meaning to do this one for a long time, but my regular readers know that events have intervened, preventing me from being as productive as I might otherwise want. However, it’s time to change that situation. Today, we profile Col. Othniel De Forest, who commanded the 5th New York Cavalry for the first half of the Civil War. De Forest is more notable for the odd end to his military career than for his exploits in the field.

Othniel De Forest was born in New York City on August 13, 1826. He came from a family of Dutch poltroons who helped to settle New York. His father was Charles De Forest, of Connecticut, and Catherine Burlock, of New York City. Othniel had three brothers, David, Alfred, Linson, and a sister named Kate. David and Othniel both attended a private boarding school in Pottsville, Pennsylvania named Nazareth Hall. Nazareth Hall was the central boarding school for sons of Moravian parents. Later it attained wide fame as a “classical academy.” This eventually led to the founding in 1807, of Moravian College and Theological Seminary, located in Bethlehem. In 1843, 17-year-old Othniel enrolled at Yale University, and graduated in 1847.

After graduation, he returned to New York City and took a job as a stockbroker, a position that made him a prosperous man who was well-known in the social and political circles of New York. He married Francis R. Nevins in 1851, and the couple had three children of their own, William (born 1855), Rebecca (born 1857), and Othniel (born 1862). Interestingly, the entire De Forest family—all of Othniel’s siblings and his parents—all resided in the same building in New York City. De Forest also maintained a residence in Philadelphia, presumably for professional reasons.

In 1861, with the coming of war, De Forest was involved in recruiting several units for the State of New York. In July 1861 he received authority from Secretary of War Simon Cameron to raise a regiment of cavalry, and subsequently to raise a brigade. He succeeded in organizing two regiments and a part of a third, when the Government determined to raise no more Cavalry. These two regiments were the 5th and 6th N. Y. Cavalry Regiments, which were also known as the 1st and 2nd “Ira Harris Guards” in honor of the powerful New York Senator Ira Harris, who was the patron of these units. In 1862, he raised another regiment that became the 12th New York.

On July 26, 1861, the 35-year-old De Forest was mustered in as the colonel of the 5th New York Cavalry. De Forest had no prior military training or experience, and had to learn the hard trade of being a cavalryman. His younger brother Linson also enlisted in the 5th New York, and was commissioned as a lieutenant. De Forest and the 5th New York served in Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, prompting Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks to write of De Forest, “As an officer, then and there, he showed much ability, and I do not hesitate to recommend him to the favor of the Dep’t.”

The 5th New York Cavalry then became a mainstay of a cavalry brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. John Buford during the Second Bull Run Campaign of the summer of 1862. When the Army of Virginia was dissolved after the debacle at Chantilly on September 1, 1862, Buford’s brigade was assigned to the defenses of Washington, D.C.

During the winter of 1862-1863, De Forest became commander of the 3rd Brigade, Cavalry Division, 22nd Army Corps, Department of Washington. He held this command from April 7-June 26, 1863. This brigade was primarily engaged in pursuing and fighting the guerrillas of Maj. John Singleton Mosby and his 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry. On June 26, 1863, De Forest left the regiment with an illness that kept him from active duty at the Battle of Gettysburg.

While De Forest was ill, the division was reassigned as the Third Cavalry Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac. The 5th New York was part of the 1st Brigade. On June 28, a staff officer, Capt. Elon J. Farnsworth, was promoted to brigadier general, and assumed command of the brigade. Farnsworth’s Brigade, and the 5th New York in particular, bore the brunt of the fighting at the June 30, 1863 Battle of Hanover. It also participated in the July 2 engagement at Hunterstown. Farnsworth fell while leading a futile charge against Confederate infantry and artillery on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and Col. Nathaniel P. Richmond of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry assumed command of the brigade until De Forest returned to duty on July 10.

When De Forest returned to duty on July 10, he assumed command of the brigade, which consisted of the 1st West Virginia, the 5th New York, the 1st Vermont, and the 18th Pennsylvania. He retained command of the brigade into the winter of 1863-1864, but then it all went bad. On March 29, 1864, De Forest was dismissed from the service for “presenting false and fraudulent accounts against the government” after a court martial.

The shamed former brigade commander returned home to New York and attempted to resume his former successful career as a stockbroker, but he never recovered from the ignominious ending to his once-promising military career. On December 16, 1864, after what was described as a “brief illness,” De Forest died of “congestion of the brain” at the young age of 37. He was buried in Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Oddly, the dismissal was revoked March 14, 1866, and De Forest was posthumously restored to his rank as colonel of the 5th New York Cavalry to date to September 3, 1864, when his term of service would have expired.

Here’s to Colonel Othniel De Forest, forgotten cavalryman whose tarnished career ended up being not quite so tarnished after all. I really want to get to the bottom of this mystery about why De Forest was cashiered from the army, and, more importantly, why the dismissal was revoked posthumously. I will report back when I know more….

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On December 16, 1863, the United States Army lost its best cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. John Buford, who died of typhoid fever in the rented house of his fellow horse soldier, Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, in Washington, D.C. Buford’s dear friend Maj. Gen. John Gibbon once said that “John Buford was the finest cavalryman I ever saw.” He died in the arms of his staff officer and surrogate son, Capt. Myles W. Keogh (who later died with Custer at the Little Big Horn). The Union’s loss was enormous, almost unimaginable.

Buford was promoted to major general–a long overdue promotion that had long been sought on his behalf–on his deathbed the day he died. In a moment of lucidity, he said, “too late.” And sadly, it was. His final words, as befit the finest cavalryman in the army, were “Put guard on all the roads, and don’t let the men run back to the rear.”

This was the obituary of Buford that ran in the New York Times the next day:

Major-Gen. JOHN BUFORD, who died at Washington yesterday, was a graduate of the West Point Military Academy, and in the Regular army held the rank of Major in the Inspector-General’s Department. He was appointed Brigadier-General of Volunteers on the 27th of July, 1862, and assigned to the command of a cavalry brigade under Gen. POPE, in his Virginia campaign of that year. When that army was merged with the Army of the Potomac, Gen. BUFORD was assigned to the command of the regular cavalry brigade, which he held until the formation of the cavalry corps into three divisions, when he was placed in command of the First division, and served throughout the severe campaigns of the past ten months with the most distinguished gallantry. He was considered the best field cavalry commander in the service, and was noted for his coolness and judgment under fire. He was about forty years of age, of full habit a man of generous nature and warm impulses. Before his death the President rewarded him with the commission of Major-General. The country has lost a noble spirit and a brave defender.

The great cavalryman was buried in the post cemetery at West Point, where he rests under a handsome monument paid for the by the men of his First Cavalry Division.

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11 Aug 2011, by

Threads, Part 2

Several weeks ago, I did a post titled “Threads”, which dealt with the family linkages between Brig. Gen. Hugh Mercer, Revolutionary War hero, his grandson, Col. George S. Patton of the 22nd Virginia Infantry, who was mortally wounded during the Third Battle of Winchester on September 19, 1864, and Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., the great World War II hero, who was the grandson of the Civil War officer. In that post, I promised I would pull a few more threads regarding General Patton, who is one of my favorites.

Adna Romanza Chaffee was born in Orwell, Ohio on April 14, 1842. In July 1861, Chaffee, only 19 years old, enlisted in the newly-formed 6th U. S. Cavalry as a private. In early 1862, he was promoted to sergeant, and to first sergeant in September 1862. As a reward for his good service, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton arranged for him to be appointed second lieutenant in April 1863. Although only 21 years old, he was in command of a company of the 6th U. S. by the time of the Battle of Gettysburg that summer.

On July 3, 1863, the 6th U. S. Cavalry was sent on an expedition to Fairfield, Pennsylvania. There, the 6th U. S. took an entire brigade of Confederate cavalry, and was thrashed. Chaffee was wounded and captured that afternoon. The Confederates tried to parole Chaffee, but he refused a parole in the field, obeying a recent War Department directive that the men of the 6th U. S. not give their paroles if captured. The frustrated Confederates, concerned that they could not manage their large haul of prisoners, simply left Chaffee behind with the other wounded. Chaffee was found laying on the ground in the orchard, being tended to by one of his men, a “neatly cut crimson edged hole in his blue pantaloons over the front part of his thigh. He was quite cheerful.” As a reward for his gallantry in the fighting and for his steadfast refusal to give his parole, Chaffee was brevetted to first lieutenant, effective July 3, 1863. He recovered from his wound and returned to duty with the 6th U. S. in early September 1863. He suffered a second combat wound, and was promoted to first lieutenant in February 1865.

He remained in the Regular Army after the war, and was promoted to captain. He spent 30 years fighting Indians in the west and southwest. In July 1888, he was promoted to major and was transferred to the one of the so-called “Buffalo Soldier” units, the 9th U. S. Cavalry. In 1897, he was promoted to colonel and assumed command of the 3rd U. S. Cavalry. He was commissioned brigadier general of volunteers in the Spanish-American War, and then to major general of volunteers after the American victory at El Caney, Cuba, in July 1898. From 1898-1900, he served as chief of staff to the military governor of Cuba, Gen. Leonard Wood.

When the Boxer Rebellion broke out in China in 1900, Chaffee was sent to Peking as commander of the U. S. Army’s China Relief Expedition. He played a major role in putting down the rebellion and then was promoted to major general in the Regular Army in 1901 in recognition of those accomplishments. He served as military governor of the Philippines for a few months, and then assumed command of the Department of the East, a position he held until 1903. In 1904, he was promoted to lieutenant general and became chief of staff of the United States Army, a position he held for a bit over two years. He was one of two old horse cavalrymen to rise from the rank of private to serve as chief of staff of the Army (a profile of the other officer to go from private of cavalry to chief of staff of the army can be found here). Chaffee retired in February 1906 and died on November 1, 1914. He was interred in Arlington National Cemetery.

His son, Adna Romanza Chaffee, Jr., was born in Junction City, Kansas on September 23, 1884. He graduated from West Point in 1906, and was appointed a lieutenant of cavalry, following in his famous father’s footsteps. Chaffee soon became known as the best horseman in the army. In World War I, he was an infantry major, serving in the IV Corps during the St. Mihiel offensive and then as a colonel in the III Corps during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. After the war ended, he reverted to his Regular Army rank of captain of cavalry and became an instructor at the General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

During the 1920’s, with the help of a young horse cavalryman who had commanded armor during World War I–Capt. George S. Patton, Jr.–helped to develop tank doctrine and tactics. In 1927, he predicted that mechanized armies would dominate the next war and helped to develop the U. S. Army’s first true armored force. He was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division in 1931, and continued to work on the development of the U. S. Army’s armored forces and capabilities. He soon became the leading advocate for American armored forces.

In 1938, he assumed command of the 7th Cavalry Brigade (Mechanized), the U. S. Army’s only armored force. He worked tirelessly for the further development and advancement of armored forces, and his predictions proved true when France surrendered after the German blitzkrieg in 1940.

After the collapse of France, Chaffee finally convinced Congress that the United States needed to develop an effective armored force very quickly. Congress authorized the creation of the 1st and 2nd Armored Divisions in 1940, and Chaffee was promoted to major general and was given command of this force. Unfortunately, Chaffee was quite ill. He died of cancer at the young age of 56 on August 22, 1941, just before the United States was forced to enter World War II, and is remembered as the father of the U. S. Army’s armored force. The M24 Chaffee light tank was named in his honor.

In the 1920’s, George S. Patton, Jr., an old horse cavalryman who designed the U. S. Army’s last cavalry saber, also tirelessly worked to advance the cause of armor. He had successfully commander light tanks during World War I, and saw the potential of tanks as a decisive battlefield weapon. He unsuccessfully petitioned Congress to fund an armored force and wrote articles on tactics that were published in the Journal of the United States Cavalry Association, a professional journal for Regular Army cavalrymen.

In July 1940, Patton–now a colonel–was given command of the 2nd Armored Brigade, 2nd Armored Division. He became assistant division commander the following October, and was promoted to brigadier general on October 2, 1940. He served as acting division command from November 1940 to April 1941, and was promoted to major general and given command of the 2nd Armored Division a few days later. Were Chaffee still alive in 1941, he undoubtedly would have been given command of the I Armored Corps when it was formed. However, his premature death opened that slot for George S. Patton, Jr. and he was promoted to major general and appointed to command the I Armored Corps. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, armor serves most of the traditional roles of horse cavalry: scouting, screening, and reconnaissance, and many armored units are actually designated as cavalry units. It has a great legacy for doing so, with direct links to some of the greatest horse cavalrymen of the post-Civil War era of the United States Army. As you will see from the image at the beginning of this paragraph, the traditional crossed sabers logo of the cavalry has been amended to reflect the direct link between horse cavalry and armored service in the modern army.

If you pull the various threads, you find a direct connection between the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps and the legendary commander of the Third Army, George S. Patton, Jr. That direct connection flows through two great horse soldiers, Adna Romanza Chaffee and his son, Adna Romanza Chaffee, Jr.

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JanewayJim Lamason went to the New Jersey State Archives for me to look for information on the role of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry’s role in the fighting on Brinkerhoff’s Ridge and East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg for the new edition of Protecting the Flank: The Battles for Brinkerhoff’s Ridge and East Cavalry Field, Battle of Gettysburg, July 2-3, 1863 being published by Savas Beatie later this spring. Unfortunately, Jim didn’t find anything useful there, but he did locate a report of the June 9, 1863 Battle of Brandy Station penned by Maj. Hugh Janeway, in temporary command of the regiment at the time, to the Governor of New Jersey. This report is different from the one in the Official Records, so I thought I would share it here. That’s Janeway in the photograph.

Headquarters 1st N.J. Cav.
Rappahannock Station
June 10, 1863

To His Excellency, Joel Parker
Governor of the State of New Jersey


I have the honor to report that the Regiment has been engaged in another very severe cavalry fight. On the 8th inst. the Division broke camp at Warrenton Junction and marched to Kelly’s Ford where we bivouacked for the night. The next day (the 9th inst.) at 3 a.m. we crossed the river and moved on Brandy Station. As is normal in times of danger we were in the advance. Meanwhile Genl Buford was fighting hard opposite Rappahannock Station. The object of our movement was to turn the right flank of the Rebels. Col. Wyndham was in command of the 2d Brigade composed of the 1st N. Jersey 1st Md. and the 1st Pa Cavalry and the command of our Regt. devolved upon Lt. Col. Brodrick. Capt. Yorke of Co. I had the advance guard composed of Cos. C & I– he moved his men so carefully that he captured every vidette in the road so that the first intimation that the enemy had of our being in their rear was by seeing the head of our column debouch from the woods.

Col Wyndham moved his troops with such celerity that we were upon them almost before they were aware of our vicinity. The fight lasted four hours and was a continual inception of the most brilliant charges ever made. Every officer behaved with the utmost bravery, coolness and it is impossible for men to behave better than did ours–they proved themselves well worthy of the State from which they come. More cannot be said in their praise.

Lt. Col. Brodrick and Major Shelmire were both wounded and taken while leading one of the numerous charges–accounts of the nature of their capture are so conflicting that I defer sending any statement regarding it till I learn something definite but that they both behaved with the greatest daring and gallantry there can be no question.

Capt. Sawyer Co. K and Lt. Crocker Co. H are also prisoners but not thought to be wounded. Capt. Lucas Co. F Capt. Maulsbury and Adjt Kitchen while in the thickest of the fray had their horses shot out under them–that of Adjt Kitchen fell dead carrying him along with it–his escape seems almost miraculous. When the order was given to retire our Regt covered the rear. I am told that Genl Gregg expressed the greatest satisfaction at the conduct of the Regt. Towards the close of the engagement Col. Wyndham recd a bullet wound in the calf of the leg but we are thankful to know that it will not prove dangerous–he kept the field for sometime after being hit but was finally obliged to give up–he goes to Washington today. We hope he will soon return as he can ill be spared from his command. He also paid the Regt the highest compliments for its steady and dashing charges.

The fight was hand to hand throughout. We had in the engagement four Field officers, 14 line officers and 281 enlisted men. Our loss in killed wounded and missing is at present 3 Field officers 2 line officers and 52 enlisted. This of itself speaks volumes for the bravery of the Regt. The morale of the Regt has been greatly benefitted by yesterday’s work and I am confident that the men will fight better now than ever. Major Beaumont will probably soon return from his present command to assume that of the Regt and will be able to collect further accounts of the capture and wounds of the missing officers than I am now able to do.

I have the honor to be Governor

Very respectfully
Your obdt servt

Hugh H. Janeway
Major Comdg 1st New Jersey Cavalry

Here are a few notes on this report.

Col. Sir Percy Wyndham, the regimental colonel, was in command of the brigade at the Battle of Brandy Station. He was, as Janeway pointed out, wounded in the leg in the melee, and he never commanded troops in the Army of the Potomac again. For my biographical sketch of Sir Percy, click here.

Lt. Col. Virgil Brodrick and Maj. John Shelmire were both mortally wounded in the melee, and both died on the field. Both are buried in the National Cemetery in Culpeper. Capt. Henry W. Sawyer was indeed badly wounded, which led to his capture, meaning that Janeway’s information was incorrect. Sawyer ended up being the center of quite a drama that is the subject of an article I’ve written that will appear in Civil War Times Illustrated later this year.

Thus, the 1st New Jersey Cavalry lost its colonel, lieutenant colonel, senior major, and a squadron commander that day. The regimental command structure was devastated in the fighting at Brandy Station. Janeway was killed in action less than a week before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. It seems a shame to die so close to the end.

Thanks to Jim Lamason for getting this for me.

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From General August V. Kautz’s war-time manual, Customs of Service for Officers of the Army, we have Kautz’s list of the qualifications required for a good cavalry commander. As Kautz himself was a cavalryman, this makes for an interesting list.

687. CAVALRY.—A Cavalry Commander requires peculiar qualifications, that are far more rare than for any other arm of the service. He should, first of all, be young, and of fine physical qualities, capable of enduring great fatigue. He should be quick of thought and decision, without being rash; he should be able to form his plans rapidly and clearly, and execute with confidence.

688. He should be devoted to this branch of the service, passionately fond of the horse, unremitting in his care and attention to his command, watching over men and horses, and jealous of their abuse, guarding and protecting them, so that they may be in the best possible condition for the moment of action. When that moment arrives, he should receive it confidently, and should “go in” with a method akin to rashness, counting only on success, and regardless of the cost.

689. The capacity to go from place to place, independent of guides, or with the aid of a map only (that innate knowledge of locality so rarely found), is an essential of the first importance to a Cavalry Commander. He must not be easily misled, and be able to know intuitively whether he is going right or wrong. The whole object of an expedition may fail by a want of capacity to go by the shortest and most available route to the destination; for the main merit of Cavalry is its rapidity of movement, made available by distancing the enemy in seizing a weak point before he can protect it.

690. The improvements in firearms have produced some modifications in the use of Cavalry. It is seldom that Cavalry can approach near enough to charge without being exposed to a destructive fire at long range. The opportunities for the use of the sabre are much more rare; the nature of our country is such that a weaker force can always avoid a stronger mounted force by seeking a wood, or a fence, or a stream, for cover, from which, with the long ranged arm, it can constantly harass its mounted foe as far as it can be seen.

691. This facility to take cover against Cavalry at any time renders it necessary for the Cavalry to be provided with a carbine of long range, so that the horses may be left in rear, and the Cavalry dismount, and act temporarily as Infantry, to overcome obstacles insurmountable for Cavalry; or having availed itself of the rapid movement of the horses to seize a strategic point, that the Cavalry may dismount and hold it like entrenched Infantry; for pure Cavalry cannot hold positions on the defensive—it must either fight to win or run away.

692. In an open country unobstructed by fences, hedges, ravines, or woods, Cavalry is of great service to watch the enemy, to pick up stragglers, carry intelligence, and to harass the enemy. But its chances for charging depend upon the character of the foe, and the nature of their arms. Infantry indifferent in discipline, armed with short range guns, are still assailable by good Cavalry; and good Infantry will cause severe loss to Cavalry, even where successfully attacked; but even the best of Infantry may be surprised and taken unawares.

693. The great merit of Cavalry consists in its celerity of movement; but this does not mean that the horse should be kept constantly at a dashing pace. On the contrary, the habitual gait of Cavalry is a walk. It is only when confronted with the enemy, and where celerity of movement is necessary to be exercised for very short periods to gain definite results, that it is justifiable to urge the horse to greater speed than a walk; then to decide definitely, and execute with rapidity, is the province of the Cavalry leader.

694. It is better on an extended march to keep up a continuous walk for twenty-four hours, than to double the speed and make the same distance in twelve hours. The best horses would fail in the latter case, whilst most horses could do the former without injury. The load which a Cavalry horse must carry defeats any comparison with the saddle horse of the civilian; the equipments that are attached to the saddle, the sabre on one side, and the carbine on the other, the picket rope and pin, the halter, the nose-bag and forage-bag, the haversack and canteen, and often other things disposed about the horse and the men, may all be carried very conveniently at a walk by the horse, but when urged at a trot, or a gallop, are very serious obstacles, and a few miles at those gaits without interruption will soon end his usefulness, even on the best of roads.

695. A march should be conducted, as follows: the column should move out by fours, if possible; otherwise by twos, or by file; but each squadron should regulate its own march; the leading files of each squadron should keep the required gait, which should be a walk on all ordinary marches; squadrons regulate their distances by increasing or slowing the walk gradually; rear files rushing forward at a trot, or gallop, thus crowding on the heels of the horses in front, and then halting suddenly for room to go on, is a great injury to the horses, and an evidence of very bad Cavalry.

696. The Captain or Commander of the squadron should march in rear of his squadron, so as to control the disposition the men have to leave the column on the slightest pretext; none should be allowed to leave, except in cases of absolute necessity, and then the Captain (who should be provided with written permits) should give the proper authority, and it should be required of each man to report his return; otherwise the men will be constantly falling out, and once out of the column and away from the officer, they are liable to commit depredations, or they break their horses down in riding from house to house, or place to place, in search of anything or nothing, with that want of consideration often found among soldiers.

697. Halts need not be frequent, two or three in a day’s march are quite sufficient. Sometimes the obstacles to be passed render halts necessary; and whenever they occur, if only for a few moments, the men should dismount; at such times a few mouthfuls of grass or other food is very refreshing to the horse. The opportunity to water the horses should always be considered and ordered in advance, and should be counted as a halt or rest. On a forced march the horses should not be halted, but they should be relieved fifteen minutes every hour, by dismounting the men, and requiring them to march. For a march of a day more, the walk is the most rapid gait, the Cavalry will go farther in less time, and be in better condition at that gait than any other; the time must be saved by making fewer halts, and marching more hours.

698. On campaigns, the Cavalry is often improperly used. It is a great expense to the Government, although no doubt a great comfort to the Commander of an Army, if he can surround his command with a cordon of Mounted Sentinels, five or six miles out in front of his Infantry pickets; but he can have little knowledge in the use of this auxiliary arm, when he wastes his horse-flesh in so reckless and improvident a manner.

699. The proper place for the Cavalry of an Army is in reserve, so that it may be available in the shortest possible time. If it is out on picket, and widely scattered, the concentration of it fatigues and delays it, and it goes upon the expedition half broken down, and behind time. The rule is never to use the Cavalry where Infantry will do as well or better, and particularly not for picket duty. Infantry is far better for this duty, and only sufficient Cavalry should be used to act as couriers, and to patrol the principal avenues of approach, in connection with the Infantry.

700. Cavalry should not be used as Infantry. Dismounting the men and sending the horses to the rear for days, or even hours, thus separating the two, is a violation of this rule; but it may sometimes be necessary, as when a Cavalry column is pushed forward rapidly to seize a point that can only be held by dismounting; but in such a case Infantry should always be sent as soon as possible to take the place of the dismounted Cavalry. Men and horses cannot be separated any length of time without a proportionate injury to the latter.

701. The embarrassing feature of Cavalry is forage; the horses must be fed, and the feed cannot be transported any great distance, without superior facilities for transportation. In an agricultural district, however, a Cavalry column of almost any size moving through the country will find sufficient to subsist the horses, if a proper system of foraging is adopted. This requires the utmost vigilance. Loosely conducted, it is exceedingly demoralizing and furnishes opportunities for every kind of excesses; especial care should be taken where it may be the policy to conciliate the inhabitants.

702. Recent improvements in arms and equipments have made it necessary that the greater portion of our Cavalry should be armed with repeating carbines and metallic percussion cartridges. The sabre may be dispensed with altogether, or if forming part of the equipment, should be strapped to the saddle. Such a force is almost as formidable as Infantry, and its principal use is to surprise and capture strategic points, and hold them until they can be occupied by the Infantry; they act as skirmishers or flankers to the army when advancing, or retreating. They go into action generally dismounted, and their horses are used only as a means of transportation. Such Cavalry is of special value in a wooded or broken country, where the horses may be covered, and the character of the troops thus concealed from the enemy.

703. Cavalry lightly equipped with sabre and pistol, and used mainly for couriers for carrying intelligence, and watching the enemy, in connection with the Infantry pickets, has not lost its value in this respect, and should be supplied to the Army in proportion to its necessities. The signal branch of the service might be economically united with this arm. But the value of the horse as derived from the force and shock of a charge is fast passing away; as a means of pursuit, of transportation, and rapid movement, he has rather gained than lost in value.

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Brig. Gen. William W. Averell left behind this excellent description of the traditional role of cavalry:

Reliable information of the enemy’s position or movements, which is absolutely necessary to the commander of an army to successfully conduct a campaign, must be largely furnished by the cavalry. The duty of the cavalry when an engagement is imminent is specially imperative—to keep in touch with the enemy and observe and carefully note, with time of day or night, every slightest indication and report it promptly to the commander of the army. On the march, cavalry forms in advance, flank and rear guards and supplies escorts, couriers and guides. Cavalry should extend well away from the main body on the march like antennae to mask its movements and to discover any movement of the enemy.

Cavalry should never hug the army on the march, especially in a thickly wooded country, because the horses being restricted to the roads, the slightest obstacle in advance is liable to cause a blockade against the march of infantry. Moreover, in camp it furnishes outposts, vedettes and scouts. In battle it attacks the enemy’s flanks and rear, and above all other duties in battle, it secures the fruits of victory by vigorous and unrelenting pursuit. In defeat it screens the withdrawal of the army and by its fortitude and activity baffles the enemy. In addition to these active military duties of the cavalry, it receives flags of truce, interrogates spies, deserters and prisoners, makes and improves topographical maps, destroys and builds bridges, obstructs and opens communications, and obtains or destroys forage and supplies.

Good stuff.

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