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Confederate Cavalry

This is another in my periodic series of profiles of forgotten cavalrymen.

Today is the 142nd anniversary of the death of one of my very favorite figures of the Civil War, Confederate Brig. Gen. William Edmonson “Grumble” Jones. If ever there was an individual who earned and deserved a particular nickname, it was Jones.

Grumble Jones had earned his nickname—he was irascible and prone to complaining. However, the Confederate cavalry chieftain, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart respected him. Although he greatly disliked Grumble Jones, Stuart nevertheless called him “the best outpost officer in the army.” Stuart also praised Jones’ “marked courage and determination”, indicating a grudging respect for Jones’ abilities. At the same time, however, when Jones was promoted to brigade command in October 1862, Stuart resisted the promotion, writing to his wife Flora, “…I hope he will be assigned to the Infantry, I don’t want him in the Cavalry, and have made a formal statement to that effect.” Returning Stuart’s disdain, Jones referred to Stuart as “that young whippersnapper.”

William Edmonson Jones was born on the Middle Fork of the Holston River in Washington County, Virginia on May 9, 1824. After graduating from Emory and Henry College in Virginia in 1844, Jones matriculated at West Point. Graduating twelfth out of forty-eight in the Class 1848 (which included John Buford), Jones spent his entire career in the Regular Army in the mounted arm, serving on the frontier in the Regiment of Mounted Rifles until his resignation in 1857. He spent much of his career in the Mounted Rifles fighting Indians and serving garrison duty in the Pacific Northwest. After leaving the Army, he spent the next several years as a reclusive farmer, living a lonely and bitter life. He had not always been so short-tempered. His young wife was washed from his arms in a shipwreck shortly after their marriage, and Jones never recovered from her loss. He grew “embittered, complaining and suspicious” as a result, quarreling with his fellow officers frequently. Eschewing the flamboyant style of dress and the exaggerated mannerisms adopted by Stuart, he was a plain dresser with a legendary talent for profanity. Jones was an extremely strict disciplinarian whose men respected but did not love him. While not a likeable man, Grumble Jones was definitely a fighter. His fellow cavalry general, Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden, wrote that Jones “ was an old army officer, brave as a lion and had seen much service, and was known as a hard fighter. He was a man, however, of high temper, morose and fretful…He held the fighting qualities of the enemy in great contempt, and never would admit the possibility of defeat where the odds against him were not much over two to one.”

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Jones formed a cavalry company, and was elected its captain, serving under J.E.B. Stuart in the First Manassas Campaign. He became colonel of the 1st and later the 7th Virginia Cavalry and was promoted to brigadier general on September 19, 1862. Shortly thereafter, Jones assumed command of the veteran cavalry brigade formerly commanded by the legendary Brig. Gen. Turner Ashby, one of the best brigades of cavalry in either army. Ashby, a gifted horseman and leader, was the first commander of the 7th Virginia. Promoted to command of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s cavalry during the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Ashby performed well during the Campaign until he was killed in action in June 1862. In his short tenure as a commander, Ashby left his mark on his brigade. Proud and dashing, Ashby embodied the attitude of the beau sabreur. The brigade Jones inherited consisted entirely of Virginians, the 6th, 7th, 11th, and 12th Virginia Cavalry Regiments and the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, all veteran troopers accustomed to hard marching and hard fighting.

Jones’ men did splendidly at Brandy Station, where, badly outnumbered by the division of his West Point classmate John Buford, they held their own in a day of intense fighting. As the Gettysburg Campaign commenced, Jones’ men held the critical gaps in the mountain ranges on either side of the Shenandoah Valley on the march north, and screened the Army of Northern Virginia’s rear guard during the advance into Pennsylvania. As the three-day-long battle began at Gettysburg, Jones’ brigade crossed the Potomac River at Williamsport, Maryland, and camped near Greencastle, Pennsylvania. Two units of the brigade were left behind as the rest of the brigade advanced north. The 12th Virginia remained in the lower Valley to watch the Federal troops garrisoned at Harper’s Ferry, and the 35th Battalion was temporarily attached to the Confederate cavalry brigade of Brig. Gen. Albert G. Jenkins in the Confederate advance to the Susquehanna River. The balance of Jones’ troopers remained behind the Confederate lines, guarding the trains during the first two days of the battle.

On July 3, Jones’ Brigade fought a vicious battle with the 6th U.S. Cavalry at Fairfield, Pennsylvania. They then fought the Regulars again at Funkstown a few days later. When the retreat ended, Jones’ men had a brief respite they then had a sharp fight with Buford again at Second Brandy Station on August 1, 1863, and again on October 10, 1863 in Third Brandy Station. That fall, Jones and Stuart had a final falling out, and Jones was court-martialed for insulting Stuart. Robert E. Lee intervened, and Jones was transferred to the western part of Virginia.

There, he cobbled together a brigade of cavalry and campaigned in eastern Tennessee during the winter and spring of 1864. In the summer of 1864, Jones assumed command of the Confederate forces in the Upper Shenandoah Valley, and, while personally leading a charge at the Battle of Piedmont on June 5, 1864, he was killed in action, a fitting end for a fighting general.

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31 Oct 2005, by

John Hunt Morgan

Last spring, I attended a special event on Ohio’s only Civil War battlefield, the Battle of Buffington Island, in Meigs County, on the Ohio River. Buffington Island was fought on July 19, 1863, between Morgan’s Raiders and a large force of Union cavalry. The battlefield is in imminent danger of being destroyed by being dug up for a sand and gravel pit. I had been there once before, and wanted to see it again while it was still pristine.

The visit got me thinking about John Hunt Morgan. If ever there was a Confederate cavalry officer who was grossly overrated, it was John Hunt Morgan. Morgan had no talent for scouting, screening, or reconnaissance whatsoever, and was largely useless in those roles. He was also a terrible battlefield commander…a careful review plainly shows that his brother-in-law, Basil W. Duke, was the tactical brians behind Morgan’s operations. While he was a raider of some reknown, it raises a question of the value of a purely raiding force.

The raid that led to Morgan’s capture in Ohio was gross insubordination. Morgan asked for, and got permission to make a limited foray from Braxton Bragg. He took those orders and construed them as he saw fit, and then led his command on a 28 day raid through Indiana and Ohio that had absolutely no military value, ate up a lot good horseflesh, and led to the destruction of Morgan’s command, most of which ended up being captured. By the end, it wasn’t much more than a pursuit and capture operation that led to the theft of thousands of horses and a lot of atrocities being committed along the way. It’s no wonder that Morgan was thrown in the Ohio Penitentiary when he surrendered–he and his command acted like common horse thieves in an action that had no military value. When Morgan escaped, he received an extremely chilly reception from the Confederate high command instead of the accolades he expected. I suspect that the only reason why Morgan did not receive a court-martial for his actions is because he was captured.

There is no doubt that Morgan embodied the quintessential dashing cavalier. He was a dashing, handsome, courtly fellow of good breeding, and that lent an aura of legitimacy to his operations. While he embodied the beau sabreur, he was not the sort of soldier that Stuart, Fitz Lee, or Hampton were. Unless he was raiding, he really had no value at all to the army commanders he served under.

Although he was called the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy,” an unblinking assessment of Morgan’s military career suggests that his reputation is grossly overstated, and that he really doesn’t deserve the accolades that he has received. I think that Duke was a better commander of troops, and ultimately, a better cavalryman.

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Last night, I gave a talk to the Raleigh (NC) Civil War Roundtable. I did a comparison and contrast of Wade Hampton and Jeb Stuart, and in the course of preparing the talk, I realized that the TRUE Wizard of the Saddle was not Nathan Bedford Forrest, for the reasons set forth below, but rather Wade Hampton.

Here are the reasons:

1. Unlike Forrest, Wade Hampton was THE quintessential subordinate officer. Always courtly and courteous, Hampton performed well as a subordinate. In fact, Robert E. Lee greatly regretted giving Hampton permission to leave the Army of Northern Virginia to go to South Carolina in 1865, and Joseph E. Johnston, the overall Confederate commander in the Carolinas, came to rely heavily on Hampton was his most trusted and most dependable subordinate, supplanting even William J. Hardee. In fact, Hampton designed the plan that Johnston used at Bentonville, and Hampton’s audacious attack at Monroe’s Crossroads permitted Hardee to successfully evacuate his Corps from Fayetteville and burn the Clarendon Bridge over the Cape Fear River before it fell into Sherman’s hands. In fact, Hampton, who did not particularly like Stuart, was unfailingly the loyal subordinate who could be depended upon in almost any capactiy.

2. Unlike Forrest, Hampton was the complete package. While a ferocious fighter–Hampton killed 13 Union soldiers in personal combat during the war and was severely wounded twice in battle, and wounded one other time in battle–Hampton also had a real talent for performing the traditional role of cavalry–scouting, screening, and reconnaissance. Hampton was actually quite good in all three of these roles–perhaps he learned and mastered the techniques from Stuart–and could be relied upon to perform whatever role he was needed in.

3. Unlike Forrest, Hampton regularly met and defeated the very best the Union cavalry had to offer. While Forrest was off facing the second team, Hampton was facing–and beating–the likes of Sheridan, Gregg, Merritt, Kilpatrick, Wilson, Custer, etc. Hampton never lost a major cavalry engagement where he commanded the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Corps.

4. Like Forrest, Hampton had no formal military training whatsoever, even though his grandfather had been a major general in the War of 1812, and both his father and grandfather had served in the cavalry. However, Hampton had a lot of native, natural talent, and became a feared and respected commander of horse as a result of his God-given talent.

5. Unlike Forrest, Hampton’s operations actually made a difference in the outcome of the war. Hampton’s truly decisive thrashing of Sheridan at Trevilian Station in June 1864 actually made Early’s Valley Campaign possible, and made it possible for the Confederacy to have an additional six months of life that it otherwise probably would not have had. Forrest’s operations were not much more than annoyances for the Union high command, like a larger-scale version of John S. Mosby’s partisans.

6. Hampton was THE highest ranking officer in all of the Confederate cavalry, ranking even Forrest and exceeding even the lamented Stuart in rank.

When I take all of these factors into account, it becomes clear to me that calling Nathan Bedford Forrest the Wizard of the Saddle is wrong. With all due respect to the late, great Shelby Foote, the TRUE Wizard of the Saddle was Wade Hampton, not Forrest.

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I am often asked for my opinion on the greatest cavalrymen of the American Civil War. Invariably, unless the person asking the question knows me well, they express surprise and asky why Nathan Bedford Forrest is not on that list. I wish I had a dollar for every time that I’ve been asked this question. I’d have a lot of dollar bills by now.

In my humble opinion, there is no place for Nathan Bedford Forrest on ANY list of great cavalrymen of the Civil War.

I know that’s not only controversial, but borders on sacrilege in a lot of quarters. However, there’s a good reason and sound logic underlying this opinion of mine. First, and foremost, Forrest was not a cavalryman in any traditional sense of the word. The historic role of cavalry was scouting, screening, and reconnaissance. With no formal military training, Forrest had absolutely no talent for these crucial roles, and did not perform them with any ability, the one notable exception being the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. By example, when one thinks of Jeb Stuart, one thinks of his masterful intelligence gathering (which included three different rides around the Army of the Potomac), the magnificent job he did screening Robert E. Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg, and the way Lee described Stuart: “the eyes and ears of the army.” Or, consider what a weeping Lee said when he learned that Stuart was dead–“he never brought me a wrong piece of information.” In all my years studying the Civil War, I have never once heard such a description applied to Forrest.

Rather, Forrest was a commander of mounted infantry. His men carried infantry weapons and used infantry tactics. They used their horses primarily as transportation, using them to move from place to place, where they then fought dismounted. I will grant you that Forrest was an innovative tactician, and that some of his tactics closely resemble some modern armored tactics, but it’s important to evaluate Forrest in the context of his times, and not in comparison with modern doctrine, which has changed. Forrest simply had no talent for the traditional roles of cavalry.

Second, there’s the fact that effective cavalry work depends upon the cavalry commander working closely with the army commander, whereby the cavalry commander serves as the eyes and ears of the army. Armies rely on discipline. Discipline means that junior officers obey the lawful orders of their superiors. This is the only way that a chain of command can be maintained and anarchy avoided. That means that an insubordinate junior officer, no matter how talented, has no value to an army commander if that junior officer refuses to obey orders. What I’ve just described is Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest absolutely and categorically refused to serve under two army commanders–Bragg and Hood–and said to Hood, “If you were half a man, I would slap your jowls.” Never mind that Hood had lost one leg in combat, and had a permanently crippled arm due to another combat wound. This means that unless he was in independent command, Forrest was entirely useless to the army commander.

By the way, the same description applies to Phil Sheridan, who was unable to serve under George G. Meade, and never did again after the Battle of the Wilderness.

Finally, there’s the issue of just what did Forrest accomplish. Yes, he had a gaudy combat record, but it’s easy to do that when you’re persistently and consistently up against the second team. I can think of only one instance where Forrest really faced the first team–against Wilson at Selma at the tail end of the war–and when he did face the first team, he got thrashed, big time. I come to the conclusion that Forrest really wasn’t much more than John S. Mosby on a larger scale–a nuisance that sucked away some resources, but which, in the big scheme of things, didn’t really have any impact at all of the final outcome of any major campaign or of the war in his theater.

When I examine all of these issues, I come away with one conclusion: that there is no place for Forrest on a list of great cavalrymen of the Civil War. In fact, given my druthers, I would choose Wade Hampton over Forrest in a heartbeat. Hampton was every bit as hard a fighter–Hampton had a gaudy won-lost record against the best the Union had to offer, not the second team–who was the ultimate subordinate officer and who had a real gift for performing the traditional roles of cavalry. Perhaps that explains why Hampton was THE highest ranking cavalry officer of the war on the Confederate side, outranking even Forrest.

That’s my opinion, anyway.

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