09 September 2007 by Published in: Civil War books and authors No comments yet

If I may be allowed just a moment of blowing my own horn…..

Tom Ryan of Bethany Beach, Delaware, the president of the Central Delaware Civil War Roundtable,, and an expert on intelligence gathering operations during the Civil War, and who regularly reviews new Civil War books, has published a review of my history of Rush’s Lancers in yesterday’s edition of The Washington Times newspaper.

Here’s Tom’s review. I am quite pleased with it, and think it a very fair review of the book:

The 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry became the subject of interest as well as humorous comments during the Civil War because of its peculiar weaponry: The troopers carried 9-foot lances with a colorful pennant displayed on the leading edge. While lances were curiosity pieces, they also proved to be antiquated and ineffective.

“Rush’s Lancers” provides in-depth coverage of this cavalry regiment’s wartime activities. A unit recruited mainly in Philadelphia and starting out with more than 1,000 officers and men, the Lancers suffered nearly 50 percent casualties during four years of combat.

Eric J. Wittenberg has compiled the record of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry and presented its story in succinct prose. He employs primary sources, including newspaper accounts, extensively. The author’s experience as a Civil War cavalry historian is reflected in his writing.

The Lancers’ officers were mainly members of Philadelphia society. The formation of the unit was an experiment in whether elite “Chestnut Street dandies” could join with working-class enlisted men to form a viable combat unit. The regiment derived its name from the original commander, Col. Richard H. Rush.

In late 1861, after basic training in Philadelphia, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry set up camp on Meridian Hill in Washington. Soon thereafter, Union Army commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan decided that they should become a regiment of lancers.

By March 1862, the Lancers had joined McClellan’s Cavalry Reserve at Manassas and moved with the army to the Virginia Peninsula. They soon became the butt of jokes about the odd-looking “turkey-drivers” they were required to carry.

For some time, the 6th Pennsylvania performed reconnaissance and scouting duties. Soon the unit was engaged on the front lines capturing prisoners, damaging communications, screening the army’s flanks, and engaging in demonstrations to deflect the enemy’s attention.

The Lancers’ first major confrontation with Confederate cavalry occurred during the Seven Days battles and was inauspicious. Perhaps as a result, the regiment’s companies were dispersed among the Army of the Potomac’s various corps and continued to perform reconnaissance and scouting. This debilitating work, given the danger involved, poor nutrition and exposure while in the field, took its toll in the ranks over time.

Active as intelligence gatherers during Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign in September 1862, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, as the author points out, “quickly realized that their lances were no match for Southern carbines and cannons.” However, their growing reputation for gathering information in close proximity to the enemy prompted the newly appointed cavalry corps commander, Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, to praise them as “the best [cavalry] regiment in the service.”

To their great relief, after the Chancellorsville Campaign in May 1863, the men of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry turned in their lances and were issued carbines instead.

Mr. Wittenberg describes in detail the Lancers’ involvement during the Gettysburg Campaign, particularly at the Battle of Brandy Station. In this, the largest cavalry battle of the Civil War, the Lancers bravely charged enemy positions on two occasions, sustaining over 100 casualties.

By the end of 1863, heavy campaigning, sickness and disease had severely reduced the Lancers to 200 men from their original strength of more than 1,000. Yet, as the author points out, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry had become a highly respected and effective force.

When the spring campaign began in 1864 with Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in charge of the Union Army, the Lancers were now operating under cavalry commander Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan. During grueling combat beginning in May, the Lancers, having refitted and recruited over the winter, were continually in the field and suffered heavy losses.

The 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry played a key role at the Battle of Yellow Tavern, in which the famed Rebel cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded. The Lancers would soon transfer to the Shenandoah Valley along with Gen. Sheridan, where they performed effective information gathering and screening duties.

Reduction in the size of the regiment from losses and termination of enlistments, however, meant that time was running out on it as a potent force. During the last months of the war, the regiment gamely hung on and was on hand at Appomattox to celebrate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender.

It should be noted that the author’s figure of 21,000 cavalrymen who fought at Brandy Station exceeds the official returns by some 3,000. Also, while he provides ample coverage of the Lancers’ reconnaissance and scouting operations, a more detailed discussion of information-gathering tactics and prisoner-interrogation techniques would have been welcomed. The book’s small print may be a handicap to comfortable reading for some.

Fortunately, this account unfolds with ample maps to guide the reader. Numerous photos of individual Lancers personalize and other illustrations enhance the narrative. An appendix lists the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry’s various commanders, command assignments and numerous engagements.

In “Rush’s Lancers,” Eric Wittenberg has effectively related the story of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry — men from all social classes who found common ground to fight for the Union cause.

As I said, I’m very pleased with this review. I think Tom’s critique is fair, and I also think that it’s comprehensive. This sort of feedback from knowledgeable peers is part of what makes me keep coming back for more.

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