18 December 2007 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 3 comments

This past summer, I helped to lead a tour of the Overland Campaign with Gordon Rhea and Bobby Krick. As a consequence of writing my study of Sheridan’s second raid and the Battle of Trevilian Station, I learned a great deal about cavalry operations during the Overland Campaign. I’ve continued to study those actions and to learn more as I go.

While out walking the fields with Gordon and Bobby, and, in particular, while visiting the battlefield at Cold Harbor, I had a bit of a revelation, and that revelation serves as the cornerstone of my book idea. The combination of terrain features and technological advances meant that cavalry tactics had to change dramatically, because the terrain covered by the Overland Campaign most assuredly was not amenable to classic mounted operations. Further, the firepower of the 7-shot Spencer carbine (and the few Henry rifles scattered throughout the Union cavalry) meant that cavalry tactics had to evolve, often on the fly.

Nowhere is that process of evolution more obvious than it was during the period between May 26 and June 3, 1864. The Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, just back from the May Richmond raid, fought hard, grinding fights almost every day, usually fighting dismounted. This period included the Battles of Haw’s Shop, Old Church, and Matadequin Creek, were later remembered by many veterans as some of the most difficult of the war. The high point of this period occurred on June 1, when Sheridan’s horse soldiers seized and held the critical road junction at Cold Harbor, withstanding heavy attacks by Maj. Gen. Robert Hoke’s Confederate infantry division. The superior firepower of the Spencers made it possible for the outnumbered Federal horsemen to hold that crucial position long enough for reinforcements to come up and relieve them.

This period also marked the ascendance of Wade Hampton to command of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Corps. Hampton lacked the sense of fun demonstrated by his late predecessor, Jeb Stuart, but the big South Carolinian was the right man in the right place. Hampton demonstrated tactical genius, as demonstrated by the whipping he administered to Sheridan at Trevilians. I’m not persuaded that Stuart could have made the changes necessary to counter the evolving tactics, whereas Hampton was uniquely qualified for that role, and he filled it very effectively.

I’ve come to the conclusion that a tactical study of these actions will demonstrate the evolution of dismounted cavalry tactics in a way that has never been done previously. Both Gordon and Bobby agreed with me, and I’ve been chewing on doing this as a book length study since. I think i’ve decided to to tackle the project, and will put it on my list. It should be an interesting one. I’ve spent a fair amount of time at Haw’s Shop and Cold Harbor, but I’ve never done anything more than drive by the Matadequin Creek and Old Church battlefields, so I will need to spend some time there. Bobby’s already agreed to show me around, and I will definitely take him up on it.

Stay tuned.

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  1. Bill Shepherd
    Wed 19th Dec 2007 at 12:13 am

    Eric : this sounds like a terrific idea for a book. Once again, your seem to find a way to break new ground on a Civil War topic. Perhaps we will find out if a heretofore unknown Union officer developed new tactics ‘on the fly’ and made a contribution to the success of the cavalry operations of the Overland Campaign. Looking forward to it (after the ‘Retreat’ and ‘Dahlgren’ books). Bill Shepherd.

  2. Stefan
    Wed 19th Dec 2007 at 2:44 am

    Can’t wait.


  3. Wed 19th Dec 2007 at 11:23 am

    Thanks, guys. It’s going to be a while before I get to this; I’ve got a bunch of research yet to do, and I also need to spend some time on the ground with Bobby. I will keep you guys advised as to the progress of it.


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