I have always bought into the school of thought that George B. McClellan made absolutely atrocious use of his cavalry. That’s the conventional wisdom, and in some ways, it’s a legitimate criticism. Instead of having his mounted units serve together as cohesive units during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, he instead split up regiments and parceled them out, a company here and a company there, doing messenger and orderly duty, and not performing the traditional role of cavalry–scouting, screening, and reconnaissance. That is the conventional version of McClellan’s use of the cavalry. However, further digging has persuaded me that accepting that version dramatically underestimates the role that the cavalry played during his tenure in command of the Army of the Potomac.
As one example, McClellan used a cohesive command–the Cavalry Reserve–on the Peninsula, and, for the most part, it acquitted itself well. The Cavalry Reserve, consisting of the U. S. Army’s Regular cavalry regiments and supplemented by the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry, performed very well, particularly during the Fifth Corps’ combined arms operation that led to the Battle of Hanover Court House in May 1862. Then, the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry did some good work during the Maryland Campaign, and particularly at places like Quebec School House, where Federal horsemen gave Wade Hampton all he wanted. To be sure, his use of the cavalry was far from perfect–the failure to use any of his cavalry to picket the Harpers Ferry Road at Antietam is a glaring error that may have cost him an even greater success at Antietam. Instead, he used his cavalry to make a mounted charge across a bridge over Antietam Creek in an effort to capture or drive off some enemy artillery. While this was a decent use of cavalry pursuant to traditional Napoleonic tactics, it was not a good use of his horse under the circumstances.
At the same time, it’s clear to me that McClellan learned as he went along. I’ve never really looked at the period between Antietam and McClellan’s relief on November 7 before, but it’s very pertinent to my work on Ulric Dahlgren, so I’ve been examining it in some detail. When I looked at this period in detail, I discovered that the Union cavalry actually performed quite well in the Loudoun Valley during this period. Day after day, the Federal horse took on Jeb Stuart’s vaunted cavalry, and fought it to a standstill. It was hard, heavy fighting, and the Union troopers acquitted themselves quite well. Familar names such as George D. Bayard, David M. Gregg, and Alfred Pleasonton came to prominence during this period. Although Bayard had only a few weeks to live, the others had long careers in the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps and left their mark on the Union mounted arm. There’s not much out there on this period; Pat Brennan published an article that addressed this period in detail in a 1999 issue of Blue & Gray Magazine, and Pat–a cavalry guy–did an excellent job of documenting the relentless cavalry fighting that took place.
Most importantly, this period reflects that McClellan made good use of his mounted arm to perform the traditional role of cavalry–scouting, screening and reconnaissance–and that these men did an excellent job of screening his advance. It was, in fact, reminiscent of the fighting that took place on the same ground in the Loudoun Valley in June 1863, just a few months later. It is, therefore, clear to me that I have been unfair to George McClellan in the past, and that I need to be more open-minded about his use of cavalry. In fact, once he got past the Peninsula Campaign, he did rather well with his maturing mounted arm, the failure to picket the Harpers Ferry Road being the one really notable exception.
By contrast, Ambrose E. Burnside really was atrocious with his use of cavalry. The fact that there were exactly three casualties in the Union cavalry out of more than 13,000 suffered in the Battle of Fredericksburg is a pretty good reflection of just how badly he did. Bayard was one of the three, and his mortal wound was the result of bad luck–he was struck by a shell fragment while at Sixth Corps headquarters. When Bayard is removed from the equation, this means that there were exactly TWO Union cavalry casualties during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Clearly, Burnside was the worst of all of the Army of the Potomac’s commanders, not McClellan, when it comes to the use of cavalry.
It just goes to show you that the conventional wisdom is not always right, or if it is, it is an oversimplification of a complex issue that deserves a more detailed and more thorough examination. I’m glad that I have undertaken that task and come to different conclusions as a result.Scridb filter