Yesterday, someone asked a question on one of the forum boards I frequent about the morale and condition of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry in 1864, particularly considering that it lost its commander, Jeb Stuart, in May. I spent some time cobbling together a responsive essay that I thought I would share with you here.
Here’s what I wrote:
The Confederate cavalry was in surprisingly good shape in 1864 for lots of reasons. First, and foremost, the command of the Union cavalry was in shambles as the year began. With Pleasonton relieved, Buford dead and Kilpatrick sent west, three of the four highest ranking officers in the AoP Cavalry Corps were out of the picture. Instead, you have Torbert, who’s an infantry officer, in command of the largest division, and Wilson, who’s never commanded anything bigger than a squad, in command of another. And you have Sheridan, with all of 60 days’ experience commanding cavalry and no real gift for it, in command.
Thus, the ANV Cavalry Corps opened the 1864 campaigning season at a real advantage in terms of leadership. Where it lacked was in horse flesh and technology. The Confederate system relied on cavalrymen supplying their own mounts until late 1864, so if a trooper lost his horse, he had to find a replacement. Many times, this meant having to take a furlough to return home to find another mount, which was a real drain on manpower. The Union, on the other hand, had instituted an effective and fairly efficient remount system in the form of the Cavalry Bureau, meaning that there was a real advantage for the AoP here.
Likewise, by the spring of 1864, nearly the entire AoP Cavalry Corps had been armed with Spencer repeating carbines, whereas the ANV Cavalry Corps still had either single-shot breechloaders or two-band muzzleloaders. This meant that the AoP had a major advantage in firepower and technology. This imbalance was never really corrected, and the imbalance really showed in the Shenandoah Valley in the fall of 1864, when the Valley cavalry was hopelessly outmatched by the powerful Cavalry Corps; Lunsford Lomax’s men had to use two-band muzzle loaders against an enemy armed with Spencers.
The morale of the ANV Cavalry Corps was high, and even with the loss of Stuart, its morale never really ebbed. Due to its success in the field–set forth in some detail below–its morale remained high until late fall, when it became obvious that the walls were beginning to close in at Petersburg.
As the spring campaigning season began, the inexperience of the Union commanders became obvious. Due to his inexperience, Wilson’s bungled in leading the way for the army (why the least experienced division commander was given the task of leading the way for the army’s advance is just one example of Sheridan’s poor performance as Cavalry Corps commander during the Overland Campaign), and his entire division got thrashed by Rosser’s Laurel Brigade at the outset of the Battle of the Wilderness. Wilson’s defeat meant that Meade entered the Wilderness with no cover for his flank and no cavalry leading the way to find the enemy. It’s no wonder that the 5th Corps stumbled into Ewell’s Confederates.
After the Wilderness, when Grant decided to move toward Spotsylvania Court House, the critical road junction along the way was where the Brock and Catharpin Roads meet. This was the site of a ramshackle tavern called Todd’s Tavern. On May 6, Sheridan had abandoned this position, allowing Fitz Lee’s division to occupy it, and the Virginians dug in. In one of the few good days Fitz had in the war, he held off most of the AoP for an entire day, before finally being driven off by Sheridan’s men in a fierce fight.
The next day, after telling George G. Meade to stuff it, Sheridan left on the Richmond Raid, leaving Grant without any cavalry to speak of for the better part of three weeks. The lack of a cavalry screen left him pretty much blind and nearly got his army caught in a massive trap at Ox Ford on the North Anna River.
Stuart died on May 12. Robert E. Lee had a dilemma on his hands: his nephew Fitz was Stuart’s hand-picked choice, but RE Lee was aware of his nephew’s limitations. He also knew that Wade Hampton technically outranked Fitz. So, he decided to avoid the problem and issued an order that indicated that now the three separate divisions would act as independent commands, with the division commanders reporting to him directly. This was a real recipe for disaster.
Hampton made his debut at the May 28, 1864 Battle of Haw’s Shop. While Hampton was ultimately driven from the battlefield, his tenacious stand prevented Sheridan from accomplishing his mission, which was to locate the main body of the ANV. Sheridan never got close. There was more hard fighting on May 30 and 31 and Old Church and Totopotomoy Creek, and finally Cold Harbor began on June 1.
After being stymied at Cold Harbor, Grant realized that he was out of room to maneuver around Richmond, and instead decided to cross the James River and instead advance on the important railroad town of Petersburg, 25 miles south of Richmond. He who controlled Petersburg controlled Richmond; Lee would either have to come out and fight Grant on ground of Grant’s choosing, or Richmond would fall. Grant’s plan relied on stealth. He would send two of his four cavalry divisions (which counts August V. Kautz’s small division from the Army of the James) off on a raid on the Virginia Central Railroad in the hope that it would detract the attention of the Confederate cavalry and draw it off in pursuit, allowing Grant to cross the James undetected. It was a brilliant plan, and it worked like a charm.
The Trevilian Raid began on June 7 and culminated with the two-day battle of Trevilian Station on June 11-12. Two of the three ANV cavalry divisions (Hampton’s and Fitz Lee’s) pursued Sheridan, who had two divisions. Fought on heavily wooded ground that closely resembled the Wilderness, Hampton thrashed Sheridan after a very hard fight and where Sheridan outnumbered Hampton 9000 to 6300. Hampton prevented Sheridan from destroying the critical railroad junction at Gordonsville, and from linking up with David Hunter’s army.
Hampton pursued Sheridan across Virginia and again thrashed elements of his command at Samaria (St. Mary’s) Church, east of Richmond, on June 24. Sheridan then crossed the James River made his way back to the AoP, which was, by then, in the process of investing Petersburg.
On June 27, the Wilson-Kautz Raid began. Freed from having to chase Sheridan, Hampton,now joined by Rooney Lee’s division and the independent brigades of Martin W. Gary and James Dearing, turned on Wilson and Kautz. On June 30 and July 1, at Sappony Church and Reams Station, respectively, Hampton pounced on Wilson and Kautz, nearly destroying their commands. They lost 1500 of their 4500 men between the two battles, all of their wagons, and all of their horse artillery. And 1500 of Hampton’s men ended up with perfectly serviceable Spencer carbines in the process. Wilson and Kautz were lucky to escape with their commands intact. In recognition of Hampton’s superb performance and in a tacit acknowledgment that Fitz was not up to the job, Hampton was made permanent commander of the ANV Cavalry Corps on August 12, 1864.
On August 8, Sheridan was ordered to the Shenandoah Valley with most of the Cavalry Corps. Only David Gregg’s Second Division remained with the AoP, too small a force for the job at hand. This permitted Hampton to lead the famous Beefsteak Raid in September, where elements of his command rustled the entire cattle herd of the AoP, providing Lee’s army with much-needed food. They also captured much of the 1st District of Columbia Cavalry, meaning that elements of Hampton’s command–including Hampton himself–ended up with Henry rifles.
Not much happened for the rest of the year, and Hampton (and his old division, now commanded by Maj. Gen. Matthew C. Butler) was sent to South Carolina at his own request in an effort to resist the advance of Sherman’s armies. He was promoted to lieutenant general in February 1865. Fitzhugh Lee then assumed command of what was left of the ANV Cavalry Corps and remained in command of those troopers until the surrender at Appomattox.
So, the answer to the question is that in many ways, the loss of Stuart was not the crippling blow to the ANV Cavalry Corps that you might have expected. In many ways, the ANV Cavalry Corps got BETTER. It never lost a significant engagement (I consider Haw’s Shop a Confederate victory even though Sheridan held the field at the end of the fight because Hampton prevented Sheridan from accomplishing his mission) battle with Hampton in command, and, in some ways, the death of Stuart made it possible for the ANV Cavalry Corps to get serious about the work in front of it. Without Stuart’s silliness out of the way, these men went about their work with deadly earnestness, and it showed. I argue–and I believe I’m right–that Stuart needed to be removed from the equation for the ANV Cavalry Corps to take the next step, and the proof is in the pudding. Just look at what it accomplished with Wade Hampton in command.
I fully recognize that some of what I say is controversial–some of it intentionally so–but I do believe that the proof is in the pudding. The simple truth is that each and every time that Wade Hampton and Phil Sheridan met on the field of battle, Hampton outgeneralled him, often by a long shot. What does that tell you about the state of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Corps after the loss of Stuart?Scridb filter