07 January 2008 by Published in: Union Cavalry 1 comment

Dave Powell left an incredibly insightful comment on last night’s post adding to what I wrote and amplifying on it as well. It was so good, in fact, that I decided to give Dave the bully pulpit here. Here’s Dave’s comment:


Thanks for this supremely (to me) interesting post.

A couple of things:

1) I am not sure that Rosecrans really disliked David S. Stanley all that much, despite his faults. However, starting in early september, Stanley was getting ill, which definitely hindered his capacity, so much so that on September 16th Stanley relinquished command and was hauled back to Stevenson by wagon. He would be some time recovering.

The ranking commander under Stanley was a politician that scared both Rosecrans and Stanley – Robert B. Mitchell. (Not exactly a household name in ACW lore.) After Chickamauga, Mitchell was quietly sidelined, being ordered back to DC for court-martial duty, and then later given a series of frontier commands, chiefly Nebraska. He was an Ohio politician, not a soldier, and it showed.

I think that Stanley’s illness, as much as anything, lay behind Rosecrans request for Buford. I wish he had lived to go, too – that would have been the subsequent year extremely interesting.

However, there were a number of highly competent Union Cav guys – mostly brigade-level – who did do very well. Minty, Wilder, and George Crook come to mind. Crook orchestrated the pursuit of Wheeler duing his October 1863 raid, in which Wheeler lost roughly half his command.

This example and Wade’s point touch on the larger theme that I see about Cavalry in the West. While the Rebel performance there was at times flashy, and “stunt-laden” in the manner that caught many postwar fabulist’s attention, the CSA routinely failed at the critical cav duties that made up the bulk of Cav’s role, as boring as it was.

Stuart might have had his stunts, riding around the AOP and the like, but his men also performed well in the scouting and screening role. That was a marked difference between east and west.

This goes hand in hand with Ethan Rafuse’s column over on Civil Warriors as well, and accepting the idea that the CSA cavalry was equal on both fronts, but Union cav was weak in the west.

In fact, I think the CSA cavalry was a massive failure in the west. Even in raiding, with a few exceptions, they failed to achieve much of significance.

First, never overlook the fact that the CSA invested huge numbers in CSA cavalry between the mountains and the Mississippi. It is the only branch were the CSA has the advantage of numbers – sometimes 2/1, usually a 3/2 ratio – for much of the war. Despite this, it rarely effects Union operations, and the Rebel horse never manages to win the scout/screening fight.

For example, in the Spring of 1863, the CSA Cavalry in East Tennessee, with Bragg, and in Pemberton’s theater amount to nearly 30,000 men – larger than Bragg’s army, BTW. This huge force amounts to more than two infantry corps of strength. (I doubt CSA Cav in VA ever amounted to half that, despite the larger overall field forces Lee commanded.) Union Cav in the west amounted to about half – roughly 17,000 men, not counting the garrison forces in KY that were simply not available for field duty.

A note about those garrisons, because they create a different dynamic than in the East. Federals in the West controlled large areas of disputed territory, far more than in the East, and so each department – Grant in West Tennessee, Rosecrans in Middle Tennessee, and Burnsides in SE KY and East Tennessee – had to leave about 40 % of their troops in permanent garrisons to secure the occupied territories. This is why Grant might muster 90,000 men in his department in March, but can only free up 50,000 to take the field against Pemberton. While the Eastern Feds had garrison issues, (MD and the B&O RR) they tended to be much smaller as a percentage of forces, and often were close enough to the war to have a role to play, during Gettysburg for example.

Despite this disparity in numbers, however, the Rebels were constantly fooled by Union offensives. Rosecrans outmanuvered and Surprised Bragg three times; during the approach to Murfreesboro, famously at Tullahoma, and again in crossing the Tenn. In each case Wheeler failed miserably, at Tullahoma, Forrest contributed significantly to the confusion.

Or consider Grant’s inland operations behind Vicksburg. Both Pemberton and Johnston were paralyzed with indecision, and had terrible intel. Grant had far superior intel despite his lack of cav, because he was able to use the local slave network and he operated in all but a Rebel Cav vacuum.

Burnsides in East Tenn had similar success. Buckner was at first deceived as to Burnsides’ entry points, and later, the cav sent to help Longstreet never managed to dominate against the limited Federal mounted force there.

We can go back to Perryville and see the same pattern, where Bragg completely misreads the two Federal column, thinks Sill’s diversion is the main body, and attacks Buell’s whole army with 15,000 men. Now we can certainly blame Bragg, but we must also blame Wheeler’s horrible intel during the campaign, as well.

Neither Grant nor Sherman needed developed an emphasis on good cav because they never really needed to – they had all the operational freedom and intel they needed without it. this remarkable fact says a lot about the overall incompetence of the CSA cavalry in the west.

yes, there were some spectacular raids. Holly Springs is the most famous. But even Forrest’s great triumph – Brice’s Crossroads – is a strategic defeat. Forrest needs to be operating against Sherman’s supply lines, where he might have some real effect, not aimlessly chasing Sturgis in Northern Mississippi. The mere fact that he is fighting Sturgis and not Sherman is a failure of Confederate strategic thought.

Of course, the indiscipline of the CSA cav in the west played a major role in this ineffectiveness. Wheeler simply could not control his men, who often came and went as they pleased. Thus, while the CSA did have 30,000 armed and uniformed men roaming the western theater in the spring of 63, for example, maybe only 20,000 of them were responding to army discipline at any one time. Two quick examples can demonstrate the scope of this problem:

In August 63, Rebel cav dispersed to refit. Wharton’s men went to Rome, GA, where they proceeed to earn a remarkable reputation as thieves. When they departed for the front they left behind many men who infested the region for the next 6-8 months as bushwackers and bandits. Similarly, when Dibrell’s Brigade moved to Sparta (home turf) that same month, at least half of his 1200 men stayed behind when Dibrell was recalled to open the Chattanooga campaign.

Much more telling, however, are Wheeler’s numbers during the march to the Sea. Wheeler reports roughly 9,000 men on hand at the start of the march, and nearly 8,000 pfd in January, 65, after the march. During the campaign, however, he claims never to have more than 2,500 men with him. Where are the others? Basically, off pillaging. Many of Wheeler’s men are as bad as any of Sherman’s bummers. Wheeler is simply unable to control them, and they are not really interested in fighting.

This topic is large enough to demand far more attention than I can provide here, but hopefully you get the idea.

I feel that one big reason for the CSA defeat is the mismanagement of the Rebel Cav in the west – the one resource, ironically, that the Confederates had (at least) numerical superiority in for almost two years – mid 62 to mid 64.

The glamour that Forrest and Morgan tend to bring to CSA western cav ops is so strong that the strategic realities get obscured by the mythology, but once you start peeling back the layers, it is hard not to realize that tactically, the Federals dominated the scout-screen mission in campaign after campaign.

Dave Powell

Dave is an authority on the Western Theater and has studied cavalry operations in the Chickamauga Campaign in particular. Thanks for the excellent contribution, Dave.

Scridb filter


  1. Jeff Mancini
    Mon 07th Jan 2008 at 11:52 pm

    OK lets just put a bit of balance into this thread. Confederate cavalry operations in the west were obviously not on par with the units that fought in the east. As established neither were the Federal’s. Literally the west was the “B” team. However the western contested borders were immensely larger than the eastern theatre thus the variance in goals and objectives. Cavalry fought much more in a classic sense in the east…a product of the West Point trained officers (the Virginian’s, Carolinan’s) who donned the grey and put their allegiance in state rights and an agrarian lifestyle vs the northern strength of a strong centralized government and an economy on a fast track toward industrialization. OK I’m saying it… the eastern theatre is more sophisticated more cultured,more developed.Strategically the south could accomplish much more capturing Philadelphia than Cincinnati.The eastern theatre was where this conflict would be decided on the stretch of real estate between Richmond and Washington with spillover into Pennsylvania and Maryland. This is where the best troops were positioned with the best officers and the the best equipment. In the west the dynamic was less pronounced due to the smaller units competing on much larger swaths of land. In the Confederate philosophy of thinking quality would prevail over quantity. That belief is much harder to achieve on larger chunks of real estate with less roads, trails and rail.This concept of a force of Esprit d’corps as romanticized by the Confederates first two years of unfettered success against northern horseman, the south naturally embraced this axiom. It wasn’t until Kelly’s Ford that the momentum shifted.As the blockade bit into the ability of the south to replenish itself the superiority of the northern cavalry both in quantity and quality would therefore prevail no matter how disruptive the Confederate efforts evolved. The Confederate effort in 1862 as exemplified by Stuart’s ride is completely different from Hampton’s efforts in 1864 at Haw’s Shop or Trevilian Station. The same can be said of Rebel operations in the west. I conclude that Forrest came into the fray late, achieved marginal if not nothing more than delaying tactic results, employed unconventional if not un-winnable tactics and eventually succumbed to being on the losing side by the lack of a centralized coordinated vision. The nature of the southern form of thinking in its rudimets was to reject centralized thinking that this was the component of states rights and continuing a rural and agrarian lifestyle the literal cornerstone of southern rebellion.Thus having clearly defined and attainable goals and objectives would not be possible without a centralized authority who could command and dictate policy and procedures. Robert E. Lee could pull this off. In the west no one personality emerged to compliment that type of authority with Lee’s sheer virtuosity.Instead we get the literal cult like status of the Forrest’s, Morgan’s,Wheeler’s etc that is etched as more bark than bite more myth than reality, more style than substance.To be honest the idea that cavalry could operate independantly, autonomously and without coordination with infantry is why for example I despise Meade for not commmitting his two regiments to the Sheridan effort against Hampton at Haw’s Shop late May 1864.That one pigheaded move cost the lives of thousands of Union soldiers. Custer saved the day in that action however if Meade would have committed his two regiments of infantry that day perhaps Lee is a bit confused as to Grant’s intention to swing towards Cold Harbor. Instead the cautious and somewhat of a cavalry operation skeptic, Meade declines to assist and deploy to help Sheridan . Now take this discussion into the west and many examples of the lack of coordination in mustering one’s forces between branches can be chronicaled on both a blue and grey side.Probably more so on the southern side as the discussion crystallizes with the success of Grierson and Wilson that achieved some results but the southern cavalry despite getting their licks in just did not have the resources to do the same as often and as effectively.

Comments are closed.

Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress