Last week, I asked this question on the Armchair General forum boards: I’ve often said that part of the reason why I don’t have a great deal of respect for Nathan Bedford Forrest is because, with the distinct exception of James H. Wilson at Selma, he always faced the second team.
Then, there was Wheeler, who enjoyed a modicum of success in spite of not being particularly talented. Wheeler faced pretty much every Union cavalry commander in the West, including the Eastern Theater retreads (he put a damned good whipping on Kilpatrick at Aiken, SC in February 1865).
I have some thoughts on the subject, but I would be interested in hearing why people think that, until Wilson’s independent command was formed during the fall and winter of 1864-1865, the Union cavalry in the West got short shrift and not the best of the commanders or the weaponry that were commonly distributed to the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps.
Because I was interested to see what folks might come up with in response, I waited almost a week to propose an answer to my own question. Here’s what I wrote, which is, I think, a fair summary:
I asked this particular question for a reason. This is an issue that I am often asked about, and it’s also a question that I have spent a lot of time pondering over the years. There is no right or wrong answer, only theories and gut reactions. This is what I’ve come up with over the years. These thoughts are presented in no particular order.
There are a lot of converging reasons for why this is the case. To mix my metaphors for just a moment, it’s like a perfect storm of synergistic reasons all coming together to lead to a situation where there was in fact a wide disparity in the quality of the Western vs. Eastern Union cavalry.
First, and foremost, was the issue of geography. The simple truth is that the Federal capital was in the east, and not the west. Defending Washington was the number one priority of the Army of the Potomac at all times, and that never changed. The Eastern Theater of the war was small, with the opposing capitals a mere 100 miles apart. That meant that there was a small field of operations. The West, on the other hand, was a massive landmass, and few of the major Northern cities were ever seriously threatened by the Confederates, with the limited exception of Morgan’s Indiana and Ohio raid of 1863. Thus, the Federal cavalry in the West tended to be widely dispersed rather than concentrated in a small theater of operations.
In addition, there was no Western theater equivalent to J.E.B. Stuart. Say what you will about Stuart, but if Stuart was not THE finest horse cavalryman ever born on this continent, he has to be in the top two or three. In the earliest days of the war, Stuart and his cavalry had a significant impact. If you need evidence of that, look at the charge of Stuart and 1st Virginia Cavalry at the climax of 1st Bull Run, when his charge into Griffin’s battery and the Fire Zouaves started the Union rout. Then came the Ride Around McClellan, which created so much consternation in the Union ranks that Stuart’s father-in-law, the venerable Philip St. George Cooke, was relieved of command and shunted off to do recruiting duty in Minnesota, the 1862 equivalent of being sent to man a weather station in Alaska.
By comparison, the Confederate cavalry in the West in the early days had Earl Van Dorn, who was much more interested in bedding married women than anything else, and John Hunt Morgan, who was a fearsome raider, but a tactical zero. Later, Joseph Wheeler emerged from the pack. It’s very important to keep in mind that Wheeler emerged not because of competence, but rather because he and Braxton Bragg had a good working relationship, and because Bragg liked Wheeler a great deal. Wheeler, in turn, was loyal to Bragg. Bragg evidently felt that loyalty was a more important measure than competence, and he promoted Wheeler far beyond his level of competence. Forrest (whom I will briefly address later in this discussion) did not really emerge until much later and was really a non-factor in the early days of the war.
The upshot is that there simply was no sense of urgency for the Union cavalry in the West, while there was a great sense of urgency in the East due to the superiority of Jeb Stuart and his cavalry.
The next factor is that there were only so many good battlefield commanders to go around. I believe that the combination of the Stuart factor and the proximity to Washington meant that the bulk of the batter officers would be dedicated to serve in the east and not the west. Once some of the less competent battlefield commanders were weeded out, the competent ones emerged. Officers like John Buford, David M. Gregg, William W. Averell, Wesley Merritt, Thomas C. Devin, and others came up through the ranks to achieve higher levels of command. This process took time. John Buford, generally acknowledged as the best cavalryman in the Federal service, did not achieve brigade command until June 1862. Note how many of these officers rose in the East. It seems like the majority of the better officers were assigned to the East and not the West.
In the West, officers of questionable competence, such as David Stanley, rose to high levels of command. Stanley, a notorious alcoholic, commanded the Army of the Cumberland’s Cavalry Corps for a significant portion of the war. However, Stanley’s performance was so bad during the Chickamauga Campaign that William S. Rosecrans asked to have John Buford sent west to assume command of the Army of the Cumberland’s Cavalry Corps. Buford agreed, provided that he could take the Regulars assigned to the Army of the Potomac with him. However, the Army of the Potomac was in the middle of the Bristoe Station Campaign when all of this happened, and the high command was loath to call them back from the field in mid-campaign. By the time the campaign ended, Buford was already suffering from the typhoid fever that took his life on December 16, 1863. Imagine, though, if you will, the great cavalry battle royale that inevitably would have happened between Wheeler and Buford. My money would have been on Buford for sure.
Then there were the likes of Sam Sturgis. Again, with all due respect to N. B. Forrest (my thoughts on him are well-known and need not be repeated here), it’s not difficult to roll up a sterling won-loss record when you’re up against the likes of Sturgis and not against the best officers that the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps had to offer. I view Forrest and his command as not much more than Mosby’s guerrillas on a larger scale–a major nuisance and not a whole lot more.
The next factor is the size of the theater. It was much easier to concentrate cavalry forces in the Virginia theater than in the West. The simple fact is that the Western Theater covered vast areas of ground, stretching cavalry resources to their limits, while the Virginia theater was much more compact and more conducive to concentrating forces.
The next factor was technology. Because of the nature of the war in the East, the Eastern Theater cavalry were more likely to get the latest technology first, since the safety of nothing less than the Federal capital was at stake. By the beginning of May 1864, nearly the entire Army of the Potomac Cavalry Corps had been armed with Spencer repeating carbines. Many fewer Western Theater units had repeaters, and some never did get them. However, Wilder’s Lightning Brigade, a brigade of mounted infantry armed with Spencer repeating rifles, demonstrated without any question just how effective a unit armed with repeating weapons could be. Wilder’s command was rather literally all over the battlefield at Chickamauga, and no Federal unit played a more important role as a consequence of the combination of maneuverability and firepower. From and ordinance standpoint, the Western Theater seems to have gotten the short shrift.
Leadership at the highest levels also factors in. John Pope certainly can be criticized for many things, including his terrible handling of the Battle of 2nd Bull Run, and rightfully so. However, one area where he cannot be criticized is in his recognition of the value and power of cavalry. Pope was the first to brigade volunteer cavalry regiments, and they did good service under him during the Island No. 10 Campaign and also in the 2nd Bull Run Campaign. It is not a huge stretch to suggest that of all of the Union army commanders during the Civil War, none had a better understanding of the proper and most effective use of horse soldiers than did Pope.
While Grant clearly understood the importance of a strategic cavalry raid (see Grierson’s Raid if you need an example of that), he was not good at using his cavalry as part of his army. This weakness carried itself through the 1864 Overland Campaign, when he sent the entire Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac off on a raid on Richmond intended to draw Stuart and his horsemen out to fight. By leaving the army to grope its way along blindly, Grant nearly fell into a trap set for him at Ox Ford on the North Anna River. Grant never learned these lessons in the west.
Sherman also was not especially good at using is cavalry. For a detailed analysis, see David Evans’ superb Sherman’s Horsemen: Union Cavalry Operations in the Atlanta Campaign. When Sherman marched out of Atlanta headed for the sea, he had only the small division of Judson Kilpatrick with him. Sherman had the measure of the man, describing Kilpatrick as “a hell of a damned fool” in early 1864, and he ended up being right in his assessment. Kilpatrick did so poorly under Sherman (getting surprised and nearly captured three different times in a period of three months, including twice in his own camp) that by March 1865, Sherman was quite literally begging Grant to send him Sheridan with the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps. Sheridan wanted no part of it, and refused to obey his orders to report to Sherman, leaving Sherman to fend for himself with only Kilpatrick’s small division for the entire Carolinas Campaign.
The retreads from the Army of the Potomac also did not do well in the West. I’ve already touched on Kilpatrick’s lackluster performance. Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, the original commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, was sent to Sherman and was captured while trying a harebrained raid intended to free the Union prisoners of war being held at Andersonville, Georgia. Instead of liberator, Stoneman ended up a prisoner himself.
One other factor should be considered here. In July 1863, the Cavalry Bureau was formed, with the specific mission of provided remounts for Federal horse soldiers who had lost their mounts. A system of relative efficiency developed, with remount depots. The main remount depot in the East was located at Giesboro Point, just outside downtown Washington, D.C. With the Eastern Theater’s actions and players concentrated within a hundred miles or so of Washington, it was relatively easy to develop an efficient system to deliver remounts. The sheer size of the Western Theater, with multiple armies scattered about, made the efficient provision of remounts a real challenge. A horse soldier often had to be gone for an extended period of time to get a fresh mount, thereby impacting the combat effectiveness of his unit.
The one clear exception to all of this was something that was clearly an experiment. Maj. Gen. James Harrison Wilson, another refugee from the Army of the Potomac, was nominally Sherman’s chief of cavalry in the winter of 1864-65. However, Wilson and the prickly Sherman evidently did not get along well, as Wilson was left behind to try an experiment. Wilson had a brilliant idea. He would create a mounted army, well armed and with good horses. This 15,000 man force proved to be the largest, best-mounted, and best-armed cavalry force of the war, and it thrashed Forrest and his men at Selma, Alabama in the spring of 1865. Wilson’s command is often called a prototype for modern armored tactics, and I can see where there were such statements come from.
Why was this force so successful? Excellent leadership, all of the technological advantages, and an effective remount system, combined with a well-defined mission. Once all of these factors converged, the result was that Wilson’s force became an unbeatable juggernaut that marks the ultimate evolution of Federal cavalry doctrine. However, these were hard earned lessons that took four years of war to learn.
I think that the synergy of all of these factors are the reason why the Union cavalry in the Western Theater never made the impact that it did in the East. Would anyone care to comment?
Indeed, I welcome your thoughts here. This is a question that I am often required to address, and it’s one I have invested significant amounts of time in trying to craft a coherent answer for.Scridb filter