The Evolution of Cavalry Tactics: How Technology Drove Change (Part One)

(part one in a series)

Napoleon. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

This is the first installment of a multi-part series on the evolution of Civil War cavalry tactics that is being developed exclusively for Emerging Civil War. The series will focus on cavalry tactics as they existed in April 1861, and will show how the emergence of technological advantages led to a fundamental change in the mission and tactics of Civil War cavalry. It all begins with Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleonic teachings and tactics provided the basis for West Point military curricula. Specifically, the writings of French Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini provided the core of the military science curriculum at West Point. Jomini served in Napoleon’s army and in his campaigns, and was a keen observer of those campaigns. The second installment in this series will focus on how the U.S. Army ingrained his teachings into the cadets who passed through the hallowed halls of West Point.

However, to understand Jomini’s teachings, we must begin with Napoleon’s Maxims of War, which embodied his philosophy and his theories of how best to use force. His doctrines and theories were firmly rooted in the technology of their day. Infantrymen carried very inaccurate muzzle-loading smoothbore muskets with an effective range of less than 200 yards. They relied on massed fire at short range. The smoothbore artillery of the day had maximum effective ranges of a few hundred yards to nearly half a mile. In any event, their ranges were substantially shorter than the rifled artillery used by most Civil War armies.

Because of the short range of his long arms and artillery, Napoleon developed very specific roles for his infantry, artillery, and cavalry. His Maxims of War were first published in French in 1827, well after this death, and in English in 1831. The following are Napoleon’s rules for using cavalry:

47. The infantry, cavalry and artillery cannot dispense with each other. They ought not be quartered in such a manner as always to be able to support each other in case of surprise.

48. Infantry formed in line should be in two ranks only, for the musket cannot otherwise be used with equal effect. It is admitted that the fire of the third rank is very imperfect and even injurious to that of the first two.

But though the great body of the infantry should be drawn up, as has just been said, in two ranks, the absence of a regular third rank should be supplied by supernumeraries composed of one soldier out of nine or one every two yards.

49. The practice of mingling companies of horse and foot together is bad; it produces nothing but trouble. The cavalry is deprived of its capacity for rapidity of motion; it is cramped in all the movements; it loses its impulse. The infantry, too, is exposed; for, at the first movement of the cavalry, it remains without support. The best mode of protecting cavalry is to support its flank.

50. Charges of cavalry are equally serviceable in the beginning, the middle and the end of a battle. They should be executed whenever they can be made on the flanks of the infantry, particularly when the latter is engaged in front.

51. It is a function of the cavalry to follow up the victory and prevent the beaten enemy from rallying.

52. Artillery is more necessary to cavalry than to infantry, because cavalry does not fire and can fight only in close conflict. It is to supply this deficiency that horse-artillery has been resorted to. Cavalry, therefore, should always be accompanied by cannon, whether attacking, resting in position or rallying.

53. The principal part of the artillery should be with the divisions of infantry and of cavalry, whether marching or in position, and the rest should be placed in reserve. Each piece should have with it three hundred charges of powder and ball, besides the contents of the ammunition box. That is about the quantity consumed in two battles.

86. A cavalry general should be a master of practical science, know the value of seconds, despise life and not trust to chance.

87. A general in the power of the enemy has no more orders to give: whoever obeys him is a criminal.

88. The heavy cavalry should be with the advance guard, with the rear guard and on the wings and in reserve to support the light cavalry.

89. To wish to hold the cavalry in reserve for the end of the battle, is to have no idea of the power of combined cavalry and infantry charges either for attack or for defense.

90. The power of cavalry is in its impulsion. But it is not only its velocity that insures success: it is order, formation and proper employment of reserves.

91. The cavalry should compose a quarter of the army in Flanders or Germany; in the Pyrenees or in the Alps, a twentieth; in Italy or in Spain, a sixth.

French Cavalry, supported by artillery on the battlefield of Austerlitz. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
French Cavalry, supported by artillery on the battlefield of Austerlitz. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Although these Maxims were published well after Jomini wrote his text, the Baron nevertheless witnessed them in use in the field, and these rules for the use of cavalry provided the basis for his theories. West Point’s instructor of the military arts, Prof. Dennis Hart Mahan, who in turn, interpreted them and turned them into American military doctrine, which remained in full force and effect in the spring of 1861, even though technological advances were already making them obsolete then.

We will examine Mahan’s teachings in the next installment of this series.

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