A Question of Morale

George Stoneman

One of the controversial aspects of the Chancellorsville Campaign was the decision by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker to send his cavalry under Brig. Gen. George Stoneman into central Virginia. Hooker envisioned that Stoneman’s troopers would disrupt Robert E. Lee’s lines of supply and communication and force the Confederates to abandon their line along the Rappahannock River. Additionally, Hooker hoped that his mounted force would serve as the anvil while the infantry played the role of hammer and pound Lee’s army into submission. Lee, however, did not take the bait and soundly defeated Hooker in the Wilderness west of Fredericksburg. In turn, Hooker placed some of the blame for his own failure at the feet of Stoneman. A few weeks later, Stoneman left the Army of the Potomac for a leave of absence and never returned. While “Stoneman’s Raid” inflicted logistical damage and completely wore out the blue troopers and their mounts, its greatest impact may have been from a mental perspective.

Stoneman’s operation involved the bulk of the army’s newly created cavalry corps and it generated a level of morale never before known by the Union cavalry.  A number of horse soldiers wrote about this effect.

“That a great..effect was produced by this independent maneuver of the mounted troops is undeniable” recalled the historian of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, “and they owe a debt of gratitude on that account to the then commander of the Army of the Potomac. For the first time the cavalry found themselves made useful by their general, and treated as something better than military watchmen for the army. They saw the long desired time had come when they would be permitted to gain honor and reputation, and when the would cease to be tied to the slow moving divisions of infantry without liberty to strike a blow for the cause of the nation and the credit of their commanders. It gave our troopers self-respect, and obliged the enemy to respect them.”

A member of the 1st Maine Cavalry echoed these sentiments. The expedition “was the first great achievement of the Union cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, and from which dated the rise of that branch of the service in the estimation of soldier and citizen, north and south…it was ever after a matter of pride with the boys that they were on “Stoneman’s Raid”.

One soldier in the 5th U.S. Cavalry recalled the “moral effect” of the raid was “wonderful”. A fellow Regular in the 6th U.S. wrote afterwards that his comrades “seem to imagine that the enemy’s cavalry is nothing now.” Although their commander on the expedition was gone, the spark generated by Stoneman’s Raid would burst into a flame during the Gettysburg Campaign and sustain the Union troopers in the days and months to come.


7 Responses to A Question of Morale

  1. The evolution of the Union cavalry as an equal fighting wing of the Federal army is a fascinating story. It continues past the Civil War, and includes the change from horses to mechanized “mounts.” Nice story, and thanks for shining a light upon this important and interesting transformation.

    1. Actually the opposite. In the 1864 campaigns the Federal cavalry started acting more like Napoleonic cavalry, with the sabre being the weapon of decision. Witness the massed sabre charges at 3rd Winchester or Five Forks.

      1. Interesting. Which federal units were involved in the “massed sabre charge[][” at Five Forks? I’ve only read about Devin’s and Custer’s units fighting dismounted for the most part as they held the Rebels in place for the 5th Corps.

  2. Although cavalry raids made headlines, the traditional missions of cavalry such as gathering information about enemy force deployment and preventing the enemy to gain similar information regarding friendly forces are critical tasks (i.e., scouting, screening, security). Few Civil War raids that destroyed infrastructure produced long term effects; raids usually resulted in a cavalry force broken down for minimal gains. One can only wonder how Jackson’s flank attack would have played out if Hooker had used his cavalry in its more traditional role of flank security (and if it was competently led).

  3. Most of Hooker’s cavalry was fairly new to the Army of the Potomac.

    The 1st NJ Cavalry and the Maine Cavalry for example were some of Bayard’s old regiments, and they indeed suffered horribly under Pope and had to be completely rebuilt.

    My counter thesis would be that Bayard’s force was still demoralised from the events of 2nd Bull Run and had not recovered their confidence. The raid restored this. The rest of the cavalry were likely fine.

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